The following originally appeared in Fiddler’s Green Peculiar Parish Magazine.
Late-Night Teenage Magical Initiation
My introduction to magic came quite early in life, and through a library of books left behind by the previous owner of the house where I grew up. Ever since that time, when I was six years old, I’ve been convinced of other realities hidden behind the one we take for granted.
In a strange way, this conviction was strengthened by my lack of anyone to talk to about magic. Throughout my childhood and into my teen years, no one spoke to me about it directly. It wouldn’t be until I was sixteen, a full decade after my first exposure to magic, that I would learn of neo-pagan culture and realize that magic was being practiced intentionally and relatively openly by others. Up to that point my glimpses of the magical world—one where dreams could come to fruition by way of wishes or ritual workings—came about through oblique references in art or swells of personal emotion.
Always partially veiled, magic showed itself in works of fantasy or in romantic poetry, prose, music, or illustration. I scrabbled at the text of Robert Graves’ translation of the Song of Amergin, desperate for a foothold. The supernatural stories in Vertigo comics and the quasi-medieval world of Dungeons & Dragons were obviously based on some of the same source material I’d seen in the mysterious books. The dreamy, swirling music of the Cure took my heart and mind places unlike anywhere I’d been before. And on a recent family trip to Minneapolis I’d secretly bought a deck of Tarot cards, hiding it the way one might stash porn, or drugs. I wasn’t ashamed, per se, of the deck of cards, and I honestly don’t think it would have been a big deal if anyone knew I had it. But I just had no words to discuss my fascination, so I kept it secret.
Magic was alive. I knew it lived in me because I often felt intense stirrings in my body’s core brought about by these works of art, or by quiet moments in nature. I was in the throes of adolescence, sure, and much of my magical yearning was mixed with sexual longing and a general sense of obligation to “grow up,” to stop seeing the world through a child’s eyes and start thinking practically about life and the future. But the poetry, and the fantasy, and the imagery, and the sound all told me I’d be missing out on something extremely vital if I simply put all of them back in the toy chest and closed the lid.
Fortunately, on the night of St. Patrick’s Day, 1990, I received a much-needed lesson in practical esoterica from an unexpected source. This teaching laid the foundation for a bridge between my childhood fantasies and an adult life as a creative person, someone who could take inner, unformed thoughts and—through focus and dedication—artfully turn them into reality.
I was fifteen years old, and lying on the floor at home in a trance state, just about to succumb to sleep, when five sharply barked words broke my hypnagogic daze and eight well-dressed shamans appeared in a vision before me.
All right, if we’re being completely literal, the trance state was really just a run-of-the-mill drifting off in front of the television, which was tuned to Saturday Night Live, and the heralding words were Rob Lowe’s shout introducing the musical guests for the evening: “Ladies and gentlemen—the Pogues!” The studio camera shifted, and I saw the band, a group of men dressed as if they were going to church, some of them in dark suits, others in simple button-front shirts and trousers. This departure from the overwrought costumes of other bands of the day (the musical guests the previous two weeks had been Aerosmith and Technotronic) caught my attention, as did the unusual combination of instruments the band played. Beyond the standard-issue guitar, bass, and drums, the Pogues played instruments that seemed odd for a rock band—accordion, for instance, and banjo, mandolin, and tin whistle.
They played two rollicking songs that night, tunes I would later come to know as “White City” and “The Body of an American.” This wasn’t like other rock music played on Saturday Night Live or MTV, and it was unlike the folk music I’d heard on Christmas radio broadcasts or at the county fair. The musicians played with gusto, smiling and chiding each other, seemingly having the time of their lives as the band’s front-man danced around them onstage in dark sunglasses. He provided eerie contrast to the rambunctious scene, spitting lyrics about ruined buildings and a funeral, and rhyming “whiskey” with “ancient Irish history,” gripping a lit cigarette in his hand as he sang and sitting down on the drum riser for a drink during the instrumental closing of the second song.
I could feel my mind opening wide. The vitality of the band and the singer’s sneer spoke directly to my teenage self, especially because it was clear that the Pogues cared for tradition, poetry, and story the way I did. Their punk-rock delivery was showing me a way to channel these dusty loves into something raw and exciting and new.
By the end of the second song I was determined to be a Pogues fan for life. Within a week I’d bought two of their cassettes—If I Should Fall from Grace with God and Peace and Love—and played the hell out of them on my boom-box. As I listened, I gained a growing appreciation for the music’s merging of traditionalism and punk. There were other influences, too, such as jazz and klezmer. I soaked up the lyrics by front-man Shane MacGowan, his songs more like stories that brought Irish folklore and culture to life for me, even though hundreds of years separated some of the songs’ origins from the present day and thousands of miles stretched between Ireland’s green shores and my landlocked home in Iowa.
The folklore and strange magic of the past didn’t have to remain there, nor was it bound by geography. Unlike inscrutable poems and static Tarot card images, the music of the Pogues took elements of life I’d always known were magical and imbued them with action. Magic wasn’t introspective. It didn’t have to stay silent and at rest on the printed page, but could stand up and snarl. It could be alive, and it could happen now.
Furthermore, Shane wasn’t really a shipwreck survivor, nor an I. R. A. soldier, nor the ghost of an immigrant who died on the passage to America, but he became each one of these people through his singing simply by putting himself in that character’s shoes. He wasn’t a bar-room brawler either, but listening to his rough delivery and seeing the pictures of him in the liner notes leering maniacally, I wouldn’t want to mess with him. Although the musicians had no doubt had at least a modicum of violent or supernatural experience in their collective lives, all of it was folded together with tall tales and scraps of ancient myth nearly to the point of pure fantasy. None of it was really real, but the music made it seem as if none of that mattered.
As I heard the songs’ stories of restless ghosts and murderous river spirits, I imagined them haunting the forests and waterways in my own hometown. Soon I began to write my own poetry and stories that plucked from history the medieval magic that had always fascinated me. I had been shown a way to let it live in the here and now.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but MacGowan and Company were slyly initiating me into a powerful magical concept, one known as “the As-If technique.” In a nutshell, As-If means approaching unfamiliar or uncomfortable situations as if you know what you’re doing, or as if the desired reality has already come to pass. Fake it ’til you make it. It’s a confidence booster, and it’s also a form of sympathetic magic people can cast on themselves. Poets invoke As-If to transport themselves and their readers to impossible landscapes and scenarios, as do punk rockers like the Pogues. Hustlers and salespeople use it all the time. Fortunetellers draw upon As-If by focusing on a hoped-for future, and spellcasters invoke it when they want a particular result. Even if what is desired is just mere possibility, As-If makes it more likely to happen.
As-If is contagious, and I caught it. That I was learning it as a teenager, and in the early 1990s—an era of creative do-it-yourself (or “D. I. Y.”) resurgence—meant it was all but inevitable I would myself become an artist of some sort. I already had aspirations toward a career as a comic book illustrator or a rock ‘n’ roll drummer, leanings courageously supported by my parents, who sent me to classes to learn painting and trap-set drumming. They also introduced me to a local pair of brothers who were self-publishing comics, so I could learn the process from them. My folks encouraged me not only in the school jazz band but also in my jam sessions with friends in the basement, where we covered—with varying degrees of proficiency—popular glam metal tunes, later switching to grunge and alternative rock staples. It didn’t matter that our work wasn’t polished, what mattered was that we were doing it.
As it turned out I didn’t go on to draw comics for a living, nor did I ever make a dime off my drumming. But within a few years I folded both of these passions into another form of creative expression. A friend lent me a copy of The World of Zines, a directory and how-to manual from the editors of the filled-to-capacity news and review zine Factsheet Five. The book used the As-If technique to teach the making of self-published pamphlets. Poring over the hundreds of listings made me realize that if I wanted to make my own magazine, newspaper, or book, there wasn’t anything standing in my way. The World of Zines also hinted at how D. I. Y. ethics could be applied to music. I devoured the knowledge and, alongside dozens of friends similarly inspired to create and share words, pictures, and music, soon published the first issue of my first zine, Real Life. At the time, the title was a nod to my anxiety about getting on with the business of growing up. In hindsight, I see that what I was saying is that “real life” can be artistic, self-directed, and bold.
Just as the folklore-fueled punk of the Pogues obliterated boundaries of time and distance for me, the D. I. Y. movement tore down the walls I’d assumed stood between pro and amateur, between artist and audience. It wasn’t necessary for musicians to have a contract with a monolithic record company in order to get their music to the people. A four-track recorder, a stack of blank cassettes, some cover art, and a gig in a friend’s basement were enough to begin selling one’s own songs. Writers and photographers didn’t have to work with a New York publisher in order to gain a readership. Pens, paper, a loaded camera, and access to a darkroom and a photocopier were the basic tools needed to start sharing stories and images. I filled the pages of Real Life with interviews with my friends, most of them D. I. Y. artists in their own right, and we worked together to champion each other’s work by publishing our essays, poetry, and photos and putting on a series of concerts with local bands over the next handful of years.
I think I speak for everyone involved when I say that not one of us felt intimidated by the process. Instead, we were curious and inspired, and the enthusiasm spread like wildfire from one person to the next. Before we even realized what was happening, we’d all taken a significant leap of faith—the same leap required of all artists and magicians—and simply began expressing ourselves as if we knew what we were doing, trusting that our efforts would meet an appreciative audience. As it so happened, we did know what we were doing. Even if our audience was small, we found it, and the world—in whatever little way—was a better place because of what we’d done.
The Magical Child
Born possessing a wholly magical mindset, children have the world on a string. Completely helpless at first, they begin with no concepts of cause and effect beyond screaming for food when they are hungry and warmth when they are cold, and make little distinction between themselves and the rest of creation. Their wants and needs are inseparable and, except in instances of neglect, everything they require is given to them by (as far as they are concerned) mysterious outside forces. As the years go by, children take more responsibility for themselves until at last they are practically self-sufficient. As they mature their needs multiply, deepen, and grow more complex. Food and warmth are no longer enough, and many children are compelled to express their desires through creative means. Broadly speaking, I believe that teen angst is the driving force behind art. If the urge to create is ignored, the result is a compounded frustration that can lead children to become messed-up adults. If the kids work with the urge, though, they have a chance to flourish.
With all due respect, the teenage world-view is a resurgence, in new ways, of the newborn’s mindset. The world is a harsh place, circumstances can change in an instant, and when needs arise they are dire and all-consuming. One measure of success in life could be the degree to which a person can navigate the shoals of adolescence and early adulthood while retaining the child’s innate vitality and alertness to injustice. Thank goodness, then, for punk rock, an art form for children attempting to remain magicians into adulthood. It doesn’t matter that punk musicians play in an unrefined or talentless style—the point is to get what’s inside out, to show the world something primal and personal. Rage, frustration, and desire are pushed outward, the message informed more by emotion than by reason. This is manifestation of ideas and ideals. This is art in a pure form. This is magic.
The barrier to entry into the world of punk is set very low, and this is part of punk’s genius. Anyone can get started with minimal equipment and effort. In fact, higher quality instruments, or more thoroughness in instruction, detract from the artistic expression. Seen through punk’s creative lens, life can be thoughtful, but it isn’t something to be understood fully before reacting. It’s something to be experienced, and this commitment to trial and error is epitomized in the fumblings of the beginning punk rocker. The lack of formality allows more room for the artist’s distinct message or yearnings, and these can be utterly raw. Most importantly, punk is self-directed. Nothing kills creativity faster in a young person, or perhaps in a person of any age, than telling them they have to be creative, now, for other people or powers-that-be, and here’s how. Happily, it is often external pressure of this sort, in one form or another, that leads to young people picking up punk in the first place.
The As-If Technique is a potent, powerful magic available to anyone. What a person does with this power once they realize it’s theirs is up to them. What As-If, and punk, and the D. I. Y. movement as a whole do is give people the ability to change the world. Their work might result in a grand cultural shift, or the effect might be more subtle. For myself, the knowledge and skills I developed using As-If to direct my D. I. Y. publishing have played a crucial role in my making friends, finding work, staying happy and sane, and generally surfing this thing called reality. Over the decades I’ve been able to fine-tune my life to more closely resemble the inner world I dreamed of as a child, all while making a living as an adult. If that’s not magic, then I don’t know what is.