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Photograph by Michael Amsler

Starman: Rob Brezsny's Real Astrology column rewires the signs of our times.

Mining an Oracle

In which astrologer-shaman-novelist Rob Brezsny gives our intrepid reporter a lesson in pronoiac therapy

By David Templeton

ROBED IN multicolored splendor, a grayish mane of shoulder-length hair flowing about his head like some fantastic filamental halo, Rob Brezsny appears at the front door of his unassuming home in Marin County.

"Have you brought a symbol of your own pain?" he asks.

I pat my shirt pocket, assuring my host and soon-to-be confessor that yes, indeed, in strict accordance with his emailed instructions--in which Brezsny promised "a concentrated dose of Pronoiac Therapy [insert trademark]"--I have brought along a symbol of my own deepest pain.

"Great!" Brezsny exclaims, his lips adopting the form of an eager, anticipatory smile. "Great! We'll burn it later."

With that greeting, I enter the house, which he shares with his "Freaky Consort," Suzanne Sterling, and his daughter, Zoe. And thus begins a mind-altering, interview-transcending, extremely entertaining encounter with Rob Brezsny.

Probably best known as the poet-astrologer-mystic-author of Real Astrology, the wildly popular, eye-bending weekly feature read by 9 million people in 120 newspapers--including Metro Santa Cruz--worldwide, Brezsny is a self-described "Macho Feminist," whose various exploits over the years include stints as lead singer in Tao Chemical and the Bammie-winning World Entertainment War. He's also been a genre-busting Santa Cruz political candidate (more later), a subversive performance artist with a penchant for handing out money at freeway exits (call it "reverse pan-handling") and, according to his official biography, a "sacred janitor."

Well, pass the broom and praise the Goddess! Because now Brezsny can add the word "novelist" to his lusty list of achievements, with the release this month of The Televisionary Oracle.

Like Brezsny's own far-outside-the-norm self, his book defies simple dust-jacket blurbing. After introducing a reluctantly maturing rock star (called Rockstar) and an enigmatic psychic adventurer named Rapunzel Blavatsky, the book blossoms in multiple directions--a kind of psycho-mythical collage of ideas and evolutions--as Rockstar is "benevolently kidnapped" by the all-female initiates of the Menstrual Temple of the Funky Grail, of which Rapunzel is the Chief Shamanatrix.

Rapunzel, by the way, may be the reincarnation of Mary Magdalene--and possibly the owner of a $60-million-year-old television set. Rockstar, desperate to cast aside his patriarchal programming, yet ever eager to get laid, sets his sights on becoming the first man in history to receive the blessing of male menstruation.

To say the tale turns weird is like saying that the Buddha had a couple of interesting ideas. Like the Buddha, however, The Televisionary Oracle is nothing short of hell-bent on transcendence; in this case, transcending traditional literary expectations.

So how does the author describe his book?

"Well, it is a novel. Allegedly a novel," Brezsny carefully explains. He's seated in a comfy chair in his art-filled living room. On the fireplace mantel sits a series of post-card pictures of Jesus, Buddha, various Hindu deities and Captain Picard of the U.S.S. Enterprise. A set of drums and other percussion instruments stand nearby. Oddly, a silk wedding dress hangs on the wall.

As we converse, we are sipping from mugs of Traditional Medicinals' popular PMS Tea, one of Brezsny's favorite hot libations and certainly an appropriate choice for a discussion that involves male menstruation.

"The book is actually a docu-fiction memoir, but I've snuck in various manifestos, poetry and oracles," he tells me. "Hidden within the novel's pages, there's also a manual called A Feminist Man's Guide to Picking Up Women. So the book is hard to categorize, but the bookstores still need some category in which to shelve it, so I've agreed to call it a novel.

"Many of the ideas at the heart of pronoiac therapy, by the way, are embodied in the story of The Televisionary Oracle," he adds.

Pronoiac therapy. Ah yes.

As Brezsny details it, "Pronoia is the opposite of paranoia." Rather than being an irrational fear that everyone is out to get you, pronoia is the belief that everyone in the universe is conspiring to shower you with blessings. Pronoiac therapy, then, is Brezsny's whimsical method--tested on numerous friends and loved ones, and most notably on himself--of opening up one's mind to a greater acceptance of pronoia.

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Pronoiac Quotient

AND NOW IT'S MY TURN. After taking a written test--"The Smart Optimist's Personality Test"--designed to reprogram the mind to ask questions that will increase one's Pronoiac Quotient, I am instructed to kick my own ass five times.

"There are many ways to kick your own ass," Brezsny offers, happily standing to demonstrate. "My favorite way is the double-barrel."

Leaping into the air, Brezsny gives his buttocks a good hard smack with the heels of his feet, then lands gracefully on the floor. "You can do a single-barrel kick as well. Or you can do this." He lies on the floor, knees up, and kicking downward, whacks himself on the behind. "Ouch!" he cries.

I choose the double-barrel approach.

"Impressive," Brezsny praises. "You are now free to bitch and whine for five minutes. You may complain without shame, without apology, in one long flash of concentrated angst. The assumption is that this exercise will free you up to be in a more expansive mood through the rest of your week."

He consults his watch. "Go."

Five minutes, it turns out, is a very long time. Yet somehow, under Brezsny's benevolent and amused gaze, I find things to bitch about.

"Wow," Brezsny says as I finish. "That was a heroic effort. You should congratulate yourself for being in touch with all that. And may you forgive yourself for being bothered by so many things."

He pauses, then rises and heads for the garden, saying, "I'm going to go get a flower for you to eat."

Bohemian Utopia

IT IS NO SIMPLE MATTER, in the presence of Rob Brezsny, to separate the trickster from the priest. His absolute sincerity in wanting to make the world a better place is perfectly balanced by his skill at playing pranks.

When he ran for the City Council in Santa Cruz, way back in 1988, he promised to impose yuppie immigration quotas, to stage holy mud-wrestling rituals between conservatives and liberals, and to seek solutions to the homeless problem by consulting his own dreams. When his campaign became so successful that it looked as if he'd actually win, Brezsny ran full-page newspaper ads listing the reasons he shouldn't be elected.

Before appearing in Santa Cruz, Brezsny--who declines to give his age or hometown--spent several years at Duke University, in Durham, N.C. The son of an English teacher, he'd been raised to think of himself as a writer and harbored thoughts of someday writing a novel.

While at Duke, however, he was entirely devoted to the study of religion: "At that time, I was beginning to discover that there were realms other than the material daytime realm, realms that had been hidden from me by the mainstream culture. I was attracted to religion, not for its social or moral implications, but as a chance to commune with the other side."

His main interests at that time, he says, were Hinduism, Buddhism and LSD. Though Brezsny's college days were immeasurably useful and enlightening, he now admits that he was never all that comfortable in North Carolina.

"As long as I was living in the deep South--as liberal as Durham and Chapel Hill are--I was probably doomed to never be more than the village idiot," he says with a laugh. "There just weren't sufficient channels for me to express how weird I was."

According to Brezsny, he began to hear rumors about the "Bohemian Utopia" called Santa Cruz. In the rest room of the Roy Rogers restaurant in Durham, he spied the graffiti "I got Santa Cruzified and Californicated--and it felt like Heaven" followed by "You know you'll never become the artist you were meant to be until you come live in Santa Cruz."

This prophetic scrawl turned out to be accurate. As soon as Brezsny made the move to Santa Cruz, in the late 1970s, everything began to click into place.

"All the crazy ideas that I'd had," he recalls, "all my bizarre impulses, suddenly found a comfortable cultural niche. I'd go so far as to say that Santa Cruz was essential in nurturing my most idiosyncratic visions."

Making an immediate splash as a ranting rock & roll poet and performance artist, he distributed photocopies of a homemade chapbook called Crazy Science, landed a gig as a late-night talk-show host on the radio with a program he named Babbling Ambiance and formed his first band, Kamikaze Angel Slander. Still, Brezsny initially struggled to feed himself. For several years, he suffered through stints as a dishwasher, artist's model and apple picker, all the while nurturing his increasingly outrageous artistic exploits.

Things took an unexpected turn when Brezsny answered a want ad in The Good Times. The paper was looking for a new writer to submit an astrology column. Having never been a fan of such columns but eager to receive a regular paycheck--a whole $15 bucks a week--Brezsny decided to reinvent the wheel, fashioning a column that placed an emphasis on poetry over prophecy, spinning wild webs of exuberant, oracular text that invited soul-searching and stood apart from all other horoscope features. Within months, the column raised Brezsny to the level of full-on local celebrity.

Over the next several years, Brezsny expanded his circulation, moving to other Santa Cruz weekly papers until ending up at Metro Santa Cruz and self-syndicating the column out of the area. By 1989, Real Astrology was running in 12 papers, at which point his column began to be syndicated through a group named Alternet. By then Brezsny had formed World Entertainment War and was enjoying the height of personal, professional and artistic success.

It was at this point that Brezsny decided he wanted to write a novel.

Ironically, it was not until he left his now-beloved Santa Cruz that Brezsny was able to begin working on it. After numerous false starts, the exact nature of the story did not fully come to Brezsny until 1994, three years after relocating from Santa Cruz to San Rafael--and a year or so after disbanding the band.

"I think as long as I was still a rock star in a daily way, I was unconsciously addicted to presenting an image of myself as a Dionysian priest," he explains. "It took my leaving the day-to-day life of a rock star to sink down to the undersoil of the other aspects of me, so I could speak from those other voices.

"As long as I was a small-town celebrity in Santa Cruz, which I loved, I was awash in people's projections all the time," Brezsny elaborates. "Though I'd developed something of an immunization against believing in people's projections, you can't ever completely be free of it, especially if it's being thrown at you all the time.

"So I decided I needed to retire from that tremendously exciting and extroverted and rich social life of Santa Cruz and retreated to my hermitage in San Rafael, where no one knew me, and my column did not appear in the local paper.

"My muses didn't reveal to me what the story of my book was until I'd agreed to write from my shame. I needed to start the book by writing about that relationship I have with my matriarchal feminist superego, the relationship that has made me feel ashamed of my male sexuality. As soon as I realized that, the book just began to pour out of me."

He stops and laughs. "Though it still took another six years."

It's no surprise that Santa Cruz figures prominently in The Televisionary Oracle.

"Santa Cruz is the star of the book, in a lot of ways," Brezsny acknowledges. "Most of the action takes place in Santa Cruz."

Indeed. Rockstar and Rapunzel experience their fateful first meeting in Santa Cruz. Specifically, they meet in the women's bathroom at the Catalyst, the legendary nonfictional nightclub at which Brezsny once frequently performed with World Entertainment War; the band also appears, as itself, in The Televisionary Oracle.

"It was very inspiring to write," Brezsny says. "And very fun. One of the locales in the book is the place I lived for eight years, Myrtle Street in Santa Cruz. A couple of chapters take place in that dwelling. That was wonderful to write. It was good therapy."


Photograph by Egon

Jungian Beatnik Funk: World Entertainment War took Santa Cruz's musical chakras by storm in the '80s.

Ferocious Blessings

AND SPEAKING OF THERAPY. "Oh, Goddess," Brezsny prays out loud, standing over a flaming barbecue on his shady, clover-covered front lawn, "We pray that you add your constructively destructive power in assisting us now, as you diminish the power of that which instructs this heroic individual."

On the grill, writhing in a flummox of flames, is the symbol of my pain that, until now, I'd been carrying in my pocket. What that symbol is is not important. It's a dollar bill with my face taped over Washington's, the most profound thing I could think of as I rushed out the door.

"So let it be," intones Brezsny as the dollar withers in the flames. My pronoiac therapy session is almost completed. In addition to having me eat the flower, kick my own ass, and complain and brag for five minutes, Brezsny is now coaching me through the steps of performing a senseless act of altruism, conjuring up "a kind and loving thought" about someone I dislike and staring at a blank TV screen--our own Televisionary Oracle--while contemplating the notion that, as Brezsny puts it, "Happiness can be interesting, that moral success can hold people's interest, that good times can be not-boring."

Finally, Brezsny--who is anything but boring--produces a standing mirror, places it before me and goes to find Suzanne. Back in the living room, he takes down the silk wedding dress and, after asking permission, drapes it over my shoulder. Suzanne begins to drum, humming melodically along as Brezsny officiates over a wedding ceremony as I, gazing into the mirror, prepare to be joyously married ... to myself.

"I've done quite a few of these," Brezsny assures me.

"It changed my life when I did it," Suzanne affirms.

"Dear Goddess, who never kills but only changes," Brezsny begins, "we pray that our exuberant, suave, accidental words move you to shower ferocious blessings on this beautiful genius who dares to wed himself."

He recites the vows, directing me to repeat them as I gaze into my own eyes. "I will never forsake you. I will always treat you with reverence and respect. You are a divine temple. I will do with you what spring does with the cherry trees."

It's all a bit overwhelming but far from unpleasant. In fact, once you look past the remarkably odd, prankish originality of the moment--this is really kind of cool.

"So dear Goddess," prays Brezsny, the master of overwhelming originality and prankish pronoiac coolness, "we ask you to consecrate this marriage, so that he may sing his own songs, write his own laws, save his own life--and push his own buttons. Blessed be. Amen. A-woman. And Halle-fuckin'-lujah!"


The Televisionary Oracle by Rob Brezsny; Frog Ltd., distributed by North Atlantic Books, P.O. Box 12327, Berkeley, 94712; 482 pages; $16.95 paper

Rob Brezsny reads from his novel Thursday (April 27) at 8pm at Printers Inc, 310 California Ave., Palo Alto, and Friday (April 28) at 7:30pm at Bookshop Santa Cruz, 1520 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz.


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From the April 26-May 3, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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