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[2020-05-20] Blue Öyster Cult - Band

What Happened: The Real Meaning of Blue Öyster Cult's '(Don't Fear) The Reaper'

05/20/2020 12:00 PM

By Leila Abdul-Rauf


A little rumor can boost a song's popularity by a lot, and who doesn't love a bit of controversy? Inarguably the song that defined them, Blue Öyster Cult's eerie 1976 hit "(Don’t Fear) The Reaper" carried an ample amount of it. Decades before the infamous SNL sketch from 2000, fans weren't fussing about the song's prominent use of cowbell; they were obsessed with the true meaning of the haunting lyrics penned by lead guitarist Donald "Buck Dharma" Roeser.



The song makes several overt references to death, including a death toll of "forty thousand men and women every day" (which was an inaccurate guess – it's signifcantly more than that). But over the years, some listeners have interpreted the reference to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet to frame the song's narrative as the heartbroken suicide of a woman eager to join her boyfriend in the great beyond:


Came the last night of sadness
And it was clear she couldn't go on
Then the door was open and the wind appeared
The candles blew then disappeared
The curtains flew then he appeared, saying don't be afraid

Furthermore, the song repeatedly urges "We can be like they are, come on baby" and concludes with the couple's ethereal reunion, so it's not unreasonable for listeners to believe the lyrics are about a murder-suicide pact between lovers…if not an endorsement of the act.

Make no mistake, the song is absolutely about death, but not for the reason you might expect. Buck received a heart condition diagnosis at a young age and didn't expect to live very long; that inspired him to contemplate the inevitability of death – including his own. In a recent interview, he clarified the song's meaning: "It's imagining you can survive death in terms of your spirit. Your spirit will prevail."

When Buck learned of the suicide interpretation, he was "kind of appalled" that "some people were seeing it as an advertisement for suicide or something – that was not my intention at all," he said in a 1995 interview with CMJ. "It is, like, not to be afraid of [death] (as opposed to actively bring it about). It's basically a love song where the love transcends the actual physical existence of the partners."

With that cleared up, "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" remains a gothic yet uplifting reminder that even though life is short, love will outlast it. As for Buck Dharma, despite the worrisome early diagnosis, life's been good. "I'm in my 70s now, so I guess I survived that scare," he admits with a laugh. "We're all going to die sometime, of course – but hopefully not tomorrow."

Leila Abdul-Rauf is a multi-instrumentalist and composer based in Oakland, CA. Leila is guitarist and vocalist for metal bands Vastum, Hammers of Misfortune, and ethereal post-punk band Terebellum. She also composes and produces ambient music under her own name, with electronic trio Ionophore and synth-folk duo Fyrhtu. Leila has toured internationally and is a private guitar and voice teacher in her spare time.

Blue Öyster Cult 1977 publicity photo by Eric Meola/Columbia Records is in the public domain.

"Blue Öyster Cult - Wacken Open Air 2016 05" by Frank Schwichtenberg is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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