Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Cats and Dying

Perhaps the first sign that we are growing older is not when our parents or friends begin to pass away, but when our pets do.  Over the last five years I've had a dozen friends lose pets, and most of those pets were as familiar to me as my friends are.  It's impossible to separate the "pet" from the "person" sometimes, people become as intertwined with their pets as they do with a partner, perhaps even more so.

(I have a list of friends that I will forever associate with their pets.  Amy/Steel, Karin/Popper, Lisa/Pablo Diablo, Angie/Voodoo, Donigan/Bella, Sara/Crow, Mike/Loki, Teresa & Eddie/Their Loki, Jeff/Zeus, and the list could go on for quite awhile.  For some of these people I think of their pets first, and their significant others second.)   

This hit home early this morning when my brother Chuck's cat, Lizzie, passed away.  Lizzie lived to be 16 and a half years old, which I think is about 102 in cat years, and she passed away quickly and in my brother's arms.  In some ways, it's the "best way" for an animal companion to leave this world, but that's cold comfort, and doesn't really ease the pain all that much.  Lizzie wasn't my cat, but her loss has had me on the verge of tears for the last twelve hours, as I grieve for her and most especially, the hole in my brother's heart.   

Lizzie, we will miss you.   
 Lizzie was a strange cat, and had a personality all her own.  She loved to hunt Ari and I's socks while we were sleeping, sometimes carting off as many four or five a night into my brother's room.  While "hunting" our socks she'd sometimes growl like she was preparing to take down a squirrel.  Just to paint a complete picture, she didn't just hunt socks either.  I've seen her take down a bird, especially impressive for a de-clawed cat.  She was also devoted to my brother, and would follow him anywhere in the house(s) we shared together for over ten years.  Lizzie (or Elizabeth Chinacat Sunflower to share her whole name) was as complex as any human being I've ever met, and while I often found her cantankerous, she also had a sweet side that most of Chuck and I's friends never got to see.  Through her long life she retained her adorable little kitten face, and remained a tiny little cat, by the time she was "old" she still liked she might have been two years sold.  

Me and Princess.
Two and a half years ago I lost my own cat, Princess, and while Princess and Lizzie were never friends (Princess once guarded the litter box so Lizzie couldn't use it, she was Siamese), I think Lizzie realized my grief.  About a month after Princess had passed on, I remember Lizzie moving into my lap, and sitting there for a good long time, letting me pet her.  It had been the first time I'd petted a cat in what felt like an eternity, and it was something she never really did for anyone but my brother.  While Lizzie was often people shy, she had a kindness and empathy missing in a lot of human beings.  There's a reason our cats have Christmas Stockings, they are a part of our family, and as much a part of our life as any friend or family member.  

(Lizzie also had a strange split personality on occasion.  One summer afternoon she sat in my lap and let me pet her.  Shortly there after she was purring, but at the same time she began to howl and growl at me.  She was the only cat that could be perfectly content and yet completely pissed off at the same time.  As weird as it was, it's one of the many reasons I loved that cat.  That was some exceptional, and memorable, behavior.)  

A lot of the pain I have over the loss of Lizzie is that I can't be there for my brother.  I think our society often has this skewed perception that when an animal passes it goes into the ground and that people immediately move on.  Such is not the case.  Losing a pet is like losing any loved one, and the grieving process can be long and painful.  If the average relationship with a cat or dog lasts ten to fifteen years . . . well that's longer than most friendships and most romantic relationships.  Pets are often the most constant things in our lives, until we have children, and even then a bond with a pet might be one that's not shared with a significant other as a bond with a child might be.

On the positive side my brother and I got to share a lot of things with our cats over the course of their long lives.  Chuck and Lizzie got to watch his Lakers and Red Wings win about ten championships between them (sports matter in my family), and see his Chicago Bears make the Super Bowl, and the Cubs come closer to a World Series than they have in 100 years.  They also got to share several moves around the country, and see my brother completely pull his life together and go back to school.  I'm not sure he could have done that last thing without Lizzie there to share his life and apartment.

(Princess and I got to share two Steeler Super Bowl wins, a Penguins Stanley Cup, and a Celtics NBA title.  The Penguin win came just about two weeks before she passed.  I remember running up the stairs after the Stanley Cup dancing around with her, so glad that she got to "see" this thing that she didn't even know existed.  Yes, I'm weird.  A week later Princess wandered through a group of my friends getting goodbye pettings, and then shortly passed on.)  

I remember losing Princess and the pain that entailed.  I think I cried more over my cat of twelve years (she was six when I got her, she had a long run) than I ever have over any other living thing.  Thirty months removed from the experience I'm still bothered by it.  Religion offers us some solace over those loses, but it's not as therapeutic as many of us would like.  I remember having day dreams a few months after Princess passed on about a tiny kitten meowing on my door step, her face and paws black, her coat tan, a reincarnated little baby come back to me.  Unfortunately, the Wheel doesn't quite turn like that, and that day dream was just that a daydream, however the world does work in unexpected ways.

Evie the meercat.
Nine months after Princess passed I was approached by a friend about a cat that needed immediate adopting.  With a very unclear head (I had just burned myself something awful that morning at work and had a few big blisters) I agreed to adopt this cat sight unseen, without giving my wife a chance to object or any say in the matter (she had vetoed me getting a new cat).   Just like that Evie (short for Evening), came into my life.  While I was hoping for a Princess replacement, I got a far more complex cat who is nothing like my old companion.  Evie has a sweetness about her, and such a gentle nature, nothing like my old demanding Siamese.  But she's also not a lap cat, and only likes to be petted on her own terms.  She also doesn't meow, she makes weird trilling noises and howls that make her sound like she's being tortured.

Sisters-Summer and Evie.   
This past June my wife and I adopted another cat, and since it was on the Summer Solstice, we named her Summer.  Summer is high-strung, demanding, and revels in bossing Evie around.  She also loves Ari's lap, and laying in cuddle puddle's with her sister.  A new cat doesn't get rid of the scar caused by the loss of another animal companion, but it does reflect the continual turning of the Wheel and our Journey in this world.

I came across Princess' stocking last week while putting up the holiday decorations.  The wound was still fresh and it hurt, but I did take some joy in knowing how many years we were able to spend together.  Both Lizzie and Princess had good, long lives, spent with people who love them.  If you are a cat I'm guessing you can't ask for much more than that.

Summer, house guardian.  
The loss of a pet is never easy, and should never be trivialized.  While Lizzie has now passed on, she will live on.  She will live on in our memories, and in our hearts.  Every time I think of my brother I will inevitably think of his cat, and nothing is ever truly gone as long as it's not forgotten.  

Monday, November 28, 2011

Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, or Blessed Yule-Whatever Floats Your Boat.

For years, perhaps decades, my favorite time of year was "The Holidays."  As a kid, Christmas was my favorite holiday, and my favorite day of the year.  Yes, I liked getting things, but I also loved spending time at my grandparents house, and feeling my family close to me.  Christmas was always this weird mix of exhaustion, anticipation, exhilaration, closeness, and quite contemplation so that it appealed to about every emotion I had as a kid.

While I was absolutely in love with Christmas:  the traditions, the decorations, the food, the TV specials, I always felt it was about more than just one day or just one religion.  Even when I was young I knew that ancient pagans celebrated Yule (yay!), and that Hanukkah was being celebrated at nearby households.  Instead of being bothered by those other holidays* I embraced them, with the thought that there's something truly special about sharing feelings of peace and love with nearly everyone.  I've always believed that the shared characteristics of Midwinter holidays outnumbered the differences, and that light, snowflakes, and giving were universals, and that "The Holidays" could be something that united everybody.

Even at a young age I knew that Hanukkah wasn't always on Christmas, and that "Yule" was a few days before, but I always them imagined running into each other, and since everything was closed on Christmas, maybe there was "carry over" for those of other faiths.  Happy Holidays meant New Year's too, so everyone got a chance to celebrate something over the course of about fifteen days.  I've always been "all about the party," and the more parties the better.  I'll celebrate your thing if you'll celebrate mine, and since they use the same decorations, even better!

When I was in the fifth grade I probably listened to that song above about one hundred times.  The idea that "364 days in the year they fuss and feud and fight.  364 days in the year who cares who's wrong or right . . .and then suddenly it changed, how very very strange, suddenly they see the light . . "  Perhaps inspired by the Christmas Truce of 1914 during World War One, I lived my first fifteen years on Earth with the belief that people didn't fight on Christmas, or even about Christmas.  It wasn't even so much about Jesus either, it was just the idea that for one day each year that we should all be able to forgive one another, and spend an entire day with the ones we love with none of the outside world intruding.  Even in my early twenties I had trouble believing that there could be negativity involved with The Holidays.  Of course that's changed, and not just because I've grown more cynical.

I know that the modern Christmas has always been about "selling stuff," but it's also turned into a cultural battlefield, more about dividing people than bringing them together.  Check out this facebook meme I stumbled into over the weekend:

    "WHAT A CROCK!! ..... We can't say Merry Christmas now? We have to say Happy Holidays? We can't call it a Christmas tree, it's now called a Holiday tree? Because it might offend someone. If you don't like our "Customs" and it offends you so much then LEAVE.. I will help you pack. They are called customs and we have our traditions If you agree with this...please post this as your status!! IT'S MY FREEDOM TO SAY MERRY CHRISTMAS! Do you have what it takes to repost this?"

Yes, the federal government has been taken over by atheists and will monitor all the discussions in your home. If you use the phrase "Merry Christmas" you will immediately be sent to a re-education camp in rural Iowa.  I'm sure that the person who originally wrote the turd above was upset that their local Macy's ran a banner with the words "Happy Holidays" on it, but how did that hurt their free speech?  If a local business wants to use the phrase "Happy Holidays" and you object to that, aren't you tramping on their right to free speech?

The phrase "Happy Holidays" has been around since at least 1942, when the move "Holiday Inn" premiered.  It's not some new thing that appeared out of the ether in the mid-90's.  (To be completely honest, the song was originally called "Happy Holiday" and was sung on New Year's Eve in the film.  The song does reference Santa, and the "Holiday Season" making it inclusive.)  When I was young Chicago's WGN Superstation used to run a commercial featuring Bozo and their newscasters set to "Happy Holidays"which ran the entire month of December and the first few days of January.  Loved that!  It made the greeting about the season, and all the holidays, and captured that inclusive feeling that I still cherish.

While Pagans aren't quite so misinformed about the definition of "free speech" there are many Pagans who get upset by the phrase "Merry Christmas."  Yes, it does reference "Christ" (from the Greek "christos" which means "anointed one") but I think we all know how much Jesus there is in Christmas-a few scattered nativity scenes, and a long soliloquy by Linus in A Charlie Brown Christmas, and after that the "Christ in Christmas" becomes more of a private or only shared at church sort of thing.  As it's a federal holiday I've always found it difficult not to celebrate Christmas, even as a Pagan.  If I don't unwrap presents that day, what else am I going to do?  It's not like I can really go anywhere.

As long as someone is wishing me "Merry Christmas" with the very best of intentions, it's hard to get angry with them for saying it.  Sure, if someone sends you a Christmas Card with "Keep the Christ in Christmas" while knowing your religious beliefs, they are being disrespectful and it's fine to be a little angry.  However, if they say it while unaware of your religious perspective, there's no need to have a teaching moment.  The Holiday Season shouldn't be a mind-field where everyone is forced to tiptoe around certain words.  Most of us get Christmas presents regardless of what we believe, it's a custom not so much born out of religion (pagan or Christian) but by the media and advertising.

As a Pagan I've always been able to strike a balance between Christmas and Yule (Midwinter, the Solstice).  One of those holidays is about the turning of the wheel, and the rebirth of the sun.  It's a religious or spiritual observance, and as such, it's an internal thing, how those reflections make me feel is personal thing.  It's something that can be put into words, but the majority of people don't come up to me and ask "What are you reflecting on this Yuletide?"  While I can spend Yule with people, what makes it special is something that goes on inside of my head and heart.  The hope I have for the world and those around me is something I dwell on more at Yule now than on December 25th.

Christmas on the other hand is a secular gift-giving holiday.  It's an excuse for parties throughout December and it's a family obligation.  I'm not sure I could ever tell my Dad, "Hey I'm not coming over this year because I don't celebrate Christmas, you can have my piece of the Turducken."  It's not like the Old Man has ever held my hand and led me in prayer that day.  Hell, my grandparents didn't do that either, nor did they send me to bed with visions of mangers and shepherds.  The holiday was about giving and peace, and spending time with the ones you love.  If it was about Jesus to any of them, they put Jesus where he should be, inside their hearts, and the religious aspect was internalized.  Instead of bitching about the "War on Christmas" people like Bill O'Reilly would be better off reflecting on what it means to them.

*Remember, Jason was a right-wing Christian in his formative years, though even then he had a love of heavy metal.  

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


Like most American holidays, Thanksgiving is part myth, and part truth.  It's true that the Puritans who landed at Plymouth Rock had some sort of harvest celebration in the fall of 1621, it's far less likely that they called it "Thanksgiving."  A "Thanksgiving' in the Puritan sense was a somber day of church hymns and religious observance.  Whatever happened in 1621, it was probably a fun day (or week), with beer and cider, lots of food, games, and general merriment.

When I see Pagans hesitate to celebrate Thanksgiving I shake my head in general puzzlement.  Thanksgiving is essentially a Harvest Celebration, and most closely resembles harvest festivals in rural England.  While I could be totally off-base, to me, harvest celebrations are essentially Pagan.  At a harvest fest you celebrate the bounty of the earth.  You can "give thanks" to whatever deity you want for that bounty, but harvest celebrations have got to be some of the oldest rituals in the history of humanity, they certainly pre-date Yahweh and Christianity.

There are some Christian overtones to Thanksgiving, it's hard to overlook the Pilgrims, but the Pilgrims of Thanksgiving are more myth than truth.  In school we were always led to believe that the Pilgrims were noble religious nomads, who were looking for "religious freedom."  Of course "religious freedom" to a Puritan meant "Religious freedom for Puritans, not for anyone else," but why do I have to give a shit about the truth?  Why can't I celebrate the myth for one day, and reflect on religious freedom?

Thanksgiving is a holiday about the myth.  It's a holiday about seeing America for what we want it to be, not what it always is.  Yes, there were Native Americans at the Harvest Home celebration in 1621, but the Pilgrims and Wampanoag Tribe weren't really friends, they were more like reluctant allies.  The Thanksgiving myth urges us to overcome our differences, and celebrate our shared commonalities.  I know that Native American and Pilgrim children probably didn't run around Plymouth together like best friends (despite fifth grade film strips telling me they did); but wouldn't it be great if they had?  There were probably no handshakes in 1621, but the idea that there were, and that Pilgrims and Wampanoags saw the world as something to share* is a heartening one.

I don't want to anyone out there to think that I'm in favor of ignoring history.  I'm not a fan of the Puritans, and I'm still sickened by European and American atrocities committed against Native Americans (the big ones being treating them as fourth class citizens, stealing from them, lying to them, the killing, etc.)  But to me, "The Pilgrims" are more like Santa Claus than real historical figures, they've been romanticized so much that most of the "real" has been taken out of them.  I'm all about myth if it can teach a truth, and the truth is that we overcome racism and cultural differences and celebrate our shared heritage together.  That's a lot of what we were led to believe Thanksgiving is about when we were young.  

Despite the rather dubious origins of Thanksgiving, I'm going to celebrate it with gusto this year.  I have good friends coming over, and there's a twenty pound turkey already in the fridge just waiting to be roasted.  Like I do on most holidays, I'm going to ignore the total truth of the day and focus on what we want that holiday to be.  I'm going to toast America and continue to hope that we will all one day live up to the noble ideas that inspire us all.  I'm going to celebrate my friends, my life, the blessings I've received, my beautiful wife, my two kitties, and of course football.**

Happy Thanksgiving.  

*The Wampanoag Tribe probably did see land as something to share.  Private ownership of property was a concept they didn't totally understand.  

**Thanksgiving Day Football Predictor 2011:
Lions  38     Packers 30
Cowboys  24  Dolphins 17
49'ers 31   Ravens 28

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Most Influential People in the Rebirth of Paganism and Witchcraft.

She's not on the list,
but I think we dated.
Over coffee with a friend a few weeks ago the subject of "Most Influential Pagans" came up, and I thought that would make a great subject for a post here on DPT.  Originally I was going to try and come up with a "Top Ten" list, but that was far too daunting.  I couldn't decide on numbers 6-10, and in my brain there was a tie for the fourth spot, so I decided that  a "Top 3" list would probably be the way to go.  I didn't totally crap out on putting together a big list though, I listed a bunch of "runners up" and the pros and cons of each.

For those of you who read my blog who aren't Pagans, you still might find this list interesting.  Paganism is one of the fastest growing religions in the United States, and the people who have contributed to it are pretty fascinating.  A few of the people on this list did not practice Witchcraft or any other Pagan Path, and some of them would have been surprised to hear themselves referred to as Pagans.  What was important to my list, was gathering up individuals who have contributed to the development of Modern Paganism as a whole, which is why there are some non-Pagan folk.

I don't expect everyone in the world to agree with my "Top 3," but that's the point of lists; they are designed to attract controversy, and to get people to argue and disagree.  This list has a very strong "Wiccan" slant, which isn't really fair when coming up with a "Pagan" list, but since Wicca is the largest Pagan subset, it shouldn't come as a huge surprise.  This list is limited to individuals who were/are most active in the 20th Century up until the present.  I had to draw the line somewhere, I already ended up with more people on my list than  I had anticipated (every time I thought I was done, I realized I had slighted someone else I thought was important).  Enjoy!

American Runners-Up

Carl Weschcke
President of Llewellyn
Who is he?:  Carl Weschcke, owner and President of Llewellyn Worldwide (formerly Llewellyn Publications).

Why he's on this list:  He's the President of Llewellyn, duh.  Love 'em or hate'em, it's impossible to deny the influence Llewellyn has had on Modern Paganism.  You might not be proud of it, but you've got some stuff on your bookshelf with that crescent moon on the spine.  Llewellyn has introduced more people to Modern Paganism than any other publisher, and done so through well edited books.  He also published the first Book of Shadows back in the 1970's.

Why he's not higher:  He's the President of Llewellyn.

Margot Adler
Who is she?:  That's Margot Adler, NPR Correspondent and author of Drawing Down the Moon

Why she's on this list:  I want to just scream "She's Margot Adler!" but that's probably not good enough.  For several decades DDtM was one of the five "go to" books on Modern Paganism, and the first real, honest survey of Pagan practices in the United States.  While DDtM is a bit dated today, it's still a fascinating history book detailing where we've come from.

Why she's not higher:  Though a gifted writer, Adler chose to focus on other things, she's only written three books.

Teen Witch Mother-
Silver Ravenwolf

Who is she?:  Silver Ravenwolf, author of Teen Witch and To Ride a Silver Broomstick

Why she's on this list:  I'm going to take some heat for this one, but there are a lot of people in the Modern Craft who came to it through Silver Ravenwolf.  For much of the past two decades she's been the most popular Pagan author on the planet.  As much as I dislike some of her books, there's no denying that she's an extremely talented writer.  I still like To Ride a Silver Broomstick.

Why she's not higher:  Two words:  Teen Witch.

Scott Cunningham

Who is he?:  Scott Cunningham, author of Wicca:  A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner  

Why he's on this list:  Cunningham might have been the most popular Pagan writer of the 80's and early 90's, right as Paganism was moving more into the mainstream and becoming more popular.  There's an entire generation that grew up reading and recommending Wicca:  A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner.  His "Cunningham's Guide To _____" series of books are still must have reference material.  Though Scott left us in 1993, his books still loom large in many a Pagan library.

Why he's not higher:  Cunningham never became much of a media presence.

Victor Anderson
Who is he?:  Victor Anderson founder of the Feri Tradition

Why he's on this list:  Victor (along with his wife Cora) popularized the Feri Tradition.  Not familiar with the Feri Tradition?  You aren't alone, but you've been exposed to it whether you know it or not.  Some of the most influential Pagans of the last forty years come from the Feri Tradition, people like Starhawk, T. Thorn Coyle, and Gwydion Pennderwen.  Feri is also an inescapable presence in California.

Why he's not higher:  There's no "eclectic Feri tradition" and the tradition its self has a limited presence outside of the Bay Area (when compared with other traditions).  Also, the Andersons never published much, just a few collections of Victor's poetry.

Druid Extrodinaire
Issac Bonewits

Who is he?:  Isaac Bonewits author of Real Magic and founder of  Ár nDraíocht Féin, the world's largest Contemporary Druid Organization.

Why he's on this list:  There's about a hundred reasons to put him on this list, from his bachelor of arts degree in Magic from Berkeley (seriously) to his founding of ADF, to his intelligent and scholarly approach to magick and Paganism, Bonewits has had an influence on almost every aspect of Modern American Neo-Paganism (and he coined Neo-Paganism).  Issac passed from this world in August of 2010.

Why he's not higher:  Revered on the Pagan lecture circuit, Bonewits's scholarly approach kept him from attaining the success of a Silver Ravenwolf.  

Oberon Zell-Ravenheart
(Joking about the Dumbledore thing)
Who is he?:   Dumbledore  Oberon Zell-Ravenheart founder of the Church of All Worlds and publisher of The Green Egg magazine.

Why he's on this list:  One of the first people to realize that magicians, Wiccans, Witches, Druids, and Heathens had a lot in common and were all "Pagans" was Oberon.  He popularized the word Pagan as an umbrella term for a very diverse group of people.  With his wife Morning Glory he helped to define the concept and practice of polyamory, and before the internet his magazine The Green Egg provided a world-wide forum for Pagans to speak their minds.  Due to the power of The Green Egg (read by many leaders in the community), his Church of All Worlds had a huge influence on American Paganism.

Why he's not higher on this list:  Until recently, Zell did not have much of a literary presence.  In the age of the internet the importance of The Egg has been overlooked by some.

British Runners Up
    Perhaps due to geography (I am an American after all) my list of British Runners Up is a bit smaller, however, the Brits make up for it all in the top spots.

Robert Cochrane

Who is he:  Robert Cochrane, the inspiration behind the 1734 Tradition and the founder of Clan of Tubal Cain.

Why he's on this list:  Cochrane was one of the first people to come forward with a Witch tradition somewhat different than what was first written about by Gerald Gardner.  Peers described his rituals as high energy, and he took Witchcraft out of the parlor and back outside into nature.  After a falling out with Gardner, he coined the term "Gardnerian" as a derogatory term for Gardner's version of Witchcraft.  Correspondences with American Joe Wilson led to the establishment of the 1734 Tradition.

Why he's not higher:  Cochrane alienated many of his followers and committed suicide in 1966, he also did not leave much in the way of a literary legacy.

Dion Fortune
Who is she?:  Violet Firth, better know by her pen name of Dion Fortune, who wrote the books The Sea Priestess and Moon Magic, founded the Fraternity of the Inner Light.

Why she's on this list:  Biographers of Fortune disagree about whether or not she was even Pagan (as we understand it today), but her novels, especially The Sea Priestess (published in 1938) were hugely influential in the development of Modern Witchcraft.  Her novel The Goat Foot God, about the Greek God Pan, helped establish the Horned God as "the god" in the Modern Craft.  She was also an accomplished magician and is still influential in magickal circles today.  One of the first women to have a major influence on both magick and Paganism.

Why she's not higher:  By the end of her life Fortune had become a mystical Christian, and was never officially a part of any explicitly Pagan tradition.

Who is he:  Raymond Buckland, author and pioneer.

Why he's on this list:  Buckland was the first Gardnerian Wicca initiate to practice and initiate in the United States.  His book The Tree, was one of the first "do it yourself" Witchcraft books in the world, with complete rituals, a rarity in the early 1970's.  Buckland's Complete Book of Witchcraft (or Big Blue) is one of the most well known Witchcraft guides in existence.  Buckland has also appeared in numerous television shows, and is a successful writer of fiction.  He's also a remarkably nice guy.

Why he's not higher:  I'm not a big fan of "Saxon Witchcraft." 

Alex Sanders  
Who is he?:  Alex Sanders, founder of the Alexandrian Tradition.

Why he's on this list:  During the late 60's and into the 1970's Sanders was the most public (and in some cases) notorious Witch in Great Britain.  Sanders appeared in numerous television documentaries and even released a record "A Witch is Born."  While his title "King of the Witches" was self-proclaimed, he did initiate many important Witches, most notably Janet and Stewart Farrar who went on to popularize many of Sanders' teachings.  Sanders also helped to create a more tolerant Wicca having come out as a gay man late in life.

Why he's not higher:  Sanders was not a writer, and his quest for attention and knack for burning bridges alienated him from many in the Pagan Community.

The Grand Lady of the Craft
Doreen Valiente
Who is she?:  Doreen Valiente, author and liturgist, one of the Mothers of Modern Witchcraft.

Why she's on this list:  Even if you've never read a book by Valiente, you've read her words.  Much of the ritual used by Modern Witches was composed and arranged by Valiente.  While she didn't write all of The Charge of the Goddess her selective use of material and knack for pacing produced what became the definitive version.  During the 1970's and 80's her books on Paganism were widely read and hugely influential.  Much of what's in Modern Wicca would sound very different if not for the influence of Valiente.

Why she's not higher:  Geez, not everyone can be in my top three.

Uncle Al
Aleister Crowley

Who is he?: 
 Aleister Crowley, the most influential practitioner of magick in the 20th Century.  He was also a poet, writer, mountain climber, and degenerate (said with love).

Why he's on this list:  The better question is probably why he's not higher on my list.  Much of Crowley's poetry and other writings has worked it's way into Wiccan Ritual.  His approach to magick borders on definitive and continues to influence.  Crowley founded the rather Pagan religion of Thelema and wrote the majority of the rituals in the OTO, both groups which influenced Modern Witchcraft.

Why he's not higher:  Much of his approach to magick was a refining of earlier ideas, and he's fourth or fifth on my list, geez, that's pretty good.   

My Three Most Influential People in  the Development of Modern Paganism


Who is she:  Activist and writer Starhawk.

Why she's on this list:  While Starhawk might not have been the first person to infuse Modern Paganism with an activist streak, she's been the most high profile.  She also helped to turn Witchcraft into a religion that promotes female self-empowerment.  She was also the first person to publicize many of the teachings and practices of the Feri Tradition.  She might also be the most gifted writer to ever pen a "Pagan How To" book.  I'm kind of surprised she ended up here too, but the more I think about it, the more I've become comfortable with it.  Starhawk has changed Modern Paganism.

Why she's not higher:  Well she didn't start it.

Margaret Murray
Who is she?:  Margaret Murray, Egyptologist and author of The Witch-Cult in Western Europe.

Why she's on this list:  The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1923) was not the first book to suggest that the Western European witch hunts of the Middle Ages were an organized attempt to destroy a native European pagan religion, but it was the most influential.  In Witch-Cult, Murray turned Witchcraft into a sympathetic tradition, and paved the way for people wanting to be identified as Witches.  Her works also put the words esbat and coven into the English lexicon.  Her second book on Witchcraft, The God of the Witches, helped establish the Horned God as a major Wiccan deity.

Why she's not higher:  Her works paved the way for Modern Witchcraft, but they didn't include a Goddess, and most of her theories have been discarded by modern scholars.  However her influence on Modern Paganism remains enormous.

Gerald Gardner
One day people will be building
statues of this guy, seriously.

Who is he:  Gerald Gardner, the first public modern Witch.

Why he's on this list:  Gardner was the first person in Britain to publicly call himself a Witch, and to call Witchcraft a religion.  From the early 50's until his death in the early 60's he was the most famous Witch in Great Britain, perhaps the world.  His books, Witchcraft Today and The Meaning of Witchcraft were the first two books to present Witchcraft as a valid faith.  There are also some scholars who claim "he made the whole thing up," and while I disagree, there's little doubt that many of the rituals found in the Modern Craft were written or influenced by Gardner.

Why he's number one:  Gardner-inspired Witchcraft is the dominant form of Witchcraft in the Western World, and by extension the most dominant form of Western Paganism.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Led Zeppelin and the Occult

(This is an old piece, and is basically excerpts from a workshop I do on the topic.  In honor of Led Zeppelin IV's fortieth anniversary I thought it was worth putting on DPT.  I'm sure there are all sorts of typos in it, I had to rescue it from from the depths of my hard-drive, but I was in a hurry to put it up.  There's also an article on my website about Led Zeppelin and Tarot which you can access by clicking here.  Happy 40th Stairway!!  For musings on the greatness of Zep's fourth album click here.)

Led Zeppelin and the Occult

    I’ve always loved rock and roll, but I never thought I’d get involved with it in any tangible way.  A few years ago I was kicking around ideas for summer workshops and came up with the idea that something on Led Zeppelin and the occult might be fun, for me.  I never thought anyone else would care about it.  A few months later I’m at the Starwood festival with almost 100 people under a tiny little canopy, cranking up the Zeppelin and talking about Aleister Crowely.  It was amazing.  Couple the Zeppelin talks with Morrison Rituals, and all of a sudden I’ve cornered the market on Pagan rock and roll presentations.
    This whole Led Zeppelin and the Occult thing is really important to me because the Zep was my gateway into Paganism.  Jimmy Page's fascination with Aleister Crowley led me to want to know more about Crowley, and forced me to get over the stereotype that anyone who is not a Christian is a Satanist.  Robert Plant's interest in Celtic Mythology opened the door into the world of modern Witchcraft, the ancient Druids, and a whole mess of bad Llewellyn books.  Led Zeppelin laid the groundwork for my walk with the Goddess and God, and I have a feeling that I'm not alone.  The response I get when talking about Zeppelin is confirmation of that, as is you reading this!
    I was 17 when I got serious about listening to Led Zeppelin.  The year was 1990 and Atlantic Records had just released the four disc “Led Zeppelin Boxset” that fall.  As a heavy metal fan I knew that I had to have it, but I didn't really know why.  Of course I was familiar with Led Zeppelin, who hasn't heard “Rock'n'Roll” “Black Dog” “Whole Lotta Love,” and of course “Stairway to Heaven?,” but the Zeppelin catalog is so much deeper than what classic rock radio would have you believe.  
    Over the next few months I lost myself in the Zeppelin, by May of that year I had become a fanatic.  
For a period of time in college I tried to convince my friends that my nickname should be “Led,” that's how bad (or sick) my Zeppelin jones was (anyone catch that pun?), oh who am I kidding, is.  As I've grown older I've found new things to appreciate about the band, and because modern rock music basically blows serious chunks, Zeppelin has become popular again, almost hip.  So popular in fact that Zeppelin clothes are easier to find now than they were ten years ago.
    The pseudo-goth-punk rock mall chain Hot Topic said in 2006 that their best selling t-shirt ever was a Led Zeppelin one.  The particular shirt in question was nothing all that special, just the Swan Song Record label logo  (that was Zeppelin’s vanity label for the uninitiated) and some lettering that read “North American Tour 1977, ” but to many that logo was a mystery.  Now that little falling angel logo has never been much of a mystery to me, it’s just a picture of Apollo adapted from the painting “Evening:  Fall of Day” by William Rimmer.  Contrary to a few published reports, it’s not Lucifer, its not even Icarus, but that’s what makes Zeppelin so much fun, a hidden promise of the sinister cloaked behind English blues rock.

Led Zeppelin and the Blues 

    Zeppelin was a blues band, and the influence of the blues is all over their music, but it goes farther than that.  The legends of Led Zeppelin are also built around the myths of the blues.  One of the oldest blues myths is that of the crossroads, you know the one, where young bluesmen go to make a deal with the devil at the crossroads in order to obtain mastery of their craft (usually the guitar).  Jimmy Page was said to have led Led Zeppelin (perhaps minus bass player John Paul Jones) in that very rite back in 1968.  Music has always been associated with Satan, and it's not surprising that the blues became associated with Jack Scratch.
    However in the case of the blues, some of this story might very well be true.  One old bluesman summed up the crossroads experience like this:
       If you want to learn how to make songs yourself, you take your guitar and you go to where the road crosses that way, where a crossroads is. Get there, be sure to get there just a little 'fore 12 that night so you know you'll be there. You have your guitar and be playing a piece there by yourself...A big black man will walk up there and take your guitar and he'll tune it. And then he'll play a piece and hand it back to you. That's the way I learned to play anything I want."
   Myths such as the one above were popular in the South in African-American communities; mostly because magic was still a part of people's daily lives back then.  The practice of Hoodoo was common, and accepted.  Hoodoo is a magickal system that originated in Africa, and grew deep roots in the American South.  It's not a religion, but some of the spells in Hoodoo call upon Christian deities, and some spells pay homage to ancient African deities.  (Have I offended most modern practitioners of Hoodoo with that definition?  It's a complex thing to define, but hoodoo is not voodoo, it's a rural kitchen Witchcraft.)
    There are dozens of interviews with people who have claimed to make a deal at the crossroads, and many of those interviewed about the subject offered detailed explanations on just how they sold their souls.  Methods vary, and some involved animal sacrifices, but the version I gave you above is probably the most common.
    It's important to note one thing about the devil and the crossroads myth, the terms “Devil” or “Satan” rarely, if ever, come up.  The buyer of the soul is more likely to be referred to as “The Big Black Man” or as a black animal of some sort, most commonly a dog.  This has led to speculation that the crossroads myth is African in origin, and that the deity being petitioned is an African one.  The most common name I've heard in conjunction with the crossroads tail is Egba (or Eshu, or a dozen other spellings) or Pomba Gira.  Egba is said to guard the crossroads and teach wisdom.  So perhaps somebody was tuning those guitars that launched the blues upon the world, just not who we thought it was.
The man most associated with the crossroads blues legend was Robert Johnson, who was a virtual unknown when he died back in 1938.  It wasn't until twenty-five years after his death that Robert Johnson would attain lasting fame and immortality.  When the blues craze hit Great Britain in the early 1960's, Johnson's record label decided to cash in and put out a quick compilation called “King of the Delta Blues Singers.”  While the title sounded impressive, Robert Johnson was never the king of the delta blues singers, though his music was damned good.
    The circumstances surrounding Johnson's death in 1938 were murky, and his untimely death at the age of 27 kicked up all kinds of crazy rumors about the man selling his soul to the devil.  The record label played up the myths too, knowing that controversy was good for record sales.  For the record there was a Johnson who was said to have sold his soul to the devil back in Robert Johnson’s time, but his name was Tommy Johnson, and his music didn't influence Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page the way Robert's did.
    While Robert Johnson didn't sell his soul to the devil, there is still a lot of references to hoodoo in it, which I think are worth checking out.  The song “Hellhound on my Trail” features more than lyrics about Johnson’s impending doom, he also sings about Hot Foot Powder:
                 You sprinkled hot foot powder mmmm
                 mmm around my door
                 all around my door
                You sprinkled hot foot powder
                all around your daddy's door
Hotfoot Powder was said to rid people of bad neighbors, and cause ex-lovers to roam the world alone and unsatisfied.  Not quite the devil, but at least it’s a bit a magickal.   
    In  “Little Queen of Spades” Johnson sings about a woman wearing a mojo bag, which is a small bag used to carry magical items.  Originally it was thought that mojo was a corruption of the English word magic, but it's more likely that the word has origins in West Africa and is a corruption of “mojuba” which means prayer.  A mojo bag is a prayer bag, or a portable spell you can carry with you.
The mojo bag features again in the song “Come On In My Kitchen” (arguably Johnson's finest song), only this time he refers to it as a “nation sack.”  The lyrics relate the bag's magickal properties:
                 ah she's gone
                I know she won't come back again
               I've taken the last nickel
               out of her nation sack
It’s bad hoodoo to take something out of one’s mojo bag . . .  The linear notes to “Robert Johnson the Complete Recordings” state that a nation sack is "a small pouch worn around the neck in which keepsakes and valuables are kept” but that’s utter nonsense, and was obviously written by someone not familiar with hoodoo.
    There are several other Johnson songs with references to the Crossroads and the Devil, but they don't have the occult significance of the songs and lyrics outlined here.  Some of them have nothing to do with what you think they do.  “Crossroad Blues” is just about moving along, and not about any pacts with the devil.
    So what's the point of spending so much time on Robert Johnson?  Well, he was a big influence on the Zeppelin, and his lyrics can be heard on songs like “The Lemon Song,” “Traveling Riverside Blues,” and “Trampled Underfoot.”  More importantly, his popularity reintroduced the crossroads myth to the modern world, and much like Johnson, Zeppelin too was said to have sold their souls to the devil.

Jimmy Page and Aleister Crowley
"My interest in the occult started when I was 15. I do not worship the devil but Magick does intrigue me. Magick of all kinds. I read "Magick in Theory and Practice" when I was about 11 years old but it wasn't for some years that I understood what it was all about."   -Jimmy Page
    Led Zeppelin's connection to the occult really begins with Jimmy Page, and he makes no effort to hide it.  Pagey's interviews are filled with references to True Will, Aleister Crowley, and magick.  It's been said that he is a member of the O.T.O., but I can't verify it.  (When I finish the Zeppelin workshop someone will always walk up to me and say “Hi, I'm with the O.T.O., and Jimmy Page is definitely a member.”  Five minutes later someone will walk up to me and say “Hi, I'm with the O.T.O., and Jimmy Page is definitely not a member.”  For those not in the know, the O.T.O. is a magickal order, which uses a lot of material from English magician Aleister Crowley.  If you aren’t familiar with Crowley, go look him up on line before reading any further.)  It's obvious that the occult is more than just a passing fancy for Page though, and as recently as 2005 he’s been photographed wearing an O.T.O. t-shirt. 
Page has been a fan of Aleister Crowley since his youth, and as an adult went so far as to buy Crowley's old house at Loch Ness (Boleskine manner).  The house its self is said to be haunted, according to legend a church full of parishioners burned down on the spot where the home was eventually erected and that their souls still turn up on the property from time to time.  Up until recently it was a bed and breakfast. 
    In 1976 Page opened up an occult bookstore called  “The Equinox Booksellers and Publishers" on Kensington High Street, London.  It remained open for about ten years, and re-printed several of Crowley’s books.  When asked why he opened up the store Jimmy said:  "There was not one bookshop in London with a good collection of occult books and I was so pissed off not being able to get the books I wanted." 
    According to those in the know, Jimmy Page has the largest collection of Crowleyana in private hands.  He owns wands, clothing, books, letters, and various other ritual tools.  While most of Jimmy's friends say that the stuff is kept locked up in a vault, singer Michael Des Barres says that he and Page played with it all one afternoon, even going so far as to dress up in Crowley's robes! 
The respect that Page felt for Crowley rarely turned up in Led Zeppelin, but it did make the wax on Led Zeppelin III.  Early pressings of the album have the words “Do what thou wilt” engraved into the runoff near the record's label.   The cover for “In Through the Outdoor' features a figure who looks a lot like Aleister Crowley circa 1940.  Besides these two specific instances the likeness and words of Aleister Crowley don't feature in the albums of Led Zeppelin.  (Page wasn’t alone in his reverence for Crowley, an image of the mage appears on the cover of The Beatles “Sergeant Pepper’s” album!)

Robert Plant and Hobstweedle
    Robert Plant was a hippie in the truest sense.  He loved the psychedelic sounds coming out of San Francisco, wore the tie-dye, and generally was a “peace and love” guy.  Unlike Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones, Robert Plant wasn't a veteran of London's music scene; he grew up in the more rural Birmingham, like his buddy John Bonham (drums).  Plant's interests lied outside the realm of ceremonial magick, but many of them are still interesting for those of us trying to understand the mystical side of Led Zeppelin.
    In the late 1960's the works of J.R. Tolkien were seen as essential hippie literature.  Hippies saw the hobbits as an ideal agrarian society, living off the land, and taking care of it.  Plant was a fan of Tolkien before his Zeppelin tenure, eventually working in a band with a very Tolkienesque name called Obstweedle (usually misspelled Hobstweedle).  Plant even named one of his dogs Strider, after the Lord of the Ring's Aragon.
    There are several Led Zeppelin songs with Tolkien related lyrics, and many of them happen to be among my favorite Zeppelin songs.  “Ramble On” from Led Zeppelin II was the first time something from Middle Earth popped up in the music of Led Zeppelin.  Robert sang:
            Mine's a tale that can't be told, my freedom I hold dear
           How years ago in days of old when magic filled the air
           ' twas in the darkest depths of Mordor, mm-I met a girl so fair
             but Gollum and the evil one crept up and slipped away with her.
Yes, feel free to blame Robert Plant for all of the dragons and wizards that currently populate a great deal of heavy metal music.
    The song “Misty Mountain Hop” was named after a fictional mountain range on Middle Earth.  Besides the title, the song has very little to do with “The Lord of the Rings.”
     So I'm packin' my bags for the Misty Mountains
     where the spirits go, now 
     Woo-over the hills where the spirits fly
The rest of the song is essentially about a love-in that got busted, it's clever and cute but has nothing to do with the current discussion, not that I don't like love-ins, and for those who were looking for one where I live, just try to show up when my wife’s not home.
    Perhaps the best of Plant's Tolkien inspired songs is “The Battle of Evermore” which coincidently is probably Zeppelin's most mystical sounding song.  “Evermore” is a hodge-podge of various traditions, mostly mixing Tolkien with Celtic mythology.  Plant has stated that he wrote the song after reading a book on Scottish History, and many people have noticed similarities in the lyrics between “Evermore” and the Irish National Anthem! 
    The Tolkien influence is blatantly obvious in lyrics like “the Ringwraiths ride in black” but to attribute the entire song to Tolkien's world seems shortsighted.  Lyrics like “I'm waiting for the angels of Avalon” suggest that blending of mythologies and ideas.  Plant has stated in interviews that when walking the English Countryside he can feel the ghosts of ancient warriors stirring on their former battlefields.  It's possible that these feelings also led to the composition of the lyrics. 
It's worth nothing that Celtic Mythology was very important to Plant and that he has studied it on and off for his entire life.  His son Karac was named for a Celtic warrior who battled the Romans.  Later in life, Plant would begin to explore the mystical heritage of India and the Middle East.  The sounds and rhythms of those cultures, while hinted at in Zeppelin's music, would be explored much more fully during Plant's solo career and his brief “No Quarter” acoustic fling with Jimmy Page in 1994.

All About Led Zeppelin's Fourth Album
    Led Zeppelin's greatest monument to the occult is their fourth album.  Mistakenly called “Zoso” by some, or simply “Runes,” Led Zeppelin IV is an occult tour de force, from the album cover to the songs.  Released in 1971, Led Zeppelin IV is the band's best selling album, and most mysterious.  It was released without a title, and the band's name is glaringly absent from the album cover.
    The album cover features a solitary old man with a bundle of sticks tied to his back.  Jimmy Page has tried to popularize the idea that the man on the album cover represents a lifestyle that fosters harmony with nature.  According to Page, the picture was found in a junk store by Robert Plant and then worked into the cover of the band's fourth record.  While it's a cute story, it's not true.  The picture was created specifically for the album cover and bears a striking resemblance to English cunningman "Old" George Pickingill.

    Pickingill was a turn of the century English cunningcrafter, with a rather sinister reputation.  (Cunningcraft is the practice of English folk magick, and cunningmen and cunningwomen plied their trades in rural English villages for centuries.  Use of cunningcraft was not seen as adversarial to Christianity either, and cunningmen were important parts of their communities, much like a blacksmith.)  Instead of being held in high regard by those in his community, as many in his craft were, he was a social outcast and a figure of fear.  Allegedly he was also the teacher of Aleister Crowley (and also English Witch Gerald Gardner), and founded several witch covens in rural England.  While the witch coven stuff is utter nonsense, Pickingill was a real person, and the association with Crowley was a strong one by 1971, strong enough that the picture is no accident.  Crowley probably never so much as met Pickingill (Old George makes no appearances in Crowley’s diaries), but the legend was a popular one in the early 70’s.
    This past summer I was shown a tarot card that looked exactly like the figure on the cover of Led Zeppelin IV.  I was told that the Ten of Wands was the real inspiration for the cover art, but going back through some tarot history, it seems that the reverse is true, the Zeppelin cover art served as inspiration for this one particular tarot card.  A quick look at the Rider-Waite tarot (the most popular tarot deck in existence) clears up the confusion.  Still, it's nice to see Zeppelin influencing modern artists.
There are some very real tarot references in IV, most notably the album's inner gatefold picture.  Without a doubt that features the Hermit from the tarot, and Page has freely admitted to this during interviews.  The picture was attributed to a friend of Page's named Barrington Colby Mann, and was clearly based on the Hermit image in the Rider-Waite deck. 
    Page must have identified strongly with the Hermit, since the image of the Hermit shows up again in Zeppelin's concert/movie The Song Remains the Same.  After climbing a mountain Page comes across an image of himself that turns out to be the Hermit, either resulting in chuckles from the audience or murmurs of “that's deep,” depending on the level of sobriety among those watching the film (Jason’s advice is to just focus on the music).
Whose symbol is whose?  From left to right:
Page, Jones, Bonham, and Plant.
    A bit more mysterious are the four runes or symbols which appear on the spine of the record jacket and the album sleeve.  Each symbol is a reference to one of the four members of Led Zeppelin, as none of the band member's names appear anywhere in the album credits.   The idea for the four rune symbols probably belongs to Jimmy Page, and according to sources Page and Plant had their symbols custom made for the record, while Bonham and Jones picked their symbols from a book.  Jones has said that he and Bonham's symbols came from Rudolph Koch's “Book of Signs,” which was handed to him by Page with the instructions to “pick something out.” 
    Jones' symbol is a popular modern rune, depicting a circle intersected by three ovals.  The rune stands for integrity and competence.  John Bonham’s symbol is simply three interlocking circles, and either represents the trinity of Man/Woman/Child (Bonzo was a devoted family man) or Father/Son/Holy Ghost.  Bonzo's symbol also bore a close resemblance to the logo for Ballantine Beer.
The Egyptian Goddess of Truth and Justice, Ma’at inspired Plant’s symbol of a circle with a feather in the middle of it.  Ma'at was the patroness of the pharaohs, and her symbol was the feather.  It's likely that the ideals of truth and justice appealed to Plant, and he might have been reading a book on Egyptian myth at the time he crafted his symbol.
    The most mysterious of the four symbols belongs to Jimmy Page.  To start with, it's not the word “Zoso,” (though it sort of kind of looks like that) and to imply as much would probably piss off Jimmy.  According to Jimmy the sign might have it's origins in a series of doodles he jotted down while on the phone in the spring of 1971, but this is probably not the case.
    Page's symbol bears a strong resemblance to a glyph found in the 16th century book “Ars Magica Arteficii” by J. Cardan.  In a section on astrological signs the “Zoso” rune appears almost as it does in 1971.  The separate components of the rune sign indicate different things.  The stylized “Z” is a reference to the astrological sign of Capricorn, which is Page's sun-sign.  The “oso” is open to various interpretations; the two most common are that it stands for “666,” or that it represents the alchemical symbol Mercury.  
   Besides the runes, the most mysterious part of Led Zeppelin IV is the song “Stairway to Heaven.”  To tell you the truth, I'm not sure what the song means.  I've seen it explained as a Christian allegory (really), and as a hymn to Satan.  I've always thought it was a song about spiritual longing and desire, which seems to play into the symbolism on the album jacket.  One thing I can tell you is that if you play it backwards you might hear the words “here's to my sweet Satan.
  Before we get into the backwards masking stuff I thought we should go to one of the sources for an opinion, here’s what Robert Plant had to say about the whole thing:  “To me it’s very sad, because ‘Stairway to Heaven’ was written with the very best intention, and as far as reversing tapes and putting messages on the end, that’s not my idea of making music.” 
In case you were wondering, the most infamous part of “Stairway to Heaven” is this one:
       If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now
       It’s just a spring clean for the May Queen.
      Yes, there are two paths you can go by; but in the long run,
      There’s still time to change the road you’re on.
Which allegedly comes out this way when played backwards:
      Here’s to my sweet Satan
      The one who whose little path would make me sad,
      Whose power is fake/Satan.
      He’ll give those with him 666.
     There was a little toolshed where he made us suffer, sad Satan.

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Because we can, here is the passage in question . . . . 

    When you listen to the section in question, you can sort of hear something that sounds like “Here’s to my sweet Satan” but the rest of the verse is basically unintelligible.  If Led Zeppelin was really working for the Devil I like to think they’d be a bit more upfront about it.  It’s not like Jimmy hid his interest in Crowley.
    The section in question is definitely not a backwards mask, backwards masking is a very deliberate technique, and a fine piece of studio trickery (especially in 1971).  What’s so interesting about the Stairway/Satan problem is that the alleged shout out to the devil can be heard on both live and studio versions of the song!  That argues in favor of coincidence, but in all honesty, I wouldn’t put a trick like that above Jimmy, he’d probably get a good laugh out of it.
    While Zeppelin was always accused of Devil worship, the Stairway furor didn’t really begin until 1982, with you guessed it, an evangelical (radio) preacher, from California no less.  Why anyone takes any of those people seriously is beyond me.

Summing Up
    When I first started really listening to Zeppelin the occult influences of the band made me a little nervous.  Back when I was 18, I was president of my church youth group, and not quite sure if I was ready to make a devotee of Aleister Crowley an idol.  As I’ve grown up and widened my horizons, the occult stuff in Led Zeppelin has added to my Zeppelin obsession.  It’s amazing that the two things I love more than anything have sort of ended up meeting in the middle, and those two things are, you guessed it, my Pagandom and the eternal music of Led Zeppelin.

May the Zeppelin ever soar!

Forty years later . . . Led Zeppelin IV

Music lacks magic these days.  There's nothing special or surprising about listening to a new album today.  You get on your computer and download a bunch of music, there's no wrapping, no packaging, no cover art to stare at.  The purchase is immediate too, within seconds you can be playing your new album, and even if you still buy hard copies of albums (CD's), you can stick those into your CD Player the moment you get in the car.  Listening to new music used to be an experience, because it was so hard to do.  (For musings on Led Zeppelin and the occult experience click here.)

I have several framed album covers on the walls of my townhouse, because LP's were the greatest experience of them all.  They contained music that wasn't super-easy to listen to, you had to want it, you had to be up for going through the ritual of taking the album out of the record jacket, handling it like a baby, placing it carefully on the turntable, and then moving the needle onto the wax.  Playing a record took time, and it was something you listened to from start to finish.  Listening to an album wasn't immediate gratification, it was total immersion in an artist, a world, a vision, a sound.

Very few records change the entire course of rock music*, Led Zeppelin IV was one of them.  I still have daydreams about what it would have been like to tear into that album back in 1971.  Staring at the weird album cover without the band's name on it, puzzling over the runes that graced the record sleeve.  It's possible that in 1971 you could have picked up IV without hearing anything off of it first. What a trip that would have been.  Can you imagine, sitting on your couch, firing up the record player, lighting up a joint, and hearing Stairway to Heaven for the first time, completely unannounced and unprepared for it?  There are no secrets when it comes to music today, you can stream anything before you buy it and but it on Youtube, impossible to do in 1971.  I would have been stoned** as a gourd in 1971 running around my house going ape-shit crazy over the last three minutes of Stairway thinking this is the greatest shit since ever.

One of the things that would have made IV such a mind-fuck in November of 1971 is that no one would have been expecting it.  Yes, Led Zeppelin was one of the biggest bands in the world in 1971 (just three years after they got together), but 1970's mostly acoustic Led Zeppelin III was largely seen as a commercial and artistic disappointment, expectations for Led Zeppelin IV would have been small.  What makes IV the classic it is, is how it takes the acoustic experiments of III and weaves them into an overall big rock sound (like in Stairway), or takes acoustic rock to a grander level, to this day nothing sounds like The Battle of Evermore, except the Battle of Evermore.  

My first memories of listening to IV as an album, and not a few isolated radio hits here and there, dates back to my freshman year of high school.  My brother Chuck in his infinite wisdom got me a copy of the album (on cassette!) for Christmas.  It wasn't something I asked for, he just said it was something I "needed" as a fan of hard rock and heavy metal.  Shortly thereafter I have memories of dancing in my bedroom getting and getting dizzy while listening to Rock and Roll, still my favorite shake your rock bootie track of all time.

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I've written extensively before about how much Led Zeppelin changed my life, but that Christmas was the beginning.  There was a time when it was a rare day in hell when I wasn't wearing a Led Zeppelin shirt.  Nothing sounds like Zeppelin, nothing rocks like Zeppelin, nothing has ever been as consistently great as Zeppelin.  There are some Zep fans who think that Physical Graffiti or perhaps II are their greatest achievement, I disagree, I think it has to be IV just because the album contains every element that made them so great.  There are no throw away tracks, on 1991's boxset, seven of IV's eight tracks made the cut, IV is a greatest hits album, the playlist for every classic rock station of the past thirty years.

Often ignored in the hullabaloo over radio classics like Stairway and Black Dog, what makes IV so interesting and so unlike most rock music in its wake, is the drum sound.  John Bonham just hit the drums harder than any other human being behind a kit, as a result there's a sonic boom behind Zeppelin that no other rock band has ever had.  Forty years later and people are still sampling When the Levee Breaks because it sounds so amazing.  A rock critic I read once described Bonzo as always playing "behind the beat."  He argued that Bonzo was always about a mili-second off from where you thought the beat would fall.  So instead of "pause pause pause beat," you got "pause pause pause pa-BEAT" which always drove the music forward and gave it a sense of urgency that most rock lacked.  As a rock album I find IV to be extremely danceable, when I hear the rock tracks, I want to move and groove.  That's all Bonham.

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It wasn't just Bonzo's urgent drumming that made his drum sound, when you listen to IV you can hear him doing all kinds of things, he wasn't just a time-keeper, he was a full contributor to the bands sound.  He was always playing more than what was needed, giving the music added texture.  You could just listen to the drum tracks on IV and be completely engrossed, no drummer ever gave a better performance.  The boom and echo in the drum sound is also attributable to super-producer Jimmy Page, who knew how to mic a drum a sound in a way that no one else had figured out at the time.  IV was not recorded in a studio, it was recorded at an old country estate (Headley Grange-how much do I love Zeppelin, I don't even have to look this shit up), and Bonham played in the living room allowing his drums to "breathe."

(Working on this piece I spent a lot of time on Youtube, and there are a few nifty videos there just featuring Bonzo's drum tracks.  Even in 1979 Bonham was still nailing it, Fool in the Rain is an overlooked Bonzo masterpiece, there's about 100 things going on during that drum track, and then there's just the deep sound of raw power of the time-keeping.)

It wasn't only Bonham, 1971 found all the members of Led Zeppelin at the peak of their powers.  Robert Plant was a vocal phenomenon (and all of 21 years old), and after IV his voice would change and he'd never again be able to hit the high notes that marked early Zeppelin.  Plant was just soulful on parts of IV, and introspective when he needed to be.  His voice reached heights never before attained in British Blues Rock.  Fairport Convention singer Sandy Denny, one of all the time greats, said she "sang herself hoarse" trying to keep up with Plant on The Battle of Evermore.  Lyrically Plant also threw down the gauntlet, creating the genre of wizard-rock, but doing so in a mystical way, and not in a dopey dragons and rainbows sort of way***.

For me it's Bonham who makes this album (and Plant would love hearing that), but everyone contributed.  Who else but Zeppelin would have a bass/keyboard player that also plays recorder?  John Paul Jones was always the icing on the Zeppelin cake.  Not only did he play in lock-step with Bonzo (they were arguably the greatest rhythm section of all time), but he was funky.  While Bonzo grooved, Jones would play these funky bass-lines that were equally bootie shaking, and he did this in a hard rock band without anyone ever calling him out on it, because it was amazingly awesome.  Listen to Zeppelin live, without a rhythm guitar player, it's Jonsey's basslines that Page solos over, and the sound is never compromised.

Led Zeppelin IV marked the moment where Jimmy Page went from being an amazing British Blues Rock guitarist, to being a guitar god.  Think I'm kidding?  You haven't listened to that solo in Stairway in awhile have you?  Between the recorders, the bewildering lyrics, and the drums, Page's guitar solo in that song often gets lost, and it's amazing.  He plays the shit out of it, and there's no need for a rhythm guitar track because the solo is so interesting, and because Bonzo and Jones sound abso-fucking awesome on their own.  Listen to the live version of Stairway, and how Page just masters his 18 string guitar, you can almost imagine him casting a spell over it saying "You will be my bitch, and the world will think Satan is playing rhythm."  After IV, Page would create guitar armies in the studio and on stage, and no one else in the 70's even came close to touching his jock, not even Clapton.

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Due to the emerging chameleon like talents of Page, IV just goes all over the place.  There's the funky hard rock of Misty Mountain Hop, Rock and Roll, and Black Dog, and the Celtic tinged sounds of Four Sticks (featuring another drum workout by Bonzo, and called Four Sticks because he plays the track with four drumsticks, have I mentioned how great Bonham was?), Evermore.  The folk sound of Going to California is completely on target, and a huge step up in sound from earlier experiments on III.  By 1971 Page had mastered what the band would call "light and shade," being able to go from arena rock warriors to folk-hippies without missing a beat (like Bonham would ever miss a beat).

Weirdly, the fortieth anniversary of IV has passed in classic Zeppelin style, quietly, and without the massive reissues that most bands would engage in to mark such an anniversary.  Dark Side of the Moon also turned forty this year, and was re-released in multiple formats, but for Zeppelin, IV stands the test of time as is.  Here's to forty years of the greatest rock album of all time, and in forty years people will still be listening to it.

*How rare is it to make an album that that changes rock history?  In the past twenty years I can only think of three off the top of my head, Pearl Jam's Ten, Nirvana's Nevermind, and The Slim Shady LP by Eminem.  That's it, those albums changed music forever.

**I'm not really a drug guy, but if it was 1971, wouldn't I be smoking pot probably?

***Apologies to Ronnie James Dio.