The Televisionary Oracle by Rob Brezsny

by Patrick Schabe


World Entertainment War
Give Too Much
(World Entertainment War)
US release date: 1 August 2001

by Patrick Schabe
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This Isn’t Your Father’s Anti-Patriarchal, Quasi-Pagan, Mediastrological, Neu-Age, Goddess-Loving Dreammobile

cover art

The Televisionary Oracle

Rob Brezsny

(Frog Ltd.)

There has been a lot of publishing ink (and quite a few PopMatters articles) of late devoted to the idea of post-feminism. But like so many concepts that evolve from a locus point of radical change, post-feminism is but one branch of the tree of the progressive feminist movement. Another branch of the feminist movement, albeit a highly tailored and personal one, is to be found in the works of Rob Brezsny. He calls it “macho feminism,” and if it sounds a little funny, maybe even a little hokey, that’s because it’s supposed to.

In the world of New Age-y, utopian-iconoclast writing, such humor is a two-fisted approach. On the one hand the humor is meant to disengage the reader from taking things too seriously, to show that the author has a sense of fun and his or her own silliness. On the other hand, this humor is meant to draw our attention to the oxymorons, paradoxes, and incongruities of language which force us to think about what terms mean and how incompatible terms create phrases that reveal our own predispositions. For Brezsny, or at least for one of his incarnations, “macho feminist” is a self-descriptive term. He is both silly and serious, the collusion of masculine and feminine, and a crafter of mutated memes.

Rob Brezsny is the essence of the contemporary Renaissance Man. He’s a big-time astrologer, a small-time rock star, and now a novelist of post-patriarchal idealism. He also moonlights as a quasi-pagan trickster god, and as a communal husband. Given that only a small fraction of the population actually believes in the veracity of these ideas and vocations, it’s likely that Brezsny will seem like a kook. In reality, Brezsny is merely holding his own place next to other cultural shamans such as Robert Anton Wilson, Timothy Leary, Reverend Ivan Stang, William S. Burroughs, and Ken Kesey.

Although Brezsny’s current fame might not be as extensive as that of some of his counterparts, it seems to be growing exponentially. Brezsny is most well-known for his work as an astrological columnist. His weekly “Free Will Astrology” (formerly “Real Astrology”) is currently syndicated in 124 newspapers internationally and claims a readership of nine million. Brezsny’s column sets itself apart from other astrology blurbs by its reliance on creative problem-solving through mythical, literary, and culturl allusions. Rather than a by-the-numbers, fortune-cookie-style take on astrology, Brezsny creates a column that is actually fun to read and, more often than not, educational. Brezsny has also spent a number of years sidelining as a musician. His band, World Entertainment War, was briefly signed to CBS Records, briefly managed by Bill Graham, one of the most famous names in rock history, and one of their albums won the California scene’s equivalent of a Grammy. And now there’s The Televisionary Oracle, which, with any of the luck that Brezsny has created for himself, will only further his reputation as a carnival barker of positivity.

The Televisionary Oracle is both a light read and a complex tale. Difficult to describe in summary, it is buttressed by being more than a little autobiographical. In fact, as a novel by and about an iconocalst, it succeeds by creating a narrator/focal character while at the same time redefining the author himself. In excellent form, it makes the boundary between history and fiction inscrutable.

Essentially, The Televisionary Oracle tells the story of the narrator, who is never directly acknowledged as Brezsny himself, but is instead only referred to through the nickname Rockstar. Rockstar is the co-lead singer of a small but devoted rock-funk-punk band, World Entertainment War. While our narrator, Rockstar, is mostly successful in his life, there have been setbacks that have kept him from ever fully realizing his own dreams outside of his Santa Cruz home (also Brezsny’s home). For every major success there has been a major disaster, and this has carried over to his love life as well. While Rockstar is a devoted feminist, yet a “macho feminist,” he seems to have had as many bad relationships with women as any patriarchal slob. Then he meets Rapunzel. Rapunzel Blavatsky is The Televisionary Oracle‘s co-narrator. Raised as the Goddess reborn/savior of a matriarchal secret society, Rapunzel is destined to destroy the chains of oppression synonymous with two thousand years of rampant patriarchy and restore the balance of masculine and feminine to the world. Of course, Rapunzel is also a young woman, and the weight of such preordained responsibilities is as much of a burden as a blessing.

The novel opens with Rockstar and Rapunzel meeting in the bathroom of a club where World Entertainment War will be playing later in the evening. This chance encounter turns out to be anything but chance, and the novel begins by simply unraveling. While Rockstar tells his half of the book’s story in traditional linear narrative, with some brief pauses for a flashback or two, Rapunzel tells her story from past to present, beginning with her birth and concluding with the point at which she unites with Rockstar and begins to save the world from the Apocalypse. But it is the short sections between chapters, when the reader is treated to “transmissions” from The Televisionary Oracle, an unexplained narration that seems more like an infomercial for the zany, that really work to obscure the book’s meaning and add the flavor of surrealism that is the book’s strongest pleasure.

Stories like this require a tightrope walker’s precision to pull off. They are intentionally goofy and generally campy, yet they earnestly try to express a real message. At any time the author might lose control of the comic insanity and the whole thing might collapse into a heap of stupidity. Brezsny, however, seems to revel in his role on the tightrope. He attacks with both barrels blazing and doesn’t give the reader time to consider questions of ridiculousness. This can only be accomplished by a writer who knows how to engage the reader and compel him or her to turn the page. Brezsny does this with ease. While the book has its occasional slow moments, and intentional confusion carries the danger of keeping the reader from working through the murky bits, for the most part it maintains its speed and endurance.

If there is any one thing that stands out in this book above all else, it is Brezsny’s use of imagery. Not only does he bring his characters and settings to life with a lucid dreaming vividness, but he creates Technicolor imaginaries out of insane word collages. Within the story itself, The Televisionary Oracle is a place, a thing, an idea, and a message all at once, and this multiplicity of identity allows the communications of this nexus to be chock full of memetic smart bombs. Western culture, Eastern religion, Biblical figures, the entertainment industry, pagans, fundamentalists, artists, contemporary history, and the paradigms of patriarchy and matriarchy all become fodder for Brezsny’s cannon and wind up blended into the kind of ironic pastiche that might otherwise be considered postmodern malaise but here is converted into a self-effacing yet earnest call to unification.

By the time The Televisionary Oracle comes to an inevitable end, the reader is hooked into the un-sanity of our own world and the comparable sanity of kookdom. You really want to know whether Rapunzel will be successful in her attempt to circumvent the patriarchy’s march towards apocalypse. You want to know if Rockstar will be the consort of the Second Coming of Mary Magdalene-cum-Kali and achieve the divine state of the menstruating male. And even more importantly, by the time the book reaches this climax, none of this seems all that strange or hokey anymore.

But Brezsny’s meta-entertainment assault doesn’t end with the last page of The Televisionary Oracle. With his “Real Astrology” column, Brezsny has stealthily crafted a forum for subverting common assumptions about astrology and inserting his own off-kilter ideas in a quiet and subtle manner. What “Real Astrology” accomplishes over time with small doses, The Televisionary Oracle does in one massive attack. Between these two extremes of slow, steadily trickling dissemination and bright, shining product lies Give Too Much, the CD release by World Entertainment War. World Entertainment War combines both approaches Brezsny uses to speak his mind. Although the ideas contained within Give Too Much reflect similar themes in The Televisionary Oracle, the vehicle of music allows those ideas to slide in more easily, like a spoonful of sugar helping the medicine go down.

To fully appreciate how these three public images of Rob Brezsny work together, it’s necessary to give a brief timeline. Although recently re-christened “Free Will Astrology,” Brezsny’s career as an astrological columnist via “Real Astrology” is in its third decade. Although Brezsny released a poetry collection some years ago, The Televisionary Oracle marks his debut as a novelist and was first released early last year. Brezsny’s musical career is nearly as long as his career as an astrologer, but the music of World Entertainment War specifically traces itself back to the late eighties. Give Too Much, however, collects much of their prior material in one place and was released in Summer 2000.

World Entertainment War’s real-life manifestation is integral to the fictional world of The Televisionary Oracle, where entire songs are quoted and concerts depicted. In fact, Give Too Much is half-jokingly refered to as the “soundtrack” to The Televisionary Oracle. I have to give Brezsny proper credit for this multi-media approach to dissemination. While a soundtrack to a movie is not only common but an industry standard (hell, some soundtracks sell better and/or are better than the movies that “inspire” them), a soundtrack to a book is pretty unique. But what makes this two-fisted approach most impressive is that neither is used as a cheap advertisement for Breszny’s main gig, the “Free Will Astrology” column. Nor is Give Too Much explicitly marketed with The Televisionary Oracle. Although the latter borrows heavily from the former in terms of quotations and even plot direction, there’s not an advertisement at the back of the book for the album and, conversely, there’s no quick plug for the book in the CD insert. But as ideological vehicles, and as media communiqués from the front lines of Breszny’s intrapsychic war against patriarchal oppression, they walk hand in hand.

As a CD on its own, Give Too Much would probably fall under just about everyone’s radar. Not that it’s bad—far from it—it’s just that the sound of World Entertainment War is certainly out of step with the contemporary music scene. A self-described “Jungian beatnik funk” band, the music of WEW is mainly funk, with a dash of punk and a good dose of rock. Awash in keyboards and bass-heavy, WEW sounds like a strange hybrid of Spearhead, Fishbone, Shriekback, and a long-defunct Denver band called Big Foot Torso. Definitely eclectic, but also oriented to the late ‘80s/early ‘90s sound.

World Entertainment War remains a group of excellent musicians. Brezsny writes and provides vocals for the songs, sounding at times like a slightly toned-down Jello Biafra, and at others like The Call’s Michael Been. Complimenting him is co-lead vocalist Darby Gould, whose soaring vocals make the male/female aspect work well in counterpoint and harmony to Brezsny’s gruffer voice. Musically, George Earth’s guitar and Daniel Lewis’s bass keep things moving quickly. Lewis is an excellent bass player, not willing to play sublimated guitar, but rather letting his rhythms come to the front and drive the music. Earth’s guitar is equally impressive, especially when the funk gives way to rock and he fires off riff after riff with masterful agility. Anthony Kevin Guess and Amy Excolere round out the act on drums and keyboards respectively, with Guess drawing a big, enveloping sound out of his kit and Excolere’s organ playing providing the wall of sound filling out each song. Altogether, this is a very tight band and the fact that they won a Bammie and snagged a CBS recording contract is no surprise.

Thematically the songs on Give Too Much are everything you’d expect from pagan politico protest music, if there were expectations for such things. Brezsny and crew take on anti-environmental policies (“Garbageland”), legislation that prohibits individuality (“Break the Law”), commercialization (“Get Outta My Head”), totalitarianism (“We Have Ways”), and everything else that sucks in Western society (“Apathy and Ignorance”). In fact, a quick read of the lyric sheets would almost make them seem like a punk band, but where punk often offers nothing more than the anger and rebellion, WEW actually offers visions of redemption to replace oppression. In this respect the songs on Give Too Much tie neatly into the messages of The Televisionary Oracle. Of all the aspects of the media personas that Brezsny puts forth, this is the most interesting. While there are hundreds of musicians and writers who have exposed audiences to the negative aspects of our world and raised angry fists, it is only a rare few who have offered an optimistic vision to replace the destructive elements.

On “Kick Your Own Ass,” WEW offers the title as a lesson, meant to be an actual, physical self-ass kicking, to drive home the point of self-reliance. “No pride, no fear, no shame / Your body never lies / No guilt, no sin, no blame / Your body never lies / No grudge, no spite, no greed / Your body never lies / No gloom, no doom, no doubt / Your body never lies,” chants the chorus. “Kick In” exhorts the listener to approach their lives with greater emotion and love, without ever sounding like a Hallmark card. The song “Control Yourself” informs us that “This is the place, this is the time / Time to lose control / And start changing your mind.” One of the most rollicking songs on the disc, “Prayer Wars,” provides a laundry list for change that is too long to recount here.

Give Too Much is a disc worth owning just for “Apathy and Ignorance,” with its Scooby Doo-spooky bass line and ska horns, and the aforementioned “Prayer Wars.” But it’s also a disc that takes some getting used to. On the first listen I found myself struggling against the dated quality of the funk-rock sound and the soapbox paganism that teetered dangerously on the edge of cheese. But as I listened again, and then again, the music became infectious in that special way reserved for funk, and as the songs became familiar, so did their messages. Like The Televisionary Oracle, World Entertainment War’s brand of protest revival music slowly becomes not only familiar, but it actually begins to make perfect sense out of nonsense.

Brezsny’s vision, or visions, aren’t necessarily for everyone. If you want your horoscope to read like a fortune cookie and not challenge you to think in metaphors and myth, then “Free Will Astrology” probably isn’t for you. If you have a hard time mixing your agitprop with a funky utopian vision, then World Entertainment War probably isn’t for you either. And if you only enjoy books that have a neat ending and let their lives come to an end with the turning of the last page, then maybe you’ll hate The Televisionary Oracle. But if you enjoy things that challenge your assumptions and perspectives and you’ve missed out on anything that Brezsny has put his fingers in, then you’re missing a lot. If you think you’re ready to take up WEW’s mantra, “Give us what we want, exactly when we want it, forever, now, once upon a time!”, or if you think you’re interested in finding out what “macho feminism” is all about, then you should take the time to familiarize yourself with all of the above.

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