Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll is epic in every sense of the word. Author Peter Bebergal sees the influence of the occult in rock music from The Beatles to Black Sabbath and beyond. From Elvis to Led Zeppelin, he explains how the occult has not only provided fuel for rock music, but is an integral part of it – as much the furnace as the fuel, if you will.
“It would be futile to list every album employing a pentagram, a devil’s visage, a sigil, or some other mystical or occult symbol; to name every song that references wizards and warlocks, devils and demons, tarot cards and fortune-tellers, karma, past lives, alien saviours, or Aleister Crowley; to examine every musician that has ever dabbled in the occult. What I opted for instead is a narrative history, drawing on key moments in the development of rock and roll, from its origins in the African-American slave songs up until the ascendancy of electronic instruments in the 1980s. Along the way, some well-known names will make an appearance, and along them some lesser-known ones will rear their heads. The hope is by focusing on particular musicians and bands at certain moments in time, a larger narrative will emerge.”
While his research and knowledge are first class, he is a very good story-teller. This is not some dull read but a book as lively as its subjects. He has a friendly chatty style of imparting his considerable knowledge and insights, and comes across as someone you could enjoy a good conversation with over a few pints.
Bebergal’s writing is highly rated by such luminaries as Robert Fripp of King Crimson fame and Michael Moorcock. While obviously Moorcock is rightly hailed as writer of great renown, his musical credentials are equally strong, being connected with the likes of Hawkind and Blue Oyster Cult. Moorcock says of Season of the Witch that it is “a fascinating thesis reflecting the time when everyone seemed to give rock and roll the status of, if not a religion, then certainly that of a spiritual belief system. Peter Bebergal’s ‘Season of the Witch’ brought it all back. It’s an absorbing read deserving an important place in rock literature.”
High praise, and well deserved too. You really do feel a connection with his writing.
Even a detail as small as the chapter headings reveals the depths of Peter’s knowledge, his empathy with his subject. For instance, Chapter 5 is entitled ‘Space Ritual’ after the now classic double-live album from British psychedelic warlords Hawkwind (and featuring future Motorhead main-man Lemmy on bass.) On this album, Hawkwind aimed to help their audience (both live and on vinyl) transcend the limits of time and space! People aimed high in less cynical times.
Chapter 3 is entitled ‘The Devil Rides Out’, after the classic Hammer Horror film (starring the incomparable Christopher Lee, directed by Terence Fisher, a major influence on Guillermo Del Toro, and based on the fine book by Dennis Wheatley). Really showing Peter’s knowledge of the cultural DNA of his subject, that simple title speaks volumes. Chapter 6 is named ‘Golden Dawn’ after the early 20th century Occult group The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, who at various times included such luminaries as W.B. Yeats, Arthur Machen, and Aleister Crowley among their ranks!
I love Bebergal’s comment about the connection between magic and music: “I came to realise that magic cannot exist without a conduit, a means of expression.”
It’s interesting to note Bebergal’s initiation into the world of rock, and so forth, which came through his older brother’s excellent record collection and included Arthur Brown, Hawkwind, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, King Crimson.
He writes beautifully of what was, to all intents and purposes (and intent is everything), a mystical revelation:
“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 rumoured death and felt the chill of ghosts staring out from the cover of Abbey Road, the barefoot Beatle unwittingly symbolising 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.’”
Bebergal’s core idea is that to the unholy trinity of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, we need to add the occult, and how he sets about proving his idea makes for a riveting read. He says: “Without the occult imagination there would be no rock as we know it.” A bold statement, but one he is well able to back-up.
“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 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.”
And he expands further:
“The phenomenon is modern, but rock’s soul was burnished in the fire 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.”
Ideas have a life of their own (this was also a major part of Aleister Crowley’s Magick), as Stephen Hawking has rightly pointed out—reality is very much what you think it is. (Do you think you’re the only one who thinks that their view of the universe it the true one? Well, that’s what everyone else thinks too!) If everyone’s view is equally right and wrong, reality is certainly subjective rather than absolute. It’s what lies beneath that drives us, never what we see on the surface (see Joseph Campbell’s “Hero With A Thousand Faces” for more on our subconscious selves).
While Bebergal covers the obvious artists like Black Sabbath, The Beatles or The Rolling Stones, it’s artists like Arthur Brown that will really rock his readers’ worlds, maybe introducing them to music they were hitherto unfamiliar with.
Heavy metal is, of course, covered, but Bebergal’s reach is wide; no relevant musical subject escapes his grasp.
Another fine book in a related vein I have to recommend that I reviewed last year is Aleister Crowley: Magick, Rock and Roll, and the Wickedest Man in the World by Gary Lachman.
I also have to praise Tarcher’s marvellous design work on Season of the Witch. It really is a thing of beauty and joy forever—you don’t get this effect with the digital medium; it could never be as rock and roll, or indeed occult, as this book design is. It’s like the best album artwork you’ve never seen. Bebergal explains the story behind the artwork: “When I first had the idea for this book, I knew only one artist could channel the necessary magical forces to get the cover just right, and that is Arik Roper. Arik is well known for his album cover and poster art for some of the seminal underground metal and ‘stoner’ rock bands, including Sleep, High on Fire, and the Black Crowes. Arik and I met when I interviewed him for my last book, and since then we have become friends. It was a dream come true to have him commissioned to do the cover. And look at it! It’s just perfect.”
I would like to see more books in this vein in the future—no higher compliment can I pay to Season of the Witch.
(published by Tarcher Books, www.tarcherbooks.com)