Shiva, Vishnu, Oppenheimer and Black Sabbath’s ‘Supernaut’

‘Supernaut’, the last track on the first side of Black Sabbath’s Volume 4 LP, has long occupied a particular place in my heart, first and foremost because it has arguably the greatest riff in the entire history of hard rock, blues and heavy metal. But it’s those three short verses of lyrics that lift the song above being a mere instrumental exercise in headbanging.

Now Black Sabbath are not, it has to be said, widely regarded as a ‘lyrics band’. Sure, the words do the trick of creating the imagery and atmosphere requisite to the song, be it an invocation of occult forces, a paean to the glories of love, or a description of the pleasures and tribulations of a lifestyle powered by booze, weed, psychedelics and a very great deal of cocaine. But they’re not lyrics that either fans or critics have tended to pore over, put it that way. They’re essentially a vehicle for Ozzy’s eldritch, whining drone as it swoops high above Iommi’s chugging riffs.

“It’s about tripping”, as a friend of mine succinctly put it, but the song does far more than just invoke the headfuck of psilocybin or LSD. It’s a hymn to the primordial chaos that equally precedes creation and follows destruction; the chaos that can be accessed through the doors of perception.

If you’ve ever tripped, and I mean really tripped balls, you know what I mean when I describe the feeling of great winds or currents passing through your body. I haven’t seen a better visual representation of this psychic state than Ben Wheatley’s A Field In England, set during the Civil War but set in a rural England still latent with a sense of presence and potential that the builders of Avebury and Rollright had sensed, just as did people in all lands before ritual was compartmentalized away from the rest of life and given the name of religion. It’s a sensation that makes it easy to appreciate the animist worldview, the conviction of universal vitality. No doubt some thought along these lines inspired Fritjof Kapra’s connection between the non-stop atomic-level vibration of all matter and the eternal dance of Shiva, the Transformer, part of the central trimurti (trinity) of Hinduism, along with Brahma (the Creator) and Vishnu (the Maintainer).

A Kapra quote about physics and the Dance of Shiva adorns the pedestal of a statue of that very deity installed at CERN in 2004:

The statue was donated by India’s Atomic Energy Commission, and was unveiled by Dr Anil Kakodkar, chairman of that organization and also secretary of India’s Department of Atomic Energy. One wonders how the many Pakistani physicists and engineers who’ve worked on machinery and experiments at CERN feel about the statue. (Pakistan achieved Associate Member status in the CERN organization – the same status held by India – in 2015, but has been contributing to CERN programmes since the 1990s.)

It should be noted that ‘Transformer’ does not quite encompass Shiva’s role in the trimurti, because He is also known as the Destroyer. This might seem to be slightly at odds with CERN’s role, which has always been as a purely civilian research organization (in contrast to a number of other physics labs, particularly in the USA, where pure science research has long coexisted with weapons development), but the simultaneously beneficent and destructive sides of Shiva fit very well with the Indian AEC, whose interest in nuclear energy is not exclusively peaceful. India became the sixth country to demonstrate nuclear weapons when it tested its first device in 1974. The name of the test: Smiling Buddha.

Such a name may sound incredibly ironic, given Buddhism’s central message of compassion for all people and beings, but there is certainly precedence for this. Three decades earlier and a hemisphere away, the first ever man-made nuclear explosion was also given a codename taken from a religion centred on a message of compassion and nonviolence:

This was the Trinity test, so named by J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of Los Alamos Laboratory and lead scientist in the Manhattan Project. Oppenheimer said he took inspiration from a line of poetry by John Donne – “Batter my heart, three-person’d God” – that, like the various apparently contradictory roles of Shiva, combines the ideas of divine love and divine terror. But it was from a different religious tradition that Oppenheimer drew the now-famous quotation with which he marked his witnessing of the momentous experiment:

We knew the world would not be the same. Few people laughed. Few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.

Here it is Vishnu, not Shiva, who takes the form of the Destroyer, assuming as he does so his Vishvarupa (‘universal’) form, with its countless arms (and heads).

Perhaps the most well-known cover version of ‘Supernaut’ is that by the short-lived industrial-rock supergroup 1,000 Homo DJs, consisting primarily of Ministry’s Al Jourgensen and various touring members of the band at the time, Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and Jello Biafra of Dead Kennedys. The track ironically opens with a sample of the Canadian entertainer Art Linkletter fulminating against drug culture in rock music:

Practically every one of the top 40 records being played on every radio station in the United States is a communication to the children to take a trip, to cop out, to groove. The psychedelic jackets on the record albums have their own hidden symbols and messages as well as the lyrics to all the top rock songs – and they all sing the same refrain: it’s fun to take a trip, put acid in your veins.

Jourgensen, of all people, must have needed no prompting to make the connection between the song’s lyrics and chemically altered states of consciousness.

But the really interesting sample in this track occurs during the breakdown in the middle, which comes from a little-known sci-fi/horror film from the early ’60s, X: The Man with the X-ray Eyes, directed by Roger Corman (sometimes known as ‘the King of the B’s’, for his huge output of sensationalist, low-budget movies that were often shown as B-features in cinemas of the day). The film follows the misadventures of a scientist who invents a substance which, when applied to the eyes, allows the subject to see radiation in bands far outside the normal visible range; of course, like all scientists in films of this sort, he tests out his invention on himself. His visual range gradually becomes broader and broader, allowing him to see through people’s clothes, then their flesh, then through solid walls, until finally he is able to see through material reality itself:

There are great darknesses, farther than time itself, and beyond the darkness, a light glows…it sees us all…and in the centre of the Universe, the Eye…

(Although that last word could just as easily, and even more mystically, be ‘I’ rather than ‘Eye’.) Tormented by these awful visions, he eventually blinds himself to escape them – but in one edit of the film, an alternative ending has the poor man screaming “I CAN STILL SEE!” even after this, for which suicide is presumably the only solution.

It’s with the concept in mind of primordial chaos, of ecstatic and terrible destruction, that I put together my own version of the track. Credit to Catherine Backhouse (and J. Robert Oppenheimer) for vocals and Diego Granziol for the shred solo part.

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