Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll

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9780399167669: Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll

This epic cultural and historical odyssey unearths the full influence of occult traditions on rock and roll—from the Beatles to Black Sabbath—and shows how the marriage between mysticism and music changed our world.

From the hoodoo-inspired sounds of Elvis Presley to the Eastern odysseys of George Harrison, from the dark dalliances of Led Zeppelin to the Masonic imagery of today’s hip-hop scene, the occult has long breathed life into rock and hip-hop—and, indeed, esoteric and supernatural traditions are a key ingredient behind the emergence and development of rock and roll. 

With vivid storytelling and laser-sharp analysis, writer and critic Peter Bebergal illuminates this web of influences to produce the definitive work on how the occult shaped—and saved—popular music.

As Bebergal explains, occult and mystical ideals gave rock and roll its heart and purpose, making rock into more than just backbeat music, but into a cultural revolution of political, spiritual, sexual, and social liberation.

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About the Author:

Peter Bebergal is the author of Too Much to Dream: A Psychedelic American Boyhood and The Faith Between Us: A Jew and a Catholic Search for the Meaning of God  (with Scott Korb). He writes widely on the speculative and slightly fringe, and his recent essays and reviews have appeared in The Times Literary Supplement, Boing Boing, The Believer, and The Quietus. Bebergal studied religion and culture at Harvard Divinity School, and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

INTRODUCTION

WE ARE ALL INITIATES NOW

I

In 1978 my older brother had just joined the air force, leaving me access to the mysteries of his room. The suburbs of southern Florida were row after row of single-level ranch houses and manicured lawns. I was eleven, filled with restless, inexplicable feelings. It was just before the dawn of puberty. Except for what I could glean from my brother’s dirty magazines, sex was still an abstraction. Some other secret thing was beckoning. I had caught glimpses when I heard the music coming from his room, so different from my own small collection of Bay City Rollers and Bee Gees 45s. One by one, I began to play his records, holding the sleeves in my lap, trying to learn the grammar of this new musical language. I was not quite prepared for what I found. His music made me feel hot and cold at the same time, a small fire starting in my belly while shivers ran up my spine. Here was a seductive and impenetrable catalogue of arcane and occult symbols, of magic and mystical pursuits, of strange rituals involving sex, spaceships, and faeries. I went into his room looking to hear some real rock and roll. I came out spellbound and hypnotized by the spectacle.

The record collection was a lexicon of the gods: the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Arthur Brown, King Crimson, Hawkwind, Yes, Black Sabbath, and Pink Floyd. Already immersed in the arcana of the 1970s by way of J. R. R. Tolkien reprints, Dungeons & Dragons—almost universally known as D&D—Heavy Metal magazine, horror comics, and the animated films of Ralph Bakshi, I sat in long hours of deep listening, studying the lyrics, the album cover art, and even the hidden messages etched into the inner ring of the vinyl. I searched for the clues to Paul McCartney’s rumored death and felt the chill of ghosts staring out from the cover of Abbey Road, the barefoot Beatle unwittingly symbolizing his own demise through some terrible necromancy. I held the vinyl of Led Zeppelin III up to the light so I could search for the fabled occult missive carved into the record’s inner ring: “Do what thou wilt.” I stared in nervous fascination at the various characters inhabited by David Bowie and tried to crack the mystery of his lyrics that told of aliens, Aleister Crowley, and supergods who are “guardians of a loveless isle.” Black Sabbath was formed by sorcerers, working their dark art through heavy doom-laden riffs. Arthur Brown admitted he was the “god of hellfire.”

The music became a fixture of my psyche. I thought I alone had uncovered a well of arcane truth, like the paperback Necronomicon that sat on my bookshelf. There was something both transcendent and abysmal lurking within the grooves of these records and the fantastic lives of the characters inhabiting them. Roger Dean’s artwork on Yes albums were landscapes once populated by ancient races, their arcane wisdom lost, sunken like Atlantis. At the other end of the spectrum was the Beatles’ impenetrable and terrifying penultimate song on the White Album, “Revolution 9,” a spoken-word, feedback-infused collage of hidden occult messages suggesting a palpable violence. These often opposing qualities nonetheless shared a common thread: they referenced a reality beyond normal perception, a vast metaverse inhabited by demons and angels, aliens and ancient sorcerers, all of which could be accessed by potentially dangerous methods such as magic, drugs, and maybe even sex. But I also sensed the peril in reading too deeply into these songs and albums. The film Helter Skelter, often shown on the UHF channels’ late-night movie programs, taught me that fixating on a band’s life and work can sometimes take a fanatical turn. In this instance, an album helped to precipitate a murderous call to arms when Charles Manson believed the Beatles were sending him secret, violent messages through their music. Although the connection between the music and the murders was overblown, my adolescent self couldn’t shake the feeling there was something to the Beatles’ songs that made this kind of interpretation possible. And sure, it was crazy to think so and everyone knew it wasn’t true, but maybe, just maybe . . . Paul really was dead.

Despite my ambivalence about my teenage fantasies, my brother’s albums really were a glimpse into the sometimes explicit, sometimes hidden occult language of rock, a window into the pervasive influence of magic and mysticism on the most essential and influential art form of the twentieth century. Within a single collection representing a microcosm of rock history and styles was another hidden story, of how rock—its songs and its staging, its lyrics and its pyrotechnics—have been shaped by magical and mystical symbols, ideas, and practices.

Like many teenagers in those days, I wondered if magic really did exist outside the lists of spells in the D&D Player’s Handbook. I bought books on white magic and lit candles, making sure the window was open so as to not alert my mother, who was ever on the lookout for the danger of an open flame. My friends and I dimmed the lights and hovered our fingers over the plastic planchette of my Ouija board. Nothing seemed to manifest. I could not pull out of thin air the potent feelings that came from those records. There was magic here, but it was even bigger than I could have imagined. From between the gatefold covers, from the vinyl tucked snugly into the sleeves, an enchantment had been woven that bewitched all of popular culture.

I didn’t know it then, but I was a participant in a vast cultural phenomenon. The Beatles had already converted an entire generation of listeners whose ideas about spirituality would be shaped by LSD, tarot cards, and free copies of the Bhagavad Gita handed out by young Hare Krishna devotees. As I listened to Houses of the Holy in my brother’s room, Led Zeppelin had already shaped rock’s imagination about the power of the magical arts. And only a few years earlier, progressive rock bands had fashioned dreams of inner and outer space, offering otherworldly hope at the closing of the Aquarian dream.

Rock had used a cloak of glamour in the original use of the word: an enchantment. Glamour is even related to the word grammar, which was sometimes used to denote occult language, the verbal weaving of a spell, and eventually became grimoire, a book of magic. Just as in stage magic, where the audience allows itself to be tricked, to be seduced by the illusion, rock and roll has fed off a similar instinct. A person’s willingness to be tricked is how the palm reader plies the trade, the shaman hypnotizes the tribe, and why I listened to those songs and gazed at those album covers in wonder and excitement, certain I was unlocking a chamber where a magical artifact was hidden.

Those days sitting cross-legged on my brother’s floor were an initiation into a mystery cult, where I would become a disciple of rock and roll. Throughout my teenage years, rock was the musical narrative of my inner life. There was always an album that spoke perfectly to whatever inscrutable feelings I was negotiating at the time. Rock’s often sphinxlike truths were the key to not only my own inner life; they could open the door into other mysterious realms. Eventually I stopped searching for esoteric riddles on album covers and in song lyrics, but I never ceased being aware of where the occult imagination was at play. It’s a plot I’ve been following ever since I first opened the gatefold cover to David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs album to the grotesquely erotic painting of a caninesque Bowie, half man, half dog. I came to realize that magic cannot exist without a conduit, a means of expression. And even if it can, I am not interested in the metaphysics of the occult. I believe in those horned gods only when I hear them speaking from out of the grooves in the vinyl, the shiny surface of a CD, and even in the sonic reduction of the MP3. And in those moments they are as real as the music itself. I don’t need the magic to be anywhere else. It exists as the most potent spell in the awesome spectacle of rock and roll.

II

At pivotal moments in its development, rock musicians and their audiences together made an almost unconscious pact to expand their consciousness and push beyond the restraints of traditional American music and its underlying spiritual identity. The occult became rock’s very salvation then, taking possession of the imagination of rock musicians and their fans, and redefining popular music and culture. Moreover, the occult imagination saved rock and roll from sugary teenybopper purgatory and urged musicians, engineers, and producers to look beyond the conventional toward the possibility of raising the collective spiritual consciousness into the astral planes. The occult imbued rock with an immortal soul that continues to resonate in Western culture, and musicians and their audiences continue to feed off one another, looking for deeper meaning as a way to make sense of the primal and ancient urges that rock and roll has always evoked.

Rock is the sound of both spiritual and musical rebellion, and for the long and continuing history of this most indispensable of musical forms, these two things have become inseparable. What is it about rock, more than any other art form of the modern age, that makes it such a perfect vehicle for this ancient and often unconscious drive to penetrate the veil between the phenomenal world and the numinous realm of the spirit? Why have so many musicians staged their rock concerts to appear as moments of shamanic and religious rites and created personas simulating magicians, demons, the gods Pan and Dionysus, even appearing as people possessed by gods or devils or worse? Why have they covered their album covers with images of the occult, conjured their lyrics out of the stuff of legend and myth, and even in their personal lives sought their own mystical and magical experiences? Why have they performed shows in front of ancient relics?

Rock’s spiritual affinity with occultism is due in large part to the nature of the occult itself. The occult—the popular term for a wide range of spiritual beliefs and activities concerned with supernatural, Gnostic, magical, and mystical ideas—operates within an unorthodox, nonconformist, and sometimes heretical temple, worshipping in ways at odds with the traditional and established religious order. These practices are an attempt by the individual or group to take a more active role in their own spiritual destiny, to commune with the divine through some form of intercession. Spirits, divination, amulets, charms, and even the worship of other deities feel direct and experiential.

This purposeful drive toward a divine encounter has surfaced in various manifestations throughout history and all over the world: in the Jewish mystics of medieval Europe, in the American Pentecostal Christians, and in the American appropriation of Buddhism and yoga. Christianity would often see this impulse as the work of the devil, even within its own ranks. Renaissance magicians and alchemists such as Giordano Bruno were called heretics, and later Lutheran and other American Christian sects would look on snake handlers and those who spoke in tongues as liars at best, devil worshippers at worst. In many cases, it was Christianity that perpetuated a belief in a pagan lineage through laws against magic and more active and often false accusations such as the infamous witch trials. The use of occult fears for political gains only prolonged superstitions and the other beliefs that religious authorities claimed to be trying to eradicate. Christianity would seal the pagan chamber completely, even as it defined itself by appropriating pagan myths such as the solstice and a resurrecting god. As the instinct for ecstatic experience continued to bubble up, it became by definition heterodox. The original intention of this kind of authentic practice, once organized around communities with rituals bordering on the theatrical and the hypnotic, was mostly lost.

Until rock and roll.

The phenomenon is modern, but rock’s soul was burnished in the fires of ancient mystery cults, when myth and initiation were fused in a potent mix of dance, intoxication, and other forms of ecstatic revelry. But despite the spectacle of this kind of worship, it’s still a simple human need being played out in theatrical ways: it’s the desire for community, for myth and ritual, and for direct communion with the divine.

It’s best to imagine the occult roots of rock as an estuary. While early rock and roll can be traced directly to the blues, gospel, and folk, rock’s overall development was also shaped by jazz, experimental and early electronic music, and even classical strains. In each of these influences the occult is also present, often exhibiting the same characteristic: artists looking for ways to revolt against convention by using the occult as both an inspiration and a vehicle for their ideas. While rock is essentially a recent phenomenon, it does not exist in a vacuum of modern human experience. Rock is an aspect of the ancient impulse to hammer out sounds on whatever tools are available, to express what it means to be human. For millennia, making music has been inseparable from religious activity. Rock and roll’s origins are in the blues and folk—forms of music deeply engrained with Christian traditions and values, but whose own roots grew in the soil where other gods were worshipped. As popular music developed, it struggled with this tension between Puritanism and the shadow of other non-Christian traditions that were just as much a part of American music.

Just as religious traditions have always sought to make sense of their own pagan origins—usually by prohibiting and demonizing the old gods—ministers, parents, and record-burning mobs saw in rock the threat of sex and chaos. Rock’s response was its true salvation: musicians pushed out further, conjuring spirits with power chords. When rock was finding its electric sound and its hormonal teenage audience, it chose sex as its expression of agitation. This was its first claim to autonomy, a wriggle of the hips in the face of the religious hierarchy. As rock critic Dan Graham explains: “Rock turned the values of traditional religion on their head. To rock ’n’ roll meant to have sex . . . NOW.” Because the mainstream church often saw sex as a symptom of ungodliness and the influence of evil spirits, rock musicians felt the good burn of rebellion as they plugged in their amps, calling out to a greater salvation than Christian redemption: “When the chimes ring five, six, and seven, / We’ll be right in seventh heaven.”

Rock’s erotic tension gave it the label of devil’s music, its very soul seen as having been burnished in the fires of one of the first sins: human sexual awareness. Rock’s first words were sexual, drawn from deeply explicit blues lyrics and the very physicality of its rhythms, themselves arising out of ancient soil. As the American slaves were developing their own form of Christianity that used song as the essential form of worship, they tread carefully even as they incorporated African tribal music and movement. Slaves would shuffle around in a circle, calling out and shaking in the throes of religious ecstasy, but their feet had to remain on the floor, lest they be accused of turning their precise religious devotion into the most profane pastime: dancing. Unless it is glorifying God, music is profane and solicits dancing, one of the most sexually charged pastimes. And where sex is, the devil is winking nearby.

Fear is a funny thin...

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Descripción Tarcher/Putnam,US, United States, 2014. Hardback. Estado de conservación: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. This epic cultural and historical odyssey unearths the full influence of occult traditions on rock and roll from the Beatles to Black Sabbath and shows how the marriage between mysticism and music changed our world. From the hoodoo-inspired sounds of Elvis Presleytothe Eastern odysseys of George Harrison, fromthe dark dalliances of Led Zeppelin tothe Masonic imagery of today s hip-hop scene, the occult has long breathed lifeinto rock and hip-hop and, indeed, esoteric and supernatural traditions are a key ingredient behindthe emergence anddevelopmentof rock and roll. With vivid storytelling and laser-sharp analysis, writer and critic Peter Bebergal illuminatesthis web of influences to produce the definitive work on how the occult shaped and saved popular music. As Bebergal explains, occult and mystical ideals gave rock and roll its heart and purpose, making rock into more than just backbeat music, but into a cultural revolution of political, spiritual, sexual, and social liberation. Nº de ref. de la librería AAS9780399167669

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Descripción Tarcher/Putnam,US, United States, 2014. Hardback. Estado de conservación: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. This epic cultural and historical odyssey unearths the full influence of occult traditions on rock and roll from the Beatles to Black Sabbath and shows how the marriage between mysticism and music changed our world. From the hoodoo-inspired sounds of Elvis Presleytothe Eastern odysseys of George Harrison, fromthe dark dalliances of Led Zeppelin tothe Masonic imagery of today s hip-hop scene, the occult has long breathed lifeinto rock and hip-hop and, indeed, esoteric and supernatural traditions are a key ingredient behindthe emergence anddevelopmentof rock and roll. With vivid storytelling and laser-sharp analysis, writer and critic Peter Bebergal illuminatesthis web of influences to produce the definitive work on how the occult shaped and saved popular music. As Bebergal explains, occult and mystical ideals gave rock and roll its heart and purpose, making rock into more than just backbeat music, but into a cultural revolution of political, spiritual, sexual, and social liberation. Nº de ref. de la librería AAS9780399167669

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