For children of the new millennium, in which music videos resemble soft porn movies and horror films forego suggestion and suspense for explicit gore, it might be hard to comprehend how dangerous music seemed to the establishment in the latter half of the 20th century. In the early 80s even the milquetoast pop of Olivia Newton John could be banned from the airwaves if the lyrics got a little suggestive, which makes it only slightly less surreal to remember government committees playing rock music backwards to try and identify the hidden Satanic messages that were leading the youth of America to the Dark Side (of the Moon and elsewhere).
This seductive lure of the unknown and the dangerous, of hidden forces that could be harnessed and etched into the grooves of a record and transmitted into the minds of a new generation, is the subject of Peter Bebergal’s new book Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll (available from Amazon US and Amazon UK). It’s a topic I’ve written about myself (in much shorter form), but Bebergal’s effort is more detailed, and far smarter.
A key part of the fascinating nature of the book is that Bebergal isn’t dealing simply in goats and pentagrams; gods are invoked from multiple pantheons, from the African Eshu to the Greek and Roman deities Pan and Dionysius, and ‘the occult’ describes everything from voodoo to Eastern mysticism. And it’s not simply a book about tips of the hat to the occult in music, but about the shifts in culture and mindset that guided and influenced the musicians. Take, for instance, Bebergal’s discussion of the momentous turning point for rock music in the 60s:
The 1960s counterculture revived the Romantic belief that reason and the age of industry were anathema to the natural world and the spirit of myth and poetry. This is the experience of many young seekers in the 1960s were looking for, a direct immediate communion with nature and by extension the universe. Art and music were the vessels for both the Romantics and the hippies. The piper at the gates of dawn was playing his panpipes for those who needed to hear. And the youth of the 1960s were pulled toward it like a siren song. There was no turning back. Rock culture was now inhabited by a Romantic soul that looked to the gods of the past. And like the Romantic poets who were their forebears, rock musicians crafted music that did more than tug the heartstrings of teenagers. It was music that urged them toward transcendence, toward creating their own inner landscapes and exploring the antipodes of their minds.
Most of the usual suspects (see my article) get a mention: Robert Johnson, Led Zeppelin, Bowie, and so on. But Season of the Witch also treads some fascinating lesser known paths, such as the reinvented shamanic performances of Arthur Brown, and the seminal work of Genesis Breyer P-Orridge with Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV. Similarly, the book doesn’t just stick to pointing out occult-influenced albums, but also a number of the physical conduits for the ‘current’, such as The UFO Club and the invention of the Moog synthesizer.
On the downside, it was at times difficult to get a feel for the flow of the book, which seems to be based neither on time or theme - for instance, the chapter on 1980s bands like Throbbing Gristle and Killing Joke is followed by a chapter that starts with the band Hawkwind in the 70s. And apart from some discussion of Jay-Z’s illuminati branding and Madonna’s Kabbalah infatuation, there is very little post-80s content. The omission of a band like Tool in particular seems strange (especially with time given to Jay-Z and Madonna), considering not only the overt occult symbolism on their albums, but also the fascinating lyrics and philosophy that the author could have mined from their work.
I did also have a slight misgiving about Bebergal’s approach to the topic being so lucid and objective - what has made the occult such a powerful force in concert with modern music is the way in which they can act together to seduce and entrance the listener, breaking the shackles of mainstream expectation and rational thought, transporting music fans to entirely new islands of perception and consciousness. At times the tone of the book felt a little too much like the mainstream that rock and roll has always strived to upset.
But overall Season of the Witch is a fun and educational read on a fascinating topic. Bebergal’s prose is wonderful, and his depth of scholarship on the topic is impressive - the book disappears far too quickly as you eagerly move from chapter to chapter (or is that ‘station to station’?) It will no doubt have many music fans dusting off old classic albums and giving them a spin, listening almost ‘for the first time’ to some of the most influential rock tracks of our time.
Christopher Nolan's Interstellar is a film that sits comfortably on the shelf next to its most closely related films; Stanley Kubrick's classic trip, 2001  and Robert Zemeckis' Contact . A little too comfortably actually, as it leeches ideas and material from both of these two major works of the "quasi-mystical space quest" SF sub-genre, mutating them to serve in its own plot.
Held against the recent piece of clear anti-space propaganda, the “life in space is impossible” of Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity, it functions as a much needed response, but overall comes off as a less focused work.
Starring Matthew McConaughey - who played a Christian philosopher in Contact and was most recently seen on TV's True Detective as the grim Rust Cohle, a role heavily influenced by the “cosmic pessimist” philosophy outlined in Eugene Thacker's book In The Dust Of This Planet - as Cooper: a former NASA pilot, engineer and reluctant farmer in a new Dust Bowl America of unclear proportions who is chosen by outside forces for a most optimistic cosmic, covert mission; to save the human race.
Put simply, it's not a great time to be alive. This is the near future of economic and ecological collapse and near-term human extinction; a similar setting to the recent Autómata. It's hinted that the Earth's population has been decimated, though no exact facts are given... in fact, the truth is a casualty of the times. One of the most powerful scenes early on involves an earnest young school teacher repeating the line of the 'updated textbooks': the Moon landings were faked in an effort to bankrupt the Soviet Empire by making it spend all its money on all that unnecessary spacecraft. This is a “caretaker generation” that has long since stopped looking at the Heavens and is focused purely on the dirt and the muck of Earth. No ambition (unlike the ESA), just grit-teethed, dumb-minded stoicism – as embodied in the film by Cooper's son.
Cooper's daughter, Murph, is a dreamer. Reading his old textbooks, getting into fights in defence of her beliefs, seeking the wondrous in the world. There's a ghost in her room that she's convinced is trying to tell her something. It's Coopers eventual interpretation of this message and act of faith in following it that sparks his quest to another galaxy, in search of a new homeland for his species.
This world’s a treasure that’s been telling us to leave for a while now.
Mankind was born on earth. It was never meant to die here.”
Without getting too much deeper in the details of the plot (trailer below) – they travel through ... Read More »
There’s a scene in the ill-regarded 2009 movie X-Men Origins: Wolverine, where Hugh Jackman, acknowledged to be generally perfect in this role, gets to deliver the character’s most representative quote: “I’m the best there is at what I do - and what I do ain’t very nice” - and you just don’t believe him. Despite all Jackman’s aptness in the role, the line just doesn’t land.
There’s a similar moment in the pilot for the TV show Constantine, where Matt Ryan delivers a key quote for the title character - “I’m a nasty piece of work - ask anyone”.
I believed him. But...
John Constantine has existed as a character (and, according to creator Alan Moore, possibly something more) since 1985. From his first appearance in Moore & Steve Bissette’s Saga Of The Swamp Thing, then his own comic Hellblazer (written at various points by the cream of British comic scribes) and finally the current New 52 reboot series Constantine, he’s been in print constantly (heh) for nearly thirty years. (For more deep background, this recent piece by Abraham Reisman at Vulture is excellent.)
Until now, he’s been adapted for the screen just once, with varied results. The 2005 film Constantine got mixed reviews, with fans of the character scathing in their response to the casting of Keanu Reeves in the lead. Worse - instead of the character as shown in the comics, a blond working class magician born in Liverpool and matured in London, we got Keanu as a middle-class suburban Angeleno psychic with spooky tatts in a script that stripped away everything about the character that mattered, other than him being a smoker and a bastard. The film is basically an OK supernatural action thriller - but John Constantine isn’t really in it.
The 2014 TV series pilot ‘Non Est Asylum’ - leaked online some months back, now re-edited with new scenes - has certainly got John Constantine in it... shame is, at the moment he’s in a fairly run-of-the-mill TV supernatural action thriller.
First, the good stuff...
As far as being a proper bastard John Constantine, true to the spirit of the comic... Matt Ryan had me at ‘bollocks’. He’s swaggering, sarcastic, dangerous - a nasty piece of work to be sure, but one whose anger, fear and damage is very near the surface. Not quite the cool customer of later comics, he’s still raw from recent traumatic events - I hope we see the truly on-it Constantine evolve as the show goes on.
The decision to give Constantine’s accent more than a hint of his Liverpool home was a smart one - it even gives the American pronunciation of his name (it should be Kon-Stan-Tyne, not Kon-Stan-Teen - it says so in the comic) a degree of plausibility. Almost.
Serious effort has gone into adapting Constantine’s comic history into a show set in the US and updated for our times. Major aspects of his back story are shown: the Newcastle Event (where his failure led to the death and damnation of a young girl named Astra at the hands of the demon Nergal and the condemnation of Johns' soul to the same when he dies), his subsequent incarceration in Ravenscar asylum (in the show, voluntarily), even his torment at his father’s hands due to the death of his mother in childbirth. His magical style is shown as eclectic, combining many traditions with Judaeo-Christian elements in what he calls a ‘proprietary blend’, just as it should be.
Other aspects of the character are toned down; network rules mean he can’t be seen smoking (but he will apparently be putting out a lot of ciggys in ashtrays), it’s been made clear by the showrunners that (at least for the moment) the show will not address his canonical bisexuality. And I’m a little peeved at how short his trenchcoat is... but for the most part, I’m damn happy with this Constantine.
The show itself, however, has an ironic hill to climb. We’re a long way from Conjob's starting days - an entire genre of urban fantasy has arisen, giving us a wide range of street-mages and demon-hunters, and this year alone the show is airing alongside such genre examples as Grimm, Sleepy Hollow and Supernatural (now in its tenth year). The pilot follows along all-too-similar lines to much of these shows’ output, though it’s crisply directed by Neil Marshal of Dog Soldiers, The Descent and Game Of Thrones fame - it’s going to have to do something special to win over an audience.
Several scenes from the pilot were changed from the ‘leaked’ version which appeared over the summer: most notably, what was to have been the female show lead and audience POV character has been unceremoniously written out be the end of the episode (a shame for actress Lucy Griffith as Liv... but the character was the weak link, through no fault of her own). Also, the final boss battle with the demon was reshot to have it appear in the form of Constantine-as-demon, a supposed look at his damned future, which lands much better than the generic menace in the original version.
Despite the hiccups and dilution, I have a lot of hope for the show. I like the aloof viciousness of Harold Perrineau’s angel ‘Manny’, Jeremy Davies is perfect casting as John’s unwilling associate and fellow Newcastle veteran Ritchie Simpson and the prospect of major Hellblazer characters such as Papa Midnite and Zed (as the new female lead), as well as other DC occult figures, holds much promise. Hell, I even like this version of Chas (now an American cabbie, nicely played by Charles Halford, formerly Reggie Ledoux in True Detective).
So, give it a punt. Know what I mean?