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Rock’n'roll as spontaneous Paganism: Mick Farren on Nick Cave, Elvis and the Devil
02.22.2013
06:29 am

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Occult

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Nick Cave
Mick Farren
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Guest post by the great Mick Farren—an exclusive extract from his contribution to Mark Goodall’s Gathering of the Tribe: Music and Heavy Conscious Creation, a collection of essays on music and the occult, featuring contributions on The Fall, The Beatles, The Wu Tang Clan and more. Now available in paperback for the special price of $20.77.

Even the most cursory theological (or even Reichian) shakedown will reveal that rock’n’roll has quantum multiples of the potential mythic/mystic power ever commanded by conventional Satanism. Where so much of contemporary Satanism—with its upside down crosses, modified but still liturgical robes and rituals, its ammended litanies, the serving of a faux-Eucharist from the naked torso of an immobilized cooch dancer on bad acid (shout out, hey, Susan Atkins!)—reveals it as nothing nothing more than an inverted critique of Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. (Much in the way that Marxism was essentially a critique of Victorian capitalism rather than a stand alone philosophy.)

Rock’n’roll, on the other hand, arrived on its own mythical half-shell and right away went about its own anarchic rites and wild communions. Jim Morrison, although decidedly from the death-star dark-side, and a fully accredited Agent of Chaos knew he didn’t need any contracts with Beelzebub. He was the Lizard King. He could do anything. The only deal he’d cut would be with Dionysius. John Lennon had stood in the power-eye of the rock’n’roll hurricane and knew what he was talking about when he made his famous “the Beatles are bigger than Jesus” remark.(That is, oddly, rarely quoted in full.)

Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I’m right and I’ll be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first—rock’n’roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.

A full decade before Lennon and Morrison, however, some of the preachers who railed against rock’n’roll showed an awareness this brand new back-beat-from-the-pit might not be an instrument of Satan at all but a whole new independent threat to the god-fearing. In April of 1956. Lutheran minister W. Carter Merbreier attended an Elvis Presley show in Philadelphia where he observed “nervous, giggling girls screaming, falling to their knees as if in prayer, flopping limply over seats, stretching rigidly, wriggling in a supreme effort of ecstasy.” A few months later Des Moines Baptist, the Rev. Carl Elgena, warned his congregation that “Elvis Presley is morally insane and leading other young people to the same end. The belief of unholy pleasure has sent the morals of our nation down to rock bottom and the crowning addition to this day’s corruption is Elvis Presleyism.”

The concept “Elvis Presleyism” brings us to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ album The Firstborn is Dead. In the opening song, “Tupelo”—a radical reworking of a John Lee Hooker classic—Cave makes the vividly dramatic suggestion that the birth of Elvis Presley, coupled with the death of stillborn twin, Jesse Garon, was the product of a supernatural, of not apocalyptic, event horizon.

The black rain come down
Water water everywhere
Where no bird can fly no fish can swim
Where no bird can fly no fish can swim
No fish can swim
Til The King is born in Tupelo!

Cave wrote ‘Tupelo’ in 1984, seven years after Presley’s death, when it was plain that many of Elvis Presley’s more obsessive fans maintained a personal relationship with their idol that was wholly akin to born-again Christians professing to have an exclusive one-on-one with Jesus. When the Reverends Merbreier and Elgena hinted, way back in 1956, that Elvis might be the dangerous pied piper of some form of neo-paganism, they had the protection of the pulpit. For a lay person to explore such a concept would have been to court accusations of being certifiably crazy or worse. Who in their right mind could seriously suggest that the Son of Gladys might be—in addition to all his other accomplishments—a 20th century fertility symbol inately desired by a frightened world, maybe even before the mushroom clouds had fully dissipated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

Humanity had developed the chain-reaction capacity for global-scale species-destruction, but had failed to evolve a philosophy to handle such hideous and overwhelming power. Couple that with plans for cookie-cutter totalitarian capitalism in one hemisphere with mirror-image Marxist repression in the other, plus new and tricky concepts like consumer uniformity and the pharmaceutical-brainwash tyranny of the psycho-civilized society (a major favorite of Sidney Gottlieb and the gang at MKULTRA), and a great many people—especially young people—wondered if they’d be better off back in the jungle for some animalism among the Old Gods.

Could the Elvis, the hillbilly cat, also be a Avalon mist-figure from an Arthurian Lord-of-the-Dance saga, or the myths of wounded Fisher Kings that stretched clear back to the megaliths of prehistory — and were so seriously and ironically invoked when Constantine and St. Augustine were mixing up Jesus Christ with Mithras to create the official deity of the Roman War Machine? Elvis the Fertility God may have also found himself cross fertilized by the horned and phallic, dark Legba divinities of Dahomey with their human sacrifices and Amazon girl soldiers, but, hell, isn’t that the just story of rock’n’roll?

If the pop culture of the mid-20th century was indeed a neo-pagan theocracy on the half shell, Marilyn Monroe could well have been drafted in as goddess-consort—although that might well cause a measure of temporal confusion that perhaps Jack Kennedy was the true Boy King from Camelot who actually took the hit. This would leave Elvis—who, by 1963, had been shorn and symbolically grunt-castrated as a conscript in what had formerly been George Patton’s Second Armored Division (Hell On Wheels)—as a much more esoteric entity.

But did anyone promise theology would be fast? Religions do not coagulate overnight. Christianity has had two full millenia on the game, plenty of time to work out its tortures, terrors, inquisitions, witchhunts, and multiple varieties of auto-da-fé. Rock—should it really prove to be a pagan belief system, or, more likely, a suspension of disbelief—has only been rolling for a tad over half a century, and, although it has exerted a profound effect on the culture of the times, its behaviour has been remarkably benign. It has provoked a number of peaceful mass gatherings, a few riots, only a very modest number of actual death cults, and made something of a junkie mess of the war in Vietnam.

Rock’n’roll has yet to pull any kind shit that stacks up against the Crusades or the Malleus Maleficarum. Although the second decade of the 21st century is hardly a halcyon time for paganism of any kind, and Evangelical Christianity—in the USA at least—is being allowed to get away with wholly unreasonable acts of fundamental stupidity. Route 66 runs now through a cruelly synched Bible Belt, and bands I don’t even care to name sell holy relics of what was once truly sacred. Perhaps some minor reformation might be about due, although the time is hardly ripe for burning corporate rock bands or even Simon Cowell in the cathedral square. At best we might reflect on Nick Cave and his speculations on what wonders might have attended the birth of Elvis Presley on January 8th, 1935, and wonder where they may take us.

In a clap-board shack with a roof of tin
Where the rain came down and leaked within
A young mother frozen on a concrete floor
With a bottle and a box and a cradle of straw

And Robert Johnson? Well hell, maybe he was taking about a wholly different devil.

The King will walk on Tupelo!
Tupelo-o-o! O Tupelo!
He carried the burden outa Tupelo!
Tupelo-o-o! Hey Tupelo! [Repeat]
You will reap just what you sow

Mick Farren

Previously on Dangerous Minds: Punk Esotericism: The Occult Roots of the Wu Tang Clan
 

Posted by Thomas McGrath

 

 

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