Rob Brezsny was primping in the restroom of a Roy Rogers restaurant in Chapel Hill when it happened. Even in 1977, you didn't try to talk your girlfriend into moving to the hippie heaven known as Santa Cruz, Calif., without at least finger-combing your hair first. And so it was that the young Brezsny, readying for the big talk with the lovely Babushka, detected a message from the universe in some graffiti under the towel dispenser.
"I got Santa Cruzified and Californicated and it felt like paradise," it said. And under that, in smaller print: "You know you'll never become the artist you were meant to be until you come live in Santa Cruz."
Coincidence? Not bloody likely! Any doubts he'd had about leaving vanished in an instant.
"A jolt of kundalini zipped through me," Brezsny writes in Pronoia Is the Antidote for Paranoia: How the Whole World is Conspiring to Shower You with Blessings, his new book published this year by Berkeley-based Frog, Ltd. "It had become increasingly clear to me that my aspirations to be a poet and musician with an inspirational effect on my community were doomed to chronic frustration as long as I resided in the deep South, even in a university town like Chapel Hill. Here I would never be any more than a weirdo, a cross between a village idiot and a marginally entertaining monstrosity.
"In that moment, my fate gelled."
Within weeks Brezsny and Babushka had left North Carolina and landed in Santa Cruz. He played gigs, made a chapbook. It seemed his life as a consciousness-raising troubadour was off to a good start. He was even poor--really poor. Then he spied an ad for an astrology columnist in the weekly newspaper Good Times.
He hesitated at first. At Goddard College he had studied astrology as a system of cosmology, which bore no resemblance to the pap found in the few astrology columns in existence. But the money....
"My attitude was, 'It's a dirty job, but somebody's gotta do it,'" he says. And an accidental career was born that would eventually outlast his pursuit of rock stardom.
Most people who know Brezsny now know him as the irrepressible voice of Free Will Astrology, the strangely literate and entertaining column that runs in 130 weekly newspapers across the country. In 27 and a half years, Brezsny has never missed a deadline. And to his die-hard fans--even to casual readers--he rarely misses the mark.
I should warn readers here that my journalistic objectivity on this subject is not. I am a rabid fan of the column (and a Virgo) who often checks it online on Tuesday night, in the first hours of its release, because I don't want to wait until Wednesday. I read it because it gives me hope and makes me think. It's a shot of wheat grass, a snort of eucalyptus, a plunge in the freezing sea. I proselytize, too--and successfully. The recurring comment is, "He nails it every time! How does he do it?"
I asked Brezsny about this on a walk we took one day in early October. Brezsny lives in a wood-shingled house on a suburban street in Marin County, just north of San Francisco, that dead-ends at a hilly park combed with the dry golden grasses of California. It was midday, hot and dry, and we trudged up the chalky trail until we reached the shade of one of the tough, generous oak trees that stud the hills.
"I think I'm in a feedback loop with my audience," he replied to my fan-girl question about why his horoscopes are so good. "It doesn't happen at a conscious level, but it's like I'm being trained by the people who read me, whether in comments like this, directly, or psychically. It's no exaggeration, it's no poetic metaphor. There's some way in which we're collaborating on this."
I studied Brezsny as he spoke, trying to reconcile the notion I had of him from Free Will with the real person sitting cross-legged next to me under the oak tree in black shorts, black shirt and black Cons. I had always pictured Weird Al Yankovic: crazy hair, zany wit, boisterous energy, tenor voice. A certain cartoonishness to the column probably aided that. Brezsny's playfulness shows up in phrases like "fiercely generous" and "thrilling schemes" and in advice to do things like buy a bull penis walking stick and use it on a stroll to the corner store to ward off stress-induced breakdown.
But the guy who had answered the door when I knocked 45 minutes earlier was serene, respectful and reserved. I'd half-expected the standard New Age hug. Instead I was aware of a keen intellect and a deep quiet. He's tall but slender, with the coiled energy of someone who does a lot of yoga. He listens attentively and speaks in a resonant baritone and occasionally laughs. He has a mass of graying hair and large, beautiful hands.
He is a lifelong student of the Western hermetic tradition, which he explained includes cabala, Tarot, alchemy and "real" astrology. (Brezsny calls astrology "a symbol system, just as the I Ching or tea leaves"--in other words, he doesn't believe the planets "make us into puppets.")
His Oct. 26 column includes references to bodies orbiting Pluto that scientists have dubbed Santa, Easterbunny and Xena; nine Mayan words for "blue"; the Roman orator Seneca on weathering misfortune; and a Toltec word for a place where people talk and don't listen.
But mostly, Rob Brezsny wants to change the world--or more appropriately, the minds of the people in it.
"I have witnessed this growing narrative of the world as lost, as terrible, as a miserable pit of ugliness," he said. "Most of what's reported in the news, probably 95 percent, portrays human beings as corrupt, ugly, depressed, sad, sick. And that has never been my perception. My perception has always been that yes, there's a lot of suffering, but primarily people are really happy to be alive.
"So one of the passions that I felt was to ask people to at least consider the possibility that life is a lot better than they imagine."
That's what Pronoia is about--furnishing 888 tricks for becoming a "master of rowdy bliss," according to the book's back cover. It's not a matter of becoming a Pollyanna-ish ninny, as Brezsny explained it to me. It's more like welcoming experience on all its frequencies, even the difficult ones, and considering that the universe continually gives you what you need, if not exactly what you want.
It's Brezsnyesque in the extreme, as is a final anecdote with which I'll leave you. Many years ago, Brezsny was walking to a bus station in Durham after a student demonstration when he was confronted by two men with a sawed-off shotgun. Were they political reactionaries or henchmen sent by his girlfriend's mobbed-up parents? We'll never know. They shot and scrammed. By pivoting, Brezsny took the bullet in his butt cheek instead of his groin, and today he carries 43 shotgun pellets as a reminder of the scary episode.
As luck would have it, that afternoon he'd written a 24-page poem, folded it up and put it in his back pocket. The doctor told him it probably saved him from serious injury.
Or, as he likes to put it, "Poetry saved my ass."
Rob Brezsny appears at The Regulator Bookshop (720 Ninth St., Durham, 286-2700) this Sunday, Nov. 6 at 2 p.m. Stay for a glass of wine at a reception sponsored by The Independent Weekly.