Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll
By Peter Bebergal—2014—229 pages—J. Tarcher/Penguin Books
What would you think of first if someone asked you to give a quick example of the union between pop music and the occult? Maybe you’d mention a choice Black Sabbath track like “Children of the Grave,” or recollect an Alice Cooper stage show from high school days or perhaps a death metal show for those of younger vintage. Some of you would quickly counter that naming one example is merely scratching the surface. In his new book Season of the Witch, author Peter Bebergal makes the case that the ”occult imagination” is in fact central to the appeal and success of rock music, and may be its very lifeblood.
Ozzy says: “I got your occult imagination, right here!”
Early chapters of this intriguing and informative (if occasionally meandering) book traces this influence back to European and American artistic/spiritual movements while also telescoping back to the pre-slave-trade African traditions that would give birth to gospel music and the blues. Bebergal very ably dissects the surprisingly close connections between the sacred and profane that passed into the culture of the American South. “Rock’s origins are in the blues and folk,” he writes, “forms of music deeply ingrained with Christian traditions and values, but whose own roots grew in the soil where other gods were worshipped.” Although he notes that modern Christianity tried to “seal off” these more ancient impulses, they always remained to some extent (speaking in tongues, ring shouts) and this ambivalence shows in the life and careers of early rock ‘n’ roll pioneers like Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. But the influence of the occult (defined broadly as supernatural beliefs and the pursuit of esoteric knowledge) with its rebellious and unorthodox nature was a natural when this new music came along with the ascendance of youth culture in the Fifties.
Arthur Brown, after his god-of-hellfire days, formed Kingdom Come, seen here waiting on some hobgoblin action.
In fact, as Bebergal points out, early efforts by parents and ministers to stymie this new music likely backfired in the worst way. “Intentions to stop the music in its tracks instead started a conflagration that has never gone out,” he writes and indeed the relative innocence of those early years was superseded by the influence of the Beat writers, Aleister Crowley, Eastern spiritualism, and of course LSD. Through the likes of Pink Floyd, the Stones, the Beatles (in the post-“Revolver”/Maharishi era), Arthur Brown, Hawkwind, David Bowie, Sabbath, Sun Ra, Yes, Led Zeppelin and many others, “rock created a mythos around itself suggesting it was somehow heir to secret wisdom.” All of these case histories are given a good airing out without (usually) getting lurid. The author is clear-eyed about his subject, noting the negative side effects (drug abuse, cults) but also endorsing its role in affecting personal empowerment and acting as a counterweight to lockstep establishment thinking.
Madonna at the 2012 Super Bowl halftime show, with her carefully-coded performance announcing the imminent takeover of the world by the Illuminati. And here’s me thinking it was just egomania.
Season of the Witch is a fine addition to the ever-growing canon of rock literature. Granted it’s not perfect: with so many artists to cover, some of Bebergals’ insights may sound a bit second-hand to devotees of a particular group. A few things are just wrong (Alice Cooper was not the name of an accused witch burned in 17th century Salem; besides they were hanged). But he does wrap it up nicely, moving the timeline up into this century, noting Jay-Z’s free-associating use of Freemason imagery in his videos and Madonna’s over-the-top halftime show at the 2012 Super Bowl, replete with pompous pageantry based on the kind Egyptian and Kabbalistic iconography that sent New World Order conspiracy theorists into a tizzy. But let’s put aside those vain one-per centers and remember that the magic in music can inspire people to a higher spiritual plain that will benefit us all in the end.
(If you like Books That Rock, please check out my tome Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey by clicking on the link below. A 30-page is available there, so try you can try-before-you-buy. Thanks, Rick Ouellette)