Who would have thought that a former bass player for Blondie would transform himself into one of the world’s authorities on “the influence of the occult and esoteric thought on mainstream Western culture.” Indeed, this is the story of Gary Lachman (nee Valentine) who left Blondie in 1977 and has had his eyes on the cosmos ever since. Inspired by British philosopher Colin Wilson, Lachman has, in addition to his rock memoir, New York Rocker: My Life in the Blank Generation (2002), written more than 20 books on esoteric thought. Zack Kopp spoke with Gary for PKM
In 1970s New York, the Velvet Underground linked Warhol’s scene to the punk scene and William S. Burroughs’ presence in the lives of some principals—the Naked Lunch author came to CBGB at least once, was known to receive visits from Patti Smith, and was sought out as an elder by UK pioneers like Joe Strummer when they came to New York—linked it to Beat forebears. I wondered if there was an occult connection to CBGB, and who better to ask than former Blondie bassist turned metaphysician Gary Lachman?
“As far as I know there wasn’t anything ‘occult’ about CBGB, although, as I say in New York Rocker, Chris and Debbie had a kitschy interest in it. In the loft we lived in on the Bowery – a block from CBGB and Burroughs’ bunker – they had upside down pentagrams and crosses and voodoo dolls hanging about. I got interested in it from living there when I came across Colin Wilson’s The Occult. I read it and it changed my life.”
Lachman joined Blondie in the spring of 1975 as “Gary Valentine”, replacing Fred Smith on bass when he left to join Television, and helping to popularize the band’s Sixties-style fashion, as recounted in his 2002 memoir, New York Rocker: My Life in the Blank Generation. He left the band in 1977 to form his own band, to be replaced by Nigel Harrison, soon after which Blondie found great success when “Heart of Glass” rode the charts coincidentally with disco’s heyday in 1979, the first of the early U.S. punk bands to emerge from Hilly Kristal’s CBGB to crossover to mainstream success. Despite their association with disco and near disassociation from the CBGB scene in some people’s minds, Blondie frontwoman Deborah Harry has lately gotten her due, and then some, as a female punk pioneer, thanks in part to the oral history Please Kill Me.
Lachman, meanwhile, enacted a near-complete transformation in the years after leaving Blondie, reverting to his “real” name and becoming a respected archivist of mysticism and metaphysics. In addition to his own musical career with his band The Know, and his own solo recordings, Lachman turned to writing. Since 1990, he has been a full-time writer. Among his books are Turn Off Your Mind: The Mystic Sixties and the Dark Side of the Age of Aquarius (2001) and Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump (2018), the latter examining Trump’s connection to Norman Vincent Peale’s doctrine of Positive Thinking in relation to his public flexibility with facts, and the influence of occult and esoteric philosophy on the unexpected rise of the “alt-right”.
Lachman has also written biographies of P.D. Ouspensky, Aleister Crowley (subtitled: “Magick, Rock and Roll, and the Wickedest Man in the World”), Rudolf Steiner, Emanuel Swedenborg and Madame Blavatsky, not unlike the series of biographies of of metaphysical figures that the British philosopher Colin Wilson published near the end of his life. As it happens, Lachman became closely acquainted with his inspirator.
“I met [Colin] Wilson in 1981 at a talk at the Village Bookshop on Regents Street while I was on holiday in London,” said Lachman. “In 1983, as part of a ‘mini search for the miraculous,’ I made a pilgrimage to his home in a remote part of Cornwall. In the early ‘90s, he stayed with me while he was lecturing in Los Angeles. After moving to London, I visited him in Cornwall several times, and got to know his wife and children. When he came up to London, we met and I interviewed him a few times. My book about him, Beyond the Robot, came out in 2016.”
Did Blondie ever hang around with William Burroughs? Have the members of the band stayed in touch with each other?
“I have to say I never saw [Burroughs] at CBGB, but I did meet him in ’96, when I was playing with C&D [Chris Stein and Debbie Harry] again. We performed at a tribute to Burroughs in Lawrence, Kansas, along with Patti Smith, Laurie Anderson, Philip Glass, and quite a few other hipsters. There’s a funny story about Patti Smith and myself at a news conference about the tribute that I tell in New York Rocker. I met Burroughs at this. I read him in my teens but later felt he was something of a fraud – or at least a confidence man. I suspect he would have appreciated this. The only ex-bandmate I keep in touch with is Clem; we drop each other a line every now and then. There is a funny story, though, about my bit in their reunion in the late ‘90s. In her book, talking about how I got involved, instead of writing ‘Chris spoke with Gary about playing again,’ Debbie wrote ‘Christ spoke with Gary…’. Her editor missed the typo. I tweeted about it; it was hilarious and strangely apt.”
It has been suggested that the slack-jawed devotion of Trump’s cult mystifying the mainstream media is, in fact, the expected result of psychological conditioning and not a mystery of his weird charisma. Indeed, Trump’s studious adherence to, and recreation of, a list of particulars from past fascist regimes, including recreation of similar photos, seems manual and artificial, as opposed to history repeating itself. Is he merely an out of control egomaniac or is there a sinister dedication?
In her book, talking about how I got involved, instead of writing ‘Chris spoke with Gary about playing again,’ Debbie wrote ‘Christ spoke with Gary…’. Her editor missed the typo. I tweeted about it; it was hilarious and strangely apt.
“There’s nothing mystical about Trump.” says Lachman, “But he is a serious demagogue, a kind of political guru. Like Putin he is offering a sense of identity in a very chaotic, uncertain time, a return to a kind of ‘golden age’ of a lost America, something from the 1950s. He’s clearly interested in establishing an authoritarian state, based on ‘law and order,’ stoking up fear in order to present himself as the savior. He is certainly out for himself, but is very good at taking advantage of the epistemological skepticism that has trickled down from the academic heights to the lowlands of media; schools of thought like deconstructionism and postmodernism prepared the ground for ‘post truth’ and ‘alternative facts.’ Positive thinking taught him that facts don’t matter; your attitude toward the facts is all that counts – this another expression of the idea that ‘we create reality’, that is oddly shared by New Thought, New Agers, and postmodernists. And then we have Reality TV, which primed Trump for his position as president when he was on The Apprentice. I don’t know anything about psy ops [psychological operations, intended to mold public perceptions, not unlike propaganda]. Trump is giving many people what they want; as I said, he is a very good demagogue, meaning he is good at being one. He is selling a way of life, not a political program. It’s not about getting the trains to run on time; it’s about feeling part of some grand movement. Reality is up for grabs these days, and Trump has grabbed it.”
Positive thinking taught him that facts don’t matter; your attitude toward the facts is all that counts – this another expression of the idea that ‘we create reality’, that is oddly shared by New Thought, New Agers, and postmodernists.
Gary Lachman lives in London now, avidly pursuing a career as a self-employed freelance intellectual hundreds of miles from the New York City where he cut his teeth as a rocker in a series of punk and new wave bands—including Blondie and The Know and Iggy Pop post-Stooges—which requires its own round of maintenance.
“I get up early, record my dreams, have coffee and toast and read for an hour or so while listening to music (classical). The rest of the morning is devoted to admin: answering emails, posting links to talks, working on my site, and housework. From 12:00 to around 5:00, I’m either reading or writing. I have a 1,500-2,000 word daily quota. After work I either take a walk or cycle, weather permitting. Dinner at 7:00 while watching the news. Then a film until it’s time for the midnight news and sleep.”
In his forthcoming book The Return of Holy Russia: Apocalyptic History, Mystical Awakening, and the Struggle for the Soul of the World, Lachman offers commentary about Putin’s revival of a national identity rooted in mystic and apocalyptic tradition long before the Bolshevik Revolution.
“In many speeches [Putin] refers to several philosophers and religious thinkers from a period known as the Silver Age, which was from around 1890 to just before the revolution,” said Lachman. “It was a fantastically creative time, when mysticism, the occult, and spirituality were very influential in the arts and philosophy. If you look at Russian history, you see that it was always profoundly religious, with a deeper sense of the mystical and apocalyptic than the West. Putin is gesturing toward this religious history in the new Cold War between the decadent, permissive West and the traditional East.”