Save the cowbell, Don’t Fear The Reaper is a gothic classic

All our times have come
Here but now they’re gone
Seasons don’t fear the reaper
Nor do the wind, the sun or the rain
We can be like they are
Don’t fear the reaper

Don’t Fear The Reaper‘ is the most well-known song from Blue Oyster Cult‘s multitude of classics and deep cuts. Which means it has been played to death on radio and entered popular consciousness through Christopher Walken’s obsession with cowbells. To the band’s small but avid audience, other songs are as or more deserving of having the spotlight shone on them for a change. And I tend to agree. For the inquisitive newcomers to the band, here’s an alternate list of great Cult songs to trawl through in chronological order: ‘She’s As Beautiful As A Foot‘, ‘Wings Wetted Down‘, ‘Harvester Of Eyes‘, ‘Morning Final‘, ‘Celestial The Queen‘, ‘The Great Sun Jester‘, ‘The Marshall Plan‘, ‘Vengeance‘, ‘Shooting Shark‘, ‘Madness To The Method‘, and ‘In The Presence Of Another World‘. Then, from the two “modern” albums before the band’s long hiatus, have a stab at ‘Cold Gray Light Of Dawn‘ and ‘Old Gods Return‘. Finally, from The Symbol Remains, the band’s unlikely return to the studio in the age of Covid, why not hear the laugh-riot that is ‘Florida Man‘, the band’s take on the famous meme? Be assured though that the band is laughing with and not at the unfortunates of the memes caught in the media glare, not condescendingly but with humor and humility that embraces our species’ inherent absurdity.

Don’t you laugh, it could be you
The Florida curse always comes true
You can jeer, but you don’t understand
Any fragile soul can be a Florida man

All these are fine songs in their own right and not the only ones from their respective albums either. They showcase many of the band’s hallmarks: songwriting in a variety of genres ranging from surf rock/rock ‘n roll to proto-metal, different vocalists bringing their own influences to bear on the music, Buck Dharma’s ceaselessly creative guitar playing, and above all a rare mystique straddling the line between innocence and gonzo irreverence. But as good as they are, they’ve never had or will have the attention the mainstream has lavished on the trifecta that are ‘Godzilla‘, ‘Burnin For You‘, and ‘Don’t Fear The Reaper‘. The band has become synonymous with the latter in particular, but unlike many an other monolithic staple on classic rock radio, ‘Don’t Fear The Reaper‘ has earned its keep over time and still retains its ability to arrest, mesmerize, and create the most delicate of gothic moods imaginable.

Admittedly, there isn’t much going on here musically other than Dharma’s incendiary guitar solo in harmonic minor punctuating on either side the most renowned arpeggiated minor chord pattern in popular music. But music is the sensory transcription of the ineffable, and from such simple elements does ‘Don’t Fear The Reaper‘ manage to convey our perennial preoccupation with mortality. I sometimes wonder whether this sentiment registers subconsciously with even the non-fan bombarded with this song, if he slips into an introverted pocket of mind as he drives down the wet asphalt at night and thinks back on losses past and losses to come, of the death of each instant even as it gasps into existence, endless deaths streaming endlessly into the vortex of congealed extinct impressions receding in the side-view mirror.

The gothic, at its core, is this jarring impingement of the inevitable upon the mundane, hence often depicted in the guise of the supernatural. ‘Don’t Fear The Reaper‘ delights in this pain-pleasure aesthetic, probing it like a tongue that flickers expectantly over a tooth extraction site, but its ultimate message, far from being fatalistic, is one of hope. Death, while painful when it comes looking for a loved one, is no adversary; when we say that a person deceased is at rest, we mean that they are free for the rest of time from the many physical and spiritual accidents that are a part of living. Our grief then is not so much for the person that has passed on as it is for our inability to cope with the absence that has suddenly manifested in our lives. This classic song does not ask of us to forgo the process of mourning, but to take heart from the fact that the ones gone are indeed liberated from mortal toil and that in due course we will be too.

 

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