Monday, November 24, 2014

Q&A: Peter Bebergal discusses SEASON OF THE WITCH

Author Peter Bebergal’s new book, SEASON OF THE WITCH: HOW THE OCCULT SAVED ROCK AND ROLL, takes a look at the marriage of mysticism and popular music, and how that union helped to shape the world at large. It's a book I've been looking forward to since first hearing about it during the summer. It was released last month (just in time for Halloween!) and Bebergal kindly agreed to discuss some the the book's topics with the Collinsport Historical Society. Below is a quick Q&A with the author, conducted via e-mail.

Interview with the Vampire: Barnabas meets Bozo.
As far as entertainment goes, it could be argued that the 1960s began without a consciousness. Songs, movies and television shows were generally without subtext. When The Beatles sang “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” they meant just that. 

By the end of the decade, though, things had changed significantly: Black Sabbath made rock and roll safe for overt occult references; witches, vampires and other assorted monsters had casually infiltrated popular media; and suddenly the occult was big business. No pun intended, but what the hell was happening?

Peter Bebergal: Despite the troubles of the 1960s by way of the Vietnam War, racism, and sexism (to name a few) the counterculture was hopeful that political action and an alternative spiritual consciousness could change the world. The new spiritual identity was heavily molded by the LSD experience, Eastern mysticism, and a romantic paganism. By the end of the decade, this hope had shifted. The war had not ended, LSD mysticism bore dark fruit like Charles Manson, and the overall promise of a new political and spiritual ideal fell far short. The paisley mystic of the 1960s gave way to the paranormal, the devil, UFOS, and bigfoot.

Monsters and aliens were better vehicles for our fears and anxieties than an abstract idea of “oneness.”

What was it about rock music that made it such fertile ground for occult interests?

PB: Rock and roll is, at its roots, the sound of agitation and rebellion.  For centuries, the occult and related practices were seen as heterodox, heretical, and demonic. But this did not stop people from seeking out ways to feel like they had some modicum of control over their own spiritual lives, often at great risk. This risk is something that was exciting to artists and composers, particularly in the 19th and early 20th century, where the occult became a method and inspiration for pushing up against the mainstream, particularly for those in the avant garde.  It only made sense that rock musicians who also believed they were on the vanguard of cultural change would look to non-traditional ideas about religion to make sense of their own rebellious instincts.

On the other side, many in the public saw rock as dangerous, as being to closely associated with black culture, which many believed was already suspect and barbaric. Rock’s sexual swagger and its blatant disregard for “taste” labeled it as the worst kind of secular pastime, and add dancing to the mix and you have a hormonal stew that many believed would destroy teenage innocence (as if there ever was such a thing). Rock musicians eagerly embraced the status as wreckers of morals, and often willingly embraced rumors of devilish intent.

These two things planted deep roots in that soil, and we are still eating the fruit of what grew there.

David Bowie channels Aleister Crowley.

By the end of the 1970s, most of the bands that had embraced it (either literally or fashionably) had pretty much jettisoned mysticism from their images. What was the tipping point for the occult in rock and roll?

PB: Bands like Black Sabbath started to channel this new darker awareness, and were not afraid to expose it. It was also quite fun. Images of devils and monsters added a mystique to rock and roll that evoked all kind of rumors and speculations.  I think the whole decade of the 1970s is really the locus; from Led Zeppelin to David Bowie, from King Crimson to Yes, and the early goth of Bauhaus and Siouxsie and the Banshees. Seventies rock has it all: Satan, aliens, lost worlds, vampires, swords and sorcery, even a cross-dressing Frankenstein in Rocky Horror.

From Jack Chick's notorious "Dark Dungeons" pamphlet.
Most of the acts persecuted by the PMRC in the 1980s had a juvenile understanding of the occult that was copied and pasted from old Universal Monster movies. Why did it take so long for there to be a cultural backlash against the occult in rock and roll? And why THOSE bands?

PB: I think there was always a cultural backlash, but by the time of the PMRC, there was the phenomenon of the Satanic Panic, a fear that anyone could be a Satanist, not unlike people seeing Communists everywhere in the 1950s. There were these terrible accusations about child molestation and abuse as part of underground satanic cults, and along with Dungeons and Dragons and teenagers looking more and more like emissaries of the devil, it all came to a head in the PMRC. The focus there really was on sex and drugs, but the occult was seen as a part of the overall moral decay.  Mercyful Fate and Venom were the two bands picked out as having this particularly egregious occult sensibility. The song lyrics are pretty ridiculous, and they only perpetuate the false idea that the occult is about worshiping Satan. But I can’t think of a single occult ritual where drinking a priest’s vomit is a requirement. Both the PMRC and the bands were in a mutual dance of shock and response. It might have helped sell records and to keep the occult mythos alive and well in rock and roll, but give me Led Zeppelin singing about Mordor any day.

Peter Bebergal writes widely on music and books, with special emphasis on the speculative and slightly fringe. His recent essays and reviews have appeared in The Times Literary Supplement, The Quietus, BoingBoing, and The Believer. Find him online at

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