Musician (he was the founding bassist for Blondie, toured with Iggy Pop, worked with X-Ray Spex’s Lora Logic and been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) and author, Gary Lachman’s work fascinates me. Lachman has authored numerous interesting and thought provoking books on the meeting ground between consciousness, culture, and the western inner tradition. His works include: Jung The Mystic: The Esoteric Dimensions of Carl Jung’s Life and Teachings; Rudolf Steiner: An Introduction to His Life and Work; Politics and the Occult: The Right, the Left, and the Radically Unseen, plus nine more titles and many essays. Lachman has also penned memoir: New York Rocker: My Life in the Blank Generation with Blondie, Iggy Pop, and Others 1974-1981.
I contacted him recently to speak at length for my Conversations With Punx: A Spiritual Dialogue project and chat about his latest book, Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality. I have a great affinity for Blavatsky; she was an amazing adventuress, feminist and original philosophical thinker. And as Gary puts it, a pioneer, visionary and provocateur – “one of the most polarizing pioneers of alternative spirituality.”
Here’s a preview of our conversation…
GARY LACHMAN: To tell you the truth, back in the day, when I was playing with Blondie, my own band and others like Iggy Pop, there weren’t too many people talking about these things. I was kind of an oddity. I was always reading and had a lot of books with me all of the time. Unlike the previous generation of the 1960s, a lot of people were out in the open about this stuff – everyone was meditating, people were doing the tarot and the I Ching and lots of other stuff. My first book, Turn Off Your Mind is all about that; it’s about how the 60s were influenced by a lot of the spiritual, mystical and occult ideas. At the time I was playing in New York in the early days, in 1975, it wasn’t all about peace and love, it was all about hate and kill [laughs]. It was a complete 180, other side from the previous generation’s sensibility.
My own interests in the sorts of things I write about go back to before I was playing music. I’ve always been an obsessive reader and I’ve always been obsessed with ideas. I was reading quite a bit of philosophy, existentialism, poetry. The person that first got me interested in this kind of things in my early teens was Hermann Hesse, the German novelist. In the late 60s-early 70s, at least in the States and I suspect in the UK as well, there was a big Hesse revival. All of his books were in translated English; everyone was reading him and carrying a copy of Siddhartha around with them. It was the first book that I read that had anything kind of like this sort of thing. There was a hippie girl who I had a crush on [laughs] that wouldn’t give me the time of day but she gave me the book to read. It was from that, that I started being interested in related kinds of things and that led me to other writers, philosophy, experientialism, poetry and Buddhism.
It was a great time for this sort of stuff because it was all over the place; all different books about it like Carlos Castaneda, the beat writers, Jack Kerouac and the Dharma Bums. There was a whole atmosphere in which a lot of these ideas were floating around – some was serious, some of it was silly. It was in the context that I grew up in, my early teens and late teens. By the time I started playing in Blondie in the spring of 1975, I’d been hanging out in the New York scene for quite a time going to see the New York Dolls play at a place called Club 82 and running around seeing people like Bowie and Lou Reed hanging out in the clubs. I was writing a lot of poetry myself, a lot of bad poetry [laughs]. I’m glad to say most of it has been destroyed. That got transferred into writing songs when I started playing with Blondie.
The one song that people know (if they know at all, it’s over 30 years ago) is the song (I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear. That was about these paranormal experiences I was having with my girlfriend at the time. We were in telepathic contact with each other when I was on tour. We would discover we’d be having the same dreams and we always seemed to know what the other was doing which, sometimes was proved uncomfortable [laughs]. Not that I made much of it but, being in a rock band girls would pay attention to you. The kind of contact me and my girlfriend had was not always something I wanted let me put it that way [laughs].
The big book for me that had a huge impact on me was a book by Colin Wilson called, The Occult. It came out in around 1972. I read it first in 1975 in New York. It was on someone’s book shelf, it was part of the debris from the previous 60s generation: Tibetan Book of the Dead, Timothy Leary’s books, Castaneda’s books, Aleister Crowley’s books and all that. I just borrowed this book The Occult from someone and it changed literally changed my whole view of things…
I’m really excited about your new book on Madame Blavatsky.
GL: She’s a remarkable character and she had a remarkable life; whatever you might think about her ideas, Theosophy and all that, she did have an incredible life. I’m surprised feminists haven’t picked up on her because she’s a woman and did all of these things at a time when many men didn’t even do them. She travelled around the world and claimed to have lived in Tibet – there’s controversy about whether she did or not – but there’s enough documentation about a lot of her travels. She was also involved in a lot of progressive, political and social kinds of causes. She had a huge impact with the Theosophical Society itself, when you look at some of the people that were involved in it in its early days, Thomas Edison, Yeats, famous composers and painters like Kandinsky. I’ve done an article about how you can trace the roots of modern abstract art to Theosophical ideas. In a way it’s this kind of shadow side to us, to the west, that’s not been recognised by the official origins.
What’s one of the biggest misconceptions that you came across about Blavatsky’s work in your research?
GL: The thing with Blavatsky, this is how I start out writing the book, I’m basically saying—this may or may not be true. It’s very difficult to pin down facts of her whole early life, it’s all very debatable. She surfaces in New York in 1873 when she’s about 42-years-old and according to her, has had a huge life already behind her. She travelled around the world a few times, met all these people, she’s been involved in revolutions. She was wounded in a famous battle in a place called Mentana in the (I can’t remember the date exactly at the moment) 1850s or something when the Italian revolutionary Garibaldi was fighting against the Papal States and the French; she was on the barricades and got shot by a couple of bullets; she was in two famous sea disasters that were on par with the Titanic in a certain sense at the time. She had an incredible knockabout life.
She was in the newspapers all the time, there was all this press about her – but as you know journalists take a lot of liberties with things – all these stories about her were repeated and repeated and what I found in reading all the material about her, is that there’d be one story told one place and it just got repeated in lots of other books and writings about her and that there wasn’t really a foundation for the story in the first place. It sounded really good so people just repeated it again. She spent a great deal of her life arguing against these things.
Blavatsky herself said she was celibate her whole life, she was a virgin. She even had a gynaecological report at one point to prove she had basically never had sex because she was accused of having illegitimate children with different people. Some other biographers claim that during the time that she said she was in India and Tibet, that she was actually trawling through the fleshpots in Europe. If you ever see a pictured of her though, she’s huge – no offense but she is a huge woman – I can’t imagine her being the ‘belle of the ball’ in Paris or somewhere when she’s weighing over 200 pounds. If you’re saying she’s doing this but then she looks like this, it just doesn’t add up. What I’ve done in the book is highlight some of the most erroneous reports about her and tried to provide something that seems more plausible.
Again, with her it’s always difficult. I think she also went out of her way to make things difficult for any kind of biographer. She changed her story many times; she’d say one thing then say something different. She said that she went out of her way to erase her past in many sorts of ways, which is the kind of thing that a biographer would be wary of. If you want to erase your past then you must have something to hide. Basically the first section or the book, the introduction, is laying out how difficult it is to connect the dots in her life. I’m not the first one to say this, practically everyone that’s written about her has said this—I’m just joining the club.
Two things I try to do in the book is to show how all these misconceptions of her has piled up and gathered around her and to show just how influential she was and how important some of her writings were. She was really the first one to present a philosophical and intellectual essay criticism of Darwin Evolution, not a religious one, of course bishops and clergy was complaining about it but, she basically criticised it on philosophical grounds and had a good argument for it. That doesn’t get much press. That in itself should secure her an important position in the history of ideas, and she’s a woman doing it! I hope if the readership of the book goes beyond the people that know about her already and can somehow get out into the broader reading public that all these things about her might get picked up and it might lead to more interest. I’m not a Theosophist; all these different things I write about, I’m not a devotee. I find them interesting and I find there is much to learn from them and much profit to be made from pursing the ideas. It’s the ideas that have always been important to me…
Gary’s book, Madame Blavatsky: The Mother of Modern Spirituality comes out October 25. You can read the introduction to it here.
My entire conversation with Gary will appear in Conversations With Punx #9 ‘Magick’.
For more of Gary’s work please check out his blog.
There is no religion higher than truth,