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Modern Pagans Excerpt: Charles Gatewood

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Charles Gatewood

V. Vale: When you were in Morocco, did you see the Master Musicians of Jajouka?

Charles Gatewood: Ah–I have to backtrack. In the Seventies, I lived in Manhattan and worked as a professional photojournalist. I met a writer named Robert Palmer who wrote for Rolling Stone. Robert was a musician, a mystic, and a William Burroughs fan. I’d been taking photographs at Mardi Gras, which I now realize is a Dionysian festival. I was fascinated by the idea of huge numbers of people getting together, putting on masks, and being someone else–living their fantasies for a day. I took Robert Palmer to Mardi Gras and we did an article for Rolling Stone.

Rolling Stone liked my photographs. At the time, they were headquartered in San Francisco, so they asked me to be their New York photographer. Then Robert Palmer sold them the idea of interviewing William Burroughs, who was living in London. Robert took me along as the photographer. I got to spend a week with Burroughs and his friends.

Burroughs was living with Brion Gysin, who for many years had lived in Morocco. Brion had discovered the Master Musicians of Jajouka, and had opened a restaurant in Tangier so they would have a place to play. The Jajouka musicians would get blasted on kif (a marijuana/tobacco mixture) and play far-out trance music. The Master Musicians and trance dancers, said Brion, were indeed practicing the ancient Rites of Pan, and their rituals go back into prehistory. There are lots of references in later Roman history to similar rites, like Lupercalia, which in turn are the source for our own carnival. Suddenly all the dots began to be connected for me, and I sensed that ritual and trance were parts of an ancient, sacred human drama. Ritual activates parts of the body, mind and spirit that are not usually accessed during day-to-day activities. These rituals activate the old mind within us, so we can tap into our deeper selves.

VV: When did you first become aware of the existence of altered or ecstatic states?

CG: My parents liked to get drunk and party–they were chasing ecstasy in their own way. In my early teens I went through a brief Christian phase, where I had visions of God in one form or another. These visions weren’t exactly transcendental–I remember praying to a blinking radio antenna–but they were a kid’s fantasy of transcendence, for sure. It wasn’t until later, when I began seriously experimenting with sex and drugs, that I first tasted true ecstasy.

I also felt a strong, rising interest in the creative process. I wanted to be a visionary artist–yet I was struggling to find my medium. Then one day I met a fellow anthropology student who was also a hugely gifted photographer. He showed me some amazing prints, and I thought, “Wow–maybe I could do that!” Finally I’d found a way to integrate my interest in social science and behavior with my need for artistic expression. Immediately I had a vision that my life’s work could involve photographing behavior–especially unusual and strange behavior–in an artistic way. So I started doing exactly that, and now, almost forty years later, I’m still doing it.

VV: Was this also a kind of spiritual path for you?

CG: Yes, indeed. When I began, I was a skeptic and considered myself an atheist, having totally rejected my Christian upbringing. In 1966 I moved to Manhattan, settled down, got married, and for a while had a fairly “normal” life working as a photojournalist. Time passed, and I published my first book, Sidetripping, and a book titled Wall Street. But then I became more and more interested in wild underground scenes, and began the work that was in my book Forbidden Photographs.

About this time–the late Seventies–my marriage broke up. I’d been drinking hard and doing lots of drugs. In the divorce papers, my wife testified, “He often spent his days and evenings taking–and posing for–photographs of an unpublishable nature.” I was going deeper into the dark side, responding to the lure of the forbidden. I was also self-destructing.

One day I found myself in Woodstock, New York, teaching a workshop, and I looked around and said, “Yes–it’s time to go back to the woods.” Instinctively I knew that Nature would help me regain harmony and balance in my life. So I moved to Woodstock, bought a house, and lived in the woods for ten years. It was wonderful. As a child I’d spent countless hours playing in the woods, and it all came back: walking outside and seeing the stars and the moon, listening to the birds sing, and watching the afternoon sunlight dance through the trees.

I found a girlfriend who was a spiritual seeker, and we began meditating, trading massages, reading Krishnamurti and other sacred texts to each other by the fireplace. Suddenly spirituality made terrific sense! I began meditating and chanting with some Tibetan Buddhists who had established a monastery in Woodstock, and I took a great workshop in Sufi meditation with Pir Viliat Khan at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck. I also quit alcohol, tobacco and hard drugs–I did a lot of Twelve Step work. It took a long time, but finally I turned my life around and regained my faith and balance.

VV: How did you shift to a more Pagan orientation?

CG: Well, in the mid-Seventies I started photographing and videotaping all sorts of body modification. Often, when I asked people about their tattoos, they would mention their totem animals, or various Goddess figures, or their chakras, or their spirit guides, or say that their tattoos represented empowerment, reclaiming, and so on. Their answers were much deeper and more interesting than I’d expected, so I began to delve into Pagan ideas.

Also, I’d heard about a man named Fakir Musafar, and I knew I had to meet him. Roland Loomis was a modern guy who ran an advertising agency and drove a BMW and wore three-piece suits, but he had a secret life you could read about in scarce, hard-to-find magazines like Piercing Fans International Quarterly (PFIQ). In private, Fakir was performing elaborate rituals, leaving his body, hanging from flesh-hooks, experimenting with sensory deprivation and all kinds of body play. He was cutting, branding and piercing himself (and a few others), using pain as a vehicle to higher consciousness in the same way his ancestors had done. And I thought, “Wow–what’s he tapping into? I’ve got to know more about this.” Fakir’s journey wasn’t abstract and intellectual–it was intuitive and visceral. Intense physical experiences were leading Fakir to new spiritual paths, where body play, Paganism, and ecstasy all fuse together.

I finally met Fakir at Annie Sprinkle’s New York apartment in 1980. The next year Fakir and I worked together on a feature film by Mark and Dan Jury titled Dances Sacred and Profane, in which Fakir not only explains but demonstrates his philosophy and practices. The climax of the film shows Fakir doing the Native American Sun Dance ritual. He performed a preliminary ritual at Devil’s Tower in Wyoming–a sensational sacred site. Then Fakir found a remote wooded area, consecrated a cottonwood tree, and suspended himself with flesh-hooks while he left his body and communicated with the Great White Spirit. The footage was awesome, and when the film opened at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater in 1985 there were lines around the block. Lots of people were interested in these rituals.

While working on that film, I introduced Fakir to Vale. Vale instantly understood that something important was happening. I showed him other pictures I’d been taking of Pagans, radical sex people and body modification enthusiasts, and Vale said, “Hey–we can do a whole book about this.” That book, of course, was Modern Primitives, which came out in 1989. So far Modern Primitives has sold about 80,000 copies, and we figure over a million people have seen it and thought about the ideas and practices detailed in it. It really is a seminal book that has spread those ideas around the world, and it’s certainly changed a lot of people’s thinking and behavior.

Because of Dances Sacred and Profane and Modern Primitives, Fakir decided to come out of the closet. Now the whole world knows his work. Fakir is one of my most important teachers. He’s made me think about numerous topics that have made me better understand the Pagan world, and other radical communities. I moved to San Francisco to be closer to these communities, and I consider them my extended family. So my interests have completely changed my life: who I hang out with, where I go, what I think, what I do, what I wear, and how I express myself.

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