An interview: the Bowery, the Beast, and Me
Here is an interview I did with Kembrew McLeod of Iowa’s Little Village magazine. Kembrew edited this into an article, which you can find here. I took some trouble to answer his questions and felt that my replies warranted a life beyond the cutting room floor, as it were, and so here they are.
Q: Many accounts of Crowley (whether by his true believers or fearful fundamentalists) overlook his humor. What role did humor and irony play in his public life and writings?
A: Crowley did have a peculiar sense of humor. He is often funny, but very often getting his jokes requires familiarity with his predilections and obsessions, such as Kabbalah and the ideas associated with his Book of the Law. His Book of Lies is a collection of short pieces – essays and aphorisms, some only a line or two – in which he plays several games with the reader. But unless you have some insight into Crowley’s psyche and his work, the majority of these will escape you. In my book I say they are less accessible than Zen koans. His less intellectual humor emerged in his fondness for practical jokes. He liked serving his guests incredibly hot curries and watching them sweat. He went to immense lengths to trick a mountaineering acquaintance into thinking he had shot a haggis, a non-existent animal. That kind of thing. He is too often too clever for his own good, as when his remarks about child sacrifice in Magick in Theory and Practice – really about his ejaculations – were taken seriously.
Q: Despite Crowley’s irreverence, he wasn’t simply a prankster or a con artist, for he approached his magick quite seriously. How did this mixture of seriousness and irreverence contribute to misunderstandings of him?
A: As I say, he was too often too clever, and too eager to show the British reading public what fools they were. So he is inclined to add some facetious remark to a serious discussion about some arcane point, just to have a chance to show the conventional nitwits up. Sadly, for my taste it often makes it difficult to take him seriously, mostly because he didn’t himself. It’s an itch to maintain his superiority which more often than not winds up presenting him as clever schoolboy.
Q: Following up on the previous question, what lessons can we learn from the sort of tensions and play of opposites that Crowley often traded in?
A: Don’t overdo it and don’t indulge your high opinion of yourself too much.
Q: The last chapter of your new book provides numerous examples of Crowley’s appearances within 1960s and 1970s pop culture. What do you think is most significant popular culture appearance that helped inject him into the consciousness of the counterculture during that time?
A: It would have to be his appearance on the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s album. After that he got the counter culture’s imprimatur. A few months after Sgt. Pepper’s a full page profile of him ran in the UK underground newspaper International Times. After that, the Stones got into him. The rest is history, which you can read about in my book.
Q: Also, what aspects of Crowley’s public persona and writings were appealing to rock artists and the counterculture?
A: There was a full scale occult revival in the 1960s, which informed practically all of popular culture. I write about it in Turn Off Your Mind. There was also a remarkable blend of influences and currents, outside the ‘mainstream’, that came together for a brief period then: ‘revolutions’ in sex, society, drugs, a marketable youth culture, and so on. So you have the occult revival informing the radical politics of the late 60s, with Kenneth Anger and Allen Ginsberg trying to exorcise and levitate the Pentagon during the October 1967 anti-war march. Crowley in particular was picked up by the counter culture and later rockers because of his supersized lifestyle, his philosophy of “excess in all directions,” as his friend Louis Wilkinson called it. That was tailored made for rock and roll. Some people played around with magic for a while, like Jagger, but most dropped it by the early 70s, except for those in the specific ‘roccult’ genre that started with Black Sabbath and so on.
Q: You discussed this in the intro to your new book, and in New York Rocker, but for the purposes of this interview could you briefly recount the origins of the song “(I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence Dear”? And could you provide a specific example of what you meant by you and Lisa “sharing dreams” or a telepathic connection?
A: I wrote “(I’m Always Touched by Your) Presence, Dear” after Lisa and I discovered that we were having the same dreams. While I was on tour we would know when each one was going to call , and we would find out that we were both thinking of the same kind of thing at the same time, even though many miles away… that sort of thing, which is not unusual with couples.
Q: You wrote that Chris Stein and Debbie Harry had a “kitschy” interest in the occult. What did you mean by that? How was the reception of occult ideas different in, say, mid-1970s downtown New York versus the context of the 1960s counterculture?
A: Debbie and Chris had occult bric-a-brac around their flat and it also covered the walls when we were living on the Bowery. By kitschy I mean they weren’t really into it, they just liked the aesthetic. It was probably more Chris than Debbie – he and I shared some interests, like horror films and comic books. He was keen on voodoo and pentagrams; actually, he was kind of a Goth in the beginning, wearing eye liner and silver skulls. That sort of thing was also a leftover from the previous generation. They were both older than me and had been involved in that; I just watched it on television. There was a lot of cultural debris from the 60s strewn around. But it really wasn’t part of the music. The atmosphere in NYC then was more poète maudit, Rimbaud and Baudelaire, darker and more fin-de-siècle although of course both Baudelaire and Rimbaud were into the occult themselves – I write about this in A Dark Muse.
Q: How does your experience as an author compare to that of being a musician?
A: I work harder as a writer than I ever did as a musician, even including touring. You have to get up and confront a blank space every day, and transform its nothingness into a somethingness. It demands a different kind of concentration and effort. Before writing songs I wrote poetry – none of it has survived, I’m happy to say – but the two are very similar in the sense that they depend on inspiration. You walk around, you try to get in the mood, and you wait for the muse to turn up. I can’t wait to be inspired now – I have to meet deadlines – and I’ve learned that two or three hours forcing myself to write can usually do the trick. Also, you can say a lot more in a book, especially about ideas, which is what I write about. You do get to wear better clothes as a musician though.
Q: Your first book was Turn Off Your Mind, and since then you have written several books over the past decade. You had previously written short pieces for periodicals, but what led you to be such a prolific author of books?
A: I have a lot to say, I guess. But, yes, I wrote quite a bit of journalism for magazines before writing my first book, Turn Off Your Mind, which came out in 2001. One answer is sheer ego. I couldn’t consider myself a ‘real’ writer until I produced a book. And when I got the contract for Turn Off Your Mind, the publisher also asked me to do a book about Blondie, CBGB and all that. So New York Rocker: My Life in the Blank Generation was my second book. It is unlike any of my others. The voice is very different. Odd to say, it is a memoir, but the voice really isn’t my writer’s voice – that is too urbane and philosophical, ahem, for rock and roll. I had to become another person, re-invent myself as they say, in order to become a writer; this meant outgrowing Gary Valentine. Writing New York Rocker was a way of doing that. I said to myself: “How do you write this kind of book?” And almost at the same time as getting asked to do New York Rocker, a publisher I had approached with an idea some time before finally got back to me and said they wanted to do it. A Secret History of Consciousness came out in 2003. This is the first of the type of books I’ve been writing since then. So yes, I’ve done 16 books in about a decade, with a lot of journalism and occasional writing too. And I’m about to start a new book this month. It’s the only way I know how to make a living, and even that is being optimistic.
Q: I grew up in Virginia Beach, home to Pat Robertson and Edgar Cayce (my parents met in that town in the 1960s because of their interest in Cayce). As a result, I grew up to be skeptical of both Christian fundamentalist beliefs and more mystical ideas. It’s clear from reading your book that, while you certainly do take much of what Crowley claimed with a grain of salt, you feel that he did have magical abilities. Can you explain to me — a skeptic who nevertheless is willing to keep an open mind — what your understanding of magic is, and how it works in the world?
A: My basic belief is that our consciousness is much more powerful than we know and that in some strange way, it can interact with the outside world. One example of this is what Jung calls synchronicities, those weird ‘meaningful coincidences’. I’ve had enough of these over the years to accept that they are real, although I don’t think anyone’s come up with a convincing explanation for how they happen. But they do and they show that the outside world and our inside one often run parallel. In the book I say that Crowley had a knack for magic, but that he didn’t know how he did it. He even says that the best magic is done unconsciously, just as a perfect shot in billiards is. We are capable of it and sometimes we do it, but we don’t know how we do it. It has something to do, I believe, with focusing our consciousness in the right way, with concentration, but not the kind that has us huffing and puffing and furrowing our brow. Swedenborg speaks of a ‘passive potency’, a kind of calm alertness, in which the conscious and unconscious mind work together. Our conscious mind is only a part of ourselves. A very important part, but it is connected to something larger and deeper. We’ve lost touch with this but can connect with it on occasion – I feel it when I am writing well, a sense that everything is going perfectly and the ideas and words are flowing. Crowley had some sense of this, and even says that the real key to magic is awakening our inner genius, which is how he spoke of the unconscious. He knew that if he threw himself into the unconscious, more times than not his genius would produce something, although he couldn’t always say what. After my initial interest in magic and Crowley I moved away from it and became more interested in focusing on consciousness itself, without all the clutter. That to me is the important thing.