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.

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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.

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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 www.vigilantcitizen.com, 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]

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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.

__________________

NOTES

[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 :http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2010/jul/01/lady-gaga-vigilant-citizen-illuminati

[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.

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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-Learys-arrest-1972

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]

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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.

___________

NOTES

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

[2] Ibid., 166.

[3] Ibid., 167.

[4]

[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? (i)

After a prolonged summer break, it is now time to pick up the thread of this post where it left off, namely with the 1960s counter-cultural migration to Europe via the Beatles. Over the next couple of episodes we will be dealing with the radical and in some respects highly sinister musical and spiritual direction taken in 1966-1969 by the prime movers of those heady years, terminating in the gruesome Manson Family murders and the Rolling Stones’ disastrous appearance at Altamont Speedway in December 1969,  which many cultural historians see as ‘the day the music died’. This was the time when, to paraphrase Yeats’ The Second Coming, the 1960s ‘ceremony of innocence’ was definitively drowned.

Eglise de la Réconciliation, Taizé (photo: Damir Jelic)

There is no doubt that the stamp left on popular culture at many levels by the music of this brief but incredibly intense era has been an enduring one, with the songs of the late 1960s still functioning for many as an interpretive framework for their experience of the world. During my summer travels I was provided with some humourous but telling evidence of this from some seemingly unlikely quarters. One instance of this was at the Taizé ecumenical community in France, where one of the brothers (not wearing his monastic attire at the time, I have to say) interspersed his thoughts on the parable of the Prodigal Son with quotations from the Beatles’ Piggies (from the ‘White’ album of 1968) and even Serge Gainsbourg’s and Brigitte Bardot’s/Jane Birkin’s infamous Je t’aime … moi non plus (1967/1969). A second instance was at the windswept castle of Fort La Latte in Brittany, where my family and I had gone for what had been billed as a ‘medieval children’s festival’, a description which proved somewhat thin when we discovered that the sole entertainment on offer was from a local musical comedy act of decidedly limited ability. On seeing them appear in period costume I imagined that they would be providing the pseudo-troubadour fare that I have heard at similar events in French historical venues, so it was very much to my surprise that they launched into a spoof cover version of ‘Sympathy for ze deveel’ by Les Pierres qui roulent (the Rolling Stones). Making up in attitude for what they clearly lacked in basic artistic talent, they came up with some lines in what I can only describe as pidgin franglais which had at least one member of the outdoor audience splitting his sides with laughter. Let me try to transliterate a couple of examples from a language which has no official written form but which is all too commonly practised in this part of the world:

‘Medieval food is dégueulasse [disgusting]. It taste zhjust like McDonaldsse’ [that actually rhymes reasonably well in franglais when pronounced properly]

‘We not look for la bagarre [We’re not trying to pick a fight]. We zhjust wanna be medieval rock-stars [see comment above. The final ‘s’ of ‘rock stars’ is silent] !’

I have to admit that to call this a ‘song’ would be stretching the meaning of the word a little beyond its normal limits, and yes, the Jimi Hendrix imitation at the end when the amplified lute player started trying to play his instrument with his teeth was frankly pretty limp, but this bizarre piece of humour did serve to illustrate the mythological place that the Golden Age of Rock continues to occupy in popular consciousness.

As part of their caricature, the group ended by making mock ‘Devil’s horns’ signs (an integral element of Heavy Metal’s grand guignol behavioural code[1]) with their index and little fingers, a gesture which was not so much sinister as interestingly indicative of a certain stereotype concerning a supposed alliance of popular music and the demonic which, as we shall see, has been around for a very long time.

Fort La Latte, Brittany (photo: Benh Lieu Song)

At this point I would like to issue some immediate caveats concerning the perception of a connection between the evolution of rock music during the period under question and a resurgence of interest on both sides of the Atlantic in the occult. It seems that two interpretive extremes need to be avoided here. The first is that represented by many accounts stemming from conservative Christian circles (whether Protestant or Catholic) demonizing rock music per se as occult to its very core. This approach is perhaps best typified by an obsession with finding hidden messages encoded backwards in songs such as Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven; anyone who has made an objective attempt to assess the so-called ‘evidence’ adduced by the conspiracy theorists in this respect is likely to be as unconvinced as I am that there is some kind of supernatural origin to purported messages such as ‘start to smoke marijuana’ in Queen’s Another one bites the dust that some claim to have found ‘inexplicably’ engraved on vinyl when played in reverse. The mere fact that it takes a high degree of intentionality for anyone to want to sift through the repertoire backwards (a fairly masochistic aural exercise) suggests that the researchers have simply found exactly what they were looking for – to construe the slurred and barely distinguishable syllables of Freddie Mercury’s back-to-front voice in this way requires some pretty creative imaginative work. It is furthermore interesting to speculate what might be found if some warped soul subjected Bach’s St Matthew Passion to the same kind of ‘analysis’; I am more than willing to bet that somewhere in the three hours of gobbledygook German in retrograde someone might after repeated listenings hear the odd mildly subversive line or two such as ‘time to get out of our brains at the Biergarten’ (in 18th century Leipzig dialect, of course).

In my opinion one of the problems with the blanket demonization of rock music by religious fundamentalists (which needless to say are particularly widespread in the blogosphere) has been to overshadow any kind of more nuanced appraisal of the spiritual dynamics of rock in its formative years, a serious subject which clearly calls for a balanced and historically-grounded account.[2] As a result commentators can frequently fall into the opposite error from that of rock’s religious despisers, namely that of failing to engage with the evidence that something strange and in some respects unnerving was indeed going on at a social level in the late 1960s that merits substantive comment. Merely to brush off the sudden and dramatic turn to occult themes in the counter-culture of the late 1960s as a temporary fad or an inexplicable case of mass psychosis best left untouched is an act of considerable intellectual laziness which abandons the field to zealous but undiscriminating writers who evidently lack the analytical equipment to deal with the topic in an intelligent manner.

In trying to approach this subject responsibly, it seems that some points of method are in order. Firstly, it is evident that one of the main reasons for the paucity of responsible mainstream scholarly discussion of the phenomenon of rock music’s love affair with occultism is the fact that those who have been willing to approach the topic at all have normally done so on the basis of an a priori commitment to a certain metaphysical position regarding the reality of supernatural beings (other than God) and their dealings with humanity. Secondly, this is all too often linked to an uncritical attitude towards widely-circulated and unsubstantiated master narratives of plots to destroy Western culture from within (launched by a variety of candidates including the CIA, British Intelligence, the Tavistock Institute for Human Relations and a Theodor Adorno supposedly not only writing all the Beatles’ lyrics but also taking 12-tone music from the Baal priesthood and the cult of Dionysus). As with all such conspiracy theories, the fatal flaw of too many religiously-motivated accounts of the 1960s attempting to prove the innate evil of rock ‘n’ roll is the forcing of often undocumented evidence into a pre-determined scheme. It ought to be patently obvious that serious sociological and historical research cannot be carried out in this manner. Not only are such readings ruled out of court at the outset by those for whatever reason are unwilling to share the metaphysical outlook of  the conspiracy buffs (i.e. belief in the existence of non-human personal evil), but they are almost always undermined by their penchant for exaggeration, over-simplification, sensationalism and the failure to distinguish fact from urban legend. The premature introduction of simplistic theological arguments as a substitute for careful analysis of a complex web of human interactions makes no contribution to genuine understanding of rapidly evolving, multi-layered cultural situations. What seems clear is that, in order to come to grips with the subject-matter, we have to find some way to talk rationally about the rôle played, not so much by the question of ‘supernatural’ agency (even if ultimately that is a challenge which theology cannot evade) as by human belief in the working of supernatural forces.

One study which attempts to do this, but which ultimately fails to avoid the interpretive traps I have just attempted to outline, is the highly ambitious and initially promising study of Catholic author and recovering hippie E. Michael Jones published by Ignatius Press in the mid-1990s, Dionysos Rising: the Birth of Cultural Revolution out of the Spirit of Music, a sustained and flamboyant polemic against what Jones perceives to be the Nietzschean dimension of counter-culture. At first glance his eloquently written and frequently fascinating analysis might seem to merit serious consideration, not least for its attempt to link the emergence of the 1960s counter-culture to the void left in the wake of classical music’s demise in the decades following World War II. Jones argues that

‘a massive shift of allegiance took place, similar to the first shift from Schönberg to jazz that had taken place when the first black jazz band arrived in Paris after World War I. Only this time it took place on a much more massive scale. Faced with a choice between Stockhausen and Muddy Waters, British working-class teenagers in the early fifties had the sense to choose at least some semblance of musical life, and they went with Muddy.’[3]

Muddy Waters, 1971

Jones supports this with the example of a British professor who attempted to bring a Stockhausen recording to some jam sessions

‘in the empty art-school classrooms that were now the hangouts of the British youth who in another age would have gone into the military or an apprenticeship. There is no indication that anyone listened twice. As the sixties progressed, a massive shift of allegiance took place. The postwar generation coming to maturity in the early sixties converted to rock ‘n’ roll’.[4]

This bold thesis is not without a certain prima facie plausibility. It should be acknowledged that the explosion of popular music did indeed occur during a time when ‘classical’ music was struggling to find its way (many young European composers feeling, not without a certain justification, that the high bourgeois culture whose history was deeply intertwined with the Austro-German symphonic tradition was fatally compromised during the Third Reich). The correlation between these two phenomena clearly does merit exploration, but Jones overstates his case in his efforts to lay the blame for what he perceives as the collapse of Western culture at the feet of ‘degenerate moderns’ (the title of another of Jones’s book-length studies). For the author of Dionysos Rising, who unsurprisingly makes frequent allusion to Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus, the chief culprits in classical music are clearly identified as Schönberg and Adorno, representatives of the ‘arriving German professoriat’ who took up residence in the US when fleeing the Nazis in the 1930s and 40s:

‘Bauhaus was installed in Black Mountain College in the woods of the South; Gropius ended up at Harvard, Marcuse in California, and Tillich at Union Theological Seminary – and Kulturbolschewismus became our national educational policy. […] The German professors injected the Nietzsche virus into the bloodstream of American education, which has had an immune deficiency ever since.’[5]

The tone of these remarks is unfortunately typical of the book’s tendency to construct a politically–oriented master narrative out of half-truths, insinuation and sweeping generalizations. Where, for example, is the proof that British teens after World War II were actually making a ‘massive shift of allegiance’ away from classical music, which would imply that they had been interested in it previously? Jones’s blanket term ‘British youth’ fails to take account of the diversities in class background within those embracing rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s and 1960s; there is no evidence that ‘working-class teenagers’ were actually choosing between Stockhausen and Muddy Waters (as if they would have opted for Brahms or Chopin against the Chicago Blues), especially in the early fifties, when New Music in England in any case primarily meant Benjamin Britten rather than cultural ‘Bolshevism’ from Donaueschingen. It would seem far more credible to assert that the working-class felt that classical music per se was essentially a highbrow activity closed to them (as Paul McCartney explained in a televised interview in the late 1960s). And if we are to bring Stockhausen into the discussion at all, can a general thesis really be constructed on the basis of Jones’s example of a jam session rejection of the Darmstadt school in South London?  What is to be made of the fact – inconvenient for Jones’s thesis – that the composer of Kontakte was one of the figures on the cover of the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (top row, fifth from the left) and exerted a major influence on the experimentation of the ‘White’ Album?

More troubling still than Dionysos Rising’s one-sided historiography are the racist overtones of its overall narrative of increasing Western cultural degeneracy. We for example find such disturbingly reductionist statements as

‘The 1960s were an erotic Great Awakening. As Nietzsche had predicted, the Negro was the catalyst for the overturning of European values, which is to say, the most effective enculturation of Christianity. The civil rights movement was nothing more [!!!] than the culmination of an attempt to transform the Negro into a paradigm of sexual liberation that had been the pet project of the cultural revolutionaries since the twenties.’[6 – emphasis mine]

Jones attempts to lend academic respectability to his reading by making certain qualifications such as admitting that the modernist fascination with ‘the Negro’ was largely the projection of white fantasies, which had begun with Nietzsche. He likewises correctly recognizes that ‘the Negro’ as white socio-historical construct had little to do with the reality of African-American life which was if anything more deeply impacted by Christianity than white society. However, there remains something insidious in Jones’s insinuation that responsibility for the portrayal of the ‘Negro as a paradigm of sexual liberation’ lies not only with the white moderns but also with ‘the Negroes who were willing to go along with the white boys’ Kulturkampf for whatever gain it would bring them.’[7] For all its literary flair and mine of information about the 1960s, the flaws of Jones’s overall argument and tendency to overstep the boundary between responsible scholarship and ideological polemic ultimately make for frustrating reading.

In contrast to the two extremes I have mentioned – either a reduction of rock culture to ‘demonism’ or a flat refusal to engage with a mass of phenomenological evidence suggesting an extremely tight correlation between musical developments of 1966-1969 and a sudden surge of interest in the dark side of mysticism – what seems required is an approach which looks dispassionately at the evidence on an a posteriori basis, distinguishing rigorously between what can be established as fact and what is to be treated as conjecture or metaphysical speculation. Such an approach simply ‘brackets’ the question of whether ‘occult forces’ are at work as outside the scope of inquiry (whatever one’s personal convictions on the matter). Neither the positing of the existence of such forces nor their a priori denial should be allowed to colour the discussion; only by proceeding in such a manner can anything cogent be said on a sociological level about the frenetic end of the 1960s and its subsequent legacy for popular culture. From such an analysis the reader should then be free to draw her/his own theological conclusions, if any.

The difficulty of such an endeavor is compounded by the fact that distinguishing truth from the mass of disinformation and partial truths abounding in the literature concerning the birth of rock music in the 1960s is not in itself sufficient for an appraisal of the period. Like any sub-culture, rock has its own foundational myths whose importance is in some way independent of their grounding in real history. The facts about John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Jimmy Page or any of the other cultural icons of rock music are in this respect certainly less influential than their perception within popular consciousness, however distorted this may be with regard to actual historical data.

As an illustration of this, let us take as an example the strange case of the man who is widely regarded as the ‘Godfather’ of rock music,  the ‘King of the Delta Blues’ Robert Johnson (1911-1938), whose iconic status since the 1960s is out of all proportion to the size of his output (29 songs recorded in Texas in 1936 and 1937, plus 13 ‘lost’ takes only issued in 1970). The recordings are certainly remarkable in themselves for Johnson’s innovative guitar playing, the disturbingly expressive quality of his voice, and the haunting imagery of his poetry. However, within his own blues community Johnson was not regarded as particularly important during the two decades following his early death. Despite its intrinsic quality, his ouput is not in itself enough to explain the extraordinary rise of Johnson as a cult figure in the 1960s and his canonization as the spiritual as well as musical ancestor of rock by a generation of white musicians living an ocean away from the Mississippi Delta.

It is clear that the Robert Johnson revival was catalyzed by the release in 1961 of the LP King of the Delta Blues Singers at the instigation of Columbia Records’ John Hammond (who had sought out Johnson for his Carnegie Hall Spirituals to Swing concert in December 1938, where Count Basie topped the bill, the program notes of which effectively started the Johnson mythmaking by claiming that the bluesman died the very day that he was told that he was to play at Carnegie Hall).  The importance of the Delta Blues idiom for the emergence of rock in the years immediately following the release of King of the Delta Blues is acknowledged by all commentators as immense, with the songs both of Johnson and Muddy Waters providing both the inspiration for bands such as the Rolling Stones (whose name was derived from the title of Waters’ first hit in 1948 after moving from the Delta to Chicago), Cream and Led Zeppelin. The influence is of course readily apparent on a technical level in terms of the blues structure of the songs, vocal delivery and guitar style. It is however also clear that the blues were equally important on a symbolic level, with Johnson – whose persona was essentially fabricated by Frank Driggs’ liner notes for King –, becoming the equivalent of an African-American Arthur Rimbaud. Here was a poète maudit, mistakenly described by Driggs as having recorded his songs as a teenager, whose frequently tormented lyrics (assumed, rightly or wrongly, to be autobiographical) spoke to a generation who projected their own existential concerns back into the radically different socio-cultural environment of the American South of the 1920s and 30s. The appeal of Johnson’s lyrics is captured memorably by a description by Giles Oakley: ‘visions of a restless, self-destructive interior world filled with secret fears and anxieties. At times he seems … on the edge of an abyss of complete psychic disintegration.’[8] It is arguably this poetic element – seen through the romanticizing lens of the 1960s – which made Johnson rather than Waters or other bluesmen the ‘ancestor of choice’ for rock’s British pioneers such as Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page. Part of the attraction undoubtedly lay in a dark and disturbing side to Johnson’s words which on occasion featured precisely the same combination that would, unfortunately but incontestably, characterize certain streams of post-1966 rock and which persists to this day as the default position in much Metal – the combination of an invocation of the occult with violent masculine sexuality. What are we to make, for example, of the threats in 32-20 Blues (‘And if she gets unruly, thinks she don’t wan do, Take my 32-20 now and cut her half in two‘) or the famously chilling text of Me and the Devil Blues?

Early this morning
When you knocked upon my door
Early this morning, oooo
When you knocked upon my door
And I said hello Satan
I believe it’s time to go

Me and the Devil
Was walkin’ side by side
Me and the Devil, woooo
Was walking side by side
And I’m going to beat my woman
‘Til I get satisfied

An integral part of the Robert Johnson mythology was clearly (and still is) the morbid fascination exerted by the legend that Johnson’s remarkable guitar playing was the result of a pact with Satan made at the crossroads of highways 49 and 61 in Clarksdale, Mississippi (where Muddy Waters also grew up). The origins of this story will be assessed later, but it acquired considerable traction after 1966 when related in an article by blues scholar Pete Welding in the widely-read Down Beat magazine entitled Hellhound on His Trail: Robert Johnson. In this article Welding presented the legend not as hearsay but as a serious belief transmitted by one of the Delta Blues’ founding fathers, guitarist Son House, who had been both Johnson’s and Waters’ teacher.[9] In the course of the next few years – when rock’s flirtation with the dark arts was at its height – making cover versions of Johnson’s Cross Road Blues would become almost obligatory for any aspiring rock band laying claim to the heritage of the Blues, the most famous being the rendition of Eric Clapton’s Cream in 1968.[10]

Robert Johnson

Musicologists Susan McClary and Patricia Schroeder are surely correct in asserting that the legend of Robert Johnson was essentially a projection born of the fantasies of the 1960s. McClary for example claims that for British rockers, ‘African Americans were thought to have access to real (i.e. preindustrialized) feelings and community – qualities hard to find in a society that had so long stressed individuality and the mind/body split’.[11] Schroeder surmises that ‘[i]t could be that the story of Johnson’s pact with the devil (which, as we have seen, was not widespread until the mid 1960s) burgeoned because of the alienated sensibilities of the generation that resurrected him: it is a product of the Age of Aquarius.’[12]

However, while this Faustian myth undoubtedly possessed a powerful transgressive mystique in the late 60s, it was not merely a literary construct. It also spoke to the musical intuition of young musicians such as Clapton, Page and Keith Richards seeking to explain for themselves the unprecedented power of amplified guitar music (linked to the psycho-acoustic phenomenon of aural saturation). It is phenomenologically extremely striking that many leading rock musicians of the time would speak of the actual experience of live, collective music-making at high volume levels – frequently intensified by the use of psychedelics – in terms of openness to external forces (the concept of the ‘shamanistic’ rock musician, a recurring image from the Doors, Jimi Hendrix and the Grateful Dead to Carlos Santana’s Shaman album of 2002, would merit a post in itself). Given that the Robert Johnson ‘crossroads’ legend was entirely consonant with their musical experience, it is not surprising that, as Patricia Schroeder contends, rock’s pioneers should have ‘made a cult figure of a Robert Johnson with preternatural skills and supernatural connections.’[13]

Intersection of Highway 49 and 61, Clarksdale (photo: Joe Mazzola)

The question of the extent to which the Robert Johnson mythology is rooted in fact is extremely difficult to answer for a number of reasons. Firstly, it has proved notoriously hard for scholars to assemble verifiable details about his life for the lack of solid written documentation in an oral culture marked by the frequent embellishment of eyewitness reports (meaning that even statements by Johnson’s entourage are often contradictory) and where the boundary between historical reality and mythologizing seems highly fluid. Secondly, it is clear that, even if the entry of the legend of Johnson’s crossroads deal with the devil into the popular white consciousness can be dated to Welding’s article of 1966, it stems from a mythology of the blues as the ‘devil’s music’ which was already well in existence in Robert Johnson’s own lifetime in his own African-American culture. As blues scholar Robert ‘Mack’ McCormick pointed out in a compelling 1992 documentary made in the Delta by John Hammond’s guitarist son, Johnson’s decision to become a professional musician seems to have been a response to the condemnation he received from his family on the death of his first wife Virginia during childbirth while Johnson was away from home playing music at Delta juke joints. McCormick argues persuasively that the appearance of diabolical imagery in many of Johnson’s songs is a reflection of the charges laid against him by a deeply religious community for which to play the blues (rather than Christian hymnody) was already to have sold one’s soul to the devil.[14] It seems psychologically more than credible to assert with McCormick that Johnson simply assumed an identity that others had effectively created for him, taking his images from an existing stock of archetypal myths circulating in the Delta. His fellow musicians such as Son House and Honeyboy Edwards being equally impregnated with this collective mythology, it is wholly logical that they should have attributed Johnson’s seemingly miraculous transformation from a mediocre blues musician to a guitar master during his absence from the Delta in 1930-31 to supernatural forces. It moreover seems that Robert Johnson’s was not an isolated instance, a similar equation of superior guitar playing with a Satanic pact having been made in the case of his namesake Tommy Johnson (1896-1956). Whether the singer of Hellhound on my trail propagated the myth of his own diabolical musical abilities is a matter of scholarly debate, but it is certain that he did nothing to oppose it and that he derived a certain notoriety from the persona generated by the legend.

The question of whether Johnson made a bargain with a genuinely existing spiritual entity of whatever nature is not only of course totally unverifiable (and therefore to be bracketed from discussion), but far less rich in implications than the historical and sociological issue of the broader perception of the blues as the music of the devil and the subsequent appropriation of this association by the rock vanguard in the 1960s. This appropriation would in some cases see the confluence of two legends originating on opposite sides of the Atlantic, which would merge as a result of the American-British cross-fertilization that was very much a feature of the later 60s (the most spectacular instances of this convergence being provided by Keith Richards and Jimmy Page). If the myth of Robert Johnson, and the blues more generally as the ‘devil’s music’ was one mythic hero, the second would be a figure whom I would personally prefer to ignore as intensely distasteful, but who unfortunately cannot be left out of any account of rock spirituality in its strange post-1966 quest for negative transcendence – Aleister Crowley.

________________________________________

NOTES

[1] Although the origin of this hand sign is contested, it is widely attributed to John Lennon, who can be seen making the gesture on several photographs from 1967 which provided the basis for the cartoon art in the Yellow Submarine film (1969). It is sometimes asserted that Lennon was actually making the American sign language gesture for ‘love’; while this is plausible, the two signs are similar yet distinct, and it was Lennon’s hand position which – for whatever reason – was subsequently adopted by overtly occult bands from the end of the 1960s onwards.

[2] In this respect a particularly welcome development is the recent establishment of the Rock and Theology project spearheaded by Fordham University professor and rock bassist Tom Beaudoin.

[3] E. Michael Jones, Dionysos Rising: the Birth of Cultural Revolution out of the Spirit of Music (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994), 160-161.

[4] Ibid..

[5] Dionysos Rising, 156.

[6] Ibid., 85.

[7] Ibid., 94. In recent years, E. Michael Jones, presently editor of Culture Wars magazine, has increasingly been perceived as a conspiracy theorist rather than a serious scholar, dogged by persistent accusations of anti-semitism from many sources. The Catholic University of America’s cancelled a scheduled appearance by Jones in a lecture series in 2008, while in 2006 the Archbishop of Prague mentioned Jones by name as a panel participant in his condemnation for political extremism of a talk by Prof. John Rao, President of Roman Forum, titled “Novus Ordo Seculorum and the War on Terror”. Typically, Jones – whose claim to be ‘anti-Jewish’ but not ‘anti-Semitic’ speaks for itself – saw the Cardinal’s statement as the result of manipulation by local Jews.

[8] Giles Oakley, The Devil’s Music: a History of the Blues (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977), 219. Quoted Patricia R. Schroeder, Robert Johnson, mythmaking, and contemporary American culture (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2004), 38.

[9] It is clear that Johnson’s fellow musicians made major contributions to the propagation of the Johnson mythology; it was for instance Sonny Boy Williamson who spread the idea that Johnson (who probably died of internal bleeding after being given poisoned whiskey) spent his last hours in a state of total breakdown, barking like a mad dog. This story naturally gave birth to the legend of the bluesman overtaken by the ‘hellhounds’ which can still be found in popular sensationalist treatments of Johnson’s life. In Robert Johnson: lost and found, scholars Barry Lee Pearson and Bill McCulloch make the important point that Johnson’s peculiar vocal delivery and playing on Hellhound seem to refer to an existing blues genre practised by artists such as Skip James, thereby suggesting that ‘autobiographical’ readings of the song are musicologically inappropriate.

[10] Intriguingly, Eric Clapton himself, whose descriptions of Johnson’s playing and singing verge on the religious, saw the Crossroads legend as baseless (see Andrew James Kellett, Fathers and Sons: American blues and British rock music, 1960-1970 (ProQuest: Ann Arbor, 2009), 231).

[11] Susan McClary, Conventional Wisdom: the Content of Musical Form, (Berkeley/Los Angeles : University of California Press, 2000), 55.

[12] Patricia A. Schroeder, Robert Johnson, 40. As evidence of the continued hold of the Clarksdale myth over musicians’ imaginations,  it is interesting to note that in a PBS interview in 2004, Bob Dylan mysteriously referred to himself as making a ‘big deal’ at the ‘crossroads’ when asked about the source of his extraordinary creativity in the early 1960s, describing his own songwriting as inhabited by a type of magic. Dylan’s reasons for making this deliberate public reference to the Johnson legend are as unclear as the nature of this ‘deal’, but the poetic/symbolic allusion is explicit (Dylan began quoting  Robert Johnson in his songs as early as 1963 (‘Corrina, Corrina’ on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan)).

[13] Ibid., 39.

[14] This is illustrated by the etymology of the word ‘juke’ or ‘jook’, whose origins are to be found in the Wolof word ‘dzug’, meaning ‘wicked, disorderly’ (Kellett, Fathers and Sons, 236n.). The links between the blues and folk ‘hoodoo’ religion in the American South have been powerfully explored by African-American scholar Julio Finn (The Bluesman: the Musical Heritage of Black Men and Women in the Americas (New York: Interlink Books, 1986) , who argues that Johnson’s Cross Road Blues alludes to the traditional guardian of the crossroads, the ‘trickster’ deity Legba of African folk religion, fused with the Christian Devil in the syncretistic context of the encounter of African religion with Southern Christianity. Finn asserts that it is by no means implausible that Johnson should be describing a ‘hoodoo’ ritual (Johnson’s acquaintance with local hoodoo practice being suggested by the inclusion of the hoodoo term ‘hot foot powder’ in Hellhound), and that the unwillingness of white academics to take the ‘supernatural’ accounts of Johnson’s work seriously merely reflect an inappropriate imposition of Western thought categories on a local situation heavily influenced by its African spiritual heritage.