One of my most popular books (relatively speaking), Here’s To My Sweet Satan was conceived as a way of bringing my Led Zeppelin-related credentials to a broader social history of the occult boom of the 1960s and 70s. I had read a 2011 title, Jason Zinoman’s Shock Value, about the same era’s horror movies, and I realized that it wasn’t only in cinema where the themes of demonic possession, witchcraft, and the supernatural had flourished: in publishing, television, kids’ products, journalism, and certainly the popular music of acts like Led Zeppelin, the occult was a big business. Born in 1967, the wave coincided with my childhood – I first read The Exorcist at the tender age of eight – so much of my research was already at hand, or at least in my memory.
As I looked into the background of the various books, films, news stories, and other culture I recalled growing up with, I had to acknowledge that many occult or paranormal sensations turned out to have been pretty hyped, which became the subtext of Here’s To My Sweet Satan. Rock stars like Kiss and Alice Cooper weren’t really trying to turn teens on to the devil; the “true story” which inspired The Exorcist had been wildly embellished; elaborate conjectures about the Bermuda Triangle and ancient astronauts had been thoroughly debunked; Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey was as much a self-publicizing huckster as a countercultural guru. I made contact with former ad copywriter Laura Levine, who told me how she’d conjured those terrifying figures Count Chocula and Franken Berry: “My assignment was to come up with two cereal characters that would lend themselves to funny commercials,” she said simply.
Compiling a chronology of occult influence over the decades, I further had to conclude that, however fun or provocative the phenomenon had first seemed, it led inexorably to the conservative backlash and the widespread distrust of verified fact and expert authority we contend with today. By the closing chapter I conceded, “Certainly, our readiness to accept the wildest conspiracy theories about the international order and the darkest rumors about the prominent and the powerful comes from how the occult sowed seeds of doubt in what we had previously assumed to be a measurable, definable thing known as reality. The occult changed how we think and what we believe.” I found a great quote from Rosemary’s Baby author Ira Levin, which pretty much summed up the entire movement: “A whole generation has been exposed, has more belief in Satan,” he said ruefully long after the release of his 1967 classic. “I don’t believe in Satan. And I feel that the strong fundamentalism we have would not be as strong if there hadn’t been so many of these books…Of course, I didn’t send back any of the royalty checks.”
I was especially pleased to receive an enthusiastic Foreword to the book from Skeptic editor Michael Shermer, in whose indispensable magazine I’d published a few articles on conspiracy theories and so-called “disinformation,” and blurbs from H.P. Lovecraft expert W. Scott Poole and heavy metal historian Martin Popoff. Here’s To My Sweet Satan is not a long book, and looking back I could have added a few thousand more words to it, but since its 2016 release by the Californian firm of Quill Driver Books it’s found a receptive readership who appreciate my affectionate but not overly credulous perspective – in many ways the work is as much about the media as about the mysterious, showing how, for every truly innovative creator like Led Zeppelin or Ira Levin, there’s a hundred opportunists trying to jump on a commercial bandwagon. And Here’s To My Sweet Satan remains all too relevant for pointing out that, for every compelling horror story about secret cults or abused children, there’s a paranoid fantasy on similar themes, which the fantasists – some of them in or seeking elected office – are convinced is the truth.
Next week: Takin’ Care of Business: A History of Working People’s Rock ‘n’ Roll