Known as the era of free love, peace and awakening the mind, the 60s and early 70s were also known as the counterculture that revived occult mysticism. Breaking free from the suburban post-war monotony, the decade started a spiritual movement throughout the world.
Before the 60s, there had always existed a fascination with the occult and mysticism, with more modern-day enthusiasts such as the Beat generation author William Burroughs, actor Peter Sellers and even Elvis Presley, to name a few; although the great occultists that were to influence this renaissance of spirituality were Elophas Levi, Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (the founding mother of occult in America) and Aleister Crowley (The beast). All of these mystics were famous in their own right, but there was a resurgence of their teachings and books in the 1960s, making way for a counterculture that was to influence a whole generation – especially the music.
The Beatles were having their spiritual awakening in the mid-60s, fueled by George Harrison’s love for eastern mysticism and the influence of Timothy Leary – a psychologist, free thinker and advocate for psychedelic drugs. Timothy Leary was quoted as saying, ‘I rejoice to see our culture being taken over by joyful young messiahs who dispel our fears and charm us back into the pagan dance’ (The Lost Beatles Interviews from Geoffrey Giuliano). Leary went on to write an essay where he actually wrote that the Beatles were the reincarnation of god: ‘he or she has come back as the four sided mandala – the Beatles. The means by which to spread the new gospel – music. The sacrament – drugs’ (Ibid p378). John Lennon was so captivated by Leary’s thoughts and practices he used Leary’s manual, based on the Tibetan book of the dead, in the lyrics for “Tomorrow Never Knows” (1966).
On the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, it depicts the four band members surrounded by multiple famous people from throughout time. Along with Hindu gurus and movie stars are nestled pictures of Aleister Crowley, Aldous Huxley and William S. Burroughs. Ringo was quoted as saying the reason they selected these individuals was they were ‘people we like and admire’ (Hit parade1976), and McCartney called them ‘our heroes’ (Musician 1976).
Another noteworthy band who experimented with spiritualist beliefs were The Doors. They were influenced by Aldous Huxley, writer and philosopher, known for his use of experimenting with drugs as a tool for enlightenment. Huxley wrote the book ‘The Doors of Perception,’ which became a classic of psychedelic literature. One decade after the book was published, it became the inspiration for the band’s name and soul. Jim Morrison was interested in shamanism, and keyboardist Ray Manzarek described Morrison’s transformation on stage as ‘the spirit guides came over him in concert. It was a psychological horror, freak show in the sense of the shaman – the sense of possession. Morrison was the shaman who took people on a mystical journey to a darker realm’ (Break on Through: The Life and Death of Jim Morrison Book by James Riordan 1991).
The reason for The Doors, the raison d’être for The Doors was making music to plug yourself into the vibrations of the planet; harmonize your inner vibration with the vibration of the audience. The human beings vibrating in harmony together, it’s like a pagan, it’s like some sort of a mystical Christ. The release of the kundalini, the kundalini power expanding in your body and curling and coiling upwards. The Aquarian age in which we’ll finally begin to merge all the religions, and sciences and arts and what-not’s and we will realise we are gods. Jim Morrison was a god onto himself, I am a god onto myself, we are all gods onto ourselves. So to put it outside of yourself is seeking a false messiah. That’s masonic; that’s the end of 2000 years of culture and the religion we are involved in now.
– Ray Manzerek 1939 –2013
Aleister Crowley also had a significant effect on the occult movement of the 60s and 70’s. David Bowie wrote the song “Quicksand” in 1971, with lyrics praising Crowley and the occult group the Golden Dawn: ‘I’m closer to the Golden Dawn, immersed in Crowley’s uniform of imagery.’ Bowie claimed that his ‘overriding interest was in Kabala and Crowleyism. The whole dark and rather fearsome never-world of the wrong side of the brain’ (The laughing Gnostic: David Bowie and the Occult by Peter–R. Koenig).
Jimmy Page was also incredibly interested in the Occult and Crowleyism. He studied magic as an adolescent and even bought Crowley’s house in Scotland. Page went on to buy an occult bookstore and publishing house named The Equinox Booksellers in Kensington. He wrote in his autobiography: ‘There was not one bookshop in London with a good collection of occult books and I was so pissed off not being able to get the books I wanted’. Equinox’s first two published books were The Book of Goetia: The Lesser Key of Solomon the King translated by Aleister Crowley, and Astrology, a Cosmic Science: The Classic Work on Spiritual Astrology by Isabel Hickey as well as books on Oriental philosophy, Kabala, Tarot, Alchemy and Rosicrucianism. Page even went as far as inscribing Crowley’s spoken law ‘Do what thou wilt’ on the run-off vinyl of the first pressing of Led Zeppelin III.
In conjunction with the music of the 60s were films directed by aspiring occultists such as Donald Cammell and Kenneth Anger. Cammell directed, alongside Nicolas Roeg, the crime drama Performance in 1970 starring Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones and Anita Pallenberg, an actress, model and occultist. Pallenberg was romantically involved with Brian Jones, the founder and original bandleader of the Rolling Stones. They lived together in Chelsea, where they had a collection of human relics and occult bric-a-brac. Jones was a devotee of the joujouka pipers of Morocco, which are a Sufi (inner mystical dimension of Islam) trance musician group. Kenneth Anger would refer to Pallenberg as a witch, and she admitted to doing spells. Jones sometimes became violent, and on one occasion Pallenberg was on the receiving end of one of his beatings so she cast a spell on him:
‘I decided to make a wax figure of Brian and poke him with a needle. I moulded some wax into an effigy and said whatever words I said and closed my eyes and jabbed the needle into the wax figure. It pierced the stomach… the next morning when I went back to where I was living with Brain, I found him suffering from severe stomach pains. He’d been up all night and he was in agony, bottles of Milk of Magnesia and other medication all around him. It took him a day or so to get over it. Yes, I did have an interest in witchcraft, in Buddhism, in black magicians that my friend Kenneth Anger, the filmmaker, introduced me to. The world of the occult fascinated me, but after it happened to Brian I never cast another spell’.
The era of free love saw a change in how we view the occult by means of music, films and spiritual leaders – but why did these musicians and artists fall under the occult spell? Was it the appealing freedom of Crowley’s ‘Do what thou wilt’? Or was it simply the need for change? Whatever the reason, it started a popular culture image of the occult that would live on through the following decades within music, the film industry and fashion.
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