Season of the Witch : How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll (9780698143722) (10 page)

The Human Be-In turned into a gathering of over thirty thousand hippies and counterculture elites on January 14, 1967, at Golden Gate Park. It was here that LSD prophet Timothy Leary made his famous pronouncement: “Turn on, tune in, drop out,” a message that would become Walt Whitman's “barbaric yawp” of the hippies. Leary later remarked that this was his version of Aleister Crowley's own call to spiritual liberation: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.” Freedom did not just mean social and political liberation. It meant the freedom of consciousness and of the spiritual quest. But unlike the original Puritan call for religious freedom, which really only meant freedom enough to build your own theocracy, the call of spiritual freedom in 1967 was a call to a transcendent experiential experience, an ecstatic Dionysian gaze into the heart of the sun, no priests or messiahs needed. Even those who attended the Human Be-In for the outstanding musical lineup of the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and the Jefferson Airplane were also
subjected to not only political speeches, but to the chanting of Allen Ginsberg as he prayed devotionally to the Hindu deity Shiva and a Buddhist bodhisattva, not just bringing the East to the most western part of the United States, but even conflating the various Eastern traditions. The idea of a spiritual revolution underlying the political one would transform the counterculture through the rest of the 1960s, an idea that would come to underlie the remaining years of the counterculture.

Even the most political of the hippies would use the occult in protest pranks. In October that same year, 1967, the radical activist Abbie Hoffman marched on the Pentagon with a group of people, including Allen Ginsberg, where they staged an attempt to levitate the Pentagon using various occult methods such as “consecration of the four directions,” “creation of a magic circle,” “invocation of Powers and Spirits,” and “placing of love articles and clothing onto the pentagon,” including but not limited to “rock & roll records.” Even as a large-scale put-on, Hoffman's prank had enormous impact. No one believed they would really levitate the Pentagon, but using occult language to political purpose revealed its potential use as a social weapon, as a means of alerting the public that your rebellion goes beyond mere protests—it strikes at the heart of the religious edifice built around the political structure you oppose. Even when politics were removed, the occult continued to function as a sign of defiance, especially for rock culture, which would adopt these symbols in ways not far removed from Hoffman's.

The Human Be-In prefigured the coming Summer of Love that same year, in which hundreds of thousands of disaffected youth poured into Haight-Ashbury. The hopeful, spiritually
liberating center could not hold. Hard drugs, poverty, and crime began to skyrocket. In Joan Didion's heartbreaking account of the Haight in 1967, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” the coming tide of drug addiction and poverty could already be felt seeping through. In October 1967 the original counterculture settlers staged an event called “The Death of the Hippie” in which they carried a casket down the street in a funeral procession. But as things fell apart for the hippies, the mainstream was finally catching the wave and rock's mystical-infused spiritual rebellion would become big business.

Landing first off-Broadway at the New York Public Theater in 1967, and then moving to Broadway in 1968 to sold-out crowds, the rock musical
Hair
offered mysticism to the masses in a finely crafted stage production. It was musical theater after all, not a rock show, and audiences could distance themselves while grooving in the mostly authentic hippie ethos. The full title,
Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical
, gives a nod to the Gathering of Tribes of the Human Be-In, as well as highlighting the communal and pagan qualities of the 1960s counterculture. It's the musical's book and lyrics, a series of catchy and memorable songs, that lay out exactly what the spiritual revolution was about, in all its authentic power and its naive earnestness. The show's opener, “Aquarius,” sums up the astrological prophecy of a new age through slightly nonsensical spiritual platitudes: “Mystic crystal revelation / And the mind's true liberation.” Other songs revel in the sex and the drugs of the time, and there is even the necessary Hare Krishna chant to elevate the musical from mere stage show to religious ceremony. The final song, a powerhouse that both derides and celebrates the hippies,
offers the simplest message, free of any mystical lingo: “Let the Sunshine In.”

Rock bands incorporated the new popular mystical stylings in a variety of ways. The band Gandalf's eponymous album cover is an alien feminine face masked by colorful butterflies and other adornments. H. P. Lovecraft opts for more horror-laden cosmic awareness with their song “At the Mountains of Madness.” Ted Nugent's early band the Amboy Dukes offered the chart-topper “Journey to the Center of the Mind” to a land “Beyond the seas of thought, beyond the realm of what.” These and other acts continued to perpetuate the commercialization of psychedelic spirituality, and eventually it was so above-ground that it made the dwellers of the underground look like they were behind the times. Most of the major magazines had something to say about the new religious consciousness. Even
Playboy
tried to ensure that the magazine would be seen as hip and had its pulse on the spiritual erogenous zone of the culture: there is the poet and scholar Robert Graves's article discussing the resurgent belief in reincarnation, a feature on what a woman's horoscope can tell you about the best way to seduce her, and a photo gallery offering a look at some of the major trumps of the tarot, with naked girls posing as various characters from the deck, including the Magician, the Lovers, and the Devil.

Popular music was utterly transformed from four-piece bands dressed in three-piece suits to experimental and noisy collaborations, expanding three-minute songs into twenty-minute cosmic jams, turning saccharine, radio-friendly ditties into songs awash with feedback and tape loops, carving up songs about love and teenage heartbreak and serving up enigmatic lyrics about a
“white knight talking backwards” and a wind that “cried Mary.” Many were trapped in the cycle of doing whatever was popular at the time, such as the Lemon Pipers' “Green Tambourine” and “Incense and Peppermints” by the Strawberry Alarm Clock. It would reach its peak when the manufactured bubble-gum pop of the cartoon act the Archies would entreat fans to “get on the line with love” as they played on a rainbow-paisley decorated stage and electronic pulses and ever-brightening stars flashed behind them. (Even Sabrina the Teenage Witch makes an appearance and apparently slips the adults a magical Mickey, making them feel groovy.) The result was a parade of paisley-clothed bands churning out songs that sounded like they were made in a candy factory. But many knew how to turn all this into art and make it act as a beacon for a spiritual revolution that might not quite change the world, but would change American culture, and rock and roll, forever.

IV

Sitting at a party, strumming his guitar, the Scottish troubadour Donovan came upon a riff that seemed to hypnotize him. He played it over and over again and was told later he worked on it for seven hours. This riff was to become “Season of the Witch,” a dark and prophetic song suggesting that the new age dawning brings with it darkness. Something about it stuck. (Since then, the song has been covered by dozens of artists, including Robert Plant and Joan Jett.) “Season of the Witch” was a departure from the other songs on Donovan's 1966 album
Sunshine Superman
, whose titular opener begins “Sunshine came softly a-through
my a-window today.” But “Season of the Witch” was oracular in another way. Something dark was coming for Donovan. The same year, Donovan was arrested for possession of cannabis, and while he wasn't much of a drug user, the British press used him as the poster child to further exploit the middle-class fear that the counterculture was rife with amoral drug fiends.

In interviews with the press, Donovan was nothing like the rock stars who were his peers. He continually pushed back against making any political statements, scandal couldn't stick to him, and he preferred to talk about keeping a neighborly fox away from his chickens. “The fox is a friend, too, but I'll have to have a chat with him,” he told the
Los Angeles Times
in 1968. Like they did with many rock musicians, the fans and the media were looking to him to
say something
about the world, about the future of things. By this time, audiences were looking for wisdom, and it seemed rock musicians, by virtue of being incarnations of Bacchic energy, must also have spiritual wisdom. There was obvious power in their music, the way it shaped culture, the way the youth had followed it like a pied piper toward drugs, sex, and other excessive rebellions. But Donovan wasn't having any of it. Donovan grew up among Gaelic mythology and legend, and his music drew from other influences ranging from Bob Dylan to Eastern ragas with which he crafted whimsical and psychedelic pop.
Sunshine Superman
is a walk through a fantastical landscape of wizards, Arthurian legend, jewels and gemstones, and princesses. But “Season of the Witch” became an anthem, and in an interview decades later, Donovan described the song as “ritualistic.” Donovan eagerly jumped into the portal the 1960s had opened into Wonderland. There, he
had permission to explore musically the idea that divinity was not predisposed to exist only in heaven, but was part of the very fabric of the world. It expressed itself through myth as well as nature. This is pantheism, where God can be found in every tree and flower, every note of every song, every stoned romp in the bed of a lover. It is also pagan, where the world is animated by spirits, where nature is a book that tells the secret story of the world. Of his iconic song, Donovan said, “Maybe it is the first kind of Celtic-rock thing I was doing, a rediscovery of our roots in Britain, which of course became the British sound.”

The New Forest of southern England is a protected expanse of woods, once used as a source of lumber as early as the seventeenth century, and long before then, a sacred place to ancient people who left behind burial mounds, called barrows. It is here that a supposed horned deity cult of pre-Christian worshippers passed down their rituals and practices since before Christianity came to dominate Western Europe. In 1939, Gerald Gardner, a retired anthropologist with a personal interest in the occult, met and was initiated into a coven that gathered in the thick of the forest. The story of Gardner is fraught with rumor and controversy, but it is likely that at some point around 1936, he did encounter a group of people claiming to be witches. Indeed Gardner was deeply influenced by Margaret Murray and her thesis that claimed before Christianity (and until the witch trials of the Middle Ages) there was a centralized witch cult that worshipped a horned god by way of various rites and observances. Gardner believed that aspects of this cult survived in modern-day England. He wanted to go “public” with what had been for generations secreted away. Fearful of British intolerance, Gardner's first book
was presented as a novel called
High Magic's Aid
. In 1951, the Witchcraft Act, which had been in effect since 1542, was repealed, and Gardner wrote two nonfiction books,
Witchcraft Today
and
The Meaning of Witchcraft
. Gardner also perpetuated Murray's idea that had largely been debunked by other scholars. Pockets of pagan worship might have existed all over Western Europe, but the notion that it was ever a centralized religion that transmitted esoteric wisdom through ciphers was not widely accepted. But Gardner had enough to build his own religion. Using what fragments he could find from those who practiced some form of pagan worship, as well as gloss from his friend Aleister Crowley, Gardner cemented the notion of witchcraft as religion into the popular consciousness, while alerting a burgeoning counterculture that pre-Christian spirituality was alive and well.

Witchcraft, known to its followers as Wicca, was, along with Eastern mysticism, the spiritual system de rigueur among the hippies, and offered a means of rebellion that could steer clear of politics. Still, they couldn't stop the corporate machine from grinding it up and spitting it out as commercialism. The range of 1960s pop culture references to witchcraft was startling in its variety. The fabric maker Collins & Aikman took out a full-page ad in the September 13, 1964, issue of the
New York Times
, with the headline “WE Practice Witchcraft” and an image of a darkly clad woman spinning about in a field, followed by the ad copy: “Here's a gown that looks like black magic.” The television sitcom
Bewitched
presented a smart witch who ran a household and presented the worst danger of the witch's craft as a troublesome mother-in-law. Wanda the Witch magically kept her hair liberated in Hidden Magic hairspray commercials. But
all this really did was to keep the ideas of occultism alive in the popular consciousness. For every television show and advertisement, there was a new occult book being published.

In 1969, Andrew Greeley, a Roman Catholic priest who moonlighted as a reporter for the
New York Times
, had enough material for a full-length piece on the new religions found on college campuses, offering up examples of the student-run occult-guerrilla group WITCH (Women's International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell), a coven of warlocks, courses on astrology and Zen, and the best and brightest at MIT meditating, casting the I Ching, and tripping on chem-lab acid. The students claimed a “return to the sacred,” a heavy suggestion that not only was science failing to provide meaning, but the mainstream religions had all but abandoned their sacred charge to unite people with the divine. The press was rarely sympathetic. A
Time
magazine
article by Greeley bemoans the superstition in the modern age and casts a wide net around the youth who were seeking something beyond the mundane. He writes:

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