Heaven on Earth
Hands out: A taxi full of eager hands (and their attached humans) are glad to help Rob Brezsny unload a bit of his cash on a busy street corner.
Photo by Janet Orsi
Astrologer Rob Brezsny follows the signs to beauty and truth
BEARING a straightened-out cardboard box inked with the legend “I love to help, I need to give, please take some money,” astrologer Rob Brezsny stands at a freeway off-ramp stoplight holding out a dull-green bouquet of small bills. Clutching this fistful of cash, he approaches an unrolled window and leans in. “Would you like some money?” he asks in a low, seductive voice. As the driver tentatively selects one of the bills, Brezsny presses, “Take some more.” The driver refuses. In the 20 minutes that it takes to give away this $36 windfall, most people will refuse. Many motorists in beater-cars with cracked windshields and failing brake lights decline even the first bill.
But a black Mercedes pulls sleekly to the stop and the power window glides down. A slim, tanned arm emerges from the air-conditioned gloom of the interior. A diamond flashes in the glare of the sun as the fingers snap, impatient for a share.
An accident jams the intersection. Maneuvering around this small mess, one driver returns for seconds. Slowing, he gestures to the children in the back seat. “Could you give some to the kids?”
A man with a red face jams on his brakes. “Are you fucking nuts?” he shouts with the engorged jugular of the apoplectic.
Rob Brezsny just laughs.
EARLIER that day, Brezsny is seated on the overstuffed couch of a Marin bookstore dedicated to the higher order of the New Age movement. Three large paper bags full of tricks are lined up in front of him so that they just touch the toes of his black canvas semi-tennies. The dark greeny leaves of a bunch of fresh beets protrude from the top of one bag. He didn’t just come from the farmers market up the street. He needs these for the interview.
Brezsny, who writes the sage, witty, and wackily spiritual Real Astrology column that graces the back of some 90 alternative newsweeklies throughout the nation, doesn’t ordinarily do interviews. He doesn’t like to buy into what he terms “the cult of personality” that such recorded moments lead to. As the lead singer and chief songwriter for the passionately alternative and now disbanded World Entertainment Wars, he has had enough tape recorders poked up near his mouth to know that he doesn’t like it.
But this he likes. Because today we’re not going to just sit around and probe his marriage, dental habits, or age. This is no high exercise in journalistic discipline on my part. We’re not going to probe them because Brezsny simply won’t answer. He allows that he was born under the sign of Cancer, and that, yes, he really is a trained astrologer who does each week’s charts. He further grudges a marriage, a daughter, and the fact that he is trying to break himself of the habit of staying up all night and sleeping all day.
However, he has agreed to meet only because this is no chew-the-fat: This is a Bless-In.
His wiry, greying hair pulled into a ponytail off his face with the type of thick rubber band usually used to secure the Sunday paper, Brezsny rummages around in one of his paper bags. At his suggestion, this Bless-In will sanctify a number of “profane sites” with a few personal objects, items that we have separately chosen as curative symbols.
One such site is an abandoned, fenced-off, cement lot once used by PG&E. He would also like to visit a Lexus dealership, placing some small shrine to defract the mojo of what he sees as being a monument to flat-out crass consumerism. And then, of course, there’s the reverse panhandling. “I would like to have the intention of not being arrested today,” he grins.
Finding what he is looking for, he pulls a sheet of paper from one bag, a disc cut from a slender tree trunk glued on it. “If this had been five years ago, this is the fetish object I would have left, here in the back room,” he says, gesturing to the shrine area of the bookstore.
“This was sent to me by a reader one time,” he explains, “and it just says, ‘This is an extremely sacred object. Treat it with the utmost respect, and then burn it.’ My readers send me so many different things that I think that they’d almost appreciate it if I passed certain things on.”
BREZSNY has an unusual relationship with his readers. Most writers send their work off into the great void, rarely meeting up with anyone who will admit to reading it. If one does encounter such a soul, the response is often said in an accusatory tone: “I’ve read you.” This is why some writers drink.
But Brezsny probably isn’t someone who tipples. He doesn’t have time. Encouraging a very vital interaction with his audience, he offers weekly homework assignments at the end of each column–a feature not run by all papers–exhorting readers to write to him with fantasies and outrages, to send him fake money and mantras, and to just generally engage in the kind of sophisticated spiritual tomfoolery that makes Real Astrology such a gas. He also maintains a 900 number offering his own performance-art readings of his columns, as well as updating his Real Astrology website. Eavesdropping, dreaming, and input from his readers all swell what he admits are the “12 love letters” written to the sun signs each week.
“Part of why I seem so prolific creatively,” he says of the weekly column that he has been writing for the past 18 years, “is that I don’t have to rely solely on my own powers. I am receptive to the world around me, and I don’t have to do it all by myself.”
Later on he explains, “There’s something about the unusual interaction that I have with my readership. There’s some magic in that I’m always writing to you. I’m always writing love letters or greetings or salutations to the people out there, and I get a lot of mail, and I get a lot of phone calls, and so I have a really palpable sense of who’s out there. It’s a really high-value relationship, and it really feels like intimacy.”
Lotus seater: Seated before a shrine to Kali in the back room of a New Age bookstore, Brezsny exemplifies the prankster/guru dichotomy of his personal ethic.
A combination of prankster and guru, Brezsny is almost at home among the well-preserved middle-aged seekers with plenty of free afternoon time who are drifting around us in the bookstore, turning over volumes on tantric sex. A few customers have flowers tucked behind one ear, and more than one has a cellular phone parasitically attached to the other ear. Bookstore staffers wear flowing Eastern blouses, strategically cut low to reveal the curve of a breast or the proud grey hair of a chest fluffed up around a large medallion necklace. Low whiny music soothes the soul, and there is enough patchouli in the air to give an asthmatic the wheezes.
Yet on another occasion, Brezsny will dress up in what he calls his “huckster shaman rock star” outfit and literally stand on his head in the back shrine room.
As most beauty and truth fans know, Rob Brezsny is more than willing to kick his own ass.
“I regard the New Age with the same attitude as I do astrology,” he says. “I have gotten a lot out of it, and I feel a need to debunk it, to call attention to its excesses and superficialities. At the same time, I’ve obviously been nurtured by a lot of what’s been called New Age. That’s my running joke with life, to treat everything as if it’s about 70 percent worthy of belief, and about 30 percent worthy of total skepticism, and to borrow from them all. There are no idols.
“I feel like I’m caught between the high-court fundamental scientists, who say that there are no such things except those that we can see and feel and measure, and the high-court fundamentalist mystics, who believe that any manifestations of channeling or symbiotics must be true.”
DURING a midwinter’s midnight radio broadcast on a public station, Brezsny was heard seriously discussing his contention that Radio Shack franchises across America should be turned into menstrual huts for both men and women. In fact, he asserted, he is very much involved with the Male Menstrual Movement. The female radio host treated him with grave, quiet-voiced respect. Nary missing a beat, with a trace of humor coloring his voice, Brezsny began to hawk the book upon which he is still at work, A Feminist Man’s Guide to Picking up Women.
“Recently I had the inspiration to call it a docu-fiction memoir,” he says slyly now, looking away from the wheel as we drive toward the PG&E site. “It’s definitely experimental, but it’s a form that I hope is very entertaining at the same time. Without commenting too much, it’s a novel. A docu-fiction memoir disguised as a novel with equal amounts of truth and half-truths mixed in. It is in part a story about my life as a musician and of my initiation at the hands of numerous women over a period of time, climaxing in the kidnapping of me by members of the Menstrual Temple of the Funky Grail.”
And that is a real event?
“Yeah,” he says, shaking his head vigorously. “That’s the modern name for a group that is actually an ancient mystery school that predates Sumer.
“I don’t want to sound too megalomaniac,” he continues modestly, “but I am one of the few so-called lesbian men that has been chosen to receive this initiation.”
And just what is a lesbian man?
“Well, many things,” he chuckles. “It means embodying feminism as a man without becoming a wimp. It means holding the masculine sacred, but in such a way that the feminine is glorified and enhanced. It means being a macho feminist. It means promoting the feminine archetype and the redemption of the feminine mysteries which have been so degraded, promoting and working on that with a masculine, aggressive style.”
Later, he expands. “It requires mastering a certain understanding of the spiritual value of menstrual periods. This is a very complex subject, and I can’t do it justice. But I will say that the male body does not enforce a time-out for our psychic and physical growth. The male body–and therefore the psyche–can go on endlessly without having to check back in to the inner source.
“I don’t want to glamorize the menstrual period for women,” he says, “but one of the values that it could possibly have–I don’t think that it necessarily does have–is if there were a cultural context for it that would require a retreat to a sanctuary and a return to a communion and a conversation with the subtle self. My theory is an idealistic one, but to the degree that we don’t allow the collapse and don’t allow the retreat, and welcome and encourage it, it turns into crankiness, it turns into bad moods, it turns into fucking up and being mean to people. If we acknowledge that we need to have this regular communion with our shadow, then our shadow is not going to rise up and demand to be paid attention to.”
Brezsny actually has his period as we speak, not that I can tell. “It’s not always on a 28-day cycle,” he says, “but for the last two days, I’ve definitely been on my period. My body’s been telling me to shut down and withdraw, and,” he says–alluding to our Bless-In–“I can’t always accommodate that.”
He stops the car. We get out in front of PG&E’s forlorn, weedy wrack of abandoned cement and poles, completely encircled with cyclone fencing. “This is the ugliest site in Marin that I know of,” he says appraisingly. “I’m sure there are others, but I go numb every time that I pass it. I’m alienated from the land that it’s on, and I want to heal my alienation to it. I want to overcome my tendency to numb out and fall asleep every time that I pass it. Because when you get into the habit of going numb and falling asleep, it tends to get easier to do that in other aspects of your life.”
From the trunk, he hauls out two of his paper bags. The third contains nothing but a pile of $1 and $5 bills for his handout scheme. Squatting in the wind before the locked gate, we begin placing the artifacts for the shrine: a gold paper doily and gold petit-four wrappers that we weight with “magic rocks,” the shiny quartz kind that line driveways.
What makes them magic?
“I say that they are,” he returns with a smile.
To these he adds the bag of beets, a box of red crayons, candy wax vampire teeth, a light-up red bubble candle from the Christmas when he was 3 years old, the green tops from the persimmons that grow at his home, some walnuts, pre-formed Christmas ribbons, and an unwrapped Mozart CD. We thread four pinwheels through the linkage. I lay some purgative herbs tied in a bunch with party ribbon, and homegrown nasturium seeds, as well as a short poem that I have composed and torn up, dotted with my favorite perfume. Taking up one of the magic rocks, Brezsny–who is a published poet–grabs a Magic Marker and writes “Bathe in persimmon light” on one side.
Sitting back on his heels, he looks in pleasure at what we’ve arranged. “My interest is as much personal as it is in transfer,” he says. “If I can charge up the energy of this place in some mysterious subtle way, that’s great. But I’m also healing my own ignorance and numbness about it, and that’s part of the excitement for me. There are many different kinds of healing. Healing is to help someone who is sick. Healing is to eliminate the mental and psychic blocks or traumas that wound someone psychically so that they can’t function. And also, healing is to bring beauty and truth to a person or to a site, and that’s one that I like to think that I specialize in.”
NOT SURPRISINGLY, we get lost trying to find the Lexus dealership. A chance turn finds us face to face with a notorious thrift store. Knocking over a box inside, Brezsny stoops to find that disgusting little His and Hers sex-panties sized to fit dolls have spilled out. We buy them. He also finds a lint remover made by the ousted workers of one of GM’s Flint, Mich., plants, immortalized in the documentary Roger & Me. “A Flint Lint Remover!,” he cries. We buy that. He gets a delicate fan for his daughter, a wedding registry dated for his birthday in 1921, and an old Marvel comic book. We then perform the aforementioned reverse panhandle and return to the couch of the New Age hucksterism emporium where we met.
“Astrology was right up there with rock and roll in being responsible for saving my life, because part of my soul had started to shrivel,” he says. “When I was in high school, it was the Dionysian spirit of rock and roll and the mythological language of astrology that really gave me something to hold on to. They were institutions, not just some product of my imagination, and that gave me the idea that there were other traditions in this world that could sustain and could nourish.”
We get up and approach the shrine room. A tiny pair of gold sandals sit reverently outside the door. Going in, we set the Flint Lint Remover, a gold party hat, the tree-trunk letter, and a small gold-backed doll’s mirror from the thrift store among the Shiva statues and stone Buddhas. They look perfectly in place.
As we return to our cars, my reporter’s instincts are dismayed. Where did he grow up, go to college, love, marry, learn to ride a bike? How the heck old is he?
I have spent the greater part of one entire afternoon with Rob Brezsny only to find that he likes to eat beets and that he drives an abhorrently filthy car. In a pathetic, joking attempt to cull any small scrap of personal information, I have already promised not to ask him what type of toothpaste he uses. I turn sadly away.
Brezsny stops by his open door. “Hey!” he calls.
I look up hopefully.
“Interplak!” he shouts.
Then he grins, gets in, and drives away.
From the August 1-7, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent
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© 1996 Metrosa, Inc.