The Magic and Mystery of David Bowie

(Excerpted from Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll, published by Tarcher/Penguin, 2014. Used with permission)

When a nineteen-year-old Cameron Crowe visited David Bowie for a Rolling Stone magazine interview in 1975, he found a coked-out Bowie lighting black candles to protect himself from unseen supernatural forces outside his window. Bowie had just finished filming The Man Who Fell to Earth with director Nicolas Roeg. It was a heady time for UFOs and alien encounters, and it was easy for Bowie to mold himself to the role. He had long before been singing about the existential dread of outer space and the descent of alien rock stars, but he was way ahead of the cultural consciousness.

When The Man Who Fell to Earth was released, current pop culture was being heavily invaded by cosmic entities. The number of books and TV specials on UFOs might very well have outnumbered actual sightings at that time. But by then, Bowie was channeling something more enchanting than ancient astronauts. He was mixing his science fiction with magic and cocaine. While the results would supply rock with an occult-jolt continuing the trend of transforming popular music, Bowie’s sanity would be the casualty. Luckily, the artist made it through mostly intact, but the legacy of that battle between the forces of magic and sanity would be the next phase in rock’s continuing occult transformation.

Bowie’s exploration of his consciousness by way of costume, drama, and an unstoppable creative drive showed musicians and audience once again that the music should never settle for any trend. The occult imagination made sure rock would never die, and Bowie injected it with the pure speedball to keep it awake, no matter the consequences.

While many of his lyrics drop references to various shades and types of occultism — often filtered through Nietzschean imagery, strange fascist ideology, and alien messiahs — the form in which this shaped rock culture is not as clear as Harrison’s use of the sitar driven by his devotion to Eastern mysticism, for example, or Page’s interest in magic adorning album covers and compounding the sinister vibe of Led Zeppelin’s music. It’s not enough to focus on Bowie’s mercurial interest in mysticism and other esoteric practices. Bowie’s role in this larger narrative is much more subtle, but in some ways the most far-reaching. In the history of rock, there is likely no truer magician than Bowie, as he has come to personify how magic works. As noted, in stage magic those in the audience allow themselves to be tricked, to be seduced by the illusion just as in ritual and ceremonial magic, where a similar phenomenon is at play and is an important effect in conducting the events and rituals within the context of a group, community, or fraternity. There is a shared often tacit language agreed upon by the group; its power evident in the way a neophyte will accept the language or other coded acts implicitly, such as when an apprentice Freemason is given the first handshake, or “grip,” and without hesitation accepts it as so.

Despite his dark occult interests and the almost tragic ending to a still-remarkable career, Bowie’s cosmic and magical personas lifted rock music on to a new stage. Bowie used glamour — both in the fashion and magical senses — to convert rock audiences into accepting a bisexual and binary sense of self. This was not simply the androgynous sexuality of someone like Jagger. Bowie’s sexual self is a method of transgression illuminating something universally and perhaps subconsciously human. Bowie was a cultural seer, not unlike Tiresias, the prophet in ancient Greek myth and theater who by punishment of the gods lived as a woman for seven years. Tiresias walks both worlds, both female and male, and through this wisdom is able to intuit the shape of things to come. Tiresias will appear in many Greek plays, often foretelling tragic endings, or as a follower of Dionysus in The Bacchae, prefiguring Pentheus’ own transgendered moment in acquiescence to the god.
Bowie outfitted his transgendered themes with what was cutting-edge fashion at the time — aliens, magic, and mysticism — but his tones were somewhat bleak. In the time between 1970 and 1975, there was an aura of troubled messianic and apocalyptic fervor. It was difficult to know if Bowie offered warnings or celebrations in his presentation and performance. As his drug use became more severe over time, he might not have known himself.

Bowie’s first album, the 1967 David Bowie, was a strange bit of British whimsy, a fluff piece of pure sugary pop with an obvious intent to reach top-40 recognition. Once he recast himself as cosmonaut with his second outing, Space Oddity, in 1969, Bowie began his ever-shifting transmutations, a living alchemical elixir becoming more potent and dangerous with every experiment. Music critics agreed that Space Oddity was unique. The opener is a song by the same name, an existential space journey in which the Major Tom finds himself untethered from both his rocket and reality, free-floating through the astral planes.

A writer for Disc and Music Echo swooned: “I listened spellbound throughout, panting to know the outcome of poor Major Tom and his trip into the outer hemisphere.” Here was a rock song in 1969 that looked from within the starry void down onto the closing of the decade with a melancholy detachment. The song “Memory of Free Festival” gives a generous nod to the music festivals of the 1960s, but the ultimate hope was not for the energized gathering of hippies. Salvation is otherworldly, and comes by way of “sun machines,” interplanetary starships piloted by Venusians. But hope was not everlasting.
The imagery of forbidden fruit would underpin his next album, The Man Who Sold the World, in 1970. Something was stirring in Bowie, a kind of eerie decadence, plainly seen in the UK cover version: Bowie lounges in a dress and leather boots on silk-draped couch, the floor in front of him littered with a deck of playing cards. The songs are heavyweight, some sounding like early heavy metal, and the themes are equally menacing and explicitly sexual. Bowie imagines himself being initiated into a forbidden sect offered salvation by way of musical Gnosticism: To know yourself you must cast aside the illusion of convention, freely eat what the serpent offers, but never be ashamed of the knowledge you find. Themes of superhuman masters haunt the entire album, but it’s unclear if Bowie imagines himself their equal or their pawn.

It’s on his 1971 album, Hunky Dory, Bowie’s fascination with magic becomes less opaque as he makes reference to things fairly well known by other seekers in the early seventies. Crowley gets his necessary nod on “Quicksand” — a downbeat song about a spiritual crisis. Bowie’s biographer Nicholas Pegg makes particular note of the song “Oh! You Pretty Things,” with its warning that “Homo sapiens have outgrown their use.” Pegg believes this is a nod to the writing of Edward Bulwer-Lytton. In his 1871 novel, The Coming Race, a man finds an entrance to the hollow earth where he discovers a ancient superpeople described as a “race akin to man’s, but infinitely stronger of form and grandeur of aspect” who use an energy called “vril” to perform wondrous feats such as controlling everything from the weather to emotions.

This delightfully strange story might have gone the way of other quaint nineteenth-century fantasies, but for Morning of the Magicians by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier, first published in France in 1960 and translated into English in 1963, which created a wave of esoteric speculation and occult conspiracy theories still being felt today. The authors were inspired by the writer Charles Hoy Fort, who, in the first decades of the twentieth century, used an inheritance to spend his time in the New York Public Library collecting stories and data from a wide range of sources, all of which suggests an underlying and connected web of paranormal and supernatural phenomena. Using Fort’s method, Pauwels and Bergier outlined a secret history in which important historical figures intuited their own role in shaping a cosmic destiny for mankind, aliens had visited mankind during the first days of Western civilization, and where alchemy and modern physics were not in opposition. The seventies also needed a messenger who could personify astronomical dreams and occult permutations, a figure of decadence and wisdom who could deliver a rock and roll testament to what it’s like to fall between the worlds. Only Bowie could imagine such a creature.

Bowie’s next release would create one of the most iconic and powerful rock personas and albums of all time: Ziggy Stardust. Forgive the hyperbole, but in what is the one of the greatest rock and roll albums of all time, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Bowie subverted the grandeur of space flight along with the wonder and excitement over the moon walk and turned the cosmos into a place of ominous mystery, where fallen alien messiahs would learn to play guitar. Bowie synthesized the spiritual hopes and fears of the seventies without ever resorting to New Age platitudes. Ziggy is not here to experiment on humans, he is here to experiment on himself, seeking forbidden knowledge in the urban wastes of earth.

In 1973, Rolling Stone arranged a meeting between the two poles of cultural transgression: William Burroughs and David Bowie. Burroughs occupied a central place in the underground pantheon. Both gay and a drug addict, he explored these aspects of himself through some of the most challenging and disturbing novels written in English. Bowie was his Gemini twin, a wrecker of mores who was reaping fame and fortune as the deranged but beautiful creature of pop music. Burroughs might have been looking for a way into the mainstream, and might have believed rubbing elbows with Bowie would get him closer.

During their talk, Bowie describes the full mythos behind Ziggy, describing a race of alien superbeings called the “infinites,” living black holes using Ziggy as a vessel to give themselves a form people could comprehend. Burroughs countered with his own vision to create an institute to help people achieve greater awareness so humanity will be ready when we make eventual contact with alien life forms.

Bowie’s fascination with alien Gnosticism gave way to a return to the decadent magic of Man Who Sold the World, particularly with the album Diamond Dogs, one of the most frightening albums of the 1970s. The warning of an imminent apocalypse in the song “Five Years” on Ziggy Stardust is realized in the dystopian urban wasteland where “fleas the size of rats sucked on rats the size of cats.” The only hope is in the drugs and the memory of love. The track “Sweet Thing” is a beautiful killer of a song, Bowie’s voice hitting the high notes as if desperate: “Will you see that I’m scared and I’m lonely?” Diamond Dogs might be a fictional vision, but the truth underlying it was Bowie’s increasing and prodigious cocaine use, and an even deeper curiosity with the occult. Supercharged by coke, a drug known for its side effect of throat-gripping paranoia, Bowie’s interest in magic could only turn ugly.

By the time Crowe met with him, Bowie was convinced he was cursed, possibly by Jimmy Page, and took to drawing Kabbalistic symbols on the floor of his studio. Crowe listened as Bowie talked lucidly about his music and then suddenly begin describing an apocalyptic future where rock’s pretense of evil and darkness would become reality and give Bowie a kind of dictatorial power: “I believe that rock & roll is dangerous. It could well bring about a very evil feeling in the West. I do want to rule the world.” While he didn’t mention it to Crowe at the time, Bowie believed his plans were being thwarted by witches set out to steal his semen (the substance needed to magically create a homunculus).

A few months later Bowie and his then-wife Angela Bowie bought a sprawling Art Deco house in LA. And in a perfect bit of nonfiction plotline, Bowie discovered that the previous owner, the dancer Gypsy Rose Lee, whose life inspired the musical Gypsy, had painted a hexagram on the floor of one of the rooms. Bowie fell apart, and began claiming the devil lived in the home’s pool. The only way to stay in the house would be to perform an exorcism, so Bowie gathered together all the necessary accoutrements, and he and Angela stood in front of the pool and performed their own private ritual. In a later interview, Angela claims that despite her disbelief in such things, she was witness to the water beginning to bubble and a stain appearing at the bottom of the pool. The exorcism wasn’t enough for Bowie; they moved out a few weeks later.

In a 2009 interview with his biographer Mark Spitz, Bowie revealed what cocaine was doing to his already occult-addled mind: “My psyche went through the roof, it just fractured into pieces. I was hallucinating 24 hours a day.” Bowie’s coke-stimulated interest in the occult was mostly concealed in his private life, but an astute listener can find a myriad of clues in his music. Occultism in the 1970s was concerned primarily with ideas of the devil. Culturally, one couldn’t escape his grip, even if it came by way of the family pet (Devil Dog: The Hound from Hell); the strange quiet child next door (The Omen); or the local motorcycle gang (Psychomania). But Bowie was able to bypass the devil for a more authentic and maybe even more dangerous kind of occultism. While Arthur Brown saw his musical performance as a form of shamanism, Bowie saw magic as a form of self-actualization, but guided by a commonly misunderstood notion of magical perfection.

The occult in the 1970s was also dominated by the resurgence of magic instruction manuals used by magicians to conjure demons and other unlikely allies in their search for knowledge of the divine. The genre became so popular, publishers began printing fictional tomes as if they were recently excavated ancient texts. Other books were intended to actually teach the public something about the art of magic.

The two most popular books on magic, Israel Regardie’s The Golden Dawn and Psychic Self- Defense by Dion Fortune, provided hands-on application in the context of the magical society, particularly the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, of which both authors were members. Regardie’s book was the first time the Golden Dawn rituals were made public in such as systematic way (he was accused by other members of “breaking his oath”), but the book itself is almost impossible to follow without knowing something firsthand about the order. The Golden Dawn offers both individual and group exercises, but it’s not unlike a book on trying to learn card tricks without knowing the maneuvers first: “Go to the West, make the Pentagram, and vibrate EHEIEH.”
What it does provide is a glimpse into the practice of magic not bound in the popular notion of Satanism or even witchcraft. The Golden Dawn is a book of nonfiction fantastic realism, igniting the occult imagination of the 1970s and providing the basis for the founding of a number of Golden Dawn–related groups still active. Fortune’s book, on the other hand, is much more pragmatic, offering cookbook wisdom, including how to ward off curses and magical attacks.

While Crowley certainly had his influence on Bowie, the mercurial singer smartly did not exploit him, or use his name to conjure an image of a black magician, as Ozzy Osbourne would later do in his 1980 song “Mr. Crowley.” Bowie was attracted to Crowley as a figure of Luciferian grace, in the sense described earlier, where Lucifer represents a kind of self-realized dandy, a Baudelaire-like poet who is not afraid to explore the more taboo aspects of sex, will, and intoxication. But this notion of a perfected spiritual man, an image Bowie had been playing with since “Oh! You Pretty Things,” was easily conflated with the idea of Aryan perfection. This formulation has long posed a problem in understanding the history of the occult.

Madame Blavatsky is often cited as the location where this tension first manifested. Her book The Secret Doctrine lays out a taxonomy of “root races,” an evolution of humanity’s spiritual destiny. The first of these is ethereal, without form, and the root races evolved over time. Blavatsky would provide pulp fantasy writers with a deep well to draw from with the next races, the Hyperboreans, Lemurians, and Atlanteans. The fifth root race is the Aryan, which Blavatsky claimed was the peak of humanity at that time. A sixth would rise above the Aryan, and then the seventh would see the final and perfect human being.

Gary Lachman, in his biography on Blavatsky, explains how race was a deeply important topic during Blavatsky’s time and while we might find some of her ideas to be troubling, they were part of a larger cultural milieu of the time. More disturbing, Lachman writes, is how racists used her ideas to further their own bigoted occult ideas. The Thule Society, for example, was a group of Germans — including Rudolf Hess — with decidedly anti-Semitic views who believed a racially pure people arose in the mythical land of Hyperborea.
The Thule Society would become the inspiration for an entire industry of books purporting that the Nazis sought occult power, believing they could create a perfect and deadly Aryan being. Pauwels and Bergier’s Morning of the Magicians was the first book to bring this to popular awareness, and their occult-Nazi link was replete with strange science and the quest for legendary objects imbued with great power. If not for Morning of the Magicians, it’s unlikely the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark would have sought the Biblical ark as a means to wield the power of God as a weapon. And while those villains meet their fate in no small part thanks to Indiana Jones, others would write the Nazis back into history with a romantic idealism.

Through a reading of Morning of the Magicians it would be easy to connect the dots from Lytton’s occult fantasy of hollow earth superhumans found on Hunky Dory to the Nazi-inflected ideas of homo superior. Bowie would find himself getting mired in this kind of thinking. The image of Nazi occultism offered a perfect storm of shock and awe for a rock spectacle and a persona both beautiful and deadly. All of these ideas would merge into the apocalyptic fervor, but because Bowie was such a brilliant artist, he could channel it into music.

In an interview with Arena in 1993, Bowie looked back on this time with regret. Bowie understood that, while made delusional by drugs, a yearning for God was the driving motivation behind all his occult dabbling. Bowie had become fascinated with the book The Spear of Destiny by Trevor Ravenscroft (you couldn’t make up a name this good), which claimed Hitler was obsessed with finding the spear a Roman soldier used to pierce Jesus during the crucifixion, a supposed artifact of deadly mystical power. This, along with the legend that Hitler was also looking for the Holy Grail (also later popularized by the third Indiana Jones movie, The Last Crusade), so captivated Bowie that he put aside the reality of the Nazi’s deeds to instead imagine them on some great holy quest. “And naively, politically,” Bowie said, “I didn’t even think about what they had done.”

Bowie’s self-destruction was in service to the fascist mythology of the palingenesis. In Bowie’s case it was his person, not a nation stripped of its preconceptions, desires, loves, and fears, becoming nothing more than a shell, and resurrected in perfection through a means of rigorous reprogramming. Bowie was not looking for a perfected inner self so much as a perfected outer self, his art an expression of his perfected will. There is no better means of carving up a persona than cocaine, and mixed with Kabbalah and racial occultism, Bowie couldn’t have picked a better formula. Fascism, for Bowie, was less about a political accent than it was about fashion.

All this evocation of various personas was heightened by Bowie’s uncanny sense of fashion that, even beyond his music, would stand out and inspire other musicians. In the press, Bowie would continue the construction and deconstruction of his character, as when he told a reporter for NME he was not a musician, but an artist using music as his means of expression. With statements like this, Bowie intended to keep himself apart from the pure rock persona to better establish himself as the next character he might inhabit. In the same interview, Bowie also wanted to stand clear of being lumped in with someone like Alice Cooper. Bowie admitted to a kind of theatricality, but he eschewed the use of props or sets, claiming he was the “vehicle” for his songs. This also meant that when he was ready to move on to the next thing, he wasn’t saddled by the production itself, as when during the final show of his Ziggy tour with his band the Spiders from Mars, Bowie returned to the stage for his encore and introduced the song “Rock and Roll Suicide” by telling the audience it was the last time the Spiders would play together. His bandmates were just as shocked as the fans.

Bowie once commented that Marc Bolan was “Glam 1.0”and without Bolan’s all-too-brief tenure leading the band called T. Rex (Bolan died in 1977, weeks before his thirtieth birthday), Bowie would not have known which stage door to walk through. Bolan had transformed himself from hippie troubadour — a minstrel with a vibrato voice who sang about fairy tales and magic spells — into a glamorous and decadent rock star, trading in his paisley for high-heeled boots and sequined jackets. But he retained a mystic aura, particularly in the steamy androgyny he brought to his performances.
Fans of his earlier band Tyrannosaurus Rex called him a sellout, and music critics saw his glam pretensions as just that, a cynical showmanship devoid of any real artistic merit. But Bolan found a generation ready to embrace glam’s mix of old and new, simple pop stripped of psychedelic extravagance but dressed up in cosmic finery. Glam would provide a template for a new kind of occult imagining, one where the rock star was merely a cover-up for a secret identity–alien or monster.

Brian DePalma found glam, as well as the entire culture of rock, to be ripe for a horror parody in his film Phantom of the Paradise, a movie that could only be made in 1974. Swan, a record executive played by Paul Williams (who also wrote the film’s music), sells his soul for eternal life and acts as the devil’s agent, soliciting others to sign away their own souls in return for record contracts. Swan discovers the musician Winslow Leach and believes his music will be the perfect backdrop for his new rock club. Swan frames him, and Leach is put through all terrible manner of tortures, including pulling his teeth and replacing them with metal, and having his face burned by a record-pressing machine. He takes to wearing a mask and black cape, haunting the nightclub, enacting his revenge on those who destroyed him.

Rock culture would continue to utilize the concept of secret identities hidden behind masks and makeup. Mercyful Fate would make its mark on the 1980s with occult and satanic imagery buoyed by a fairly generic metal sound. Their lead singer King Diamond gave the band its power. King Diamond was said to be a devotee of Anton LaVey’s brand of Satanism, and he took to painting his face white like the bastard love child of Alice Cooper and Kiss. He often wore a top hat and funereal morning suit, and would perform holding some bones; sometimes these were tied together to form a cross attached to his microphone. These elements signaled to rock audiences that the musician was a messenger for arcane secrets, delivered in the language of rock.

Marilyn Manson followed Bowie’s template, as each one of his albums presented a new persona, but he maintained the overall Alice Cooper School of Makeup program. In 1998, Manson told Kerrang! that Bowie was a crucial influence, particularly on his album Mechanical Animals, whose cover the article’s author notes looks uncannily like Aladdin Sane. Bowie had a clearly traceable effect on popular music, but his overarching influence was more subtle. So many of his constructed personalities paralleled his real life in the 1970s, each of them depicting desperate spiritual seekers, looking toward both inner space and outer space for spiritual sustenance. But as much as Bowie was a conduit for the decade’s excess, he was also a mirror.

The last song on Diamond Dogs is “Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family,” and it mimics a lock groove on an album, when the needle gets stuck and repeats the same groove over and over. It’s a frightening bit of macabre whimsy but musically is the perfect metaphor for the risky nature of occult pursuits. More so than exaggerated and often false rumors of devil worship, the true dark side of the occult is the ever-circling loop of meaning.

Because the occult is not a system, but rather a messy accumulation of bits of tradition, synthetic beliefs, and even pure fictions in the service of commercialism, there is no final word, no final wisdom. And even for some, it becomes the ruthlessness of seeking signs, where everyday things begin to take on occult connotations, each one a reference to some deeper meaning, which again only points to another possible inference. What makes Bowie the great magician is even as his psyche fractured under the strain of this self-imposed mission, he was able to cause “change to occur in conformity with the will.” Bowie’s personas were rarely that of a magus. Instead, they were rather otherworldly characters from beyond space and time: Major Tom, the space oddity whose voyage into outer space reveals an inner loneliness within an opiated dream; Ziggy Stardust, a messianic figure not unlike Valentine Michael Smith from Robert Heinlein’s counterculture science fiction classic Stranger in a Strange Land; the futuristic glam visage of Aladdin Sane; and the grotesque hybrid dog creature prowling an apocalyptic landscape of Diamond Dogs.

With Station to Station in 1976, Bowie emerged as the Thin White Duke; a character most critics agree was a husk, the burnt-out shell of a man who had tried to touch the sun. Everything but the glamour had been burned away. The song “Station to Station” is a harrowing admission of an occult obsession fueled by drugs. The quest for divine truth turns into a Sisyphean task: “Got to keep searching/ . . . Oh what will I be believing.” Bowie makes direct references to the Kabbalah, turning over and over the hope that keeps slipping away: “One magical movement from Kether to Malkuth” that he insists is not just “the side-effects of the cocaine.”

This is an occult image to be sure, the destitute and craven lich-king, a necromancer whose soul was the last thing to be sacrificed in the search for secret knowledge. But there is also something romantic about this image of the decadent magician. He’s a Faust-like character inhabiting a gothic landscape, like those imagined in the German Expressionist motifs depicted in F. W. Murnau’s 1926 film of the fabled scholar who sells his soul to the devil in search of hidden knowledge.

Peter Bebergal writes widely on the speculative and slightly fringe. His essays and reviews have appeared in NewYorker.com,The Times Literary Supplement, Boing Boing, The Believer, and The Quietus. He is the author of 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).