In pop culture’s convenient shorthand, rock music as a vehicle for a spiritual quest is mostly dismissed as a joke. (Think pentagram tees on metal kids; sixties pop stars joining ashrams; “groovy” LSD trips; Spinal Tap’s Stonehenge.) But in Peter Bebergal’s Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll, rock’s spiritual dimension isn’t a misguided detour, it was the music's salvation. The author, who studied religion and culture at Harvard Divinity School, weaves a tale that touches on Yoruban deities, slave stomps, the UFO Club, Sun Ra, Mick Jagger, and New Age music, while celebrating Led Zeppelin and Ozzy Osbourne for their contributions. Witch makes a convincing case that rock burns bright when lit by a spiritual flame. Bebergal recently spoke at The Standard, Hollywood, and with Halloween fast approaching, we caught up with him by phone to find out why British rockers believe in magic, and we came away schooled in Daryl Hall’s occult period.
THE STANDARD: For some reason, British rock bands are able to pull off this occult imagery more elegantly than American rock bands ever have. Do you agree and why do you think that might be?
PETER BEBERGAL: I think that’s true. You can be somewhere in London and be walking on stones that are five, six, 700 years old. There’s a connection to pre-Christian ideas that’s part of the environment, both from a historical, but also pop cultural way. In the sixties and seventies, there was resurgence of these ancient mysteries.
Even more than Jimmy Page, this kind of stuff fascinated Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin. We don’t give him enough credit for that high weirdness of Led Zeppelin. I think Plant was the one who brought the fairytale element into their sound and their aesthetic.
We [in the United States] don’t have that connection to a path in quite the same way. The point I make in Season of the Witch is that it took people coming from Africa to bring these resonances to the United States, which we would ultimately appropriate, musically, with the blues. Also, we would appropriate the essence of these rhythms and the essence of this idea that spiritual rebellion could be part of the music.
Do you think the more extreme “we-love-Satan” metal genres kind of miss the point?
The Devil or Satan, that’s really easy shorthand to alert your audience that you are dangerous, that you are on the edge, that you are subversive. It doesn’t have to mean anything at all, just that it’s this incredibly powerful way of instantly firing a shot across the bow of the culture. It’s very easy to throw an upside down Pentagram on your album cover. I do think that that’s a very small part of this very broad area of the occult. When I told people I was writing the book, they’d say “Are you writing a book about Satan?” I’d say, “That’s one small part of it.”
For those of us that didn’t live through the sixties, it can be hard to understand what a jolt this was. Spiritualism of the sixties can be the butt of a joke. But was this part of a sincere spiritual quest?
Yes. And you throw LSD into the mix and it’s explosive. It made sense that people had extremely powerful experiences that they had no words for. There was something about eastern mysticism or images on tarot cards that felt more expansive. It became this language that people were using to make sense of those experiences. And it was part of what people were using to pursue these experiences, so they fed into one other.
In the book, you say that this spirituality helped save rock music from being a teenie bopper commercial genre. How did this interest in the occult benefit rock music?
I’m not trying to rewrite the history of rock ’n’ roll, but without this current it would look and sound very different. If you look at the introduction of sitar to the Beatles’ music, that resonated far beyond them. Adding that instrument wasn’t merely because it sounded cool. The introduction of that instrument had to do with seeking out non-mainstream spiritual ideas. To take that and bring it into the studio, and at the same time, experimenting with LSD… to deny that that didn’t absolutely transform, if not only the Beatles, but everything to come after, is not fair to the impact these things had.
Then you have somebody like Arthur Brown who believed that performance can be a shamanic act. He was one of the first to wear make-up and robes. You take that out of the equation and you may not have Alice Cooper doing what he was doing, you may not have KISS.
The argument whether or not any of this was good or not is irrelevant to the impact it made. But some of the albums that had some occult ideas are some of the greatest albums of all time: Led Zeppelin IV, David Bowie’s Station to Station, which is littered with his own often schizophrenic, but powerful interest in these ideas and changing his own persona through this weird alchemy.
Were there surprises when you were researching this? Did you find people that had a deeper fascination with the occult than we've been told about.
I discovered that Daryl Hall of Hall & Oates had his own moment. He did a record called Sacred Songs produced by Robert Fripp. He was urged by his agent and manager, "don’t do this album." For him, it was an important spiritual moment that he wanted to access. When you’re a rock star, you have access to people and ideas. With all of this, something that I had to accept was a kind of privilege. You have to have the time and money to drop acid and read Crowley all day and go into the studio and make music.
Was that a challenge to differentiate the true believers from the knowing artists?
It’s complicated. There are different points of entry. Ozzy Osbourne goes on stage and is sitting on a throne on these steps - there are flaming torches, explosions behind him - and the first chord is struck. He comes down the stairs holding his upside-down cross. It’s all a spectacle, whether you are a sixteen-year-old kid or the mother of the sixteen-year-old kid fretting about it. If you were to ask Ozzy, he’d say “It’s just a show, it’s just for fun.”
I believe that in the moment he's doing it, there’s something happening. It’s very much like what happens in the tribe with the shaman or even with a stage magician. We go to see a stage magician, we know that it’s a trick, but we completely suspend our disbelief. I’ve been to shows where you’re completely enchanted by what’s happening. Then you go outside and have a cigarette and it’s sort of over. But I don’t think that’s any less real. Maybe it’s a kind of form of mass hypnosis. Maybe it is magic, who knows?
In modern hip-hop, you don’t have much explicit spirituality. Maybe it’s been left at the church door. Do you think that hip-hop is deliberately trying not to be spiritual?
A big part of hip-hop culture is an interest in Islam, the Nation of Islam, and the Five-Percenters. Erykah Badu is part of this. Mos Def changed his name to his Muslim name. The band Shabazz Palaces had one of the best albums last year. They’re part of this kind of Islamic-Afro-Futurism, you might call it. It’s this other way of thinking about black spirituality.
This brings us back to the beginning. At its roots, rock ‘n’ roll is about rebellion, whether its social rebellion, political rebellion, or sexual rebellion. But all of culture, I think, is primarily looking for a way to channel that in a spiritual identity. When rock musicians were seeking a spiritual identity, knowing that their thruway was still rebellion, often they were turning to non-traditional, often non-Christian spiritual practices or symbols.
These ideas and symbols are symbols of challenge, whether you believe them or not. They are a shorthand way of letting the culture know you are not like everybody else, that you are doing something that might even be dangerous.