The following is excerpted from Aleister Crowley: Magick, Rock and Roll, and the Wickedest Man in the World, published by Tarcher/Penguin.
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 rundown loft space on the Bowery with the guitarist and singer, not far from CBGB, the club that a year or so later became famous as the birthplace of punk rock. My band mates 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 Stone 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 would often consult 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 would also give impromptu 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. 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 Thelema in Sicily, where initiates would learn how to do their “true will.” Like practically everyone else then, 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, Moonchild. 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 would have 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 Moonchild 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 The 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… 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… 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 magick, as Crowley spelled it — in general excited me, as did the numerous “official publications of the A… A…” 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 the Qabalah that I was just beginning to learn about. Even the spelling of this struck me as mysterious; shouldn’t there have been a u after the Q? 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 theosophy 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… A… and to be initiated into the O. T. O. (Ordo Templi Orientis) a magical society Crow- ley 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, am 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 it or not? I decided I was and said yes. He handed me a certificate, told me to read it, and then to sign.