Did the Occult Save Rock and Roll?
If you're looking for the devil, you won't find him in Peter Bebergal's new book, Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll.
What you will find is an erudite, well-researched and fun book about how the occult expanded what could be said in rock and roll and how the music sounded.
Bebergal, who studied religion at Harvard, has a very broad definition of what the occult is. It is not simply devil worship, but rather tarot cards, ouija boards, ancient magic (with a k), gnostic secret knowledge, Eastern religions, meditation, shamanism, the mystical. It's also UFOs, drugs, classic horror movies, the blues, and The Lord of the Rings. The occult, in other words, is most of the stuff that has made up the spiritual and pop cultural underground in America. And in rock and roll the influence could be a black mass, but it could also be Tomb of Dracula. And in Season of the Witch Bebergal argues that more often than not it was the latter.
According to Bebergal, the occult expanded the language and sonic palette of rock and roll. To the audience it seemed to happen overnight. One minute it was the early 1960s and the Beach Boys were singing about girls and cars, and suddenly there appeared Pink Floyd's surrealism, the space operas of David Bowie, drugs, and Led Zeppelin's secret symbols. The Beatles, those lovable moptops, decamped for India to study transcendental meditation.
While seemingly revolutionary, a lot of this stuff wasn't new. It harkened back to Occult Revival of the 19th century, to the poet W.B. Yeats and experimental musicians like Erik Satie and Claude Debussy (both members of the Kabbalistic Order of the Rose-Cross). A central figure was also Aleister Crowley, the 20th century British occultist nicknamed the "Great Beast." Crowley inspired hundreds rock bands and who said that "do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law." There were also more campy influences -- a lot of the 1960s occult scene was also pure theater, a put-on by musicians who grew up with classic horror movies and were having a bit of fun.
The occult wasn't a stranger to rock and roll, because the spiritual world was a part of the origin or rock and roll's father, the blues. But as Season of the Witch explores, it had very little to do with Satan. A foundational myth is that blues guitarist Robert Johnson met the devil at a crossroads and sold his soul for the ability to play. But the figure Johnson met was not the devil; he was a West African trickster god, Eshu. And the man in question may have not even been Johnson, but a blues singer named Tommy Johnson.
At the time the blues emerged after the Civil War, Christianity in the South was mixing with African voodoo, with blacks easily treating Catholic saints as similar to the intervening spirits of African deities. Whites were suspicious of this, particularly when it came to the sexuality of the blues: "By virtue of not being the music of the church," Bebergal observes, "the blues were believed the raise the devil in their midst." Or if not the devil, gods who predated Christianity. In a 1956 interview, psychiatrist Jules Wasserman compared rock and roll to the "Dionysian revels in Greece, where the god of sex (Priapus) and the god of drink (Bacchus) were feted in the name of two-beat rhythms."
But as Martha Bayles and others have argued, historically the beat has had a lot more meaning than devilry. It was used to get through work, to dance, to praise God. Indeed, the blues was often used as a weapon to shout the devils down. Bebergal explores all of this, and his research and expertise is the great value of Season of the Witch. A book author shouldn't gave to be praised for simply doing his homework, but in the digital age where books go from blog post to page Berbegal's work is refreshingly deep. When trying to establish the occult's relationship to the band Black Sabbath, he goes through three decades of interviews, finding that the band -- which gave the world Ozzy Osbourne -- claims it was all theater, a whimsical put-on, and changes to claim they were heavily into the black arts. Bebergal concludes, not without reason, that the shift had more to do with money than metaphysics.
In other words, rock and roll did expand it artistic freedom in the 1960s and 70s, and a lot of the reason for that is that the musicians were influenced not by the devil, but by other, less dangerous things: alternative forms of spirituality, a sense of theater, intellectual and musical curiosity. Sometimes the evil mask would slip off to reveal the fool underneath, as when Arthur Brown, the British musician and supposed "god of hellfire," was busted by a bunch of kids when he was locked out of he apartment. Brown was on the intercom apologizing to "the missus" for forgetting to pick up milk and pleading to be let in. Or the time Ozzy Osbourne, a goofball more than a menace, shyly admitted that he really was a Christian. Or when the Beatles found their guru, the Maharishi, hitting on girls. There's also Alice Cooper, the onetime ghoulish rock singer who now spends most of his time playing golf.
Of course, the genuine occult is nothing to mess around with, and Bebergal also explores the musicians who lost their minds and perhaps even their souls by taking things too far. Syd Barrett, the founder of Pink Floyd, blew out his brain with drugs and became a recluse. The Rolling Stones toyed with Satanic images and unleashed real evil at Altamont, their concert that ended in chaos and dead. Tony Iommi, the guitarist for Black Sabbath, was given a book on witchcraft. He woke up at 3 AM to find a dark figure hovering at the edge of his bed. And there are the numerous suicides and addictions that have been part of rock and roll history.
But for those musical souls who kept it about sonic and spiritual experimentation and not a love of the diabolical, the occult, as widely defined, did make rock and roll a richer form of art.