One evening last week, I lit a bonfire in the back yard, brought out the iPod dock, cranked tunes and burned stuff. My son joined me. We took turns picking the music, and tossing kindling into the fire pit. It felt primal, ritualistic and pretty cool.
Interestingly, though, I wasn't thinking of it at the time, this little suburban ritual we were performing -- which for me was really about bonding with my son, listening to songs and, er, burning stuff -- was quite fitting for the season. Halloween, after all, has its roots in Celtic rites involving placating the spirits of the deceased.
Apparently, this harvest period -- when stock was taken of foodstuffs for the coming winter and livestock were slaughtered -- is also the time of year when the spirits of the dead are closest to the living. Pagan-types would throw the bones of freshly killed animals into roaring bonfires, put on masks and animal skins, dance around, and more than likely drink plenty of the era's equivalent of Guinness, all in an attempt to keep the spirits happy, thereby averting any sort of ghost-based foul play.
Reflecting on all of this during the previous days has left me thinking about the connection between these pagan-based rites, their ties to the changing of the seasons and the way in which music can still suggest this sort of ritualistic mojo -- particularly when the imagination is heightened, as it is during the days surrounding Halloween.
It seems purely logical that folks in the distant past would believe that the gap between the living and the dead is all but closed right around this time. After all, everything around us is dying, while we continue to live. It's not unlike walking through a graveyard.
Mumbo jumbo, maybe, but intriguing nonetheless. Me being me, all of this gets interpreted through the prism of song and sound. It's an appropriate time, then, to select and sequence a digital "mix tape." (These are more commonly referred to as "playlists" today, outside of the world of underground hip-hop. But I prefer "mix tape," since it reminds me of what we used to do in junior high, when, lacking the fortitude to actually communicate lovelorn emotions directly to the object of desire, we'd assemble a bunch of tunes on a cassette, and let the music do the talking for us.)
What makes a song or a composition scary? Well, there's the obvious, "Monster Mash"-based stuff, which is more campy-creepy than genuinely frightening. I decided to leave that type of thing out of the equation, and go for the music that made me feel closest to the dead, or at least the vast "otherness" that one associates with the "spirit world." This, I assure myself, is probably what the Celtic pagans would've done, had they owned an iPod.
Here, in no particular order -- made to be played in the "random shuffle" mode -- are songs that freak me out, for various reasons.
Tom Waits, "The Earth Died Screaming" (from "Bone Machine")
This is Waits at his creepy, sinister best, howling like a man presiding over the apocalypse, a carnival barker at the gates of hell, or just a really imaginative dude having a great time in the recording studio. Whatever. He tapped into something primal and frightening here.
The Doors, "The End" (from "The Doors")
Whoa. This one refuses to lose any of its epic drama for me, even though I first heard it 30 years ago. The Oedipal section is still brilliantly twisted and truly disturbed.
The Grateful Dead, "Dark Star" (from "Live Dead")
How far out into the cosmos can you go with nothing but one chord and its accompanying mode for company? Pretty far, apparently. This performance is transformative, but it's a scary sort of transformation -- like you've accrued too much knowledge, and there will most definitely be a price to pay.
John Coltrane, "Ascension" (from "Ascension")
"Dark Star" only hints at the primal power at work during this dense, cacophonous, primal scream. The sound of someone trying to crawl out of their own skin, as if being tethered to the Earth by a body is an annoyance. Hard to listen to because of its power.
Miles Davis, "Bitches Brew" (from "Bitches Brew")
The staccato spitting of Miles' trumpet call heralds a moonlit crawl through a dangerous New Orleans swamp. This is the kind of piece that freaks me out when I listen to it loud, alone, at night.
Black Sabbath, "Black Sabbath" (from "Black Sabbath")
That's the "Devil's interval" -- root to flatted five -- Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi is playing here. It sounds unbelievably evil, portentous, sinister. And Ozzy comes across as positively possessed by . . . something.
Marilyn Manson, "Great Big White World" (from "Mechanical Animals")
Most of the time, Manson is more cartoonish than scary. But this song has a cold, detached essence that suggests someone who has eaten from the tree of knowledge. Repeatedly.
Led Zeppelin, "No Quarter" (from "Houses of the Holy")
This puts me in the frame of mind to imagine those Celts whirling like dervishes around the bonfire, throwing bloody animal bones on the fire and begging the spirits to play nice.
Iron Maiden, "The Number of the Beast" (from "The Number of the Beast")
Well, you've gotta throw something funny in there, right? "The Number of the Beast," and its "six six six" refrain, is iconic. It's also more than a little tongue in cheek. Still, the song, which recounts a particularly vivid nightmare, echoes the hypnagogic short stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne, particularly "Young Goodman Brown." Really.
Happy Halloween! And may the harvest treat you well.