"Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll" by Peter Bebergal (Tarcher/Tarcher)

Season of the WitchAt the beginning of “Season of the Witch,” Peter Bebergal sketches an autobiographical scene right out of the movie “Almost Famous”: He’s 11 years old and his brother has left for the Air Force, leaving behind a superb, previously off-limits collection of rock LPs for him to discover. He sits on the floor of his brother’s bedroom, transfixed by the adult mysteries nested within the vinyl grooves and gatefold sleeves of albums such as Led Zeppelin’s “Houses of the Holy” and David Bowie’s “Diamond Dogs.”

But this isn’t a memoir, it’s a dissertation — a weirdly dry one, given its lurid topic — on how the occult has informed a half-century or so of popular music. Surveying artists timeless (the Beatles) and now-obscure (the Crazy World of Arthur Brown), with stops at usual Satanic suspects like Black Sabbath and Ozzy Osbourne, Bebergal argues that the artists’ openness to the supernatural made their music more adventurous and imaginative, and that the coalition of parents and politicians who have periodically sounded the alarm about this are hysterical and silly.

Despite the rich material, Bebergal repeatedly drains any sense of urgency from his work. Barely a third of the way through, he says that Jimmy Page’s insistence that the maxim “Do What Thou Wilt” be inscribed in the lacquer of the master recording of “Led Zeppelin III” “serves as a microcosm of the entirety of the influence the occult would have on rock and roll.” If the invocation of dark forces is just libertarianism with the occasional bit of blood-drinking, why should we keep reading?

Occasionally, Bebergal rewards the dutiful reader with a zinger, as when he describes the Age of Aquarius as having “ended not with a whimper but with a stabbing at the Rolling Stones’ 1969 concert at the Altamont Speedway.” But he doesn’t drop nearly enough of those gems to make up for his annoying habits — his abuse of “groove” as a verb, for starters. His halfhearted discussion of Jay Z (“At one time his clothing line offered a number of shirts with unambiguous Freemasonry symbols” ) feels like a desperate explanation of why his book wasn’t published in 1984. Likewise, his evaluation of Madonna via her Super Bowl halftime show in 2012 — easily 20 years after her peak.

The musicians whose work Bebergal dissects with the greatest vigor — the Beatles, the Stones, Pink Floyd, Bowie, Black Sabbath — are dinosaurs, not dragons, no disrespect intended. Meanwhile, the 21st-century popularity of “Lord of the Rings,” “Harry Potter” and “Game of Thrones” has done more to drag the occult into the light than the 30-plus years of heavy-metal albums that preceded them ever did. Bebergal grew up lighting black candles and playing Dungeons & Dragons, he says, but somewhere in the writing of this book, his adolescent enthusiasm got replaced by a deadening academic scrupulousness. Dr. Strange, heal thyself.

Klimek is a freelance writer based in Washington.

Season of the Witch
How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll

by Peter Bebergal

Tarcher. 252 pp. $27.95