November 2014

Danielle Sherrod


An Interview with Peter Bebergal

I consider myself a logical person: I don't believe there is a white guy named God who can see everything I've done. I don't believe that angels flit around in the air. I feel as many do: skeptical at things that are perhaps designed to bring comfort.

And yet...

I am deeply superstitious. I am a southerner who has been groomed in ghost stories, hauntings, and the paranormal. I was raised by a grandmother who was both a palm reader and tarot card teller, whose old world connections were hidden from many because they were "weird." There are women in my family that have been accused of being witches. I know these things are "not real." I know these things are slightly silly.

But there's a belief there that still itches.

Which is why I gravitated toward Peter Bebergal's newest book, Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll, a cultural and historical dive into how the influences of the mad, the mysterious, and the unknown found their ways into rock and roll. From the hoodoo roots of Elvis Presley to the still-swirling theories of Jay-Z and Beyoncé's involvement in the Illuminati, Bebergal approaches the way mysticism and the magical unknown have taken rock and roll to the heights we know today, visiting everything from witchcraft and Masonry, to sorcery and that ill-fated word "Satanism," which often gets stamped on music that is really about much more.

Bebergal is most notably known for his columns at Boing Boing, and has been featured in Tin House, Tablet, The Believer, and blogs at Mystery Theater. What he's crafted here is an illumination of the weird and trippy heart that is at so much of rock and roll, and does so without landing upon one side or the other.

You mention that one of your first encounters with rock and roll was at age eleven, when you were going through your brother's record collection. Moreover, you talk about the discovery you made within that music, which was the idea of magic. Even further, of myth, of the occult, of superstition. Can you talk about how this early discovery fueled not only a personal love of this symbology in music, but how it fed into the creation of this book?

My siblings were much older than me, so as a kid I kind of felt like I was living in a house full adults. And they knew things I didn't, had experiences very different from my own. They were kind of mysterious and dangerous. Sex was, of course, the throbbing heart at the center of this feeling. I gleaned the idea of sex from finding my brother's dirty magazines, watching him put on cologne and his white suit to go out dancing, and the arguments my sisters had with my parents about boys and staying out late. My brother's room was like a wonder cabinet of the forbidden: Playboy, cigarette smoke, and rock-and-roll albums.

So here I was, this eleven-year-old immersed in my own weird merry making by way of Dungeons & Dragons, monster movies, and Heavy Metal magazine, furtively listening to David Bowie's Diamond Dogs for the first time when my brother wasn't home. I was doomed from the get go. Eventually I found my way to the small occult section of my school library. It was the seventies, so it wasn't hard to find material on the occult: made-for-TV movies, books on witchcraft, movies about the devil, even comics like Ghost Rider and House of Mystery. My adolescent DNA was a helix of occult pop culture. But something about finding this imagery and mystique within rock and roll made it feel real, more real than shows like In Search Of.... My brother used to torment me by playing The Beatles "Revolution 9," spinning it backwards for secret messages. It terrified me, but I also loved it. It was intoxicating to feel like hidden in the grooves of all this amazing music and in the lives of these charismatic artists was magic, real magic, or so I thought at the time. But the love of all this never left me. This was the book I was destined to write from the first moment I looked for clues to Paul McCartney's death on album covers.

I think America has a culture that doesn't believe in magic -- we believe in a lot of other potentially "unreal" things (e.g., angels, that the earth is only 6,000 years old). Yet, we have such an aversion to things like the occult, enchantment, things that are not explainable (and yet, we know them in our bones). How is it that we can explain these very human behaviors or impulses, or the denial of them? How does that then get wrapped into music?

The occult is such a loaded term. People are very reactive to it as it contains so much historical baggage. When I would tell people I was writing this book, many would ask if I was writing about Satanism and the devil, as for them that is the first idea they associate with the occult. Others assumed I was going to be making some kind of metaphysical claims about actual spirits driving the music, and still others rolled their eyes at the very idea that the occult could be part of a serious cultural history. But you are exactly right. The occult is actually a deep and important part of the human imagination. I almost wish I didn't have to use the word, because what I am talking about is that aspect of the human psyche. Rock music, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, was able to tap into and expose this part of the imagination. The pop culture fed off this; commercials had their LSD-inspired graphics, movies and television dealt with occult themes regularly, and even Playboy magazine had an article with women dressed (or undressed as it were) as Tarot card trumps. But more importantly, rock was able to generate an ancient energy, a kind of Bacchic sensibility that had to do with excess, spiritual danger, and sex.

What's interesting is that rock music really has its roots in hoodoo, superstition, and the "unknown" -- this stems from early blues, which was a sound that was coming from the superstition-rich areas of the deep south, further mixed by elements of slavery, spiritual ballads, folk tales, and old world beliefs. Then you get the blues being co-opted, so you have that sound, which gets attributed to Elvis (who many people thought was doing the devil's music), even though he wasn't necessarily promoting that. Then, the pendulum swings back with the Stones, David Bowie, and Led Zeppelin. Is it cultural trend? Popularity? An actual investment in the occult? Furthermore, how did it change the face of rock music as we know it?

As to the first part of your question, I think it is a little of all of these things. Firstly, rebelling spiritually by way of devilish imagery and occult symbols is a perfect complement to music that is attempting to push up against the mainstream, to carve out something new, and to quickly inform your fans and the media that you are dangerous, or in on something secret. I also think that, for bands like the Stones and Zeppelin, in their early years they were young and excitable, stoned geniuses looking for thrills, be it musical, sexual, or magical. The occult has its own mystique, and for bands building their own mythology, it made perfect sense to explore these things. Did any of them actually practice magic? Who knows. But it's kind of beside the point. What is important is how the occult supercharged their music, their lives, and the culture that sprang up around them. That's where the occult's real power lives, in that moment where the fan is poring over the album cover looking for arcane secrets, while incredible and at the time almost radical music was playing over their stereo. I think if you were to remove this thread from the story of rock, popular music would sound -- and look -- very different.

How do you feel about the parallels between the occult fueling music in the 1970s with folks like Kiss and Patti Smith, and then the present-day version, which seems to be the speculation of Jay-Z and Beyoncé's involvement in the Illuminati?

When these images and ideas were first part of rock's aesthetic it was both a mirror of -- and a projection onto -- the psyche of the culture. The promise of a spiritual revolution fizzled out, but people didn't stop looking toward alternative spiritual paths for meaning. Astrology, Tarot cards, Ouiji boards, etc. had become part of the popular nomenclature. Everyone knew what their sun sign was, even if they didn't really care that much. There was also an element of fun and playfulness that came about, as the occult was being used more and more as elements of TV, film, and even comic books and toys. The occult was just part of the popular grammar. But at the same time, there was a more insistent need to find spiritual meaning outside of the churches and the synagogues, and so we see in the 1970s the emergence of the New Age movement. Magic and meditation were no longer just for the hippies. Musicians at the time enfolded into all this, and rock was a potent means to transmit and communicate the occult imagination.

Today, with musicians like Jay-Z and Madonna, it feels a bit more calculated, not quite as organic as it did in the 1970s. That is not to say the same kinds of psychological and spiritual doors are not being unlocked in the ways people respond to them, but there is less at stake and what is a put-on or a mere marketing ploy doesn't seem as joyful or playful as the way people like Alice Cooper did it.

Compared with your earlier book Too Much to Dream: A Psychedelic American Boyhood, which was about your own descent into using hallucinogens as a path to illumination, how does Season of the Witch compare? What elements do you recognize of yourself from before? What has evolved in your ideas toward spirituality in either music or drugs?

Within Too Much to Dream was also a larger cultural history but it was expressed through the genre of memoir. Happily and with some relief, I wanted Season of the Witch to enlarge the cultural and if I appear at all, it is only to say that it would be impossible to write this book if not for my own personal love of rock and roll and the weird and strange in popular culture. But Too Much to Dream also exposed my own complicated relationship to magic and occultism.

I sometimes characterize my own spiritual life as a kind of failed mysticism, and this is what is detailed in Too Much to Dream. I was desperate to find a spiritual experience, and coupled with drug addiction, it made for some bad days. When I first cleaned up, I was very turned off by anything having to do with the occult, and I think that attitude came through in Too Much to Dream. I was afraid of how crazy it had once made me, and it made it difficult for me to be sympathetic to occult imagination as an authentic aspect of the human experience. But when I would listen to the music that I never stopped loving, and would be reminded of those feelings I had as a teenager, I came to see that there was something very powerful taking place here, something that had touched on so much of popular culture.

I decided to see if I could reexamine the occult not as something that didn't work for me, but as a larger cultural phenomena. And my love of rock and roll kept it all grounded, because I realized art and music are where the most interesting stories get told. Drugs and occultism are not my path, but they don't have to be for me to see the impact they have had on society. You don't have to believe in spirits to be able to see that belief in spirits has worked its own kind of magic on the human imagination.

What's interesting is, with both these books, you are the first to admit that the occult is something you recognize as "woo," which might surprise first-time readers of your work. Can you elaborate on that?

I am a skeptical believer, insofar as I believe in the occult imagination as a powerful part of human experience and history, but the "reality" of these things is in some ways irrelevant to me. Whether or not people can really communicate with the dead is much less interesting to me than the ways in which spiritualism and other practices get expressed in culture, how people form communities around these beliefs, and how these kinds of beliefs make other people afraid. But more importantly, spiritual ideas seem to be more authentically realized in art and music. Your telling me about the spell you cast is about as interesting as hearing about you doing laundry. Art is never literal, and when it is, it fails. This is why Black Sabbath's dark moralizing via heavy riffs is so much cooler than the Left Behind series.

But in the interest of full disclosure, I am not an atheist. I do think there is something beyond the phenomenal world, but for me the only way to get at it is via art, literature, and, of course, music.

Why does the supernatural -- even for die-hard skeptics -- give us a sense of purpose or deeper meaning? Even if just in song lyrics?

When we go to see a stage magician, we know that there is a trick and that maybe if we learned how it was done, with some practice, we could do it also. But we readily and willingly suspend that disbelief when we sit down at the theater, or stand around the performer at a street fair. We want to be hypnotized in that moment; we want to feel transported, lifted out of the mundane.

I think rock and rock culture transmit this same quality, that there is an agreement between the musicians and the audience to allow something transcendent to take place, if only for that moment. The gods don't have to be real for them to work their charms on us. It is an ancient desire, part of our collective DNA as it were, to want to be in the presence of the divine. Belief has nothing to do with it. It is how we are wired.

Mostly, what are you hoping for readers to take away from this book?

I am not trying to change the accepted history of rock, but to say that we have too long overlooked how spiritual ideas, often in the guise of the occult and mysticism, have supercharged the music and the culture around it. I believe that if you pulled this thread out, rock and roll would look and sound very different. Rebellion is at the heart of rock, especially in the first decades, and that rebellion needed a spiritual expression. And the occult provided a perfect language to adorn and elevate the music, the personal lives of many of the musicians, and how the fans and media responded. But more importantly I hope readers will see that the occult imagination, in all its forms, is an important and powerful aspect of popular culture, and rock served as a perfect vehicle for its expression.

Lastly, I hope this book will bring back wonderful memories for readers who can recall sitting cross-legged on the floor, an album spinning on the turntable, the sleeve on their lap, staring intently at the artwork in the hopes of finding the secret communication from beyond, while fantastic -- and loud -- music exploded from the speakers.