San Francisco in 1967 hosted the Summer of Love, a celebration of peace, sunshine and music, but in New York in the summer of 1976, the scene was nearly as reversed as the last two digits in the years. Murder reigned, with "dark clouds... over the street," and a local band ascended the national pop charts with an eerie song about death.
Blue Oyster Cult's fifth album, Agents of Fortune, was released in May 1976. In addition to the hit single and rock classic "(Don't Fear) the Reaper," it contains the presciently titled "This Ain't the Summer of Love," which declares "things ain't like they used to be," and "Morning Final," which is about "motiveless murder."
Two months later, a young woman was shot and killed, and her friend injured, while they talked inside a parked car in the Bronx. And so began the Son of Sam serial killings, which terrorized New York City from July 1976 until August 1977, and the rise of "(Don't Fear) the Reaper," which entered the Billboard Hot 100 chart the same week as the murder.
5 of the 8 Son of Sam shootings targeted young couples. Although the theme of "(Don't Fear) the Reaper" is suicide and not homicide, the song references a couple (Romeo and Juliet) that died unnatural deaths at a young age. The creepy parallels and links between BOC and the infamous murders shine like a full moon against a black sky when the band's biggest hit is viewed together with other BOC songs from the same time period, some of the band's associates, a real-life snuff film and a drawing of dead German Shepherds.
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Six people were killed and seven wounded in the Sam shootings. Ten days after the last attack, postal worker David Berkowitz was arrested and declared the killer who had paralyzed the city and would inspire books and movies.
The official word from police and prosecutors was that Berkowitz acted alone, and he was convicted and sentenced to six life sentences in prison. A deeper look at the evidence indicates the possibility of a massive conspiracy of the type BOC was so adept at writing songs about during the 1970's.
Eyewitness descriptions of the killer and police composite sketches varied drastically because, as Berkowitz eventually confessed in prison, there was more than one killer. He said he was a member of a satanic cult that planned and carried out the shootings as a team. The District Attorney of Queens at the time of the killings and other law enforcement officials have gone on the record admitting that Berkowitz had accomplices, although the New York Police Department's official position hasn't changed.
Nine years before the killings began, Sandy Pearlman and Richard Meltzer visited northern California during the Summer of Love as Meltzer told author Martin Popoff for his book Blue Oyster Cult Secrets Revealed. They attended the Monterey Pop Festival, where they heard the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, and Jimi Hendrix, among others, and hung out in the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco. Other people at Haight-Ashbury at the time included Charles Manson and emissaries from the Process Church of Final Judgment.
The Process was formed in London, England, in the early 1960's, as an offshoot of Scientology. It believed that in the End, Jesus Christ and Satan would come together, with Christ judging mankind and Satan executing the judgment. The Church made its way to the United States and recruited at the Summer of Love. Church founders Robert and Mary Ann DeGrimston lived less than a mile away from the intersection of Haight and Ashbury streets. Manson lived two blocks from the DeGrimstons and joined the Process.
Pearlman returned home to New York and decided to start a band, which eventually evolved into Blue Oyster Cult. He managed the band and produced their early albums. Meltzer was one of his songwriters, with credits on six BOC tracks during the 1970's.
BOC's 14 studio albums explore dark lyrical themes such as the occult, biker gangs, violence, and vampirism. Another theme that is repeated again and again in the lyrics is conspiracy.
Violent biker gangs and conspiracy ride together on "Transmaniacon MC," a song from BOC's first album, released in 1972. The lyrics examine the 1969 concert at Altamont Speedway in California in which Hell's Angels killed a man near the stage. The public version of the story is that it was spontaneous violence by mindless thugs. "Transmaniacon MC" invites the listener to imagine a conspiracy where behind the mayhem was a secret organization bent on causing violence to destabilize society and help bring about the apocalypse.
Other BOC songs conspiracy songs from the period of 1972-74 include "Before the Kiss," from their debut album, and "Dominance and Submission," from their third album, 1974's Secret Treaties. In fact, the entire Secret Treaties album is built upon a theme of evil conspiracy. The cover references a fictional book called The Origins of a World War and suggests that war and other evils will flow from agreements and for reasons concealed from the public.
Meanwhile, as the Process evolved in the early 1970s, it split into branch cults that fell into three categories, those that worshipped Jehovah, Lucifer, or Satan. The church also formed a relationship with biker gangs, who were seen as useful to transport illegal drugs, one of the Church's funding sources, and to be warriors for the Process during a time of approaching Armageddon.
One of these offshoots, according to Berkowitz, planned and carried out the Son of Sam murders.
The DeGrimstons, according to author Maury Terry in his book The Ultimate Evil, settled in New York and "recruited among the artists, poets, and hordes of counterculture youth" in Greenwich Village, the neighborhood where BOC keyboardist Allen Lanier shared an apartment with his girlfriend Patti Smith for much of the 1970's. Smith, the "punk poet laureate," was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007. She recorded four studio albums in the 1970's and helped write five songs from BOC's first six albums. She also showed a Processian contempt for the Gospel when she wrote and sang the line, "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine."
By the end of 1971, Lanier had moved into the loft in New York City that Smith was sharing with Robert Mapplethorpe, and three of them lived there together, according to Patricia Morrisroe's book Mapplethorpe: A Biography. Smith later wrote a book about her close relationship with the controversial photographer who died of AIDS in 1989 and was known for pushing the boundaries of obscenity. Mapplethorpe's name eventually came up during interviews about the Sam murders.
Two prisoners who were locked up with Berkowitz relayed to Terry some of what they learned from the convicted killer. Twelve members of Berkowitz's cult had a hand in the Sam killings, which were planned at the home of a high-level Process leader in Westchester County, north of New York City. The cult's headquarters was an abandoned church on Salem Road in the town of Pound Ridge. A rural area about 45 miles away from New York City- it's not the kind of place city dwellers would stumble upon by accident.
Just three miles away from the Salem Road turnoff was another church, this one made to look sinister through the use of distortion photography. St. Paul's Chapel, at 313 Smith Ridge Road in South Salem, is pictured on the front of BOC's 1975 live album, On Your Feet Or On Your Knees. The black book pictured on the album's back cover looks like the Book of Deeds, a volume in which Process cult members were required to record their crimes so that cult leaders could monitor activity and control members through blackmail.
The Process, whose leaders sometimes wore capes, was known to raise and travel with German Shepherds. The Sam cult sacrificed German Shepherds to Satan in the mid-1970's. The dead dogs began turning up north of New York City during the killings in 1976, according to news reports. Three were found in Yonkers, New York, around Christmas 1976, and 85 dead dogs, including German Shepherds, were found in Walden, New York, between October 1976 and 1977.
A full two years earlier, BOC's Secret Treaties was released with cover art showing a drawing of German Shepherds at the feet of singer Eric Bloom, who is dressed in a cape, and the other band members. On the back cover, the band is gone, and the German Shepherds are lying dead on the ground.
The 10 songs on Agents of Fortune, released just two months before the first Sam shooting, include some notables besides the much-discussed "(Don't Fear) the Reaper." Proclaiming "no angels above," "This Ain't the Summer of Love" is the perfect opening for the season of Sam. "Morning Final," the dirge about "motiveless murder," takes place in a big city with busy streets and includes a chase that leads down subway stairs. "Sinful Love" includes the lyric "looking for a pistol" and "I'm possessed." "E.T.I. (Extra Terrestrial Intelligence)" revisits the theme of conspiracy, with two references to three men dressed in dark clothes saying, "don't report this."
On the subject of conspiracy, Berkowitz said he pulled the trigger in only two of the eight Sam attacks. His neighbors John and Michael Carr, brothers whose father was named Sam and who both died violent deaths before the end of the 1970's, each pulled the trigger in one, according to Terry. Another shooting was said to have been done by a mysterious figure named as "Manson II," who lived in Southern California in the late 1960's and knew the original Manson and members of the Process church there, Terry reported.
In the final Sam attack, the victims were selected because they were parked under a street light, which created optimal conditions for filming. Three people in a van a few feet away made a video recording, a snuff film of the attack, for sale underground, Terry reported.
A convicted bank robber named Jesse Turner, who once lived with Smith and Mapplethorpe, told Terry that Mapplethorpe knew about this tape. In fact, Turner said, Mapplethorpe asked him to arrange the killing of Ronald Sisman, the man who had the tape, which was filmed at the Process' request. Sisman was murdered in 1981, and the two hit men recovered five snuff films from Sisman's apartment, including the Son of Sam tape.
Turner said he was a good friend of Michael Carr, who supposedly pulled the trigger in the seventh of the eight Son of Sam shootings. About halfway into the killings, Turner told Terry that he learned "the Process was behind Son of Sam. They called it one of their 'Apocalyptic Trials,' which meant a major display of public violence."
Halfway through the killings, which was halfway between Agents of Fortune and BOC's sixth album, Spectres, Lanier and Smith were still living together in Greenwich Village, but their time together was winding down. Lanier and Smith broke up in 1978.
"They had a lot of rock n roll friends. They have a lot of stories of people, all kinds of people, artsy people from New York, pretenders, a lot of people who are not with us now," BOC bassist Joe Bouchard told Popoff. "Mapplethorpe and a lot of that sort of downtown artsy crowd, were part of Patti and Allen's scene."
Spectres was released in November 1977, a little more than three months after the Sam killings ended. The sun never shines on this album. It's exclusively about the spirits who roam the night. The leadoff track, "Godzilla," follows a monster that terrorizes a big city. Violent biker gangs reappear in the "Golden Age of Leather," a 6-minute opera-like epic in which the outlaws go down in a blaze of violent glory. "Death Valley Nights" revisits Manson's old hideout. Meltzer told Popoff he wrote the song after moving from New York to California and dating "a Manson girl" who wanted to give him a tour of the cult leader's haunts in Death Valley. "Fireworks" references a man finding his reluctant partner to consummate their love, which results in "fireworks shooting up in her head" and "fireworks pouring down on her head." The lyrics are similar to a note found at Berkowitz's apartment when he was arrested in which he (or someone else) wrote, "And huge drops of lead poured down upon her head." "I Love the Night" and "Nosferatu" examine night-time evil in the form of vampirism.
One song stands out as terrifying when you consider that lyric writer Lanier was the band member who best knew alleged snuff film conspirator Mapplethorpe. On "Searchin' for Celine," Bloom sings "Love is like a gun," followed by imagery about it being in someone's hands, and "oh, what a thrill."
Shortly after Berkowitz was captured, three months before Spectres was released, the original British faction of the Process left New York. The cult re-emerged in Atlanta in 1978, Terry reported. Within a year, in 1979, the infamous Atlanta child murders began.
BOC's seventh album, Some Enchanted Evening, was recorded live in various cities, including Atlanta, and released in 1978. It includes the song "We Gotta Get Outta This Place." Play the album and the first words you hear are an introduction of the band: "Atlanta, Georgia. Are you ready to rock n roll? Well please welcome, from New York City, Blue Oyster Cult."