Reply to Sandy Robertson’s review of Aleister Crowley: Magick, Rock and Roll, and the Wickedest Man in the World

Sandy Robertson, author of The Aleister Crowley Scrapbook, has posted a review of my Aleister Crowley on amazon.co.uk. As I say in my reply, I have enjoyed reading Sandy’s book and refer to it in my own. After posting my reply, I thought I would post it here too, as it addresses some wider issues regarding the book’s reception in some circles. Readers should get the gist of Sandy’s criticisms from my reply.

I am glad that Sandy Robertson, whose Aleister Crowley Scrapbook I’ve enjoyed reading very much and which I refer to in my book, has taken time out to make some remarks about my book. Sadly, I have to disabuse him and readers of his review of what he considers glaring errors in the book. In the first place, I do not say that H.P. Lovecraft never mentioned that he heard of Crowley; I say that he doesn’t mention him in any of his stories. (There is a reference to an ‘English cult leader’ in ‘The Thing on the Doorstep’, but that is all.) There is, as I’m sure Sandy knows, a lot of rubbish written about Lovecraft and Crowley – including that Lovecraft’s wife, Sonia Greene, had an affair with Crowley – and it is easy to lose track of what is fact and what is interesting fiction. Also, the first use of the term ‘monster’ in regards to the alleged creature inhabiting Loch Ness does indeed date from 1933, in an article by Alex Campbell in the Inverness Courier for May 2. There is some argument that an account involving St. Colomba in the Sixth century is the first report of Nessie, but this is considered dubious by many researchers and is not accepted as an ‘official’ sighting. The term ‘underground magazine’ is very broad and can be applied to a wide range of publications, from the early issues of the Village Voice to short-lived fanzines; I do not see where my use of it in regard to Flexipop is a mistake. Others have pointed out similar so-called errors, such as my using ‘inaccurate’ online sources for some of Crowley’s works, but they have not shown where these references are mistaken, and at least one reader has done the homework and concluded that they were not.
The main issue for me is that some readers believe the book is only or centrally about music and the occult. It is not, nor does it say so on the tin. (Neither the word ‘music’ nor ‘occult’ appears on the cover.) The subtitle is ‘Magick, Rock and Roll, and The Wickedest Man in the World,’ and all three of those ingredients are amply evident; I even point out more than once that Crowley was not as wicked as the tabloids who pinned this sobriquet on him believed. One of the key questions I explore in the book is why Crowley remained a pop ‘icon’ – apologies for using a much abused and emptied-out term – long after other esoteric figures taken up by the 60s counter culture, like Jung and Madame Blavatsky, no longer were. The answer to that is that Crowley’s philosophy of excess – ‘excess in all directions’, as his friend Louis Wilkinson called it – is purpose built for rock and roll and the pop aesthetics that followed it. As far as I can tell, a handful of readers have seen this – Erik Davis, Maja D’aoust and I discussed it on their program Expanding Mind – but some ignore it, willfully or otherwise, I do not know. I came to Crowley through rock and roll – I write about my early reading of his work while a member of Blondie. The rock and roll ethos is a motif throughout the book, and in the last chapter I look at Crowley’s continued influence on contemporary rappers etc. So music is certainly in the book, but it is not the only thing in it.Sadly, with people like Crowley, who have a large and proprietary fan base, it is difficult to write critically but respectfully about them, without incurring the displeasure of those who believe they ‘own’ them. I have had the same experience with my books about Ouspensky, Steiner, Jung, Blavatsky, and Swedenborg. It would be gratifying if rather than point out where my take on these people disagrees with the received opinion – and anorakisly collecting bloopers to show that I don’t know what I’m talking about – such readers engaged with the critical questions and saw the lives of these remarkable characters as something to be understood, not championed. Likewise, for those who reject such figures outright, to revile their lives is profitless – and an unbiased reader of my book on Crowley will, I think, realize that I do not do this.
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7 Responses to “Reply to Sandy Robertson’s review of Aleister Crowley: Magick, Rock and Roll, and the Wickedest Man in the World”

  1. sandy robertson Says:

    Gary, I knew you were feisty when I attended a talk by you where you spent some time talking about bad reviews you’d had! In my career as a rock hack I tried to avoid arguments with those who hated my reviews as it rarely leads to any agreement, but what the hell…
    Despite the 666 in my email address I’m not a Crowley worshipper, I just collect books relating to and by him – I don’t have heroes, just people that fascinate me. Heroes let one down, I fear, so I’m definitely not in the camp criticising you because your book isn’t a hagiography.
    You say you didn’t claim HPL hadn’t mentioned AC, only that he doesn’t mention him in his fiction. Going back and reading the reference, I may be mistaken but it seems that may be what you wished to imply, but I can’t see where it says anything beyond that he didn’t mention him – and it would seem an odd point to make if your reason wasn’t to suggest that he was unaware of his existence. I accept this is a point that could be argued ad infinitum with no resolution, however. As to the Loch Ness monster; that is a common term for the thing and to say you only meant to say it was the actual word “monster” you were referring to when you said it wasn’t heard of until 1933 feels a wee bit disingenuous. Even if you don’t accept the sightings in ancient times – and ALL sightings are a matter of dispute anyway – I believe there are modern references pre-33, but if we’re only talking about the word “monster” well it’ll be a bit, ‘anoraky’, to use your term.
    As to saying that “underground magazine” is broad enough to include a mainstream kids pop glossy with free flexidiscs sold in newsagents, I leave it to others to decide.
    I certainly wasn’t the only one to think your book was to be mainly about AC and rock – but caveat emptor I guess. I suspect this debate will run on way beyond you and I. As I said, I’ve enjoyed your work in the past and hope to again. I guess the court of public opinion will decide whether there are factual errors or not. Onward and upward!

    • Hi Sandy, and many thanks for your response. As to HPL and Crowley, here’s the reference from the book: “Lovecraft was a confirmed materialist and although aware of the occult tradition – he mentions Eliphas Levi and theosophy in some stories – makes no mention of Crowley.” The reference to his fiction is clear, I think, and my point was the well-known one that there was no connection between the two, although many have labored hard to forge one. And yes HPL briefly speaks ill of AC in a letter. As to Nessie sightings pre-1933, as far as I can tell, all the accounts I’ve seen say that popular awareness of the ‘monster’ began that year, although, as I say above, there were earlier accounts which, however – again as far as I can tell – are not generally credited. One of the Crowley bios I read preparing for the book argues that Crowley claimed to be responsible for the monster, as he did for much else; I’m not sure when he made that claim or if he ever did. And I am not saying I only meant the term ‘monster’ was applied to Nessie in 1933. I’ve checked several sources and they all say the accepted sightings began that year. There were lots of dragons back in the old days and it is unclear if any of the so-called pre-1933 accounts were of Nessie in particular or dragons in general (this seems to be the case with St. Colomba). I do take your point about Flexipop though, and stand corrected. I came across references to it and somehow missed it was mainstream. Many thanks for pointing that out.

      I didn’t mean to suggest Crowley was a hero of yours or that your response to the book was shock horror because I am critical of the Beast, or that you are an anorak. Everybody makes mistakes and every writer wants and needs to be aware of them and I’m sure I’ll be hearing about many more soon enough. What I would like to see is a response to some of the critical questions I raise about Crowley. That is what really is important. Not from you in particular – I’m flattered enough that you bothered to say anything at all about the book – but from other readers. That is perhaps too much to ask. But what does often happen is that the critical questions are lost behind a flurry of error spotting. The book in fact isn’t a biography per se, but an examination of the rock and roll ‘libertarian’ ethos through the lens of Crowley’s life and ideas, both of which exemplify that ethos very concretely. Thanks again for taking the time to share your response with me.

      • sandy robertson Says:

        Thanks for the amiable reply! I know that people try to link HPL and AC with little or no justification – I’m not suggesting any connection. It just seemed that when you said he referred to Levi etc in stories, but made no mention of Crowley I thought you were saying in any written material. Re Nessie, I believe references pre-33 will always be debatable – as are they all.
        I realise you weren’t saying I was a slavish Crowley worshipper – I just wanted to make it clear that I ain’t as no doubt, as you say, many of that ilk will revile the book without engaging with your ideas.
        Peace be upon you!

      • And to you. Love and – well, you know the rest!

  2. […] Reply to Sandy Robertson’s review of Aleister Crowley: Magick, Rock and Roll, and the Wickedes… — Gary Lachman […]

  3. The axes of some of the negative reviews seemed to be repetitive, and some of them seem to have been from the same person. It must be hard for the individuals finding a biography of someone you think is a misunderstood genius point out the many shortcomings of their ideal.

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