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There’s a short list of hard rock songs that are beloved even by people who hate hard rock: “Back in Black,” “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” “Runnin’ With the Devil,” and “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper.” It was also said to be one of Gary Gilmore’s favorite songs, which scans in terms of chronology: the song reached #12 on the Billboard singles chart in November 1976, two months before Gilmore was executed. It’s been slowed down beautifully by Denmark + Winter, and sped up by the Goo Goo Dolls, who played the 5:08 song in a snappy 2:17.

To understand the undying appeal of “Reaper” on the occasion of its 45th anniversary, GQ talked to Don Roeser, whose stage name is Buck Dharma, his ex-bandmate Albert Bouchard, Saturday Night Live cast members, a cowbell specialist, and more than a dozen musicians who’ve covered the song – plus one who tried, but couldn’t. Here’s the story of the only rock classic inspired by cardiac arrhythmia.

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Part One: “A Love Story About Transcending Death”

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Robby Takac, singer and bassist, Goo Goo Dolls (more punk from 1987): In 1976, I was living in a suburb of Buffalo, in my parents’ basement. When I was about 18, Goo Goo Dolls got together, just kids making punk rock, a much different band than we are today. We played “Reaper” at a bunch of shows because folks sang along and had a great time, and I happened to know the chords — at least, most of them [laughs]. We thought it was funny to play the song five times as fast. There was a little bit of “kill your idols” mixed in there.

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Robby Takac, Goo Goo Dolls: I have no idea what the song is about, man. I’ll be honest. I’m not even sure we knew the words. In fact, I’m sure we didn’t know. I made them up.

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Part Two: “It’s Almost ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ Status”

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Robby Takac, Goo Goo Dolls: I’m sure we gave the middle section a whirl at some point, but we were more concerned with having a blast and driving around in our van.

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Part Four: “I Fear the Reaper on a Daily Basis”

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Robby Takac, Goo Goo Dolls: I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t fear the reaper.
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