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December 8, 2014

Book Notes - Peter Bebergal "Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll"

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

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Peter Bebergal's enlightening new book Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll examines the occult's influence on rock music.

NPR wrote of the book:

"Rather than turning in either a fanboyish rhapsody or a scholarly dissertation, he treads the line between those approaches. The result is passionate, informed, gripping and at times wonderfully lyrical."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In his own words, here is Peter Bebergal's Book Notes music playlist for his book Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll:

When I was writing Season of the Witch my father was ill and eventually passed a few months before the manuscript was due. Working on it was already a deeply nostalgic exercise, but having to often go to my father's house where I grew up only deepened the sense that this book, while in no way a memoir, is partly very personal. I love rock and roll, and while it is cliché to say, it really did save my life, if not my adolescent consciousness. It was, like for many young people, the soundtrack to my every emotion, and coupled with my teenage curiosity with magic, psychedelia and mysticism, rock became a secret language with which to try and understand the universe. This book is also my love letter to all the marvelously weird aspects of pop culture I surrounded myself with, all of which seemed to draw their arcane energy from rock and roll; Dungeons & Dragons, Heavy Metal Magazine, Frank Frazetta's art on Conan paperback reprints, and UFO documentaries.

The occult, if only in the most superficial way, is everywhere in rock culture, sometimes hidden (as the word "occult" suggests), sometimes very explicit. But no matter where these ideas, images, and symbols are manifest, the music is the thing. Season of the Witch is really a giant playlist, but often what I was listening to did not make it into the writing. This list is not in any representative, but merely captures the songs that I kept returning to for encouragement that I was not making it all up, that the occult imagination is a long and continuing part of rock and roll.

"Without Tears" by Daryl Hall
When I first discovered that Daryl Hall did a solo record inspired by the writings of Aleister Crowley, I had the same reaction his record label did; this can only go terribly wrong. But I remembered that I had long known Hall had a particular depth given his startling work on Robert Fripp's album Network. It's no surprise then that Hall's album Sacred Songs is a quiet, beautiful moment in lost pop music.

"The Flesh Failures (Let the Sunshine In)" from the Hair soundtrack
While not a legit rock song in the purest sense of the word, the entire Hair soundtrack is a glorious celebration of the somewhat idealized (and overly sentimental) 1960s counterculture. "Let the Sunshine In" is the climactic moment of the story revealing the terrible truth of the spiritual impotence of the time. No matter the fevered yearning for a universal change in consciousness, young people were still dying in the war. But they sang and danced no matter.

"Lord Summerisle" by Blood Ceremony
There is a serious 1970s revival going on, particularly with bands that use occult symbolism and ideas to package their music. Blood Ceremony is one of the best. This song, named after the leader of the pagan hippies in the definitive 1970 folk-horror movie Wicker Man, is one of the quieter moments of their 2013 album The Eldritch Dark. Softly strumming guitar, plaintive flute, and prog synth capture the very spirit of rock's occult demeanor.

"The Good Old Way" by Crumbling Ghost
Another terrific 70s-infused band, like Blood Ceremony, Crumbling Ghost combine their heavy affect with folk music, giving their noisy and explosive moments a strange pastoral, and haunted, feeling. This song is a traditional Irish song, set to a crunching rhythm section and terrific lead guitar work. This is one of those songs I played over and over. It's the kind of music that feels like it actually helps move your fingers over the keyboard.

"Arcadia" by Psychic TV
There are few bands that I would describe as actually practitioners of magic, at least in terms of the presentation of their music, but Psychic TV is was largely formed with occult intentions. Genesis Breyer P-Orridge was interested in how music could function as a magical weapon to undermine what William Burroughs called "control." Sigil magic and cut-ups expressed in pop music terms was the method through which Psychic TV created an underground culture and a magical fellowship for teen angst. Arcadia is wonderful, delightful pop song arising out of transgression.

"A Seancing Song" by Broadcast and the Focus Group
Broadcast and the Focus Group was a perfect meeting of weird minds, with the late Trish Keenan's throwback pop and the Focus Group's hauntology. Together they crafted one of the most perfect albums of the last decade, Broadcast and the Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age. There really is no one song that stands out. The album really needs to be listened to as a whole experience, following these occult detectives as they uncover phantasms both ancient and modern. Another album that was on constant rotation while I wrote the book, it is absolutely essential.

"Desert Ceremony" by Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats
One of my favorite albums of the last few years, Uncle Acid has found a dense stoner groove clothed in lurid comic book colors. I was always more of a punk than a metal head, and while I appreciate some of the current metal experiments particularly in the doom and drone subgenre, the Cookie Monster growl of many of those bands has never resonated for me. But I still need some heavy sounds. Uncle Acid remind me more of the Misfits, a mock-seriousness that never feels contrived. Just great rock and roll fueled by loud occult bombast.

"Station to Station" by David Bowie
David Bowie is rock's most formidable magician, an alchemist of the highest order whose personal transmutations became cultural transformations, the impact of which we still see—and hear—today. In the 1970s, Bowie had deep interest in the occult, and he drew largely from it for his lyrics and myth making, but more importantly he understood that the occult is also illusion, a glamour. All of his characters, from Ziggy to "Station to Station" Thin White Duke, echo the origins of theater and performance; the mask is how the gods originally made themselves known.

Peter Bebergal and Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll links:

excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book

NPR Books review
People's World review

The Artery profile of the author
Bookslut interview with the author
The Collinsport Historical Society interview with the author
io9 interview with the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for Too Much To Dream
Pitchfork interview with the author
WNYC Soundcheck interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

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