Welcome to the fifth and final installment in my consideration of the Imaginos cycle of legendary heavy metal producer/manager/lyricist Sandy "Memphis Sam" Pearlman. The first installment gave a broad overview of Pearlman's career and influence, with a special emphasis on the bands he worked with outside of Blue Oyster Cult (which he was a co-founder of and managed until 1995). I also began to breakdown the concept of the Imaginos cycle, a process that continued on into the second installment.
The Imaginos concept was based upon a series of poems Pearlman came up with in the mid-1960s known as The Soft Doctrines of Imaginos. Deeply influenced by alchemy, Ufology, weird fiction (especially that of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert Chambers), the occult and conspiracy theories, the poems chronicled the saga of Imaginos, also known as Desdenova, a being born in New Hampshire during the early nineteenth century but who is in fact part extraterrestrial.
The concept was designed to run up to the present day and reveal the secret origins of the World Wars that had plagued the West in the twentieth century. While Blue Oyster Cult never totally committed to the Imaginos cycle during their heyday, songs taken from Soft Doctrines... or inspired by it would crop up on their studio albums for years, but especially during the so-called "Black and White" era (which consisted of BOC's first three albums, the self-titled debut, Tyranny and Mutation and Secret Treaties; so-named for their striking black and white artwork) in which Pearlman's influence was at its greatest.
The second and third installments considered the esoteric aspects of the self-titled debut and its follow-up, Tyranny and Mutations. With the fourth and most recent installment I considered Secret Treaties, easily the most Imaginos-centric album BOC would attempt until the 1980s. Treaties was practically a concept album based upon Imaginos, and featured two songs taken directly from the cycle ("Subhuman" and "Astronomy") and featuring multiple other tracks seemingly set in the same universe.
Secret Treaties was at the time the Cult's most successful album date, despite neither of its singles ("Career of Evil" and the Nazi-revering "ME 262") receiving much radio play. Still, it received some critical acclaim and sold better than the previous two combined. Fans had begun to notice the mythos behind many BOC lyrics and a buzz had emerged. The stage seemed to be set for BOC to build upon Treaties and embrace the Imaginos cycle in full. It was, after all, the era of the concept album. Bands like Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull were doing gang busters with concept albums far more vaguely defined and no nearly as innovative as the Imaginos cycle.
Instead, the band opted to push back against Pearlman's creative control. While Pearlman, along with his partner Murray Krugman, were still listed as producers on Treaties' follow-up, Agents of Fortune, much of the actual production was handled by Jack Douglas, most well known for his work with Aerosmith. Pearlman's lyrics were largely abandoned as well. He proved the words to at least four tracks on all of the previous albums, but on Agents of Fortune "E.T.I. (Extraterrestrial Intelligence)" is the only song on which Pearlman received a credit. This is quite a fall from grace for a man who received writing credits for fifteen of the twenty-six tracks that appeared on BOC's three prior studio albums.
Finally, the band took more direct control of its image as well. For instance, Pearlman had largely been the creative force behind the album artwork for the prior three studio albums as well as the 1975 live album On Your Feet or On Your Knees. Agents of Fortune, however, featured album artwork that the band rather than Pearlman had overseen. Gone also was the leather and Nazi imagery of tours past and in its place emerged more of the trappings of bloated 1970s arena rock.
The same could be said of the music BOC was now producing, but enough of the old quirkiness remained for the band to distinguish itself from the slew of hard rock acts clogging up the radio waves by 1976. Agents of Fortune, with the mega-hit "(Don't Fear) The Reaper," became the band's best selling album of all time. Critics hailed this new direction as a refreshing departure from the Pearlman era. Rolling Stone, for instance, proclaimed:
"Agents of Fortune is a startlingly excellent album, startling because one does not expect Blue Oyster Cult to sound like this: loud but calm, manic but confident, melodic but rocking. Every song on the first side is commercially accessible without compromising the band's malevolent stance. One area of clear improvement is in the matter of lyrics; for the first time, there is less emphasis on absurd, cyrpto-intellectual ramblings and more of a coherent attack on a variety of subjects. The former had become simply tiresome; the latter opens up whole new areas for Cult investigation. By dropping the S & M angle and by inserting slivers of genuine rock 'n' roll like 'True Confessions,' their best song ever, the Cult is easing into maturity with integrity. Agents of Fortune's comparative slickness even serves to enhance their dark image: the ominous villainy conveyed by Buck Dharma's agile guitar lines on 'Tenderloin' is far more effective than his heretofore standard thudding madness."
(review by Ken Tucker; taken from Agents of Fortune, Martin Popoff, pg. 77)
Speaking as a seasoned BOC fan with friends who were followers of the group since the debut was released in the early 1970s, I have never heard anyone describe "True Confessions," a pathetic stab at R & B and 1950s-style rock, as BOC's "best ever song" outside of this review. "Tenderloin," a ode to a special night spent with a groupie and a bag of cocaine, is indicative of the more "coherent attack on a variety of subjects" that Rolling Stone lauded BOC for embracing lyrically at the expense of Pearlman's "crypto-intellectual ramblings."
While enough of the old weirdness was present on Agents to make it a solid outing, it was impossible to deny how far the band had fallen with the next two outings, Spectres and Mirrors. With these two outings the band fully embraced bloated arena cock rock with disastrous results. BOC was never going to be confused with Aerosmith and abandoning what made the band unique in the first place made it increasingly hard for the general public to pick them out in an ever crowded field.
With 1980's Cultosaurus Erectus the band consciously tried to return to the weirdness that had initially gotten them noticed in the first place, but the group was in a very different head space by this time and Pearlman was still being kept at arm's length. He had only contributed lyrics to one track on Spectres and none on either Mirrors or Erectus. Still, Erectus marked the beginning of a brief comeback for BOC which Pearlman played a key role in launching when he had set BOC up with Black Sabbath (whom he was also managing at this time) for the famed "Black and Blue" tour in 1980 (noted in the first installment).
The band came back in 1981 with Fire of Unknown Origin, their most successful album since Agents of Fortunes. Driven by the top 40 single "Burnin' for You" (BOC last major single), the album peaked at #24 on the US charts and was certified gold. Pearlman also got his first songwriting credit since Spectres with "Heavy Metal: The Black and Silver" and on the whole this album is more reflective of the dark but eccentric vision he had for the band.
But it all proved to be a Pyrrhic victory. The band imploded during the tour in support for Fire and drummer Albert Bouchard was kicked to the curb. This proved to be disastrous for BOC, even more so than pushing aside Pearlman for Bouchard was easily the group's best songwriter and had co-written close to half of the group's songs up to this point.
Bouchard was also the BOC member most tied to the Imaginos concept. Long after the rest of the group had abandoned it in the wake of Secret Treaties, Albert Bouchard was still writing songs based upon the Soft Doctrines poems. Thus, when he was booted out of the group in 1981, Pearlman moved quickly to enlist his services to finally do a full on Imaginos concept album. Here are some more details on these developments:
"Eric [Bloom, BOC frontman --Recluse] provides the missing pieces: ' Well, I'll give you the reader's digest version. When Albert was fired in '81, there was a lot of material he had presented to the band that was written with Sandy Pearlman, that was part of the Imaginos epic. A few of the Imaginos songs... Sandy wrote Imaginos in the '60s, the lyrics, and they were always floating around. There's this whole bunch of lyrics about Imaginos. 'Astronomy' was one of them; 'Subhuman' was one of them. So those two came out of Imaginos and made it onto BOC records.'
" 'Now over the years Albert kept writing one or two Imaginos tunes and no one else in the band wanted to use them,' continues Eric. 'So when Albert was fired, Sandy approached... we had a demo of "In the Presence of Another World," which I sang. Using that demo, Sandy persuaded CBS to put out Imaginos as a project for him and Albert, because Sandy wrote Imaginos and it was very, very important to Sandy that Imaginos see the light of day. It was his, you know, masterpiece. So Albert and Sandy got to work with this huge advance from CBS. They worked on it and worked on it, using all these different musicians and different singers and different players and it went on and on and on for years. It was like a Meat Loaf record (laughs). It got to the point where --it was a double record by the way --where they finished it. I'd say '81 'til about '84, about three years after they started, they called it done. CBS heard it and hated it. Mostly the vocals, which Albert sang lead. So they shelved it and refused to release it, so it sat. So Sandy, being our manager, and together with his partner Steve Schenck, approached CBS saying, 'Give us some more money and we'll have Eric and Donald come in and sing it.' CBS bit on that, so Donald came in to play some guitar on it, and I went in and sang on it, and they reduced it to one album, and put it out. That's the story.' "
(Agents of Fortune, Martin Popoff, pgs. 186-187)
In addition to the Oyster boys, an impressive array of guest musicians were enlisted for the album. These included bassist Kenny Aaronson (formerly of early New York heavy rockers Dust), drummer Thommy Price (who has played with Billy Idol and Joan Jett), and guitarists Aldo Nova, Marc Biedermann (of pioneering thrash metal outfit Blind Illusion), Joe Satriani (who famously taught Steve Vai and Metallica's Kirk Hammett before branching out on his own) and The Doors' Robby Krieger. As one might imagine, this album is heavy on overdubs and possess a crisp production clearly meant to highlight the chops of all those involved.
|guitar god Joe Satriani|
The artwork fared no better than the production in the 1980s. The cover for Imaginos ultimately ended up being an old picture of the legendary San Francisco restaurant Cliff House as appeared at the turn of the twentieth century, before it burned down and was remodeled. While not a bad album cover, the original concept Pearlman developed with artist Greg Scott (who had done the Fire cover) was far more ambitious. Scott provided some details to BOC chronicler Martin Popoff:
"So what might have Imaginos become graphically? 'Well, the front cover was Imaginos himself, a very kind of apocalyptic image of him, standing in front of a stormy sky with the ship and the pyramid in in the background, holding a mirror out towards you. His Doberman pinscher, which appeared in various versions of my other artwork, was in front of him. That was a very intense and spooky kind of image. The back cover was basically all the same elements rearranged. It was Imaginos as a young boy, and he's standing waist-deep in the water with a model boat, and the dog is behind him in a constellation. So there's this drawing of the dog, where the constellation Sirius is coming through him. So it was basically all the elements; there was a kind of farmhouse, in place of the pyramid. So each of the elements of the front cover were translated in the back cover in different places and in different ways.' "
(Agents of Fortune, Martin Popoff, pg. 189)
|Sirius, the Dog star|
As for the songs themselves, they finally present the listener with an overview of the Imaginos cycle after over a decade of hints and in that regard they not do disappoint. The problem emerges more with the order in which they are presented. Presumably the record label felt the album would flow better if the tracks were presented outside of their chronological order. As such, the track listing on the final product is thus:
There has been much dispute as to what the actual order should be, but here are the two most compelling accounts, one derived from the linear notes in Imaginos, and the other from the theories of Albert Bouchard concerning the order:
"The correct order therefore becomes: 'Les Invisibles', 'Imaginos', Del Rio's Song', 'Blue Oyster Cult', 'I Am the One You Warned Me Of', 'The Siege and Investiture of Baron Von Frankenstein's Castle at Weisseria', 'In the Presence of Another World', 'Astronomy' and finally 'Magna of Illusion'. It is interesting to note that Albert's perceived correct order begins with the same four placings as above, then offering 'Astronomy', 'I Am the One You Warned Me Of', 'In the Presence of Another World' (with the added note that these two could be reversed), 'Siege', and then back to the same closer with 'Magna of Illusion.' In any event, it is agreed by almost all that the actual running order is greatly flawed, obscuring understanding, or as I say, perhaps forcing the listener to understand the tale's structure on a philosophically tougher level."
(Agents of Fortune, Martin Popoff, pgs. 190-191)This researcher is more inclined to go with the track order presented in Imaginos' linear notes (which presumably derived from Pearlman) rather than Bouchard's take, primarily because of the drummer's placing of "Astronomy" near the middle. This researcher believes "Astronomy" makes more sense towards the end as Imaginos seems to appear only in non corporeal form (as noted before here) in the track. This shall be touched upon more a bit later. For now let us consider the tracks using the order presented by the linear notes.
The first track up then is "Les Invisibles." This track effectively deals with the spiritual forces that inhabit the "New World" shortly before the conquest by the Spanish. These events formed the back drop of the Imaginos saga, as was noted in the second installment. In this track Pearlman offers an interesting series of occult allusions.
The song opens with Pearlman contrasting the Spanish Empress in seclusion ("Along the world axis/The Empress lay sleeping") with the ceremonies apparently being carried out in the New World ("Seven sleepers/Seven sages/Seven ladders to the, to the/Seventh heaven"). Interestingly, the "Seven Sleepers" are a legendary group of Ephesusians who hide inside a cave to escape persecution. In some accounts they are said to have slept for three hundred years inside the cave while being protected by a dog. The "Seven Sleepers" have their origins in Catholic mythos, but they have became even more important in Islam.
The concept of "Seven Heavens" goes back to the Sumerians. Enoch experiences seven heavens in The Book of Enoch. The Koran makes frequent references to seven heavens. That this description appears so frequently is hardly surprising given the power of the symbolism:
"The Heavens are seven in number and so, according to Dante, are the planetary spheres, and these the Cathars made to correspond to the seven Liberal arts... the Seven Heavens should also be identified with the seven notches in the Siberian axial tree, with the seven colours of the Buddha's staircase, the seven metals of the ladder in Mithraic mysteries and the even rungs of the ladder of the Kadosh in Scottish Freemasonry, since seven is the number of the ascending order of spiritual levels which allow the individual to pass from Earth to Heaven."
(Dictionary of Symbols, Jean Chevalier & Alain Gheerbrant, pg. 861)With the second verse, things become even more curious. It states:
"The sky is clear, Sothis (Sirius) lives, I am a living one, the son of Sothis (Sirius), and the two Enneads have cleansed themselves for me in Ursa Major, the Imperishable. My house in the sky will not perish, my throne on earth will not be destroyed, for men hide, the gods fly away. Sothis has caused me to fly up to the sky in the company of my Brethren…"Sothis was of course the Egyptian name for Sirius. Lines like "Sothis has caused me to fly up to the sky into the company of my brethren the gods" has caused some Ufologists to link the constellation to ancient astronauts. Given Imaginos/Desdenova's association with Sirius (and being a kind of son of it), this is rather fitting. Theosophy also links Ursa Major to Sirius via the concept of the "Seven Rays." It is quite possible that the persistent allusion to the number "seven" in this track is in fact a reference to the Rays.
It is also interesting to note the thoughts of the Dogon on the number seven. The Dogon, as noted in the prior installment, are the African tribe that alleged to have been given astronomical data on Sirius that modern science has only recently been able to confirm by beings from the star centuries ago. It was these revelations that set Robert Temple on the path to publishing his groundbreaking The Sirius Mystery. As for the number seven, the tribe gives it the following association: "... the Dogon regard the number seven as the emblem of the Lord of the Word, a rain-god, and hence god of storms and blacksmiths" (Dictionary of Symbols, Chevalier & Gheerbrant, pg. 865).
|members of the Dogon in ceremonial gear|
The chorus further reinforces these connections:
|Baron Samedi, one of the Loa mentioned in "Les Invisibles"|
|a Rosicrucian depiction of a swan|
The next track in the order I'm using (noted above) up is "Imaginos." As the title implies, this track introduces the listener to the Imaginos character in earnest. It makes clear that he possess supernatural powers from an early age ("Imaginos/Approached the sun/In August in New Hampshire/Singing songs/Nobody knew/And stories left undone"). It is even implied that he has the power to change forms, taking on the shape of a bird and even a fish. Imaginos was also a sailor that traveled across much of North America and there are allusions to this wanderlust as well ("The last exit to Texas").
The next track, "Del Rio's Song," continues the narrative of Imagino's travels. "Del Rio" means "of or from the river." This could be a reference to Imaginos' extraterrestrial nature (it is implied that the race Imaginos descends from are water breathers) as well as his travels by ship. There are also further allusions to Native American rituals involving dance ("A true ghost dance/Rehearsal ground"). One is left with the impression of Imaginos as a young man searching the continent for something that he has no concept of ("My destination is secret/And the doctrine is soft") but which he feels a burning desire to search for.
|a depiction of a Sioux "Ghost Dance"|
|the Luxor Temple complex|
|the "Green Lion" of alchemy|
"The Siege" is one of the most difficult tracks to interpret. On the whole, this song seems to revolve around Pearlman's interest in science and the parallels cutting edge research had to alchemy (noted in part one). The song speaks of "starry wisdom" providing a cure "from the glare of stars." And the cure? "A drug by the name of World Without End."
This seems to be a subtle reference to the discovery of the New World and the phenomenal advance of technology in the twentieth century. The former lead to a realization that the world was far more vast than many of the ancients had imagined while the latter opened the frontiers of new horizons such as space exploration. A world without end indeed.
In this context then the repeated references to Frankenstein ("Imagine he was me and I was called Frankenstein") gain some traction. Victor Frankenstein is the archetypal scientist trying to play god and who is ultimately destroyed by his hubris. This may be an allusion to the evil Imaginos is destined to bring into the world. There is an insinuation that this technology run amok is of a non-terrestrial source, hence the "starry wisdom" bit. Christopher Knowles of The Secret Sun has written recently on the potential that much of the post-WWII technology had such an origin and that it represented a kind of Trojan Horse.
The next track, "In the Presence of Another World," continues in this vein. Here Imaginos is in the midst of performing a ritual to see the parallel world spoken of in "Les Invisibles." This seems evident from the line "Your master... he walks the world entrail diviner." The vision being received is rather nightmarish:
The bit about "pieces of perfect black" is a reference to an obsidian mirror that Imaginos discovered during his time in Mexico. More details on this event were provided in the original Imaginos linear notes:
"Born a farm boy in a place that might as well be nowhere, but, heir to the mastery of faces and names, his trial by drama will take him far indeed: 'Out beyond the Europe's rim,' and further by far, beyond the sphere of light, into a place where darkness is omnipotent and never far from hungry. In Mayaland in the Yucatan he will discover an unheard of temple or pyramid. At the core of the pyramid, with only one way in and no way out, is a chamber of jade, curiously sculpted with impossible angles, itself surrounding something hardly there, a new germ, made from 'pieces of the perfect black.' When thrust in vivo into Europe's all too fertile soil, this new germ will --having grown more powerful and mature, having in fact become an organism--beam riddling voices direct to the brains of the (European) multitudes. The voices call in hunger for absolute darkness and absolute light. They are ready. We are ready. It is ready."
This obsidian mirror, used for divination, was already mentioned in part two. Obsidian has a long history of divination --it was used by indigenous peoples such as the Aztecs and the Hopewell as well as ceremonial magicians such as John Dee and even Joseph Smith. It is known as the "Magna of Illusion" in the Imaginos cycle and is kind of cursed technology that leads to both World Wars. Imagnios discovered this mirror towards the end of his life, as the song "Magna of Illusion" makes clear. I suspect this track then chronicles the actual discovery and the vision Imaginos received from the mirror before he brought it back to Europe. The final verse of this track, noted above, implies that this mirror was of a stellar origin.
The next track up in the order being used by this researcher is "Astronomy." I already dealt with "Astronomy" at length in the previous installment and as it is lyrically unchanged from the Secret Treaties version, I see no need to address it here in depth. Suffice to say, this track appears to take place after Imaginos' physical death. I speculated that a magical ritual is performed in the track in which he is summoned in his "Desdinova" persona. This might mark the onset of the First World War which the obsidian mirror was supposedly the driving force behind.
The final track, the above-mentioned "Magna of Illusion," is essentially a recap of some of the events described in the prior two tracks while providing some details. Here we find Imaginos as an old sea captain living in Cornwall, England "Where witches went mad more than once." Beyond witches, Cornwall was quite a rich mythological tradition.
|the tale of Jack the Giant Killer likely originates from Cornwall|
As the song progresses the listener leans that Imaginos gives the mirror to his granddaughter for her birthday. The child also lives in Cornwall, thus bringing it to Europe where it begins the process of driving the Continent towards a World War, as noted above. This researcher believes that Imaginos' daughter may have been the infamous "Susie" who appears in "Astronomy" and several other Imaginos-connected BOC tracks and previously addressed in the second and fourth installments. This would certainly help explain why she seems to appear in so many BOC mythos tracks.
Susie, along with "Carrie nurse," appear to have been engaged in some type of ritual (possibly tantric nature) to summon Desdinova in "Astronomy." As I noted previously, this may have occurred at the onset of the First World War. I suspect that "Magna of Illusion" was written later to give some structure to the rather ambiguous "In the Presence of Another World" and "Astronomy," both of which date from at least the 1970s (Imaginos was the first time "Presence" had been recorded, but it was demoed in 1977).
Originally Pearlman and Bouchard had planned on doing Imaginos as a trilogy of double albums. According to Bouchard, the second would have revolved around World War II while the third would have been known as The Mutant Reformation --which presumably would have focused more on the astro-gnostic aspects of the story line. Unfortunately we will never now as Imaginos was an absolute disaster. Pearlman would only produce one more album in his life after Imaginos.
Pearlman was clearly one of the most esoteric-oriented figures of his day in the music industry. As I hope this series has shown beyond a doubt, he clearly had a vast knowledge of occult and arcane subjects. The Black and White albums even appear to hint as some of the dark dealings in the American deep state during that era. Pearlman was likely not only a highly intelligent man, but one with connections. His work provides a one of a kind insight into the murky netherworld where the occult and political intrigues have forged a curious union.
For this reason it should come as little surprise that he has been a long maligned figure. In his heyday during the 1970s the music press loved to bash his influence on the acts he worked with, be it BOC or The Clash. Largely forgotten throughout the 1980s and 1990s, he was reduced to a misnamed caricature on a Saturday Night Live sketch in 2000. And so it goes for one of the most visionary minds to ever participate in the fertile and shamanistic grounds of rock 'n' roll. Could it be any other way?