by Micah Hanks
Him will I drag through life’s wild waste,
Through scenes of vapid dulness, where at last
Bewilder’d, he shall falter, and stick fast;
And, still to mock his greedy haste,
Viands and drink shall float his craving lips beyond–
Vainly he’ll seek refreshment, anguish-tost,
And were he not the devil’s by his bond,
Yet must his soul infallibly be lost!
–Mephistopheles, from Goethe’s Faust.
Rock ‘n’ roll… it is the long-held modern corruptor of the innocent, and the potential soul-catching menace of those not wary enough to recognize the dangers it hides in its lure of fame, sex, and grandeur.
There is, with little doubt, a long and treacherous history detailing the interplay between musical ties to the occult and the supernatural. But to trace the affair back to its modern roots, beginning in the rural Americas, there is perhaps no finer instance where the worlds of audible entertainment, and those worlds that lay beyond the physical, would collide than at an open crossroads somewhere near Clarksdale, Mississippi in the early 1930s. It was here, according to legend, that the famous singer of blues music, Robert Johnson, was believed to have sold his mortal soul to the Devil, in exchange for an unprecedented mastery of the guitar.
Soul-Selling at the Crossroads
Johnson’s origins, as well as his curious untimely demise, are shrouded not only in mystery, but also in conjecture, as it remains unclear precisely where the legend of the infamous “crossroads bargain” actually began. Some trace the legend back to Johnson himself, whose early life began around the areas of Hazelhurst and Robinsonville, Mississippi. His first marriage in 1929 to sixteen-year-old Virginia Travis would end in heartbreak, as the young bride died during childbirth shortly after the two were wed. According to blues researcher Robert McCormick, who tracked down surviving relatives of the young woman, it was a long-held belief in the family that her death had been punishment for Johnson’s choice in pursuing secular music, which many likened to the literal act of selling one’s soul to the Devil.
Johnson himself referenced “going down to the crossroads” in what became perhaps his most famous offering, “Crossroad Blues,” later performed by the likes of British guitarist Eric Clapton during his years with the seminal rock three-piece Cream. Though Johnson’s lyrics are void of any overt reference to a meeting at those crossroads with Satan, blues musician Son House would allegedly claim years later that this was, in fact, the location where the deal had been carried out.
Thus begun what Jimi Hendrix biographer Charles Shaar Murray would later call, “a long, long line of supernatural brag songs.” And in doing so, this single event cast a certain darkness over the scope of historic musicology in modern times, and an aberrant—if not ominous—cloud surrounding the beginnings of the rock ‘n’ roll music that would begin to emerge over the coming decades.
Erupting from the blues music that would serve as its underlying influence, the twelve-bar staples and themes that had been innovated by Johnson on acoustic guitar would later prove to be even more formidable when amplified through electric instruments produced by fine makers of quality instruments like the Gibson Guitar Company, as well as Leo Fender’s early designs for affordable, lightweight guitars with interchangeable necks and electronics. Thus, guitars such as the Straocaster and its twangy cousin, the Telecaster, would become staples among early blues musicians like Muddy Waters, and later innovators in the budding American rock scene like Buddy Holly. Others like Chuck Berry (himself remaining a Gibson man) would speed the tempo even further, transposing the devilish blues licks of his youth into a much faster paced genre, where twelve bars of yesterday’s blues could send a new generation of young listeners into frenzies with its hijacked delta rhythms and boppin’ downbeat. But arguably, no one amidst the early icons of rock ‘n’ roll that would emerge had more profound an impact on the genre than Elvis Presley, a man who would famously claim legendary status, not only as an American icon, but as the literal “King of Rock and Roll.”
The Birth of a King
From birth, Presley’s life had been riddled with strangeness, and perhaps more than the average country boy from Tupelo, Mississippi. Supposedly, the night baby Elvis was delivered, his doctor had claimed to see a strange light hovering off in the distance; such would become the very stuff of rock ‘n’ roll legend, with folklorists, musicologists, and even ufologists speculating on the nature of the unearthly visitation. While such stories are difficult to confirm, verified records do exist that pertain to the delivery of a stillborn identical twin brother, dubbed Jesse Garon Presley, a mere half hour before young Elvis came into the world. How different indeed the history of rock music might have been, had young Jesse managed to survive! And yet, despite his stillbirth, throughout Elvis’s life he would make references to this deceased twin, with some claiming that Presley could have maintained spectral contact with Jesse, who communicated from beyond the grave.
There is, at very least, a grain of truth to such stories. Writing for Contemporary Psychology, reviewer Alan C. Elms included the following in his critical analysis of Peter O. Whitmer’s The Inner Elvis: A Psychological Biography of Elvis Aaron Presley:
According to various members of his inner circle, stories of Elvis talking or listening to his dead twin were mostly invented by scriptwriters for the first television drama about Elvis, several years after his death. Whitmer’s main informant about Elvis’s supposed obsession with his twin was Larry Geller, Elvis’s sometime hairdresser and “spiritual adviser.” Geller has written or co-authored at least four books on Elvis, and over the past 20 years he has put a lot of words in the dead Elvis’s mouth. Perhaps Elvis really did become fascinated with his twin as he and Geller talked about mystic aspects of twinship. But Geller’s largely unverifiable reports constitute a slender foundation for the weighty structure Whitmer has erected upon them.
Despite the somewhat exaggerated nature of Geller’s claims regarding the spirit presence of Jesse Presley in his brother’s life and career, Elvis nonetheless exhibited classic behavior of the so-called “twinless twin,” as discussed in Whitmer’s psychological biography on Presley:
“The twinless twin wants to prove his uniqueness, to stand as an individual. Yet he is also powerfully pulled toward being reunited with the dead twin. . . . To win the mother’s love, he must grieve for the dead twin. Yet at the same time, to establish self-love and his own security, he must compete with the very person he is compelled to mourn.”
Thus, perhaps this inner, subconscious conflict between self, and the separation innate to his birth, had been what first spurred a decidedly unseasoned young Presley, at the mere age of eighteen, to enter the office of Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee, and pronounce that he wanted to buy studio time. It was there, during the summer of 1953, that Presley would make history with his recorded version of Arthur Crudup’s “That’s Alright Mama,” which later aired on Dewey Phillips’ Red Hot and Blue radio show. The jangly strumming of the guitar, paired with the smacking of Bill Black’s upright bass and Scotty Moore’s electric guitar floating overtop, would become a sound that Sam Phillips, the brains behind the operation at Sun Records, would use to launch Presley into stardom the following year.
And yet, with the fame there had been a distinctly troubled nature—at times even tortured—that Elvis would maintain throughout his life; this, of course, would culminate in the deterioration of his health and eventual demise at Graceland, his famous home, in 1977. But throughout his early career especially, the raucous and energetic nature of his performances, as well as the overt sexuality he exuded as a young male rising to stardom in a liberated, post-war America of the 1950s, came with a price. His talents were decried by the puritanical attitudes of the upper class, and often shunned due to what many considered a vulgar or depraved display of untamed youth. Much like his predecessor Robert Johnson, what many perceived as a transparent association with corruption and the wicked influences of the Devil himself had become embodied in this young antihero, who went ahead, hips swiveling, as he danced across the airwaves and into the minds and hearts of a relentless young female audience.
Sympathy for the Devil
The rock ‘n’ roll sounds that Presley initiated would not only define Presley’s image and audible signature. If anything, Presley’s influence on the new genre of rock music would also serve as a catalyst for new sounds to come, and within a decade of his arrival on the American music scene, the sounds of loud electric guitars and up-tempo drum beats had crossed the great Atlantic, and were now reverberating back toward the States in the form of the British Invasion. Bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones had become both heroes and heartthrobs, in addition to garnering infamy as the new folk devils of the era, sprinkling the seeds of bad influence amidst the youth of the western world. Each of these famous British powerhouses would garner their own varieties of controversy in the realm of the wicked; The Beatles would capture the stern eye of the faithful in the aftermath of guitarist John Lennon’s admission that he and his mates may have grown to be “bigger than Jesus.” Not to be outdone, Mick Jagger and band mate Keith Richards (less renowned for the sort of subtlety Lennon and McCartney’s songwriting would exemplify), went on to release a studio album with the overtly controversial title Their Satanic Majesties Request, followed by Beggar’s Banquet featuring the unforgettable fictional pleas of the historic Lucifer himself in the song “Sympathy for the Devil.”
While one could speculate about the meaning behind the more esoteric compositions in the Beatles’ repertoire, The Stones seemed to prefer to lay it all out there; though in truth, neither party really seemed to take the idea of enrollment under any supposed “Satanic Majesties” very literally, Jagger and Richards preferring instead the mere shock value of associating their brand of popular rock music with overt references to demonology. Commenting on the public perception of The Stones as an evil force at work in the world, Richards told Rolling Stone Magazine in 1971 that,
“Before, we were just innocent kids out for a good time, they’re saying, ‘They’re evil, they’re evil.’ Oh, I’m evil, really? So that makes you start thinking about evil… What is evil? Half of it, I don’t know how much people think of Mick as the devil or as just a good rock performer or what? There are black magicians who think we are acting as unknown agents of Lucifer and others who think we are Lucifer. Everybody’s Lucifer.”
While the obvious influence that blues music played in the formation of rock ‘n’ roll had been apparent in rock bands from England, a truly curious instance of multicultural influences being infused into the soulful creation of rock music came into fruition with the arrival of Jimi Hendrix and his three-piece group, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, in the latter part of 1966. Interestingly, Hendrix had only seen rudimentary success in the United States, and would not manage to break through into the greater pop market until traveling to England, and under the oversight of Animals bassist Chaz Chandler, would begin sitting in with groups like Eric Clapton’s group, Cream, in addition to performing a handful of showcases with Noel Redding, actually a reluctant guitarist who had been repositioned on bass, and the obviously jazz-influenced drummer Mitch Mitchell. Soon would follow the release of the group’s first hit, a recording of Billy Robert’s modern “traditional” classic, “Hey Joe,” which had become a popular cover song performed by artists of the era such as The Byrds and, in years that followed, many others, once Hendrix had further popularized the tune. Despite his background playing as a sideman in groups supporting names like Little Richard and Curtis Knight, one Hendrix became the front man of his own group, many of his more memorable performances featured renditions of songs such as “Like a Rolling Stone,” which he played seamlessly before an excited audience at the famous Monterrey Pop Festival, providing a stateside homecoming, of sorts, for Hendrix. The guitarist would also go on to perform and record such Dylan classics as “All Along the Watchtower,” coloring his renditions of the folk singer’s material with his own unique and innovative—if not at times grungy and artistically undisciplined—guitar style.
But the odd dichotomy underlying James Marshall Hendrix, or Johnny Allen Hendrix, as he was dubbed at birth, is indeed far more curious than merely his song selection. Hendrix, whose paternal grandparents had been a blend of American white, African, and Cherokee Indian, would also lend cultural elements that, over time, would suffuse the budding guitarist’s desires, interests, and even spirituality. Overt references to voodoo practices would emerge in Hendrix’s darker blues renditions, most notably the famous “Voodoo Chile (slight return),” where a collection of supernatural taunts are issued throughout:
If I don’t meet you no more in this world,
I’ll meet you in the next one, so don’t be late.
It was alleged by conga player Kwasi Dzidzornu, who performed alongside Hendrix in later band formations and studio recordings, that many of Hendrix’s rhythms were identical to those he had heard his father perform at home in Ghana, West Africa, during voodoo rituals. Biographer David Henderson wrote in his book ‘Scuse Me While I Kiss The Sky that, “The way Jimi danced to the rhythms of his playing reminded him of the ceremonial dances to the rhythms his father played to Oxun, the god of thunder and lightening,” in a ritual ceremony called Voodooshi.
There were also legends stemming from the Cherokee side, which alleged that if a child’s name were changed early after his birth, that his soul would also be split in half. Though more superstitious in nature than the obvious traces to tribal dance emanating from Hendrix’s recorded music, Hendrix himself often claimed that he felt a second soul resided within him, and that at times he had great difficulty in abiding alongside with this presumed spirit occupant. “[Jimi] believed that he was possessed by some spirit,” his friend Alan Douglas would later claim. “I got to believe it myself, and that is what we had to deal with all the time. And he was very humble about discussing it with people because he didn’t want people to feel he was being pretentious and so on, but he really believed it and he was wrestling with it constantly”. Much the same, Hendrix’s one-time girlfriend Lithofayne Pridgeon, whom he met while living in Harlem, New York, said that Hendrix, “used to always talk about some devil. Something was in him, and he didn’t have any control over it. He didn’t know what made him act the way he acted, and what made him say the things he said, and songs and different things like that just come out of him… It seems like, to me, he was so tormented and so torn apart and he really was obsessed with something really evil.”
And whatever torment may have been working behind the scenes throughout Hendrix’s life, spiritual or otherwise, it would eventually assist in his early demise, much the likes of Elvis Presley, and perhaps most famously, other members of that clandestine collection of rock idols known informally as the “27 Club.” This “club” consists of rock performers who have met early deaths at the age of twenty-seven, and with a startling consistency; not only had Hendrix’s early predecessor, Robert Johnson, also died at the age of 27, but many of the psychedelic guitarist’s contemporaries met similar fates, including Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones, as well as singers Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin. This curious trend would not resolve with the hippie generation, however; other artists in decades to follow, including Nirvana singer and guitarist Kurt Cobain and, more recently, singer Amy Winehouse, would meet similar untimely fates.
In fact, the latter of these artists, the young Amy Winehouse, may have even foreseen her death at this unlucky age. As reported in 2008 at the website inquisitr.com, Alex Haines, the former personal assistant to the civilly disobedient singer, had noted:
“It was my job to look after her. But it was impossible. I thought she wouldn’t survive the year with all the drugs and self-harming. Cutting herself was her favorite pastime… She’d keep taking drugs until she passed out. I reckon she spent £3,500 a week on them…. She reckoned she would join the 27 Club of rock stars who died at that age. She told me, ‘I have a feeling I’m gonna die young’.”
Sadly, in the case of the late Amy Winehouse, it is difficult to determine whether her foreboding belief that she would join that ill-fated regimen may have been more a case of self-fulfilling prophecy, rather than being the result of any valid premonition.
“I Think of Demons”
During the same years Jimi Hendrix would reach the crest of fame, a young American rock singer had been working with equal passion—if not quite the same degree of efficiency—at laying his own foundations within the growing new sub-genre of “psychedelic rock” which, curiously had begun to form something of a hub around central Texas. Roger Kynard Erickson, who, like Hendrix and many others, adopted the more edgy sounding “Roky Erickson” as his onstage name, would become a founding member of the seminal psychedelic group, The Thirteenth Floor Elevators, producing regional the likes of the bittersweet breakup song, “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” and later on, the more adventurous and rollicking, “Slip Inside This House.”
Similar in some fashion to Hendrix, Erickson would also claim to be a vessel to various forms of nonhuman “intelligence,” beginning in the late 1960s when he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Erickson would spend time under psychiatric observation and hospitalization, where he had been an off and on subject of involuntary electroconvulsive shock-therapy practices that were still in use at the time.
Erickson, who maintained a lifelong fascination with extraterrestrial life, had been born only eleven days after a New Mexico rancher named Mac Brazel began claiming that a strange “flying disc” had landed on his property near Roswell, New Mexico. The story would later make national headlines, and decades after the fact, would become one of the most widely debated conspiracies in the history of ufology. Erikson, rather than becoming a UFO buff the likes of Stanton Friedman and others who pursued the Roswell mystery, would instead begin to claim in his early 30’s that, quite literally, a “Martian” had taken possession of his body, and that other “humans” were attacking him psychically. In 1980, Erickson told journalists:
I’ve gone through three changes. I thought I was a Christian, and then I was with the Devil, where I signed my soul to the Devil… and then the third one, where I know who I am. I feel like I’m a monster. I feel like I know I’m the robe of many colors spoke of in the Bible; in other words, a demon, a gremlin, a goblin, a vampire, a ghost, and [an] alien, with a brain about this big.”
The Song Remains Occult
Any foray into the history of magical and supernatural interactions within the world of rock music would have to take a decidedly darker turn with the inclusion of Jimmy Page, the famous guitarist and compositional genius behind the hard rock super group Led Zeppelin. While the band, on the whole, incorporated a variety of elements from Celtic and pre-Christian mythologies into their music and associated imagery, it was Page’s specific fascination with the occultist Aleister Crowley that garnered so much infamy throughout the band’s career.
Crowley’s history is as strange and sordid, if not more so even, than the typical rock star of today; the history of his study into the realms of black magick and taboo sexual rituals has been popularized in modern times, particularly in reference to study of the unexplained and, of all things, UFO phenomenon. For instance, it is widely held by many UFO researchers who incorporate study of alien abduction into the mythos surrounding unidentified flying objects that Crowley, sometime in the 1920s while living in New York, may have actually stumbled onto the existence of the so-called alien “grays” during an elaborate magical ritual known as “The Amalantrah Working.” The story, framed in its briefest particulars, involved Crowley working with an assistant named Roddie Minor, with whom he managed to elicit contact through some variety of dimensional gateway. This being, according to some ufologists, is said to represent the occupants of various UFO craft reported over the last several decades.
Whether or not Crowley and his brand of occultism could be linked to the history of ufology in any definitive way, we do know that Page’s fascination stemmed from Crowley’s writings and general charisma; the guitarist would go on to pursue an elaborate collection of Crowley’s writings and, at one time, even the infamous Boleskin House, Crowley’s former residence that stood along the dismal South-Eastern shores of Scotland’s famous Loch Ness, believed to be the home of a mystery beast of truly monstrous proportions. The Boleskin House according to Page, was the location of a truly terrifying apparition: the ghost of a “severed head” that would occasionally be seen within. Crowley, who owned the house up until 1913, also claimed the place to be a sort of “Mecca” for the spiritual philosophy of Thelema. By all accounts, the esoteric connections to the darkened corridors of famed Boleskin House and its curious residents are many.
However, despite his fascination with Crowley and the occult, Page would repeatedly deny having any personal involvement with devil worship or satanic ritual throughout his career, particularly following the death of fellow band mate Robert Plant’s son, Karac, in 1977. Despite criticisms for his “dabbling” in the occult, to borrow the demeaning accusation once launched against the guitarist by director Kenneth Anger, Page nonetheless continued to defend his interest in Aleister Crowley, discussing the matter in the British Sound newspaper the following year:
I feel Aleister Crowley is a misunderstood genius of the 20th century. Because his whole thing was liberation of the person, of the entity, and that restrictions would foul you up, lead to frustration which leads to violence, crime, mental breakdown, depending on what sort of makeup you have underneath. The further this age we’re in now gets into technology and alienation, a lot of the points he’s made seem to manifest themselves all down the line.
And maybe, taking Page’s summation of Crowley at its face, there is indeed merit to this perspective. We live in a culture where our own inner monsters lash out in senseless attacks the likes of school shootings, intent on destroying innocents for no apparent purpose other than the glory of being remembered for something—for anything, really—and with little discrimination regarding whether that memory is forever rooted in violence or hatred. Whereas, Page might have argued, Crowley’s famous channeled work, The Book of The Law, famously expressed that one should “Do what thou wilt, and that shall be the whole of the law,” further stating that, “Love is the law, love under will. Nor let the fools mistake love; for there are love and love. There is the dove, and there is the serpent. Choose ye well! He, my prophet, hath chosen, knowing the law of the fortress, and the great mystery of the House of God.” Arguably, many of us today could stand to gain from making more careful life choices, and no doubt, from working to incorporate a bit more love into those decisions as well.
The story of magical and occult underpinnings within the history of rock music continues laboriously onward, and far more could still be said of the subject than could be allowed here. Within the context of roots and symbols, as well as the forlorn archetypes that bed themselves within the complex substructure of artistic expression through music itself, this grand, emergent vision only seems to convey more clearly with time that, despite the fear and wickedness many have tried to associate with music—especially the raw primal energy exerted through rock ‘n’roll—the innate expression of our world’s mysteries through the craft of song is indeed truly beautiful. It is only natural to fear what we don’t understand, and as our musicological study of occult influence in rock shows, there have indeed been more than a few times where the circumstances have seemed more “alien” than anything innate to the known senses; and hence, people reject this expression, or worse, they chase after it, in an attempt to thwart the beast as it emerges… all the while mistaking the mere artistic rendering for being the monster itself.
Indeed, those things relegated to the world of song are often far too alien, or even dangerous, for us to exist alongside within the context of the everyday, and thus they become immortalized in the non-terrestrial starscape that is the limitless potential of music and song. How fitting, then, that the lyrics of David Bowie’s “Starman,” where the singer himself “channeled” an alien known as Ziggy Stardust, come suddenly to mind, ambling forth from the subspace of famous rock quips and quotes:
There’s a starman waiting in the sky
He’d like to come and meet us,
But he thinks he’d blow our minds
And that, as Bowie’s alien character surmised, is what musical expression is really all about to begin with; making that connection, even at the risk of blowing a few minds, and doing so while conveying the similar promise of an artistic medium through which our inner devils can be allowed to rollick and play, rather than be stifled. The fear of “blowing one’s mind” is far less threatening, after all, than the actualization of those negativities; the very things we often find in rock music, and even more so, the very sorts of things we don’t wish to have to abide by in the real and waking world.
ACDC concert image by vacacionesbulgaria.com, via Wikimedia Commons. Jimmy Page image by Dina Regine via Wikimedia Commons. Roky Erickson image by Ron Baker via Wikimedia Commons. All other images public domain.