Shucking the Blue Öyster Cult

Ladies, Fish, and Gentlemen..

Until recently, when someone mentioned the band BöC around me, the first things that came to mind were cowbell, Godzilla, and umlauts- in that order. I never really got into this band, they seemed like the type of group that guys in cannabis-stinking leather jackets liked. Despite that, I decided to do a deep-dive on this band, since a few people suggested that I follow my “Ozzy/Crowley” video with a video on “Don’t Fear the Reaper”. Being me, I didn’t just want to mail it in, and committed to listening to the entire BöC catalog and reading the top (only) rock biography I could find on them; Martin Popoff’s Agents of Fortune as well as everything I could uncover on the internet. I’m currently working my way through their many studio albums and some live stuff.

My first impression- man, this is a mixed bag. The first three albums (the “Black and White Trilogy”, named for the monochrome cover art) are not going to grab you on the first listen. They’re dark and muddy, sonically. They seem all of a piece, like one big album, with Secret Treaties and the eponymous first album being my preferences over Tyranny and Mutation– in that order. Their goal of being America’s answer to Black Sabbath is satisfactorily achieved, in my humble opinion.

Romeo Blue1

The next studio album, Agents of Fortune, is a bit of a departure- to say the least! This is a much more sophisticated radio-ready album, complete with hooks and better production than the “B&W” trilogy; aside from Secret Treaties closer “Astronomy” which set the tone for future BöC albums. The main even here is “Don’t Fear the Reaper” (although “E.T.I.- Extraterrestrial Intelligence” has become my favorite of the record, and Patti Smith-penned “Vera Gemini” is solid too. “True Confessions” sounds like a Kinks outtake, in a good way).

Since this rock epic will be the crux of the video, I think it’s time to start breaking down the occult connections to BöC’. The first thing we should get out of the way is the band’s ties to Saturn/Cronus; the most obvious inspiration for the Grim Reaper because of his connections to the sickle, the harvest, and time (through his association with the separate entity, Chronos). While the personification of death is a more complicated and less Eurocentric story, for the sake of this post let’s stop there. Both BöC and Cronus, father of the gods, have sickle and cross/crozier in their imagery, the sickle being used by Cronus to castrate his father, the titan Uranus. The alchemical symbol for lead is the same as the symbol of Saturn, the planet, and lead is a rather “heavy metal”.. get it? The symbol and first two album covers are the work of enigmatic artist/draughtsman Bill Gawlik, who apparently fell off the face of reality by the time of Secret Treaties.

The occult connections don’t stop there. The album cover of Agents of Fortune features a magician (tarot card “I”, the second of the major arcana) holding four tarot cards loosely based Aleister Crowley’s “Thoth” deck (my preferred deck when I used to read tarot, full disclosure). I just can’t seem to get away from that guy.

Image: Columbia Records, fair use for educational purposes

The cards seem to be Death (XIII), duh, The Empress (III), The Emperor (IV), and The Sun (XIX) 2. The Magician points to the Saturnian symbol with his right index finger, and fans the cards with his left in a fashion that suggests they’re firm against the gray stone-like wall. A castle window with a blank sky is behind him.

Returning to the previous album for a moment, the cover (and back cover) feature a German ME 262 plane, with a member of the band in a cape and holding the leashes of four German Shepherd dogs. This is more than just reminiscent of the Process Church of the Final Judgment, a mysterious group that started in the UK in the 1960’s and spread to the US and beyond. That’s a whole post in itself, so I will just cut to the relevant bit.

Image: Columbia Records, fair use for educational purposes

Trust the Process

The PCFJ were known for dressing in black capes and having German Shepherds around for protection or intimidation. Allegedly (I have no proof of this) they would sacrifice dogs, and the back cover of the album shows the dogs apparently dead and left in a way that could suggest a ritual slaughter. According to Albert Bouchard, the art was done by Columbia’s art team, but the front cover was Sandy Pearlman’s idea and the back was Murray Krugman’s ((Martin Popoff, Agents of Fortune, 2016, p 42)). These two, along with rock critic Richard Meltzer and drummer Albert Bouchard, were the brains behind BöC- Pearlman being the chief of them.

Aside from his work with The Clash, Pearlman is best known for creating BöC out of a band originally from upstate New York called “Soft White Underbelly”. “We would never have surfaced as even a ‘Bob Seger-type’ of band, or even at all, if it wasn’t for Sandy,” says Buck Dharma, aka Donald Roeser ((Popoff, p 5)). Pearlman gave the band its name, from his poem The Soft Doctrines of Imaginos, a concept that would provide the direction for the band’s lyrics throughout their catalog. Honestly I am thinking that the “Imaginos narrative” deserves its own post, but the gist of the concept is that there are seven mysterious beings that were worshipped by natives of Mexico and Haiti, later known as “Les Invisibles”, who possibly come from Sirius (gathered from the lyrics of “Astronomy”). The “Dog Days” of summer are when they have their most influence on humanity. They play with human history, lifting the Spanish with gold, then toppling them with John Dee’s black mirror (of Mexican origin) and the British Empire, etc. Les Invisibles have more than a resemblance to “The Secret Chiefs“, “The Great White Brotherhood“, and other Theosophical concepts like the “The Nine” that influenced the creation of Star Trek and the “New Age”.

Are you still with me? OK, so there is a boy named Imaginos, born in the ultra-terrestrial hotspot known as New Hampshire under such perfect astro-geographic conditions that Les Invisibles take note. They give him super-human abilities such as being able to change his appearance and see the future in visions. He goes to Mexico, becomes shipwrecked and washed ashore in the Yucatan, where Les Invisibles decree that he either serve them or die as a human. He is resurrected by the Blue öyster Cult, and is renamed Desdinova, lives as a female much of the time, yadda yadda yadda. One interesting connection is that the Process Church had an adventure in the Yucatan, in a place called Ixtal, in 1966- but left due to pressure from locals and parents of members’ hiring of anti-cult agents. Oh, and did I mention that the symbol of the PCFJ looks suspiciously like a swastika to me? I’m not posting it here, but BöC were accused of being crypto-Nazis over the years. For the record I think they were not actually Nazis- not for the least of the reasons that frontman Eric Bloom, Pearlman, Krugman, and Meltzer were all Jewish. Sandy Pearlman is on record saying that keyboardist Allen Lanier was anti-Semetic, but it didn’t really bother him or Meltzer ((Popoff p 39-40)). Take that for what it is worth..

The boys are not looking very fascist in this shoot. Michael Putland, Getty Imagesnon-commercial use for educational purposes

OK, so we have so far..

  • Ties to Saturn (the logo, “Don’t Fear the Reaper”)
  • Alchemical lyrics and symbolism (“Workshops” and “Astronomy” especially)
  • Tales of ultra/extraterrestrials (the “Imaginos cycle” storyline- multiple tracks/albums)
  • Process Church symbolism (cape and Alsatians on Secret Treaties)
  • Crypto-Nazi accusations (“ME 262”, “Dominance and Submission”, etc)
  • Theosophy and secret societies (all over the catalog)

Spooky stuff, no?

Plus, YIKES!! Columbia Records, fair use, educational

She Had Become Like They Are

By the time Agents of Fortune was being written, the band members had decided to take more control over their image and sound. They were tired of being portrayed in marketing with things that were already becoming metal cliches (even if their associates had created some of the cliches, for instance the “heavy metal font”) like leather, S&M, and crypto-fascism ((Popoff p 61)). The band members wanted a high-fidelity sound and modern studio technology, despite worries from producer Krugman that they didn’t have the chops to sound like the top rock bands of the era with that recording precision ((Popoff p 57)). They were ready to prove him wrong with their biggest hit by far.

It’s widely known that “Don’t Fear the Reaper” was formed through Parthenogenesis straight out of the head of Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser. The demo version shows how close to the release version he already was.

The story is that Buck Dharma had a bit of a heart scare, and it gave him a feeling of mortality. He realized that life is fleeting, but had a notion of love living on, and used Romeo and Juliet as a metaphor, but claims it’s not a song about or encouraging suicide.

“The Reaper” is specifically about two concepts:

1) A powerful enough romantic love can transcend physical death and endure in the hereafter;

2) Death is inevitable whenever it happens to us, and we should know that and face it without fear, having some confidence in the universality of the human spirit, but having no proof until we actually die.

Buck Dharma, (Popoff p 67)

Of course, the song was “meant to be spooky“. It’s an eerie song, used in films from “Halloween” to “Gone Girl” and even the credits of a Simpsons episode. While some of its edge was softened by a certain comedy sketch you might have noticed that I am tip-toeing around, it’s a timeless gothic tale of love beyond the grave. This hit for BöC would become, as it is for so many bands, their greatest triumph and trap. As you will see in my evolving playlist, their sound would continue to (d)evolve into clear hit-chasing, Spectres sounding to me a heck of a lot like ELO for instance. I mostly listen while at the gym, and while the Black Sabbath pastiche “Godzilla” is mainstay of rock radio that I never cared for, and the rest just left me wanting Jeff Lynne’s band instead.4 Cultosaurus Erectus, awesome cover aside, was co-written with fantasy author Micheal Moorcock (who is better known for writing songs for the band Hawkwind). It’s all over the place. I like some of it. Fire of Unknown Origin is a return to form, and I rather like the A-side. “Burning for You” is just good arena rock, nothing profound. I want to jump to Imaginos, which wasn’t really BöC album but Albert and Sandy trying to bring the original vision for the group into being- the other guys came and played on it to satisfy the record company’s demand that it be a BöC album. “Les Invisibles” is a relentless and hypnotic groove, and there are some old songs, like “Astronomy” revisited. Man, this post is getting long, and the later albums suffered at the loss of Bouchard and aren’t really relevant to this discussion.

So, in conclusion.

There is a lot of the spooky, eerie, and sinister to the catalog, sound, and image of BöC. While I may have set out to get to the bottom of this one particular song, it’s really the rest of their opus that has me digging deeper. I do believe that these dark influences come slightly from the record company scheming of Murray Krugman (who was looking for an “American Black Sabbath” ((Popoff)), greatly from Al Bouchard, but mostly from the occult interests of Sandy Pearlman. Sure, individual band members might have been into horror and science fiction, but Blue Oyster Cult the band was a fabrication from the mind of Sandy Pearlman. At the end of the day, they probably weren’t fascists, occultists or even cultists. Or were they? Honestly I am not totally sure. My money is on it all being a big LARP, like most of heavy metal6, for most of the musicians in the band. Also, “Dominance and Submission” is by far a more disturbing song than “Don’t Fear the Reaper”, everyone is barking up the wrong tree, but that’s a post for another time.

Leave favorite BöC songs I left off of the playlist in the comments, if you have any..

Only the freshest of öysters!

1 If you get this reference, we need to be friends

2 According to Popoff ((61)) this was based on an “actual Tarot reading on the band, these in particular representing the King, Queen, Sun, and Death.” We are left to wonder which of the kings and queens of the deck (there are four of each, for the non-occultist readers) were pulled, as there are tremendous differences in meanings. Perhaps the artists- John Berg, Lynn Curlee, et al- were also not sure and substituted The Empress and The Emperor- or maybe the band mistook those cards for a Queen and a King in the reading

3 Sirius is so packed with meaning to ancient Egypt, mystery religions, cults and even the “Space Brothers” phenomenon of the mid-20th Century that it’s beyond the scope of this post

4 Check out Christoper Knowles‘ work on for more on “The Nine” and its influence on modern culture

5 How much does Eric Bloom look like Jeff Lynne?!

6 Recluse at the VISUP blog might disagree, and goes a lot deeper down the rabbit hole, so I don’t have to I suppose. I encourage you to check out this post and this one specifically for links to BöC’s beginnings on Long Island and the occult revival that was happening there, and “Dominance and Submission

To Bee or Not to Bee

Photo by mali maeder on

The best tool, I have found, for rescuing a drowning bee from a hot tub is a cheap pair of sunglasses. The second best tool is a sandal or “slide”, third is a cupped hand.. but that risks a sting, and that’s not good for you or the bee. If you see a bee in the hot tub, you might wonder if you have a moral obligation to use your cupped hand to scoop said bee out of her predicament. If you, perhaps, are a big baby in the body of a middle-aged man from Massachusetts, who splashed at said bee for “buzzing your tower” as it were, which caused the bee to plummet into that dubious stew of human skin, bromine, and microorganisms, which caused you to write a run on sentence; I would venture that it’s only fair to grab the nearest possible improvised life-saving device and get that little gal out. Oh, she’ll shiver and shake and look rather pathetic for a little while, but she’ll be ok.

Perhaps I’m just trying to make up for my accidental violence against bees in the past. I remember running like hell as a child, when I hit a bee with a wiffle-ball bat rather than the wicked slider my neighbor dropped on me from eight feet away. In retrospect I probably didn’t need to run, I’m sure I sent the bee to the great apiary in the sky. It must have been a bumble bee, I can still remember the “thunk”. We had the kid who was allergic to bees, of course, since every neighborhood in the 80’s did, but he didn’t run. Are kids still allergic to bees? Are kids outside enough to even worry about it? Are there enough bees to even worry about it?

Cut to just after the turn of the millennium. I’m a 21yr old temporary college dropout, driving a stake truck with a commercial driver’s license and tons of barely-secured pumps, filters, and self-securing pallets of sand bags. I’m bouncing down the Superstition Highway, East of Phoenix at 65mph, with my windows down to mitigate the relentless heat. The air coming in felt like opening an oven to check on your roast. The radio was playing “Bringing Sexy Back” by Justin Timberlake. A small cloud of what appeared to be dust was flying right at me and hit me at an angle. I’m sure you realize by now that it wasn’t dust, but a swarm of bees, possibly a colony on the move. I’m not sure if they were “killer bees”, but the ones down the back of my t-shirt sure tried their best to kill me. The others were in various states of dying, confusion, or blackening the windshield with their bee-bits.

Braking a speeding stake truck (think of those long, flat-bed trucks with the removable grates that you don’t see much anymore) loaded with tons of sand isn’t easy under the best of circumstances. Braking a speeding truck with a back covered in stinging bees and bee-guts, with a darkened windshield, windshield wipers vainly trying to scrape off the already baking bees.. that’s a fair bit harder. Doing all of this to the tune of “Bringing Sexy Back”, looking like you’re doing some apoplectic new dance move is.. simply absurd. I hope this explains how I remember what exact song was on the radio over twenty years ago. I finally got the truck to a stop, safely, on the side of the road. Of course, the music was still blaring, and I was now on the side of the road doing my bee dance for anyone driving by to enjoy. The cabin of the truck was an absolute crime scene. I won’t paint too precise a picture of the carnage, but it took me a little while to get back on the road, and every minute or two a dazed bee would crawl up the side of my seat, or my shoe, or the back of my neck.

The bees would get another shot at revenge a year later. I was riding cross-country, almost to the Minnesota state line on my red Honda Magna, my entire “biker” experience having been condensed into the six months prior. I was wearing a Gap leather jacket, as opposed to an actual riding jacket designed for such adventures. A bee, perhaps one that had been part of that swarm and was now waiting in ambush many states away, flew up the gap in my armor and began stinging me as I was flying down the highway. She didn’t survive the attack, of course, and flew past my neck and out the back of my jacket. The deed was done, though, and the stinger kept pumping poison and making my left arm throb for miles until I found a spot to pull over and extract it.

I suppose the bees and I are even. We haven’t had any incidents since then. That being said I think I’ll still extract them from pools whenever I can. It’s better to keep things that way.

[edit: there was that one time I got stung by a bee while filming a Goya commercial, but I guess that can wait for another time..]

Time for an Old Fashioned Reset

I made myself an “Old Fashioned” tonight. That might not sound strange to someone reading a blog called “Cryptic Cocktails”, but not a lot of my readers (either of this blog or my monthly cocktail column) know that I don’t have a home bar. I haven’t actually written about a cocktail on this blog in a long time. So if not a cocktail blog, what the heck is Cryptic Cocktails? On the day of my livestream with Reverend Erik on Halloween cocktails, I figured I was going to get that question. Maybe it’s time to sit over a whiskey and figure out a good answer, an “elevator pitch” if you will.

The Book

Currently I am editing six years worth of writing into “cocktail book”, but actually it’s more of a collection of essays; rants from this dusty desert curmudgeon, some history, lots of recipes mixed in. Probably some local folklore and esoteric stuff will end up in the mix. Maybe some illustrations from a local artist. Something you can throw in a backpack, not a fancy coffee table brick. I’m pivoting my life in a direction to get away from the late nights and hard living of full-time bartending, but I’d like to have something to show for the all the time. So, here I am, sipping the last few drops of rye, bitters, sugar, and water and damn, it’s pretty good.

The Blog

So, less bartending, but a few more cocktails. The original idea for this project was to find the common ground with cocktails and the esoteric; alchemy, herbs, haunted bars, stuff like that.

As for the writing, I am an essayist at heart. Some of my voice and humor gets lost in my *cough* “serious” esoteric writing (and in my fiction). If I can’t sound like “me” writing a post I simply won’t write it.

YouTube and more

My channel is mostly going to be about spooky pop culture- my chance to talk about stuff I like to watch, listen to, and read when I am not writing. I have a new found respect for anyone making video, btw. I posted the first two right here on the blog, so let me know what you think!

I am planning on doing more events locally in Palm Springs, CA; cocktail history related, and probably some tarot or esoteric events too.

I’ll always try to give you something to take away, if nothing else!

Speaking of which..

How ’bout a Drink

The Old Fashioned is a living relic, and in a lot of ways, it’s the first cocktail. Certainly it wasn’t the first “mixed drink”. However the “Cocktail” per se was an actual drink containing spirit, bitters, and sugar. We don’t used that definition these days, but back in the mid to late 1800’s a cocktail was just that. Ice came later. So, as bartenders started messing around with things like vermouth, curaçao, and even citrus, the original cocktail became “old fashioned”. [That’s the short version, for a longer version check out Imbibe by David Wondrich. He has a whole chapter on the journey.] Anyway, it’s a drink I respect and love to make for people (partly because it’s easy and let’s me show off my stir) but hardly ever drink. Maybe because I cut my teeth drinking in dive bars in Boston where drinking whiskey that wasn’t a shot or Irish was looked at.. askance. While I gladly quaff a Manhattan or Boulevardier or three without a care, I still rarely drink these. But here’s the best way to make it, in my opinion.

Old Fashioned

2 oz Bourbon, rye is also acceptable- save the brandy for Wisconsin

1 tsp rich simple syrup (2 parts sugar to 1 part water, reduce over heat)

4 dashes of bitters (Angostura is the classic, but there are so many out there to try!)

Build it in a short, wide glass, add ice, larger cubes are better but nothing wrong with your household freezer size, and stir. Get a nice swath of orange peel, squeeze it over the top to express the oils over the drink, and rest it on top. It’s not a stir stick, leave it there to smell the oils as you sip! Remember, nothing wrong with going back to the well, once in a while!

Candyman (1992)

The second episode in my “Behind the Magic” series on the YouTube channel. Retrograde made this one a nightmare so I am happy to have something to show for it, I hope you enjoy!

The Emperor

Meditations on the Tarot IV

With the fourth major arcana, The Emperor, the author of Meditations on the Tarot explores the concept of mystical authority. The first three figures represented “to be, to know, and to be capable”, and with all three of those conditions met, one is granted authority to “lay down the law”, as he states.The Emperor is a ruler without a weapon. That seems odd at first, but according to the author he needs no weapon, he “has renounced compulsion and violence”. He doesn’t rest on his laurels, however, he remains vigilant, not quite seated and not quite standing. His legs are crossed, and he has the eagle shield [or is it a griffin?] at his feet. “He is a sentry bound to his post.” [aside: Personally, I feel his pose of holding the scepter diagonally to the shield in an outward fashion compared to The Empress who holds them closely and horizontally at her bosom is quite telling in terms of the attributes and relationship of the cards.]

The author sees significance in the exceptionally large and heavy-looking crown on The Emperor’s head, “It is the sign of legitimacy… but it is also the sign of a task or mission by which the crown is charged from above.” The sunny rays that emanate outward imply a crown of thorns inwardly [as above so below?]. They are “nails piercing and crucifying each thought or image of the personal imagination.” Due to his station, states the author, The Emperor has made four renunciations; opinion, word, movement, and a personal name. These four renunciations mirror the four letters of the sacred name, YHVH. Since Meditations on the Tarot is a work of Christian Hermeticism, the author discusses the concept of God, powerless and crucified, in relation to The Emperor. While I don’t really get the crucifixion aspect of the card, the figure does seem to be stuck in a pose between actions, a liminal state if you will. Where the author sees a God almighty and at the same time a God crucified, I do see the hint of in-between in his pose that belies the stability of the 4 in tarot numerology. I have always considered the crucifixion to be Tiphareth, call me Rosicrucian, but I do see what the author is getting at here. Chesed, the fourth sephiroth, is the first sephiroth of action and creation, while also signifying mercy and love. Here we have the seeming contradiction of stability and authority with action and love.

In the card of The Emperor we also have the card of physical creation, the culmination of the first three cards. The author delves into one of my favorite Cabbala [his spelling] concepts, tsimtsum. This is the idea that before God could create a universe, God had to make a void first. By creating a space within “Godself”, there could be existence, as nothing could exist outside of God. Therefore, through tsimtsum, God could contract God’s power to create free beings, ruled over by love and authority and not coercion. For the author this is symbolized by the figure’s crossed legs and tightened belt.

The Emperor is outside, he has no court or retinue to guard him. He seems to be in a field, or on a rocky promenade perhaps. This adds to the idea that he is, in my words, a sort of archetype of the ruler rather than a practical ruler of people. His domain is the sky and the earth. As the author says, The Emperor’s power is gained through initiation, the state of consciousness where eternity and the present moment are one.

The author guards us against reading too many “theories or concepts” into the cards, declaring that the theories and concepts flow from the symbol on the card and not the other way around. would not do to say: the fourth card “The Emperor” is the symbol of the astrological doctrine concerning Jupiter. One would rather say: the Arcanum of the fourth card “The Emperor” is also revealed in the astrological doctrine concerning Jupiter.”

Meditations on the Tarot, p90

This is pretty much the opposite of the way most readers I know read, including myself. We let our big occult brains complicate a reading instead of letting the symbol speak to our subconscious. What else can you expect in the modern world, where numbers and algorithms and words are what are valued? For centuries diviners gave readings without ever having heard of solve et coagula, much less Hod or Chesed. [aside: I have to remind myself often to look at the card, and why I am weary of someone using a Hello Kitty deck and reading it like a Thoth deck, not that I, too, haven’t done such. I once used a “food” deck in a pinch- how does one read the “3 of Sushi”? But I digress..] The author is concerned with Hermitic philosophy, and “Hermetic philosophy is not composed of the Cabbala, astrology, magic and alchemy. These four branches sprouting from the trunk do not make the trunk, rather they live from the trunk.” In the first four cards of the Major Arcana, for him, you find the four spiritual practices that form the key to the Apocalypse [in the meaning of the ‘unveiling’, I imagine]: concentration without effort, vigilant inner silence, inspired activity of imagination and thought, contemplation of everything which preceded.

The Emperor, therefore, is a symbol, from that symbol flows these spiritual concepts, and from the first four Arcana one sets the groundwork for practice of Hermetic concepts. So much for making the cards less esoteric I guess!

No Wise Man Has the Power…

I am working on a playlist I decided would be called “Grocery Store Jams”. The premise is that it’s songs I heard at the grocery store growing up, or on the way in my mom’s car (“Mom’s Station Wagon” was an alternative title. It’s not necessarily “Yacht Rock”, although some of it is. A lot of the songs are “bad” by current tastes, but nostalgic- a lot are still great songs. There is a heap of the dreaded “Adult Contemporary” of the nineties, the category where 60’s rockers and blues crooners went to die. If I were honest about it, I would have some 90’s Clapton and Bonnie Raitt on there- but I just can’t listen to those songs anymore. There’s a hell of a lot of Steve Winwood though, and Bruce Hornsby. I put in some Brit favorites like Howard Jones and Level 42, but avoided anything from the 80’s that would end up on an “Awesome 80’s” list or anything like that. Phil Collins and Genesis make an appearance. Anita Baker and Christine McVie bring some smokiness. I got rid of the Steely Dan for being too respectable for a middle-aged man to listen to, but I left IGY by Donald Fagen. Jackson Browne got a last minute removal for the same reason. So did the Eagles, although Don Henley and Glenn Frey are on there. It’s a work still very much in progress.

The Doobie Brothers were on the list a lot, but for the reason of being so clearly Classic/Yacht Rock, I edited them out. Before I cut it, “What a Fool Believes” started playing, so obviously I had to listen the whole way through and croak along in my best Michael McDonald impression. This song gets me everytime, right from the jump. Those cheery major chords on the keys, blithe, almost silly- bouncy for sure. The bridge, the falsetto, Blue-Eyed Soul at its absolute best. Co-written by Kenny Loggins, it’s the tale of a man and woman reuniting after being separated. The man still thinks there’s something there, the woman never felt the same way. One gets the impression that either this was just a temporary fling that meant nothing to her, or it was something more significant and he blew it somehow. Despite her (off camera, so to speak) telling him that there is nothing there (anymore?), he keeps living in a fantasy world where things are different.

As the lyrics say “But what a fool believes/ he sees/ no wise man has the power/ to reason away”. It’s the story of the human journey, no?

This song has followed me around my whole life, popping up at odd times. Sometimes it comes on when I am a low point, like a message that things are going to be ok, it’s the delusions in life that cause me pain most of the time- not the reality. Sometimes I feel like it’s a gentle admonition, sometimes it tells me I am on the right path. This song is like a well-placed tarot card for me, it takes a little interpretation based on the circumstances. Is it The Fool though? Well, sure, but that’s a little on the nose. I don’t typically read reversals, but perhaps a Knight of Cups reversed might be more accurate, or in an unfavorable position, near a 5 of Cups and The Star (in its less favorable aspects). 

So, yes, this was a round-about way to say that sometimes it helps to associate song lyrics with cards. It’s something I have sort of done unconsciously over the years, but am going to start doing more actively now that I have walked myself through this exegesis.

As for the playlist, I am subbing the song with the suspiciously similar “Steal Away” by Robbie Dupree. Not sure how those songs came out within a year of each other with a lawsuit. Dupree says that sort of piano lick was pretty common in music by then, and he’s right- I realized I had also put “He’s So Shy” by the Pointer Sisters on the playlist, and yep. I’ll have to work out some correspondences for those songs too. But that’s for another post I guess.

The Mean Mystic

I am almost at the end of New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton, and it has me thinking. That’s not surprising, of course, while one is reading a great spiritual thinker. Two of my favorite points he makes are, and I paraphrase; to be a contemplative starts with minding your own business, and that controversy is antithetical to the contemplative. Probably those appeal to me because I occasionally fancy myself as above human concerns (pure fantasy btw), and therefore human activity and (ugh) small-talk are anathema. It is probably little surprise then, that I dread the (far too sudden) total and chaotic “reopening” that California is undergoing at the moment.

Before you start thinking I am some curmudgeonly misanthrope (too late, I’m sure, if you know me), I like persons. I like persons a lot. One of my favorite things about bartending is having an unexpected conversation with someone about something that interests me. But I am really dismissive to people, and hold them in contempt. Sometimes I lump persons into people, especially if I feel pressure behind the bar or am in a mood. I put up a wall. I get mean.

I remember reading about Merton, I believe it was in The Seven Story Mountain, that his friend advised him he didn’t really want to be a hermit; he wanted a hermitage in the middle of Times Square that had a neon sign that said HERMIT. I can relate. That’s why I have a blog about these topics, my little neon sign on the internet.

I know deep-down that to be standoffish to one’s fellow humans is the thing that is actually antithetical to contemplative life. Perhaps, one day, I will get to a place where I have more kindness and forbearance. I am hoping that not being hungover and sleep-deprived all the time will help- we’ll see. In the meantime I will try and remember, when I tire of small-talk (and especially the booby-traps of current conversation), that we’re all created to be what we are created to be, and not everyone has the same interests. Besides, if everyone just talked about things I was interested in, then I wouldn’t be special, would I?

The “unknown friend”, author of Meditations on the Tarot, makes a distinction between the mystical experience of the “Christian mystic” versus the “Eastern mystic”- that the former seek to keep some sort of individuality by dissolving into Love while the latter seeks to lose individuality by dissolving into Oneness. While this could certainly be argued by someone well versed in “Eastern mysticism” (a label so broad as to be almost meaningless), I am challenged by the idea that “capital L” Love might just be the missing ingredient in my journey. I am not sure how to get there, though. I am thinking the way forward involves shedding my resentments, learning to love myself first and then expanding that to the rest of the world around me. That’s what I am attempting at least. While I hope to mind my own business and avoid controversy in these polarized times, it’s just as important to realize that the reason for that is to avoid being perturbed by one’s fellow human, and not to avoid them altogether. What good is a mean mystic, after all?

Tarot Bots and AI Readers

Has tarot been outsourced to our phones? Is a “tarot reader” as antiquated as it sounds, a profession best left in the days of yore, before reason, materialism, and “trust the science”? Apparently tarot is more in demand than ever, or so I gather. More people are buying decks than ever, and rarely do I visit someone’s home without seeing a deck or two- and not just my magical friends. Of course these days I rarely visit someone’s home at all- but that’s another matter.

Do we really need tarot though? Should we just treat all of these decks like cultural curiosities, collectors’ items, etc?

How many decks do we need? How many tarot readers does the world need? It’s like yoga, everyone I know in Palm Springs who does yoga is either a yoga instructor or becoming one or thinking of becoming one. It’s a trope, and obviously an exaggeration. Lots of people do yoga and have no actual desire to become a teacher. Lots of people have tarot decks and have zero inclination of becoming a professional reader. I have done a ton of reading for people in public and have toyed with the thought of “going pro”, even setting up a website for it (100 bucks down the drain!). Then I hit a wall. Really I hit a couple of walls. Firstly the pandemic went on a good deal longer than anticipated, and a year from creating the website the world is still not safe for in-person readings. I could have done email readings, of course, but that’s not what I do, or did, rather. 

You see, the way I did readings was to get a good buzz on and read for friends and strangers at bars and parties. Man, was I good too. People would line up, especially since it was free- not that I would turn down a drink for my efforts. Now that my life is different and I don’t get that Dionysian out-of-body experience from drunk-reading anymore, I have had zero interest in picking up cards to read anyone. When I have played with a deck, or even tried to remember the meanings of cards, I have felt a disconnect. This is true with any “magical” thing I have tried sober. It’s just not “there”, anymore. I’ve lost my mojo. It makes me wonder if it was ever “me” with any of these abilities or if I just let something else in all of these years. It could just be that the pathways need to be rerouted. Maybe I have just outgrown all of this “silly magic stuff” and should just grow into the mystic I have always daydreamed of being instead- more Hebrew, fewer “barbarous names”.

I still love tarot though. Despite its becoming overly popular, despite feeling it’s left me behind, I still think the deck, any deck, is a powerful tool. I am working on bringing it back into my life, as my life is constituted now, and look forward to feeling confident reading again someday soon. I don’t want to leave tarot behind the way I have walked away from spellcraft and sigils and other assorted tools of the mage (for now at least). Actually I am confident I will come out the other side a better reader- that this time is for me the magical equivalent of the “Dark Night of the Soul”. Until then I use my phone for daily pull. 

That may sound strange, since I am effectively a Luddite with a blog, who eschews most apps and social media and whatnot. But I was turned onto Golden Thread’s app, and it has a daily pull feature that I have found quite useful (while I do recommend the app, I am sure there are others that work similarly and I have no connection to the venture). I am finding the daily pulls on my phone, which I gather are decided by a random number generator, to be spookily accurate to my situation most days. It’s at least as useful as my previous manual daily pulls, and even easier. [My one complaint is that the logging system could work better, it would be nice if it kept a longer log. One could always use a journal of course and not be lazy, but I journal enough, dammit!]

Here’s the conclusion you could probably guess I already made before I started writing- no, phones will not replace tarot readers. The world “needs” tarot readers for the same reason we “need” bartenders- sure, you could do it yourself, it’s not like being your own doctor or lawyer, but you’re better in the hands of a professional. Just like tending bar, when you get a connection with the person you’re reading for, the experience is better for everyone. There is an energy exchange. We also need more decks. There is no reason to stop making decks. Make decks that speak to you, clutter the world with decks. Make decks that help create the world you want to see. Your phone won’t replace your favorite deck, or your favorite reader. That doesn’t mean it’s not a powerful tool for divination. There is something of the spooky in random number generators. As there is no such thing as random (every event has been caused by something), it’s my belief that there are no random numbers- you’ll see patterns in the short term even if they disappear in the long run. There is something magical about this computing function, and if you don’t believe me, a quick internet search will turn up some interesting studies. So be a good magician and use the best tool for the job, whether that be analog or digital, it’s still magic after all.

And maybe I will pick up a deck today after all..

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