If there’s two things that have always dominated my life as a magician and general observer of the Weird, it’s synchronicity and music. When they combine, the effect can be transformative and overwhelming.
In their highly-acclaimed comic Phonogram, Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie illustrate the immense power of music as a kind of magic in itself, and as the basis for an entire magical system. Much as I love this book (and especially enjoy it’s being set in my adopted home town of Bristol), it doesn’t quite capture how I feel about music and magic – mostly because the music which inspired Gillen in writing the comic is the pop song, where my preference is for Rock. Give me a wailing guitar, driving bassline & mythic (even bombastic) lyrics and I’m a happy magus.
So when my online friend Wolven blogged about being given a strong hint by one of his pals that a certain band deserved a listen – and said band’s name and recommended track are saturated with synchronous resonance – I paid attention.
(That’s the thing about synchronicity: though it’s often regarded as a case of our giving meaning to mere coincidence, sometimes it’s more like the coincidence brings meaning to us. Nothing ‘mere’ about it.)
The band is Crippled Black Phoenix. The track is called 444.
A single listen, and I was converted. If there’s one thing I love even more than hard rock with mystical overtones, it’s said rock with an Arabian flavour to the sound. And that name… as someone who’s worked with alchemical metaphors since my early 20s, the symbolism was, shall we say, apropos. (And very timely – it’s been a tough few months generally, and the last few weeks have been especially challenging. Between my own trials, the death of a close friend and colleague and my long-time health problems, the thought of a crippled phoenix struggling to rise from the ashes of its’ own immolation was a powerful one. And since the state I was trying to rise above is best described by the alchemical term Nigredo, the Blackening…)
(And that 444? In the kabbalistic system called Gematria, it symbolises Jesus. Resurrection overtones, noted.)
Over the next 4 or 5 days that I fell head-over-heels for this band, other tracks which stayed with me strongly were the anthemic Rise Up And Fight (’nuff said), the epic, mournful Burnt Reynolds and the Post-Rock-influenced Time of Ye Life/Born For Nothing/Paranoid Arm of Narcoleptic Empire (featuring a long, positive-thinking-speech sample of Evel Kinevel!).
The kind of music that burns in my blood, sings in my soul. Music for Magic.
So, come Wednesday, I idly wondered when they were touring. I googled… and found their last UK date was That Thursday. The next day, in London. I know a hint when I see one… and I know that this kind of synchronicity tends to run in chains – so I was curious how this one would play out. Booked a ticket on the spot, found a cheap-and-nasty last-minute hotel (as there was no fucking way I’d make the last train home) and packed.
(Aside: London and I have… an arrangement. I moved there in my late teens, found my first magical peer group there, did a lot of workings, walked a lot of those streets seeking the Strange – and found it everywhere in that grimy, lovely old town. Every time I go back to the Smoke, it’s a recharge-reconnection. Not quite on the John Constantine level, but it does me nicely.)
Away I went.
So I pull into Paddington station early Thursday afternoon. I figure I can dump my gear at the hotel, check out some old haunts & make the scene in plenty of time. The hotel was kind of what I expected – a cupboard in a repurposed Georgian terrace, off Pimlico. I noted that, with the exception of diverting one stop on the Victoria Line to the hotel, my whole itinerary was on the Circle Line. Apt. Then I spotted that the streets leading to the hotel were Lupus Street and St. George’s Square – both redolent with meaning for me. (Always liked wolves… and Saint George, in one mystical tradition, is taken as an aspect of the Sufi trickster-figure Khidr, who I worked with extensively when living in London.) Synchronicity’s thin-but-strong thread, pulling me on.
Then, a little wander. First to the Embankment, where I payed my respects to Old Father Thames. Then along the line of magical bookshops that runs about 20 minutes from Charing Cross – Watkins, Mysteries and the newly-moved Treadwells. (The equally venerable Atlantis Books, though a fine place, was never a major haunt of mine, and time didn’t seem quite enough to fit it in.)
In each shop, just for a laugh, I did a little bibliomancy. Picked an interesting book – a how-to of magical defence, a translation of Sufi poetry, a chaos magic tome) and each one had something to say… hints on how I could best move onward, leave the Nigredo. How to let the phoenix fly.
(The new Treadwells looks pretty good, by the way. Got the vibe of the old establishment, even though they’re not quite fully moved in. Always lovely to see Christina, too. And I picked up a copy of a splendid book on that talented artist and proto-guttershaman Austin Osman Spare, Borough Satyr.)
Then a splendid Chinese meal in Gerrard Street (try the smoked shredded chicken in The Royal Dragon!) and up to King’s Cross for the gig.
The venue was The Lexington: a classic room-over-a-pub arrangement. Got there in plenty of time for a wee dram of Kentucky bourbon before kick-off.
A rare good omen: the support act were bloody excellent. I’ve seen some truly shite bands supporting good acts in my time – this outfit, Teeth Of The Sea, were strong enough that I’d cheerfully pay to see them headline.
Then Crippled Black Phoenix took the stage. And they were damn good. But… it was just a gig. Excellent music, occasional small technical flubs, a full and boisterously appreciative audience. No more, no less. They played a lot off the new album I, Vigilante, which was to be expected. Frontman Joe Volk chatted amusingly with the crowd between tracks.
And that was fine. Y’know, I though to myself, if all that’s happening is I chased a couple of accidental symbols and got off my arse to go see a good band, there’s honestly worse ways to spend my time.
The gig wound enjoyably towards its end. Then, they played 444.
And everything just clicked.
It’s the hardest damn thing to describe about magic. That perfect moment of resolution, the feeling of all the wheels in the universe moving softly into balance. Of being in exactly the right place at the right time – grounded, strong and sure. The place all true magic, all wisdom and love and purpose, spring from. The Axis Mundi. After too fucking long, I was back there.
I was home.
(Bristol, two days later. I’m writing, the CBP album The Resurrectionists playing in the background. As I type the words I was home, the track 444 starts to play. Honestly, the timing is perfect.)
(That’s what I mean when I say synchronicity rules the magician’s life.)
Then they played Rise Up and Fight. Then they played Burnt Reynolds. And I was still there. Drenched in sweat, convulsing to the music, tears streaming down my grinning face. Singing my throat raw to the call-and-response of Burnt Reynolds. By the time the encore, (inevitably) Time Of Yr Life/Born For Nothing/Paranoid Arm If Narcoleptic Empire hit its stride, I felt like my body was transformed into pure sound. Transcendent. Whole.
The last notes fade, the band leave the stage. Slowly, I ground back into mere flesh.
Aching, damp and deliriously happy, I stumble back to the hotel. On the way, I notice I’m staying about 5 minutes from the Tate Britain gallery. When I phone home to wife-the-artist to tell her I’m (better than) OK, I ask if she knows of anything interesting showing there at the moment. I’ve some time in the morning before my train home, it seems silly not to take the opportunity for a bit of culture.
“Well,” she says, “There’s the Susan Hiller retrospective… she’s got a whole Fortean thing going on. You should check it out.”
Fair do’s. I crash, wake, have an iffy breakfast and set out to the Tate.
Despite the gently nudging of wife-the-artist, I don’t spend a lot of time in art galleries, and I’m rarely moved by fine art as much as I am by a great film or TV episode – or piece of music. This was the first time I have openly wept in a gallery.
From the introduction to the exhibit:
“Hiller juxtaposes knowledge derived from anthropology, psychoanalysis and other scientific disciplines with materials generally considered unimportant, like postcards, wallpaper, popular movies and internet postings, balancing the familiar and the unexplained and inviting the viewer to participate in the creation of meaning… Privileging the repressed, forgotten or unknown, Hiller confers status on what lies beyond rationality or recognition.”
Many of the works displayed were ‘traditional’ art forms, given her own twist – collages, well-framed nick-nacks in boxes and such. Some of these, such as The Tao of Water: Homage to Joseph Beuys 1969-2010 (a collection of tiny bottles of water drawn from sacred wells around the world) 10 Months (a series of pictures of Hiller’s belly taken over the duration of her pregnancy, with accompanying text) and Automatic Writing ( a cruciform display of some examples of her own experiments in that form), struck me with a real sense of the elusive, numinous spirit I’ve always sought. But it was her installations, combining the visual and the sonic, that had the most powerful effect.
Pieces like Psi Girls (5 simultaneously played clips from SF/horror films featuring young girls as the focus of psychokinetic activity, colour-and-sound distorted) and An Entertainment (a similar manipulation of slowed-down Punch and Judy show footage, bringing the terror that forms the basis of that tale to the fore) had a visceral effect. But at the end, it was four particular installations that moved me deepest.
Monument is a reconstruction of memorial plaques from a Victorian graveyard, all of people who died trying to save the lives of others. In the middle of these is a reproduction of a grafitti found on the site, which reads STRIVE TO BE YOUR OWN HERO. In front of this is a classic wooden bench with an old-school field-grade tape recorder and headphones lying on it – you can listen to Hiller’s stream-of-consciousness about the nature of heroism. I lingered over the names of these quiet heroes and heras for a long time, lost in thought. So lost, in fact, that it wasn’t until after I left that I noticed on a photo the name immediately below the graffiti was one Edward Blake – the same name as The Comedian in Watchman…
Magic Lantern also works with juxtaposing sound and image. Coloured circles projected on a wall fade into each other, while you listen to a series of recordings of Raudive voices. Hypnotic, compelling – and, for those fans of The Invisibles out there, an extra layer of meaning when those coloured circles are red, or white…
Witness is simply one of the loveliest things I’ve ever experienced. A darkened room, lit by a few blue spotlights, contains hundreds of small speakers suspended on clear plastic lines at different heights. Each plays one of over 2000 different eye-witness account of a UFO or other Fortean encounter, taken from across the world, in a variety of languages. Occasionally, the susurrus of voices fades and a single story is given prominence – then the chorus slowly comes back up. I’ve no idea how long I wandered in this forest of tales…
The Last Silent Movie is where I finally lost it and cried. A small movie theatre set-up plays a loop, black except for subtitles. The soundtrack is samples of the last native speakers of dying or dead languages. Indescribably sad.
A very different experience from the gig of the previous night, but unquestionably as powerful and transformative. And only found by the ‘coincidence’ of my randomly-chosen hotel being near that gallery.
The chain of synchronicity neared its end. I went back into the Circle (Line), left Mother London and returned home – joyous, subtly transformed, a little clearer, a little further along my Path.
One YouTube video brought me to this. One chance, out between two worlds…
Of course this is all subjective. How could it be otherwise?
But it’s still magic.