“Jesus” I said. The sun-bleached speedometer had just crept past ninety. We were in a pickup truck, my friends and I, weaving through the twilight clots of traffic on IH-35, headed from San Antonio to Austin. Beggar’s Banquet was in the tapedeck. “Please allow me to introduce myself — I’m a man of wealth, and taste,” sang Jagger. “I’ve been around for a long, long year — stole many a man’s soul and faith.”
“Jesus,” I repeated.
We were at one-ten when our driver released his hands from the controls, grinning ear-to-ear. “Jesus!” I screamed. “Jesus take the wheel!” He laughed. I lunged across the cab but he blocked me with a single meaty forearm. We tussled like kids while the people in the back complained. “We’re all gonna die,” said one. I didn’t think so. Jesus Pineda had a nasty sense of humor, but he always got us through.
The truck screamed in close to a semi-trailer advertising Lone Star beer, and Jesus stopped messing around. We made the two-hour trip in forty-five minutes. This was October, 2005.
Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll is a new book, out this month from Penguin, on the subject of transgressive religion in rock. Its author, Peter Bebergal, might as well have been in that pickup, given how well he nails the feeling of the time. In Season’s introduction, the author describes listening to David Bowie and King Crimson and Pink Floyd for the first time, in his brother’s empty bedroom, around 1978. “[The] music made me feel hot and cold [all at once,]” he said. For him, those albums were “a seductive and impenetrable catalogue of arcane and occult symbols,” a map to a higher world of drug-consciousness and interstellar mystery.
I felt something like that, too, albeit with different albums. My teenage years were spent stomping around in combat boots, ears filled with David Bowie and The Rolling Stones and The Velvet Underground. Through them I’d found a gateway; an escape from the banal materiality of twenty-first century Texas. I’ve never believed in Jesus Christ, but I still believe in Jesus Pineda. Call it “occult,” if you want. I do.
The occult is a notoriously unsettled and unsettling topic. The boundaries of its constituent texts, traditions and practices are highly variable. For instance, some evangelical Christians consider the roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons “occult.” Self-described occultists, too, often feel empowered to define themselves through a process of personal bricolage, selecting the texts and traditions most meaningful to them. Although many studies of “the occult” select similar touchstones (Aleister Crowley, Cornelius Aggripa, twentieth-century “psychic” phenomenon) the task of providing a clear history or essential nature linking them is, almost always, doomed to fail.
Bebergal’s biggest triumph, in Season of the Witch, is his solution to this problem. Rather than study “the occult” as a settled tradition, Season argues that it is a particular kind of reactionary religious move undertaken by individuals and communities defining themselves in opposition to a perceived religious “mainstream.” In the “occult,” religious ideas and symbols identified as transgressive are deliberately adopted, their “transgression” transformed into an act of virtuous resistance. For Bebergal, the essential occult occurs in this alchemical moment of imagination. This occult, he concludes, “may express itself as magical ritual” or “as symbolic elements in art,” with equal validity. In Season of the Witch, rock and roll does not merely “reference” or “utilize” the occult. Under Bebergal’s model, rock and roll is one of the occult’s purest and most profound expressions. This theoretical base makes Season of the Witch indispensable for anyone with a propensity to throw the word “occult” around.
After establishing his basic approach to the topic, Bebergal moves on to examining specific rock artists and albums with heavy “occult” content. Over the course of his book’s breakneck two hundred pages, the author contextualizes bluesman Tommy Johnson through African-American folk religion, meditates on the the Rolling Stones’ play-Satanism, and speculates about popular conspiracy theories linking Jay-Z to the Illuminati. It’s a staggering amount of material, and Bebergal handles it elegantly, although some readers will certainly take issue with Season’s not-quite-thematic, not-quite-chronological structure.
Season seems to have been organized with the modern reader in mind; its closest correspondent is spending a stoned afternoon popping around Wikipedia. Within each chapter, Bebergal identifies and follows the “occult” references within that section’s subject matter, diving into each as if following hyperlinks. One of his chapters bounces, perilously, from the early days of the performance art collective COUM in 1969 to a capsule biography of William Burroughs to a meditation on early twentieth-century artist Austin Osman Spare to a glowing review of “How to Destroy Angels,” a 1984 single from the band Coil. This ping-pong effect is enabled by each subject’s engagement with each other subject: COUM referenced Burroughs who referenced Spare who all ended up in Coil’s stew of influences. As soon as a new outré concept or artist is mentioned in Season of the Witch, Bebergal explains it straightaway. The result is fascinating to read but frustrating to navigate.
Season’s referential organization also obscures the theory at its heart. Bebergal’s rendering of the occult as a particular mode of religious imagination is, by far, the most useful idea in the book. This new, fluid occult is more than just a menagerie of goat-headed deities, pentagrams, and U.F.O.s, a fact acknowledged by the author in sections dealing with rock and roll’s equally “occult” embrace of sexual promiscuity. Still, the majority of Season is taken up by the explication of topics like the “Satanism” of “Sympathy for the Devil” and the space-mysticism of David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust persona. Essential topics, surely, but in aggregate they make Bebergal’s work into more of a straight aesthetic catalogue than it should be. Season is a popular work for a popular audience, however. Given the limitations of its size and the appetites of its audience, Bebergal’s study is remarkable for its inclusiveness and clarity. That clarity, however, is a problem of its own.
Nine years ago, as Jesus and I barreled down IH-35, through New Braunfels, I ate two tabs of L.S.D., and eased into the trip, listening hard. In a book bag between my legs, I had a copy of Colin Wilson’s The Occult and a red leather Book of the Law by Crowley, neither of which I had read or even skimmed. But when Jagger postured through speakers, bleeding into blow-out noise, I knew exactly what he meant: “Just as every cop is a criminal, and all the sinners saints, as heads is tails, call me Lucifer — cause I’m in need of some restraint.”
I was dumb in those days. All nineteen-year-olds are. I didn’t know Kenneth Arnold from Kenneth Anger, and the “devil” I was sympathetic toward had no grounding in either Milton or LaVey. Still, as the car sped on, I felt my mind speed with it. By midnight I was omniscient. I called down the Sun Machines from a sky of silent thunder and when the swede asked me “what do you see,” I told her “everything,” and meant it, as embarrassing as that is today.
The big, gaudy mystery of it all was key. It didn’t live in my head but in my spinal chord, a desire to unravel all this ragged mysticism, and find some better world on the other side of sound. I would have devoured Season of the Witch, back then. I suspect a lot of kids will devour it now. I don’t know, however, if my obsession could have survived the reading.
I’m anti-censorship, for the most part, but I can’t help but think that Season of the Witch should be sold with a warning label — maybe even banned entirely from Wal*Marts in certain sensitive. Don’t get me wrong — it’s sharply written, intelligently developed and provides some welcome insight into a murky subject. But if I’d read it in 2005, I might’ve turned out a geologist.
Jesus, take the wheel.
Don Jolly is a Texan visual artist, writer, and academic. He is currently pursuing his master’s degree in religion at NYU, with a focus on esotericism, fringe movements, and the occult. His comic strip, The Weird Observer, runs weekly in the Ampersand Review. He is also a staff writer for Obscure Sound, where he reviews pop records. Don lives alone with the Great Fear, in New York City. You can find his writing and art at: www.rockettotheruemorgue.tumblr.com.
His monthly column, “The Last Twentieth-Century Book Club” will return next month. In the meantime, you can read past installments here.