For a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, Gary Lachman has had an unusual career trajectory. In the mid-1970s he joined Blondie as their boy wonder bassist and wrote some of the group’s classic early songs—”X Offender” and “(I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear”—before quitting just as they were becoming a well-oiled hit machine.
Today, Lachman is the author of over a dozen books on the occult and esoteric thought, an interest that began during his Blondie days (back when he was known as Gary Valentine). While living in a three-story loft near famed New York City club CBGB’s with lead singer Debbie Harry and guitarist Chris Stein, Lachman’s curiosity was initially piqued by the spooky, kitschy detritus strewn about their living quarters/rehearsal space. “Debbie and Chris had occult bric-a-brac around their flat,” he told me, “and it also covered the walls when we were living on the Bowery.”
“It was probably more Chris than Debbie,” Lachman added, “he and I shared some interests, like horror films and comic books. He was keen on voodoo and pentagrams; actually, he was kind of a goth in the beginning, wearing eyeliner and silver skulls. That sort of thing was also a leftover from the previous generation. They were both older than me and had been involved in that; I just watched it on television.”
These influences filtered into his songwriting. Lachman wrote, “(I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear” after he and his then-girlfriend, actress/photographer/writer Lisa Jane Persky, realized they were having the same dreams. It is surely the only hit song to mention theosophy. “While I was on tour we would know when each one was going to call,” he said, “and we would find out that we were both thinking of the same kind of thing at the same time, even though many miles away … that sort of thing, which is not unusual with couples.”
“As for navigating psychic frequencies,” Persky told me, “we really were one, knew the other, had that sense of completion at all times. It was empowering. There comes a time when you have to be two people again and as lovers, we didn’t survive that. The rock’n’roll/showbiz life did come between us. That initial connection though, it remains true and it’s why we’re still close friends.”
“Gary always said that I was his muse and that he couldn’t write songs anymore after our split,” she continued. “I’m not sure that’s true and it spooks me to think about it. I was and am glad that he’s writing books—Turn Off Your Mind, Dead Letters, his shorter books on Steiner and Jung, there are so many great ones.”
Lachman’s latest book is Aleister Crowley: Magick, Rock and Roll, and the Wickedest Man in the World, which serves both as a biography of this gadfly and a survey of his influence on contemporary popular culture. Born in 1875, Crowley was a mystic, writer, drug addict and all-around creep who promoted himself with the nickname “The Great Beast 666” (however, “The Great BS-er” might be a more apt title).
Crowley still sends the religious right into apoplectic fits, even though he was just a self-promoting P. T. Barnum-like character with a warped wit. “He is too often too clever for his own good,” Lachman said, “as when his remarks about child sacrifice in Magick in Theory and Practice — really about his ejaculations — were taken seriously.”
His conservative Christian critics can be forgiven for their credulity because the only clear indication Crowley wasn’t serious about killing babies was buried in the footnotes.
“There is a traditional saying that whenever an Adept seems to have made a straightforward, comprehensible statement,” he wrote, “then is it most certain that He means something entirely different.”
A snob, he used shock tactics to separate the cool kids from the gullible, uptight squares.
Lachman argues that Crowley “was too often too clever and too eager to show the British reading public what fools they were. So he is inclined to add some facetious remark to a serious discussion about some arcane point, just to have a chance to show the conventional nitwits up. Sadly, for my taste it often makes it difficult to take him seriously, mostly because he didn’t himself.”
Two decades after Aleister Crowley’s death in 1947, he became more infamous than ever. “Crowley in particular was picked up by the counterculture and later rockers because of his supersized lifestyle, his philosophy of ‘excess in all directions,’ as his friend Louis Wilkinson called it,” Lachman said. “That was tailor-made for rock and roll.”
In the late-1970s, this budding rocker fell under the mystic’s spell—acquiring a robe, practicing magick rituals and polishing his astral vision skills. Lachman recalled, “My girlfriend never quite got used to my standing up in a Hollywood café, turning to the south and saying ‘Hail unto thee Ahathoor in thy triumphing.'”
While Lachman outgrew his fixation with Crowley by 1980, his interest in the occult and esotericism continued to grow, eventually leading him down a more scholarly path. “I work harder as a writer than I ever did as a musician, even including touring,” he told me. “I can’t wait to be inspired now—I have to meet deadlines—and I’ve learned that two or three hours forcing myself to write can usually do the trick.”
“You do get to wear better clothes as a musician though.”
Kembrew McLeod will lead a robot revolution on Aug. 29. For more details, go to littlevillagemag.com/robotmarch.