Dear Friend and Reader:
Edges of cities are interesting places. When I discovered Lou Reed, I was driving regularly from New Jersey to Staten Island to visit my cousin Maura. To get there I cruised in my 1972 Dodge Dart along the ancient, strange and beautiful Route 22 and over the Outerbridge Crossing to Staten Island, on the far outskirts of New York City.
I often did the drive in the dark hours into dawn, along empty highways scattered with road construction projects lit up like movie sets. That landscape shaped my consciousness with its dark tones and horizons defined by refineries and enormous gantries set along the waterfront, elevated highways and the Manhattan skyline looming in the distance.
I was working as a staff editor for a business newsletter publishing company, in charge of titles like Kane’s Beverage Week and Leisure Beverage Insider, for which subscribers paid hundreds of dollars a year.
I was being flown all over the country to cover trade shows, conferences and conventions. Knowing what I had accomplished by age 25, I was aware that I had a potential career track to be a top editor at The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times. And I was pretty sure I wanted no part of that, or rather that I had already seen enough of it.
I was still in some shock after graduating from SUNY Buffalo, where art and community were everywhere, and where I had my hand in countless activist publishing projects. The spirit of change and collective excitement that pervaded my life in Buffalo was nowhere to be found in New Jersey or New York City, not that I could sniff out, anyway. The energy was depressing, nothing like I remembered the city when I was in high school.
Sometime in late 1988, I don’t remember how, I met my cousin Maura, who became an old friend immediately. In those months I wove in many visits to see her, bringing her my poems, which she would have me read to her. We stayed up deep into the winter nights exploring and considering language and ideas and loving one another like the kindred spirits that we were.
One day she handed me two tickets to see a guy named Lou Reed. The tickets were for the opening night of his tour for the album New York. Except for the one song everyone has heard, I didn’t know who he was, so I bought the CD and started listening.
Like phosphorous burning in a black desert, the songs on this album illuminated the political and spiritual landscape of the United States. Lou showed us how dark it all was, a society of people shitting in rivers, dumping battery acid into streams and clubbing one another in pointless race riots. He did not hesitate to point out all the hypocrisy and taken for granted stupidity that pervade American society, and that most people just shrug off.
A thousand times I’ve listened to him say, I’ll meet you in Tompkins Square, the park where a riot had ensued a year earlier after the city tried to clear the park of homeless people.
New York was like the most exciting news report I ever heard. Lou called out world leaders and the pope for their racist viewpoints, listed the names of those who had been hurt in the civil war that was ensuing and called on anyone with a shred of ethics to stand up and do something. He talked about the Statue of Bigotry, the NRA, the asshole driving on heroin who crippled a dancer and countless news figures from that era from Bernard Goetz to Mike Tyson to the Guardian Angels.
The album sums up an an era of history; it was also one of the best post-punk albums ever recorded — composed and performed by someone I had no idea was regarded as an inventor of punk rock 25 years earlier.
Then there was the concert, opening night for the New York tour, a Friday night, performed in a Broadway theater. That means a classy venue with maybe 3,000 people in the house, no bad seats and fantastic acoustics. We were in the last row, which was like having the best press seats for an arena concert. The last row also meant there was a wide, carpeted exit aisle behind us, and nobody seemed to care if we danced back there, with a full view of the stage.
The stage had a designed set, with painted-on glass panels backlit in fluorescent colors. At first glance I looked at it and thought: Andy Warhol’s ghost is in the room, though I had no idea that Warhol had produced the Velvet Underground and been one of Lou’s closest friends.
The show was in two sets. In the first, Reed and his band blazed out the full New York album in order, true to the studio recording but turned up to 11 for the live environment. They went from song to song without a pause as the whole house gathered the momentum of the performance. By the time I saw the show I was already in love with every song on the album and it was amazing to see them done live for the first time, right in New York City.
Then they took a break, came back out, and did a generous, nearly endless greatest hits collection of the Velvet Underground and Lou’s solo work. This was not an oldies show. Every song was performed with an edge of joyous aggression. There is nothing I can compare this show to.
Radical, professional, raw, refined, hot and cool, idealistic and baldly realistic, new and old all at once. Something, some fire, entered my mind that night and has not left since, or perhaps I felt like I had permission to let myself care about what I really did care about.
Soon after, I made a series of decisions, which at the time I did not directly connect to my experience of the music but for which, looking back, New York was the point of demarcation. One day I came to work and saw television footage of the City University uprising of spring 1989 — students getting arrested in tuition hike protests. It was clear the students had experienced no civil disobedience training. That was the actual tipping point. I knew I had to be part of that.
In a matter of weeks, I had sketched out a business plan for a newsletter covering politics and student issues for campus organizations and the student press (New York State Student Leader), applied to grad school, quit my job and came upstate to be an activist and a poet. I was accepted as a fully sponsored grad student at SUNY New Paltz, where I taught English for a year and wrote about many of the kinds of issues that Lou Reed had described in New York, throwing myself in with total commitment.
A year later I was covering the 1990 City University protests from the inside, living for three weeks in a seized building at City College of New York.
That was the power of Lou’s music: it woke me up and helped radicalize me. I was suddenly able to focus and choose what to do with my talent and drive. I have never worked a ‘straight’ job since. I went into business and from that point forward, set my own agenda as a journalist. I have never once contained myself based on what some publisher or advertiser might think of the views I took.
I usually own the publications where my work appears, which are always advertising-free, where to this day I strive to perfect the let ’em have it, In-Your-Face, tell-it-like-it-is, put-their-names-in print-style of journalism that Lou Reed made look both easy and worth doing.
I never met Lou Reed, but this week I discovered how many people I know knew him personally. Over the years I figured out that Lou was a sexual revolutionary. The song Walk on the Wild Side, Lou’s one true pop hit, was a daring statement for its time, 1972.
Right around then, Betty Dodson was one of the few women busting the gender queer barrier, and from her stories I know how dangerous this was. At that time, even lesbians were politically sidelined within the official gay movement. “Wild Side” was a bold, beautiful tribute to transvestites, male prostitutes and numerous characters floating around the East Village at the time.
One message of the song: this all may seem a little seedy but these people sure are interesting, they’re real and I think you’ll like them. C’mon sugar, check out the scene.
I wanted to know more about the sexual revolutionary in Lou Reed, so I contacted Billy Name, who was the official photographer and archivist at Warhol’s Factory, where the Velvet Underground was the house band. Billy was friends with Reed continuously from those days till he died this past weekend.
Billy was one of my first astrology clients, and he’s always been generous sharing his eyewitness accounts of history.
“It’s an overachievement of humanity to make the masculine and the feminine fuse as one and put that forth as your gender,” Billy told me. “He did it not through sexuality but through including all phases of homosexual and heterosexual.”
He said that Lou had a way of making contact with the inner truth in everyone. “He would scratch you and bring out your underground. He never left you alone. He wasn’t trying to scratch you. He was a gem.”
And he added his opinion that Lou would have been a musical prodigy no matter what era he was born into. Rock and roll happened to be an exceptionally good fit.
Spencer Drate is a typographer who co-designed several album covers for Lou Reed’s solo work, including New York and Magic and Loss, and special issues of Velvet Underground albums. He described Lou as a moody, quirky person who was always gracious to him. He said that in his experience, Reed was emotionally transparent and could not hide his feelings. “If he was at a party and he didn’t want to be there, you could see it on his face.”
Drate said the New York album was the first that Lou did post-heroin addiction. The project revived Lou’s drive to live and make music and that his relationship with Seymour Stein, the co-founder of Sire Records, afforded him some faith in the record industry.
Drate said that Reed never asked him to change anything on an album cover and told him directly that he loved his work. Hearing that would mean a lot to anyone, since just about everyone held Reed as a genius.
That theme came up again when I talked to Gary Lucas, the guitarist I featured on a recent Planet Waves FM. Lucas said, “Lou was a friend — I met him in Munich in 1992 at Zorn’s Festival of Radical Jewish Culture and he invited me to hang out and play with him. He told me then: ‘I could listen to you play for hours, Gary’.”
Can you imagine Lou Reed telling you that about your guitar playing? (He was onto something about Gary Lucas, by the way.)
My favorite story of the week, however, came from my old friend Rob Norris, whom I knew for about 20 years before recently discovering he’s an actual rock star — the bassist for The Bongos.
Rob sent me the PDF of a music ‘zine that looks like it was from around 1980 or so, typed on an IBM Selectric. In it, he tells the story of a concert in his high school auditorium in 1965, filled with teenage students and their parents. Al Aronowitz, the manager of the Velvet Underground, lived in Rob’s town in New Jersey.
Rob’s best friend was Al’s babysitter, who brought back an ongoing stream of stories about who would visit his house, from Carole King to John Lennon. Al also managed a band called The Myddle Class which for some reason was playing the Summit High School auditorium. Usually for this kind of small, local gig, Al commissioned local opening acts.
However, The Velvet Underground had recently been fired by its club in New York City for not being danceable enough. So for $80 Al put them on the bill to be the opening act for The Myddle Class. The result was one of those true moments of rock history.
“Nothing could have prepared the kids and parents assembled in the auditorium for what they were about to experience that night,” he wrote. When the curtain came up, “There stood the Velvet Underground, dressed mostly in black; two of them were wearing sunglasses. One of the guys had VERY long hair and was wearing silver jewelry. He was holding a large violin. The drummer was standing at a small, oddly arranged drum kit. Was it a boy or a girl?
“Before we could take it all in, everyone was hit by a screeching surge of sound, with a pounding beat louder than anything we had ever heard. About a minute into the second song, which the singer had introduced as ‘Heroin’, the music began to get even more intense. It swelled and accelerated like a giant tidal wave which was threatening to engulf us all. At this point, most of the audience retreated in horror for the safety of their homes, thoroughly convinced of the dangers of rock & roll music. My friends and I moved a little closer to the stage, knowing that something special was happening.”
The next time Norris encountered Lou Reed was three years later, in Boston. Norris was in the meditation group of the eminent astrologer Isabel Hickey, and in that group was a guy named Mitch, who was also the sound man at a club called the Tea Party. Mitch was a friend of Reed’s, and one night at a Velvet’s concert, offered to introduce Norris to him between sets. His friend hinted that “Lou would probably be very different from what I was probably expecting him to be.”
He continued: “A bit later we went into a big back room where Lou Reed sat, all by himself, eating what looked to be sawdust out of a jar. Mitch introduced us and slipped quietly out of the room. I was speechless. After sizing me up for a few seconds, Lou said, ‘What are you, on amphetamines or something?’
“I mumbled that I was not and asked what it was that he was eating. I was informed that it was a high-protein wheat germ mixture that he always ate before playing. This was followed by a brief lecture on the evils of drug abuse. My mind was reeling! I blurted out something about how much I loved their music and that I had seen them at Summit High three years earlier.
“Lou broke into a huge grin and took me into the other room to meet the band. Everyone was amazed that I had seen the show…It was wonderful to meet them like that. I was impressed by how intelligent, articulate and polite they were. It changed my whole impression of rock and roll stars. They were real people like you and me, after all!”
Norris said he went to many Velvet concerts and afterwards would always hang out backstage watching Reed hold court and answer his fans’ questions about anything and everything. The end result was that he knew he wanted a career as a professional rocker, and he created just that for himself.
Norris pointed out in his article that Lou Reed had in his chart the Pisces Sun and Virgo Moon. He was born just before a lunar eclipse, so it’s an especially strong Full Moon, giving him a chart polarized between the signs Virgo and Pisces — the technician and the artist; the control freak and the dreamer.
“Lou was a member of the Church of Light in NYC, which, like Isabel Hickey’s group in Boston, studied, among other things, the teachings of Alice Bailey,” Norris wrote.
“Lou explained how a lot of his songs embodied the Virgo-Pisces opposition and could be taken two ways. ‘White Light/White Heat’ was an obvious drug song showing some of the Piscean suffering and self-indulgent ‘road of excess’ side of things. But it was also about enlightenment, expressing the Christian purity, self-control, ‘palace of wisdom’ aspects of Virgo. Enlightenment was expressed in the feminine on songs like ‘Here She Comes Now’ and ‘I Heard Her Call My Name’.”
In other words, Lou Reed was aware of his astrology and used it as a spiritual and artistic tool. He understood that the Virgo-Pisces opposition that defines his chart is the embodiment of opposites, the great contradiction across which he had to stretch himself.
Hence we get Lou Reed the heroin addict in harmony with Lou Reed the avatar. We get the raw, grimy punk rocker playing the bass and guitar out of the same amp and we get the impeccable technician who played a tight, confident show almost every time. We get Lou Reed the health freak and Lou Reed the heroin addict.
We get Lou Reed the gracious and Lou Reed who would lie to the press regularly, not out of dislike but in my opinion as a journalist because their questions were so stupid.
We get Lou Reed of The Velvet Undergrond that my friend Mike Ackerman described as “an epic commercial failure at the time but a monumental artistic success. It’s been said by many that the first Velvet Underground album launched thousands of bands.”
By putting his contradictions right out where everyone could see them, Lou Reed presented himself as human and was received by everyone as human. Because he was speaking to us across level space, his voice cut through the bullshit, proof that it could be done. He was a friend to humanity, demonstrating how to do it.
I can think of no other celebrity I’ve never even met who felt more like a personal friend. And I miss him like one. Lou Reed was a reassuring presence on the planet, a reminder of what an artist can be and what art can do.
Inner Space Monthly Horoscope for November 2013,
standing in for weekly #973 | By Eric Francis
The events of November are the peak of 2013 astrology. Mercury is retrograde in Scorpio, which is where most of the action is taking place, though when it’s taking place somewhere else, the Scorpio planets are involved. On November 1, Mercury and the Sun form a conjunction on the same day that we experience the fourth of seven Uranus-Pluto squares. That’s the highly unusual aspect that is defining what I call the 2012 era. Two days later is an unusually potent solar eclipse in Scorpio, which brings up the ‘change in continuity’ quality that all eclipses have, and also the pattern-setting one. On the Planet Waves website (the week of Oct. 20) we covered the themes of denial and codependency that are coming to a head. The moral of the story with the Scorpio eclipse is to tell the truth, especially about sex.
Aries (March 20-April 19) — If you focus on work, you will be less distracted by an emotional or partnership situation that arises, and will be less likely to get drawn into it in an unhealthy way. The situation has its limits; you must make sure that you have yours as well. Words said without actual intent, misunderstandings and sexual contracts that are not clear are the potential lures into a likely energy-consuming unknown. Though most days I am not the type to suggest taking a purist approach, I recommend that you direct your energy consciously into focused, productive effort or healing. You may be prompted to seek deeper understanding of a partnership issue, though that will be more productive if you seek assistance from a disinterested third party rather than trying to ‘work it out’ with someone whose agenda you may not understand.
Taurus (April 19-May 20) — A potent solar eclipse marks the beginning of a new era in your relationships, based on deep inner changes. Two factors tend to cloud our connections with others. One is that many people are dragging around a load of past material, from their parents and other ancestors — stuff that simply is not their own, but which feels like it is. Second is that projection plays a much larger part in relating to others than communication. Projection is assuming that someone else is thinking something, or has a certain intent, based entirely on your point of view — or vice versa. You can go a long way this month calling in your projections, returning those of others and (in a similar vein) recognizing what material that arises in your contact with others has nothing to do with you. This will take some discernment and some practice — and it’ll be worth doing.
Gemini (May 20-June 21) — You’re being invited to address the most taboo subject matter — the things you’ve avoided or don’t want to talk about, and even a few secrets you may be keeping from yourself. You’ll know you’re there because it will 1. be a little scary, 2. feel intriguing or fascinating, 3. have an odd sense of being familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, and 4. have the sensation of an inner quest or challenge. You may only notice one or two of those qualities; check in with the rest to see if they ring a bell. They’re designed to work together, to draw you deeper, to invoke your curiosity and to demonstrate how good it feels to learn things about yourself that you had no idea were possible. The usual way of life is to fear the unknown; that is not your path and it never was.
Cancer (June 21-July 22) — Many spiritual masters and those with access to the subtler shades of existence have suggested that the life we see is just the surface of existence, perhaps equivalent to more than a movie projected onto a screen, but in truth a form of maya. I am not fully committed to that notion, though I recognize the grain of truth in it — one that might be better phrased as a question than as an answer. Therefore, examine what is real and what is not. What commitments, relationships, ideas and creative processes stand the test of reality — and what does that word mean to you? What influences of the past have no bearing on your life? What is the meaning of an ‘original’ idea? These questions may not have easy answers, but asking will offer you plenty of useful information.
Leo (July 22-Aug. 23) — At times you question whether you’re flexible enough for your own good, and you may be annoyed at how rigid you can feel — though it serves a purpose. You want your foundation to be strong. That requires a certain degree of firmness, and a certain kind of flexibility. Events of the next few weeks will help you determine when it’s appropriate to express one or the other. Notice what environments make you feel rigid, which pull you inward, and which draw you out of yourself. Indeed, how you respond to any environment will tell you everything you need to know about your relationship to it. So if you’re feeling like you need to be strong and inflexible, you can at least notice and ask yourself if it’s the best response, or if another would be preferable. The operative fact is that you have a choice.
Virgo (Aug. 23-Sep. 22) — Mars is making its way across your birth sign, and because it will take a long retrograde in your neighboring sign Libra, it’s moving through your part of the zodiac rather slowly. Where a planet is concerned, slow means potent, and where Mars is concerned, that means your ability to focus thought, intention and action. For part of this journey, Mars will be opposite Chiron, a planet closely related to Virgo; in an opposition, these two points come to full expression — which means that you’re likely to get actual results. Many other factors in your astrology are saying the same thing. It is therefore imperative that you decide what results you want, and focus your thoughts and intentions on them. You’re not accustomed to having this much power available to you, and it requires special handling — a bit like a power tool or welding torch.
Libra (Sep. 22-Oct. 23) — I’ve reminded you before that everything comes down to self-esteem. The way your chart is set up right now, you might alternate between feeling like you’re really struggling with your self-worth at the same moment you’re figuring out just how much you have to work with. There are many ways to tease out the elements of the esteem you have for yourself, though I would suggest that the best measure is respect. Imagine someone you look up to, admire and whose thoughts and ideas you honor because they ring true. Do you feel this way about yourself? What would it take for you to get there? It might seem a contradiction to look up to yourself, though can self-esteem have any other meaning? Whether you have a long way to go or just a few steps to take, now is a great time to focus, explore and most of all seek true understanding of this idea.
Scorpio (Oct. 23-Nov. 22) — The forthcoming solar eclipse in your birth sign may have you on edge. Saturn is already in your sign, with much the same feeling. Add to that Mercury retrograde in Scorpio and you may be wondering what to do with yourself, how to feel and whether you have the courage to face what you need to face. I suggest you have faith in yourself — enough to take the time and make your decisions one at a time, with precision. The only way you can go wrong is to abdicate your awareness and your power of choice, so no sloppy work. Make small, incremental moves — small enough to know you’re making clean, clear decisions. No matter how minor they may seem, each one counts; each leads to the next; and they all add up to something bigger than you can see at the moment.
Sagittarius (Nov. 22-Dec. 22) — You may be feeling so much that you want to burst. But it looks like you’re not sure whether to implode or to explode. There seems to be a deep relationship situation in your life, though the way it looks, someone is lodged in your consciousness and in your libido in a way that you cannot shake, but where the person is less than available in physical reality. You might want to question whether this is a fantasy situation or something that you can actually ground in the physical world. Indeed that seems to be a theme of your chart from many points of view: the distance between how much is going on in your imagination versus what you’re actually experiencing in real time and space. Fantasy may seem safer and it may seem more accessible — assumptions I suggest you challenge with direct experience.
Capricorn (Dec. 22-Jan. 20) — If you’ve felt in any way involved in a situation with no easy way out, you now have an opening. In the most pragmatic terms, it looks a little like making new friends, particularly where you’ve wanted to go but found to be challenging in the past. However, more significantly, this is about changing your social patterns. New people, new places, new times of day to socialize — get out of your ruts and into the meadow. That’s the theme of your life these days; the past stands no chance against the future that is approaching. Who you were will never compare to the person you are becoming. Most of what you need to do is get out of your own way, though doing things differently, even modest things (like how you drive home from work, or what train you take) will shuffle your consciousness in a friendly, practical way.
Aquarius (Jan. 20-Feb. 19) — Your charts are once again calling you to leadership, though you need to be clever about this. Use psychology, which is another way of saying listen for a while before you say anything, or make a decision. You would also do well to bide your time. Events between Nov. 1 and 3 will bring both a series of revelations and also a sense that you’re in new territory — which will call for a new approach to your situation. It won’t be until Mercury stations direct on the 10th that you know fully where you stand, and when the last of the missing pieces will be filled in. That idea about knowledge being power was never truer for you than it is now. Or said another way, knowledge that you use wisely will help you use your power in a humane way.
Pisces (Feb. 19-March 20) — Refuse to be persuaded by what anyone believes — or by what you think they believe. You know you have access to direct knowledge, which will serve you well as long as you don’t allow other people to distract you from your own inner truth. What you may notice over the next few weeks is that 1. it doesn’t matter if other people don’t believe what you believe or even consider the world as you see it and 2. if you remain true to yourself and set a solid example, others are likely to see the wisdom in your way of thinking. That cannot, however, be the goal — as far as you’re concerned, assessing the intelligence of others is really an estimation of whether they can see the obvious. You can, and don’t let anyone try to convince you otherwise.