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Authors: Gary Lachman

Aleister Crowley

BOOK: Aleister Crowley
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Copyright © 2014 by Gary Lachman

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Lachman, Gary.

Aleister Crowley : magick, rock and roll, and the wickedest man in the world / Gary Lachman.

p. cm.

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-0-698-14653-2

1. Crowley, Aleister, 1875–1947. 2. Crowley, Aleister, 1875–1947—Influence. 3. Occultists—England—Biography. 4. Magicians—England—Biography. 5. Authors, English—20th century—Biography. 6. Popular culture—History—20th century. 7. Rock music—History and criticism. I. Title.

PR6005.R7Z78 2014 2014003608





For Paul Newman, 1945–2013
A wicked critic who knew his Crowley well

I have always appeared to my contemporaries as a very extraordinary individual obsessed by fantastic passions.


It was sex that rotted him. It was sex, sex, sex, sex, sex all the way with Crowley. He was a sex maniac.





I first came across the name Aleister Crowley, the twentieth century’s most infamous magician and self-styled “Great Beast 666,” in 1975, when I was nineteen and playing in a rock and roll band in New York City. I was living in a run-down loft space on the Bowery with the band’s guitarist and singer, not far from CBGB, the club that a year or so later became famous as the birthplace of punk rock. My bandmates had a kitschy interest in the occult, which manifested in the pentagrams, voodoo trinkets, skulls, crossbones, swastikas, crucifixes, talismans, and other magical bric-a-brac that jostled for space with photographs of the Velvet Underground, posters for the Ramones, and Rolling Stones album covers on the bare brick walls. We had an eerie statue of a nun standing in front of a fireplace, which was itself covered in occult insignia. A cross was painted on the nun’s forehead and rosary beads hung from her hand. Tibetan tantric paintings, one of which depicted a monk being eaten by his fellows, hung on the walls, and an old doll that Chris, the guitarist, had found in the trash and had transformed into a voodoo ornament was perched over the drum kit. Debbie, the singer, was interested in
UFOs, and after rehearsals she often consulted the
I Ching
about the next band move.

We shared the space with an eccentric artist, an older hipster who had a dangerous passion for the Hell’s Angels and often dressed in biker gear. Like myself, he was a fan of H. P. Lovecraft and the
Weird Tales
set, but he was also interested in magic, and he often painted his own version of the tarot deck, modeling his images on Crowley’s then-rare Thoth Tarot. He also gave impromptu tarot readings, and I was struck by the seriousness with which he treated the cards. I could tell that for him they were more than just an eccentric form of entertainment, that they presented something more like a philosophy of life. He related the tarot to other things like art and music, and to people I had read, such as Jung and Nietzsche. But the person he mentioned most was Crowley. He held up Crowley as a model of what a magical life should be like, and at one point he introduced me to someone who claimed to be an illegitimate son of Crowley’s. I can’t remember who this was, or what we talked about, and I never discovered if he really was Crowley’s son or not.

The artist read from
The Diary of a Drug Fiend
, Crowley’s sensational novel about heroin and cocaine addiction, which was also an advertisement for his ill-fated Abbey of
in Sicily, where initiates learned how to do their “true will.” Like practically everyone else at the time, I was interested in drugs, and the cover of the book, with a sheik of sorts luxuriating in an opium-induced Oriental repose, certainly caught my eye. I had seen the book in the window of the old St. Marks Bookshop on St. Marks Place, just up from the famous Gem Spa, and I wondered when I would have enough cash to buy a copy.

Chris had an apartment that he sublet to Tommy Ramone, the
Ramones’ first drummer and, sadly, the only member of the original group still alive. One afternoon we headed to his place and while Chris and Tommy talked, I checked out the bookshelves. Two books I borrowed that day changed my life. One was
The Occult
by Colin Wilson; the other was Crowley’s other novel
The Occult
made a powerful impression on me. Aside from a taste for 1940s horror films, I had no interest in the occult or magic, and my knowledge of mysticism was limited to what I had read in Alan Watts and Hermann Hesse. Wilson took the occult seriously, and connected it to philosophy, science, literature, and psychology. Wilson’s ideas about consciousness had a lasting effect on me, but at the time what struck me most was his chapter on Crowley, and the sections about the poet W. B. Yeats and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. I didn’t know it then but
was a roman à clef, depicting in an often nasty way some members of the Golden Dawn. Yeats, for example, against whom Crowley held a particularly spiteful grudge, comes in for an especially vile treatment.

After that I was hooked. I picked up
Diary of a Drug Fiend
and read it in a day or two. I was especially struck by the quotation from the seventeenth-century philosopher Joseph Glanvil that opens the book: “Man is not subjected to the angels, nor even unto death utterly, save through the weakness of his own feeble will.” Crowley spoke a lot about will. “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.” “Love is the law, love under will.” Even his well-known definition of magic as “the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will” spoke of it. I knew that will was an important part of Nietzsche’s philosophy, and at the time his ideas had the most influence on me. If magic had something to do with the will, I wanted to know more about it.

I spent a lot of time at Weiser’s Bookshop on Broadway near Astor Place, then the main source for occult literature in New York. I remember a stack of
The Confessions of Aleister Crowley
, with its black cover emblazoned with a pinkish-purple sigil of Babalon and Crowley’s magical order the A.
. (the Argentium Astrum, or Silver Star) greeting me as I walked in.
Today copies go for several hundred dollars, but back then Weiser’s was selling them at $5 apiece. Weiser’s reprints of Crowley’s magical magazine
The Equinox
were going at a similar price. Books on the Golden Dawn, Israel Regardie’s
The Tree of Life
, works by Dion Fortune and Eliphas Levi, reprints of S. L. MacGregor Mathers’s translation of the
Sacred Magic of Abramelin the Mage
, Sax Rohmer’s
The Romance of Sorcery
, A. E. Waite’s
Book of Black Magic and Pacts
Egyptian Magic
by E. A. Wallis Budge as well as his edition of the
Egyptian Book of the Dead
and newer works like Kenneth Grant’s
The Magical Revival
and Francis King’s classic
Ritual Magic in England
were all very affordable. For someone who had just discovered the occult, it was like walking into Ali Baba’s cave or rubbing Aladdin’s lamp.

An edition of Crowley’s magnum opus,
Magick in Theory and Practice
, also found its way to me. I couldn’t understand much of it and even today it is not an easy read, but certain things fascinated me. The images of the magician in his black robe and hood, making the signs of the elements and of Isis and Osiris, held a peculiar attraction. I was also intrigued by the “curriculum of the A.
.” Crowley appended to the book. The course in “General Reading” especially caught my attention. I was already familiar with some of the books that were required reading for the aspiring magician, but the idea of a reading course in magic—or
, as Crowley spelled it—in general excited me, as did the numerous “official publications of the
.” Crowley had listed. These were various rituals and exercises designed to discipline the magical mind. There were accounts of previous incarnations; instructions in invocations and meditation; exercises in how to develop the will and the imagination; instructions in achieving higher consciousness, in breath control, in the tarot, and in the strange philosophical system called Qabalah that I was just beginning to learn about. Even the spelling of this struck me as mysterious; shouldn’t there have been a
after the
? Crowley had included some rituals in the book, and these didn’t seem like the kind of rituals I had come across in books on black magic or spells, with their candles and spooky ambience. They seemed a strange mixture of precise directions—rather as in a science experiment—and baffling opaqueness.

Over the next few months my interest in magic and the occult became the real center of my life, even more so than music, and when tensions with Chris and Debbie developed, they wondered if I was casting spells. When I left the loft to live with my girlfriend, she became interested, too. We soon discovered that we were sharing dreams. It happened so often that I wrote a song about it. In 1978 “(I’m Always Touched by Your) Presence, Dear” became the only song about telepathy—or to have the word
in its lyrics—to make the Top Ten I think. But by that time, I had left the band and had moved to California.

Gilbert’s Bookshop on Hollywood Boulevard specialized in occult literature and its clientele included David Bowie, the filmmaker Kenneth Anger, and Led Zeppelin’s guitarist, Jimmy Page (who once wired his girlfriend $1,700 to purchase a rare Crowley manuscript from the shop). On a visit I saw a notice for a Crowley group pinned to the bulletin board. Not expecting much, I answered it. A few days
later there was a knock at my door. I opened it and a rather unprepossessing character in his early twenties mentioned the postcard I had sent to the Crowley group and almost immediately asked if I was prepared to take the probationer’s oath of the A.
. and to be initiated into the O.T.O. (Ordo Templi Orientis), a magical society Crowley became involved with in 1912. To be asked to join two magical societies immediately after meeting someone was, you might expect, a bit much, as if a Jehovah’s Witness had asked me to join his flock. But after some conversation I asked myself,
I ready to commit to obtaining the “knowledge and conversation of my Holy Guardian Angel,” the aim of Crowley’s system and the essence of what he called “the Great Work”? I had been reading about magic in general and Crowley’s in particular for a good three years. Was I serious about it or not? I decided I was and said yes. He handed me a certificate, and told me to read it and then to sign.

I soon devoted myself to magick very seriously. I got a robe, performed rituals, worked at my astral vision, practiced tarot and the
I Ching
, and at the time had an interest in geomancy, a method of divination using random dots on a sheet of paper. Originally this was done with marks on the ground and it was apparently a favorite of Crowley’s. I practiced the technique of self-discipline in Crowley’s
Liber Jorgorum
, which forbids the use of the word
; infringements are punished by slicing your forearm with a razor, but I was allowed a milder version and only had to pinch myself. My initiation into the O.T.O. took place in a house in an LA suburb. I was robed and after a series of questions, the ceremony began. My memory is vague, but I believe Hymenaeus Alpha, then head of the O.T.O., officiated. Hymenaeus Alpha was the magical name of Grady McMurtry, an ex–Army officer who knew Crowley in his last days and who in the
early ’70s revived the O.T.O., which had been dormant for some years. In later years it came as a surprise to realize that I had had contact, however brief, with someone who had actually known Crowley as well as some of the other people I had read about, such as the rocket scientist Jack Whiteside Parsons, who for a time was the head of the O.T.O. lodge whose donations kept the elderly Beast alive.

For a time I took to my practices with zeal. Each dawn I performed my sun adorations. I did these at sunset and midnight, too, with little difficulty, but the noon adorations could cause problems. My girlfriend never quite got used to my standing up in a Hollywood café, turning to the south, and saying “Hail unto thee Ahathoor in thy triumphing, even unto thee who art Ahathoor in thy beauty. . . .” She was even less enthused about hearing “Hail Isis, mighty mother” nightly while I performed the Greater Ritual of the Hexagram. And the smell of the Abramelin oil I wore—a blend of civet and sandalwood that burned my forehead on contact—didn’t turn her on. But the real problem was the fellow who had knocked on my door. He turned out to be something of a little Crowley himself. At least he emulated many of the worst traits of the Beast.

The other members of our group were alright enough, but in truth we were little more than an Aleister Crowley fan club. We kept our magical records, a diary of magical activities that Crowley insisted upon, and got together regularly to discuss different aspects of the Great Work. Some of the others talked about Crowley’s homosexual rituals or his ideas about “magical masturbation,” the XI
and VIII
degrees of the O.T.O., respectively, but I wasn’t sure how much they actually practiced them. My own attempts at practicing sex magick—the IX
degree work—weren’t very successful. But even at that early stage I had a feeling that something wasn’t quite right. And
by the time I participated in Crowley’s Gnostic Mass, which included ingesting a communion wafer spiked with menstrual blood, I knew that, whatever it might be, my “true will” wasn’t about this.

I had by then read everything of Crowley’s that was available. That was quite a lot, and some years later, when I sold my collection, I received a substantial sum. I had even dutifully made my way through his
Collected Works
. Except for the “Hymn to Pan,” I found Crowley’s poetry pretty tough going. It was all rather forced and his language was painfully old-fashioned. But what troubled me most was the claustrophobic air that had settled around my magical work. It seemed that no matter where I turned, there was Crowley. Magick, it seemed, had as much to do with him as with the hidden powers of the mind that I was determined to awaken in myself. Crowley, I realized, had been interested in little else but himself. He had climbed mountains and traveled around the world, was a chess master and had penetrated mysterious areas of consciousness, was a sexual athlete and had the great spiritual traditions at his fingertips. But ultimately, everything led back to him. Crowley exemplified on a grand scale what the psychologist Ernest Becker in
The Denial of Death
called our adolescent need to be seen as “an object of primary value in the universe,” and what the psychologist Abraham Maslow called our hunger for self-esteem. I began to wonder what I had gotten myself into. If my magical mentor was any indication, following one’s “true will” meant doing whatever you liked and not worrying about the consequences. What struck me at first as Crowley’s admirable self-belief and outrageous chutzpah now seemed an obsessive self-regard and an adolescent insensitivity to the feelings of others. By the time I had finished the
, his most readable book, I felt he was little more than a gargantuan egotist—entertaining, as many egotists
can be, but in the end not someone I wanted to meet. Other books helped in this assessment: Francis King’s
The Magical World of Aleister Crowley
and, most of all, John Symonds’s biography
The Great Beast
. I had read Israel Regardie’s riposte to this,
The Eye in the Triangle
(I had in fact found a copy in Portland, Oregon, while on tour with Blondie) and knew that most Crowleyites held Symonds in low regard. It is clear from the start that Symonds has no belief in magic, Crowley’s or anyone else’s. This didn’t bother me. I wasn’t questioning magic, but
, Crowley’s version, informed by the “inspired” text he called
The Book of the Law
and saturated with his supersized ego.

BOOK: Aleister Crowley
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