CHANGED MY LIFE
I had fame, wealth, women were at my feet
and then I read
The first time I actually saw a Colin Wilson book was sometime in 1970. I was 14. Our downstairs neighbor - an avid, omnivorous reader - had gotten a copy of The Occult through a bookclub. I was sunk in the sword and sorcery and ‘weird’ fiction coming from the great Weird Tales revival then, devouring Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith and H. P. Lovecraft in unhealthy quantities. Given my taste, the neighbor thought I might like a book about the supernatural. But after the purple banners of the Hyborian Age and the eldritch shadows of Innsmouth, ‘real life’ magicians left me cold. I remember checking out the cover, getting a load of Madame Blavatsky, and consigning the book to the same heap as True Ghost Stories. Dullsville, man.
Five years later I had my second run in with Wilson. Again, The Occult was the book. By this time I had left my parents’s working class New Jersey home and crossed the Hudson. I had become a rock and roller, playing bass guitar with the soon to be world famous but then unknown Blondie, gigging in places like CBGB’s and Max’s in Kansas City, and afterwards crashing in our loft on New York’s Bowery. I wore second hand black suits, tab-collar shirts, dark glasses, skinny ties, and lived on practically nothing. We - Chris Stein, Debbie Harry and I - shared the building with an assortment of characters, one of whom, Quentin, was a real wild man. He was what you might call dangerously gay, a berserker given to leather pants and shiny studs, but well-read and an artist, and with a voice like Snagglepuss. Part of his trip was ‘the occult’, and, of course, drugs. He introduced me to Alesiter Crowley over a bowl of hash, reading the Lady Freida Harris Tarot and lending me Diary of a Drug Fiend. I was hooked. Soon I was buying as many books on ‘the occult’ as I could find, spending a lot of time in the old Samuel Weiser Bookshop on Broadway near Cooper Union.
AN OLD HIPPIE BOOK
One afternoon after scoring grass, Chris and I headed to his old apartment on First Avenue. He and Debbie had been living together on Thompson Street in Soho before moving into the Bowery, and Tommy Ramone of The Ramones was renting his old place. Chris needed to collect the rent.We smoked a joint on the way, and by the time we climbed the stairs to his apartment I was feeling fairly mystical. Tommy (who, in retrospect, looked like one of Spielberg’s furry animals, but with longer hair and shades) let us in, and while he and Chris discussed business, I checked out the bookshelves. I remember grabbing a copy of Crowley’s Moonchild, looking at it, and wondering if I could borrow it. Then I noticed another book. Its cracked spine and general sense of decay attracted me. I pulled it down. It had definitely been through some sort of wringer. A good chunk of the cover had been torn off, and the pages beneath were pockmarked with burns. But what was left grabbed me: a kind of cornucopia of surreal images flowed out of a weirdly tear-shaped eye, oddly prophetic of today’s fractal graphics. It seemed to belong to a genre I called ‘old hippie books’: Leary’s High Priest, Marcuse’s stuff, Castaneda: I was fascinated by the history of the Sixties Revolution, and by people like Quentin and Chris, who were older than me and had lived through it. This book seemed to be about all the things I was getting into: higher consciousness, magic, role models like Crowley and Gurdjieff. I looked at it. It was called The Occult..
DEEPER INTO THE MIRE
Not long after I moved into my girlfiend’s apartment on Christopher Street in the West Village, carrying, along with my bass, a boxload of books, mostly magic and Lovecraft stuff, as well as a set of Penguin Nietzsches. And The Occult. I hadn’t quite made the shift to a dedicated Wilsonian yet. I was still deep into Crowley and the Golden Dawn, remembering all those David Bowie lyrics ("I’m closer to the Golden Dawn, wrapped in Crowley’s uniform of dream reality") and just beginning to learn about Rasputin, Gurdjieff and, most of all, Ouspensky, having found a beat up Tertium Organum at a second hand shop in St.Mark’s Place. But this business of Faculty X seemed exciting, and the way the author managed to tie in existentialism and writers like Sartre and Camus and Hesse (all of whom I had devoured along with the Weird Tales material) with magic and higher consciousness was breathtaking. I had read Nietzsche in high school and here seemed to be a philosophy of the superman that went beyond the old Ubermensch himself. I tried Zen during the year I lasted at university, but found myself too active a type for that. I had experimented with psychedelics too; but these seemed too volatile and dicey; you never knew what you were going to get, and more times than not these sessions ended in raucous bacchanal, with indiscriminate intimacies exchanged to a background of Pink Floyd. Fun, without doubt. But not necessarily the next stage in human evolution. Nevertheless, the seeds were planted.
My fascination with the occult and with Lovecraftiana continued. Meanwhile we had become famous. CBGB’s and the Bowery had made it to the pop cultural map. Patti Smith, The Ramones, Television, Talking Heads and ourselves had broken the obscurity barrier and were becoming well known beyond the boundaries of the East Village. We all had press in the big name magazines: Rolling Stone, Cream, Circus. Huge crowds, kids from Long Island, Connecticut, and New Jersey who were fed up with ‘opera rock’. (Yes, Emerson Lake and Palmer, etc.) and wanted something closer to the roots, packed our shows. (I was gratified to see that many of them had adopted black suits and skinny ties as the official garb.) A song I had written about an incident in my past Sex Offender had secured us a record deal. We recorded our first album in the studios in Rockefeller Center; one of the kicks about this was sharing an elevator more times than not with some of the Rockettes. We were shipped out to Los Angeles, and did mini east coast tours, building up our muscles for the long haul: a US/Canada tour opening for the grandaddy of punk, Iggy Pop. This was a smash, not the least of which because a member of Iggy’s ensemble was a thinly disguised and barely anonymous David Bowie. We had, in a word, arrived. But the real thrill for me was the first UK tour.
A WALK ON THE WEIRD SIDE
It would be untrue to say that my interest in rock and roll had been completely eclipsed by my occult yearnings. But they were neck and neck. During one interview in our Kensington hotel, while Chris and Clement Burke and James Destri went on in a comparitive study of The Ramones and the Sex Pistols (whom, as everyone in the New York scene knew, were a creation of Malcolm McLaren, fashioned after his tutelage among original torn-clothsers like Richard Hell), I,when the microphone was turned towards me, discoursed on the virtues of Bulwer-Lytton’s Vril: The Power of the Coming Race. What they made of that I have no idea. In London we were lionized at Stiff Records headquarters, met handfulls of UK luminaries like Billy Idol, ran into the sadly soon-to-be-world-famous Nancy Spungen, whom we had all known before her expatriation, did radio interviews and, with Tom Verlaine’s Television, whom we were opening for on the tour, played the Hammersmith Odeon. All that was immensely gratifying, as was a pilgrimage to Liverpool, the Benares of kids like me who had grown up during the British Invasion. But my most vivid memories - aside from falling off the stage at Hammersmith - are of scarfing up dozens of British horror and fantasy paperbacks. In every town from Bournemouth to Glasgow, I tracked down the local bookshops and came away with bags of Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, Lord Dunsany, Bram Stoker, William Hope Hodgson, Sax Rohmer, as well as British editions of the Weird Tales crew. I was in heaven. I also discovered Wilson’s Lovecraftian fictions, The Mind Parasites and The Philosopher’s Stone. The whole of that tour, while the boys made merry with the local lasses, and drank themselves into rock and roll Valhalla, I would sit most nights in the hotel room, writing bad poetry and reading Beyond the Fields We Know or The Lair of the White Worm.
Returned to New York, we rehearsed material for the second album. But internal tensions had begun. I was not the gum-chewing laconic bassman Debbie and Chris would have wanted me to be. I jockeyed for position on stage, pogoing like a mad Petroushka, and mugged to the modettes in the front lines. My songs also seemed to be the real crowd-rousers. I wanted to play guitar on them, and to sing. I was not humble. I could not be swayed. There was only one thing for it: I had to go.
My girlfriend was an actress - when I met her she was being raped twice nightly by the late Divine in an off-to-the-third-power Broadway production called Women Behind Bars (sufficient hint, I suspect, to give an idea of the play). Her future lay in Hollywood. She was determined to go. I was growing too big for my Blondie britches, wanted to headline my own ensemble and decided to expatriate with her to Los Angeles - after we recorded the second album. In my innocence, howevever, I made the mistake of announcing this to the group. On the day Lisa (my girlfriend) hightailed it to sunny Southern California, I got a phone call from our manager. ‘You’re out. And you’re not recording the album.’ It was July 4th, 1977, Independence Day. A month later I packed my bags, my bass, and my books and headed west.
HITTING THE WANT ADDS
My fall from grace, though conscious, was not painless. I hadn’t seen a cent from the first album, although it had gone gold in Australia. I had been on television, was quoted in Rolling Stone, had hobnobbed with Lou Reed, Bowie, and scads of other dark stars. Now I was in LA, without a penny, looking for work. It was grim. We lived in one room in a house with two Christian Scientists, a graphic artist, and someone we suspected of being the Hillside Strangler. And every morning I made the supreme effort of hauling myself out of bed and hitting the want ads. Lisa plowed from audition to audition, roaring on the freeways in a ‘66 Mustang she had put herself into hock to get. I took the bus. Slow. And in my black suit in that tropical sun I must have looked like a candidate for Forest Lawn. But it gave me time to read.
It would be supererogatory to depict the tedium of looking for work. And you are probably wondering what all this has to do with Colin Wilson. I’ll tell you. One morning, having trundled my way to Westwood - a particularly characterless section of already characterless (unless you count the actors) Los Angeles - on the tortoise-like RTD, I threw myself into my efforts to find work with renewed vigour. I, of course, was going to become a famous composer/performer, but until I put my new band together we needed some scratch on which to live. My attempts so far had been blunted. There is nothing quite as demeaning as failing a lie detector test when applying for a position at the local 711. Nevertheless, I didn’t let my discouragement get the best of me. I had already survived a great deal.
I filled out applications at every bookstore I passed. This, I thought, would not be too bad. I liked books and I knew them. It would be better than fixing slurpies. But this romanticism was soon rattled. At the penultimate shop, as I handed in the sheet and fixed my most winning smile across an entreating face, the owner clued me in to his own attitude toward his wares. "I don’t care if you like books. I don’t like them. This has nothing to do with liking them. They could be tomatoes or french fries as far as I’m concerned. This is a business - that’s it. Okay?" I left, knowing I would not appear if he called me.
At the next place I didn’t ask for an application. I needed something else. I needed a book. I needed one of those books that would remind me that I was right and the Scrooge I just left was wrong. I checked my pockets. I had about $3.00, enough for a cheeseburger and the bus back. This would be tough.
DEEPER INTO MEANING
I drifted toward the philosophy section. Bacon, Bergson, Dewey? No. Fichte, Hegel, Kant? Uh uh. Nietzsche, Plato, Sartre. Read ‘em. Whitehead, Wittgenstein, Wilson? Wilson? I pulled it off the shelf. The Outsider: An Inquiry into the Nature of the Disease of Twentieth Century Man. Right. I looked at the price. $2.45. That left me without bus fare or lunch money. I opened it. "The Outsider is at first a social problem... " Yep, this was it. "Screw it," I mumbled. I’d get a doughnut and walk.
And now the language becomes inflated, because I can’t describe that first reading without breaking into hyperbole. I sat on the steps of some massive office building on Wilshire Boulevard, the infinitely long hike back to my part of town before me (if you are at all familiar with LA you know one doesn’t walk anywhere there), a cinnamon doughnut lodged in my gut, and that work of genius in my hands. My brain was on fire. Here was Nietzsche and Hesse and Sartre all over again, but in a new way. I saw myself in this book. And the author was only a few years older than me when he wrote it. I felt we shared this in common: early success. I was 20 when my song got us the record deal and we were feted from LA to London; he was 24 when The Outsider exploded. Kindred spirits.
I date a profound shift in my consciousness from that day on. And practical things improved too. I had landed a job lugging Christmas trees at a local Sav On, embarrassing enough, especially with the Santa vest, but it did help pay the rent. But not long after I was asked to do some session work. Much better pay, environment, and fun. Then I did a brief stint at the Roxy, working the lights - until an injudicious smoke had me eclipsing Bill Withers’s head for most of the performance. But I was auditioning musicians, found an excellent bassist and drummer, and writing songs. A few months later we opened at the Whiskey: The Know, with Gary Valentine on lead guitar and vocals.
GROWTH OF A SOUL
A great deal happened in the next year or so. I can only mention my brief involvement with a local branch of Crowley’s O.T.O. and our practically single-handed resuscitation of the then somnambulistic LA music scene. We built up a large following, got rave reviews, were regulars at the famous Whiskey A GoGo on the Sunset Strip. Blondie’s star was rising, and this did not hurt my own ascent. A posthumous victory of sorts was handed me when my song, I’m Always Touched by Your Presence, Dear, recorded by them on the second album and released as a single in 1978, rose to the top of the UK, European and Asian charts.
Anticipation of the money I would soon collect was gratifying, as was the fact that the song was about my psychic connection to Lisa. It seemed my hard work and determination were paying off. Not long after I returned to New York, if not triumphant, certainly confident and ready to conquer. We packed them in there too. And one of the rewards I allowed myself was buying Mysteries, in hardback, when it just came out.
The growth of the soul is a mysterious business. Looking back, I can see where I had made too much heavy weather of the dissonances between my outer life and my inner concerns, between the attention-seeking postures of the pop performer and the quest for the absolute that my reading of Wilson had started. These were to come later, when the gap between the two seemed impossible to span and I felt forced to choose. But the first cracks were starting to appear. I was more apt to yearn for the superman then rant with the punkers about anarchy; they seemed a perfect expression of the nihilism Nietzsche had diagnosed a century earlier,and I was determined to sound a positive note. Pop songs are not the best medium for this, but that is what I did. Nietzschean ditties like Tomorrow Belongs to You - the B side of my first single - and Amor Fati; In the Know, a quasi-gnostic paen to the virtues of knowledge; and The Work, my tribute to my involvement with a Gurdjieff-Ouspensky group, were some of the salvos I hurled into the crowd brought up on ‘Blank Generation’ and fed on ‘No Future’. A Sunday-schoolish attempt, perhaps, but I like to think my sincerity conveyed an urgency and excitement to our fans. In any case, they rocked.
But I was less and less interested in rock and roll. Through reading The Philosopher’s Stone, I became addicted to classical music. When Lisa and I broke up, and I moved back to New York, I had a girl friend who was a model. She returned from a Japanese stint with something I hadn’t seen: the now ubiquitous walkman. It was a gift, and I was one of the first people in New York with one. But did I listen to the Stones or T-Rex? Uh uh. Bruckner and Mahler, and the longer the better. To this day when I hear the opening of Bruckner’s 7th by William Steinberg and the Pittsburg Symphony Orchestra - a cassette of which was lodged in my walkman for weeks on end - an electric thrill like Kundalini runs down my spine. Rock music did that less and less.
PARIS WITH LAURIE
On a trip to Paris with Laurie (the model) I saw my first solo single in record shops, heard it on local ‘new wave’ stations - even in a hip clothes store in Les Halles. I was making $1,500 to $2,000 on a weekend gig at an uptown New York club called Hurrah - and hence could afford the trip--flirted with cocaine, had entrepreneurs interested in managing me, and was, according to the magazines,primed for stardom. I enjoyed the attention, the cocaine, Laurie and the press. But something had happened. I had said all I could say in the pop medium and found I could no longer write songs. If I started out as an "outsider", leaving home for the insecurity of life in the East Village, my trajectory was still in that direction. That ‘outside’ had become ‘in’. I had shown everyone that I could do it: my parents, the friends who laughed, Chris and Debbie. I had won. And now I had outgrown it. I tried to write songs for Laurie but couldn’t; and the extent to which reading Colin Wilson was responsible for this can be gauged by an anecdote. In the Gallimard Bookshop in Rue De Rivoli, in the English section, I found a cache of Wilson paperbacks: The Strength to Dream, Order of Assassins, Origin of the Sexual Impulse. I grabbed the lot, and exited cackling like a maniac, that mad laughter that pipes up when I am inordinately happy. Outside, the grey Parisian sky seemed radiant. Laurie, a surge of female jealousy fueling her already forthright character, looked at me. "Fuck," she said. "I wish you were as excited about me as you are about those books."
Later that night I tried to prove that was so, but spent the next day reading The Strength to Dream on some desolate steps leading to the Seine. And on a trip to Strasbourg, I followed the canals with Bruckner in one hand and Origin of the Sexual Impulse in the other. (To this day my imagination links the Strasbourg canals, the second movement to Bruckner’s 7th, and Wilson’s rendition of the Peter Kurten case in an utterly weird gestalt.)
After that there was no turning back. We returned to New York, the relationship lingering in an erotic limbo, but I soon broke up with Laurie. I tried again to compose but couldn’t. More and more we turned to doing homages to favorite bands. We still packed them in, and were playing bigger venues, but my attitude was decidedly ironic, not the best state of mind for someone who, whether he liked it or not, was a symbol of what every teenager in the tri-state area wanted of life. Friends told me it was just a phase, but my bass player knew. A month or so after my return from Paris he said it was quits. He was going back to LA. I couldn’t blame him. We had gotten within a hair of a record deal with A&M, Warner Bros., Chrysalis - but something always happened to nix it. Maybe they sensed I was not a long term investment.
One or two shows with musicians grabbed from other bands, a homage to John Lennon not long after his murder, and a farewell performance at the Ritz on East 12th Street: that was it. A band of young musicians - kids in their late teens - had become a kind of fan club, and they were visibly depressed when I said I was throwing in the towel. A week before I left for LA (in a quixotic attempt to patch things up with Lisa) I glanced through the classifieds in the Village Voice. One caught my eye: "Gary, please don’t go. We love you so." I never found out if it was indeed for me, but felt it was and cried.
One of my shots at winning Lisa back included a trip to London. Three high points: New Years Eve in Trafalgar Square, a bus ride to Hampstead Heath and the long walk back to Bloomsbury on New Year’s Day, and discovering that Colin himself was going to lecture in a week or so at the now defunct but then wonderful Village Bookshop on Regent Street. Lisa’s intuition drew us to the place, and I dropped 100 quid on Starseekers, The Book of Time, Gollancz editions of The World of Violence and a dozen other titles. Lisa had to return to LA for auditions in the next few days. Things might have worked out for us if I had returned too. But I didn’t, and stayed for the lecture. I couldn’t pass this up and have the cassette tapes to prove it. Frankenstein’s Castle had just come out and I had plowed through it in an afternoon. (I can remember annoying Lisa by scrunching up my face in a tea shop on Great Russell Street in an attempt at Wilsonian concentration. I angered her and gave myself a headache.) Now I wanted to hear about it from the horse’s mouth. The two weeks passed in anticipation. I read The Craft of the Novel, Starseekers, and Frankenstein’s Castle again. The day came. I sat in the front, my cassette recorder in functional salute.
"Oh," the large man said, "All right. I’ll speak up for that."
He was much bigger than I expected. Afterwards I got in line with my hardback John Baker edition of The Philosopher’s Stone, asked him to sign it, and mumbled a few incoherent words about how much I admired his work.
"Oh thank you," he said, and I made room for the next devotee.
My attempt at a patch up failed. I came back to LA, was living in a one bedroom apartment two blocks from Lisa’s digs, had no furniture, slept on a foam mat, and was depressed. My books,which I had shipped out from New York, arrived, and I opened a few boxes and lined my old companions along the wall. This lasted two months. Then a friend said he had an apartment to sublet in New York. I grabbed it, packed the books up, changed the address on the boxes and headed east.
SKINNY, SHIVERY BOWIE
There I fell into a dark crowd. I was no longer interested in the rock scene but had no other social connections and found myself wondering why I was in the Mud Club at 4:00 am with enough cocaine in me to make Aleister Crowley proud, blathering to people I cared nothing about, and taking home women whose names I’ve forgotten - if I ever knew them. Not a golden age. Boredom, lack of purpose, and the souless drift made up a few months of my mid-twenties. I was not making music, was spending money, and lacked true friends. Yet Colin appeared once again. At a party at David Bowie’s loft in mid-town, the king held court, discoursing on all and sundry. The occult came up as a topic; as mentioned earlier, Bowie had predelictions in that area. He went on about witchcraft and an acquaintance mentioned that I knew all about this stuff: I read Colin Wilson. "Colin Wilson?" Ziggy Stardust said. "Yes. He goes around at night and traces pentagrams on people’s doorsteps." Was he joking? "Yes, he draws down the ectoplasm of dead Nazis and fashions homunculi."
Bowie was a skinny, shivery man and he may just have remembered that not too long ago during a brief flame up of our past passion, Laurie and I conversed with him at the Mud Club. He asked her back to his place, very gentlemanly-like. Not me. I was gratified that she passed him up, and stuck with me. Could this brief episode have stuck with him? In any case, I took him at his word and pointed out that he was wrong.
"Wilson isn’t into that sort of thing," I said.
"Oh yes he is. I know for a fact that he heads a coven in Cornwall."
"No. It’s true."
"I doubt it, David."
This carried on for a few more volleys. Then the thin white duke wearied of my obstinancy. A sight gesture of the hand and his two female body guards appeared. "David is a bit tired now. Perhaps it’s time you left." Perhaps it was.
WITH IGGY POP
I was saved from this glittery quicksand by being asked to play guitar with Iggy Pop. I had, as it were, hung my Stratocastor on the wall, but one of his guitarists had jumped ship before a tour, and a friend who was in the band asked if I could pack my bags that night and hop in the bus - $600 a week plus per diem for two months. I took it and learned the songs that night on the way to Buffalo or wherever we were headed. That tour was an entire story in itself and must be left for another time. But one anecdote may give you an idea of my state of mind. I decided that I would be "one of the boys." For the first time ever I brought no books with me. Sex, drugs and rock and roll would suffice. I would try to find my way back ‘in’. Needless to say it didn’t work. Halfway I broke down in Detroit, and asked the hotel clerk where the nearest bookstore was. "Bookstore? I don’t think there are any bookstores in Detroit." I feared he was right. "There’s the mall, though." Right. I caught a cab to the mall, and grabbed Kazantzakis’s Report to Greco, which lasted me until we reached civilization.
After that tour I officially and competely retired from rock and roll. Money from "Presence, Dear" had come in, more than I expected. I had a brief thrill of an idea about moving to London, and trying once again: I had a reputation there. But in the end, I decided to return to Los Angeles. Lisa was there, and although we wouldn’t be lovers again, she was my best friend. She urged me to come, to get out of the darkness of New York and relax in the California sun. She had met some interesting people that she knew I would like. So I did.
I landed with about $20,000, my library slowly following at book rate. Some of it didn’t make it: my magic collection didn’t arrive, and I fantasized about a postal worker in Milwaukee, opening a crate of Golden Dawn material, coming home that evening and telling his wife their problems were solved. I set up camp in a studio in West Hollywood and decided to make myself a writer. I had created myself once before. I would do it again. This time, however, it would take much longer and be much harder work. Two years later the money ran out. I returned to university, studied philosophy, and sold fish to pay my rent, doing what I called a ‘Larry Darrel’ routine. I got involved in the Gurdjieff work again, annoyed my analytically minded professors with my penchant for existentialism, and wrote. One effort was an embarassingly effusive essay on the genius of Colin Wilson, which I duly sent off to Cornwall, initiating a correspondence which has lasted 13 years.
Later that year I visited Europe again on the last leg of my fortune: a sort of ‘search for the miraculous’ that had me in Chartres, Stonehenge, Fontainebleau and the site of Gurdjieff’s Institute, Glastonbury and a pilgrimage to Tetherdown. There I remember a drunken evening discussing Husserl, meeting Colin’s mother, reading the manuscript of the Jung book, and a hangover the next morning. I have returned twice since, and have had the pleasure of putting up Colin and Joy in LA.
The story, of course, doesn’t end here, but if I keep going it will turn into a book. Since that first visit 13 years ago, Colin and I have met several times, and I’ve had the pleasure of writing about him and his work for several journals. It’s not quite the same as slamming into a Fender Reverb in front of ogling punkettas, but it has its moments.
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