Read Season of the Witch : How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll (9780698143722) Online
Authors: Peter Bebergal
This was it, then. The mystical experience could be untethered completely from religion. But despite this freedom given to the new consciousness explorers, occult and Eastern mystical imagery and ideas would still come to dominate the landscape. Not only did occultism and mysticism offer other ways of making sense of a world seemingly spinning out of control by way of war and racism, they put the fate of the individual in their own hands; no experience, no matter how transcendent, happens in a vacuum. There was an urgent need for the counterculture to have a spiritual basis. The Beats of the 1950s had grooved to Zen Buddhism, but it was not oriented toward either bliss or revolution and did not offer a cosmic vision that could contain
the acid trip. The wave breaking on the shore of the counterculture was too strong. It was not enough to change the social and political system. One had to change one's very being and relationship to the universe. Only a direct experience with the divine governed by the individual's desire would suffice.
This spiritual rebellion would need a soundtrack, and so two of the editors of the influential London underground magazine
), Joe Boyd and John “Hoppy” Hopkins, ran the UFO Club on Tottenham Court Road from December 1966 to October 1967. During that short year, the UFO Club helped shape the look and feel of the new mysticism and revolutionized the rock concert by turning it into a spectacle through the use of film, lights, and the soon ubiquitous shape-morphing slides that were projected onto the walls. It was the show posters, however, that gave the counterculture an occult-laden aesthetic found even in the rock art poster of today, a potent alchemy of various nineteenth-century art movements, including Romanticism, Art Nouveau, and Symbolism, each of them underscored by a search for esoteric secrets.
The nineteenth century would, in many respects, be the last of a truly enchanted time for artists and musicians until the 1960s. 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, and writers and thinkers like Arthur Conan Doyle and William James were interested in psychic research and spiritualism. Even Harry Houdini spent great time and effort in the hopes of finding a medium who could help him correspond with his beloved dead mother, only to become an expert in ferreting out frauds and charlatans. It was the artists,
however, who painted the nineteenth century in mystical symbolism, often hidden from plain view unless you knew where to look. For the Symbolists, art was a method to transmit secret meaning in an effort to undermine the realism and naturalism that was coming to dominate modern art. The poet Jean MorÃ©as conceived of the Symbolist manifesto in 1886: “So, in this art, the pictures of nature, the actions of human beings, all concrete phenomena would not themselves know how to manifest themselves; these are presented as the sensitive appearance destined to represent their esoteric affinity with primordial Ideas.” Partly a response to what MorÃ©as saw as the failure of Romanticism to usher in a new age, but more deeply a polemic against a purely scientific worldview that was becoming increasingly in vogue, the Symbolist ideal was easily folded into the occult interests of the time. Many of the artists and musicians who associated with Symbolism were members of various Rosicrucian orders, including Claude Debussy and Erik Satie. JosÃ©phin PÃ©ladan, a novelist and esoteric Christian, began a series of art and literary salons presented as a Rosicrucian lodge, the Salon de la Rose + Croix.
The Decadent movement, closely linked to Symbolism, included an attack on the upper class and often incorporated more explicit sexual and taboo elements into the work. The aquiline illustrator Aubrey Beardsley, whose work belied his own shy and internal moral tension, was most well-known for his drawings of Oscar Wilde's play
and for publishing an edition of Aristophanes'
, the latter of which is replete with grotesquely large phalluses. Other drawings referred to pagan and mythological themes, many that were at the heart of occult ideas at the time. Beardsley's drawing
The Mysterious Rose Garden
, found in
the literary journal
The Yellow Book
(edited by Beardsley), shows a nude young woman in a garden, listening to secrets from a wing-footed man, reminiscent of Hermes, the god who would become a core figure in the Hermetic doctrine that would shape nineteenth-century occult thought. The spiritual rebellion inherent in Beardsley's work would finally give way to Catholicism, and near the end of his short life he wanted most of his work destroyed.
This turn toward myth and occultism and the reaction against realism inspired artists to look toward their own unconscious, such as dreams, but even more dramatically to the visions of hashish and opium. These drugs would help to expand on the idea of individuality, of the value of inwardness, and the power of mythic archetypes often unfolding during drug intoxication. In Charles Baudelaire's
Fleurs du Mal
Flowers of Evil
), the poet writes of the splendid “poison” of opium: “Opium magnifies that which is limitless, / Lengthens the unlimited, /Makes time deeper, hollows out voluptuousness, / And with dark, gloomy pleasures / Fills the soul beyond its capacity.” This is a spiritual encounter not mediated by church or priest, by book or creed, but by the willful seeking of a direct encounter with the divine, and is eerily prophetic of the occult-infused LSD experience in the 1960s.
The more obvious influence on the UFO Club's posters comes by way of the Czech artist Alphonse Mucha, whose style would define the Art Nouveau style of the fin de siÃ¨cle. A Freemason with a penchant for spiritualism, he was true to the spirit of his time. Mucha believed that the aim of art was to communicate hidden spiritual realities. His work
, a series of drawings related to the Lord's Prayer spoken by Jesus in the
Gospels of Matthew and Luke, is profoundly esoteric, filled with visionary figures, devils, and heavenly visitation. Mucha used the prayer to reflect on the divine evolution of humanity, and believed, like the hippies of the 1960s, that a new spiritual age was dawning. Even his poster art, often used for advertisements (which is what rock posters are, after all), illuminated this idea of spiritual perfection, most often in the form of a woman, usually surrounded by florally decorated halos, dressed in long, rapturous fabrics, and with a look of deep spiritual peace on her face. These elements would find their way into almost every poster for the UFO Club, and were a revival of the nineteenth-century ideal that art could change the spiritual condition of the world.
The bands of the UFO Clubâthe Soft Machine, the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, Pink Floydâplayed against a backdrop of projection created by the art collective known as the Boyle Family (Mark Boyle and Joan Hills). In earlier performances, Boyle and Hills projected bodily fluids, including blood, sperm, and vomit, onto screens. During UFO shows, acid was poured onto zinc slides and the destruction was projected. Colored liquids were also used, and sometimes entire evenings would center around one color, with colored fabric, paint, and confetti thrown around during the performances. The writer David Thompson described Boyle's work as a kind of mysticism: “[Mysticism] is the only serious word that adequately covers the aim and the activity. The aim is not to âcreate' something, to communicate, to demonstrate, to define or to discover. It is to isolate for examination.” It is, according to Thompson, a romantic conception of art that is not interested in dividing up the world into categories but rather is seeking unity. Combining these projections with
the music, all of it fueled by copious amounts of LSD, pushed at the edges of culture, creating a counterculture that the mainstream would ultimately embrace, if only in a commercial sense.
It would be impossible to catalogue every instance of the rock poster art influence on British and American advertising, but there are standout examples that either cynically ripped off the most noncommercial art form next to graffiti or simply had to give over to a psychic transformation that was so powerful, the counterculture alone could not contain it. A 7UP television commercial by the artist Peter Max, whose work is reminiscent of the Beatles'
film, features a flared-panted character walking on clouds, imagining prizes, each presented in a highly colorful quasi-mystical setting. There are even hints of the ubiquitous LSD “trails.” A Brim commercial for its then new decaffeinated coffee suggests the drink contains another special ingredient. Each person who drinks it is shown going wide-eyed as colorful animated thoughts swirl from the top of their heads, as if their crown chakras have been awakened, revealing Mucha-like swirls and flowers, and there's even a figure vocalizing the word
as it exits his throat on a rainbow. In the print advertising world, a 1969 Pepsi ad features the iconic bottle surrounded by floral mandalas and haloed by a rainbow-colored sun, as if a divine presence has descended into our midst.
Change was not only in the air, it was in the very look and sound of the time, but there was often tension about whether the revolution was social, political, or spiritual. Sometimes even other hippies found the effort to change one's mind, instead of the system, to be a dangerous and often futile effort, especially for the more politically motivated freaks. Even in
, one nameless
editor opens the 1967 issue with an angry stream-of-consciousness rant to not let the mystically inclined acidheads derail the true project of the revolution. American readers had been writing, asking where all the LSD-inspired mandalas were. The editors responded that they were worried a focus on drugs and other high weirdness would undermine their mission by not only making them more suspect in the eyes of the law, but causing the drug quest to become its own kind of fundamentalism: “This is the drag about LSD: it's a tease. We must not get hung up on some drug scene. Finally, the only scene is where you are with yourself âspiritually.' The human soul, the inner-vision, call it what [
] you like, transcends everything, including the psychedelic experienceâwhich is not the only way nor necessarily the best to explore eternal/mystical/Zen/Schizoid states of consciousness.” There was no irony here. Even in 1967 people were witnessing the sometimes dark consequences of mixing acid with occultism.
As Pink Floyd continued its upward momentum in 1967, Syd was accelerating downhill. The other members of Pink Floyd could no longer rely on Barrett being able to perform. He would detune his guitar, and stare blankly toward some inner vision, and his appearances on TV were unpredictable. While he had some ability to work in the studio, by 1968 the rest of the band agreed he had to be fired and replaced with David Gilmour, who would help usher in an entirely new direction for the band. Syd would soon be out of the music business entirely, but not before recording a few solo records with the production help of Gilmour. Sadly, it's the song “Opel” that does not appear on his masterful album
The Madcap Laughs
(it is included on
later compilations) and is Barrett's spiritual confession, the most simple and lucid account of his desperate spiritual journey, as he sings, “I'm trying / I'm trying to find you!”
Syd would try one more time with the 1970 effort
, an overly produced mess with only a smattering of brilliance. Soon after, he performed his last show in front of an audience, backed by Gilmour, at the Olympia Exhibition Hall, but fifteen minutes into his set Barrett suddenly, but gently, put down his guitar and walked offstage. This was the beginning of Barrett becoming a recluse. Then in 1975, a hollow-eyed, overweight Barrett showed up unexpectedly at the recording studio where the now world-famous Pink Floyd, having produced
Dark Side of the Moon
, was working on its follow-up,
Wish You Were Here
. The band was recording “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” a suite of songs about Barrett, with lyrics prefiguring the man who came to visit them as well as capturing the brilliant musician they had once known: “Now there's a look in your eyes, like black holes in the sky. / Shine on you crazy diamond.” But even more chilling is the remark about Barrett's esoteric spiritual quest, a warning offered to many people on the same journey: “You reached for the secret too soon, you cried for the moon.”
Madness and the visionary experience are difficult to parse. What were once believed to be religious visions were later understood to be chemical imbalances. For the occult imagination, this distinction is meaningless. But for the psychedelic sixties, it wasn't going to suffice to simply be seized by visions over and over again. There would always be the danger, as the historian of religion and early psychedelic advocate Huston Smith said, of creating a religion of little more than religious experiences.
Syd Barrett was burdened by a consciousness always seeking occult connections, but all he found was an infinity of meaning with no single truth on the horizon. For a while, his music gave this perpetual state of being turned-on a creative outlet, and audiences quickly identified their own unique hallucinogenic experiences in the storybook occult fables of Barrett's music.
While Syd Barrett's mystical psychosis via Pink Floyd, as well as the other bands of swinging London, would channel a new spiritual movement through their music and the rock posters that announced their shows, it was across the Atlantic where an even greater wave of occult-inflected mysticism was turning into a tsunami. The hippies were in need of something more than a hit of acid, but where was wisdom to be found. They were always told it came with age, but the grown-ups were making a mess of things. Where were the adults who might actually have something to teach worth learning? Western culture had long romanticized the notion of the bearded teacher, a demigod who walked between heaven and earth, like the old man in William Blake's etching
The Ancient of Days
whose esoteric knowledge can measure the universe and bring order out of the chaos. Occultism would merge with Eastern mysticism, and young people would seek out gurus and other enlightened beings to show them how to turn their stoned insights into tools of the revolution.