Peter Bebergal's Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll is a must-read for anyone who prefers their music loud, riff-driven, and loaded with lyrics about Satan, wizards, and mystical quests.
Bebergal, an academic by day (he studied at Harvard's Divinity School) and metal head by both day and night, is also the author of memoir Too Much to Dream: A Psychedelic American Boyhood. His writing style is both scholarly and entertainingly readable, and though Season of the Witch is a relatively slim volume, it packs a remarkable amount of analysis and music history (plus: esoteric fun facts) onto every page. I caught up with him recently for a chat about the allure of music's dark side.
io9: Not to start off completely superficially, but Season of the Witch has one of the coolest covers I've seen.
Peter Bebergal: I was actually hoping for that reaction. Having that artist [Arik Roper] was a dream come true — it looks like a 1970s black light poster. It also really also captures the spirit of the book in a way. I really do think there's something valuable to say about how rock 'n' roll history was impacted by these ideas and these images, but I hope it also comes across that the book is also about my love affair with this music, with these images, and with these stories, particularly as they rose up in the late 1960s and '70s.
The book is dense with details, but it's kind of a quick read at under 300 pages. How did you decide which bands to discuss?
That's the thing that's gonna haunt me, I think. Almost everyone who's read this book that I've talked to has said, "Why didn't you have this band?" I had a friend recently almost sounding angry that I didn't mention Blue Oyster Cult. Part of the issue was that I had to avoid the book being encyclopedic, because it could have ended up just being a list of every band, every song lyric, every album cover of anybody that's ever mentioned anything, ever, having to do with the occult or alternative spirituality. But I really wanted it to be journalistic and anecdotal. In each chapter, there are three major stories, that I used as a way of organizing these larger issues around.
For example, in talking about Black Sabbath as sort of the locus for that chapter, it allowed me to talk about the images of the devil in pop culture, and as an extension of that, heavy metal in general and its use of these kinds of imagery and ideas. I felt it was really important for the book to have these narrative arcs, and to do that I had to find what I felt were the most iconic stories. And some of them are bands that people might not be as familiar with, like Hawkwind, or Arthur Brown — who really only had one hit, as it were, in the 1960s, but I think actually had a much larger impact on the story I was trying to tell.
In many ways, this is the book I've wanted to write my whole life, because it's about the things I love: rock 'n' roll, weird culture, Dungeons & Dragons, and fantasy artwork from the 1970s by people like Roger Dean, who did the Yes album covers.
What was on your playlist while you were writing the book?
There were definitely albums that I kept spinning. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Pink Floyd's first album, is in many ways the perfect example of the spiritual craziness of the 1960s, both literally in terms of Syd Barrett's own psychic disillusion, but also in terms of how that album is so representative of all the different spiritual ideas that people were interested in. You have Eastern mysticism, cosmic consciousness. Even the album title is this romantic idealization of the pagan past; it's taken from a moment in The Wind in the Willows where the animals suddenly come upon Pan in the woods and have sort of an ecstatic experience.
As much as the hippies were interested in Jewish mysticism, Buddhism, the I Ching, thing like that, there was also this sort of romantic look at nature. I think they were very much inspired by the romantic poets that were trying to say something against the industrial society with this return to pure, more spiritually relevant forms of nature. On that album, you have an interesting mish-mash of all of that.
There's also Led Zeppelin III and IV — people love IV, obviously, "Stairway to Heaven" — but I think III is a better album song for song, so I listened to that quite a bit. But I was also listening to lots of newer albums of bands that are doing a good job of capturing that 1970s occult spirit, like Blood Ceremony, for instance. It's really interesting that here we are in 2014 and people are still inspired by that imagery and those ideas to make rock 'n' roll music. You could take that all away and they still would be a cool band. But you add those sort of theatrical elements to it and I don't know if it elevates it, necessarily, but there's something that's still very powerful about clothing music in these images.
So it was fun to also be exploring what's going on today. I don't do too much of that in the book, because the book is really about how we got to where we are rather than a look at what's happening right now. But there certainly is some great stuff going on right now. There's another terrific band right now called Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats, and I also just got turned on to this psych-garage rock fellow who's doing wonderful monster-movie garage rock, King Tuff. There's also, I think a really esoteric underground of musicians who are artistically motivated by these ideas of alternative spirituality and magic. I've been looking into this band from Finland recently called Hexvessel, who are excellent. Even bands like Earth, and Sunn O))) — there's this whole collective of occult imaginations still at work.
And it doesn't really matter whether or not these things are true, whether or not you can actually conjure spirits or divine the future. Or whether or not these musicians actually practice these things in terms of their own spiritual lives. What I was trying to shine a light on was just how potent these images and these ideas have been in the history of music. And they're still happening.
One thing I hope is that people don't think I am, in any way, trying to upend the accepted history of rock 'n' roll, or to say that if there was no occult, there'd be no rock. But I will stand by the argument that this is a very important thread in the trajectory of the music, and if it wasn't part of it, rock 'n' roll would look and sound very different.
In the book, you mention the West Memphis Three as an example of the mainstream sometimes not understanding that fans of this type of music, or the artists who make it, aren't actually worshipping the devil or pagan gods or whatever.
In the Danish and Norwegian black metal scenes, there were definitely people who really believed in it. But again, whether or not they actually worshipped Satan or just understood the power of using those images [isn't clear]. What's interesting is these symbols, these ideas, are like a shorthand way of alerting your audience, the media, and the public that you are dangerous. You're going to be doing something different. You're on the edge of spiritual ideas that people need to be wary of, even if all you're doing is putting an upside-down pentagram on your album cover.
There's a band called Ghost BC who does the whole dress-up thing: the devilish Pope, they wear plague masks onstage, the whole thing. But their music is just kind of pop heavy metal. It's not even that scary or anything. It's very non-threatening, but the way they cloak themselves in this mystique is a way of having it both ways, as it were.
When I told friends that I was writing a book about the occult and rock 'n' roll, they assumed that I was only writing about the devil. And I think there's still this association that word or anything having to do with it automatically has to do with something sinister or dark. That certainly has been the case, but it's also the case that that's the way bands have embraced it, because it generates its own power by itself as being devil-worshipers, even if it's not. Then they play coy — someone like Ozzy Osbourne liked to incite some of that because it sold records, but when push came to shove, Ozzy would say very explicitly that it was all just in fun. A lot of it is just performance and theater.
But in those moments, we really can be transported by the thing that happens between the musicians in the audience. I think that's powerful, and it speaks to why rock 'n' roll has been such a good vehicle for what I think is, in many ways, a very ancient way of thinking about religion. This communal, ecstatic way of worshiping that has to do with rhythms and dance and loud sounds. I wouldn't say that rock is religion, but it certainly has done a very good job in various points along the way of capturing these old ways in which people used to worship together as a community.
What's also wonderful about it is that in those moments we just kind of allow ourselves to be hypnotized by that, but walk away and know that it was in fun. But that doesn't take away from how powerful that experience can be in the moment.
What surprises did you uncover while writing this book?
One was finding out that Daryl Hall, of Hall and Oates, worked with Robert Fripp of King Crimson to do his own Aleister Crowley-inspired album in the 1970s. Everybody told him that it was a really bad idea, and he was going to ruin his career, but he went and did it anyway. Nothing really happened with it, but if you go and listen to it now it's actually quite a beautiful record. His voice … I guess some people don't like it, but here he is singing about these occult themes, as sort of pretty-boy Daryl Hall. [Laughs.] It was surprising to find out that even at that pop-star level, people were seduced and enamored by these things.