HERE’S TO MY SWEET SATAN by George Case (2016, Quill Driver Books)
HERE’S TO MY SWEET SATAN is not only a great book on the popular occult phenomena of recent years, but it is my nomination for the best one. The author, George Case, who wrote a biography on Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, has produced a well written, easy to follow book about how the demons of the mind haunted the Age of Aquarius. This is as close as we may get to a unified field theory as to why Western civilization went little nuts over Count Chocula and Dark Shadows over the years 1966-80. You may criticize the dates, but a better book on pop occultism would be hard to find. Along the way, Case makes many profound observations on how this time period continues to influence the media today.
Case’s begin with the 1966 Time magazine cover that asked “Is God Dead?” Other than a reference to an old Elton John song, most people aren’t familiar with this incident and the controversy it caused. Rationalism was in ascendance everywhere and the old religions seemed to be going out the door. There was even talk of a “Death of God” theology, which I’ve always believed was a pathetic attempt by the big theology schools to justify their budget. In the wake of this crisis of faith, old and new gods began to emerge on the scene to fill the void. Some were around for a long time (Aleister Crowley); others were incubated only a few years prior (Process Church of the Final Judgement). By the time Regan’s Morning in America arrived, everyone knew about the Wisdom of the Whales, The Secret Life of Plants and the Beast of the Apocalypse.
Much of SWEET SATAN takes its cue from pop music and the backtracking controversy. After The White Album by the Beatles became a huge sensation, people started reversing the tracks on some of its songs to find inner meanings. I can recall a rumor going around my elementary school at the time that Paul was dead because you could hear the message played out. Later, when Led Zeppelin put Crowley quotes on their albums, bible-thumper Christian groups claimed you could hear satanic messages in the lyrics:
“Led Zeppelin formally disbanded in December 1980 after John Bonham drank himself to death in a binge at Page’s Windsor home three months earlier, a year after another young friend of the band was found dead of an accidental overdose in Page’s Sussex residence. In the band’s last years, and for well beyond them, both fans and American antirock religious zealots claimed to hear subliminal “messages” in Led Zeppelin’s famous “Stairway to Heaven” when the epic composition was played in reverse. Among the audible sounds therein, it was said, were the following phrases:
There is no escaping
Whose path will make me sad, whose power is Satan
He will give you 666
By then the tabloid press in Britain and rock publications in America had begun to print stories of “the Zeppelin curse” that had wrought such misfortune on the quartet….”
The book moves onto the success William Peter Blatty had with his The Exorcist novel and how he never anticipated it to become huge cultural phenomena. The power of the film version is attributed to his control over the production. Of course, the book can’t be complete with a mention of Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin and the film version by Roman Polanski. Both movies and books brought Old Nick back into vogue. They spawned an entire genre of “possession movies” which were a staple of 70’s exploitation and grindhouse cinema. He spends time talking about The Omen and its sequel too. As one who remembers those distant pre-internet days, I can confirm the influence these works had on popular culture. There was an Omen themed restaurant not far from my parents’ house, complete with a fake demon head that looked over the road.
One of the best chapters, “Little Devils”, examines a whole aspect of popular occult that is overlooked: the appeal the school age market. I recall growing up around Green Ghost and mystic games made from plastic that glowed in the dark. Booberry was a staple of many breakfast cereals. Kids would come home in the afternoon to watch the Dark Shadows soap opera on TV with vampires, witches and warlocks to scare the stuffing out of them after a day of social conditioning at the local elementary school. On weekends, there was Shock Theater to watch the old monster classics. No shortage of young adult paranormal novels in the 70’s either and even Disney got into the game with the Witch Mountain movies.
No book from this time period would be complete unless it covers the rise in alternative occult studies and religions, which Case masterfully does in the chapter “Devil in the Flesh”. As the author puts it:
“As environmental awareness came to the fore from the sixties onward, Wicca’s devotion to the divinity of nature took on a greater urgency. Liberated people of the era got a bonus thrill from the way that the most exotic Wiccan rituals were conducted “skyclad,” or nude, and that some even involved ceremonial sex.”
The book manages to weave the interest in unexplained phenomena that was so popular during this time period. Years before the X Files pulsed onto Friday night TV; flying saucer hunters were cranking out their paperback books and creating the whole idea of Men in Black. I remember reading the Frank Edwards books that were so popular back then. Case name-drops many of the paranormal researchers from those days, such as Ivan T. Sanderson, whose books became such a staple near the lower Dewey Decimal numbers. He even mentions the In Search Of TV series narrated by Leonard “Mr. Spock” Nimoy, which opened with that cheesy “chunka-chunka-wa-wa” music.
What sold the book to me was how he documents the counterattack of traditional religion in the USA. When demonology went mainstream, countless churches across the country began to employ their own ready-made exorcists. It wasn’t just the Roman church who sent out men of the cloth to cast out unclean spirits. The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsay, which predicated the end of the world “in our lifetime”, was taken seriously by many evangelical churches and became a national bestseller. Growing up in an evangelical church during this time, I remember the sheer sense of instant apocalypse where films such as Thief in the Night portrayed the big barbecue pit Earth was about to become. According to Jack T. Chick comics, Satan was real and in your backyard.
The book is written in an easy to follow journalistic style, which employs little academic jargon. This is a book for the general public, not to impress a thesis advisor. Therefore, if you want to find a book to justify your pet paradigm, don’t look here. It has an extensive selection of footnotes, bibliography and an index. There is even a time line that lists significant events during the years this book covers.
As the author sums it up:
“The legacy of all this should be obvious. Certainly, the entertainment we consume today, crowded with zombies, vampires, wizards, shadowy sects, and earth-shaking revelations, is descended from the best-selling and blockbusting occult legends of the sixties and seventies. 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.”
Give this one a read. You won’t be disappointed.