Allen Lanier, 1946-2013
Max Bell pays tribute to the Blue Öyster Cult’s true outsider – the literate, multi-talented, multi-instrumentalist and very private Allen Lanier.
I was saddened to hear that Allen died two nights ago. Lie. I was mortified and annoyed. But I wasn’t surprised. Last time I spoke to him (for Classic Rock in 2012 – read it here) I knew he was in poor health. It was obvious that he had breathing difficulties. “I have good and bad days,” he laughed. “Today is a bad one because I’ve got to have most of my fuckin’ teeth taken out.” Sick as he was he never once displayed an ounce of self-pity.
Everyone in the extended BÖC family knew he was in bad shape. But he’d rallied, after battles against cancer, and whatever. He played at the Cult’s reunion (11/5/2012 in Times Square), decorating In Thee with acoustic guitar, and adding a sly lead behind the acid rock Stalk Forrest Group classic Arthur Comics. Energised for a while that night he returned with the classic line-up for an oh-so bitter-sweet resume of OD’d On Life Itself, Career Of Evil, The Red And The Black and (Don’t Fear) The Reaper.
A direct descendent of southern US Macon, Georgia poet Sidney Lanier, America’s Poet Laureate, Al came from good stock. When he bumped into the student wannabes who transmogrified themselves into the Blue Öyster Cult, via Stalk-Forrest Group and Soft White Underbelly, he was keen to fit in. Early collaborator Richard Meltzer recalls he was the only guy in the band who read a book. Not quite true.
Eric Bloom remembers, “In the early days we couldn’t afford to have single rooms so most of the time I roomed with Allen, plus for many years we drove together in rental cars because we were the only ones who cared about sports and could listen to whatever game was on the radio. We also shared a love of car culture even though he hadn’t had a car since the 60s. As a kid he was, like many teens, a shade-tree mechanic with his buddies, taking old cars apart with the hope of ‘racing it’. When I joined in ’69 I brought a ’68 Chevrolet van into the band house, which is probably why I was hired. It had a 4-gear stick shift which often went wrong. Lanier would be the guy to crawl under the truck and hit it with something to fix it.”
The Lanier I knew wasn’t about to get greased up, though in 1978 he explained to me his love for the Cult’s motorcycle following. “[BÖC song] Golden Age Of Leather is a bit presumptuous. Bikers are not that big any more – it’s gotten to be a private, not a public display. There are no more parades or Angels benefits, they died out with a lot of other 60s phenomena.” He wished they hadn’t. *Yeah, recently Bloom and me found ourselves riding backseat in the Bridgeport, Connecticut Chapter, breaking lights and stopping cars as the escort roared out to the clubhouse. That knot of honour remains sealed.“
It was Lanier who wrote music for some of the band’s weirdest material – What Is Quicksand? Gil Blanco County, She’s As Beautiful As A Foot, Before The Kiss, A Redcap, but painfully shy he didn’t actually sing one of his own songs until Agents Of Fortune, the elegant True Confessions. His Searchin’ For Celine was one of Spectre’s definite successes.
“The song is about nightmares,” Lanier explained at the time. “I’d been reading on Celine and then dreaming I was going to talk to him. I transferred that idea to a theme of total bitterness, the fact that a relationship can be as destructive as it is constructive. Love is a wipe out.” In fact the song was a direct reference to his broken affair with Patti Smith. Being in a band whose motto was “On the road forever” was never going to chime with keeping that relationship intact. [See Roni Hoffman pics of the two together here.]
Al also oversaw the cover imagery for Agents of Fortune (the satanic croupier spraying Tarot cards was painted by his friend Lynn Curlee) and Spectres, which was inspired by the turn of the century photographer Jacob Riis, whose How The Other Half Lives album depicted the classier gang members of the period in their true colours and inspired the film The Gangs of New York.
Cult bass player Joe Bouchard recalls: “I worked with Allen for many years and I loved the style and attitude he brought to the band. Some of my favourite Allen parts were his piano intro to Joan Crawford, the synth solo in Flaming Telepaths, the wild organ solo in …Diz-Busters, and his amazing piano intro to Astronomy. He was quite critical of all of us in the recording process and kept us honest when he could.
“His health was not great in later years. He played on tour as long as he could. Even after I left the band, and he came back into the band, I felt he brought back a certain rebel attitude that Blue Öyster Cult needed to be authentic. “
Lanier was a fierce critic, that’s for sure.”Spectres,” he observes, “is another attempt at the right thing, but I think it’s a failure. We didn’t get what we wanted. Every time we go in the studio wanting to capture some very heavy rock’n'roll and we walk out with a polished production which has a lot of charm and ambience but doesn’t kick.”
Bloom remembers how “in the first band house in Great Neck, Allen would spend hours playing an old ratty upright piano in the basement, way into the night, practicing and whipping himself into the great player he was. He admired Keith Richards most as a guitarist and thought most other music was crap, unless it was Smokey Robinson or James Brown. I recall he was stoked by the Bee Gees’ Saturday Night Fever tracks because they had nailed the genre of dance music.”
Outside of the band he played piano and guitar and collaborated on arrangements on Patti Smith’s albums Horses, Easter and Radio Ethiopia, and he played uncredited on The Clash’s Sandy Pearlman-produced Give ‘Em Enough Rope (piano on Julie’s Been Working For The Drug Squad). He also worked extensively with Jim Carroll, Iggy Pop and John Cale.
Bloom mentions that “Allen was extremely well read and always walked around with a book. He especially read the history of world religions and was the go-to guy if you had any questions about who believed what.” Cult guitarist Donald Roeser understood the dichotomy in Lanier. “He was almost violently enthusiastic about the band but also very private. I never went to his apartment.” As Roeser says. “We will miss him, that’s for sure. It feels like the circle has been broken.” (Max Bell)