Season of the Witch : How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll (9780698143722) (11 page)

BOOK: Season of the Witch : How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll (9780698143722)
12.84Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Miniskirted suburban matrons cast the I Ching or shuffle tarot cards before setting dates for dinner parties. Hippies, with their drug-sensitized yen for magic, are perhaps the prime movers behind the phenomenon. Not only do they sport beads and amulets that have supposed magical powers; they also believe firmly and frighteningly in witchcraft. Some of the hippie mysticism is a calculated put-on—as when Abbie Hoffman and his crew attempted to levitate the Pentagon last October—but much of the new concern with the arcane is a genuine attempt to find enrichment for arid lives.

Greeley's cynicism misses the point and fails to ask the most essential question: Why was the occult in vogue, and why were so many young men and women the disciples of a new age? On the surface, the answer is not at all complex. What had Christianity offered them? Churches appeared to hate rock (in 1966, WAYE, a Christian radio station in Alabama, had organized the burning of Beatles records), hate sex, and love war. Many denominations, including the Catholic Church, supported the American troops in Vietnam. While reactions to organized religion were not always sophisticated, the youth were not wrong to see the mainstream Christian Church as something generally opposed to change and to a kind of self-determination. Freedom had to mean more than democracy, which was also not doing a bang-up job as far as race, class, and war were concerned. Atheism would not do, either. There had to be meaning beyond the mundane, the artificial, and the dogmatic. But it had to be new, even if by way of the very old.

The 1960s' potent mix of LSD guru sycophancy and occultism opened a door into the popular consciousness that could never be closed. Even more so than the Occult Revival of the fin de siècle, the 1960s performed a powerful conjuration of a spirit that was all but banished when Christianity quieted its song and put it in a cage to stop its rutting. But the spirit of Pan or Eshu or whichever manifestation best represents the archetype at any given moment, could not be locked up. The god Dionysus was often called “the god who comes,” or “the god who arrives,” because he will find a way home no matter how he might be cast out, barred, buried, or even burned. He is on
the margins, sometimes just out of sight, but with rock he came to the fore, his power in the rhythms of rebellion and defiance.

While the occult in its broadest sense is a set of spiritual practices that provide direct communion with the divine, often called gnosis, it is also an ancient human drive through which the spirit of the dancing gods, the noisy gods, the trickster gods, and the gods of intoxication, madness, and ecstasy manifest themselves through history. Before the advent of Christianity, the mystery cults of the ancient world promised initiates and acolytes that the gods were ever present, and through certain ritual activities, would share their secret knowledge. The destruction of their temples and their icons might have buried their altars, but what they offered could never be entombed forever. Just as the
of Africa made themselves known through the popular and religious music of African Americans, this Dionysian spirit found a perfect vehicle through rock and roll of the 1960s, and from there was enfolded into the whole of popular culture.

Unfortunately, violence, war, heroin, and an overall cultural burnout eventually left little room for the revolutionary and transformative promise of spiritual liberation by way of LSD, yoga, and tarot cards. The spiritual sixties would give way to the excess of the 1970s, characterized by disco and cocaine. But the die had been cast. Mysticism had changed rock and roll, and no matter how far it sometimes got buried, it would continue to manifest, first in the cosmic mythology of progressive rock, and later in the experimental electronic sounds of trance, house, and underground ambient. But before mysticism's resurgence, rock would undergo another kind of change. Like all great myths,
the occult story of rock involved a descent into the underworld, a transformation, and an ascent. But Orpheus's journey into Hades was not without dangers, and the long walk back to the light required sacrifice. At least he got to play music all along the way. Rock and roll would do no less, even in its darkest moments.


The event was billed as the Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, with a heavyweight lineup, including John Lennon, Eric Clapton, the Who, Jethro Tull, the Rolling Stones, and replete with trapeze artists, fire-eaters, and midgets. The Circus was recorded for BBC Television and would be the first of its kind, a true rock spectacle aimed directly at living rooms. By 1968, Mick Jagger had styled himself as something of a dandy-in-devil's-clothing, a master seducer out to ruin civilization, or, short of that, at least your daughters. The Stones had just released
Beggars Banquet
, a return to their roots after the much-maligned
Their Satanic Majesties Request
. The
opening track, “Sympathy for the Devil,” a strongly political song that at once celebrates and mourns the evil that had befallen the 1960s, is Jagger in full-on swagger. Although there was still hope, Jagger's performance was a prophetic moment. Woodstock was still a year
away and popular culture was decorated in paisley prints and primary colors. The Rolling Stones were not hippies, though. Their music was a conscious attempt to recover rock's blues-based origins, and in doing so reconjured Legba-turned-Satan, reminding everyone who the real patron saint of rock really was. Jagger's bold public recognition that the devil was alive and well, not only in the roots of rock and roll but in the stormy clouds darkening the whimsical mysticism of the counterculture, would shift rock and roll once again. The occult imagination would begin its slow turn away from gurus and astrological love charts toward a more sinister horizon, charting rock's course anew and saving it from what was becoming a neutered psychedelic commercialism.

During his rendition at the Circus, filmed before a live audience, Jagger becomes a man possessed. His Lucifer is all physicality, smoldering sex appeal with a hint of madness. At the peak point in the song, when Jagger screams over and over again “What's my name?” he begins to writhe on the floor. Back up on his knees, he bends over and slowly pulls his tight red shirt up his back, over his head, and then completely off. The camera zooms in on his arm, revealing a devil tattoo, and then pulls out to show a full devil head on Jagger's hairless chest. He then prostrates himself, appearing as if to pray to the underworld. The crowd cheers wildly as the tattoos make known exactly who Jagger is personifying in the song: Lucifer-cum-Satan, the prideful—and beautiful—fallen angel who turns hell into a kingdom, casts off his feathered wings, and bends his halo into horns.

The show never aired. The Stones were displeased with the way the footage turned out and kept it in a vault until its release
on VHS in 1996. No one but the audience at the time saw Jagger's temporary tattoos. But it didn't matter. This was merely the unnecessary spectacle of what had already been decided by the media and his fans. In a 1969 concert review in the
Washington Post
, the writer named Jagger “the closest thing to an incarnation of evil that rock music has.”

A band could easily become seduced by its own mythology, and trying to parse what had been a passing interest to something that becomes the defining part of a band's mystique could become difficult. Beyond the music a band makes, part of rock fame includes the rumors that surround their personal lives. In the 1960s, things like LSD use, drunken escapades, and sexual exploits could elevate interest in a musician far beyond what their talent might warrant. But even more controversial was an interest in any kind of alternative religious practice. Fans would feel the exciting flutter of reading lyrics that might hide taboo, esoteric secrets, while parents fretted and Christian groups took to burning albums. Playing up rumors was good for sales, but for a band like the Rolling Stones—who found themselves bumping up against every intellectual, artistic, and spiritual fad—it would become difficult to know where having sympathy for the devil was merely a trendy idea or where having tampered with unseen forces might have actually darkened their lives. In any case, the timing for Jagger's persona could not have been better. The devil was becoming ascendant in popular culture.

In the 1968 Hammer film
The Devil Rides Out
, Christopher Lee investigates the disappearance of his nephew and his snooping leads him to stumble upon a cult of devil worshippers who conjure Satan during a sacrificial rite of a naked woman in the
woods. One of the better horror films of the time, and one of Christopher Lee's favorite roles, the plot perpetuated one of the most far-reaching misconceptions about the occult.

When the devil appears, he of course looks exactly like the god Pan in his classical representations. The movie is based on the book of the same name by Dennis Wheatley, the popular British author who the writer Phil Baker describes as the man responsible for creating the image of the devil worshipper: “[Wheatley] virtually invented the popular image of Satanism in 20th-century Britain, and he made it seem strangely seductive.”

Sex, occultism, and Satan would become synonymous in various pockets of pop culture, and more films would follow, the most sensational being
The Wicker Man
(1973), directed by Robin Hardy and also starring Christopher Lee in a role diametrically opposed to the Christian occult expert in
The Devil Rides Out
. Here he plays Lord Summerisle, the leader of a pagan cult that benefits economically from their fruit crops. But a successful harvest requires a sacrifice to the gods. The devout and celibate Sergeant Neil Howie, played by Edward Woodward, is lured to the island under the pretense of a missing girl. Unlike many films in the genre, Howie's Christian entreaties do not save him from immolation inside the giant construct of a wicker man. Rather than upper-class Satanists, the people of the island are free-love hippies. Even the father figure Christopher Lee sports long hair and a bright yellow turtleneck, looking not unlike an older Brian Jones from the Rolling Stones, a dandy come to worship the old gods and serve you your doom.

While the “heathens” of Summerisle do not venerate Satan or the devil, their religion is decidedly hedonistic and, when
necessary, murderous. Pagan religion is cast as a dreadful and malevolent force. While it makes for a fine horror movie, it deepens the line in the sand between the supposed mature rationality of the Judeo-Christian tradition and the irrational, youthful, and oversexed traditions of any alternative religious practice. And while this might have not been good for a nuanced understanding of the occult, it was great for rock and roll. These kinds of representations would inspire both the performance and presentation of rock music and elevate it to a mythical status.

Colloquial associations of the word
with Satan and devil worship in film would fuel the rebellious whims of teenagers as well as the obsessions of certain Christian groups. But movies were not that easy of a target. Being fictional, films were less likely to be taken—or taken seriously—as personal attacks on the general public. Rock and roll, on the other hand, involved real-life, flesh-and-blood musicians making music that was being sold by the millions to impressionable kids.

Rock stars' lives were seen as pure debauchery, their music a mix of anger, sex, and defiance. These often coded, sometimes explicit occult messages would be the ruin of a civilized (e.g., Christian) world. Certainly, some bands gave over to the devil's embrace with lyrics and a presentation that were decidedly satanic. But even for those musicians, how much was a put-on—a musical role-playing of Hammer horror films—or an earnest spiritual path was not always clear.

Firmly entrenched in the rock and art scene of the late 1960s—a time of heavy barbiturate use and high fashion—the Rolling Stones met the avant-garde filmmaker Kenneth Anger, who had an idea to push the boundaries of cinema. He would
make a movie that
would be a magic ritual, filled with pagan gods, incantations, and his first serious attempt to channel his hero, Aleister Crowley. In 1963, Anger had completed his film
Scorpio Rising
. The thirty-minute movie—a hostile series of biker culture, homoerotic, Nazi, and occult images—was to be Anger's first real counterculture success. Over the next few years he firmly planted himself in the underground arts culture and became a darling of the hippies.

Anger's fame gave him the confidence he needed to put down on celluloid the film he had wanted to make since he was a teenager. And he had the money he needed from the lucrative publication of
Hollywood Babylon
, a scandalous account of Hollywood debauchery he first published in France in 1959, and then in the States in 1965. (The book was quickly banned and not rereleased in the United States until 1975.) To make the film, Anger first cast a musician by the name of Bobby Beausoleil, a handsome goateed fellow with a boyish face and devilish eyes.

Beausoleil would also write and perform the soundtrack. Anger was feeling on top of the world and decided to stage a public ritual in Haight-Ashbury he billed “The Equinox of the Gods.” The event took place at the Straight Theater on September 21, 1967 (the date of the autumnal equinox). Beausoleil and his band, the Magick Powerhouse of Oz, headlined. Much of the ritual was filmed, and Anger wanted to include the footage in the film he would call
Lucifer Rising
. After the show, Anger and some friends went to get ice cream. Returning to the theater, they found the box office receipts and the footage stolen, taken by Beausoleil. Anger was distraught and the next day took out an ad in the
Village Voice
announcing the “death of Kenneth Anger.” Beausoleil
disappeared, only to show up later on charges that he murdered his music teacher, Gary Hinman, on orders from Charles Manson.

With the loss of Beausoleil, Anger immediately saw Mick Jagger as the perfect acolyte for his lead in
Lucifer Rising
. Jagger and company were intrigued by Anger and the allure of the dark arts, and Anger believed the Stones capable of producing powerful magic through their music. Anger became particularly close with Anita Pallenberg, Keith Richards's girlfriend. Theirs was a scandalous arrangement since she had been with Brian Jones before. Anger wanted to perform a pagan marriage ceremony for Richards and Pallenberg, but it seemed that Anger wore out his welcome in their lives when he set up their room for the ritual while Richards and Pallenberg were sleeping.

According to Tony Sanchez, the band's assistant (and rumored dealer) who was in the apartment at the time, they awoke to find their door painted completely gold on both sides, suggesting that Anger had been able to come and go in the dead of night without anyone the wiser. Sanchez recounts that this just made everyone uneasy, and from then on Richards was starting to feel less enamored with the occult in general, and Anger specifically. Eventually Jagger also felt pressured by Anger regarding
Lucifer Rising
and decided not to play the titular role after all.

Anger was taking it too seriously, and while Jagger was interested in the charm of the devil as a metaphor, he was really interested in what he felt that metaphor referred to. As Tony Sanchez tells it: “It was power that fascinated [Jagger], the ability to control individuals, audiences, even societies—and he knew Satan wasn't to thank for his strength in that direction.”

Even their 1967 album
Satanic Majesties Request
about not as an attempt to musically unlock any infernal doors as much as it was a (and some say a cynical and ill-advised) response to the Beatles'
Sgt. Pepper
. The bands had been continually and good-naturedly competing for the top spot in the public eye, but
Sgt. Pepper
changed the game completely. Art and rock finally converged in a way not thought possible and the pressure was on for the Stones to produce something as good. So they abandoned their tried-and-true blues-based rock and produced a psychedelic grab bag replete with string arrangements, sitars, and horns.

The album title suggested something dark and malevolent inside, but the cover was almost a parody of the whole endeavor. The Stones are outfitted in Renaissance clothing, with Jagger in the middle, the grand magus with a pointy wizard cap. They are surrounded by a collage reminiscent of the
Sgt. Pepper
cover, but without the symbolic palimpsest that gave the Beatles album an aura of hidden meaning and occult associations. The songs are mostly generic psychedelic manifestos, a Candy Land board where “the trees and flowers were blue.” There are a few standouts like “She's a Rainbow,” but the only decidedly occult song is “The Lantern,” in which Jagger beseeches an unnamed traveler to leave a clear and well-lit path through an impenetrable magical forest, a likely metaphor for the vast and sometimes inexplicable spiritual landscape of the sixties.

When the Aquarian Age ended not with a whimper but a stabbing at the Rolling Stones' 1969 concert at the Altamont Speedway, Jagger no longer had any use for an image of himself as the Prince of Darkness. The Stones wanted to move away from mystery and magic and return to their deep rock roots as entertainers and chart toppers. In the end, it's not clear how much
influence Anger had on the Stones. Anger has said that the idea for “Sympathy for the Devil” came from him, but Jagger has only ever said that he was influenced by Baudelaire, who once wrote, “The finest trick of the devil is to persuade you that he does not exist,” as well as Mikhail Bulgakov's novel
The Master and Margarita
, in which Beelzebub visits Moscow. Christian conspiracy theorists might tell you the Stones' relationship with Anger is all you need to know about the infernal power behind rock and roll. There is a truth here, but not quite the one they think.

While Anger's occult theology does not actually encompass a belief in the Christian conception of Satan, the overarching dark and ominous edge to his films was seductive to people like Mick Jagger. Jagger had long been cultivating an image of the decadent bad boy, a Baudelaire-like figure who projected a debauched and vaguely Mephistophelian vibe.

BOOK: Season of the Witch : How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll (9780698143722)
12.84Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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