Prior to recording their fourth album, Agents of Fortune, Blue Oyster Cult were just that—a cult band. They had a mystic logo which represented the Greek god Chronos (who, in a related story, ate his son, the Grim Reaper). They played heavy-riff rock with lyrics that touched on the weird (“She’s as Beautiful as a Foot”) and the occult (“Workshop of the Telescopes”). Certainly not a group you’d ever expect to see in the Top 40.
But the Byrds-y “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” changed all that. Written by guitarist Donald Roeser, it coupled the group’s mysticism with a beautiful melody, lush harmonies and one of the coolest guitar riffs of the ‘70s. Of the song’s beginnings, Roeser says, “I was thinking about my own mortality. I wrote the guitar riff, the first two lines of lyric sprung into my head, then the rest of it came as I formed a story about a love affair that transcends death. I was thinking about my wife, and that maybe we’d get together after I was gone.”
Nothing boosts a song’s popularity like a little controversy, and there was plenty surrounding “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper.” Roeser said in 1998, “The second verse is the one that’s caused all the trouble all these years. ‘Valentine’ is a metaphor for mortal love. ‘Romeo and Juliet’ I used as an example of a couple who had faith to take their love elsewhere when they weren’t permitted the freedom to love here and now. What I meant was, they’re in eternity cause they had the faith to believe in the possibility. It frankly never occurred to me that the suicide aspect of their story would be plugged in to people’s take on ‘Reaper,’ making it an advertisement for suicide. The “40,000” number was pulled from the air as a guess about how many people died every day worldwide, not how many people committed suicide.”
The song got another lift from author Stephen King, who quoted from it in his gruesome opus The Stand (and later used it for the soundtrack of the TV mini-series based on the book). “It never bothered me that ‘Reaper’ was embraced as a horror icon or allegedly enjoyed by [convicted murderer] Gary Gilmore,” says Roeser, who is still an active member of Blue öyster Cult 36 years on from their formation. “It would bother me to know the song gave someone an excuse to commit suicide. I never have come anywhere close to really wanting to commit suicide. I’m gonna live until I die. On the other hand, when I go, I don’t want ‘Amazing Grace’ as the musical centerpiece of my funeral. I want ‘(Don’t Fear) The Reaper.’”
—By Bill DeMain
From Performing Songwriter Issue 72
Category: Behind The Song