“It’s not just about the music.”

A Conversation on the Occult Practices in the Arts Between Poet Janaka Stucky and Peter Bebergal

In 2015, Jack White’s Third Man Records launched a new publishing imprint, Third Man Books, and chose Janaka Stucky’s debut book of poetry, The Truth Is We Are Perfect, as their inaugural title. Stucky’s poems are at once incantatory, mystic, epigrammatic, and full of subtle esoteric, and occult influences. His influences, combined with a performative and almost ecstatic presence on stage, make him an unsurprising but nonetheless interesting choice for the record label’s first author.

Peter Bebergal’s book, Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll, was published by Tarcher-Penguin in 2014. Bebergal’s book explains how occult and mystical ideals gave rock and roll its heart and purpose, and made the music into more than just backbeat, and into part of a cultural revolution of political, spiritual, sexual, and social liberation.

Given Stucky’s influences and Bebergal’s interests (and the fact that they play in a Dungeons & Dragons group together), we thought it was natural that they strike up a conversation on the occult imagination in music, art, and poetry. What follows is a conversation exploring the influence of occult traditions on rock and roll—from the Beatles to Black Sabbath—and how the marriage between mysticism and music changed our world.

JANAKA STUCKY: My editor at Third Man shied away from the occult stuff in my book. But I was reading Season of the Witch when I was coming up with the book’s marketing and publicity plan, and it was fantastic for me to see how all of these rock icons express the occult imagination in their personas and in work. Especially the stuff that’s a little more subtle, but still mysterious: like Led Zeppelin’s sigils on their albums. The editor kept wanting to play these elements down a little, but I was like, “Guys this is rock and roll. What are you doing?”

PETER BEBERGAL: These ideas and symbols immediately key into some part of us that just resonates, and sometimes we’re afraid of them. Sometimes we whole-heartedly believe in them. Sometimes we think they are ridiculous, but all those things contribute to what I call the occult imagination. We usually think of the occult as a collection of practices, whether it’s Tarot cards, ceremonial magic, and/or a pagan Solstice ritual. What the practices tend to have in common, both in contemporary and historical ways, is that they tend toward being heterodox. They often position themselves against normative or mainstream ways of practicing a spiritual system. Whether the practices actually reference any real metaphysical state, or whether there are spirits or demons, or whether magic works or doesn’t work, is all in some ways irrelevant to the power of this part of our imagination.

JS: When people talk about imagination, they tend to think of fantasy or something made-up. But really imagination is a mode of perception. Which is maybe why so many artists have turned to the occult. Artists tend to feel like outsiders. Whether they are actually outsiders or not is also kind of irrelevant.

PB: We’re talking about rock and roll and contemporary poetry, but this has been going on for a long, long time. More often than not, whenever a poet, musician, or a composer felt that they were pushing up against what was mainstream—either in their field or in their craft—they often turned to occult or non-traditional, non-Christian mystical texts and readings. Occult practices and ideas can give weight and support to this kind of art. The artist is out on a limb and doing something that feels so different that it’s dangerous. And yet suddenly they realize there’s this whole spiritual system that acts as a framework: it gives another level of language to use for the creative process.

In rock and roll it gets complicated because we have people whose reputation is that of dark magicians. But, for example, there’s no evidence that Jimmy Page ever actually tried to cast a spell. But with Led Zeppelin there is the influence of occult images, the writings of Aleister Crowley, as well as Robert Plant’s interest in ancient Britain and Celtic folklore. Those become part of not just how the music sounds but the whole shape of the aesthetic and impact that the band had. Belief has nothing to do with how much these things actually shape culture.

JS: Maybe Jimmy Page never tried to cast a spell, but I would argue Page was casting spells when he’s out there performing. Even watching old videos of them is totally mesmerizing. I think that there’s something inherent in the discipline and the meditation and in the sheer act of will it takes to create, to map, to have that artwork be a roadmap back into your creative consciousness that your audience can then follow.

PB: That’s the transmission. In his heyday Ozzy Osborne would set up his stage with a throne atop a staircase with these giant flaming canons behind him. He would walk down down with upside-down cross, singing about Aleister Crowley. If you were to ask him right after the show, he probably would have said it was just a gimmick. Just part of what he does for fun.

But for the 16-year-old in the audience, and for Ozzy at the moment he was performing, there was magic happening. I don’t mean in a metaphysical sense. It has to do with this psychological transmission, it has to do with the suspension of disbelief that takes place. The suspension of disbelief is exactly how a shaman works, and exactly how a stage magician works. When we’re willing to let go of something, we can have a shared communication between us and the performer. I really believe that there’s a transformative moment there.

JS: Whatever the mode, whether it’s flames and upside-down crosses, or smoke and mirrors, there’s still a transformative moment. It doesn’t reduce the authenticity of the awe or the intensity experienced. Intensity experiences and mystical experiences are really just types of consciousness. They are the same types of consciousness that can also be brought about through aesthetic shock. It’s this moment where you suddenly are knocked outside of yourself and your associative or perceptive web expands and you see yourself in context in a greater reality. Your tunnel vision is suddenly widened dramatically.

PB: I think there have been musicians and artists who have sought to do that deliberately. Take Sunn 0))) with their down-tuned guitars, single droning chords, and the speakers are these huge walls of sound. It is their intention is to create this intensity experience for the audience. It’s not just about the music. They wear black robes and the stage is filled with smoke. There’s a real intention to produce an altered state of consciousness. They recognize that it couldn’t work with just the music alone. You need the ritual, you need the set dressing. It’s how the 19th-century magical societies worked. It’s even how Freemasons work, one could argue.

JS: In the 20th century the occult influences shows up in a lot of the arts, especially modern poetry like Ezra Pound, Sylvia Plath, T.S. Elliot, and Charles Olsen. All had heavy occult influences. Also, of course, William Blake and William Butler Yeats, who was a colleague of Aleister Crowley. But what I think rock and roll did that a lot of other arts didn’t do is that it found a way to channel that occult influence into the spectacle and bring it forward into the mainstream with pop musicians like Madonna and Jay-Z. Aside from a handful of writers, most of us aren’t really performative in a spectacle kind of way. And painters certainly aren’t usually, even though occult influence can appear in their visual art. But there’s something specific about the live rite, the ritual that rock and roll was really able to reintroduce into our culture.

PB:  We often do want artists to be the vehicle that guides us towards whatever transcendent experience we’re after. And we may not even use those words, we may not use “mysticism” or “transcendent” or “intensity experience.” but there’s a feeling of being connected to something beyond ourselves.

JS: I would also bring it back to something small like the interpersonal microcosm. If you’ve ever been in a romantic relationship and you say or do something that hurts your partner and then your partner is upset about it, it doesn’t actually matter whether what you did had the intention that your partner thought it did. What matters is that the emotions are real. You can’t invalidate that.

I would say that the intensity experience is authentic, regardless of how it’s brought about. That authentic experience that happens both in the artist and in the audience you can classify as a mystical experience. You can classify it as aesthetic shock, or even a psychedelic experience. But the experience is authentic. I think even the artists who don’t subscribe to all the orthodoxy behind whatever occult practices they’re borrowing from would not discredit the power of the experience.

Some people seek to recreate that experience through drugs. A lot of the Romantics tended to create that experience by creating crises for themselves, and we all know how that ended for van Gogh. But the other way that you can do it is through art, and through spectacle. We have those experiences when we go to rock shows, or when we listen to a piece of classical music, or read a particular poem, or see a painting.

PB: For myself, I only believe in the occult when it’s manifest in art, when its manifest in music, and performance. As a phenomena it almost doesn’t matter to me otherwise. What good is it to try understand these things if they’re not being communicated in a way that gives them some universal rather than literalist, closed vision?

See Peter Bebergal’s interview with Alan Moore.

Photograph of Janaka Stucky by Adrianne Mathiowetz.

Photograph of Peter Bebergal by Amy Bebergal.

Janaka Stucky is an American poet, performer, and publisher. The founding editor of Black Ocean, as well as the annual poetry journal, Handsome, he is also the author of a few poetry collections. His poems have appeared in such journals as Denver Quarterly, Fence and North American Review, and his articles have been published by The Huffington Post and The Poetry Foundation. He is a two-time National Haiku Champion and in 2010 he was voted “Boston’s Best Poet” in The Boston Phoenix. In 2015 Jack White’s Third Man Records launched a new publishing imprint, Third Man Books, and chose Janaka’s full-length poetry collection, The Truth Is We Are Perfect, as their inaugural title.

Peter Bebergal writes widely on the speculative and slightly fringe. His recent essays and reviews have appeared in NewYorker.com,The Times Literary Supplement, Slate, Boing Boing, The Believer, and The Quietus. He is the author of Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll, Too Much to Dream: A Psychedelic American Boyhood and The Faith Between Us: A Jew and a Catholic Search for the Meaning of God (with Scott Korb). His book Strange Frequencies is forthcoming from Penguin/TarcherPerigree. Bebergal studied religion and culture at Harvard Divinity School and lives in Cambridge, Mass.