Feb 12, 2015, 07:01AM

Review of Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll

There’s too much wrong here to be saved. 

Rsz seasonofthewitch.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1

It looks like a can’t-miss idea. Peter Bebergal’s Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll is a book about magic and rock music, the “influence of occult traditions on rock and roll—from the Beatles to Black Sabbath,” as the dust jacket has it. The cynical reader might think that’s not the best pair of bands to mention, ranging alphabetically only from B to BS. But most would probably feel Bebergal had found an excellent subject, aiming “to show that weaving in and out of the most important moments of rock’s development is the occult.” Magic, mysticism, diabolism—all potent subjects for rock songs. Why, though? How did they become a part of popular music, and how did the treatment of occult ideas develop as the music itself evolved? What is the connection between rock and magic?

Having read the book, I couldn’t really answer any of those questions. Season of the Witch is conceptually slack, disorganized, and terribly written. The few clever insights within its pages aren’t developed, and end up swamped by platitudinous rehashing of rock-history truisms.

Problems arise in the opening pages of the book, as Bebergal recalls his introduction to rock music: listening at age 11 to his older brother’s album collection. He describes what was for him a transformative moment, in which music, fantasy and pre-adolescent sexuality were powerfully, and largely unconsciously, united. But the moment’s depicted with a lack of self-analysis or critical awareness. What did it mean in the context of that particular time in cultural history and rock history? Were other teens and pre-teens experiencing the same thing, and if so, why? Was the experience unique to the music he heard, or was it something that happens across cultures and musical genres? The absence of any interrogation of the moment makes the passage simple reminiscence, and sets up the book as merely a middle-aged white guy’s paean to the music of his youth—with all the self-indulgence and slackness that implies.

It’s a slackness consistently visible in the book’s language. Bebergal tries to create vivid verbal images, but often fails in spectacular ways. “It’s best to imagine the occult roots of rock as an estuary,” he says, only the first of several mangled metaphors. According to him, rock genres “gathered their wool from the occult’s harvest.” Which presumably means the occult was harvesting sheep. Speaking of “the ground where culture is created,” he says “rock and roll is the fertile soil where this landscape has flowered and grown in remarkable ways,” presenting so confused a relationship between ground and soil and landscape that one might miss the plants flowering before they grow—or is it the landscape that’s growing? A couple of sentences later he suggests “The occult is a current needing a river to take it to the oceans of the world,” with a breathtaking rejection of causality.

Later he introduces a quotation: “Even more essential is what music critic Rob Young, in his essential Electric Eden, describes as…” And at this point one can only think that if Penguin doesn’t have the money to pay a copy editor there’s something terribly wrong. Consider also: “The idea of a spiritual revolution underlying the political one would transform the counterculture through the rest of the 1960s, an idea that would come to underlie the remaining years of the counterculture.” The repetition seems like a malformed edit. What happened here?

Bebergal’s writing reminds me of college-level papers; he doesn’t quite grasp how to use small words properly to make sentences flow and agree. Antecedents are confused, superlatives overused: everything’s always the most of everything. Thus rock is “the most essential and influential art form of the twentieth century” as well as the “most indispensable of musical forms.” The first quote puts film and the novel in their places; the second does the same for every other sort of music in human history. It’s fine to have a passion for one’s subject, but better to have a sense of proportion as well.

Ostensibly, the book’s part cultural criticism and part history. Bebergal: “To describe how the occult imagination is the vital force of rock and rock culture, I will engage in a series of narratives.” But the book’s too disjointed to establish anything like a narrative. There’s an overall movement forward in time over the course of the book, but no arc. Events don’t build in any connected fashion. It’s an amble through rock history without any sense that one moment leads to another, or that one musician leads to another. There’s no depiction of a tradition, either in artistic or occult terms.

So, for example, a discussion of Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page’s interest in occultist Aleister Crowley never indicates what initially sparked that interest, nor does it end up using Crowley to develop any argument about Zeppelin’s music. It only leads, after several digressions through the popular culture of the time, to an assertion that Zeppelin “perfectly embodies the uncanny synergy between rock and the occult.” From which Bebergal immediately moves to a description of the concert film The Song Remains the Same. There’s no chronological discussion of the band’s career, or of how occult motifs may have developed or faded in their work over the course of time, or what it means that Zeppelin so perfectly “embodies” the “synergy.”

What unity Bebergal is able to generate often comes by oversimplifying his material, sometimes to the point of caricature. In this book, “rock” is always a rebellious force for liberation, while Christianity is virtually always repressive. Generations are depicted as single entities: “It’s important to stress how spiritually bereft young people felt at the end of the 1960s,” he says, and one thinks, What, all of them?

In general, the book’s cultural criticism is lazy and anecdotal, its interpretations questionable. To Bebergal, vampires are inherently asexual, Blake’s Ancient of Days a sage instead of a tyrant, and the sitcom Bewitched a deliberate attempt to commercialize Wicca. The presence of horror comics and fantasy novels in the 70s is proof, somehow, of an unprecedented interest in the occult.

Bebergal’s on somewhat firmer ground with respect to music itself, and he does discuss some overlooked bands. But there’s a sense of two books talking past each other. One obediently follows standard rock histories, putting Elvis, the Beatles and the Stones front and center. The other, more interesting, emerges over the course of the book and deals with artists like Arthur Brown and Coven and Hawkwind. Even then, Bebergal’s inability to establish a continuous tradition undercuts it; an argument that Hawkwind led to the live shows of Jay-Z and Madonna is too unsupported to be convincing.

There is a problem even deeper in the core of the book: Bebergal’s definition of the word “occult” is far too broad. At various points, Bebergal takes it to include voodoo, ceremonial magic, Satanism, belief in UFOs, and Christian worship performed by slaves that (he feels) were shaped by non-Christian beliefs. He also consistently links the occult to fantasy, horror, and science fiction rather than actual magic: “I am not interested in the metaphysics of the occult,” he states, a peculiar admission to make in a book that is supposedly about the occult. His point is that he’s interested in the occult only insofar as he can perceive it within rock music; for him, it’s “a set of practices and beliefs… that attempts to understand reality (spiritual or otherwise) in a way traditional religious practice cannot or chooses not to explore” and “a spectrum of beliefs and actions seeking to understand God, nature, or the cosmos in a way at odds with normative or mainstream religious communities.” Which sounds fine until you realize that these definitions are loose enough to include, say, “science.” And what to do with practices and beliefs, like early Protestantism, that began as outside the norms of their times but which developed a mainstream audience of their own?

Bebergal’s brief descriptions of elements of occult history—digressions to discuss Madame Blavatsky, or Aleister Crowley, or the Illuminati—are fine on their own, if never particularly profound. But these passages are random interjections, unattached to any broader conception of magic. So, a comparison of album covers to occult emblems of the Renaissance is intriguing, but isn’t situated in any larger argument, and thus goes nowhere.

One also wishes Bebergal had more thoroughly analyzed the different reasons artists used the occult. Some clearly did so out of a belief in magic (as with David Bowie’s dabblings in the Kabbalah), others out of an interest in fantasy (as with Black Sabbath’s horror-movie imagery), yet others for the sake of showmanship (as with Alice Cooper’s theatrics). It’s true that an artist may have multiple motives for turning to the occult, and those motives may shift over time. But it’s necessary at least to establish whether the differences are significant. On one page Bebergal refers to Cooper as “a rock and roll scapegoat” and to Kiss as creating “a living mystery cult,” then on the next page approvingly quotes Arthur Brown as saying that the banality of these acts’ lyrics undermined the shamanic aspect of their approach. There is a confusion here that’s never resolved, a lack of critical analysis of what the occult themes do in and for the music.

Then again, there’s little critical analysis of the music itself, or sense of what “rock” actually is. His treatment of the origins of the form is vague, attempting to claim slave spirituals and blues artists like Robert Johnson not merely as antecedents but as part of rock proper. More, after describing various aspects of African-American superstition and spirituality within these musical traditions, Bebergal doesn’t consider what it means for white musicians to appropriate the music, or how rock’s whiteness changed the nature of the magic he’s described. Nor, for that matter, does Bebergal consider what it means that a form supposedly based in spiritual rebelliousness should be so apparently patriarchal (no woman is discussed in the book at any meaningful length). He simply uncritically accepts the mythic stature of his subjects: “I hope to reveal that these musicians are human after all,” he writes, as though there was any doubt.

It’d be difficult to base a narrative on this sort of conceptual confusion, and Bebergal’s tendency to switch topics at random doesn’t help—at one point he moves mid-paragraph from Ozzy Osbourne’s solo career to horror model kits. As a result, when he does try to connect bands in some sort of tradition, he has to oversimplify, and tends to leave things out. At one point he suggests that King Crimson’s debut album In the Court of the Crimson King was progressive rock’s “prototype.” The usual sense of that word is the first thing of its kind; but by the time Court had come out, Pink Floyd had three albums to their name, as had The Nice, while Yes, Genesis, and Van Der Graaf Generator had all released an album apiece. Genesis, in fact, isn’t mentioned at all in the book, surprising since there’s an extended discussion of the use of costumes, masks, and personae. But Bebergal ignores Genesis frontman Peter Gabriel’s legendary array of costumes, opting instead to describe a lineage running from the oft-overlooked Arthur Brown to Alice Cooper to Kiss, before switching focus to David Bowie.

He doesn’t talk about GWAR, and while on one level I can hardly blame him, it does point to a general weakness in the book: there is very little about heavy metal beyond a few pages on Black Sabbath. No mention of Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. One page briefly brings together Venom, Pentagram, Slayer, and the Misfits; it’s not clear why those four very different bands are used. Sunn O))) is discussed near the end, along with Ghost B.C., and elsewhere King Diamond and Mercyful Fate are noted. Emperor’s not referred to by name, but Bebergal does have a brief mention of the church burnings committed by black metal fans and musicians in the 1990s—though he says they happened in Sweden, whereas most (and the most notorious) took place in Norway. That’s about it for metal here, barring a few edge cases like Hawkwind and Om. In other words, a book about the occult in rock music doesn’t mention more than a handful of metal bands; no Celtic Frost, Therion, Ronnie James Dio, Voivod, Opeth, Iced Earth, Kamelot or Deicide. It’s true that attempting to cover the occult in metal in any kind of depth would end up making for a very long book. But given the randomness of the acts he does mention, it feels like a failure of research; or, at least, a failure to articulate just the sort of narrative he wants to create.

Bebergal does say that he intends the book to only cover rock “until the ascendency of electronic instruments in the 1980s,” which makes some of the omissions understandable. But it’s not clear why he picks that era as his end point. Insofar as Bebergal argues that the occult is at all times central to rock, he presumably doesn’t think that it’s ceased to matter in recent years. Why not write about it, then? He’s arguing, however unintentionally, for rock as a thing of the past, a form that ceased innovating a generation ago.

It’s unlikely this is deliberate. Bebergal buys into rock’s idealized self-image in all its banality, ignoring the commercial aspect of the genre and proclaiming it inherently rebellious, an atavistic revel harking back to “the oldest form of religious worship, when magic and religion were inseparable, where myth was communicated through a colorful and often wild blending of costume, song, and dance. This type of yearning for freedom and self-expression is our first and earliest glimmer of the spirit of rock and roll, a primeval and communal method to transmit a truth, to celebrate, to mourn, to sacrifice something to the gods. And to do it together.” This is rock mythology presented uncritically, at once highly romantic and yet utterly generic.

Bebergal’s eager to embrace rock as ecstatic worship, early on in the book proposing a running parallel between rock and the Dionysus of Euripides’ The Bacchae, who was worshipped with frenzied dancing and violence. I wonder whether Bebergal might have chosen a better god. Apollo was the god of music, not Dionysus, and Hermes was the god of the occult. Bebergal doesn’t seem to wonder whether the occult aspect of rock might actually come at the expense of the Dionysiac. If progressive rock traffics in ecstasy, it is at best, as Black Sabbath would have it, a very technical ecstasy.

At any rate, Bebergal’s use of the Dionysus story is underdeveloped. The god’s absent from the book for long stretches, including almost the entire second half of the text. Perhaps he found the myth limiting; at the end of one chapter, he states, “Like all great myths, the occult story of rock involved a descent into the underworld,” something notably absent from the plot of The Bacchae. At any rate, there isn’t much examination of what Dionysiac ecstasy means, which is odd, since rock history has at least one notorious example of sparagmos—the frenzied rending of the flesh of Dionysiac worship. At a festival in September, 1969, the young Alice Cooper threw a live chicken into the audience, who tore it to pieces. The incident, as misreported in the following days, made Cooper notorious. It’s not terribly pleasant, but that’s part of the nature of the Dionysiac.

Some sense of the ambiguity of myth might have helped the book. But the reality is there’s too much wrong here to be saved. You can see how Season of the Witch might’ve been worked into shape, with a couple of structural rethinks and several more drafts. What’s actually here is simply incoherent. 

—Follow Matthew Surridge on Twitter: @Fell_Gard.


Register or Login to leave a comment