Read Season of the Witch : How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll (9780698143722) Online
Authors: Peter Bebergal
Many of the songs in the anthology are echoes of the music played and sung in the shadows of the Appalachian Mountains, an area settled as early as the 1700s by British, Welsh, and Scottish immigrants, who brought with them their own folk music. Many of these songs came to be known as Child Ballads, named after the nineteenth-century Harvard University folklorist
Francis Child, who was the first to compile them in a rigorous way. The anthology would become the creation myth for the mid-twentieth-century generation of folk musicians, such as Bob Dylan, many of whom would go on to influence rock and roll. The critic Luc Sante called the anthology “a treasure map of a now hidden America.” Smith's anthology linked folk music to a past where the spirits of old could manifest themselves in song.
Plutarch, in his
, reports that, during the reign of the emperor Tiberius Caesar Augustus, a messenger brought the news that Pan had diedâthe last of the old gods to survive the quickly spreading new religion called Christianity. But if the gods are merely aspects of us, then Pan could never stay dead. His spirit hitched a ride on the slave ships under a different cover: the god Eshu, believed to be the devil by some. What was left of the old African religion was stripped bare to its fundamental core. All that was left were its methods of worship: song and shout, dance and drum. But the spiritual rebellion powering this music could not be buried. The ancient and all-too-human drive for a direct religious communion would find a way to present itself in every generation. Even when rock and roll was being exorcised of sex and rebellion in the late 1950s, a phantom was lurking on the edges of the mainstream. It was being driven by the fiery poetry and prose of the Beats as well as by experimental composers and artists. There was a wind coming in from the East, and it was bringing with it spiritual ideas that could bridge the dark pagan past and the milk-white Christian present. Gurus and bodhisattvas, some who seemed to possess their own special powers and others with a third eye open wide, came to teach
the one essential truth the West badly needed. Heaven is on earth now. We had never been parted from it. There is no duality tearing apart the world, no devil trading musical secrets for souls. God is not in the starry heaven above, God is within you.
Syd Barrett's bandmates watched in sick astonishment as their lead singer and guitarist stood at the front of the stage. His face appeared to be melting. Barrett, the mind and soul behind Pink Floyd, looked out across the audience at the Cheetah Club in Venice, California, as he strummed a single chord on his mirror-covered Fender Telecaster. In 1967, an audience watching Pink Floyd was ready for anything. Pink Floyd revolutionized the live experience as they played long interstellar jams as movie projectors flashed images and smoke swirled around the ever-moving people lit up on acid. Usually the audience grooved to their individual rhythms as much as to the collective consciousness, and rode whatever wave the band was on. But like any mystical journey, there was the danger of being seduced by the ecstasy, of mistaking one's own hopes and expectations for the truer union and getting blasted across the universe as a result.
The audience might have thought the ghastly strobing visage of Barrett was part of the spectacle, but what they were really seeing was a young man at the peak of his powers imploding. They were also witnessing a kaleidoscopic fun house of mirrors: an ever-reflecting cascade of the occult's influence on rock and roll and, by extension, on all of pop culture.
Both Syd Barrett's music and his psyche were being swept up by a current that was finding new energy in England. American rock and roll had turned down its Pentecostal-like fire and dowsed its own sexual and spiritual rebellionâonce the essential drive behind rock's restless spirit. By the early 1960s rock had become neutered. In garages around the United States, teenagers were plugging in their cheap electric guitars and banging on three-piece drum kits, trying to reignite the flame, but it was in England where bands found a formula for injecting a dose of adrenaline into the syrupy pop that had become the staple of radio play. Bands like the Beatles, the Who, and others of the British Invasion looked past Pat Boone to rock's original roots in the blues and reminded people what they loved about rock and roll in the first place. It was the LSD experience, howeverâheld aloft by a fusion of Eastern mysticism, mythology, and occultismâthat would utterly transfigure rock's sound and performance, in clothing and staging, and in its ability to convince fans it was a transmitter for a new spiritual truth. Barrett, especially through his steerage of Pink Floyd, willingly embraced being the messenger.
Through Pink Floyd, Barrett conjured a mystical dream for the audience to inhabit, drawn from his own drugged imagination, which was fueled by his interest in mysticism, as well as
the popular fascinations of his era, such as the British pastoral fantasy of J. R. R. Tolkien's
Lord of the Rings
, the text outlining the ancient Chinese system of divination. Even more essential is what music critic Rob Young, in his essential
, describes as Barrett being “strangely pushed and pulled between nostalgia for the secret garden of a child's imagination and the space-age futurism of interstellar overdrive.” Barrett was channeling a spirit that was trying to pierce the veil between these worlds, and while this nostalgia and futurism, as Young puts it, seem opposed, they are actually two ideas at the heart of magic. The practice of magic is one requiring a link to the past and a vision of the future. Barrett added this directly to the lyrics of his songs and his live performances, experimenting with light and sound in an attempt to work the audience into a trance. The method is new, but the intention is ancient. On that November night in 1967, a dark magic was being worked by the young musician.
Backstage a few minutes earlier, Barrett had poured the contents of a bottle of hair gel mixed with crushed Quaaludes onto his head. Under the hot lights of the stage, the gel and pill mix slowly dripped down his face. This was no mere prank to freak out his audience. Something had gone terribly wrong. Barrett was in a trance of his own as he played the same monotone chord over and over again. Barrett's behavior had been getting more and more erratic, his almost maniacal LSD consumption inducing or at the very least aggravating some form of mental illness.
His bandmates were more than worried. They were afraid. Syd had become so unpredictable, they could never be sure what would happen next. Later that year, Barrett would walk out
onto a stage, helped by his fellow musicians. Barrett stood still, the tension rising. June Bolan, a friend and business associate of Pink Floyd, remembered the moment as one when the tension never lifted: “Suddenly he put his hands on the guitar and we thought, âGreat, he's actually going to do it!' But he just stood there, he just stood there tripping out of his mind.”
Acid and the pressure of fame are often blamed as the reason behind Syd Barrett's downfall, but his drug use was mixed into an explosive compound by his compulsion for spiritual awareness. It began in 1966 when Barrett became involved with a group that practiced Sant Mat, a strange synthesis of Sikhism, Hinduism, and Sufism. The Sant Mat philosophy requires initiation into its teachings, and Barrett was not considered spiritually fit. Sant Mat emphasizes chastity, abstinence from drugs and alcohol, and a commitment to meditation practice, not something a young up-and-coming rock and roll star in the mid-sixties was likely to find easy. Barrett was saddened by the esoteric order's rejection of him, but there were distractions to take his mind off it: Pink Floyd and LSD. Instead of a spiritual practice, Barrett tested the limitations of sound and lyrics, crafting songs about the
and cosmic consciousness by way of space travel. Pink Floyd's first album,
Piper at the Gates of Dawn
, is a
, a cabinet of curiosities containing the relics that littered Barrett's psychic landscape and a construct mirroring the counterculture's spiritual yearning.
The Piper at the Gates of Dawn
is a direct reference to the chapter in Kenneth Grahame's 1908 book,
Wind in the Willows
, where the animals unexpectedly find themselves in the presence of the god Pan. Rat and Mole are traveling in a boat
along the riverbank. It is Rat who hears the piping first. Mole is skeptical. That is, until he comes across the god himself. In a moment not in any way related to the main plot of the book, Mole and Rat undergo a religious epiphany as they are seemingly initiated into the cult of Pan:
Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terrorâindeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happyâbut it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near.Â .Â .Â . Trembling he obeyed, and raised his humble head; and then, in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fullness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper.Â .Â .Â .
The music of the 1960s would prove to be a grove in which to worship Pan. The hippies had much in common with the first real revival of the horned deity by way of the Romantic poets and writers, not only in their use of pagan and natural imagery, such as Percy Bysshe Shelley's “Hymn of Pan,” wherein the god “sang of the dancing stars,” but also in the suggestion that drugs could offer a window into Pan's ancient realm, as in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's opium-infused poem “Kubla Khan.” Even more significantly, the 1960s counterculture revived the Romantic belief that reason and the age of industry were anathema to the natural world and the spirit of myth and poetry. This is the experience many young seekers in the 1960s were looking for, a direct, immediate communion with nature and by extension the
universe. Art and music were the vessels for both the Romantics and the hippies. The piper at the gates of dawn was playing his panpipe for those who needed to hear. And the youth of the 1960s were pulled toward it like a siren song. There was no turning back. Rock culture was now inhabited by a Romantic soul that looked to the gods of the past. And like the Romantic poets who were their forebears, rock musicians crafted music that did more than tug at the heartstrings of teenagers. It was music that urged them toward transcendence, toward creating their own inner landscapes and exploring the antipodes of their minds.
The Piper at the Gates of Dawn
shines forth from Syd Barrett's psyche as if he's a prism of the collective unconscious of the generation. The album opens with “Astronomy Domine,” sometimes subtitled “An Astral Chant,” referencing both cosmic awareness and Gregorian chants. The song is a stream-of-consciousness vision relating the tension between getting as far out as you can, all the while terrified of leaving the “blue” of the earth. Other songs make reference to a cat named Lucifer (“Lucifer Sam”), a gnome named Grimble Crumble (“The Gnome”), and a paganlike idyll echoing “Hymn of Pan” in its celebration of the joyful mystery of nature (“Flaming”). Then there is the literal “Chapter 24,” taken almost word for word from the popular
translation by Richard Wilhelm and Cary F. Baynes, first published in 1950. The twenty-fourth hexagram,
, is eerily prescient as it “counsels turning away from the confusion of external things, turning back to one's inner light. There, in the depths of the soul, one sees the Divine, the One.” Whether it was intentional or not, in “Chapter 24” Barrett expressed not only his own spiritual desires, but the yearning
of an entire generation that was coming of age listening to Pink Floyd.
The Piper at the Gates of Dawn
is filled with its own internal spiritual anxiety, mixing pagan folk images with Eastern mysticism. This would characterize much of the 1960s' otherworldly desire, which borrowed from everything that was even vaguely non-Christian and out of tune with mainstream religious mores. Nevertheless, there is a single spark in both pagan magic and Eastern theology with which the counterculture could build a fire that would burn for generations and would feed the New Age movement and almost every subsequent contemporary alternative religious community. Barrett's writing of “Chapter 24” was even more prophetic than he could have imagined. The twenty-fourth hexagram of the
, which inspired his song, is the hexagram of self-knowledge and individuality, of not giving in to the temptation of the crowd, but recognizing the unity of all things: “To know this One means to know oneself in relation to the cosmic forces.”
Piper at the Gates of Dawn
is the dream of one man, made audible through a group consciousness. And for much of the counterculture that identified with this dream, LSD was the method to attain it.
Barrett's own intense turn toward LSD as a path was congruent with the times. The table had been set for a mystical communion to be given on the tongue as a hit of acid. By 1967, mystical consciousness and psychedelic drugs had become synonymous. LSD and other hallucinogenic drug experiences seamlessly aligned with occult and Eastern religious imagery and ideas. The feeling of ego dissolution, for example, corresponds nicely to the Buddhist notion of ego transcendence. A sense of
unity or “becoming one with the universe”âa common phenomenon for those who have had a psychedelic experienceâis akin to pantheism, where God is believed to be in all things, and all things are in God. None of this is to suggest that the LSD trip somehow communicates special spiritual knowledge. But the acid experience can be overwhelming, and Eastern mysticism and occultism are well suited to make sense of an otherwise inexplicable occurrence.
This sacred marriage between LSD and the East was beautifully, if not artificially, realized in the 1966 book andâas perfectly suited to the timeâcompanion record,
The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead
, by Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner, and Richard Alpert (later known as Ram Dass). The authors had their work cut out for them. They had to make two simultaneous, possibly opposing, claims: first that the psychedelic experience is remarkably similar to the classical mystical experience as described by Eastern traditions, and second that LSD can take the place of rigorous religious discipline to achieve the mystical state of consciousness. This idea was first elevated to the popular consciousness by Aldous Huxley in his 1954 book,
The Doors of Perception
, a canonical text during the 1960s. Huxley, who had once been a devotee of the Hindu philosophical system known as Vedanta and wrote forcefully against attempts to circumvent rigorous spiritual discipline to attain a union with the divine, took a little less than half a gram of mescalineâthe psychoactive substance found in the peyote cactusâand had a change of heart. Huxley came to believe psychedelic drugs could bypass the need for any religious exercises. The notion that a mystical experience could
exist independent of any religious community was radical indeed, and for a generation desperately seeking some divine connection without being pinned down to any kind of tradition or hierarchy, it was just the thing the hippies were after.
Nevertheless, Leary and company recognized that their audience of novice trippers would be well served by having a religious framework for what could be an unpredictable and sometimes terrifying journey, and
The Tibetan Book of the Dead
, which according to Leary was essentially a guidebook to the mystical journey, was exotic enough, but also could make sense of the LSD trip. But he would qualify the use of this deeply religious text so as not to scare off those who might be skeptical. Leary writes in the liner notes of the album: “Today psychedelic drugs such as LSD make it possible for anyone to propel himself out of his mind into unknown, uncharted neurological regions. The yogas and spiritual exercises of the past are no longer needed to escape the inertia of the symbolic mind. Exit is guaranteed.”