Thursday, November 12, 2020

Re-Imaginos: Songs nobody knew and stories left undone

By Wallace McBride

There will probably never be a definitive version of Imaginos. There was a time when I would have written off that inconsistency as a bug, but Re-Imaginos — the latest installment in the occasionally on-going saga  suggests that inconsistency might be an essential feature.

Imaginos  both the character and the song cycle  has been lurking in the fringes of pop culture for about 50 years now, brushing up against the likes of Metallica, Academy Award nominee Grayson Hall and Stephen King along the way. The vision of long-time Blue Oyster Cult manager Sandy Pearlman, Imaginos tells the story of an "actor in history" commissioned by alien powers to push mankind toward an apocalyptic confrontation with evil. Think of it as Zelig filtered through H.P. Lovecraft and Joseph Campbell.

"The Soft Doctrines of Immaginos" (as it was originally called) began during Pearlman's college years in the 1960s, and found its first toehold when the psychedelic rock band The Stalk Forest Group abruptly swerved into heavy metal territory in 1971 when it became Blue Oyster Cult. In need of darker themes, Pearlman's stock got an overnight bump in value as his lyrics about occult sciences, satanic bikers and end-of-the-world rock concerts found an immediate home in the band's repertoire.

While Blue Oyster Cult balked at the idea of devoting an entire album to a solitary idea, songs from Pearlman's Imaginos epic leaked into the band's catalog over the coming years. Their 1974 album Secret Treaties served as a backdoor pilot of sorts for the rejected concept album, featuring at least three songs devoted to the as-yet unnamed "Imaginos" character. The liner notes include the cryptic (and unexplained) footnote: 

"Rossignol's curious, albeit simply titled book, 'The Origins of a World War', spoke in terms of 'secret treaties', drawn up between the Ambassadors from Plutonia and Desdinova the foreign minister. These treaties founded a secret science from the stars. Astronomy. The career of evil."

"Aggression unchallenged is aggression unleashed," was the album's tagline ... which doubled as the secret logline for the entire Imaginos saga. You can hear Grayson Hall pitch Secret Treaties to the masses in the video below.

The band began to resist Pearlman's gravity in 1975, leading to fewer of his lyrics finding their way to Blue Oyster Cult albums. It's difficult to say how many of his later lyrics were related to Imaginos, but it's likely that some of his work (Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, I'm looking at you) simply hasn't disclosed its familial relations yet. Pearlman busied himself in the latter half of the decade producing albums for The Clash and The Dictators, and it appeared Imaginos had met his end.

When drummer Albert Bouchard exited the band in 1981, he and Pearlman went to work on an album dedicated exclusively to the Imaginos concept. Pearlman and Bouchard were the central nervous system of BOC, and if anyone could make Imaginos finally happen it would be them, right? Turns out the answer was "sorta." Behind-the-scenes drama saw the album wrestled away from Bouchard, becoming a formal Blue Oyster Cult release in the summer of 1988. Much of his performance was erased, his vocals replaced by other band members and singers. The convoluted process even roped in such talent Robbie Krieger (The Doors), Joe Satriani and Marc Biedermann (Blind Illusion). During its lengthy gestation period the album endured so many overdubs and do-overs that it's almost impossible to trace everybody's contribution. Aldo Nova, for example, is one of the musicians credited as part of "The Guitar Orchestra of the State of Imaginos," but reportedly has no memory of playing on the album.

And it gets weirder. Because Pearlman lacked the time and money to include all of the songs intended for the planned double-album release, many tracks were deleted and the album condensed into a single 55-minute disc. The songs were then shuffled out of order to create a conventional track sequence. The bizarre assembly of non-linear songs was masked by the pretense of being a "random access myth." Chaos had always been central to the events surrounding Imaginos, so grafting chaos to the narrative was a good fit. 

It also had the unintended effect of making Imaginos a deeply interactive experience. Pearlman's already cryptic lyrics became a Gordian Knot of words. Fans worked to not only decipher the meanings of individual songs, but also to assemble the scattered tracks into a whole story. Meanwhile, casual fans rejected Imaginos as not being (or sounding) much like a BOC album, while more serious fans continue to nurse a variety of grudges over its piecemeal, contentious production. For some folks its neither fish nor fowl.

It didn't take long for 1988's Imaginos album to go out of print. Which is tragic, because Pearlman's self-proclaimed "solo album" is one of rock's legitimately occult experiences. Not because of the story's many nods to voodoo, Rosicrucianism, cosmicism and indigenous legends; but because the experience of exploring its songs  for those who are open to it   is almost numinous. There's probably even a book to be written on how Pearlman's original vision for Blue Oyster Cult predicted the advent of chaos magic a few years later. I had about 2,000 words written at the start of this piece about astral documents, memetics, the evolution of the Necronomicon from fictional plot device to player in numerorous American conspiracy theories, and how all of THAT related to Imaginos ... but I've probably bored you enough with metaphysics. Besides, we're here to talk about Re-Imaginos.

There have been at least three versions of Imaginos released over the years, all of which have conflicting track listings. The first version was the 1988 album, the second a leaked collection of Bouchard's earlier "demos" (actually low-quality recordings of his final tracks, including the deleted songs) and the release last week of Re-Imaginos, which sees Bouchard revisiting these songs in quieter, spookier arrangements he believes are better suited to the material. With Re-Imaginos, Bouchard gleefully tosses more mud into the waters, settling on a song sequence that thumbs its nose at previous attempts at constructing the Imaginos tale into a coherent narrative and breaking those songs down into four movements: Quandry, Sublime, Ghost and Dance. He goes a step further by including a new version of Workshop of the Telescopes, a song from the first BOC album in 1972 that, until recently, was not known to be part of the Imaginos storyline. 

Confused yet? Here's Stephen King to give you a concise explanation of the story, one that doesn't require any prior experience with the music. 

There's quite a bit more taking place on Re-Imaginos than a re-shuffling of the deck. This isn't just an unplugged version of the original recordings; Bouchard fully disassembled the original songs in order to breathe new life into them. Some of the arrangements seem at cross purposes to their original recordings. The Siege and Investiture of Baron von Frankenstein’s Castle at Weisseria was maximum strum and drang in the original interation. Guest vocalist Joey Cerisano delivered a performance that would shame Ronnie James Dio, while Satriani and Biederman clash electric guitars throughout. I can't imagine anyone could have predicted Bouchard would ever reimagine this song as a tango (or is it a rumba? Salsa?), replacing the lead guitars (mostly) with violin. And it works. Not just as an indepedent track, but also as a thematic lead-in to The Girl That Love Made Blind, a song both literally and figuratively about dancing ... and time travel, astrology and immortality, all tarted up as a gothic Christmas long song.

The Girl That Love Made Blind was one of the songs that didn't make the final cut on the 1988 album, which was a sin. It was one of the best songs written for that album, and it's one of the best on Re-Imaginos. But the real showstopper on the new album is Astronomy, which might be the definitive version of the song. If you were to conduct a poll about BOC's best tune ... well, (Don't Fear) the Reaper would absolutely win. But, if you were to sequester the fans who could name more than one song by the band and poll those people? I'd bet Astronomy would come out on top. It's proven to be an endlessly flexible song, adapting itself to metal, classical guitar, jam music and whatever that version on the 1988 Imaginos album was. (I LOVE that take, for the record.) The new version features a really interesting, weighty rhythm that that moves like a behemoth. The new arrangement also shows that Bouchard has been paying attention to how other artists (and his old band members) have interpreted Astronomy over the decades, picking and choosing elements to create a song that kind of sounds like all of them while sounding specifically like none of them. Astronomy is a song with a lot of history behind it and Bouchard wisely doesn't ignore that.

And then there's the album's title track. Bouchard comes so close to redeeming what was nobody's favorite song on the original album. (Putting it last on the 1988 version had the added benefit of never having to skip it.) It's not exactly a bad song ... it just never earns its keep. Being the title track for an album like this might make its rent disproportionately high, but nobody ever said life was fair. A title change might benefit this song to a degree, but the real problem is the lyrics, which don't have much to say until the closing act. I'd be interested in hearing what people think about this version of the song, but the original probably wasn't popular enough to provoke any strong feelings in fans one way or another. We're all probably going to be busy fighting among ourselves about Astronomy

Les Invisbles improves on the original in just about every way and creates a sense of urgency in its rhythm that was missing from the electronic drone of the original. Gil Blanco County, a song whose placement in the overall sceme of things still baffles me, is a wonderful mishmash 60's folk music, the faux classical guitar styles so beloved of '80s thrash, and surf guitar. None of those things ought to play well together, but they do. There's a subtle sadness to this version of Gil Blanco County that's reminiscent of early BOC, whose lyrics often demanded to know If U Are Ready 2 Rock, but whose melodies suggested you stay home and read Carlos Castaneda instead.

Magna of Illusion might be the only real failure here. The song served as the climax to the 1988 album, but the new take is s little ... shapeless? Structurally, Magna is one of Bouchard's most impressive songs, the prior arrangement gaining strength as it moved from verse to verse, ultimately leaving the listener stranded on a real fucker of an ending ("... and then World War I broke out!") It's easily the most operatic tune on the album, one shunning traditional choruses in favor of ratcheting up the tension as the song unfolds through guitars and spoken-word performances. But the spooky analog version of the song on Re-Imaginos is never given much room to breath, though. It rushes to the finish line and winds up feeling small. 

With Les Invisibles moved to the end of the album, Magna of Illusion doesn't carry the full burden of delivering the story's climax. We still get that downer ending, only this time via a doom-laden march threatening the arrival of whatever is pulling our anti-hero's strings.

Re-Imaginos feels almost miraculous. I still have trouble believing Bouchard was willing to return to this demon haunted project, and that it happened during this off-brand trashbag of a year. Even better, Bouchard didn't create some lazy collection of covers. I'f put the talent appearing on Re-Imaginos up against the 1988 release any day. But it is absolutely not the album I expected  or even wanted  and it feels more satisfying because of that. There's an intimacy to the production that feels like it can fit in your living room ... if you're in the mood for entertaining monsters.

Imaginos is dead. Long live Imaginos.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

The Dark Shadows Daybook: Nov. 10

Taped on this date in 1967: Episode 364


When the ghost of Sarah appears to Barnabas at last, will her spectral message haunt him long after she vanishes? Barnabas: Jonathan Frid. (Repeat; 30 min.)

Sarah’s haunting of Collinwood intensifies. She finally appears to Barnabas, excoriating him for his lethal lack of ethics, and then appearing at the estate proper to warn of the wrath of the dead. Julia confronts the family with her assertion that Sarah is real. Meanwhile, while the bodies in the plane were burned beyond recognition, Elizabeth seems convinced that Burke is among them, in the crashed plane in Brazil. Victoria is completely unwilling to let him go.

Dark Shadows is a program with far more halves than should be mathematically possible. Before and after Barnabas is the most notable that comes to mind. But there’s before and after Vicki. Before and after the introduction of time travel. Before and after color. This is intensely organic in a show about transformation and our relationship with the past. Intrinsically, each of our major characters are on the other end of extraordinary transitions… when we meet them. Future and past are always in an intense dance on the program. Inevitably, the present is threatened by impending justice or exposure for the choices of yesterday. 

This episode is an intense nexus of all of the above. The show begins with only two episodes before 1795. A wild ratings gamble -- there was a chance they might not come back --- so Team Curtis had an enormous challenge ahead. First of all, only on Dark Shadows would you have to set up a flashback. But with one character near-immortal and another robbed of the future they so profoundly desired, it feels organic. When the program returns from the past, it will be with a new purpose and main character. 1795 is the transition, and it will elementally change both future and past protagonists through the lens of death. One has been reborn, but as a moral toddler, literally deserving of a child’s censure. His growth is ahead, but who was he before he began life for the second -- or third -- time? Who is the man he needs to recapture? And if he is, as is hinted, a good man fallen, what change is still necessary so that his return is to more than square one?

The other will “die” in the gallows. Her past is a mystery, and now she finds herself back so far that her own origin is irrelevant. And maybe it always was. Vicki defines herself by giving. Burke was not really a match in that sense… other than his comfort with taking. The fact that Vicki witnesses history is ultimately irrelevant. It has very little impact on modern events. Given her knowledge, it could snip months of plot with just a few lines of dialogue. Vicki’s future-past purpose is to bring out the hero in her analogue, Peter Bradford, the one person willing to give of himself on the level at which Vicki excels. Both meet. Both give. Both die as a result. Both are reborn in the present. Both leave whatever identities they had, have, or will have to pursue happiness presumably away from the gods. Peter, away from the context of what could be. Victoria, away from the context of what was. Each was the prisoner of an intangible part of their lives, and together they find the Zen imperative to live in the present, even if the present is in the past. 

But we know Vicki and Barnabas. They’ve been exhaustively established. How do we prepare them and us to begin a journey that seems well underway? In two successive scenes, each deals with profound loss. The nurturing figure is defined by the loss of her romantic prospect… a dizzyingly virile man who affirmed her womanhood rather than proto-matronliness. Just before, the brooding bachelor is defined by loss of a child and, more importantly, her moral benediction. It’s one thing to disappoint an adult. It’s our daily job to discover the new lies, faults, betrayals, and inadequacies of those who surround us. 

Barnabas’ meeting with Sarah, link to his past and the ultimate in innocence, is humiliating many times over. He’s last in line. He’s shunned in front of Doctor Hoffman. He’s denied love. His moral failings are cited via a nursery rhyme, by the child to whom he taught them. Just when he thinks he can comfort himself with the reality of stuck with someone just as petty as he is, Julia rises above it. Learning, thankfully only by example, about the price of falling from your own moral standards. Not only does she rise above it, for her immediate instinct is to offer compassion without jealousy or agenda. The only hope for Barnabas is Sara‘s stern warning that he must learn to be good again. Which of course, means that he has the potential. Which of course, means that he has the future.  

Now, with an evolved Julia waiting for him on the other end of the flashback, he is ready to start the business of finding that future. And in the most important sense, Dark Shadows is ready to begin.

This episode was broadcast Nov. 16, 1967.

Monday, November 2, 2020

The Dark Shadows Daybook: Oct. 26

Taped on this date in 1967: Episode 351


When Barnabas bites Carolyn, will they learn that true love is relative? Carolyn: Nancy Barrett. (Repeat; 30 min.)

Barnabas, having bitten Carolyn and regained his middle-aged youth, finds that his niece is a ready and willing assistant. He alludes to granting her eternal life in exchange for her loyalty, but we sense the beginning of her mixed feelings as he orders her to secure the love of Victoria Winters for him. As she goes to Collinwood to begin, Barnabas entertains Julia’s desire to stay on, even if he is refusing her injections. She may be a servant, he says. For now.

There are so many trigger warnings I feel like I need to put on this, you might as well stop reading now and find a Bill Keane anthology to sit out the next few paragraphs. Seriously.

Dark Shadows hovers above the semblance of realism because, if it touched the surface of it, it would enter into a realm of ugly taboo, and thus become unwatchable. Yes, all horror deals with some echelon of the taboo. That’s why it’s horror. But, you know, it’s safe taboo. It’s either a threat we know can’t really exist or a set of consequences so ludicrous that it’s just as safe. Yeah, sure, it’s a metaphor, but no one’s really worried about being stuffed in a wicker man. Similarly, if we look at the moments of Dark Shadows that are actually scary, and I’m thinking of the kids being replicated in the dollhouse much later on the show, they are always written off as nightmares. Even by me. And nightmares aren’t real. All we have to do is remind ourselves of that, and the spell is broken. 

There is another realm of horror that may not even be scary, but it reads as quite, quite real. “Standard” horror comes up and says, “Look, here’s a thing that could never happen, but what if it did?” Cue Count Floyd. Ohhh, scary! Yeah. Kind of removes the glamour when you tear off the shmata. The more rarified strata of horror can’t happen that often or sustain itself for very long. No one would watch after an episode or two. This episode slides into that nuanced world of “no.” It wraps itself up in immense and impish charm, jealously, and Cinderella wish-fulfillment, so we don’t notice nor object. We get distracted by the fact that Vicki is “the real focus,” and so we skim around what almost happens. And what almost happens is that Barnabas and Carolyn make a really functional couple.

Yeeesh. Just writing that makes me wanna take a bath.  

So, yes, incest. That’s bad enough. It’s just, you know, one of those things primally revolting. I have the luxury of writing about this with no proximate female relatives in my life. A luxury because I can speculate without it being, well, as creepy. Incest has to have some kind of dark appeal (hello, VC Andrews), and if it didn’t, such a wealth of the laws in Exodus would be about something, anything, else. 

Fortunately, stories involving incest almost inevitably involve force and negation of will. And this does, too. But sometimes there’s a ghost image of truth that seeps in through the frames, and there’s one here, very clearly. It brings out a dark pleasure in the characters and viewers. The dimension that makes the episode safe is the element of mind control under which Barnabas holds Carolyn. He’s a bloodhungry heavy, what can you expect? She’s under his spell, so file it the same way. But the impression I get is that Carolyn authentically wants this relationship. Yes, Barnabas has power. Maybe the power that doesn’t really matter. But at last, Carolyn has the power she’s always wanted at Collinwood: she has the secrets. She has The Big One right up front, and and is promised more to follow. Secrets are the primary currency in her era of growing up in the house. That, and a sexual fixation on natty and vaguely (?) effete father figures … urbane, available, safe, and now? Delivering, and delivering in a big way. It’s not that the mind control has clouded her judgment. It’s seems more as if it has erased the social agreements that have held back this dynastic union. There is something disturbingly right about this couple. It comes across in the spirit of dreamy and zen ease and comfort with which Jonathan Frid and Nancy Barrett slip into this forbidden inevitability. Barnabas already lurks in the folds of transgression. We just spend most of the show ignoring it. Here, he not only steps into the light, but does so proudly, and draws in Carolyn, who has just as little regret. She seems to be beyond even the need to “discover” that there was nothing to be afraid of.

Keep in mind, I’m describing. Not endorsing. The fact that I feel compelled to remind you of that is a testament to the danger in which the show is trading. 

From the first time she calls Roger “dreamy” and he calls her “kitten,” this element has effervesced around the series. But we never take it seriously. And Dark Shadows has two realms of characters: gods, destined to live unscathed by the Major Threats, and everyone else. Aristocrats and civilians. Carolyn was a beautiful piece of set dressing up to now. She was there to get upset about what was happening to everyone else, but that was it. She seemed safe. Bad things happen to brunettes in this universe, but not Carolyn. Those are the rules. 

But the rules just broke. And the manner of it, with Barnabas so unspeakably old when he attacks, just underlines the horrific disparity that satisfies both of them. In fact, it seems to be the blood of a relative that really, really hits the spot. Just as she’s sated afterwards, Barnabas is not only revived, but is practically smoking a cool, toasty cigarette of satisfaction. He’s at his most blissful as he passive-aggressively roasts Julia, who’s suddenly lost too much ground to even feel jealously. Because, frankly, she’s been a bully. She’s been an envious and mean-spirited bully. Just because she’s doing it to a monster who’s equally vindictive, it doesn’t matter. She’s chosen to slowly torment Barnabas, and now, at last, he has the temporary satisfaction of a true friend to help him strike right back. If only by implication. The class envy is rattling the lid at a full boil, too. It’s clear that it took and will take a beautiful, cool blonde aristocrat to really DO the job that Julia only apes. Not only that, a Collins. No, Julia, not even the taboo against incest will give you a fighting chance. You thought you could rewrite the rules of age, class, social expectation, and nature by insinuating yourself into this realm. 

The punishment of minimizing Julia isn’t an attack. It isn’t torture. It’s just the humiliation of suggesting that you are, at best, temporarily adequate. Oddly, it’s exactly the sort of feminine punishment that Carolyn might have suggested. So, who’s feeding off whom between Barnabas and Carolyn? 

It’s a slice of truths and observations so forbidden in their inevitability that the show cannot remain around to see what actually happens. It skips town to 1795 like a grindshow exhibitor the morning after the circus tent comes down. Dark Shadows has too much make-believe on the agenda to speak such truths with any regularity. But it would be dishonest to not make us stop and think, “What if?” Only for a moment. Anything more is too much, even at Collinwood. 

This episode was broadcast Oct. 30, 1967.

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