When most people hear the word “Mormon,” they think of Utah. But the real sacred sites aren’t in the desert. It all started in the boondocks of western New York State, which was, once upon a very strange time, the hottest hotbed of wild religion in the world.
Th. Metzger has lived his whole life in Rochester, just down the road from the cradle of Mormonism. He’d seen the crazy hyper-happy pageants and heard all about the polygamy, getting your own personal planet when you die, and of course the magic underwear. Going undercover as a man on a spiritual quest, he discovers that the answers he’s been seeking for decades aren’t at all what he expects. Undercover Mormon chronicles his hilarious, revealing and bizarre search for the truth.
In an hour long conversation, I talk with writer and scholar of weird-and-wild religion, Erik Davis.
Check out the Podcast on Expanding Mind Radio show. Plenty of arcane wisdom and secret strangeness is revealed.
Check out the Podcast on Expanding Mind Radio show. Plenty of arcane wisdom and secret strangeness is revealed.
The heart of Lon Chaney Jr. stopped dead on July 12, 1973. Medical students dissected him, as he’d dissected fake movie corpses a hundred times before. Lon’s lungs looked like moon rocks and his liver might’ve been a chunk of scorched iron meteorite. To this day, these organs are kept in jars as specimens of what extreme alcohol and tobacco use can do to the human body. There’s no grave to mark the final resting place of the rest of him.
That same week, Bob Dylan released “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” his lament for Lunar Lon. A more mournful top 40 hit can not be found: weary guitar, minimal bass, dirge-drum and disembodied women doing the descending “oohs.” Repetitive and obsessively simple, Dylan’s recording is barely a song. It’s more funeral chant for a mythical thug than a pop tune: the perfect - and perfectly obvious - opposite of the glam-rock, prog-rock, and Jesus-rock that flooded record stores that season.
Lon Sr. was the Man of a 1000 Faces. His son was the Man of a 1,000 Shitty Roles. After playing the Wolfman, Lon Jr. spent the last thirty years of his life in bottom-feeder schlock, sliding farther and farther down the horror flick food chain. His father still looms huge over Hollywood, with talent, ambition, power and imagination. Lon Jr. became a parody of himself: half Wolfman and half Lenny, the idiot man-boy murderer he played in Of Mice and Men. At the end, he loomed as “The Monster” at Universal studios: drinking, fighting, and helling around with his buddy, Broderick Crawford.
While Lon was dying in a hospital bed a few miles from the summer home of Richard Nixon, in San Clemente California, Dylan was in Mexico shooting Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, in which he plays a nonentity called Alias. During the filming, Dylan recorded a slim album of soundtrack music, with one song in the voice of Billy himself.
“Knocking on Heaven’s Door” is addressed his mother: “take this badge offa me. I can’t use it any more.” Powerless and nameless, Dylan begs, “Ma, put my guns in the ground. I can’t shoot them any more.”
The Wolfman is the damned son, who returns to the ancestral home to become his destiny: controlled by occult forces beyond his knowledge. The moon is the eternal female: linked to the ebb and flow of fertility, menstrual blood-rhythms. The Wolfman is hyper-male but still a slave to the mother goddess. He’s the son trapped in the mother’s lunar power, howling at the womb: brilliant birth-orb and doorway to the next world.
The Moon-Birth-Mother hears his prayer and gives no answer. The Sky-Death-Father hears and denies. Lon-Billy-Dylan is not merely fighting the Oedipal battle for sexual ownership of the mother, but for access to the moon, which is the doorway to the sky, to the realm of the ancestors.
The crucial cinematic moment shows Billy on his knees, with an old man holding a shotgun to his chest. This isn’t Sheriff Pat Garrett, though, but a Bible-spouting deputy who keeps goading Billy to get ready for the next world. Billy’s in jail, chained to the floor. The religion-mad deputy quotes Ecclesiastes: “there’s a time to live and a time to die.” The old man says he’s got a shotgun filled with silver dimes - the metal of the moon, the only thing that can kill the werewolf. After refusing to pray, Billy overpowers the old man and breaks from jail. With the load of magic shrapnel, Billy blasts him into the next world.
“Behold,” Bob Dylan intones, “it’s getting dark, too dark to see.”
“Behold,” Jesus proclaims in the Book of Revelation, “I stand at the door and knock. and whosoever hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and enter him.”
Death is the door and guns are the key - guns, cigarettes and hard liquor. The moon is the door in the sky - a hole in heaven. The son knocks. On the other side of the door is the old man: God the Father, the Phantom of the Opera, Pat Garrett. The old man with the badge and a shotgun, the Lawman, the father who opens and demands the son’s death as payment for sin.
And Dylan sings, “that long black cloud is coming on down.”
And get erect. Get your bad self out on the dance floor and shake your funky aspect. Get in line and make that stinky primate scene. Get rid of that hair and do the sex-is-a-beautiful-thing machine. Get your cool unit stirring up that mess and get out of that scummy gene pool before you start to regress. Get off that hairy bottom and do the low-down Pope. Get your primal horde together and do the don’t-use-soap. Get rid of that HAM BONE and let a man do the man’s man’s man’s world where a man is King. Get out of that red red robe and do the bare-naked holy-father thing.
HIT ME ONE TIME - YEOW!
But what about that littlest sex machine? Did he die and go to Heaven to do the smokin’ burnin’ mess day and night before the Stool of Glory? Or is he in the Bottomless Pit with his hot pants around his ankles and a swarm of fiery vermin swirling around his head?
AND WHAT ABOUT DARWIN?
Do you like the idea of your daughter mating with a lower form of life? He drives up to the house, dragging the curse behind at the end of a chain, blows his horn and does some kind of prehensile hand-jive. Out she comes, a vision in pink: your baby, your chattel, your little girl. And with a black blast from the tailpipe he’s whisked her away. You know it! You can feel it! In no time they’re in the back seat, grunting and snuffling and co-mingling their DNA. Do you really want her precious pink bottom on that cheap vinyl car seat? Do you want her coming home already half-devolved? Bristly black hair on her tongue. Walking bowlegged and gibbering like the Queen of the Mandrills.
THIS IS YOUR FINAL WARNING!
It doesn’t make a bit of difference if you go up or down the food chain, you’re still food. Sure, Little Hammy can get himself elected Soul Brother Number One. Okay, okay, the Reptilian Herod can fight for a hundred years to regain the seven-tiered crown of Gnegg. All right, the Piltdown Man can pick nits out of his fur for a dozen generations and end up the Pope on Easter morning in his flashiest robe. But they’re still on the chain gang and they still can’t wash off the curse.
GO AHEAD, ASK THE POPE
He’s awake every night, counting out loud until the sun comes up and the Renegade Apes go crawling back to their holes. He’s grunting and grinding his teeth and still he can hear them out on the perimeter, trying to dig their way under the chain-link fence. He’s sitting half-naked on the edge of the seat, puffing on a filter-tip “APE” - his brand of smokes. They keep away the smell, but not the sound. Even with Blessed Virgin De-Jinxing Oil and the whole College of Cardinals chain-smoking “APE”s, he still can’t get any relief.
FUNKY, BUT AMAZING, GRACE
I thought I heard Martin Luther shout: open the window, let the vile vapors out. I thought I heard Martin Luther say: Hey, Father Babylon, mend your way. Cold and lonely in that Borgia tomb. High above the Pit of Doom. Get rid of those relics and that holy grue. Get rid of those sainted corpses too.
IT’S A FACT
In Darwin’s day, mummies were looted from their tombs and carted off by the Sons of Ham. The Pharaoh’s dusty flesh brought a higher price than his hoard of gold, black pearls, and funeral goo. It was no more an agent of eternal life than pink lint or Monkey Lard, but it sure got eaten up fast, once the fad caught on.
BUT SERIOUSLY, FOLKS
At this very moment, there’s a family of missing links driving a late model Eldorado with the Infant of Prague resplendent in pink dashboard fur. They’re singing “An Infinite Number of Bottles of Beer on the Wall,” and trying to find the exit for the Afterlife. But their search will go on forever. They’ll stop night after night at the motels that Time forgot: “The Serpent Mound Lodge,” “King Herod’s Rest,” and “The All-seeing Eye of the Baleful Uhunis Inn,” and they’ll find the gene pool getting scummy because the lower forms keep relieving themselves into it. And with all this going on, you might well be wondering, “How’s a true believer supposed to get any evolving done?”
CALL IT FATE
Call it Natural Selection. Call it anything you want. The awful truth remains: Primates descended from reptiles. Primates actually are reptiles! It’s no great leap going from slimy scales to nice pink skin, given a few million years of bad hygiene. Hot-blooded, cold-blooded, who cares? Reptiles once ruled the Earth and now their smarty-pants two-legged descendants have taken over. Primates rule the World by remote control! Primates invented soap. Primates invented the Great Chain of Being. Primates invented the LIMBO. How low can you go?
LET’S GET PERSONAL
You can hide inside that monkey-love arouser matrix all you want, but sooner or later you’re going to stand bare-naked and perfectly pink before the throne of JUDGMENT. You can expose your Hairless Wonder to the Dark Patriarch, but you’re still going to find yourself at the edge of the ABYSS, wishing you’d brought along some powerful deodorant.
ARE YOU READY?
In those last days, the Jet-black Pharaohs will rise up in the East to slay the Funky Primate. The King of the Hominids will break out of his tomb and conquer the Golden Crescent. The stone-drunk Noah will stand naked again to lay a final curse on his son, but Ham’s shake-shake-shaking it off and screaming “Me am bearing your Drooly Doom no more!” Even the Whistler and BOOK OF RULES will get down off their thrones and join in. And at the stroke of Absolute Midnight, the Ace of Popes will flash across the sky trailing a plume of black miasma. The battle will rage for seven-times-seventy weeks and the outcome may very well depend on YOU. The key to victory is in your hands. The time has come. You’ve got to take a stand.
The last man stepped off the Moon in December of 1972 and the space age ended. The ominous nights of Sputnik and Telstar, the luminous days of Soyuz and Apollo, were over. Yet the glam in glamor still out-glows Venus or Sirius (the diamond dog-star). We can catch a glimmer if we turn our gazes outward. Something is up there, just beyond sight, beyond understanding. Something glistens and chitters on the sidereal horizon. Sex-change in the sky -transgendered planetary crossings - the radiation of the occult spheres.
“I watched for a little while,” Lou Reed croons, like a junkie over his spoon, “I love to watch things on TV.”
Bowie saw it and knew it first. But it was Lou who gave it a name: the Satellite of Love. Lou Reed, late to glam, the most lurid and lucid of the seers, was the true voice of the celestial shine (one third heroin, one third mascara and one third high frequency spectra). “Satellite’s gone” Lou sings, both celebration and lamentation, “way up to Mars.”
Lou Reed’s move into the trans-orbital limelight came with his second solo album. Produced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson, Transformer gleams with some Ziggy Stardust fallout. The monster hit off the album was “Walk on the Wild Side.” With this, Lou managed to produce queasy-making titillation for the AM dial - with its fairy tales of cross-dressing speed-freaks and crystalline violet sweet tooth. What really pushed the tune to the top of the charts was the great and mysterious Herbie Flowers on bass (doubling electric and upright - he later claimed - so he’d get paid twice). The revelation, however, came with the second single off the second album.
This Satellite of Love is Sputnik after the secret operation. It’s Telstar with one last mysterious TV message to relay to earth. Lou put a sleazy man-woman transformer on the back of the album cover, forcing the obvious transvestite pun. This deflects attention from the far more important electromagnetic phenomenon - AC transformed into DC in order to power the cathode ray tube that was the heart of every TV.
In ‘73, soaking in the magic transmissions still had a televisonary aura - late night flicker, the mystic fuzz and flare - the warm hum and cooked-dust scent of vacuum tubes. The tiny disappearing dot in the center of the screen as it goes dead. Static fuzz and stereophonic buzz.
A year later Lou was the self-proclaimed Rock and Roll Animal, with black bondage leather and amphetamine twitchcraft. But on “Satellite of Love,” he’s the wide-eyed sky-dreamer. At first listen, the cut is just a charming bit of throwaway pop filler. The trannies and druggies from the earlier hit got all the attention. Now they’re banal clichés. The light of metallic orbital orbs, however, blinking and beeping in the night sky, remains with us.
The ghost of Soviets’ first silver ovum-in-orbit still circles the globe with bright morning-star spikes, a medieval mace-head without the shaft. A steely ball of transistors and diodes, Sputnik spins in silent gyres. It transmits the crypto-hit-tunes, traveling around the earth, around our thoughts, like electrons around the nucleus which is the thinker of those thoughts.
The Soviet code name was Object D. But after launch in 1957, the satellite became Sputnik - the name meaning literally “traveling companion.” The word “satellite” too has a rich occult genealogy, signifying: minion, fan-boy, follower, acolyte, worshipper. In 1962, “Telstar” had thousands of devotees as a big radio hit: guitars, organ, and the sound of rocket engines instead of voices.
“Things like that,” Lou confessed ten years later, “drive me out of my mind.”
His “Satellite of Love” came together in its ecstatic four-chord coda. Silvery lounge piano, finger-snaps, horns added in layers and then Bowie’s fey background vocals. The gorgeous whoosh of his “Ahhhh!” - hitting a falsetto D above the operatic tenor’s high C. The gleeful “Ah - ooooh!” like a glorious gay werewolf howling at the artificial moon.
The egomaniac whine of the brain-sick teenager: no one conjured this sound better than Ozzy Osbourne. On the first four Black Sabbath albums, he screamed and wailed and did his horrific Hammer-films schtick. Still, like shouting “Boo!” in a crowded seance, the old spookshow was getting tiresome. The cover of the fifth album stays with the old satanic nightmare routine. But the music on the disc is more fit for high school vomit-buzz than human sacrifice.
1973 was the year the Romilar hit the fan. Sticky, nauseating, cheap, and available in every drugstore in America, Romilar cough syrup was the drug of choice for every self-disrespecting fifteen year old boy. Especially when drunk with loud pain-drenched metaloid music, dextromethorphan (the chief ingredient in Romilar) produces visual distortion, a messed up sense of time and space, sweats, diarrhea, dilated pupils, teeth-grinding and gut-spasms. Lo! dextromethorphan will take you there, to that wonderland of teenaged misery and madness.
By the end of ‘73, Romilar elixir had been pulled off the shelves and the brain-eating puke-euphoria tidal wave was over. So Black Sabbath’s gift for Christmas of ‘73 was perfect, like cough syrup converted into sound. Ozzy gives us a few of the usual references to hell and damnation. Still, there’s less focus on the fate of his immortal soul than on his gag reflex and the swollen tissue of his brain. With the headphones clamped on tight and the volume knob turned far into the skull-crushing zone, this album is the aural equivalent of three bottle of Romilar.
Sabbath’s earlier albums had all sold millions and the band’s wealth got them all the best liquor and drugs they wanted. While they might’ve been rehearsing with their noses burnt by high grade coke and their guts sloshing with cognac and twelve year old scotch, they continued to make music not for millionaires, but kids working at minimum wage.
The band, dulled by drugs and success, had started rehearsals in L.A. This fell apart and they ended up renting Clearwell Castle in the ancient royal forest of Dean. Guitarist Tony Iommi claimed that the fifth album really came alive in the dungeons there. Supposedly the riff for the album’s title track was born in the gloom and grue of medieval torture chambers. But like the mock-demonic doom rides of the earlier albums, this too is mostly booga-booga cooked up for gullible American kids. Even the castle itself was a fake - though looking medieval, it was built in the 1700s as a retro-nostalgia folly.
Cut away all the gothick claptrap and what’s left is primo vintage-73 pukadelic product. Here, the kings of downer metal serve up their last great heap of steamy sound-stench. They give a halfhearted nod to the prog rock of the day: there are a few synthesizer squigglies courtesy of Rick Wakeman, on loan from Yes. Iommi does an acoustic guitar noodle track, named “Fluff” for obvious reasons. The rest, the tunes that teenagers kept lifting the needle to replay, are swollen Romilar-riffs with Ozzy’s razor blade pain-shriek on top.
Not surprisingly, he adds plenty of death-yammer: “no return . . . killing yourself . . . into the dust . . . dying day . . . living death . . . execution . . . living just for dying . . .” What fifteen year old locked in his bedroom in a dextromethorphan daze wouldn’t think this is the most profound poetry he’d ever heard?
“Pain, suffering and misery!” Ozzy wails. “You bastards!” he screams. Iommi keeps grinding out the hallucinogenic buzz-sludge. Ozzy keeps shrieking about “universal secrets” and “the secret within your mind.” And fifty thousand sublimely unhappy teenagers retch into paper bags.
Jesus Is My Girlfriend
And Jehovah is her dad. They both live in outer space. And this makes me glad. Tru Tru Vanilla Luv comes to me from heaven on high. So outward, Godward, I shall fly. Not at death, but right now, in my high frequency dream-skiff. The mansion of bliss is so many light-years away it hurts to think about it. But soon I will stand at the pearly gates of the interstellar secret family funhouse, with flowers in my hand: ultraviolets, asters, and supernova sunflowers.
The Savior from the Stars
Little green men, bighead bug-eyed aliens, shambling grunty blob-things, vast insectoid invaders, robot monsters, clouds of sentient slime, cute TV Martians and sexy Venusian bimbos: I love them all. But they’ve got nothing on the real outer space salvific invader - that’s Mr. Hyper-Virgin, my warp-drive Lord and Savior. “Heaven,” he tells me in his lisping whisper, “is not up there - it’s out there.”
Head of Christ
He’s a pretty strawberry bland, just like a shampoo ad, asking “has your hair been washed in the blood of the lamb?” A billion satisfied customers sing his praises. A billion fans can’t be wrong: he’s everywhere. No picture of Jesus comes near the popularity of Warner Sallman’s 1940 masterpiece. Fair-haired - of course. Blue-eyed - of course. Always glowing and warm, always with that far-away look in his dreamboat eyes. He’s a rose, ere blooming: amber and summery gold, with warm sepias and a rosy glow. Hanging on endless walls, he’s our church-house hunting trophy, except nobody shot this Jesus. He’s got no horns, looking a lot more like a sad-eyed doe than a wild-eyed buck.
The Stolen Bride
But how can Jesus be a girl if he’s the Son of God? Better question: how can Jesus be a prissy white man with gorgeous hair and Hollywood glamor-girl backlighting? Some call it a miracle - the real transfiguration. Heretics and infidels call it theft, saying that Warner Sallman secretly extracted the Head of Christ from an earlier painting called “Friend of the Humble” by Leon Lhermitte. The resemblance is amazing, but that just adds luster to the self-creative miracle. Girl - boy - god - man - cinema star - silky savior: one size fits all of humanity. And if over a billion copies have floated down from heaven, then who can say he owns the sacred J-head?
He took me aside, and whispered all his secret names:
Jesus H. Christ
Christ on a Crutch
Crying Out Loud
Cheese and Crackers
Blood atonement is fine if you don’t mind cleaning up the mess, and the nagging unanswered questions. How does Splatterdad killing his pretty Victimkid make it all right for me and my soul? I understand sacrifice. I know about sympathetic magic and burnt offerings. Sometimes the powers that be and the Big I Am really do want white goat meat, curdled milk and sheaves of barley incinerated on their altars. But the Old One nailing the Young One to a cross so that the rest of us can avoid the eternal celestial broiler - this is the best recipe the creator of the entire universe can come up with? A mix of sanctified torture porn and cosmic high school bullying. Why the cross? Why not an Indian burn, noogie-bar, swirlie or supernal wedgie to cleanse us of our sins?
One Billion x Jesus
He’s no Golgotha Geezasaurus Rex slicing his way through the sky with massive claws and breathing holy napalm fire to purify and rectify the earth. He’s the whitest white man in the universe, fragile as lady fingers, delicate as lemon meringue pie. No space suit like Elvis the Explorer, no armor or ray-gun. No astronaut brushcut or manly stubble on his jaw. He’s my interstellar pinup girlie-god, this creme-filled divine donut covered in powdered sugar, a tasty ice cream clone of a clone. And the tears of a clone, like the tears of a virgin, have far more power than a thousand blazing fists.
O Holy Replicant
His body fluids drip and gleam, rich with reproductive proteins and sky-shine. He is the divine chromolithograph, endlessly self-replicating, making more and more of the same cheesy jeezy mimeo faces. No voice, no body, just the head and shoulders. DNA ditto dandruff flakes down from heaven. Manna - grains of moonlight - confectioner’s sugar - wisps of lamb wool - a powdering of iridescent xerox toner - leukocytes hungry to eat up all imperfection in our blood - stardust.
Now - Sing It
Amazing rays, how hot the heat,
that cooked such wretched meat.
I once was bitter, now I’m sweet.
Oh yeah - it’s time to eat.