Peter Bebergal, Season of the Witch.

by waxbanks

In tone, basically the less credulous Rock’n’Roll Edition of Mitch Horowitz’s Occult America. No surprise there; Horowitz edited this volume for Tarcher Penguin. Bebergal has written a very fine book here: he traces the ‘occult imagination’ in rock, convincingly arguing that rock/pop musicians have engaged with occult/magical energies and ideas, consciously and un-, since before rock was rock. The opening chapter on occult currents in early African-American music and slaves’ cultural practices is revelatory, as are the links Bebergal makes between that material and blues/rock. I wish he’d made more of the role of African-American supernaturalism in rock and jazz, and of regional occultures — you’re hearing two totally different understandings of blues from the Dead and the Allmans, say — but Season of the Witch has a lot of ground to cover, and that thread goes untugged.

The material on prog, proto-metal, and especially early electronic experimentation (Moog!) has a narrower focus, so as with Erik Davis’s Zep book, your enjoyment of the material may scale linearly with your curiosity about the individual bands under discussion — but Bebergal never stays too long with any one band or style, so they never wear out their welcome. He throws light on the way the transition from 60s to 70s occulture paralleled changes in pop/rock music at the time, and the way the psychedelic counterculture found expression in ecstatic/programmatic musics of the 70s and 80s outside of the permissive 60s drug culture. That material is of particular interest to me as I finish off this Phish book; the ‘psychedelic’ quality of Phish’s music is an area of some debate in the fandom, and Bebergal’s terms have been clarifying for me.

My main complaint is that I wanted much more of/from the book. The chronology slows at postpunk, touches on Hollywood Kabbalah and a couple other topics, and adds parenthetical sections on Scandinavian metal and Jay-Z; Bebergal’s strong preference for 70s High Weirdness over contemporary stuff is clear, as these latter pieces are the weakest in the book despite having rich implications. Jay-Z co-opts Illuminati/Masonic imagery in his videos as ‘provocation,’ but paranoid secret narratives and inverted religious symbols are everywhere in hip-hop (The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory, anyone?); I’d love to hear more about hip-hop’s connection to its progenitor musicultures in this context. Same with the relationship between, say, permissive childrearing, helicopter parenting/governance, and changes in pop representations of the occult — what functions does supernatural imagery serve today, in an increasingly pseudorational/’optimizing’ world? Who’s the Grateful Dead of the Ritalin generation? Is such a thing possible anymore?

No matter. This book’s aimed directly at my pleasure center, and it strikes true. Recommended.