Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Soft Doctrines of Memphis Sam Part I


"The oyster boys are swimming now
Hear them chatter on the tide
Of the lost and language lost
Hear them chatter on the tide"
--"Blue Oyster Cult," Blue Oyster Cult


2016 will surely been remembered as a grim year on any number of levels. We are beset on all sides by political and social upheavals while the world and reality itself seem to grow more and more strange by the day (witness, for instance, the latest flap of "phantom clowns"). There is thus much grimness to go around, and music is no exception.

The mainstream of course continues to be a wasteland of unoriginality with the current generation dry humping the musings of their predecessors for all their worth. And some of the most prominent of the predecessors appear to be exiting the stage with increased frequency. Of course much of the discussion concerning 2016 rock star deaths will revolve around Prince and David Bowie and understandably so. They were among the most original and idiosyncratic artists of their respective eras, each man being a genre unto himself.

David Bowie (left) and Prince (right)
But there was another genre defining artist that recently shed his mortal coil whom the chroniclers will no doubt not be investing as many key strokes in. And in many ways this is how it should be.

Sandy Pearlman was not a figure that the general public has spent much time considering, if it all, and his death of July 26 predictably received little comment from the media at large once the obligatory obituaries ran their course. Born Samuel Clarke Pearlman, he typically went by the nickname of "Sandy" but it has reported that he used the nickname "Memphis Sam" during his early years in the music industry. This certainly a nickname pregnant with associations.

Ancient Memphis was the long time capital of Egypt. It was the cult-center of the god Ptah, a kind of Demiurge-like being sacred to craftsmen and artisans. It had several necropolises spread out across the valley surrounding it, most famously the Saqqara site. The Giza complex was not far from Memphis either. Next to Heliopolis and Thebes, it was one of the most holy cities in all of Ancient Egypt. And as capital throughout much of the Old Kingdom era, it had a long time association with royalty, especially to the legendary Rameses II.

Memphis, Tennessee was named after the ancient site in Egypt and would prove two curious connections to American royalty as well. Legendary civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. would be assassinated in Memphis in 1968. Less than ten years later Elvis Presley would die there in 1977. Elvis is of course frequently described as the "King of Rock 'N Roll." Elvis would also receive his first record contract from the Memphis-based Sun Records, a label that played a crucial role in the development of rock 'n roll. Other artists signed to Sun included Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash during his early rockabilly years. The label was owned by legendary producer Sam Phillips. One suspects that Pearlman expected his contributions to the rock lexicon to be every bit as revolutionary as Phillips', which may have provided part of the inspiration for this esoteric handle. But back to the matter at hand.

the original "Memphis Sam," Sam Phillips
Pearlman first broke into the music industry in 1967, when he became one of the first rock critics for the legendary Crawdaddy magazine. In this same year he helped co-found a band originally known as Soft White Underbelly that would became Pearlman's vehicle for bringing his vision to the general public at large. This band, which eventually became Blue Oyster Cult, would turn Pearlman into a cult figure (har har) by the mid-1970s before his influence on the band diminished.

Pearlman faded back into the background, but he has lingered on the fringes of popular culture nonetheless, thanks in no small part to the famed Saturday Night Live sketch featuring Christopher Walken demanding more cowbell during a send up of the recording of BOC's eerie hit single "(Don't Fear) The Reaper." The figure Walken was impersonating was gonzo producer Pearlman, once described as the "Hunter Thompson of rock," who was naturally referred to Bruce Dickinson in the sketch (Bruce Dickinson is the name of Iron Maiden's lead singer, a band Pearlman was not especially fond of).


While John Q Public had little exposure to Pearlman the man beyond this sketch they most assuredly had heard the sounds Pearlman had helped craft over the years (and probably ran screaming in terror from them). Simply put, Pearlman was one of the most important figures in the early development of heavy metal and punk. He is of course most well known for co-founding Long Island's Blue Oyster Cult, whom he managed until 1995 and frequently produced albums and co-wrote songs for. But this was hardly the extent of Pearlman's involvement in extreme music.

Pearlman also had quite an active role in the early New York punk and New Wave scenes as well. He managed and produced the proto-punk outfit The Dictators during the mid-1970s and had known Patti Smith since the early 1970s. Throughout much of the 1970s she was dating BOC keyboardist (and sometime guitarist) Allen Lanier and frequently contributed lyrics to the Cult during this era as well. One of her first songwriting credits was "Baby Ice Dog" from BOC's 1973 classic Tyranny and Mutations. Pearlman was a key early supporter of Smith's and helped her secure her first record contract. He had also tried to sleep with Smith and struck out, contributing to his friction with Lanier. Richard Metzer, an early rock critic who assisted in the formation of BOC and frequently contributed lyrics to the Cult as well, noted:
" 'Okay, basically, I was the one who brought her to the band,' recounts Meltzer. 'She was my friend. In the summer of 1970, my dentist was around the corner from the bookstore where she worked, Scribner's Books on 5th Avenue in the 40s. And I stopped in there and we became great friends. And somewhere down the line I brought her to the band. Pearlman wanted to fuck her and that was his interest. And I don't know if he did or didn't, but once it was clear that she was with Allen, it got to be that there was a lot of tension between Pearlman and Allen. Allen was very anti-Semitic without any irony whatsoever. You know, fuck the Jews, all that kind of stuff. And so there was a lot of anti-Pearlman wrath from both of them. I lived with this woman Ronnie and we would hang out with Allen and Patti a lot, through the mid 70s. And essentially what made the relationship viable was we didn't mind his anti-Semitism. But the point is that Allen thought the faux-Nazi stuff was a joke. I mean, everybody took it as a joke.' "
(Agents of Fortune, Martin Popoff, pgs. 39-40)
Patti Smith (left) and Allen Lanier (right)
Allen Lanier is one of the more curious members of BOC. He was one of the few members who came from a moneyed-background as well as being one of the few Gentiles involved with the band in the early days (Buck Dharma, frontman Eric Bloom, Meltzer, Pearlman and producer Murray Krugman were all Jews). Pearlman was in fact the one who incorporated a lot of the above-mentioned "faux-Nazi stuff" into BOC's image, however. This shall be addressed later.

Pearlman has generally described his relationship with Patti Smith as being better than Meltzer indicates. Via his contact with Smith, Pearlman and the rest of the Cult would frequently come into the orbit of emerging punk and New Wave acts such as the Ramones and the Talking Heads, respectively, during the early years. But Pearlman's ties to punk should be firmly established thanks to his work in the late 1970s with what was arguably the most legendary and influential of the early U.K. punk bands.

In 1978, he would produce The Clash's landmark Give 'Em Enough Rope. While this album received mixed reviews, it would mark The Clash's first real exposure in the United States. Allegations persist that Pearlman had been forced upon The Clash in a bid by their record label to make their sound more acceptable to American audiences, but Pearlman insisted that the collaboration had been a mutual choice of both parties:
"... But having said that, 'Godzilla' is a really heavy song, and in fact one of the reasons I wound up producing The Clash is they loved 'Godzilla' and 'The Reaper.' All of the bullshit about me being forced down their throats as a sellout to tailor them to American market is nothing to do with anything. None of that's true. And they liked those records, and they also liked The Dictators, and that's when I wound up... they called up Patti Smith, and she said, 'He's awesome' and they liked them, so let's go..."
(Agents of Fortune, Martin Popoff, pgs. 86-87)

Critics have long considered Rope to be a solid if unspectacular outing, typically ranking it well below the much more storied self-titled debut and the 1979 double album London Calling (and sometimes even below the self-indulgent triple album Sandinista!). The great Christopher Knowles of The Secret Sun, an uber Clash fan, had a different take however and considers Rope to be one of The Clash's most pivotal albums. And in a recent obituary, he gave Pearlman much credit for this:
"It was Pearlman's version of The Clash- an auditory encapsulation of the Dadaism, dystopian sci-fi and delusional radical politics that animated the band- that remained my definitive Clash.
"Pearlman understood the antecedents behind their music --as well as the work of authors like Anthony Burgess and JG Ballard-- far better than the band did themselves, who in fact never again seemed able to get their sound on record after Rope... 
"Indeed, it was Pearlman's makeover that redefined The Clash and it was his sound that they'd put out onstage (literally- he replaced the band's rag 'n bone punk gear with all new equipment and taught them how to use it) until the bitter end, even if they could never get it together in the studio...
"It was Pearlman's vision of The Clash that I saw in concert on the London Calling tour, not the Stonesy simulacrum you hear on that album (my ears rang for a week). It was Pearlman's Clash (effects-drenched flamethrower guitars, gate-reverbed drums, everything played at peak intensity) that blew my brains out in 1983 with the Casbah Club live set (and all the cowbell you could ever ask for)."
Sandy Pearlman (the only one not wearing black) and The Clash
Despite the perception at times promoted of Rope being a "sellout" album, it was arguably the most intense thing The Clash ever recorded in the studio. The critic darling London Calling by contrast was essentially nothing but an early '70s Rolling Stones album. This is but one instance of critics unfairly maligning Pearlman's work, as shall be noted throughout this series.

Pearlman's influence in metal went beyond BOC as well. During the early 1980s he also managed the pioneering heavy metal outfit Black Sabbath during one of their most turbulent and triumphant periods. At the time when Pearlman had taken over as the band's manager Sabbath had recently booted legendary frontman Ozzy Osbourne out of the lineup for his stifling substance abuse problems and was coming off of a pair of lackluster and widely panned albums (1976's Technical Ecstasy and 1978's Never Say Die!). Things were further exasperated by the humiliating 1978 tour with Van Halen when the young upstarts routinely blew Sabbath off the stage.

This, along with the rise of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHW) left Black Sabbath looking like the epitome of a dinosaur circa 1980. Fans and critics had long written them off. And yet, under Pearlman's guidance, they were able to stage a brief career resurgence. This was spurred in no small part by the addition of frontman Ronnie James Dio to replace Ozzy.

Dio would soon go on to a highly successful solo career but not before cutting two criminally underrated albums with Sabbath, 1980's Heaven and Hell and 1981's Mob Rules. Dio had a much wider range as a vocalist than Ozzy and this enabled Sabbath to be more colorful and adventurous with their music in some time. Dio also brought his own esoteric air to Sabbath's signature occulted sound. This career resurgence was overseen by producer Martin Birch (who recorded both of the Dio albums) and manger Sandy Pearlman.



This same duo would over BOC's similar early 1980s career resurgence with 1980's Cultosaurus Erectus and 1981's New Wave-flavored Fire of Unknown Origins. This overlap came to its apex with 1980's legendary Black and Blue Tour that saw both groups alternating as headliners depending upon the market of the city they were playing in that night. This tour, though classic, was fraught with tension that more than a few blamed on Pearlman's favoritism of BOC to the detriment of Black Sabbath. The late Ronnie James Dio stated:
" 'The problem was that we had the same manager,' continued Ronnie. 'I believe that he, because he began that band and was there from the inception, and in fact, the band was really patterned after Black Sabbath --therefore Blue Oyster Cult, Black Sabbath, whatever --and I think his allegiance was much more to them than it was to us. That annoyed us of course, as it should. It reached a culmination point in Madison Square Garden, on that show that has been documented, I guess, because the Black and Blue tour was done there, and it became a full-length feature film of some kind, and they were given everything and we were given nothing. They had their pyro, everything; we had nothing, not a thing. And I think that really defined what the problem was. "Hey, you're our manager too. Shouldn't we be using those kinds of specifications?" Within the film itself, there was a video that they had done that was part of that, and ours was only the presentation at Madison Square Garden. So I think that was a lot of the problem.' "
(Agents of Fortune, Martin Popoff, pg. 135)
Ronnie James Dio with Black Sabbath flashing famous "the sign of the horns," a gesture first linked to heavy metal allegedly by Dio during his time with Sabbath 
In the grand scheme of things the Black and Blue tour proved to be a kind of last hurrah for these 1970s giants, at least for some time. In 1981 BOC drummer Albert Bouchard, arguably the group's best songwriter, was booted out of the band. In 1982 Sabbath lost Dio along with drummer Vinne Appice (original Sabbath drummer Bill Ward had abruptly quit the group in the middle of the Black and Blue tour). These departures proved to be fatal to both acts and they would soon fade into obscurity (at least until the 1990s, when an Ozzy-led Sabbath would stage a comeback). But more on BOC in a moment.

Another potential Pearlman act was Pentagram, the pioneering Virginia doom metal act. Pentagram was founded in the early 1970s but did not issue a debut album until 1985's Relentless. By this time all that was left of the original Pentagram lineup was frontman Bobby Liebling who in the early 1980s had recruited another early doom band, Death Row, to take on the Pentagram mantle. While Death Row would provide Pentagram with several able songwriters, Bobby Liebling would continue to mine the tracks he had written or co-written with the early incarnation of the band during the 1970s. Fans began to notice the early copyright dates on these tracks and this led to circulation of '70s era Pentagram demos in the late 1980s. By the late 1990s they were the stuff of legend and in 2001 finally received an official release as First Daze Here.


Anyone whose heard this collection is generally left with one overriding question: How did this group not get a record deal in the 1970s? By the mid-1970s Pentagram was stacked with talent: in addition to Liebling, there was also guitarists Vincent McAllister (who would go on to become a regular sideman and collaborator for country singer Mary Chapin Carpenter) and Randy Palmer (another beloved underground figure who was the chief songwriter for another early Virginia-based doom band, Bedemon) and drummer Geof O'Keefe (a converted guitar player who wrote many of Pentagram's 70s era songs). Tracks like "Forever My Queen," "Starlady," "Walk in the Blue Light," "Be Forwarned," and "Last Days Here" should have been classic rock radio staples.

And they may well have been had Sandy Pearlman and partner Murray Krugman (who co-produced BOC's first five studio albums with Pearlman) ended up signing the band in 1975 after Pentagram had cut a series of demos for the dynamic duo. But Bobby Liebling's egomania (likely fueled by his legendary substance abuse problems) soon scuttled things. The Chicago Tribune notes:
"On the cusp of scoring a major-label deal, the band auditioned for high-profile producers Murray Krugman and Sandy Pearlman at Columbia Records in September 1975. Hopes faded after vocalist/songwriter Bobby Liebling confronted Krugman about his performance, demanding that it be re-recorded. Krugman dismissed the request, but the singer persisted. He then took a bandmate aside into the vocal booth and assailed Krugman's character. Alas, the microphone was still on. Krugman heard every word. He left..."

It is a real pity that Pearlman did not end up signing Pentagram. Their sound was in many ways a perfect merger of Sabbath's earth-shattering riffs and BOC's murky, post-psychedelia ambiance. With a lineup stacked full of talented songwriters, one can only imagine what might have emerged with Pearlman's lyrical vision and studio skills were added to the mix. But unfortunately it was not to be.

Now that the reader has an idea of the scale of Pearlman's influence I would like to shift gears and focus in on his most well-known project, Blue Oyster Cult, and the bizarre vision he had for the group. Pearlman had developed a keen interest in the occult and various esoteric subjects by the mid-1960s, when he was still in grad school. Pearlman chalked up his early interest in rather arcane subject matter to his youth in "Lovecraft Country."
"As Sandy is wont to do, another connection has taken place: 'I also, as it turns out, not knowing it until I read some biography of Lovecraft, grew up in Lovecraft country, Arkham and Dunwich. I grew up in one of the towns that actually was Arkham and Dunwich in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts. I think it was Arkham I grew up in (laughs). I didn't know that at the time. My family had a lot of property up there. They had 200 acres on the Connecticut River, which Lovecraft called the Miskatonic River. I would walk around there, like at night, and it always seemed kind of strange to me; this place seemed weird. I read Sprague DeCamp's biography of Lovecraft and realised, well, it felt weird for a reason...' "
(Agents of Fortune, Martin Popoff, pg. 21)

Little else is known about Pearlman's occult education, but it certainly appeared that he had already developed a complex cosmology by the time what would become BOC was founded in 1967. Pearlman possessed a truly ambitious vision for what rock music could, especially within the genre of heavy metal.
"Back on a creative track, one would have to say that the most profound catalyst for the building of the BOC beast was an internal virus, namely Pearlman himself, as stated, a close college friend whose mind was on fire with the intellectual, creative, and fascist possibilities inherent in this new, leaden, serious form of rock 'n' roll called heavy metal. Bolle Gregmar... keeper of the Museum Of the Cult in Hollywood, is a good friend of Sandy's.
" 'He's a really well-read person. But also according to Albert [Bouchard, BOC's longtime drummer --Recluse] he's like a Jewish wannabe Nazi, so that's kind of strange too. He's really totally into occult ways of doing things. Which makes me think he's a Jewish pagan. The combination does not exist. But in his mind he's very fascinated by the old druids and all that stuff. But he wants to put it in the context of the future rather than going backwards. So he thinks about the whole thing with the world wars and stuff as something in the future. that, well, we've lived through two of them right now, and we're expecting a third one. But that third one's not going to be a war, it's just going to be a confrontation between minds. This is all perpetrated by his reading H.P. Lovecraft and Richard Chambers' The King in Yellow from 1895 and other books that he's been reading about the righteousness of believing what you read.'
"Joe, when asked what reading shaped Sandy's thinking, offers the following: 'You know, everything that you've heard is probably what I've heard, probably through the same sources, places like the internet. I get out there and say, "Oh, this where that came from!" He would never tell us what his sources were. Never! He would just say, "Oh, it's just something I thought up." Now everybody is sort of like figuring the puzzle out. He's a pretty crafty guy. He knew his place. He had to protect his sources because else would go and rip him off (laughs). All I knew of Sandy was that he was one of those brilliant merit scholars, who had too much time on his hands, and read too many books. You know, even when we were making an album, Sandy would be reading these very difficult, technical books on warfare (laugh). We're making an album, he's reading books on warfare (laughs).'
"Sandy sheds some illumination on the psychological make-up of the band and himself. 'Things that shaped the whole philosophy of the band was first of all, the entire young scientist atmosphere of the early 1970s. I had thought I was going to be doing that. I wound up not doing it, but I still had this entire young scientist mindset. So there was the entire sort of can-do science fair attitude. Then whatever was the current, hot, leading edge research of the time of the early '70s was really important. On top of that you can overlay a tremendous amount of reading in original alchemical source texts. Then you can add on top of that an entire education in the history of ideas, a degree in philosophy and sociology. And then you can add on top of that a life-long fascination with H.P. Lovecraft and other writers of that ilk, although I don't think there's anybody nearly close to Lovecraft. So those are probably the main sources. I can remember pretty closely where all the things from Worship of the Telescope (a two CD compilation out at the time of my first interview with Sandy) came from. They came from the various pits that I've just referenced for you.'
"Such a philosophy, presumably, could only be set to the musical form and formula known as heavy metal...
" 'Yes, well, it's the vocabulary with which to communicate with a very large audience,' explains Professor Pearlman. 'A lot of the songs were by me --and they had very specific intentions. And even if the guys in the band don't want to talk about the intentions --which some of them are very reluctant to talk about --heavy metal was the best vocab with which to communicate the intentions of these songs. Most of the songs, or many of the songs, or at least a plurality, I guess, through Agents of Fortune, up until then, half the songs or more were written by me, and I was the producer, and this vocabulary was a great musical vocab with which to project and communicate the intentions of the lyrics.' "
(Agents of Fortune, Martin Popoff, pgs. 17-19) 
Pearlman was name dropping The King in Yellow decades before True Detective made it a pop culture staple again
Pearlman's bizarre fascination with Nazism was remarked upon by others who were around the band in those days. Richard Meltzer, Pearlman's fellow rock critic with Crawdaddy and another early BOC lyrics, hinted at this in the above quote taken from him. During the Secret Treaties era Nazism was openly referenced in the group's stage persona and material at the time. Helen Wheels, drummer Albert Bouchard's former girlfriend and another BOC lyricist, stated the following:
 "... Helen Wheels, future writer for the band, was Albert's girlfriend, and designer of the band's costumes at the time. She feels that the Nazi image thing was an amalgamation of many similar cues: 'It was things like the leather costumes, and those big flags Sandy designed. There were big Blue Oyster Cult logo flags on, I guess, the band's first tour. There were two huge ones, one on each side. I guess they were the Cult logo, but they were red and black. It just looked a little... and by '75 they had "ME 262" and that kind of material... I never thought much of it. To me, "ME 262" and those flags was the extent of it. And they were one of the first bands to be wearing black leather and studs.'
"Allen [Lainer, longtime BOC keyboardist and some time rhythm guitarist --Recluse], during the launch of Spectres, looked back on the controversy with Tony Parsons from NME, saying that the Nazi imagery was, 'a metaphor for negative imagery. Rock 'n' roll lives off of false imagery. We've dropped all that simply because it wasn't amusing anymore. It was just an in-joke that had run its course. I'm a very conservative person when it comes to rock 'n' roll.' "
(Agents of Fortune, Sandy Pearlman, pg. 45)
BOC playing before one of Pearlman's notorious flags


what the flag allegedly looked like in color
Lainer's explanation is not especially satisfying, especially since the band abandoned this direction rather hastily after Pearlman's role in the songwriting was greatly reduced. Embracing Nazi regalia seems at a bit extreme for an "in-joke." This researcher suspects that Pearlman had certain compelling reasons for this flourish which shall be elaborated upon when we get into Secret Treaties in earnest.

As for Pearlman's intentions with his lyrics, this is a most interesting topic that would have great barring on BOC's classic "Black & White" trilogy (their first three albums, the self-titled debut, Tyranny and Mutations and Secret Treaties). It was with these three albums, along with 1988's cult classic Imaginos, that Pearlman's vision was most pronounced in BOC. And this vision was guided by a bizarre collection of poems Pearlman had written some time around 1967 that he dubbed The Soft Doctrines of Imaginos.
"As the saga goes, Imaginos begat life was a pile of poetic mumblings from one Sandy Pearlman, a collection of necessarily disconnected dribs and drabs that would be tinkered with many times since the mid-'60s, something Sandy called The Soft Doctrines of Imaginos. But as the '70s wore on, and when the muse attacked, Sandy would be there to receive piercings, transforming amorphous Imaginos thought into short, focused, commercially digestible peerings into the storyline, these exercises resulting in such integral Imaginos movements as 'Transmaniacon MC', 'Before the Kiss, a Redcap', 'Cities on Flame', 'Worship of the Telescope', 'Subhuman', 'Flaming Telepaths', 'Astronomy', ''Shadow of California', and 'When the War Comes'.
"In the true nature of enigma, other Cult compositions could also fit the Imaginos concept quite comfortably, especially (and most logically) second-tier Pearlman compositions like '7 Screaming Diz Busters', 'Redeemed', 'Dominance and Submission', 'ME 262', 'R.U. Ready 2 Rock' and 'Heavy Metal: The Black and the Silver.' But given the astonishing bandwidth of the story that includes time-travel, earthly evil, organic transformation and alien domination, the petty logic of story ownership can become wondrously suspended, allowing other lyricists to contribute to the river of time and space that is Imaginos. Thus 'Wings Wetted Down', 'Golden Age of Leather', 'The Vigil', 'Lips in the Hills', 'Veteran of the Psychic Wars' and 'Take Me Away' all could be seen as connecting the dots of Imaginos thought."
(Agents of Fortune, Martin Popoff, pg. 183)

Pearlman's The Soft Doctrines of Imaginos could thus be seen as his (and by default, BOC's) answer to Lovecraft's Necronomicon or Chambers' The King in Yellow. Both were fictitious works that Lovecraft and Chambers referenced in the literature, building up a whole mythology around a hand full of passages taken from these infamous works. Thus, Soft Doctrines... appears throughout BOC's catalog like the Necronomicon appears in various Lovecraft short stories. But while similar themes and characters were evident in BOC songs to fans for years, it was not until the release of Imaginos in 1988 that the source of these references was finally revealed. Ever since then, especially in the Internet era, fans have been scrambling to make sense of it all.

And with that I shall wrap things up for now. In the next installment we shall begin to examine the Imaginos cycle and its possible inspirations in earnest. Stay tuned dear reader.