Turn and Face the Strange – Rachel Brett investigates Aleister Crowley’s influence on Bowie and other modern artists in popular music.
When the man who sold the world started studying the wickedest man in the world an alchemistical effect was inevitable. A megalomaniac, poet, mystic, drug-addicted aesthete with multiple personas and an iconic figure who hugely influenced pop culture. And so it was that David Bowie and Aleister Crowley shared some astral space.
Aleister Crowley was a self-aggrandising occultist from a puritanical Christian family who developed a thirst for outraging others early on. Adolescents of every generation want to overthrow the system and transgress, only this decadent teenager that read Baudelaire and Huysmans, was radicalised, he added a ’K’ to the spelling of magic to differentiate his own variety, and went on to establish his own magical order of the Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.). However, the notorious Illuminatus posh boy would eventually end his infamous life of evil penniless in a post-war Hasting. His power seemingly gobbled up by the heroin he was addicted to. By the end of his life black magic was out of fashion, he couldn’t get a gig; no one wanted a Satanist anymore. Yet as the decades that followed after his death faded into each other and the original 1950’s teenager made way for the revolutionary 60’s, the Teenager grew restless and began seeking more to rebel against. This unsatisfied generation was angry that the promise of liberty which modernity offered was not to be. Crowley’s doctrine ‘Do What Thou Wilt’ started to ring true once more for a generation desperate for a new spiritual saviour. Along with the Beats, existentialism, and counterculture, an occult revival was imminent.
Pop messiahs of the age ushered in the return of the Beast. Crowley appears on Peter Blake’s cover of the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. A statue of him also appears on the cover of the Doors’ album, Doors 13. Mick Jagger was seen carrying occult books ahead of the Stones album His Satanic Majesties, that cradled one of their most anthemic songs; ‘Sympathy for the Devil’. Both Jagger and Marianne Faithful knew Kenneth Anger, the Avante-Garde filmmaker and Crowleyite. Jagger recorded the soundtrack to his film Invocation to my Demon Brother, while Marianne Faithful appeared in Lucifer Rising. ‘Hail Atlantis!’ intoned Donavan. Black magic became the new black magic in a back to the future return to old spiritual ideas. Crowley’s career revival was on and the comeback tour secured. His call for a new world order beyond the conventions of society couldn’t have been more suitable for the 60’s libertarian culture of sex, drugs and rock and roll.
The black magic machine was still going strong as the 1970’s dawned. In and of itself this wasn’t so strange, during this period occult bookshops were springing up and the children of the revolution were eager consumers of the mystic works these shops peddled. This zeitgeist moment that hailed in the psychedelic aeon floated into the next era as pop culture continued its exploration of magick and mysticism. Even suburbia had a Buddha…
He gazed a gazeless stare.
Travelling from mod to god David Jones landed from South London to planet pop at a time when it was being choked to death by long hair, prog and noodling wig-outs. Hungry for knowledge and otherworldly existences, through drapes of velvet and tapestry, to a jazz rhythm emerged Bowie. On a discovery mission, the fallen star devoured a cornucopia of experimental procedures, practices and philosophies along the way including; the occult, fascism, Nietzsche, Buddhism, yoga, mime, acting, astrology the cut-up and drugs. Within this milieu little wonder he should have found his way to Crowley. Or perhaps Crowley had found his way to him?
Bowie made no secret of his enthralment with the dark priest that was Crowley throughout his career frequently discussing the subject in interviews. As early as 1971 his occult adoration made its way into his songs, famously in ‘Quicksand’ from Hunky Dory:
I’m closer to the Golden Dawn Immersed in Crowley’s uniform of imagery. But what is beyond?
The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was a magical secret society that Crowley was a part of and by 1904 he achieved top-level magus status by proclaiming to have made contact with a demi-god called Aiwass in Egypt. (Photo Brian Ward)
Music like magick has a transmuting power to transcend beyond the rational. Bowie galvanised these powers of representations and symbolism throughout his work. Often referred to as a renaissance man, with multi-personae’ his characters reflected back the postmodern ego of a fragmental mirror that was forever searching for the self. He created an alternative world where metamorphic mutations happened and his alien pop selves could dwell.
Throwing darts in lover’s eyes
After Ziggy Stardust had fallen to earth, he was killed off by a rock and roll suicide before being reincarnated. Meanwhile, David Bowie had become addicted to cocaine and was vulnerable. Whilst filming The Man Who Fell To Earth in Albuquerque, he started to write a book entitled ‘The Return of the Thin White Duke’. The book apparently contained magic. He also attempted to record a soundtrack for the film, but driven by hallucinations and a near breakdown, the book and the soundtrack merged into the record ‘Station to Station’.
The lightning bolt may have gone, but it was still conducting influence heralding in the return of the Thin White Duke. It is here that Crowley makes another guest appearance. Over time writers have carried out esoteric analysis on the coded lyrics of ‘Station to Station’. Conclusions have been drawn that the duke is a magician caught up in a cyclone spinning out of control.
Indeed mirages of magic symbols meet in ‘Station to Station’; Hamlet’s overture in the lyrics:
Such is the stuff from where dreams are woven
The Supernatural travels between ‘stations’ representing the Kabbalistic tree:
“Here are we, one magical movement from Kether to Malkuth”
Bowie was also depicted drawing this tree of life in the photography by Steve Schapiro.
While in Crowley’s’ tarot cards an arrow symbolically revealed the direction of the True Will. The lyrics also mention ‘White Stains’, perhaps citing the title of a book of poems by Crowley?
The effects of his lifestyle are not just present in the lyrics of ‘Station to Station’, but his vocal delivery too, seems to have been touched by his practices taking his range an octave higher. The rasping strains of his voice convey the splintered identity of the characters which were haunting Bowie and driving him to psychological exhaustion. Or perhaps they were unsettled spirits come to seek revenge? Or so he believed. An Aryan type with no emotions that was drowning in a sea of paranoia and fear of a dead occultist taking control of his thoughts and evil witches steal his semen.
Station to Station goes from Saturday matinée camp horror music hall to Brechtian rock opera. It’s prog. It’s camp. It’s a follow up to glam as it became goth. It’s the Spiders dying screams as the guitar flange is stretched to breaking point… like Bowie’s nerves. Whether the song contains codified occultist symbols or not, themes of transgressive reality, expanded consciousness and mysticism can be detected throughout Bowie’s’ work and life; anyone with thy will can count the utterances.
Everybody is a [Black] star – Bowie was not the only rock star to be influenced by Crowley and reference the occult.
Jimmy Page who collaborated on the Bowie track ‘I Pity the Fool’ was also under the spell of the Beast and even purchased Crowley’s old estate Boleskine House on the shore of Loch Ness. He also outbid Bowie for a Gothic haunted house in 1972 in Holland Park. Suffice to say magick was a common interest of the pair. Other obvious dark disciplines encompass the heavy metal Iron Maidens and Black Sabbaths, through to their paler cousins; Coil, Marilyn Mason and Nine Inch Nails. While more serious connoisseurs like David Tibet, Genesis (Breyer) P-Orridge’s study of the Beast merits a consideration in its own right.
Less obvious musicians have included, Eddie and the Hot Rods, Graham Bond and American singer/songwriter Daryl Hall (is nothing scared?!). And the beast shall rise again; newer recruits take in Lady Gaga, Jay-Z, Kanye West, Ciara and so on. Only none of these recording stars applied Crowley’s magick with the artistic persuasions of Bowie.
Upon closer inspection, it’s not shocking that Aleister Crowley’s presences should be felt in the world of rock and roll. He is in fact featured on a record himself see David Tibet’s ‘The Hastings Archives’. He was a self-identified Satanist who rejected democracy. A Nietzschean apostle who believed the individual could free themselves from the enslavement which capitalism brings. He feared mass culture would kill human’s capacity for self-actualisation. He strived for power, control, sex, drugs and wealth. He wanted to be the leader that would set the kids free and he wanted to be loved. A totalitarian who saw the road of excess has the way to becoming a superman. If he were here today he would be on social media and touring. This drive to cast off the chains of the past generation and find freedom through expression and altered states can be traced back through every youth movement from ancient Greece onwards.
Music like magic is an experiential medium that has always been related to freedom from its use in religion onwards. It is one of the most powerful art forms that exists and combined with images can offer an alternative universe that every fan can escape to. Ziggy represented the symbolic form of our desire: to be other, a floating ego, that resisted meaning. To be famous. Pop music only exists because of capitalism. In this sense, the occult, music and economics share similar traits. They function by investing symbols with power and believing in the invisible power of transformation.
The Occult and rock and roll have always been united in wanting to kick out the jams, and a system that will no longer work for the new age. Only now that future doesn’t look like it did in the pictures, it’s a dystopic false reality that we are still trying to escape. Today when no common ground can be found the holders of truth can no longer be trusted. The internet has become the space where freedom and truth is sought instead. If we now accept post-truth, it’s more than comprehensible that Bowie believed he could conjure a spell that would hold the masses enraptured for an age.
The unfixed is still becoming, and while the Blackstar is gone, it is still shinning on.
This special feature was written by Rachel Brett – Humanities Reference Specialist – The British Library
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