'Season of the Witch': Pick Up Every Stitch

Peter Bebergal writes about the “satanic panic” which rose alongside rock 'n' roll, a parallel universe of paranoia and biblical absurdity.

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

Publisher: TarcherPerigee
Length: 288 pages
Author: Peter Bebergal
Price: $16.95
Format: Softcover
Publication date: 2015-10

One of the pivotal moments of my young life was carrying around a plastic margarine tub filled with cassettes in a desperate attempt to impress a teenage girl. I was seven, and I knew this accumulation of magnetic tape was just the thing to attract her. After days of fantasizing about lip synching to Bon Jovi’s “Never Say Goodbye” while she and her friends watched in awe, I decided to make my move. I showed her the tapes, an assortment of '80s hair metal bands whose music was as processed as the yellow goop which once filled the container, and she said the unimaginable: “That’s devil music.”

I only knew a little about the devil. My mother, who sent me to church but never attended herself, told me not to sing Def Leppard’s “Armageddon It” because it was about “the end of days”, but that was as far as the hand of God reached into my life. Still, I knew enough of heaven to know my favorite music was hardly the work of Satan. It was insipid, not insidious. It was years before I realized that the best music always flirts with magic and darkness.

Peter Bebergal’s Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll shows how Satan, the Elder gods, and other mysterious forces cast a spell over rock 'n' roll -- and made it better. This subject has been covered by concerned parents and long-haired hermeneutics enthusiasts since the dawn of rock 'n' roll, but Bebergal is uniquely suited to the task. He’s written about drugs and faith in his own life, and he’s profiled dark wizards like Samuel R. Delany, Thomas Ligotti, and Michael Moorcock for The New Yorker. This book resides at the intersection of these subjects, a crossroads where mysticism, Eastern religions, psychedelics, and charismatic practitioners of every type of hoodoo imaginable meet.

Originally released in hardcover in 2014, this book goes beyond the cartoonish images of Alice Cooper’s stage show, and Ozzy Osbourne biting the head off a bat, to find the magical sources at the root of both rock 'n' roll’s greatest performers and its unsung heroes. From David Bowie burning black candles, to Arthur Brown becoming the god of hellfire, and Coil’s sex magic sigils, Bebergal covers a lot of ground.

The forces at work on the musicians and their music are not always dark, however. For Bebergal, anything going against the Christian orthodoxy of the Western world fits the bill, starting with rock’s sex and drugs connection to the myth of Dionysus and moving up toward the West African trickster god Eshu’s transformation into the devil at Robert Johnson’s crossroads.

The '60s figure heavily in Bebergal’s book, of course, as that decade was defined both by its resistance to orthodoxy in all its forms and the waves of seekers leading the charge. The Beatles' quest for enlightenment is legendary, but dabbling in transcendental meditation was just a fraction of their occult impact, Bebergal writes. The “Paul is dead” hoax, while not directly related to any occult practice itself, was indicative of many fans’ search for hidden, deeper meanings in the band’s work. It also added fuel to the fire of fundamentalists who found Satanic messages hidden in the band’s album covers in the wake of John Lennon’s “bigger than Jesus” remark.

Despite the brevity of their foray into the occult, the Beatles typify the how and why of rock bands that often turn spiritual. Bebergal writes, “The privilege that comes with status is part of why rock and the occult became wedded so quickly.” Rock stars replaced all the idols of old, and their fame afforded them the luxury to indulge in spiritual pursuits.

Bebergal writes about the “satanic panic” which rose alongside rock 'n' roll, a parallel universe of paranoia and biblical absurdity, but never lets it take over the spotlight. His writing is insightful, engaging, and serious, but there’s a hint of comedy hanging over the entire book. His subject covers magics both black and white, the power of sigils, and the shamanistic attributes of rock concerts, all subjects easily researched in books bound by normal means rather than through sacrificing the flesh of virgins.

Despite the ease of access to this information, there has long been a thread of fundamentalist thought which has operated as if this information is hidden, like some sort of dark rites must be performed to learn about Jimmy Page’s interest in Aleister Crowley. Had this book appeared 30 years ago, the volume of the collective gasp of the members of the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) would have rivaled any band of the day. Now, it’s as funny as it is interesting.

Season of the Witch isn’t some alternative history of rock 'n' roll, it’s the history. Church leaders and concerned parents have been right all along -- rock 'n' roll is of the devil. Thank god.







Jamila Woods' "SULA (Paperback)" and Creative Ancestry and Self-Love in the Age of "List" Activism

In Jamila Woods' latest single "SULA (Paperback)", Toni Morrison and her 1973 novel of the same name are not static literary phenomena. They are an artist and artwork as galvanizing and alive as Woods herself.


The Erotic Disruption of the Self in Paul Schrader's 'The Comfort of Strangers'

Paul Schrader's The Comfort of Strangers presents the discomfiting encounter with another —someone like you—and yet entirely unlike you, mysterious to you, unknown and unknowable.


'Can You Spell Urusei Yatsura' Is a Much Needed Burst of Hopefulness in a Desultory Summer

A new compilation online pulls together a generous helping of B-side action from a band deserving of remembrance, Scotland's Urusei Yatsura.


Jess Cornelius Creates Tautly Constructed Snapshots of Life

Former Teeth & Tongue singer-songwriter Jess Cornelius' Distance is an enrapturing collection of punchy garage-rock, delicate folk, and arty synthpop anthems which examine liminal spaces between us.


Sikoryak's 'Constitution Illustrated' Pay Homage to Comics and the Constitution

R. Sikoryak's satirical pairings of comics characters with famous and infamous American historical figures breathes new and sometimes uncomfortable life into the United States' most living document.


South African Folk Master Vusi Mahlasela Honors Home on 'Shebeen Queen'

South African folk master Vusi Mahlasela pays tribute to his home and family with township music on live album, Shebeen Queen.


Planningtorock Is Queering Sound, Challenging Binaries, and Making Infectious Dance Music

Planningtorock emphasizes "queering sound and vision". The music industry has its hierarchies of style, of equipment, of identities. For Jam Rostron, queering music means taking those conventions and deliberately manipulating and subverting them.


'History Gets Ahead of the Story' for Jazz's Cosgrove, Medeski, and Lederer

Jazz drummer Jeff Cosgrove leads brilliant organ player John Medeski and multi-reed master Jeff Lederer through a revelatory recording of songs by William Parker and some just-as-good originals.


A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.


The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.


Jaye Jayle's 'Prisyn' Is a Dark Ride Into Electric Night

Jaye Jayle salvage the best materials from Iggy Pop and David Bowie's Berlin-era on Prisyn to construct a powerful and impressive engine all their own.


Kathleen Edwards Finds 'Total Freedom'

Kathleen Edwards is back making music after a five-year break, and it was worth the wait. The songs on Total Freedom are lyrically delightful and melodically charming.


HBO's 'Lovecraft Country' Is Heady, Poetic, and Mangled

Laying the everyday experience of Black life in 1950s America against Cthulhuian nightmares, Misha Green and Jordan Peele's Lovecraft Country suggests intriguing parallels that are often lost in its narrative dead-ends.


Jaga Jazzist's 'Pyramid' Is an Earthy, Complex, Jazz-Fusion Throwback

On their first album in five years, Norway's Jaga Jazzist create a smooth but intricate pastiche of styles with Pyramid.


Finding the Light: An Interview with Kathy Sledge

With a timeless voice that's made her the "Queen of Club Quarantine", Grammy-nominated vocalist Kathy Sledge opens up her "Family Room" and delivers new grooves with Horse Meat Disco.


'Bigger Than History: Why Archaeology Matters'

On everything from climate change to gender identity, archaeologists offer vital insight into contemporary issues.


'Avengers: Endgame' Culminates 2010's Pop Culture Phenomenon

Avengers: Endgame features all the expected trappings of a superhero blockbuster alongside surprisingly rich character resolutions to become the most crowd-pleasing finalés to a long-running pop culture series ever made.


Max Richter's 'VOICES' Is an Awe-Inspiring and Heartfelt Soundscape

Choral singing, piano, synths, and an "upside-down" orchestra complement crowd-sourced voices from across the globe on Max Richter's VOICES. It rewards deep listening, and acts as a global rebuke against bigotry, extremism and authoritarianism.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.