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by Greg Taylor
Few guitarists have been as influential as the legendary Delta Bluesman, Robert Johnson. His recordings have inspired fellow blues musicians such as Muddy Waters, song-writing genius Bob Dylan, formative rock gods The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, guitarists Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton (who labelled Johnson “the most important Blues musician who ever lived”) - who in turn have influenced subsequent generations of musicians.
However, rumours swirled about Johnson’s involvement with the occult even before his premature death – aged just 27 – in 1938. His seemingly instantaneous mastery of the Blues gave rise to legends that he had made a deal with the Devil, who had given Johnson his skills in return for his everlasting soul. Tales circulated of the young black musician from Mississippi who had taken his guitar to a crossroad near Dockery’s plantation at midnight, and met there with a large man who took the guitar and tuned it, and gave Johnson mastery of the instrument in a Faustian bargain. Within a year of this fabled meeting, Johnson was recognised as one of the greatest Delta Blues musicians…but within two more years, he had met his end – and, we suppose, delivered on his side of the contract.
Johnson’s song titles provide a vivid reflection of his occult ties. “Hellhound on my Trail”, “Me and the Devil Blues”, and the narrative of “Crossroad Blues” (“Went down to the crossroads, bent down on my knees”) all add colour to the myths surrounding this seminal musician. But as Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh point out in their book The Elixir and the Stone, these allusions to the occult world are a fundamental part of the Blues, not least due to its origins in the music of Voodoo:
The people abducted from their villages on the African coast and forcibly transported across the Atlantic were bereft of everything, except, in some cases, members of their family; and they were generally separated from these soon after arrival in the New
World. Of their former lives, most slaves retained nothing save
their religious faith. This faith was largely animistic, revolving
around the shamanistic invocation of a multitude of nature deities
not unlike those of pre-Christian pagan Europe. Drums, dance, rhythmic incantation and sometimes drugs would be employed to induce a state of trance, or ‘possession’ by spiritual entities…
Blues music is suffused with with voodoo imagery and allusions…
Such images and allusions constitute a lexicon of their own – the
kind of ‘coded’ lexicon devised by any oppressed or persecuted
people to communicate freely without incurring the wrath of those
who wield power over them. Thus, for example, blues music will allude frequently, in a sexually raunchy but otherwise ostensibly
innocent context, to the ‘mojo’, a talismanic voodoo fetish. There
are also references to ‘John the Conqueror’, a plant talisman used
by the ‘root doctor’, a voodoo priest or shaman who became known
as the ‘hoochie-coochie man’…
The Robert Johnson ‘crossroads’ legend is now firmly entrenched in the public consciousness, in the wake of its exposition in the Coen Brothers’ lauded film O Brother Where Art Thou?, and the paranormal-flavoured television show Supernatural. But the myth did not originate with Johnson – folklorist Harry Middleton Hart recorded many tales in the 1930s of banjo players, violinists, and card sharps selling their souls at the crossroads, along with guitarists and one accordionist, and the theme first appeared in Blues music with Clara Smith’s 1924 track “Done Sold My Soul To The Devil (And My Heart’s Done Turned To Stone)”. In fact, the same legend was attached to Bluesman Tommy Johnson (no relation) around a decade previous to Robert Johnson’s success. Again, this mythos has its roots in rites of Voodoo, as Baigent and Leigh describe:
One of the most significantly resonant and portentously evocative of voodoo images is that of the crossroads. In voodoo, the crossroads symbolizes the gate which affords access to the invisible world, the world of gods and spirits. This gate must be approached with the appropriate prayers and requests for supernatural aid. In consequence, all voodoo rituals and ceremonies commence with a salutation to the god who guards the crossroads; and to pass the crossroads is to enter into voodoo initiation.
From Voodoo Blues to Occult Rock
The influence of voodoo on the Blues carried over into a later type of music, often seen – like the Blues – as an outlet of rebellion against the powers that be: Rock and Roll. From the first moment that Elvis Presley’s gyrating hips shocked (and titillated) 1950s America, the ‘new music’ was denounced by puritanicals as an agent of the Devil. No wonder either, with Presley borrowing so much from earlier ‘Black’ music. In the words of Baigent and Leigh, “if black music is the father of rock, voodoo is its grandfather.” Or, as David Bowie succinctly put it, “Rock has always been the Devil’s music.”
A similar influence permeated the work of one of the great rock acts of all time, The Rolling Stones. Coming together largely as a result of their love of American Blues music, the Stones often provoked controversy with their occult references and ties. In December 1967, shortly after the release of The Beatles’ iconic Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band (interestingly, featuring a picture of ‘The Great Beast’ Aleister Crowley on the montage cover), The Rolling Stones released the album Their Satanic Majesties Request, which made the Top 5 on both the US and UK music charts. Comparable success greeted their following album, Beggars Banquet (1968), with the opening track “Sympathy for the Devil”. Arrests for drug possession, the controversial death of member Brian Jones, and their involvement in the Altamont Free Festival – where the Hells Angels gang murdered a fan – meant that by the beginning of 1970, the band was seen by many as the closest thing to Satan in music.
This opinion was bolstered via the Stones’ association during that period with occult film-maker – and Luciferian satanist – Kenneth Anger. And Anger provides another link between the occult and rock music, via his (turbulent) association with Jimmy Page, guitarist for Led Zeppelin.
There can be no doubting Jimmy Page’s interest in the occult. In the early 1970s, he became involved in publishing and selling occult books, with his ownership of ‘The Equinox Booksellers and Publishers’, and had a particular fascination with the work of the infamous occultist Aleister Crowley. Indeed, the Great Beast’s magical allure proved so strong that Page was even moved to purchase Crowley’s former home in Scotland (at Loch Ness, no less), Boleskine House.
The band’s amazing fourth album (“Stairway to Heaven”, “Black Dog”, “Going to California”, etc!) – untitled, but usually named simply as Led Zeppelin IV – is sometimes also called ZoSo, after the strange sigil found on the album jacket; one of a group of four symbols, each said to represent a member of the band, with ‘ZoSo’ being Jimmy Page’s. The original symbol can be found in the 1557 alchemical grimoire Ars Magica Arteficii, and is based on the Zodiac – although the greater meaning of the sigil remains obscure. A further occult reference in the album art is the inside illustration of the Tarot figure ‘The Hermit’. Additionally, various pressings of other Led Zeppelin releases were inscribed with Aleister Crowley’s Thelemic motto, “Do What Thou Wilt”.
Page’s association with Kenneth Anger came about when he was commissioned to write the soundtrack music for Anger’s film Lucifer Rising. However, the relationship turned acrimonious, with Anger later complaining that the legendary guitarist took three years to produce the soundtrack, and that the finished product was five minutes short of the 28 minute length of the movie. He also belittled Page’s occult knowledge, labelling him a “dabbler”. Page, for his part, rejected Anger’s charges.
Jimmy Page’s interest in Crowley and the occult appears to have influenced another rock music legend from the 1970s: The Thin White Duke, Ziggy Stardust himself, the ageless David Bowie. According to one researcher, Bowie’s initial interest was an attempt to ‘out-occult’ the Led Zeppelin maestro. Peter Koenig has documented numerous apects of David Bowie’s magical history on his website:
When I asked Angie Bowie why her ex was involved in magick, she remembered that he heard that Led Zeppelin were involved in the occult, and so he wanted to be even cooler and scare Jimmy Page. David Bowie decided to retaliate with his magick, and allegedly said to his wife that he would do so with what he knew of Tibetan magic (“the dark side of Buddhism” as he called it); everything to do with Aleister Crowley was “small shit.”
Did Bowie really think that the magick of Aleister Crowley was “small shit”? It would seem so, going by this 1997 interview in New Musical Express (NME) in which he dismissed ‘The Great Beast’ in favour of other occultists:
I always thought Crowley was a charlatan. But there was a guy called Edward Waite who was terribly important to me at the time. And another called Dion Fortune who wrote a book called Psychic Self Defence. You had to run around the room getting bits of string and old crayons and draw funny things on the wall, and I took it all most seriously, ha ha ha! I drew gateways into different dimensions, and I’m quite sure that, for myself, I really walked into other worlds. I drew things on walls and just walked through them, and saw what was on the other side!
However, just two years earlier, Bowie had said: “My overriding interest was in Cabbala and Crowleyism. That whole dark and rather fearsome never-world of the wrong side of the brain.” In the chameleon-like career of David Bowie, it sometimes becomes difficult to separate the truth from the fiction…
There is no doubting though that The Thin White Duke was consumed by occult ideas during the ‘70s. He was said to have been interested in scrying with crystal balls, and experimented in contacting the Spirit World via an Ouija Board. He later warned a journalist against ever using one: “Don’t… It can mess you up, especially if you’re taking drugs.” Koenig documents further gossip surrounding Bowie’s alleged descent into occult madness:
Rumor has it that Bowie kept his hair and fingernail clippings in the fridge of Michael Lippman’s home where he was living then, so they could not fall into the hands of those he thought wished to put spells on him. Bowie constructed an altar in the living room and he graced the walls with various magick symbols which he handpainted. Candles burned around the clock, he regularly performed banishing rituals, and he protected his friends by drawing sigils on their hands.
The seventeen-year-old Cameron Crowe allegedly found a stirred-up Bowie burning black candles against an aborted magical ritual during the LA period. Eventually Crowe published several narratives in Rolling Stone and Playboy of Bowie drawing black magick symbols, seeing disembodied beings, thinking he was the Messiah, keeping bottles of his urine in the fridge…
Occult themes can also be found in Bowie’s music: his 1971 song “Quicksand” begins with the lines “I’m closer to the Golden Dawn, Immersed in Crowley’s uniform, of imagery”. On Station to Station (1976) he references the Kabbalah in the title track with the line “one magical movement from Kether to Malkuth”, talks of “flashing no colour” (part of the Eastern occult Tattva system), and also makes a sly tip of the hat to Aleister Crowley’s book of pornographic poems White Stains in the very last line of the song. The album’s art (at least on the CD version) also includes a picture of Bowie sketching the Kabbalistic Tree of Life on the floor.
Another band to use the Tree of Life on their album packaging in more recent years is the acclaimed American progressive rock/metal band (who can categorise them?) Tool, on their limited edition CD/DVD box set Salival (“a map of consciousness projected over the body of a Macrocosmic being”). And it is with Tool that we possibly reach the apotheosis of ‘occult rock’. In contrast to the gratuitous use of magickal words and imagery by rock bands in the 1980s – co-opted almost always purely for marketing reasons – Tool employs various branches of esoteric thought as direct aids (or is that 'tools'?) in their creative process. What’s more, they do so with a level of thought and contemplation which seems light years ahead of their peers. In the words of Blair MacKenzie Blake, a close personal friend of the band, Tool have been known to…
…employ genuine occult principles in their artistic output, in both recordings, art design, and with their live performances. However, rather than embracing certain occult clichés to shock the general populace, or to establish a dark mystique, this more esoteric arcana is rendered useful for personal and artistic purposes in an attempt to gain unconventional perspectives on the multiverse.
In the song “Lateralus” (from the 2001 album of the same name), singer Maynard James Keenan weaves his transcendent lyrics (featuring alchemical symbolism) within a rhythmic structure based on the Fibonacci Sequence, an evolving elucidation of the ‘Golden Ratio’ in which each succeeding number of the sequence is the sum of the previous two numbers (so the sequence runs: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13 and so on). Keenan’s staccato delivery breaks the syllables of his lyrics into a cycling pattern up and down the Fibonacci Sequence:
white are (2)
all I see (3)
in my infancy (5)
red and yellow then came to be (8)
reaching out to me (5)
lets me see (3)
there is (2)
more and (2)
beckons me (3)
to look through to these (5)
infinite possibilities (8)
as below so above and beyond I imagine (13)
drawn outside the lines of reason (8)
push the envelope (5)
watch it bend. (3)
Tool drummer Danny Carey – like Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page – is known to be an avid collector of rare occult publications, including first edition works by celebrated occultists such as Aleister Crowley, Austin Osman Spare, Frater Achad, Kenneth Grant, and Andrew D. Chumbley (several of which can be seen in the stereoscopic portrait of Carey in the unique packaging of their 2006 album 10,000 Days, along with “some ritual objects that serve as unique tools for experiencing visionary realms and contacting that which lies outside the terrestrial vehicle”).
During the recording process, Tool are also known to employ magickal banishing and purification rites (variations on the well-known Greater Ritual of the Pentagram and Hexagram) to eliminate any ‘residue’ left behind by previous artists, as well as to “render the circle absolutely impregnable” with regards to future tracking. Also, according to Blair MacKenzie Blake…
Occult paraphernalia such as talismanic boards, parasemiotic symbols, and pantacles (not to be confused with pentacles) are also utilized in both recording sessions and during live performances, with these highly charged magical ‘machines’ often ensigiled with specific desires. Some may be of a protective nature, while others are devised to (hopefully) ensure a successful outcome. In the case of the pantacle mentioned above, this could be seen as a microcosm of the Operator or “the great storehouse from which the magician draws” to use Aleister Crowley’s definition.
Drummer Danny Carey often surrounds himself with sacred geometry and occult diagrams based on magical correspondences. At one time a large, modified representation of Dr John Dee’s Enochian Sigillum Dei Aemeth was suspended behind his drum kit during live performances, but other talismanic boards and even the drumheads contain examples of perfect geometric shapes including pentagrams, tesseracts (hyper cube), unicursal hexagrams, heptagrams, enneagrams and interpenetrating variations of each. In an attempt to ‘charge’ the drumkit, itself, a Knight’s Templar artifact brought back from the South of France was melted down along with numerous recycled Paiste cymbals that comprise his Jeff Ocheltree/Paiste bronze Custom Craft kit. Additionally, each bass drum weighs a ‘Thelemic’ 93 pounds, although this could be purely coincidental.
This overt occult symbolism has, on occasion, led to some interesting times while touring. In some of the southeastern states of the United States – the heartland of Christian Fundamentalism – local road crews have been known to refuse to touch or unload the Ryan McClimmit-designed talismanic boards, with some walking away while invoking the name of Jesus.
Carey also contributed the final track on Lateralus, “Faaip de Oiad”, which is titled in the ‘Enochian Language’ allegedly received (from Angelic entities no less!) by the famed medieval occultist Dr John Dee (or more correctly, through his scryer Edward Kelley) via a series of magical operations. The title translates to “The Voice of God”, and the instrumental track includes a sample of a ‘defective’ machine, said to be “attuned to a particular ‘wavelength’ of occult significance having to do with the concept of idiotheosis.”
Occult themes are also integrated into the band’s artwork, from album covers and packaging, to tour posters, stage props, video stage projections and music videos. One example is the artwork found on the disc of the import release of Aenima (1996), which contains a sigil from plate #34 of The Goetia (Being the Lessor Key of Solomon), a seminal medieval grimoire. Blair Blake mentions this classic occult text while hinting at more occult secrets possibly concealed within the album packaging:
According to the author, the thirty-fourth Spirit is “Furfur”, who, when compelled by the Operator (i.e. Conjured up within a Triangle), once taking the form of an angel, gives TRUE answers both of things secret and Divine (if commanded). Some of these “secret and divine” things are actually revealed in the insert that came with CD, although there is no evidence that this has ever been discovered by any of the band’s fans.
Meanwhile, the artwork for the album Lateralus is provided by famed visionary artist Alex Grey, and features sacred geometry as well as detailed illustrations of the “subtle physiology”, which are associated with “psychosexual energies and mystical essences generated and secreted for the purpose of activating sigils, charging talismanic objects, and other carefully-guarded occult possibilities.” The Flaming Eye motif “concerns the unique magical properties of the pineal-pituitary hypothalamic complex”, and there are also cryptic allusions (particularly in the transformation sequence of the music video for “Parabola”) to “the release of endogenous tryptamines, that which some modern adepts suspect may be the neurochemical basis of magical operations” (see the article “DMT and Magick” in Darklore Volume 2 for more on this). Furthermore, according to Blair Blake the video…
…also includes a ritual involving a heptagram familiar in certain esoteric doctrines, along with the “blue apple” symbology of a higher gnosis. In addition, there are hints of “The Mauve Zone”, a conceptual abyss or heightened dimension of consciousness experienced by numerous occultists, artists, and visionaries in the past, and that which might be responsible for the more surreal aspects of their literary and artistic output.
However, perhaps we should take Blake’s mention of the “surreal aspects” of Tool’s creations – not to mention Keenan’s lyrics to “Lateralus” (“Over thinking, over analyzing separates the body from the mind”) – as fair warning that our analysis of the occult aspects found in rock music is only worth so much. There is a vast amount of related material we could cover: from the influence of the occult upon Norwegian Black Metal, to Iron Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson’s interest in Aleister Crowley, which has recently resulted in a feature film. Or perhaps even The Mars Volta’s use of an Ouija Board in the creation of their 2008 album The Bedlam in Goliath (considering the mayhem that allegedly resulted, perhaps they should have listened to David Bowie’s advice…). But, ultimately, rock music is about transcending the intellect, and just losing yourself in a maelstrom of sound and feeling. So enough intellectual analysis of the occult aspects of rock for now: go put on your favourite album and crank it up while raising the mano cornuta to the heavens, and perhaps “we’ll ride the spiral to the end and may just go where no one’s been.”