New York: Tarcher/Penguin, 2014. 252 pp., hardcover, $27.95.
Peter Bebergal's Season of the Witch seems organized in a way resembling certain occult texts: in a fashion elusive and slippery, with elisions and leaps in the narrative which follow a certain internal logic not readily quantified. Nonetheless, the book is an interesting though incomplete survey of the topic of how the occult "saved" rock and roll — even though "grounded" might be the more accurate term.
Bebergal devotes a great deal of space — rightfully — to ethnomusicological discussions of what we might call "proto-rock"—the work songs, shouts, and ring chants of African-American slaves who were influenced by a syncretic blend of pagan and Christian influences. Anyone familiar with Eileen Southern's work on the music of black Americans will find much in this section which is familiar. (But Lucille Bogan's admittedly notorious lyrics to "Shave 'Em Dry" may not be the most obvious examplar of the blues' rejection of the sacred in favor of the purely sensual; surely Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey would have provided earlier and more characteristic examples.)
The author states from the outset that certain favorites of inveterate rock aficionados will be slighted, but I can't help being mildly dismayed that The Incredible String Band doesn't make the cut; that there is a fair amount about the heliocentric cosmology of jazz great Sun Ra but no mention of the maleficent "Eulogy and Light" by the equally cosmic Parliament-Funkadelic; and that XTC's crowning achievement "The Wheel and the Maypole" is cited not at all.
It sounds as though I am losing no opportunity to find fault with the book, but Bebergal is usually remarkably astute in selecting his examples, and one would not necessarily wish his book to be encyclopedic; in any case this was not the author's intention. When he talks about how 1950s anti-rock criticism overtook the form and threatened to strangle it in its cradle, he correctly notes that "rock's detractors were even more sensitive to the music's occult wellspring than the young fans," though one may take issue with his view that "intentions to stop the music in its tracks instead started a conflagration that has never gone out." Bebergal perhaps overstates the notion that rock was a "pagan virus" and understates the virulent racism which also played a significant role in early anti-rock rhetoric.
The book becomes of compelling interest when the author allows his subjective impressions to steer the narrative, notably in the last five chapters. He intelligently discusses seminal rock figures whose whole shtick (let alone lasting fame) must seem inexplicable to those unfamiliar with the vagaries of popular music: The Crazy World of Arthur Brown (though not Screamin' Jay Hawkins); Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett (but not the devil-haunted Roky Erikson); and George Harrison and the Beatles (who are given coverage commensurate with their status). The discussion of the Rolling Stones and their abortive collaboration with avant-garde filmmaker (and Aleister Crowley devotee) Kenneth Anger is excellent. Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper, and (following the hierarchy further down) Kiss are not slighted. The satanic panic of the 1980s is mentioned in passing. In chapter four, the author manages to (partially) explain the mind-set of David Bowie in an interesting essay which in some sense forms the core of the book. From Bowie onwards, the author leads us on a spelunking expedition through the likes of Throbbing Gristle, the Goth movement, Hawkwind, Robert Moog, King Crimson, New Age music, and — leaping into the twenty-first century — Death Metal, Jay Z, and Madonna at the 2012 Superbowl half-time show.
The final chapter gives us the thesis of the book in a nutshell: "Rock's essential rebellious spirit is a spiritual rebellion at its core, and this, like all forms of occult and Gnostic practices, is a threat to the establishment, be it religious, political, or social."
Bebergal has set himself to the task of giving us an impressionistic and idiosyncratic account of where rock and roll and the occult actually do intersect, and, in this limited aim, he has succeeded.
Francis DiMenno is a humorist, historian, and long-time music journalist based in Providence, Rhode Island.