In search of vital signs (3) – post-scriptum (Not gaga over Gaga)

(Cntd from ‘vital signs’ 2). I was serious about that last part about Arvo Pärt’s Morning Star vs Bad Romance, actually. Yes, I do have serious reservations about the performance artist Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, a.k.a. the now ubiquitous Lady Gaga, and not merely on purely musical grounds. I am willing to concede that she is in some ways a mesmeric performer with a genuine vocal technique and a vivid creative imagination. I am also willing to take her at her word when this former Catholic schooler describes herself as ‘a very religious woman’; given the prevalence of spiritual vocabulary in songs such as ‘Born this Way’ it is understandable that her work should have provoked a number of broadly favourable theological analyses (for example from Tom Beaudouin and others in the Catholic America magazine, or Dr Pete Philips of the University of Durham, secretary to the Faith and Order committee of the British Methodist Church, who writes:

‘the Church needs to get Gaga, to interpret Gaga, to listen to Gaga, to engage with Gaga and the pantheon of celebrities amongst whom she is the latest shining star.  For if we do not get Gaga, we do not get the world.  If we cannot engage with Gaga, then we cannot engage with the masses, the majority who come nowhere near the church doors week by week by week.  Proverbs was right: Get Wisdom!  But to evangelise contemporary society, we might also want to say: Get Gaga! ‘

It is not difficult to sympathize with the rationale being expressed here, and the desire for a non-judgmental assessment displayed by commentators such as Philips  is particularly understandable in the light of the recent cancellation of the Jakarta leg of her current tour following the threat of violence from conservative Islamic groups. When Germanotta says that ‘there is nothing holy about hatred’, that is of course a sentiment with which most of us would heartily agree.

However, my appreciation for those trying to react to Mother Monster’s provocative antics in a mature and charitable fashion is tempered by my instinct as a parent of pre-teenage children for whom names such as Gaga, Beyoncé, Jay-Z and Rihanna are not only already well-known because of their songs (with which they’re better acquainted than with Mozart) but also denote potential role models. Here I have to say that I seriously wonder whether I and my fellow theological reviewers have been surveying the same material.


Lady Gaga and Stephen Fry

A first set of serious reservations concerns the deliberate and sustained flirtation with occult imagery common to the quartet of artists mentioned above, which fills me with a sense of déjà vu after my research into the 1960s for my series of posts entitled ‘Spirituality in and out of focus’. It is beyond reasonable doubt that the Lady Gaga and the nexus of highly successful musical artists clustered around rapper and founder of Roc Nation Shawn ‘Jay-Z’ Carter have deliberately cultivated the use of occult symbols more usually associated with Heavy Metal and familiar within the iconography of popular music for over 40 years. ‘Baphomet’ goat’s heads, ‘devil’s horns’, 666 hand gestures or the ‘All-Seeing-Eye of Horus’ are omnipresent visual symbols in Lady Gaga’s work which may seem surprising in the context of infectious pop but have been established vocabulary for the likes of Black Sabbath (one of Germanotta’s favourite acts[1]) for over a generation. That we have been here before, albeit accompanied by different music, is transparently obvious to anyone who has done their musicological and sociological homework on the history of rock ‘n roll. Especially as concerns the strange and baleful influence of Aleister Crowley, whose ‘law of Thelema’, “do what thou wilt” is ostentatiously sported by Jay-Z in Gothic print on a T-shirt worn in his trailer to the now infamous video ‘Run This Town’ featuring Rihanna and Kanye West.


Anyone who does a casual Google search on the subject will discover within a few seconds that the internet is now rife with more or less speculative deconstructions of the occult symbolism of this and similar videos, the most well-known detective work having originated on the very popular website, run by an anonymous Canadian Christian who has evidently done substantial research into modern occultism and additionally claims to have worked as a producer for a number of well-known urban musicians.[2] There is considerable evidence to suggest that the carefully-orchestrated use of esoteric and masonic imagery by Jay-Z (not least in his clothing line ‘Rocawear’) and others is at least in part a war of nerves with ‘Vigilant Citizen’ and others, a game of provocation running something along the lines of ‘you say we’re Illuminati? OK, so that’s who we’ll be’ (the clearest pointer being Jay-Z’s rapping on the song ‘Free Mason’ by Rick Ross where he expressly attempts to counter the internet rumours of his masonic  membership and the ‘Run this Town’ video where the masonic symbolism is so unmistakable as to be caricatural).[3]


What all this is designed to achieve – and it should be added that the means employed to generate this esoteric web of  symbols are extravagant – is far from clear. Having discounted the idea that the symbols employed by Gaga and company are mere coincidence (readers who have ever encountered individuals who unwittingly wore designer Baphomet headgear or Horus jewellery costing six-figure sums without realizing it are welcome to contact me), two logical possibilities seem to present themselves.

The first, which I will simply bracket out on the grounds that unverifiable speculation is unhelpful, is that something covert really is going on here. The second, which requires no particular leap of faith or conspiracy theories regarding in the power of the Illuminati or other secret societies, is that this is all basically a commercial stunt aimed at stoking controversy and enhancing the artists’ mystique via a glamorously sinister type of branding (as if some of the best-selling musicians on the planet were in need of extra publicity). This only constitutes ‘mind control’ to the same degree as all advertising that knows how to harness the power of image and music.

This having been said, it remains to be explained why video clips such as Bad Romance and Born This Way should be saturated with a self-consciously occult symbolic content in the first place, references that could not possibly be intuited from simply listening to the songs and reading the lyrics. And why did Gaga’s friend Beyoncé Knowles-Carter (Jay-Z’s wife, who appears in the video of Telephone) choose to shock many of her own fans a few years ago by adopting the demonic alter ego ‘Sasha Fierce’, consciously playing with dark imagery through her stage persona – an alter ego which she then claimed to have ‘killed’ as redundant, having integrated Sasha F. into her own personality. What exactly is going on here with this current set of self-styled sorcerer’s apprentices?


Even if the hypotheses of the conspiracy theorists (who have perhaps only succeeded in making opposition to Lady Gaga, Jay Z and friends look paranoid and faintly ridiculous) turn out to be pure fantasy, the frequently violent, degrading and sexually explicit content of the video material we have been considering is definitely not. In itself, this ought to be sufficient reason for those who consider the Haus of Gaga to be essentially harmless if admittedly flamboyant eccentricity to think again. Even more than the irresponsible flirtation with the occult, the penchant for sexual violence which is a persistent mark of Lady Gaga’s work constitutes my principal reason for saying that her music should carry a more serious health warning than some well-meaning theological commentators might like to make out. Again, this is a combination that we have seen before, as I observed in the case of the Rolling Stones in the period immediately preceding the débâcle of Altamont in December 1969. Which is not an auspicious precedent.

In saying this, I by no means wish to argue that there are no elements of religious sincerity in Lady Gaga’s output; my own sense reading interviews and reports of her exchanges with mentor Deepak Chopra is that Germanotta’s work should be seen in terms of her own struggle with deeply contradictory impulses stemming from her Catholic upbringing on one hand and her subsequent embracing of the lifestyle of the New York avant-garde whose shock value has brought her fame and fortune. The bizarre nature of her act can be viewed as her attempt to bring this internal conflict into the open; as she admitted in her Rolling Stone interview of July 2010, ‘a lot of the work I do is an exorcism for the fans but also for myself’, a remark in keeping with her much-quoted line from the song Judas: ‘Jesus is my virtue and Judas is the demon I cling to.’ As long as this struggle continues, my guess is that the grisly side of Gaga will continue to manifest itself in all its splendour. Which will not necessarily be pretty viewing, especially if (as I suspect) Germanotta is, like Beyoncé, aiming at an ‘integration’ of her shadow side somewhat along Jungian lines rather than overcoming darkness with light.

Everyone has the right to battle with their own personal demons, of course. What concerns me is the collateral damage. And here I would like to make an appeal in all earnestness. If you, like me, are a parent or adult relative of pre-teenage children who read about stars such as Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Beyoncé in magazines destined for the 10-14 year age group, and who return from school whistling Bad Romance, please do force yourself to watch the official video of BR, ‘Born This Way’ or ‘Just Dance’. If you are still convinced of the singer’s suitability for a junior audience, and if you have a stomach that can take it, do a google video search for ‘Lady Gaga crowd surfing Lollapalooza 2010’. You will not necessarily enjoy what you find, but I urge you to do so anyway out of a sense of adult responsibility.

Afterwards, ask yourself honestly whether the South Korean Media Rating Board’s insistence that the recent Seoul performance of Lady GG’s ‘Born this way ball’ be restricted to over-18s should simply be dismissed as pandering to religious fundamentalism.



[1] As well as being an admirer of Ozzy Osbourne, Lady Gaga is also an avowed student of the film-making of Kenneth Anger, whose occult and pornographic work is referenced in her controversial videos to Alejandro (Anger’s Introduction to the Pleasuredome) and Born this way (Lucifer Rising). This should come as no surprise given Anger’s iconic status within the art-house underground from which Gaga emerged to stardom.

[2] It should be said that ‘Vigilant Citizen’, while not free from speculative excess in its sometimes outlandish interpretations, is one of the more intelligent blogs attempting an exposé of popular culture, as is acknowledged by a balanced article in The Guardian :

[3] My unwillingness to engage with conspiracy theories in this post should not be taken as a denial of  the existence of occultistic strands of Freemasonry (whose activities are public knowledge and are definitely not a figment of the conspiratorial imagination).  For example, about 200 yards away from the Paris apartment block in which I am writing this post is a bunker-like structure devoid of any outward signs other than a letter-box marked I.M.F. I puzzled over its occupants for over a decade before at last discovering that it is in fact the official location of the ‘Rite Ancien et Primitif de Memphis-Misraïm’ branch of the Institut Maçonnique de France, whose publicly accessible literature details its interest in the fields of alchemy, gnosticism and Egyptian hermeticism for the benefit of possible adherents.


Spirituality in and out of focus – Jack Flash on a candle stick

In our last episode of this series I argued that the release of Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper, on whose cover the malevolent spectre of Aleister Crowley made its first mass-audience appearance of the 1960s, can in some respects be seen as a watershed in the resurgence of occultism in mainstream popular Western culture, and that this is only comprehensible in the light of the psychedelic experimentation of the mid-sixties and the Fab Four’s extremely negative brush with institutional Christianity.

The interest of the Beatles themselves in occultism should not be exaggerated. All the evidence from the period 1966-1970 suggests that the quartet, and particularly John Lennon and George Harrison, had like many of their generation experienced a form of spiritual awakening through LSD for which they were seeking a coherent philosophical and religious framework which the Church could not give them. It is certain that this was grist to the mill of ideologues such as Timothy Leary with a manifesto for radical counter-cultural change, summarized by Crowley’s ‘Thelemic’ motto: ‘do what thou wilst shall be the whole of the law’. Leary later claimed in an interview on Late Night America that he was carrying on the British occultist’s work:

‘Well I’ve been an admirer of Aleister Crowley. I think I’m carrying on much of the work that he started over a hundred years ago, and I think the 60’s themselves…He was in favor of finding your own self, and ‘do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law’, under love. It was a very powerful statement. I’m sorry he isn’t around now to appreciate the glories that he started.’


Timothy Leary’s arrest by the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, 1972

By the mid-1960s Leary’s transition from ‘smart-aleck atheist Harvard professor and renowned research psychologist’ (as he himself put it[1]) to social activist and self-styled drug Messiah was complete, causing former fellow travellers interested in psychedelic research such as Huston Smith to part company with a man whose tendency towards megalomania was becoming increasingly apparent. In his 1968 book Politics of Ecstasy in which he proclaimed with typical modesty that ‘I may well be one of the wisest men ever born before 1945′, Leary famously referred to the Beatles’ music as the scriptures of his doctrine:

‘The rock ‘n’ roll bands are the philosopher-poets of the new religion. Their beat is the pulse of the future. The message from Liverpool is the Newest Testament, chanted by four Evangelists – saints John, Paul, George and Ringo. Pure Vedanta, divine revelation, gentle, tender irony at the insanities of war and politics, sorrowful lament for the bourgeois loneliness, delicate hymns of glory to God.'[2]

Speaking with neo-evangelical zeal, Leary proclaimed a syncretistic, monistic world-view in which selected elements of Christianity were idiosyncratically recouped and re-defined within a whole that could equally well embrace its demonic contradiction:

‘Above all, to get the message of the future, sit down with a youngster and relax and tune in to the new theme.[…] The best way for any parent to dissolve fear and develop trust in the youngsters is to get the Beatles’ “Sergeant Pepper” album or the Rolling Stones’ “Satanic Majesties” and take it humbly to a kid and say “I’ve heard that there’s an important message in this record, but I need it explained to me. Will you talk to me about the Stones and Beatles?” And then get very comfortable and close your eyes and listen to the sermon from Liverpool (it could just as well be Donovan or Dylan or the Jefferson Airplane) and learn that it’s the oldest message of love and peace and laughter, and trust in God and don’t worry, trust in the future, and don’t fight; and trust in your kids, and don’t worry because it’s all beautiful and right.'[3]


Timothy Leary with John Leonon and Yoko Ono during the recording of ‘Give peace a chance’

That John Lennon, who by his own reckoning had taken 1000 LSD trips by 1968, was for a while an ardent supporter of Timothy Leary’s socio-political vision is attested by the fact that the song ‘Come Together’, released by the Beatles as a single in October 1969, was originally written in support of Leary’s short-lived campaign to contest Ronald Reagan for the governorship of California. The lyrics, based on Leary’s slogan ‘come together, join the party’,were essentially genial nonsense (‘he got toe jam football […] he got walrus gumboot’) which nonetheless captured something of Leary’s updated Crowleyana in lines such as ‘got to be a joker he just do what he please’. However, by the time of Lennon’s extended Rolling Stone interview of 1971 with Jann Wenner, he was clearly disillusioned with and bitter towards Leary, having experienced the negative side of the ‘ego death’ of which the author of The Psychedelic Experience had spoken and which Lennon had not only sung about in Tomorrow Never Knows but put into practice:

‘I got the message that I should destroy my ego and I did, you know. I was reading that stupid book of Leary’s; we were going through a whole game that everybody went through, and I destroyed myself. I was slowly putting myself together round about Maharishi time. Bit by bit over a two-year period, I had destroyed my ego.'[4]

To portray the Beatles as active conspirators rather than confused fringe participants in Leary’s programme is the stuff of legend. Nonetheless, it has to be said that in the apocalyptic climate of the late 1960s, stoked by LSD, apparent signs of impending revolution and the burgeoning of cults such as Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan and The Process Church of the Final Judgment (an offshoot of Scientology founded by Robert DeGrimston Moore and the former wife of boxer Sugar Ray Robinson), it is perhaps logical that at least one person should have driven a Leary-esque interpretation of the Beatles to an appalling paroxysm – mass murderer Charles Manson, who would for a short while be Leary’s neighbour in Folsom Prison in California. Although this is not the place to provide an account of the Manson Family’s grim appropriation of the Beatles’ songs, it does need to be stressed that to allege that the Beatles somehow ‘inspired’ Manson’s crimes would be to ignore the fact that his reading of Revelation #9 and Helter Skelter from the ‘White’ Album was pathological and had nothing to do with the songwriters’ intentions. Nevertheless, listening to Helter Skelter with the benefit of forty years’ hindsight and viewing the Beatles as seismographs of their time, it is not difficult to detect in the song’s rare frenzy (equalled perhaps only in the all-submerging feedback that terminates I want you (she’s so heavy) on Abbey Road (1969))  the reflection of an increasingly violent social climate which was the Manson Family’s condition of possibility.

Beatles-Abbey-RoadIn earlier instalments of this series we have already referred to the work of the Catholic philosopher and Indologist R.C. Zaehner, one of the first serious scholars to sense the negative potential of Huxley’s The Doors of Perception back in 1954. In the final years of his life, Zaehner saw Manson as the logical end-point of the drug-fuelled absorption of the Vedantic strain of Eastern philosophical thought into Western culture, going as far as to conduct a series of interviews with the leader of the Family in prison which provided material for Zaehner’s Our Savage God and the posthumous essay collection City Within the Heart. Zaehner’s claim was that Manson, following Crowley, had simply drawn the conclusions of what was possible on passing beyond Western dualistic thought-categories into a monistic realm ‘beyond good and evil’ where ultimately opposites pass over into one another. This was not simply Zaehner’s philosophical construct devised to demonstrate the superiority of an Abrahamic moral framework over a Hindu one (as a reading of his Mysticism Sacred and Profane demonstrates, Zaehner’s knowledge of Eastern thought was profound and perfectly capable of differentiating between different Indian philosophical streams). It was based on Manson’s own question: ‘if God is One, what is bad?'[5] As Zaehner comments,

‘Crowley has been condemned as the arch-Satanist, but this is perhaps to do him less than justice, for he belonged to an age-old tradition which saw the Eternal as the ultimate unity in which all the opposites were reconciled, including good and evil.[…]Manson carried Crowley’s premises to their logical conclusions: if God and the Devil, good and evil, life and death, can really be transcended in an eternal Now, then sadism and sexual profligacy are not enough: you must transcend life and death itself either by killing or being killed. Charles Manson did not shrink from this ultimate “truth.”[6]

One member of Manson’s ‘Family’ was Bobby Beausoleil, who had been introduced to Crowley by the American underground filmmaker Kenneth Anger, perhaps best-known to the general public for his lurid revelations in Hollywood Babylon. Anger, who as a child actor had danced with Shirley Temple, was perhaps the most consistent follower of Crowley in the years after the latter’s death in 1947 when the ‘Beast’ had largely been consigned to the obscurity where I suspect that many of us wish he had remained indefinitely. Going as far as to attempt to restore Crowley’s notorious Abbey of Thelema in Sicily in the 1950s in the company of sexologist Alfred Kinsey, Anger dedicated his orgiastic Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome – a film accompanied, somewhat strangely, by Janacek’s Glagolitic Mass , to Crowley, casting no less that Anaïs Nin (who had known Crowley in the 1930s) in the part of the moon goddess Astarte. Linking the dawning of the Age of Aquarius to Crowley’s Aeon of Horus, Anger would become a major cultural player in the late 1960s, not least through his influence on rock music’s vanguard. Whereas Timothy Leary looked to the Beatles to propagate his social programme, Anger would do much the same with the other mythical British band of the 1960s – the Rolling Stones, whose flirtation with the occult would prove more serious than that of their Liverpudlian counterparts.

Rolling-Stones-majesties-cover-300x300The Rolling Stones’ turn to occulture can be pinpointed to 1967 with the release of Their Satanic Majesties Request, when they deserted their trademark R ‘n’ B for a none-too-successful foray into psychedelia and made their first dalliance with the black arts. This was what Mick Jagger would later refer to as the Stones’ ‘Baudelaire period’, when they were deeply involved in a London scene characterized by extreme affluence, drugs and heady avant-garde art, a more or less conscious revival of fin-de-siècle French dandyism of the second half of the nineteenth century. Former Blondie bassist turned literary authority on the counterculture Gary Valentine Lachman comments succinctly:

‘by the mid-sixties occultism had become the latest fad, providing the rich, young and decadent with a new set of thrills. Acid primed them for the otherworldly, and the fashionable philosophy of being ‘beyond good and evil’ opened bored rock stars to exploring the dark side. Nowhere was the scene more seductive than at 1 Courtfield Road, Chelsea, home of Brian Jones and his girlfriend, Anita Pallenberg.’

For Jagger’s own partner Marianne Faithfull,[7] the place was ”a veritable witches’ coven of decadent illuminati, rock princelings and hip aristos’. The atmosphere was one of splendour, sorcery and decay, a dizzying blend of drugs, magic and sexual excess. It was a time when, according to Faithfull, if you asked someone if they had read Huysmans’ A Rebour [sic], and they said yes, you’d immediately hop in the sack.’[8]

Frequently regarded as a pale and frankly incompetent imitation of Sgt Pepper (the covers for the two albums were designed by the same Chelsea artist Michael Cooper, and Jagger amassed a good deal of his occult literature from the same Indica bookshop that had provided John Lennon with The Psychedelic Experience), Their Satanic Majesties Request’s title reflects the influence of Anger, whom Mick Jagger had met at the London Mayfair home of gallery owner Robert Fraser, with the filmmaker expounding to an impressionable Jagger about Crowley’s Thelemic doctrine of ‘Do what thou wilt’. Anger was largely attracted to Jagger on account of the latter’s remarkable ability to drive audiences into a frenzy, with the Stones provoking frequent crowd riots (for example in 1965 in Dublin and Berlin). For Anger, the strangely charismatic and androgynous singer seems to have functioned as the embodiment of the disobedient spirit of the rising Lucifer he celebrated in his films. Commisioning a soundtrack from him for Invocation of My Demon Brother, Anger unsuccessfully tried to persuade Jagger to play the title role in his 1972 remake of Lucifer Rising, a film whose 1967 version had starred Bobby Beausoleil’. Anger described Lucifer Rising as

‘a film about the love generation – the birthday party of the Aquarian Age. […] Lucifer is the Light God, not the Devil – the Rebel Angel behind what’s happening in the world today. His message [and here Anger quoted Crowley’s ‘Hymn to Lucifer’] is that the key of joy is disobedience’[8](quoted Partridge, 243).

It is not difficult to see how texts from the Stones songs such as ‘my name is called disturbance, I’ll shout and scream, I’ll kill the king, I’ll rail at all his servants’ (Street Fighting Man) could be worked into Anger’s narrative, nor how it could cohere with their fascination for the Delta Blues and the myth of Robert Johnson. Moreover, there is strong evidence that at least three of the key figures in the Stones’ entourage – Jones, Pallenberg and Keith Richards, whom Anger described as the ‘occult unit’ within the group – had at least a moderately serious commitment to his agenda. As for Mick Jagger, his recourse to diabolical imagery seems to have been superficial, short-lived and largely opportunistic, enhancing the mystique of his stage persona.[9]

One-and-one-poster-Godard-215x300In some respects it is ironic that most theologically-driven accounts of the late 1960s dealing with the Rolling Stones focus on the song Sympathy for the Devil from Beggars Banquet, whose evolving compositional process is immortalized by Jean-Luc Godard’s documentary film of the same name (released in Europe as One & One). Sympathy is frequently regarded as the epitome of the Satanic in rock ‘n’ roll culture, an invocation of the demonic that would lead to the violence of Altamont in December 1969. The song itself, probably inspired by Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita (published in Britain in 1967), is actually a fairly sophisticated and deliberately ambiguous literary construction which can be construed in a number of ways, even as a denunciation of the darkness of human nature as manifested in historical events such as the Russian Revolution. What is beyond doubt, however, is that there is a wholly characteristic element of provocation in the piece, whose effectiveness relies at least partially on the ambivalence of the singer’s stance, expressed in such enigmatic lines as ‘every cop is a criminal and all the sinners saints’; it is precisely Jagger’s refusal to express where his allegiances lie which gives Sympathy a certain shock appeal of moral detachment. Equally critical to the power of the song is its driving, mesmeric samba rhythm, which as Godard’s film makes clear, completely transformed the song from its original medium-paced version. As Jagger would later explain,

‘it has a very hypnotic groove, a samba, which has a tremendous hypnotic power, rather like good dance music. It doesn’t speed up or slow down. It keeps this constant groove. Plus, the actual samba rhythm is a great one to sing on, but it’s also got some other suggestions in it, an undercurrent of being primitive – because it is a primitive African, South American, Afro-whatever-you-call-that rhythm. So to white people, it has a very sinister thing about it.'[9]

This type of studied ritualistic primitivism has of course many twentieth-century precedents – despite the difference in idiom, a non-judgmental stance towards violence and flirtation with its primal energy already characterize Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, whose ethical ambiguity Adorno recognized in his controversial essay on Stravinsky in Philosophy of New Music:

‘the music initially says, So it was – and provides no more commentary than does Flaubert in Madame Bovary. The horror is observed with a certain satisfaction, but it is not transfigured; rather, it is performed untempered.'[10]

Adorno notes that Stravinsky’s music dates from the period of ethnological field-work which was not used ‘to play out the primeval in opposition to civilization’ but rather ‘”researched” with a positivistic detachment that well matches the distance that Stravinsky’s music maintains from the horror that transpires on the stage, which it accompanies without commentary.'[10] There is an intriguing parallel here with the Rolling Stones;  in 1968 Brian Jones had made recordings of the Joujouka musicians of Morocco during ritual animal sacrifice, and on a broader level, the Stones’ appropriation of the Blues can also be seen as the fruit of ethnomusicology and ‘field’ recordings of the legendary Delta bluesmen.

There are of course at least three possible ways in which the violent element in much of the music of the 1960s counter-culture can be interpreted, all of which can arguably be applied to the Rolling Stones. Firstly it can be seen as a form of catharsis, a venting of pent-up aggression frustrated by the constraints of bourgeois cultural domination, an implicit or tacit call to revolution (e.g. Street Fighting Man). Secondly it can be seen as the holding up of a mirror to society as a form of prophetic warning – just as in the Austrian expressionism of the years immediately prior to World War I (Schoenberg, Kokoschka, Schiele, Trakl …) . Jimi Hendrix’s interpretation of Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower, his feedback-drenched Star-Spangled Banner or the howling vocals and fractured guitar work of Neil Young’s Southern Man are prime examples here; in the case of the Rolling Stones, the menacing Gimme Shelter which opens Let it bleed is a paradigmatic instance of this apocalyptic current which can still strike today’s listener as a powerful and emblematic expression of the bleakness of the Vietnam era:

Oh, a storm is threat’ning
My very life today
If I don’t get some shelter
Oh yeah, I’m gonna fade away

War, children, it’s just a shot away
It’s just a shot away

Rolling-Stones-Gimme-Shelter-300x289This element of social protest through the intimation of all-engulfing chaos gives songs such as Gimme Shelter a form of despairing but compelling grandeur as chronicles of an epoch. On the other hand, the Rolling Stones undoubtedly also played with a third and ethically less savoury type of musical violence which cannot be viewed as a form of bringing the world’s darkness to consciousness for any redemptive purpose, but where anarchy and transgression are themselves regarded as vital, liberating forces (Led Zeppelin, perhaps the most Crowleyan of all mainstream rock acts, also exhibit this tendency, for example in the appeal to Viking mythology in Immigrant Song – such an attitude towards violence remains foundational for Heavy Metal). The Stones’ notorious Midnight Rambler, in which Jagger assumes the persona of a murderer/rapist, and which aroused justifiable protests from feminists which would continue throughout the 1970s, is a particularly unpleasant example of this undercurrent in their output.

To which of these three categories Sympathy for the Devil belongs is a matter of interpretation. It can perhaps theoretically be assimilated to the first two as a cutting and insightful piece of social comment if the lyrics are taken in isolation, but watching video footage from 1969 suggests that it is more logical to assign it to the third (witness the celebratory tone of their extended Hyde Park performance, in which the drumming was performed by the virtuoso African ensemble Osibisa). Whatever Jagger’s intentions, the fact is that regardless of the text’s subtleties it was widely and understandably interpreted in its cultural context as a straightforward tribute to the Prince of Darkness. It is not hard to imagine the  cumulative effect of their 1969 US tour set, with its plethora of openly violent numbers such as Jumping Jack Flash, Midnight Rambler, Street Fighting Man and Sympathy, and to understand why fans and press alike should have taken Jagger’s Luciferian stage persona seriously. Certainly the Stones themselves did nothing to discourage the interpretation and everything to stoke it. Playing sorcerer’s apprentice in this way, although hugely commercially profitable, would backfire horribly on the band in the tragic events of December 6, 1969 at Altamont Speedway.

Accounts of this legendary and disastrous free concert, culminating in the death of Meredith Hunter, are innumerable and need no repeating here. The debate about who exactly was to blame for the mayhem captured chillingly on film in Gimme Shelter continues after forty years, although the general consensus is that a toxic combination of factors were involved which coalesced around the Rolling Stones (the inadequacy of the facilities, alcohol, ‘bad acid’ and the calamitous decision to put the Hells Angels in charge of security being the principal contributing elements). What is beyond dispute, however, is that commentators, whatever their religious convictions or lack of them, remain haunted by the coincidence of the imagery of Sympathy for the Devil and the actual violence unleashed at Altamont.[11] The press reaction to the Rolling Stones’ débâcle leaves the reader with the impression that the sheer scale of the event (300,000 people plus) and the crowd psychosis it engendered could only be described in symbolic, trans-personal terms for which the use of diabolical metaphors was so natural as to be unavoidable; indeed Mick Jagger himself would later comment that  ‘if Jesus had been there, he would have been crucified.'[12]  Perhaps the dark spiritual heart of the Californian hippie dystopia of December 1969 is best captured not in prose but by the poetic conclusion of Don McLean’s famous song  American Pie:

There we were all in one place
A generation lost in space With no time left to start again
So come on Jack be nimble, Jack be quick
Jack Flash sat on a candle stick
‘Cause fire is the devil’s only friend.
As I watched him on the stage
My hands were clenched in fists of rage
No angel born in hell
Could break that satan’s spell
And as flames climbed high into the night
To light the sacrificial rite
I saw satan laughing with delight
the day the music died.



[1] Timothy Leary, The politics of ecstasy, 164.

[2] Ibid., 166.

[3] Ibid., 167.


[5] R.C. Zaehner, City within the Heart, 35, quoted Jeffrey John Kripal, Roads of excess, palaces of wisdom: eroticism and reflexivity in the study of mysticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 197.

[6] R.C. Zaehner, City within the Our Savage God: The Perverse Use of Eastern Thought (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1974), 41-43. An interesting refutation of Zaehner’s thesis in Our Savage God (generally regarded as one of his less coherent studies) was given by his successor as Oxford Spalding Professor of Eastern Religions and Ethics:
‘While I concede that the salvational aim of Indian mysticism is not always compatible with a moral aim, I must emphasize that the so-called monistic philosophy of the East certainly cannot endorse a Charles Manson, as my predecessor feared. Charles Manson’s quoting of the Bhagavadgita is no more surprising than the devil’s quoting the Bible’ (Bimal Krishna Matilal, The Logical Illumination of Indian Mysticism, Oxford University Inaugural Lecture, 5 May 1977, 25).

[7] It should be noted that Faithfull’s husband John Dunbar was involved in the running of the Indica bookshop, and that she appeared in an issue of The Process’s magazine devoted to death, although she would subsequently express her reservations about the cult’s Fascist tendencies. Marianne Faithfull would go on to play the part of Lilith in Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising.

[8] Gary Valentine Lachman, Turn Off Your Mind : The Mystic Sixties and the Dark Side of the Age of Aquarius (New York : The Disinformation Company, 2001), 294-295. Baudelaire and Huysmans are interesting references in that they both indicate the proximity of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ forms of transcendence (one might equally have added Scriabin, theosophist composer of both ‘White Mass’ and ‘Black Mass’ Piano Sonatas). The true extent of Baudelaire’s Catholic commitment remains a subject of academic controversy, but the saturation of his work with religious imagery is evident; subsequent to the publication of his quintessentially decadent A Rebours Joris-Karl Huysmans reconverted to Catholicism and became a Benedictine Oblate.

[9] ‘Spanish’ Tony Sanchez, the Stones’ drug dealer at the time, provides a telling comment in the book Up and Down with the Rolling Stones (whose literary expression is the work of London journalist and ghostwriter John Blake): ’With his characteristic restlessness, Mick rapidly became bored with the mumbo jumbo of satanism. It was power that fascinated him, the ability to control individuals, audiences, even societies – and he knew Satan wasn’t to thank for his strength in that direction’ (Up and Down with the Rolling Stones (London: John Blake, 2010), 162). The evolution of Jagger’s religious views remains a matter of considerable debate and confusion in the secondary literature. The singer’s views on religion in the late 1960s for example include the Lennon-like statement  that while the church has done ‘more harm than good’,  ‘Jesus Christ was fantastic and something to base your life on’ (quoted in Time & Tide Business World, vol. 50 (July 24-30, 1969), xxxii). Despite an ongoing commitment to a lifestyle of untrammeled excess, there is considerable evidence of an interest in Christianity on Jagger’s part in the years immediately following the Altamont fiasco, with the singer following an obligatory course in Catholicism prior to his marriage to Bianca Pérez-Mora Macias in St Tropez in May 1971, wearing a wooden crucifix on his next US tour and writing the Stones’ only song about Jesus, ‘I just want to see his face’ (Exile on Main Street, 1972). The overt Gospel influence apparent in Exile‘s songs such as Shine a Light has been attributed to organist Billy Preston, who apparently took Jagger to church services in Los Angeles during the album”s final recording sessions. More recently, while most of Jagger’s pronouncements on organized religion have remained consistently negative, his solo release Goddess in the Doorway of 2002 would include tracks with titles such as ‘God gave me everything’ (co-written by Lenny Kravitz).

[10] Theodor W. Adorno, Philosophy of New Music, translated, edited, and with an introduction by Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), 111.

[11] Sanchez and Blake provide the classic example in a description which could not be exceeded by any religious fundamentalist account, suggesting that this was nothing less than a 1960s Rite of Spring being grimly played out in reality. Sanchez recalls how, even in the seemingly innocuous song O Carol, a deranged crowd began to believe inexplicably:

‘crawling to the stage as if it were a high altar, there to offer themselves as victims for the boots and cues of the Angels. The more they were beaten and bloodied, the more they were impelled, as if by some supernatural force, to offer themselves as human sacrifices to these agents of Satan. The violence transcended all comprehension. It had become some primaeval ritual ; the victims were no longer merely tolerating pain and evil and bestiality but were actively collaborating in it. And now the pounding voodoo drumming and the primitive shrieks echoed out, and the Stones were into their song of homage to the anti-Christ. Another sacrificially naked girl climbed on to the stage, and six Angels leaped on her at once to toss her from the stage like so much human rubbish. Jagger could ignore what was happening no longer. He broke off in mid-verse to murmur resignedly, ” Something always happens when we get into this number. . . “’ (Up and Down with the Rolling Stones, 202).

[12] The Oregonian, Jan 19, 1970.

****’With his characteristic restlessness, Mick rapidly became bored with the mumbo jumbo of satanism. It was power that fascinated him, the ability to control individuals, audiences, even societies – and he knew Satan wasn’t to thank for his strength in that direction.’ (162)

Spirituality in and out of focus – hellhounds on the trail? (ii)

In the next couple of episodes in our ongoing series of posts on the spiritual dynamics of 1960s counter-culture I find myself confronted with the unenviable task of trying to say something coherent about rock music’s bizarre fascination with a man whom I consider to be one of the most unattractive figures in modern British intellectual history, Aleister Crowley (1875-1947). Why Britain’s most infamous occultist, pornographer and drug addict should have been elevated from relative obscurity to the status of a cult hero in the late 1960s is something I have always found strange. Perhaps stranger still, however, is the fact that the revival of occultism was not confined to hard rock acts such as Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, nor to patently Dionysiac bands such as the Doors and Rolling Stones. Although all these bands made explicit reference to Crowley, arguably the most significant moment in the renaissance of posthumous interest in the self-styled ‘Beast’ was his puzzling inclusion in the top left-hand corner of the cover of the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. What this post will hopefully demonstrate is that this bizarre reference to Crowley can only be understood in the context of the Beatles’ growing alienation from Christianity, in which the year 1966 emerges as pivotal.

At first sight Crowley might seem a highly unlikely candidate for membership in the club of  ‘people we like’ on the packaging for an album by the one 1960s group to attain immediate respectability outside countercultural circles. In April 1967, by which time the Beatles had acquired a status in Britain comparable to that of the Royal Family, no less than Leonard Bernstein was already waxing lyrical about the Beatles on American Public Television in a CBS broadcast entitled Inside Pop – the Rock Revolution. In this compelling documentary, which also features remarkable historic performances by the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson (Surf’s Up) and 15 year-old Janis Ian (Society’s Child), Bernstein, who had been turned on to the Fab Four by his children, went as far as to compare the melodic sweep of Paul McCartney’s Got to get you into my life on the album Revolver to Schumann.

That the composer of West Side Story should have been so impressed by the Beatles ought not to be surprising; it is likewise understandable that his admiration should have focused on the evident points of contact between Lennon & McCartney’s songwriting and ‘classical’ compositional techniques (Bernstein for example makes much of their deft asymmetries in phrase construction and piquant tonal shifts, as well as noting the use of a ‘high Bach trumpet’ in Penny Lane and string quartet in Eleanor Rigby).[1] Many of  the Beatles’ songs, at least prior to 1966, are after all far more assimilable to classical melodic and harmonic analysis than the blues-derived rock of ‘harder’ amplified groups of the period such as, say, the Jimi Hendrix Experience. This is not to say that Bernstein views the Beatles through an exclusively classicizing prism, but it is clear that his approving nods towards Love You To‘s use of Hindu raga[2] (or the ‘sensuality of Arab café music’ he finds in the Rolling Stones’ Harrison-influenced Painted Black) are essentially expressions of ‘orientalism’, the Western fascination with the ‘exotic’ that has been a part of European art-music ever since the ‘Turkish’ idiom of the late eighteenth century exemplifed by works such as Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail.  Bernstein’s remarks give no indication of a deeper significance to be found in the Beatles’ turn to the East, one that becomes apparent on closer examination of Revolver‘s startling finale in which Asian religion meets psychedelia, modern technology and musique concrète, generating one of the most musically and philosophically radical tracks in the Beatles’ output, Tomorrow Never Knows.

Leonard Bernstein, 1973 (photo: Allan Warren)

Recorded in April 1966, Revolver‘s final number perhaps embodies the fusion of drugs and monistic thought better and more consistently at every level than any other song of the era. Shortly after their first experimentation with LSD in 1965, the Beatles discovered The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based On The Tibetan Book Of The Dead by Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert, and Ralph Metzner. This had made its way to London via the efforts of Michael Hollingshead, an acquaintance of Aldous Huxley’s who claimed the dubious honour of having introduced Leary to LSD and subsequently carried out psychedelic research with him at Harvard. Hollingshead had established a ‘World Psychedelic Centre’ in London’s fashionable Belgravia district and brought a considerable amount of psychedelic literature with him for the launch of what he dubbed ‘Operation London’. In his 1973 confessional autobiography The man who turned on the world (by which point the author described himself as a ‘confessed Franciscan’)[3] Hollingshead later gave a description of experimental neo-Tibetan rituals in London in which LSD was administered in conjunction with readings from The Psychedelic Experience and an interesting selection of music:

‘Shortly after dropping the acid, I played a tape of Buddhist Cakra music, followed by Concert Percussion by the American composer, John Cage. […]Next I played some music by Ravi Shankar and some bossanova. Interval of fifteen minutes. Then some music by Scriabin and part of a Bach cello suite. Interval. Some Debussy, and Indian flute music by Ghosh. Interval. Bach organ music and some John Cage ‘space’ music. Interval. The Ali Brothers and Japanese flute music.'[4]

It was the manager of the fashionable Indica Bookshop in Southampton Row who, according to his own account[5] introduced John Lennon to Leary’s and Alpert’s book on April 1, 1966. Following its instructions to the letter, Lennon composed Tomorrow Never Knows with its famous opening lines taken straight from Leary’s introduction:

Turn off your mind, relax
and float down stream
It is not dying
It is not dying

Lay down all thought
Surrender to the void
It is shining
It is shining

That you may see
The meaning of within
It is being
It is being

These words (fed through a rotating Leslie speaker inside a Hammond organ) were integrated within an unprecedentedly dense musical texture featuring multiple tape loops, distorted sitar, reversed guitar and treated percussion over a C drone, with the non-developmental structure mirroring an Eastern, circular approach to time.[6] If the influence of Karlheinz Stockhausen (concerts of whose music Paul McCartney had attended) is evident, so to are the striking parallels with American minimalism (Terry Riley’s and La Monte Young’s In C pieces).

It is in this context of the Beatles’ involvement with the thought of Leary/Alpert, drug culture and Asian mysticism that Crowley’s inclusion within Sergeant Pepper‘s pantheon of Beatles influences begins to become comprehensible. To this however needs to be added the Beatles’ extremely negative experience of institutional Christianity in the violent backlash towards the band in the Southern U.S. during their tour of August 1966, which has to stand as one of the defining moments in the history of the divorce in recent decades between the Church and popular culture. The vociferous opposition of conservative Christians towards the Beatles was sparked by John Lennon’s London Evening Standard interview with Maureen Cleave of March 4 of the same year (immediately prior to Lennon’s reading of The Psychedelic Experience). In this interview  he had made the now legendary statement that

“Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I’m right and I will be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know what will go first, rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.'[7]

Lennon’s reference to the ‘twisting’ of Jesus’s message by his disciples was influenced by his reading of the 1965 bestseller The Passover Plot by New Testament scholar Hugh Schonfield (one of the original Dead Sea Scrolls team), who claimed that Jesus had planned to fake his own death on the Cross, but that the plan failed when a Roman soldier ran a spear into his side.

It needs to be emphasized that Lennon’s remarks caused no outcry in Britain but set off an international furore when reprinted out of context by the American teenage magazine Datebook; following the boycotting of the Beatles’ music and effigy-burning by the Ku Klux Klan, Lennon attempted to defuse the crisis at the outset of the Beatles’ summer 1966 U.S. tour by issuing an apology at the Astor Towers Hotel in Chicago on August 11.[8] He asserted that he had basically been making a descriptive sociological comment on the decline of Christianity in England, not a value judgment on the relative merits of Christ and the Beatles. He maintained his belief in the accurary of his factual assessment of the state of the Church in Britain as ‘shrinking and losing contact’, a verdict supported by George Harrison who agreed that it was ‘on the wane’. Intriguingly, Lennon claimed that he had been ‘deploring’ the demise of British Christianity in the Evening Standard interview, and that he was was not impressed by Church attempts to be relevant to the younger generation:

‘Well, my reaction is that I was deploring it, you know. I was pointing it out. I mean, if somebody like us says it, people sort of do take notice, you know – even church people are trying to be ‘with it’ with pop groups and things. They’re still doing it the wrong way, and I was just stating a fact as I saw it.’

Stating that all the Beatles had received an essentially Christian upbringing, Lennon defined his own religious views in immanentist terms that could easily have been culled from a superficial reading of Tillich and Bishop John Robinson’s Honest to God: ‘I believe in God, but not as an old man in the sky. I believe what people call ‘God’ is something in all of us’.[9] Clearly struggling to express himself coherently, Lennon voiced his opinion that ‘I believe that what Jesus and Mohammed and Buddha and all the rest said was right; It’s just that the translations have gone wrong.'[10]

Beatles record-burning, Birmingham, Alabama, 1966

Having encountered the full fury of the most conservative U.S. Christians it is understandable that the Beatles’ negative position with regard to institutional Christianity should have been reinforced in the months following the release of Revolver and continued in the direction of an exploration of Indian religion seen as more experientially authentic than an ossified Church. As George Harrison commented on his first visit to Bombay in September 1966, “The religions they have in India I believe in much more than anything I ever learned from Christianity […] Their religion is not like something which Christianity seems to be, which is you turn it on Sunday morning and go to church because you’re supposed to go rather than because you want to go. It’s every second and every minute of their lives. It’s them – how they act, how they conduct themselves, how they think.”[11] Lennon would echo this sense of the inadequacy of the Church in 1967: ‘The youth of today are really looking for some answers, for proper answers the established church can’t give them, their parents can’t give them, material things can’t give them’.[12]

In the context of the Beatles’ alienation from the institution of the Church they felt no taboos about including Aleister Crowley on the cover of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It seems evident that their (probably John Lennon’s) interest in him was not so much related to the lurid stories of his orgiastic rituals but rather his appropriation of Eastern philosophical thought and use of hallucinogens.[13] Viewed in such a light, it is not difficult to see how Crowley could be part of a narrative including other figures on the cover such as Huxley, Burroughs and various Indian gurus such as Yogananda. While Nietzsche was not featured among the Beatles’ ‘people we like’, there are hints of ‘beyond good and evil’ to the artistic and spiritual genealogy implied by the artwork, which (as photographic evidence attests) was initially to have included both Jesus and Hitler. The shadow of the author of Also sprach Zarathustra looms large over the aspect of Crowley’s thought which, more than any other, would be explicitly championed by Leary and others in the late 1960s, encapsulated in Crowley’s ‘Law of Thelema’ (a notion taken from Rabelais and derived from the Greek for ‘will’): ‘Do what thou wilst shall be the whole of the law’. With this creed Crowley was promoting the Nietzschean elevation of Will to the status of an absolute imperative; it may be questioned how seriously this was taken by the Beatles in 1967,  but Crowley’s Thelemic doctrine would be taken in absolute earnest by the most radical elements of the late 1960s counterculture, with extremely serious consequences.



[1] The ‘classical’ perspective on the Beatles is humorously shown by the four songs which a young Louis Andriessen (to whom we will be returning in subsequent posts) wrote for Cathy Berberian while studying with the Armenian-American singer’s husband, Luciano Berio, in Milan in 1966.

[2] George Harrison first heard Ravi Shankar’s ensemble in 1965, then studied with the Indian master in 1966 (having already collaborated with Asian musicians on Love You To). It should be noted that Bernstein was already familiar with the use of Hindu musical elements in a Western context, having premièred Messiaen’s Turangalîla with the Boston Symphony Orchestra back in 1949.

[3] In the conclusion of The man who turned on the world Hollingshead acknowledged the ultimate futility of his chemical pilgrimage (which had included a serious methedrine addiction and a spell in London’s notorious Wormwood Scrubs Prison):

‘And how do I now think of LSD et al.?—as certain truths about the nature of my inner self came to be manifest in my conscious mind, my interest in psychedelics began to wane proportionately, so that today I do not believe that LSD can help me towards self-realisation. It had never been more than preliminary, one may say, a pretext to me to explore inwardness and unfamiliar mental states for whatever they might reveal. But LSD has nothing more to give me. And I am therefore determined to return to the world, and in time, to integrate myself with it. In relation to any religious beliefs I now hold, I am a confessed Franciscan, though I freely admit that I have a very long way to go before I shall be able to express this outwardly—with my entire being—the love Saint Francis of Assisi showed was for all living creatures, and in respect to love of this kind, I must to this extent be regarded as clumsy. Yet in Saint Francis evolved Love of the very highest order for his delicate and feminine sensibility offered Love a unique possibility of manifestation. And thus, in the light of this knowledge, I can no longer take my psychedelic trips seriously. I know that many readers, and by no means the worst among them, would disapprove of such measures as taking LSD; one should be strong enough, they say, to exist by faith without the aid of drugs. Yes! One should be, but what if one is too weak?
And the impulse which now drives me back into the world is precisely the same as that which drives so many into monasteries or to keep the offices of prayer—the desire for self-realisation.’ (Michael Hollingshead, The man who turned on the world (London: Blond and Briggs, 1973)

[4] Ibid., ch. 5. Scriabin’s inclusion seems particular noteworthy given the Russian composer’s adherence to the Theosophy of Helena Blavatsky and his plans for his unrealized Mysterium to be performed during a mass ritual in Tibet.

[5] Barry Miles, The Beatles Diary Volume 1: The Beatles Years (London: Omnibus Press, 2001).

[6] A fascinatingly detailed analytical discussion of the recording of Tomorrow Never Knows, including transcriptions of the compositional sketches and tape loops, can be found in Walter Everett, The Beatles as Musicians: Revolver through the Anthology (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

[7] The Maureen Cleave Evening Standard interview is reprinted online at is interesting to note that among ‘objects he still fancies’ in Lennon’s house, Maureen Cleave noted ‘a huge altar crucifix of a Roman Catholic nature with IHS on it; a pair of crutches, a present from George; an enormous Bible he bought in Chester; his gorilla suit.’

[8] Transcripts of the two Astor Towers Hotel press conferences can be found online at and .

[9] Quoted Larry Kane, Lennon Revealed (Philadelphia: Running Press, 2007), 118.

[10] Quoted Tony Barrow, John, Paul, George, Ringo & me: the real Beatles story (New York: Avalon, 2005). Barrow was the Beatles’ press officer, and it was in his 27th floor suite in the Astor Towers Hotel that the press conferences occurred.

[11] Quoted in Steve Turner, The Gospel according to the Beatles (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2006), 10.

[12] Ibid., 134.

[13] I have found no hard evidence to support the interpretation of the opening lines of the album’s title song, ‘it was twenty years ago today Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play’ as referring to the death of Aleister Crowley in 1947, a rumour which has been widely circulated by occultists and conservative Christians alike.