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PostPosted: 07 Oct 2010, 09:45 
Grand Poobah
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Joined: 18 Sep 2007, 11:26
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Interview with Christopher Knowles
Christopher Knowles, author of “Our Gods Wear Spandex: The Secret History of Comic Book Heroes”, proposes in his newly released book “The Secret History of Rock ‘n’ Roll” that rock n’ roll concerts and dance clubs are our modern mystery religions, and the performers are fulfilling ancient archetypal roles as gods and goddesses incarnate. Since this is a subject that I have a keen interest in, and one that I think many Pagan music-lovers might also be interested in, I decided that an interview was in order to discuss, archetypes, the birth of rock, Mystery religions, and being a fan of The Cure.

Christopher Knowles
As you point out in the book, making the connection (whether metaphorical or literal) between rock-n-roll with paganism and mystery religions isn’t new; some writers, like Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton, even postulated that the modern DJ is like the shaman of some ancient tribal societies. What led you down the path of making this connection? Was there a particular inspiration?

Living it. I got involved with the Boston hardcore punk scene in the early 80s and it was every bit a mystery cult. It was a secret society of outcasts who had their own very specific initiations, language and symbol system. In the book I liken hardcore to the violent Mithraic cults of the Imperial Roman era, which had a very absolutist view of the world. And seeing a lot of bands from that era who had a very powerful shamanic aura about them- the Clash and the Bad Brains both come to mind. Both bands drew inspiration from Reggae and an esoteric variety of Apocalyptic spirituality- as well as from hallucinogens. Marijuana, in this case.

Christianity, or at least certain forms of Christianity, don’t come across very well in your narrative. Do you think there’s something in that religion’s DNA that fights against the “memetic currents” that you explore in your book? Also, do you think that any religious movement that tries to bottle or bury the Mysteries is doomed to fail, creating the very thing it wants to suppress through its own oppression?

Oh, I have no beef with Christianity itself. My greatest disappointment in life is that Christianity as I understood it growing up is dead. My beef is with the Church Militant, the reductive and eliminationist aspect of Fundamentalism. That’s a symptom of an intense lack of faith- and crippling doubt. To me Christianity is kind of a distillation of the Mysteries, certainly the Isis cults of Rome had almost identical liturgies and very similar theologies, strangely enough. It was all about death and resurrection, forgiveness of sins, atonement. Unfortunately the Church is over-ridden with spiritual cancer- and a lot of it comes from this need to literalize the faith. That to me is a source of so much misery in the world, though most people don’t realize it. And it certainly was in the late Roman era, when pagans and Gnostics and heterodox Christians most of all were being slaughtered in the streets.

You make the birth of rock seem like the last great product of classical paganism. A child with many parents (Yoruba, pre-Christian Celtic faiths, Masonry, and mysticism) that took hundreds of years to gestate. So in the end, were all those anti-rock preachers right? That rock-n-roll is “pagan” music?

Well, so is Gospel music and Pentecostalism, which is the only Christianity that will exist a hundred years from now. If you read descriptions of Azusa Street revival which I cover in the book it’s the same thing as the Mysteries or the Yoruba practices. It all springs from the same place in the end- the same deep spiritual and emotional source. The differences- these labels- are really nothing but political constructs. Excuses to kill your neighbors and steal their women and property, to put it bluntly.

You place various bands and musicians into the categories of Mystery archetype they embody. Apollo, Dionysis, Demeter/Eleusinian, Galloi, Isis, etc. Do you think that being a fan of these bands, of engaging with them on a deep level, replaces what the Mystery religions once transmitted/provided to the people?

Well, the thing is that this is all an unconscious process. These basic needs exist, these impulses need to be dealt with. Two thousand years ago they did it in the context of Mystery religion, today it’s done in a secular setting. In some ways it’s an evolutionary process. You have to remember that the old gods never went away- look at the Renaissance or the Neoclassical era. They have a funny habit of showing up when they’re needed, but now in the context of art. Jung would argue that’s ultimately a better place for them to express themselves, since you get all of that archetypal power without worrying about having your crops blessed or whatever.

Does my enduring love and fandom of The Cure translate into some sort of Orphic yearning or experience?

The Cure are really good at indulging that Orphic power, but at the same time they also have that sunny Apollonian energy as well. When you really study the Mysteries you see how intertwined it all it is- Orpheus was the first to promote the worship of Apollo as the sun god. The Cure also have that androgyny thing working, which came after Smith played with the Banshees, so you have that Attis/Galloi thing going as well. But by the same token Orpheus was pretty androgynous himself.

What do you think of some the modern Pagan and occult-oriented bands that are more consciously tapping into these archetypes and traditions? Did you do much research into this area for your book, which generally sticks to the more popular/mainstream bands/artists?

I’m not sure if consciously trying to revive these traditions in a literal way is the way to go in a band. The best vessels for these archetypes usually do it naturally and unconsciously, but when you dig into the history you realize that it ends up more like the original version than someone doing so intentionally. You really have to surrender yourself to these things and let them speak through you the way they want to. Trust the muses, trust the unconscious- don’t try to impose some overarching idea on music. Music is the master and everything needs to be subordinate to that.

Your book ends on a hopeful, yet uncertain, note about where music is going in the future, and if it is still tapping into the same vital archetypes it once did at rock’s height. Do think that in a time when modern Paganism, mysticism, and occult practices are more popular than ever, and less persecuted, the role of rock as an (often unwitting) vehicle for the ancient mysteries has served its purpose?

No, because I think rock music is an extremely powerful way of putting across these very ancient energies and archetypes- this raw experience. I’ve been at concerts where I’ve left my body, I’ve been at concerts where I forgot who I was and where I was, I’ve been at concerts where that pure cartharsis hit me like a freight train. And part of the reason is that it was about the pure experience, not about a liturgy or a banishing ritual or something like that. Meaning I wasn’t imposing some kind of narrative on it, I was surrendering to its power. I haven’t experienced that kind of transcendence at a concert in quite a while, which is one of the reasons I wrote the book. The last time I really had that kind of transcendent experience at a concert was seeing Joe Strummer in New York right after 9/11.

In addition to your book, there’s a recently published British book by Rob Young, “Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music”, that explores the “esoteric impulses” of Britain’s ever-renewing folk scene. Do you think that the phenomenon you describe within rock repeats and renews itself in different genres and styles as they are co-opted and exploited by commercial/corporate interests?

Well, maybe not now with the recording industry focused on the real lowest-common-denominator pop shit. I don’t think the industry cares about rock music anymore, I don’t think they have the patience for it. They want a parade of puppets – mannequins, really- who’ll do exactly what they’re told and sing what’s handed to them by the producers. Rock musicians are too difficult to deal with, and the industry figures rock fans will just download the music anyway. The concert end still very much cares about rock, since the top-grossing concert acts are usually rock bands. Which is kind of interesting in the context of that experience thing. And it has to be said most of what is called country is just 70s rock with a twang, really.

You’ve tackled Pagan and occult archetypes in comic books, and now music, what’s next for you? Is this a subject that you think you’ll continue to explore for years to come, or are you nearing the end of what you wanted to say concerning these religious/spiritual/occult trends?

Oh no, I still have a lot more to say on all of this. My real passion is sci-fi so I still need to rewrite this enormous manuscript on sci-fi movies I wrote. I also have some screenplay ideas kicking around, including one that kind of puts all of this into practice- the narrative and the mystical elements.

Finally, where do you stand personally on all this? Do you consider yourself a Pagan? An initiate to the Mysteries? Something else?

Yeah, I consider myself a Gnostic, essentially. In the truest sense, not in any kind of sectarian or dogmatic context. Knowledge is my path, putting all of the pieces together. What you see on the blog and in these books is my practice. This is what I do. Symbolism and synchronicity are my tools, as well as really using the Internet as the Gnostic sacrament it was created to be. It’s a life of standing outside in many ways, but that’s the card I’ve been dealt.

Chloride and Sodium: Two terribly dangerous substances that taste great together!

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