Season of the Witch : How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll (9780698143722) (14 page)

BOOK: Season of the Witch : How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll (9780698143722)
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For many people, the name “Lucifer” necessarily refers to the biblical Satan, but for some occultists the image of Lucifer is used to represent that aspect of being human that seeks “light” or knowledge. As Anger once explained to Mick Farren in
: “Lucifer is the hero. He shouldn't be confused with the Christian devil. Lucifer is another name for the Morning Star, the bringer of light. He is the one who helps man in his search for truth and enlightenment.” It would be this devilish association—strengthened by Page's Crowley interest—that would eventually be impossible to unglue from the band, however. Even their sympathetic fans began to wonder what was true when tragedy and calamity were on Zeppelin's heels like a hound from hell. Bad things started happening. In 1975, Robert Plant was almost killed in a car accident, and two years later his young son died from a virus. Three years later, their beloved but out-of-control
drummer, John Bonham, died of a drug overdose. Rumor, public persona, and private life became a kaleidoscopic blend, hypnotizing both fans and detractors: To be as good as they were for as long as they were, Led Zeppelin must have made a deal with the devil, and that would eventually require the contract to come due.

In 1982, during a meeting of the California State Assembly's Consumer Protection and Toxic Materials Committee, members listened intently as “Stairway to Heaven” was played backwards. Stoned teenagers everywhere had already grooved to this sonic mirage for years, but an armchair neuroscientist named William Yarroll was convinced of a satanic conspiracy, and claimed that Led Zeppelin purposefully recorded the song so that the subliminal message “Here's to my sweet Satan” would be absorbed by the unsuspecting public. This would be the beginning of a movement to put warning labels on rock albums to ensure that people were not unwittingly turned into “disciples of the anti-Christ.”

The patron deity of Zeppelin is not Satan, but “the god that comes.” He has been called Dionysus, and the lead singer Robert Plant seemed to channel whatever power remained of him centuries after the last of the maenads ran into the hills at the drunken god's side. Dionysus's entourage featured satyrs, those perpetually rutting half-goat/half-human flautists whose leader was Pan, child of Hermes and Dionysus's older brother. While Dionysus is the frontman, the one who demands nothing less than total religious intoxication from his worshippers, Pan is the piper, the true musician who tethers that ecstatic state to the earth, who reminds us that no matter how subsumed by the gods we allow ourselves to become, there are still the essential
things we need: sex, libation, a romp with a nymph through the woods. This is where the real magic is, and why Pan's image will be superimposed on images of devils, adopted as the god of the witches, believed to be the Horned One, the Green Man, and then Baphomet, the symbolic god of magicians.

This is where Led Zeppelin exists, midway between Dionysian, intoxicating madness and the sexual earthiness of Pan. And like the mystery cults that worshipped these gods, Zeppelin's concerts are communal, driven by similarly tribal rhythms banged out on drums and timpani. Their fans grooved to their individual rhythms as much as to the collective consciousness of the audience, prompted by the theatrical gestures of the gods incarnate in the band. Just as the earliest forms of theater were to pay tribute to Dionysus, the spectacle of a Led Zeppelin show reignited that ancient urge. But let's not forget Pan, whose attributes were celebrated in the ancient Satyr plays, a joyous romp in the field of the darker and tragic aspects of life, exemplified in the open tuning of Page's guitar and Plant's unearthly high-ranging voice. And just as the satyrs proudly displayed their tumescent phalluses, the band exhibited their own cocky gesture by way of pelvis and upright guitar.


During the early 1980s, at the peak of his solo career, Ozzy Osbourne's brilliant stage show involved the singer sitting on a throne at the top of a large staircase, torches igniting in balls of flame, as he makes his way down the stage. The set was bookended by two large “stone” arches, and overhead a light show
drew a batlike demon flapping its angry wings. Ozzy would appear holding a large cross, and this would become a staple for not only Ozzy, but for gothic rock bands as well. The use of the cross in the context of a musical horror-movie performance was an inspired bit of malevolent whimsy.

Is the cross in defiance of its Christian context or is it a talisman to keep any real evil at bay, from being summoned by accident? That Ozzy would opt for the cross to become his representative symbol, rather than, say, a pentagram (which would become the ubiquitous metal icon), exposes an essential contradiction that Ozzy was able to use to his advantage. His young fans would listen to the song about “Mr. Crowley” (which itself is on the fence about whether or not the infamous magician is someone to revere or lament) and light black candles in their wood-paneled basements. But Ozzy would often say he was a Christian, and insist the demonic bombast was all showmanship. In interviews, Ozzy lamented—perhaps disingenuously—that even if he sang about birds, people would hear it as “Satan.” Even to his audience he felt the need to remind them before his shows began: “It's just music.” But no matter how he protested, Ozzy Osbourne would be seen as Satan's little singer.

Once he left Black Sabbath, which was his original band, Ozzy Osbourne would deliberately cultivate a dark and fiendish persona with his onstage antics, such as biting the head off a bat he later claimed to believe was rubber (the subsequent rabies shots taught him to be careful about what he put in his mouth). His lyrics would invite speculation of every sort, and they would even result in a lawsuit claiming Osbourne urged teenagers to commit suicide in his song “Suicide Solution.” The
covers to his first two solo records,
Blizzard of Ozz
Diary of a Madman
, are both suggestive of Osbourne practicing some kind of wicked magic. Fans loved it. They were a generation of kids witness to a gruesome parade of pop culture artifacts during the 1970s. Horror was not limited to film. In toy stores, parents bought their kids some of the most macabre products: In 1971, Aurora Plastics Corporation introduced its line of Monster Scenes models, including the Hanging Cage (complete with hot-coal pincers) and the Pain Parlor, with a nefarious-looking machine and an examination table. Later, in 1975, Milton Bradley produced the Shrunken Head Apple Sculpture kit, the box showing Vincent Price—the then most recognizable face in horror movies—in a lab coat, holding up two tiny withered heads. Monsters were used to market everything to kids, from chewable vitamins to cereal.

The monster craze really started in 1958 when James Warren launched
Famous Monsters of Filmland
, an unabashed celebration of horror movies, including interviews, still photos, and reviews. From the first magazine under Warren Publishing, and from there on in, Warren revived the lost art of gory sequential art in the tradition of EC Comics, such as
Tales from the Crypt,
which had been discontinued due to the heavy-handed moral weight of the Comics Code Authority, a self-governing agency of comic publishers that approved—or censored—comic book material depending on the level of violent, sexual, or even supernatural content it contained. Gaining approval meant getting a stamp on the upper corner of the comic. This meant better distribution in drugstores, magazine stands, and bookstores. By making his comics the size of regular magazines and
unable to fit in the spinning comic book racks, Warren avoided the Code.

Warren published three essential horror comic magazines,
. The stories were written and drawn by a remarkable stable of writers and artists who took gleeful advantage of their newfound freedom. In the 1970s, the Warren magazines offered dozens of occult-themed stories and offered the comic book–reading audiences a gloomier panel-by-panel look at the world, one in extreme opposition to the colorful superheroes that had come to dominate the 1960s with the ascension of Marvel Comics' lively aesthetics of Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, and the Hulk. The tide was turning away from the psychedelic pastels of the Aquarian Age toward something more foreboding. Marvel Comics wasn't immune, either. In the 1970s, the company introduced their own version of Dracula in
Tomb of Dracula
, the supernatural antihero Daimon Hellstrom in
Son of Satan
, and the undead motorcyclist
Ghost Rider
. Other titles included
Werewolf by Night
Legion of Monsters
, and
Morbius, the Living Vampire
. The magazines and comics accumulated a nice cult following, prompted by the distribution to local television stations of
Shock Theater
, an inexpensive package of horror movies by Universal Studios.

Monsters and occult movies received another boost when they moved from late-night programming featuring costumed hosts, such as the Boston-based
Simon's Sanctorum,
to the late morning and early afternoon in the 1960s and 1970s, with UHF stations running
Creature Features
Creature Double Feature
on Saturday and Sunday mornings. American adolescents were getting their first taste not only of the main quorum of monsters—
Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolfman, and the Mummy—but the darker, more esoteric chills of movies like
The House That Dripped Blood
Dr. Phibes Rises Again

Ozzy Osbourne's Black Sabbath would embrace this exaggerated horror-movie sensibility. Even their name was inspired by the film
Black Sabbath
starring Boris Karloff, which the bass player, Geezer Butler, noticed on the marquee of a cinema and who then decided to write a song with the same title. At the time, the band went by the name Earth, but opted to change it to better reflect the sound they had in mind. This doom-laden and riff-heavy sound, along with their dark lyrics, would give the band a reputation for having made an infernal pact. Black Sabbath, the very name evoking a perverted notion of holiness, was the de facto Luciferian messenger. Black Sabbath became the new mantle of hard rock, fueled by marijuana and afterimages of Vietnam and Charles Manson with songs like “War Pigs” and “Iron Man.”

The irony of Black Sabbath is that a close listen to their lyrics will reveal a warning cry during a time when it looked like the world was going to hell, more than an embrace of the devil they seem to portray. “War Pigs” (a song that includes the worst couplet in the history of rock, rhyming “their masses” with “black masses”) explicitly names Satan, but he laughs and “spreads his wings” because of warmongering and genocide. The song is a mirror, not a conjuration.

Nevertheless, Black Sabbath would create a legacy of rock and roll demonism, altering the presentation and aesthetic of rock. The band presents an interesting problem in rock history, since they played with both extremes of the occult manifestation
in rock. On the one hand, their music and performances can be seen as nothing more than a deliberate attempt to court media attention by turning up the evil persona to eleven. This playacting didn't always go over well with critics. In 1975, for
, Mick Farren called their horror-movie bombast nothing but a carnivalesque put-on: “This isn't psychodrama. It's an amusement park ghost train. It has the same cheap, lowest common denominator, dubious thrill quotient while totally lacking the kind of gaudy innocence that might make it redeemingly charming.” Osbourne didn't try to pretend otherwise. In 1978, the singer told
Rolling Stone
magazine: “People think we're into black magic and voodoo, which we never have been. . . . A lot of that had to do with the initial drive to sell the band. We created a brand, if you like, a package.”

On the other hand, Black Sabbath employed musical elements tapping directly into the deeper well forming rock's essential spiritual motivation. Often held up by detractors as proof of their brimstone-blackened souls is the use of what is called the tritone, or the “devil's interval.” The chord was first noted for its extreme dissonance, and for early composers was deemed ugly and best avoided. Rumors persist that the Catholic Church banned the chord due to its sinister associations, but there is no evidence that there was in any way a concerted effort to prevent or punish its use. It wasn't until later composers such as Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt—who used the tritone in his pieces “Dante Sonata” and “Mephisto Waltzes”—that the chord was connected to the figure of the devil.

Black Sabbath's virtuoso guitarist Tony Iommi told the
BBC News Magazine
in 2006 that he was trying for an ominous sound,
but he had no intention of creating an aura of evil around the band: “When I started writing Sabbath stuff it was just something that sounded right. I didn't think I was going to make it Devil music.” Nevertheless, Satan and his legion make numerous appearances in the songs of Black Sabbath. Whether by design or accident, the band's sound and themes gelled perfectly, offering up the perfect and original Luciferian heavy metal affect.

“Black Sabbath,” the band's first and most explicitly satanic song, mentions the devil by name, but the narrator is anything but thrilled to see him, calling out, “Oh no, no, please God help me.” “The Wizard,” the second song on their eponymous first album, introduces a magic user who banishes demons and “turns tears into joy.” “War Pigs,” one of their most legendary songs, bears witness to an ecstatically happy Satan looking over the bodies of fallen soldiers. Almost every reference to the devil or evil doings is met by a warning. In this respect, Black Sabbath is more like a biblical prophet than the tempter who mocks Jesus in the desert.

As Michael Moynihan writes in his book on black metal,
Lords of Chaos
, Sabbath's lyrics “reveal an almost Christian fear of demons and sorcery.” It didn't matter. Sabbath sang about evil and Lucifer often enough that they performed an actual feat of magic. It's all in the name. Just as the ceremonial magician constructs a magic circle and conjures demons by calling out their names, Black Sabbath invoked a dark spirit that possessed the popular consciousness. In another example of how music in general, and rock in particular, functions as a particularly potent vehicle for transmitting the occult imagination, Black Sabbath became a code that could be read with whatever
key you wanted. If you were Christian you could see them as the devil's emissary. Teenagers saw them as agents of rebellion. The reality was that they were a group of young musicians who wanted to make great rock and roll that had relevance and power. Black Sabbath was able to discover where in the culture there was a vacuum easily filled by an occult principality. Led Zeppelin led the charge by leveling psychedelic rock and rebuilding a darker, heavier, and esoterically rich musical foundation. But Black Sabbath called it by name, a moniker attaching itself to the whole of the 1970s, a decade characterized by excess. This was not the romantic Lucifer that shadowed Mick Jagger, nor was it the lawful evil of the devils found in the Dungeons & Dragons
Monster Manual
. This was a Satan come to storm the castle of rock, the anti-Christian beast whose foul breath would smother the planet in doom.

BOOK: Season of the Witch : How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll (9780698143722)
9.52Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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