Authors: Peter Bebergal
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 thing, though. It often titillates and strengthens the rumors and stories that engender it. We want to feel afraid, and the supernatural and the occult have long provided a tempting morsel, particularly with people and things that defy convention or place themselves outside the mainstream. People have long believed music contained some enchanted attributes, something that could electrify the listener as well as the player. Rumors of the occult, particularly stories of deals with the devil, both attract and repel. The famed early nineteenth-century violinist Paganini was believed by peasants to be possessed by the devil for his masterful and ecstatic playing of Satan's favorite instrument. During a concert in Vienna, one audience member was said to have seen the devil actually standing next to Paganini, guiding his fingers along the strings. Rumors of Paganini
selling his soul to the devil did not keep devout Italian Catholics away from his music. While it a took a mental toll on the musician, who wanted to be recognized for his own talent, it added to his reputation and increased the size of audiences at his concerts.
There was also a deeply racist subtext in Christian leaders' reign of fire against rock music. Rock's earliest manifestations drew directly from the blues, gospel, and even African American spirituals, all of these seen as incarnations of the perceived barbarism and ungodliness of black Americans, many of whom it was believed had sinister intentions regarding the white daughters of America.
Rock musicians had still not given it an explicit name, using sex as a means of spiritual transgression until the planets aligned in the 1960s and sexual liberation, antiwar protests, and other social movements collided. In this climate, musicians and fans alike would blow their music and their minds with LSD, opening up a cultural third eye exposing them to alternative religious and occult practice. It was a shot heard round the world in song, such as the spirituality of the Beatles' “Tomorrow Never Knows,” one the first great mystical moments in popular music. By the 1970s the word
had become fairly well attached to the then burgeoning New Age movement, which attempted to draw, from various beliefs and practices, an all-inclusive spiritual tool kit for the masses. “Take what you need and leave the rest” was the note attached to the inner lid of Pandora's box, in which you could find mantras, crystals, tarot cards, a smattering of magic by way of the Kabbalah and Wicca, quantum physics, ancient aliens, all wrapped in a cloth of cosmic mysticism. New Age and
the occult became mostly synonymous in popular culture. Until the word
was dropped, New Age often summoned up a darker spirit, such as Satan worshippers, strange sex rituals, and black magic. Now the term “New Age” invokes images of angelic messengers and the piano pecking of George Winston.
All the essential rock genres, from heavy metal to progressive, from glam to goth, gathered their wool from the occult's harvest. Magic and mysticism gave rock its sure footing even as it took the greatest leap of faith and plunged into the abyss. It could have gone another way and become merely a fusion of American blues and folk without its own real identity. Instead, the biggest names in popular music willingly participated in this spiritual rebellion and in so doing crafted rock's mythic soul. The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, King Crimson, Black Sabbath, Yes, and even the Rolling Stones, among many others, not only transformed rock with their musical innovations, but saved rock from becoming a series of radio-friendly 45s spinning out endless redundant chords.
These bands transmitted an ancient echo that is an essential part of human culture and expression, an imperative to reach beyond convention and strain to hear the music of the spheres. All of popular culture was triggered. Even producers and DJs were forced to rethink what was sellable, and soon found a willing audience pouring money into the music industry. And even when the musicians themselves insisted it was all just a marketing game, they helped carve out a pop culture mythology.
To describe how the occult imagination is the vital force of rock and rock culture, I will engage in a series of narratives. The true conversion didn't happen overnight. There is no single
album or performance that serves as a lodestar. There have been many musicians who perfectly possess the spirit of the old gods, but are not necessarily representative of the occult current being traced here. Jim Morrison was called an “electric shaman” by the media and his fans. Morrison's stage performances were hypnotic, and at points he seemed to be inhabited by the spirit of a Native American shaman. In the 1970s, Patti Smith would take on the mantle when her friend William Burroughs said Smith is “a shamanÂ .Â .Â . someone in touch with other levels of reality.” Other examples abound, and while they help cast a wide net over the subject, they are blips, shiny objects leading into Alice's rabbit hole. In a photograph taken by his then bandmate Andy Summers, Sting is lying with his arm draped over his forehead, looking into the hidden distance, a paperback copy of an unnamed Aleister Crowley book tucked under his other hand. The black-and-white photo is compelling, a glimpse into the offstage interests of a musician. The photo was published in a collection titled
, in 1983, just as the Police were coming out of the storm of their chart-topping album
Ghost in the Machine
. The pop darling Daryl Hall insisted on recording
, an album inspired by Aleister Crowleyâparticularly the book
Magick Without Tears
âa musical release that would almost cost Hall a label contract as well as his professional and personal relationship with his partner, John Oates. The progressive rock band Tool has incorporated ritual magic, sacred geometry, and other esoteric practices into their recording sessions and live shows. These are all effective illustrations, and they are also a clue as to how vast a subject rock and roll and the occult really is.
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 saviors, or Aleister Crowley; to examine every musician that has ever dabbled in the occult. What I have opted for instead is a narrative history, drawing on key moments in the development of rock and roll, from its origins in 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 among 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. My aim is not to upend or challenge the accepted history of rock (in all its various permutations) but to show that weaving in and out of the most important moments of rock's development is the occult, the central thread that, if pulled out, would unravel the whole intricate design.
I also hope to reveal that these musicians are human after all and their magical and mystical aspirations are a microcosm of a greater American spiritual hunger. But there is dark paradox here. Many artists saw their lives turned upside down by fame and excess. The occult provided a grammar through which to make sense of their almost inexplicable lives. These are the tales of musicians and magicians, rock fans and rock's detractors, the light shining from a creative spiritual quest and the darkness finding its way in when mixed with drugs and fame. These stories serve as a window exposing how without the occult imagination there would be no rock as we know it.
There is no satisfactory definition of the occult, especially since the term carries so much baggage. Believers in certain occult ideas will often claim there is a direct transmission from the ancients in the way of coded writings, mediums, and even aliens. The
, for example, is an Egyptian collection of texts dating to around the second or third century, a synthesis of Gnostic Christianity, Neoplatonism, and Greek and Roman cultic myths. The texts contain alchemical, magical, and astrological teachings, but at their heart, they describe a universe where human beings are divine and unity with God is the true destiny of creation. The
has found its way into any number of occult and magical teachings, such as the popular idea often expressed as “so above, so below.” During the Renaissance it was attributed to a named figure, Hermes Trismegistus. It's likely the character was an invented, albeit brilliantly conceived, combination of the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian deity Thoth, both messenger gods who enjoy writing and magic.
Nevertheless, many modern-day adherents of the
claim, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that these texts were written by one sage belonging to a single ancient-Egyptian mystery cult. Others have tried to prove witchcraft was part of an actual religious lineage that began in the ancient world and spread through Europe, eventually landing in modern-day Wiccan and neo-pagan communities. Unfortunately, there is no direct path for the occult as a belief. It twisted and turned through the ages, seemingly disappearing entirely, only to spring
up when people once again sought somethingâsome meaning or experienceâthat the Church or other religious authorities could not provide.
On the other side are the detractors who claim the occult is not to be taken seriously, especially in an age when science and reason have all but made religion, and any beliefs in the supernatural, irrelevant. Particularly for those who think religion is something with no value, the occult has even less, being something more akin to superstition: an irrational, silly trend. Religion at least has shaped civilizations and culture. The religious imagination bore the music of Bach, the Sistine Chapel, and even
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
. For good or ill, it's something to be reckoned with. But the occult is a distraction for dreamy-eyed New Agers and stoned teenage metal heads. The occult is even more of a fool's game than religion.
A more balanced definition is one that takes into account the remarkable influence occult beliefs have had on culture while also recognizing that these beliefs are themselves a conglomerate of bits of mythology, religion, and actual experience, which often take the form of mystical or other states of altered consciousness. Despite its darker connotation, the occult is merely a set of practices and beliefsâsome stretching back to antiquity, others of a more recent vintageâthat attempt to understand reality (spiritual or otherwise) in a way traditional religious practice cannot or chooses not to explore. More often than not, occult practices are in direct response to traditional religious practice and derive their language and beliefs from those practices. In this respect then, the occult is a spectrum of beliefs and actions seeking to understand God, nature, or the cosmos in a
way at odds with normative or mainstream religious communities. These practices attempt to place some measure of control into human hands. The gods are too fickle, and evil too ever present. A charm over a door to ward off malevolent spirits might work even better than a prayer. Even mainstream religious communities used occult methods, even as they sought to outlaw them. The gargoyles of Notre Dame and other cathedrals, for example, are wards, willful attempts to trick devils into believing these locations are already occupied by their kind and to go looking for some other place to infest.
The occult has also found expression in art, music, and literature. I would argue that these things, more than any magical ceremony in a lodge or grove, are the surest and possibly most authentic expressions. Occult and esoteric religious ideas have long held the fascination of artists. In the late 1800s there was what is called the Occult Revival when a number of artists, society people, and intellectuals were joining magical fraternities (the poet W. B. Yeats and the Welsh writer Arthur Machen were both members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn). The Symbolist art movement of that time was deeply inspired by occult symbolism such as the Renaissance-period alchemical emblems used by magicians to meditate on occult ideas through a complex system of signs they believed activated the spiritual center of the magus. The early twentieth-century artist Austin Osman Spare would go on to become an influential magician, having devised his own system of what is known as sigil magic, an extension of his artwork. It was composers and musicians, however, who defied convention by seeking nontraditional (often non-Christian) spiritual ideas and experiences that aligned
with their musical innovations. The composer friends Erik Satie and Claude Debussy both joined the Kabbalistic Order of the Rose-Cross, a mystical fraternity. This would extend into the midcentury, particularly with experimental composers. Pierre Schaeffer, the father of musique concrÃ¨te, was a devotee of the Russian mystic George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff. The electronic music vanguard Karlheinz Stockhausen studied Eastern mysticism and once claimed he received his musical education in the Sirius star system.