"Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock n' Roll" by Peter Bebergal

“Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock n’ Roll”

Book Review


As featured in the Premiere Issue: Halloween Edition

Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock n' Roll, the title for what is described as an "epic cultural and historical odyssey" into the "full influence of occult traditions on rock and roll," is indeed an odyssey of sorts that, for those who are acolytes of the genre, will likely be surprisingly insightful. Mr. Bebergal's meticulous research uncovers an evolution born in the fires of institutional, American racism that paradoxically finds expression through the reconciliation of itself as an innate force in the fabric of global counter-culture. This review will attempt to sift through, as concisely as possible, what I think are this exploration's strengths and weaknesses.

The odyssey begins its journey within the African-American experience, in particular with the remnants of cultural influence that survived the Middle Passage from pagan West Africa, leaving serious investigation into West Africa to the reader. Bebergal analyzes black American life under the fist of slavery, as it went through a transformation that created a rich cultural renaissance throughout the Mississippi Delta, one that ultimately would act as a wellspring for American music. Bebergal cites multiple passages from interviews, articles, and literature that document establishment opposition to the occult forces unleashed by the Rock n' Roll tradition. Bebergal also chronicles the reactionary forces that turn on themselves in classic witch-hunt style. The presumed savagery of classic rhythm and blues' beating pulse was an insidious force to be found in the ecstatic energy of American youth culture, the sensual movements of intoxicated swing dancers, the sexually libertine environments of speakeasies and juke joints, and even in the most sacred of places such as the Pentecostal church, whose fits of Holy Spirit possession closely mimicked the rites of Vodun. Satan was everywhere, and his flag-bearer was Rock n' Roll, there to tempt and seduce one out of chastity and to attack the very foundations of Christian piety--or so they said. Bebergal shines a light on this defining conflict by contrasting citations from the Rock n' Roll tradition's proponents and detractors.

Bebergal documents how within the debauchery, Western culture actually found a mirror into the occult world. In came the tumultuous 1960's, a time when the rise of psychedelic culture and the nihilism of a war in Indochina created a context for Rock n' Roll's evolution. Bebergal contextualizes this stage within the works of Helen Blavatsky, Aleister Crowley, and Gerald Gardner who, after decades of Christian dominance and degeneracy, led the Occidental world to explore its pagan roots. It is this influence that would ultimately inject the African-based styles of Rock n' Roll with a healthy dose of European-based occultism. A broad spectrum of what would be called "Rock n' Roll" appeared that extended, on one side, from the surreal shamanistic journeys of musicians like Jefferson Airplane and The Doors, all the way to another side, with the hypnotic, Dionysian Blues-fire found in groups like The Jimi Hendrix Experience and The MC5. This is perhaps Season of the Witch's greatest contribution: The account of reactionary America's vilification, flirtation, and ultimate seduction with this occult exploration. This constant tension between the pagan world and the effort to whitewash the syncopated rhythms and tritonic scales of earthly intensity born in Blues and Jazz traditions is a story that would remain a constant in Rock n' Roll's historical evolution, and what started as a titillating, but intimidating, courtship with pagan Africa ended with a Western reinvention of its own identity.

From there, Season of the Witch illustrates how the hopeful ideals of spiritual transformation would give way to the advent of Heavy Metal, a clear offspring of the "progressive" sound of electrified Blues virtuosos that fully embraced diabolical symbolism. Their exploration blended elements of classical techniques and form into the genre. The new sound hearkened the bombast that was attributed to composers such as Ludwig Von Beethoven or Richard Wagner, while still standing firmly in the pentatonic darkness woven into the fiber of Blues, making it a clear successor of the Rock n’ Roll occult tradition.

However, the final chapters took a turn that left me a bit puzzled. Suddenly, in the chronology of the book, we find ourselves exploring two genres that would emerge from the devilish loins of Heavy Metal: Progressive-Rock and Industrial (with some asides about Goth and Punk). Bebergal discusses how the two genres looked to push the expansive environments created during the "Age of Aquarius" into new occult realms while delving into the highly structured, technical, and conceptual elements of Heavy Metal. But at what point does taxonomy become difficult? Both Progressive-Rock and Industrial embraced the burgeoning electronic music movement that had been spurned by the use of computers and synthesizers, and not only often abandoned Blues and Jazz forms, but at times abandoned form altogether in what could only be described as an Avant Garde pursuit into performance art. But even when Led Zeppelin were exploring such terrain, they still gave us the song “Rock and Roll,” a return to traditional Blues form that reminded us that their feet were still planted in such bedrock. At what point does music cease being "Rock n' Roll" and become merely Rock-influenced? If everything, including the most acceptable versions of Pop, could be considered "Rock n' Roll," does it follow that nothing could be considered "Rock n' Roll"? I would most certainly disagree, because Rock n' Roll form and style did continue on as a musical genre. At the time that excesses of 70's studio and stage production were dominating the music scene, the situation for Rock n' Roll became polarized. So much had been invested in the type of paganism that Rock n' Roll created that it had an identity crisis. People didn't know what Rock n' Roll was anymore. Its pursuit of the occult had muddied its meaning with flouncy concepts and superfluous claptrap.

The response to this dilemma was Punk. The sound of Punk was a return to the original energy of Rock n' Roll's first wave. Three-minute songs with blazing, Chuck Berry-inspired riffs and the same driving, Little Richard beat that defined Rock n' Roll was the clarion call for Punk to return the former to its impetus. Perhaps the contribution of Punk was omitted because it wasn't as overtly occult, but does that mean that Punk (and consequently Rock n' Roll) abandoned its own occult roots? If you're orthodox in your approach to the occult, the answer is yes. But I disagree. Punk saw the direction of those who were being deemed "Rock n' Roll" as a pretentious void, and sought to return to something “user-friendly” and flexible. In that sense, Punk may share a commonality with postmodern critics of the occult. This bears a closer philosophical tie to the innovative works of Anton LaVey or Austin Osman Spare, who saw fraternalism and orthodoxy as restrictive and instead sought a self-initiatory school of magic. Punk mirrored this with Loki-inspired trickery and Dadaist sensibilities. Punk's driving ethos of "do it yourself" declared conventional society a bankrupt void of vapid expression and chided its adherents to forego approval to take action.

I see strong parallels to Satanism and Chaos Magic here. Punk’s barriers were intentional and meant to alienate those who were easily subjected to prejudice. Its weapons were style, fashion, and subject matter. When Anton LaVey deliberately aligned the Church of Satan with Satan, the intent was similar. In the foreword of The Devil's Notebook, Anton LaVey recounts with relish the effect Satan has on some. “It's amazing how much fear is invoked in others by the presence of a known Satanist...How often I see crosses around the necks of those who've been informed of my arrival – as if, like Lugosi's Dracula, I will be rendered powerless...It's then that I feel sadistic, if that term ever applied. I love to see those dusty crucifixes salvaged from the bottoms of bureau drawers, unworn since catechism.” Besides the purposeful insularity, Satanism and Punk, philosophically-speaking, both kept traditional trappings while paradoxically eschewing the old context. Satanism rejected faith and spirituality while still positing a system of magic; Punk rejected Rock n' Roll stereotypes and caricatures while keeping much of its form and sound. Beberdal references Psychic TV's use of collage techniques in occult magic. When Johnny Rotten walked down King's Row in London with gleaming red, spiked hair and "I hate" scrawled on his Pink Floyd shirt, was he not doing the same? Are mosh pits not modern expressions of visceral tribalism for the alienated, not unlike the ritual “hush harbors” that slaves practiced away from their masters? One major difference between Psychic TV and The Sex Pistols is that The Sex Pistols are sonically easily recognizable as coming from the school of Rock n' Roll, while Psychic TV is not. Focusing on the aesthetic thread that musicians like Psychic TV were pursuing shows a shift in priorities. The book's trajectory sticks to these occult elements, arguing that Rock n' Roll drove this aesthetic choice into other genres, including mainstream popular music. This leads me to wonder if a more apropos title for the book should be Season of the Witch: How Rock n' Roll Saved the Occult. However, this is my only major critique.

Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock n' Roll is something I would highly recommend to anyone interested in this topic. Bebergal's ability to trace lineages and influences speaks for itself. With an extensive bibliography from multiple sources, it is difficult to contend with the veracity of his research. As is often a pattern in the field of history, research into the history of Rock n' Roll is fraught with reactive pendulum swings of historical revisionism. One such trend is to frame the Western and African traditions that formed Rock n' Roll as diametrically opposed, when in fact the interplay of this dichotomy produced just as much exoticism as it did antagonism, and the subsequent syncretism became definitive. To trace the roots of these changing attitudes in America toward African and Western esoteric traditions is a tremendous contribution towards understanding not just the synthesis of Rock n' Roll, but the tumultuous and ever-changing social context that defined it.