By Jeb Wright
Joe Bouchard spent over 16 years as the bass player of Blue Oyster Cult. Since leaving the band he has continued playing music, mostly guitar, and mostly in bands that involve the Alice Cooper Group’s original bass player, Dennis Dunaway. Some projects, like Blue Coupe, feature Joe’s brother, and BOC alum, Albert on drums, other times it is Neal Smith from the Cooper band, while other times it is someone else. Suffice it to say, Joe Bouchard loves to play music.
Out now is Joe’s newest solo offering titled Tales from the Island. The music ranges from hard rock, to singer/songwriter to punk. Somehow, Joe effortlessly makes it all fit together nicely.
In the interview that follows, Joe takes us back to the day when Blue Oyster Cult auditioned in front of the mighty Clive Davis to an in-depth discussion on his new album. This is a great interview with one of the best trumpet players in rock and roll. Trumpet you say? Read on…it will all make sense.
Jeb: Why did you do a solo album when you could have used these songs for one of your other projects?
Joe: I worked on this for about two and a half years and I just felt like it was time to do a solo album. I thought about not putting it out until the fall, but I wanted to get it out now, because I am working on a new album with my band, Blue Coupe, and I am working on music for another band I am in called The X Brothers.
I did an experiment and sold my solo album online, at first. It went really well, but I kept hearing from people that they wanted to have a physical CD. You hear digital is the way to go, but for most of my fans, they want a CD that they can hold and that they can play in the car. The CD really does sound good. The CD just has a little snap that you can’t get from an MP3. I pressed up a batch and they are going so fast that I am going to have to press up more.
Jeb: This album has many songs written by John Elwood Cook. Who is John?
Joe: He was our neighbor during the summer, when I was growing up. Now, we both have summer cottages on the same island. We would sit on the porch and we would play these songs. I would tell him that we should record these songs and he would say, “No, I just do this for myself.” We played one of his songs called “Dark Boat” and we were jamming on it and I broke him down and I recorded that song on my first solo album. That song really resonated with a lot of people.
We play them sort of like folk songs and I bring them back to my studio and I mess with them. I took the demo of one of his songs called “Like Vampires” to Dennis and Albert and they flipped out it was so good. It ended up the hit on our first Blue Coupe album. On this album, eight of the songs are written by John Cook and the rest are by me.
Jeb: The first song is a great tune.
Joe: “1000 Midnights” is a really rocking song. I am telling you it is a great feeling to just sit on the front porch, or in the kitchen, and jam on these things. When we would do a really good one, then I would record them on my phone.
Now, John encourages me to put out his songs. At first, he was like, “No” but now he is like, “Come on over, I‘ve got more songs.” He is really a great songwriter. Sometimes, he sends me recordings, but when we play together, on the front porch, then that is when I start to get this vibe in my head and I know I’ve got to take this song back to my studio.
Jeb: My favorite song on the album is “Christopher Walken is Walking Her Home.”
Joe: He was watching a movie with him in it and it all came together. John is not just a musician, he is a fine artist and he does a lot of collages. His approach to writing songs is much like his artwork. He finds things in little bits of dialogue from a movie, the words pop out and he just goes with it.
Jeb: Who was the inspiration to “Retro Rockstar?”
Joe: Occasionally, I will stop into a saloon to see a band play. I will find myself home on a Friday night and it is like there is something wrong with the world because I do not have a gig. When I start to feel like I should be out there playing then I will go out to a local bar and find a band playing. Somebody at the bar will say, “You’re not that guy in Blue Oyster Cult are you?” I tell them that I am. It happens when I go out sometimes as a citizen.
I am one of those musicians who needs to play. Sometimes I turn into that retro rockstar and just have to bang around on my guitar. I am a gig junkie.
Jeb: “Hotel Tropico” is a cool song. It reminds me a bit of Blue Oyster Cult.
Joe: I was watching an old Humphrey Bogart movie and they mentioned the Tropical Hotel. I bounced the name around and came up with “Hotel Tropico.”
Before I joined Blue Oyster Cult, there was a band called Soft White Underbelly. It is a legendary story of how they drove from Long Island to California to record an album for Elektra Records. They had drive-away cars and they drove straight through from New York to California. When they got there, they stayed at the Tropicana Hotel, which is no longer there, but, at the time, it was the rock and roll hotel.
In the early days of Blue Oyster Cult, I used to stay at the Tropicana and I would eat at Dukes Diner, which was part of the hotel. The song is just me making up that they wanted me to go on the trip, but it never happened because they had a different bass player at the time. The song is kind of loosely based on a real story.
Jeb: I have to ask you about the song “Your Dark Secrets” which was co-written by Helen Wheels.
Joe: Helen gave me those lyrics probably twenty-five years ago. I worked on them at one time, but it was just one of those things where I couldn’t get inspired by it. I liked the lyrics, though, so I just put them in a box and left them there for another day. All these years later, I was listening to the new Neil Young album and I decided that I was going to take an acoustic guitar and run it through a distorted amplifier and run it through all kinds of echo and just let it rip. I remembered those lyrics, and this time, they worked, perfectly. This time, it was like magic and everything just fell into place. I really have to thank Helen for these lyrics. She passed away, but I still want to thank her for the inspiration, once again.
Jeb: Unless one is a BOC fanatic they may not be familiar with Helen. Can you talk more about her?
Joe: Helen was Albert’s first girlfriend. When he moved to New York, right after he left college, he met Helen and she became his girlfriend. Helen was a multi-talented lady. She was a bodybuilder, she wrote lyrics, she was a fine artist, she raised snakes and she was in a punk band.
I would be writing for Blue Oyster Cult and Albert said that I should ask Helen for some lyrics. I did and she wrote two really good ones in “Celestial Queen” and “Nosferatu.” We are doing “Nosferatu” in Blue Coupe, sometimes. We don’t do it every night, but I love it when we do it. It is a great song that laid dormant for over twenty years, so it is wonderful to bring that song back.
Jeb: You also have a co-written song with BOC legend Richard Meltzer on the new album.
Joe: “Heart of Wine” is the name of that song. I put a video up for that on YouTube that is kind of a sing-a-long. It is getting a great reaction. I had those lyrics for a long time. They were in the same box that the Helen Wheels lyric was in. Also in that box was a lyric by Jim Carroll that he gave me in 1981.
I remember working on those Meltzer lyrics when I was in Blue Oyster Cult, but I eventually didn’t do anything with them because I thought that it was a song for old people. When I opened up the box and I read them again, I went, “Hey, what happened?”
I originally wrote that song as a country song, but it wasn’t happening for me. I finally realized that Meltzer would not like his lyrics being in a country song. He really liked groups like the Ramones. I really got on a punk vibe and it really got me excited. I work on songs, and I am looking for inspiration, and sometimes, I’ve just got to get fired up. I decided that I wanted to do this right for Richard and that fired me up.
Jeb: Richard was in BOC’s life very early on.
Joe: He lives in Portland, Oregon and I have not seen him for years. Richard has written some books that are really interesting and I’ve read most of them. Richard and Sandy Pearlman went to college and they were the smart guys in the class. They basically founded Blue Oyster Cult. They were around before BOC back when it was Soft White Underbelly. Sandy would write half of the lyrics and Richard would write half the lyrics. I think they both would have liked to be performers but when it came down to it, they left the performing to the guys and just came up with the lyrics.
In the old band house, there would always be a stack of typed up lyrics. We would go through those when it came time to put an album together. Albert still has some of that stuff and I think he will put it together one day.
Jeb: Blue Oyster Cult was part composition, part rock and roll, part musical theater, part mystery and part crazy poetry. And you had this sound that no one else had.
Joe: We bent over backwards trying to sound different in the early days. We didn’t want to be your typical rock band. I was all for it, as I was very excited to be recording music. We ended up recording something like seventeen records for Columbia, what an exciting time that was. In the early days, we were really excited because we really didn’t think we could ever come up with anything that anybody would ever like. We really were just trying to entertain ourselves.
Jeb: The band was at the point of breaking up, or getting the record deal with Columbia, when you had to audition for Clive Davis.
Joe: It was really wild. I didn’t think we played that good for the audition. We played everything way too fast; it was almost like speed metal. We were all very nervous. We had five songs that we were allowed to play. Clive had been clued in that we had something happening and he kind of liked “Last Days of May” from our first album. I was surprised that he went for it.
We performed right in the conference room. Harry Nilsson was there, as was Bobby Colomby from Blood, Sweat & Tears. They were nice and friendly. I was a big Harry Nilsson fan. It was really a blur. We were like, “Wow, here we are in the conference room at Columbia Records.” We really couldn’t believe it.
We had all of our equipment in the room, which took up most of the conference room, and we were blasting out these songs as loud as we could. For some reason, they said, “We like you guys.”
Jeb: Your first tour, with the Byrds, was a learning experience and then you went out and opened with Alice Cooper and it changed everything. Now, you’re in a band with Dennis Dunaway, who was the original bass player in the Alice Cooper Group when you were opening for them.
Joe: I talk to Dennis a lot about those days. Alice Cooper had such a wild reputation but Dennis has told me that they just worked their butts off to get their show to be the tightest it could be. We first met them when they were touring Killers. I didn’t expect that it was going to be that good, but it was really amazing. It was totally different and I had never seen anything like it before. It was encouraging to us. Playing with the Byrds was a disaster because we were not the right kind of band to play with the Byrds. When we played with Alice Cooper, back in 1972, it all turned around for us.
Jeb: When you worked on songs that ended up on the first album, like “Cities on Flame” and “Last Days of May,” did you have the music and then put lyrics to them, or was it the other way around?
Joe: Donald came up with “Last Days of May” and both the music and lyrics are his. He tends to write them both at the same time. He shapes the music, and then finds the right words, and then shapes the music some more. I think that is the way he did that one.
“Cities on Flame” was totally done differently. It started out as a song called “Siren Singalong.” I said to Albert, “I like that song, you should start working on it.” He decided to take it in a different direction and that is where the music for “Cities on Flame” came from. Albert had some of Sandy’s lyrics and I really think he just grabbed a few lines from the poem. “My heart is black and my lips are cold” was not originally the opening line, it was in the middle. That song was a real collaboration between Sandy, Albert and Donald.
Jeb: Was your first big song with BOC “Hot Rails to Hell?”
Joe: “Hot Rails to Hell” was one of those things where I wanted to write an up tempo rock song. It is also kind of a story of an agent that we had, named Phil King, who came to an untimely end. I used to live with Phil. He got murdered over some gambling debts. He was our agent and promoter in the early days.
I was hanging out with the guy who did the album cover, Bill Gawlik. We took the subway because he was too cheap to pay for a parking space in New York. We would drive to Queens and then we would get on the subway and go to New York. We went to a jazz concert in the city and then we took the subway back to Queens. On the way back to Queens, on the subway, the whole idea for “Hot Rails to Hell” came to me. The guys liked it and it was the right song for our second album. It was put out as a single. It is a great song and it has survived the test of time.
Jeb: “Astronomy” you wrote with Albert.
Joe: Sandy gave me those lyrics. The line “The clock strikes twelve” was not the opening line of the poem; it was in the middle. I knew that line had to be the start of the song because it is such a magical hour.
We had a house that was on the beach and I went out for a walk. As I was walking along the beach, I had this idea for a melody. The song came pretty fast. I brought it back and we were rehearsing in the living room of the house that we had rented. I told the guys that I had this song and I started playing it for them. Albert said, “Let me work on that overnight.” The next day he came back with an arrangement. A lot of the connecting riffs in “Astronomy” are Albert’s while I wrote the music and Sandy wrote the lyrics. It was a really good collaboration.
We were really lucky when Metallica covered that song. It is every songwriters dream to be on an album that sells five million. We didn’t have to do anything. It was sitting out there for twenty years and then one of the biggest bands in the world comes along and covers it.
Jeb: When you moved on from Blue Oyster Cult were you nervous?
Joe: I had been in the band for sixteen years. I had expected that the band would only last three to five years. I really had some other things that I wanted to do. There was a whole list of reasons as to why I left the band. I didn’t know what I was doing, but sometimes you just have to move on. I have been very happy. I am also very happy to have been the bass player for Blue Oyster Cult for all of those years.
Jeb: I have heard Blue Coupe, which you play with in with Dennis and your brother Albert, is making a new album and it is great.
Joe: I don’t know exactly how it will all come out, but the music is very strong. We did very well with the first album. We had “Like Vampires.” With this new one, we really put our thinking caps on and we actually even rehearsed. We did something that we never do…we rehearsed! We really were lucky that the first album came out as good as it did. You get a little tinge of success and you work hard. We are making sure that we are getting this one done right and I know that people are really going to enjoy the album.
Jeb: Are you going to play any solo dates and play the music on the new album?
Joe: Well, Blue Coupe is going to play some dates this summer. We’re the opening act for a couple of shows with Alice Cooper and we have a lot of shows just with our band. For my solo stuff, I am planning on doing some acoustic shows. We just did a gig where I did an acoustic version of Tales from the Island and I am very excited about it because it went very well. When Blue Coupe isn’t booked, then I plan to do some acoustic solo shows. It is working out really good.
Jeb: Last one: You have a ‘special thanks’ in the liner notes for musical inspiration.
Joe: Yes, it is my drummer, Michael Cartellone. He was supposed to play on this album, but it wasn’t in the cards because he is out with Lynyrd Skynyrd. I would have had to put off the album until November to get him on the album. We would send MP3s back and forth and he made some suggestions about arrangements for some songs that really helped the album. I would like to do some remixes with him playing on the album. He is a great guy and he is very sharing of his talents.
Jeb: For all of the BOC fans who thought that Joe Bouchard was just a bass player, read the liner notes for Tales from the Island. Joe Bouchard: lead and rhythm guitars, organ, piano, banjo, mandolin, harmonica, percussion, lead and harmony vocals and… I saved this one for last… trumpet.
Joe: Yes, trumpet! I was at a party and someone gave me a trumpet. This guy had all of these instruments as decorations on his walls. I said, “You’ve got a baritone horn and you’ve got a French horn and you’ve got a sousaphone.” He said, “You want a trumpet?” I used to play trumpet years ago. All I had to do was to get a mouth piece for it.
Jeb: People should not just check out Tales of the Island just for the songs, or for the fact that you are famous for being in Blue Oyster Cult. They should check it out for the trumpet.
Joe: It is, indeed, my trumpet debut.
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