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September 24, 2013

Keep on the Sunny Side

Don’t fear the reaper anymore

Every once in a while, I get smacked down hard by some sort of revelation that challenges the fundamental truths of my little world and sends me reeling.

Some things just pull the rug out from under you — like finding out your Meemaw and Peepaw were actually brother and sister, or that the Partridge Family weren’t really playing their instruments. This kind of news is always followed by a period of adjustment and rationalizing.

Allen Lanier, the original keyboardist and rhythm guitar player for Blue Öyster Cult, died last month. My friend and I were discussing this sad event and its possible implications for my column (which is so often dependent upon obituaries for inspiration), when he launched into a tale of what I presumed to be only the most egregious slander: Allen Lanier was Patti Smith’s boyfriend in the early ’70s. They actually lived together for more than six years!

Smith’s first songwriting credit appears on BÖC’s second record, 1973’s Tyranny and Mutation. The song is called “Baby Ice Dog.” Check it out; I’m not lying.

Lanier gave Smith the small horse-shaped pin she is wearing in the Robert Mapplethorpe photo that is on the cover of her first album, Horses. He also played guitar on the record and keyboards on her next, Radio Ethiopia. Had I finished reading Smith’s award-winning memoir, “Just Kids,” before giving it away for Christmas, I would already know all this.

A small electrical storm broke out between the sections of my brain that had kept Smith and BÖC separate for all these years … New York punk rock poets and Southern stoner tilt-a-whirl operators were melting into one glorious suicide snow cone.

My entire stunted worldview is based on certain immutable laws — the laws of punk rock. One of these laws is that Blue Öyster Cult is just not OK. In 1976, their album Agents of Fortune, featuring monster jam “Don’t Fear the Reaper,” represented everything that was wrong with music and everything punk was looking to destroy.

So I had always believed my love of BÖC meant I was living outside the law. I had borne this secret shame. I had crammed it way down into my overflowing bag of secret shame to live there forever in darkness and maybe make some friends.

Most of my friends seem to have no sense of shame. They will flat out tell you that they love Steely Dan! They may qualify it by adding something like, “I’m totally with them through Pretzel Logic,” as if there were some way to divide the horror of that band into a greater and a lesser period.

In the past, the worst insult I could hurl at someone was to accuse them of being “pretentious.” Now I think pretentiousness is actually necessary. Without it, people have no standards to uphold.

Sometime in the 1990s, my friend Janet and I were hanging around, drinking $1.99 pink Retsina wine from the Greek grocery. It was a lovely summer day and Janet’s husband had foolishly revealed the secret location of his weed stash before going off to work.

The Eckankar cult who lived on the first floor were doing some chanting and swaying in the little park just below the living room window. Janet and I propped the stereo speakers up on the windowsill and blasted “Don’t Fear the Reaper” nonstop until we drove the spiritual seekers back indoors. That was really ignorant, and I’d do it again tomorrow if the conditions were right. The intro to that song sounds like Nirvana recorded on a wax cylinder. It’s awesome.

So, the main thing I learned today is that the rules I thought we were living by are all just in my own head. Maybe some of your kin were kin. So what?

I woke up this morning feeling like Dorothy after her bonk-on-the-head trip to Oz. I love you, Patti, and you, and I love you, Blue Öyster Cult. You were here all along! Right here in my own backyard.

Catherine Irwin plays in the band Freakwater. She once frightened Patti Smith in an Austin, Texas, sushi bar by attempting to absorb some of Patti’s “energies.”