Chasing the White Light: Lou Reed, the Telepathic Secretary and Metal Machine Music

by admin  13th Feb 2023 Comments [0]

By David Holzer


Fifty years ago, Lou Reed released Transformer. In among “Walk on the Wild Side,” “Make Up” and “Vicious,” cuts that would launch a cartoon Rock N Roll Animal persona which would typecast Lou for years, was “I’m So Free.” A weedy platform-hopping rocker, it’s always sounded to me like filler with slapdash lyrics. But, not so long ago, I started to wonder about the “Saint Germaine” Lou references in the song. Up until that point, I’d always assumed he was just one of the real-life Warhol superstars or invented characters with whom Lou peopled the songs on the album:

Oh please, Saint Germaine

I have come this way

Do you remember the shape I was in

I had horns and fins

I’m so free

I’m so free

Do you remember the silver walks

You used to shiver and I used to talk

Then we went down to Times Square

And ever since I’ve been hangin’ round there


It turns out that Saint Germain—as the name is commonly spelled—was an 18th century composer and musician revered by Theosophists as also an alchemist and great spiritual master. Theosophists follow Theosophy, the religious, occultist group co-founded by mystic, author, and trickster Madame Blavatsky in New York in 1875. So, what’s Saint Germain doing on an album that has defined a certain kind of sexually fluid, narcotically informed and ham-fistedly decadent rock and roll for decades? And why does it read like Lou is sending up a prayer to him?

The answer, I believe, lies in the fact that, although, as it’s commonly understood, alchemy refers to the transmutation of metals and the fabrication of gold, for Theosophists there’s a spiritual dimension to the practice. Saint Germain was a spiritual alchemist. Spiritual Alchemy is the transmutation of man’s animal nature into the Higher Self. In “I’m So Free,” Lou, who had “horns and fins,” animal attributes, sounds like he’s begging to be transformed. To the accepted meanings of Transformer, spanning transforming underground cult hero Lou into a pop star and blurring sexual identity —“shaved her legs and then he was a she”—among others, I would say we can add spiritual transformation. But that still doesn’t explain how Lou even knew about Saint Germain.

Before we go on, I should mention that, in an earlier version of the song recorded in 1970 in Lou’s bedroom at his parents’ house on Long Island after he’d left the Velvet Underground, he sings “Do you remember the shape I was in/I was covered in sin,” making the lyric feel more about redemption. But by October 27, 1971, when the sessions gathered on I’m So Free: The 1971 RCA Demos were recorded, the line had become “I had horns and fins.” Lou already had transformation on his mind.


Billy was a good friend of mine


A clue to as to why Lou mentions Saint Germain is buried in the verse that begins “Do you remember the silver walks.” My gut feeling is that this refers to Billy Linich AKA Billy Name. Name was part of the group of avant-garde musicians that gathered around drone-meister La Monte Young in the late 1950s—in Billy’s own words, he was a “human drone”—before becoming court photographer to Andy Warhol’s Factory. Lou and Name were great friends, occasional lovers, and, for a time, fellow methamphetamine devotees. Lou adored Name. Speaking on radio WBCN-FM in Boston in early March 1969, the month the Velvets’ third album was released, he describes Name as “divinity in action on earth” and, as the photographer of the cover of the third album, taking pictures that are “unspeakably beautiful…pure space, for people who have one foot on earth and another foot on Venus.” When Lou liked someone, he gushed.

Name was responsible for silverizing Warhol’s Factory with the tinfoil he slapped on nearly every surface. Talking and shivering suggest speeding. More significantly for our quest to explain the appearance of Saint Germain in the song, Lou also claimed to have introduced Name to the work of Theosophical writer and teacher Alice Bailey:

“A friend of mine got so far into it he locked himself in a closet for two years and never came out and I know exactly what he was doing because I was one of the few people he let in, visited him periodically, checked he was alive and he explained to me what he was doing and I know what…because I was the one who started him on the books [of Alice Bailey] and he went through all fifteen volumes and when you follow that book, it teaches you, you know the seven centers of the body and moving the energy. It can be dangerous. Meditation can be dangerous if it’s not done correctly…You can do things that aren’t right, but he was literally going off his body cell by cell. It was really something to see.”

According to an interview Name gave to UK newspaper The Guardian in 2015, he shut himself away for about a year, but the reason was rather more prosaic. “I didn’t really relate to the Factory any more…I’d have visitors like Lou Reed, but I really wanted to get my negatives in order and that took a lot of time.”

Name finally left the Factory in 1970 because, as he told author of the piece Sean O’Hagan, he was “saturated by silver.” But, all those years later, looking back on his time in the New York avant-garde from a hospital bed in Poughkeepsie, Name said, “I miss the times when I was really free.”

Alice Bailey – the New Age, Aquarius, and astrology


Outside of esoteric circles, Alice Bailey is little known today. But we have her to thank for popularizing the expression “New Age,” which has come to define the grab bag of religious and spiritual practices—from astrology to Zen, if you will—that began to spread through Western society in the 1960s. British-born Bailey (1880-1949), who spent time in India before arriving in Hollywood, was initially a Theosophist with either a truly cosmic imagination or astonishing supernatural experiences. Like Blavatsky, she claimed to receive “ageless wisdom” from a Tibetan Master of Wisdom. Hers was named “DK.” Bailey insisted that this wisdom was telepathically dictated to her, which is why Lou, at once elevating and denigrating her, referred to her as a “Telepathic Secretary.” Bailey, or DK, was impressively prolific. She would go on to write two dozen 1,000 or so page long, abstruse books, including A Treatise on White Magic and A Treatise on Cosmic Fire. Along with many members of the counterculture, Lou read several of her books, and Billy Name all of them.

(Having attempted to read Bailey and bounced off White Magic and Cosmic Fire, I can only suggest that one of the reasons Lou and Name managed to get through them was because they were speeding their tits off.)

To simplify drastically, Bailey’s work is fundamentally concerned with the relationship between the soul and the body, between the spiritual and material. For her, the way to heal all disease is to release the soul from any blockages, congestion, or obstruction by establishing the right relationship between it and the personality. Once that happens, the personality expresses the soul in the correct relationship. All healing is directed by the mind.

Bailey’s writing covers meditation, healing, spiritual psychology, the solar system, and spirituality itself. It synthesizes an unorthodox take on Christianity with adaptations of Hindu concepts such as chakras—energy points aligned down the center of the body—and the notion of seven rays which appears in several religions. For Bailey, they are the basic creative forces of the Divine universe and relate to human psychology, the destiny of nations, the planets, and the stars. Combining Christianity and Hinduism was part of Bailey’s vision of a unified society and a global spirit of religion. Not one for the ivory tower, she was a great believer in the United Nations, saying “The new world religion must be based upon those truths which have stood the test of the ages…they are steadily taking shape in human thinking, and for them the United Nations fights.”

Bailey also popularized the notion of an Age of Aquarius that took hold in pop culture, most notably with the 1960s musical Hair. In Bailey’s belief system, Saint Germain was the figure responsible for bringing the Age of Aquarius into being. As well as popularizing the New Age and the Age of Aquarius, she was indirectly responsible for esoteric astrology, broadly defined as the astrology of the soul, permeating the 1960s counterculture until it occupies the position it does today. She based her concept of the New Age, the change from the Age of Pisces to the Age of Aquarius, on astrological cycles. An astrological cycle lasts 25,772 years and some astrologers believe it’s connected to major changes in humanity’s development, relating especially to culture, society, and politics.

“Sun sign astrology,” which links personality types to the position of the 12 zodiac constellations at birth, was formulated in the early 20th century by Theosophist Alan Leo. As Susannah Crockford writes in her essay “A Mercury Retrograde Kind of Day: Exploring Astrology in Contemporary New Age Spirituality and American Social Life”, “This focus on the self is what makes astrology such a prevalent practice in spirituality, where the individual is central…the self is synonymous with the universe; each individual is a divine spiritual being.” Building on this, Dane Rudhyar, a friend of Bailey’s and an avant-garde composer influenced by Indian classical music, popularized the connection of personality traits with zodiac signs in his 1936 The Astrology of Personality, a book that could have well been in Lou’s library. As Rob Norris writes in “I Was A Velveteen,” his revelatory memoir of meeting Lou and the Velvets in the 1960s published in Kicks magazine in 1979: “I learned that Lou and Doug (and John Cale before him) were Pisces, and Maureen and Sterling were Virgos (All the songs on the second LP are published by Three Prong Music which is the trident of Neptune, who is the ruler of Pisces. In astrology the Virgo-Pisces configuration is an opposition filled with Christian symbolism. Lou also contained this opposition in his own chart. On the third album, this duality found expression in the photo on the back cover photo and the songs were published by Virpi Inc.”

After being dismissed from Theosophy when LW Rogers became its president, Bailey formed the Lucis Trust with her husband Foster in 1922. This still exists, physically in New York at UN Plaza, London, in Geneva, and online. The Arcane School, where Lou claimed to have studied Bailey’s work from the early 1960s onwards, is an actual school and the arm of the Lucis Trust that gives instruction and guidance in Bailey’s belief system. On its website, the school describes its mission as “training people in meditation and service to develop their spiritual potential. The purpose of such training is to help students understand and accept discipleship responsibility and to recognize the part that they can play in the evolution of consciousness by serving humanity.”

Bailey and the people around her were clearly no slouches at marketing to potential acolytes. Arcane means known or knowable only to a few people, secret. For Lou, obsessed with divining the secrets of anything from doo-wop to beat literature to drugs to the New York avant-garde, this surely must have been catnip. But what did the part about serving humanity mean to him? This is what Velvet Underground scholars and Lou’s biographers don’t seem to have considered and, in relation to his music, it’s arguably the most important part of the equation.


Practicing Bailey’s teaching


Growing up in the 1960s in California, writer Tom Lane was precisely the right age to begin following the spiritual path he’s still on today. His reasons for becoming interested in a process called Actualism and what were, in effect, Bailey’s ideas, are worth recounting because, in interviews, Lou only ever described the work and what it gave him in Bailey’s terms. Not in relation to his own psychology.

While Lane, a Velvet Underground admirer, was practicing Actualism, the only two books he was ever asked to read were Bailey’s Pillars of Hercules and the wonderfully titled, though baffling Glamor: A World Problem. Actualism describes itself as “the process of learning to relate to the actual self within each person, and the radiant Actuality within the countless realities of life.” It began as something called Agni Yoga which trained practitioners in visualizing a ball of light, or sun of a different color, in each chakra, expanding and intensifying it so it became a healing fire. This practice was rooted in Bailey’s thinking. Russell Schofield, the Actualist leader who claimed he’d once been secretary to Scientology founder L Ron Hubbard, also created, Lane explained, “a system of meditation which was highly Theosophical, involving inner bodies, planes of existence and a planetary hierarchy of overseers of humanity” that he and his fellow practitioners would tune into.

“For us in the 1960s and 70s, esotericism became cool and groovy,” Lane told me, “and it was almost a case of the more obscure the teaching the better. We already felt special because we were using acid and we liked having access to a secret truth most people aren’t aware of, being part of a confraternity of people who knew about inner bodies and moving up planes of existence.”

I wondered what it felt like to do the practice. Did Lane feel he was going into a particular state? He laughed, “I thought I did. Whether that was purely subjective or not, I don’t know. So much spiritual work is subjective.”

What about the white light Lou references in “White Light White Heat” and which is an acknowledged part of Bailey’s teaching? “I first experienced the white light when I had a Christian conversion experience aged 15,” Lane said. “But, in the school of Actualism, there’s a chakra located six inches above your head. The sun in this chakra is white. The idea is to intensify the white light of the sun into heat and open up the sun until the white light becomes white heat. It’s healing but it’s also, in Buddhism, an important aid to realization.”


The Arcane School, the Quest for White Light, Spiritual Wasps


 Velvet Underground and Lou Reed obsessives, critics, scholars, and his biographers have long known about his interest in Bailey and the esoteric, but none have been especially curious about that aspect of his life, and this has shaped their research and writing on him. For instance, his biographer Victor Bockris told me, “In all the time I knew Lou in the 1970s, in all the research I did, and in conversation with every single person I talked to, including the main people and many, many others, nobody really got into this aspect of his spirituality.” But that could simply be because Bockris didn’t ask. I am interested in Lou’s spirituality in relation to Bailey and what it might have meant for him and his art. And I believe that the reference to Saint Germain in “I’m So Free,” a song that has only been dated as far back as the demos Lou recorded in his bedroom at his parents’ house in late 1970, indicates his devotion to Bailey’s teaching continued for longer, ran deeper and was more influential on his work than has been assumed.

Before we go on, we should establish a useful definition of spirituality. One that works for me, and can be broadly applied to Lou’s belief system, is that of Susannah Crockford: “Through my fieldwork I came to understand spirituality as a constellation of beliefs and practices clustered around the central concept of ‘energy’ as an all-pervasive force; ‘the universe’ as a pantheistic conception of divinity; progressive stages of enlightenment described as a ‘spiritual path’; and a millenarian belief in a ‘new paradigm’ replacing the ‘old paradigm.’”

According to Lou, in conversation with John Tobler, his interest in the esoteric was sparked when Angus MacLise, avant-garde composer, musician, poet, occultist and the Velvet Underground’s first drummer gave him a copy of the book The Morning of the Magicians in the early 1960s. From then on, Lou dived headlong into what he described as “astrology, the occult, mysticism, Transcendentalism, the third eye, the whole bit.”

The Morning of the Magicians was first published in France in 1960 and was one of the supposedly weighty tomes that shaped the ideology of the counterculture. Written by journalist Louis Pauwels and practicing alchemist Jacques Bergier, the book, as scholar of the counterculture Gary Lachman writes in his book Turn Off Your Mind: The Mystic Sixties and the Dark Side of the Age of Aquarius, “would show how forgotten disciplines like alchemy had parallels with developments in modern physics, and how this suggested that the science of the future might be altogether like magic.” It was a bestseller in France and, after translation into English and publication as a paperback, went on to sell over a million copies, its publishers Mayflower claimed. Speaking to French journalist Dorothée Lalanne for Paris Vogue in 1979, Lou described The Morning of the Magicians as “a book that’s very fascinating on all sorts of things: magic, alchemy, war…”. He was also keen to stress that he read the book before it came out in paperback, establishing his credentials as an early adopter of arcane knowledge.

When Lalanne asks Lou about The Arcane School, his response is “Pardon? THE Arcane Society. Tell me—how do you know this name? Who spoke to you about that?” suggesting that she’s stumbled across an earth-shattering secret. In fact, although the connection never fails to surprise those of us who haven’t recovered from swallowing the Rock N Roll Animal schtick, Lou had been speaking openly about Bailey and The Arcane School since the late 1960s, around the time he was promoting the Velvet Underground’s third album.

It seems that the overwhelming benefit for Lou of studying at The Arcane School was to gain access to the white light. In the 1972 interview with John Tobler, he talks about attending “moon meditations with ceremonies,” where he and the other devotees would sit and chant and see white light, which, he says drily, “is kind of something.” At some point in the 1960s, Lou, according to Rob Norris writing in Kicks magazine, was also a member of the Church of Light in New York. This is something different from The Arcane School. Based on the writings of CC Zain, its mission is “to teach, practice, and disseminate The Religion of The Stars, a way of life for the Aquarian Age.” Zain was another astrologer, channeler and occult author. He was also the prime mover behind building a bird sanctuary in Los Angeles. Later in the interview with Tobler, Lou also talks about experiencing the white light remotely. “I was sick once and they put my name in this special part of a Japanese church they have in California. Sure enough, I got better. I might have gotten better anyway. I got sick again so it’s apparently not lasting.”

The church Lou mentions was the Johrei church, founded in Japan in the 1930s. Johrei, which means “purification of the spirit,” is a kind of paranormal healing. As with Bailey’s teaching, Johrei practitioners believe that illness originates in the soul, making it necessary to purify the soul to heal the body. This they do by channeling light into patients by holding their hands over the affected area, something Lou experienced. He tells Tobler that “my friend who can channel white light, like, held his hand, like, this far away to burn the toxins in my body out and the heat was so intense it was just unbelievable.”

Part of why Lou practiced what he did could well have been because he, like Tom Lane and maybe all of us, relished being in possession of secret knowledge. He also appears to have savored the more colorful aspects of the esoteric. To Tobler he describes going to a “woman in California who removed demons from my head”. This may be the woman Lou describes in more detail to an unidentified interviewer on KVAN-FM Oregon in November 1969:

“[She] reads your aura and tells you previous incarnations and all these entities. I had a number. They told Doug [Yule], for instance, that if you have long hair you should always get it trimmed a little bit, get the ends cut off because you pick up spiritual wasps. I really felt it. She was playing around with my ajna center, third eye, and she was applying a lot of pressure there as she was removing entities and as soon as she would remove it, she’d go [screams] and start shaking and she’d say, ‘I can’t see’ and she’d run into the other room, wash her hands, and come right back and I felt it …If it was an act, it’s great.”

The interview continues:

KVAN: What color did they say your aura was?

Lou: White and there was some blue, some green.

KVAN: Those are the colors of the spirit world. Green is the color of learning and growth.

Lou: She said I could be a prophet if I wanted to.

KVAN: Well, you are.

Lou: Then she asked me for money [laughs]. It was fabulous. If you’re into it at all, you can tell how good these people are, the effects on your ajna center. Mine got noticeably better while I was sitting there, while she was removing these entities. It was just fantastic, and I felt just incredible since. She removed all kinds of lower body entities.

KVAN: How many lower body entities?

Lou: She said pockets of them. In other words, what a lot of us are trying to do is move the energy from the sacral centers up to the throat center and if you get it to the throat center, move it up to the pineal gland but we still have confusions of energy which is all meditation is about, moving energy from the lower body to the higher body and she just saw some pockets of sin [laughs] and meanwhile she pulled out, she drew them from me, she’s telling me my previous incarnations which are really out of this world. I’ve got a lot of karmic responsibility.

KVAN: In this life?

Lou: You know, that’s what she said. Entertaining. One answer to a previous life of cavorting [cackles]. She’d tell you how many lives you’ve been here.

KVAN: How many lives have you had?

Lou: I have 1,143.

KVAN: That’s a lot of lives. Did she tell you how many incarnations you had?

Lou: She said, you always have that because you want to, because it’s so fantastic here. Because life here is so great. My point of view is she’s really right because I’m enjoying myself, I’m having so much fun that I think it’s fantastic. Obviously, last time around is to work a lot of the problems out but I’m having a lot of fun this time.

KVAN: You’re getting rewards this time.

Lou: I’m not getting any rewards. 

KVAN: Things like talent, things like insight.

What’s worth pointing out here is that, listening to the audio of the radio interview, it sounds like Lou is being utterly sincere. He may have been infinitely hipper—“my week beats your year”—than a high school kid smoking banana skins in Podunk but he was far more a product of his time than those of us that mythologize the man would sometimes like to believe. Back in 1967, Rob Norris writes, Lou was as happy to sit around talking about “angels, saints, the universe, diet, yoga, meditation, Jesus, healing with music, cosmic rays, and astrology” as any caricature hippy.

The interview with KVAN also contains clues as to why Lou might have looked to Alice Bailey and other forms of esoteric practice, other than pure curiosity and the desire to possess arcane knowledge and material for his writing. Susannah Crockford suggests that spiritual astrology is so popular in the US because it fits with the notion of American individualism: “Americans have to make individual choices about jobs, romantic partners, childbearing, and so on. Understanding the self and seeking assistance on how to interpret when to make choices is of vital importance in this social context. The idea of a unique personality, the true nature of which is often obscured, speaks to the reification of the individual.”

For the profoundly driven Lou, who nonetheless had seen his band spiral slowly downwards from the heights of their association with Warhol back in 1966/67, it would have been entirely natural to grab onto something that reinforced his sense of himself as reified, real. He doesn’t sound like he’s joking when he says, “She told me I could be a prophet if I wanted to.” Although, ever the dualistic smartass, he swiftly undercuts this with “Then she asked me for money.”

Incidentally, there has been more than one KVAN. This includes a station in Tuscon, Arizona beaming out “The New Sound of CosmoPop and Global Change Music! Broadcasting from Tucson, Arizona on 91.7 FM and streaming across the universe on”


Hooked on White Light


I have another theory as to why Lou may have been chasing the white light, and this is entirely speculative. In his Transformer: The Complete Lou Reed Story, Victor Bockris describes the electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) Lou underwent aged 17:

He was wheeled into the small, bare operating room, furnished with a table next to a hunk of metal from which two thick wires dangled. He was strapped onto the table. Lou stared at the overhead fluorescent light bars as the sedative started to take effect. The nurse applied a salve to his temples and stuck a clamp into his mouth so that he would not swallow his tongue. Seconds later, conductors at the end of the thick wires were attached to his head. The last thing that filled his vision before he lapsed into unconsciousness was a blinding white light.”

If that’s how it happened, wouldn’t that experience, at the very least, leave you as fascinated by the white light as you were scared? Maybe it might make you want to experience the white light again in the same way your tongue probes for a wobbly or rotten tooth. Perhaps it could cause you to search for a benign white light to heal the damage that had been done to you.

I freely admit this is just pure speculation, although in a 1975 interview with Bockris for The Drummer magazine, Lou does say of the shock treatments, “That’s when I started getting interested in electricity.” What does appear to be verifiable is that Lou’s interest in Bailey didn’t end when the Aquarian dream appeared to fade away as the 1960s drew to a close.

In 1974, he gave a lengthy interview to Charlie Frick of The Aquarian Weekly, a New Jersey newspaper described as promoting “hippy culture and healthy lifestyles…sociopolitical views…drug culture coverage…new music features.” The interview is among those collected in the superb My Week Beats Your Year: Encounters with Lou Reed (2019). For me, the content of this interview in relation to its purported date is so startling that I immediately wondered two things. Had Lou done his homework on the mag and was he simply giving Frick what he deduced the journalist wanted? Then, was the interview dated correctly? After all, this was supposedly the year an emaciated Lou, wrapped up in leather, hair blonde and cropped, bloodstream awash in booze and impure drugs, released the less than profound Sally Can’t Dance, an album that made the Billboard Top 10 but which even he dismissed, quipping, “It seems like the less I’m involved with a record, the bigger a hit it becomes. If I weren’t on the record at all next time around, it might go to Number One.” At the time of the supposed date of the interview, he may well have been working on or have completed his hugely divisive feedback driven feedback drone piece Metal Machine Music, released in July 1975.

I became obsessed with trying to establish precisely when the interview took place.

Debra Kate Schafer, current Managing Editor of The Aquarian told me in an email that if it was published in 1974 it was “surely conducted the same year.” Pat Thomas, who edited My Week Beats Your Year: Encounters with Lou Reed along with compiler Michael Heath, insisted that the date of the interview given is accurate as far as publication goes because “we typed it in ourselves from the original newspaper.”

This suggests that Lou’s interest in Bailey didn’t abate when he became the Phantom of Rock and then the Rock N Roll Animal. But, in the interview, Frick only asks Lou about his first solo album, released in 1971 and not, as you’d have thought, subsequent albums up until 1974. Lou talks about the album in the past tense but when Frick asks if he’s working on new material, Lou says “I have two love songs. I always wanted to write a song called ‘I Love You.’ And there’s a song called ‘Love Makes You Feel 10 Feet Tall.’” These songs were on Lou’s first solo album, Lou Reed.

Simpler and more confused. Still, if we take the 1974 date as correct, the content of the interview does suggest that Lou’s interest in Bailey was going strong into the 1970s. Midway through the interview, Frick asks, “Hey Lou, you got any hobbies?”

Lou replies, “The thing I really like is…this shit, the Tarot, the I-Ching, Alice Bailey books,” the Rock N Roll Animal replies, before going on to say that walking into the offices of the Lucis Trust, who publish Bailey’s books, was like “walking into God’s library.” Lou and Frick talk about the meetings held every month on the full moon where Bailey’s disciples meditate and chant. When Frick says he used to go to those meetings, Lou says, “Oh shit, man, I’ve been up there chanting like a maniac.”

Lou raves about Bailey’s books as “such poetry, man, they’re so beautiful.” It appears the interview is taking place face to face because Lou offers to show Frick his copy of Bailey’s A Treatise on Cosmic Fire. Picture Lou, leathers creaking, joints popping, hauling himself up, brimming glass of whisky in one hand, and staggering off to find the broken-spined, manically annotated volume on one of the shelves of a groaning floor to ceiling bookcase. Or maybe not. Anyway, suggesting he does know his Bailey, Lou says: “These books explain to you everything: how the solar system forms a gigantic being, just the way our body is made out of cells, his body is made out of planets and it all links together. And there are solar systems like people, that the Earth is alive and just like the way the body can get sick, the earth can get sick if we don’t take care of things and that’s the way things happen.”

Somewhat amusingly, as 1974 was the height and last gasp of glam rock, Lou talks specifically about the book Glamor: A World Problem: “and glamor is like a world problem, like the incredible thing about clothes, being so concerned with your own ego trips, what you own. All these types of things, and you learn from these things how to non-attach and you start understanding. But the thing is that if you go too far with these kinds of books, you’ve got to kind of drop everything…”

My spiritual teacher and friend Zulma Reyo, whose work is partly derived from Bailey’s own, describes a glamor as a “Generic term used to refer to the veils or deceptions that prevail on the physical, emotional and mental levels (the so-called real world) that the individual who is learning to discriminate on the spiritual path will encounter.”

For Lou, dropping everything meant the possibility of using “rock and roll as the medium to spread the message of Alice Bailey, right. And then I realized…I would have to get to a certain point to do that.” But, and I presume he’s talking about the period towards the end of his time in the Velvets when he was becoming disenchanted with music biz machinations, he felt unable to get there. He “couldn’t sit around in the lotus position all day, trying to open my third eye and drinking my herbal tea…I had to deal with subways and buses, taxicabs, nightclubs, and a music business that was built on second rate rock and roll.”

By the time I spoke to Charlie Frick in July 2022, he was able to give me some background on how he came to mention the full moon meetings at Lucis Trust but couldn’t help me nail down the date of the interview.

Frick began his career as a journalist and photographer at New York countercultural newspaper the East Village Other in the late 1960s. He was 17. Walter Bowart, the editor and Frick’s mentor was “a kind of mystic,” as Frick put it. Bowart and some of the other, older journalists would go down to the full moon meetings at the Lucis Trust at 866 UN Plaza often after having smoked a joint. The meetings finished around nine so there was still time to hit the clubs afterwards. Frick was invited along. “I knew there was something there,” he told me, “and it was consistent with hippy values but it was way above the level of my intellectual and spiritual understanding.” He would continue to go to the meetings after he left the East Village Other.

By the time Frick sat down to interview Lou for The Aquarian at the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York he was 23. Lou’s hair was cropped, but it wasn’t dyed blond. Frick thinks the date might have been 1973, the year he joined The Aquarian, not ‘74. But he also recalls Lou “castigating his record company for the way they put out Metal Machine Music as if it was just another Lou Reed album. Lou felt his fans had been hoodwinked.” This would date the piece to after July 1975. In a subsequent conversation with Frick, he told me that he’d conducted a second interview with Lou published on November 19, 1975 after the release of MMM, which clears up that piece of confusion. But the correct date of the interview in which Lou talks about Bailey remains, for me, as much a mystery as ever.

“At the time I sat with Lou for that interview I was still quite green as a writer and reporter,” Frick told me. “I was sure of myself when it came to talking about music, but I was in way, way over my head when Lou got into esoteric matters. It’s not like I could carry on a long conversation with Lou about the underpinnings of Alice Bailey’s work and the teaching, but I could say I’d been to the meetings. To be honest, everything that came out of Lou’s mouth I was impressed with. He started quoting TS Eliot’s ‘Prufrock’ from memory at one point. I was just happy to be there.”

But, in this case, Frick’s humility was to his advantage.

Inspired to a degree by George Harrison, Frick had also been to India and spent time in an ashram. He’d hung out with Native Americans in Arizona, grazed at the smorgasbord of “hippy spirituality.” He continued, “Lou maybe took a look at this kid from Jersey and saw something in me besides my enthusiasm and manners and realized I was genuinely interested in what he had to say. He may have decided to drop his guard a little and speak to that thing he saw in me.”

Lou recognizing “that thing” made an impression on Frick that remains strong to this day. A year after the interview Frick met him backstage at a show in New Jersey where he described Frick as “an honest journalist.” Frick acknowledged that this was “very important to me.”

After this, Frick would bump into Lou from time to time, including at the sessions for Genya Ravan’s Urban Desire album on which Lou sings on the track “Aye Co’lorado.” “I wouldn’t say he was my friend, but he was always very cordial and nice to me,” he said. “But there was eye contact and it felt like there was someone actually talking to me. There wasn’t a hint of pretense or phoniness.”

Despite the confusion over the date of Frick’s interview, there’s no doubt Lou remained interested in Alice Bailey and the white light throughout the 1970s. Interviewed by John Tobler again in 1978, Tobler says “When I last talked to you, you told me a lot of stuff about how you were into the concept of white light.”

“Yeah, I’m still interested in that,” Lou replies. “I was talking about The Arcane School, which has to do with channeling white light and burning poisons out of bodies. But it’s nothing…I’m not a member of a blood cult…[laughs]. That’s because they don’t have any.”

In the Paris Vogue interview with Dorothée Lalanne in 1979, Lou speaks about his practice at The Arcane School in the present tense, but also dismisses it as “a mixture of trash and metaphysics.”

And that, it seems, was it in terms of overt, public references to Alice Bailey and her work.


Bailey’s influence on Lou’s work


It’s fascinating to uncover another Lou who was hiding in plain sight—In the studded shadow, if you like, cast by the Rock N Roll Animal. But for this to be of interest to us, Bailey’s influence needs to be discernible in the music. Leaving aside the question of whether Lou’s lyrics were significantly shaped by her work, which can only be established by a close reading of her oeuvre – something I would prefer not to do – he certainly alludes to her. On the surface, the most obvious example of this is the song “White Light/White Heat.” As Velvet Underground historian Richie Unterberger writes:

“Specifically, ‘White Light/White Heat’ is often assumed to be about the exhilarating effects of crystal methedrine amphetamines, and Reed does say the song ‘is about amphetamines’ in his 1971 interview with Metropolitan Review. But an equally likely, and perhaps more interesting, inspiration is Alice Bailey’s occult book A Treatise on White Magic. It advises control of the astral body by a ‘direct method of relaxation, concentration, stillness and flushing the entire personality with pure White Light, with instructions on how to ‘call down a stream of pure White Light.’”

As Tom Lane explained, the goal of Actualism, derived from Bailey’s teaching, was to turn the white light into the white heat.

In “A Was A Velveteen,” Rob Norris adds another dimension to Unterberger’s comment, relating “White Light/White Heat” also to the astrology that he argues reflects Lou’s duality. It was “an obvious drug song showing the Piscean, suffering and self-indulgent side of things. But it was also about enlightenment, expressing the Christian purity, self-control, ‘palace of wisdom’ aspects of Virgo.” Norris mentions two other Velvets songs that reflect Bailey’s teaching. Along with “Here She Comes Now,” “I Heard Her Call My Name,” for him, expresses enlightenment in the feminine.

I discovered a more direct reference to Bailey in the ferocious “I Heard Her Call My Name.” I deduced that the “Mad Mary Williams” in the song with whom Lou raps for hours was Bailey. I think it might have been from starting to read Bailey’s Unfinished Biography but, when I went back to this book, I couldn’t find the reference anywhere. Perhaps it was knowledge I channeled. When Victor Bockris read an early version of this article, he told me he’s “as sure I can be” that Mad Mary Williams is Mary Woronov, a friend of Lou’s at the time and a member of the speed scene around the Factory. Woronov apparently was a “good talker who loved conversation.”

As to whether Lou’s duality was simply the result of his Piscean nature, I ain’t so sure. I think it could also have something to do with him having become accustomed to compartmentalizing his personality from an early age. For example. I’ve always been struck by the ambiguity in the title of the song “Leave Her For Me,” written by Lou when he was 16 and, according to several accounts, experimenting with his sexuality in different, dangerous times. One of his biographers, Aidan Levy, quotes Lou’s teenage friend Richard Sigal as saying, “He had this interest in boys that none of us knew about.” Which potentially makes “Leave Her For Me,” already an arresting and discombobulating title, even more significant because it implies that Lou is, in code, imploring a boy to leave a girl for him. I think it could also have something to do with Lou’s relentless need to disrupt people’s ideas of who he was. Remember him saying that Bailey was both metaphysical and trash?

Lou’s poem “We Are The People” alludes to Bailey. The people in question are “the insects of someone else’s thought,” a very Baileyesque notion. As Lou told an interviewer in a 1986 Spin magazine interview, apropos of turning his then acolyte Jonathan Richman onto Bailey, “I said, ‘Do you know, Jonathan, that insects are a manifestation of negative ego thoughts.” Lou believed, or pretended to, that he was indirectly responsible for Jonathan’s “Hey There Little Insect.” Jonathan, who also wrote a song called “Astral Plane,” declined to be interviewed for this piece.

Another poem, “He Thought of Insects in The Lazy Darkness” published in literary mag The Transatlantic Review in 1975, might also reference Bailey although the reference to

Crushing you…

Like a ladybug

is admittedly equally likely to be a convenient metaphor.

The version of “Ocean” on the Velvet Underground Live at the End of Cole Ave, 1969, the Second Night, a live compilation, has a first verse that’s radically different to the one on Loaded:

Here comes the ocean and the waves
Down by the sea
Here comes the ocean and the waves
Crashing in
Earth is a hollow hair, part of a bigger head
It nearly drives me crazy
In the Himalayas they have small rubber dolls
Recording all our actions

Those last four lines appear to allude to Bailey’s claim that she received “ageless wisdom” from “DK,” Tibetan Master of Wisdom — the Himalayas separate Tibet from India — as well as her conception of the nature of the solar system as a giant being, its body made out of planets. Unfortunately, they’re mighty clunky and read as nonsensical. It’s not hard to guess why Lou excised them from the lyrics of the song.

While all of this strongly suggests Lou referenced Bailey in his work, it doesn’t exactly prove she was a profound influence. And I have to admit the question of whether Lou genuinely followed Bailey’s teachings did become a little more moot for me when I spoke with Bettye Kronstad. Kronstad first met Lou in 1968. Their relationship lasted for five years. They were married for one of these. During that period, Lou gave several interviews where he talked about Bailey with what appears to be real conviction. But when I asked what Kronstad knew about Lou’s interest in Bailey, she had no recollection of them ever talking about it. “We didn’t sit around and talk about that stuff,” she told me, “because our time was completely oriented to Lou’s career.” I find it hard to believe that Lou would have been able to slope off to moon meetings down at The Arcane School without Kronstad knowing. But, while she couldn’t substantiate my theory about Bailey, Kronstad did confirm that Lou was certainly deeply into astrology. He could well have found his way to Bailey via the work of her esoteric astrologer associate Dane Rudhyar.

And then there’s the fact that Lou referred to Bailey and other white light practices throughout the 1960s and 1970s, coming across as pretty knowledgeable. If he was making it all up, he had a magnificently fertile imagination. Like Bailey.

But what if we step away from words, from searching for clues in the lyric content of Lou’s songs and try this on for a thesis?

In one sense, Metal Machine Music—feedback as drone—embodies Lou’s duality. It’s a challenging piece of work packaged in a trashy cover, whether that was Lou’s doing or that of his record company, and shrink-wrapped in put-on. But Lou absolutely intended it to be taken seriously. When I interviewed Reinhold Friedl of Zeitkratzer, the German avant-garde group that famously transcribed and performed MMM on instruments, he agreed, scoffing at the idea that Lou was anything other than serious. Friedl told me, “It came out in the rehearsal that he was completely well-informed about what was in the piece, what kind of sounds at what point and what’s the relation between background melodies and the feedback pulse, so it was really a musical approach.” Before placing them up against his amp so they could feed back, Lou tuned the two guitars to open fifths, “a kind of pure tuning, the religious tuning of La Monte Young.”

If further evidence of Lou’s serious intent was needed, a New York Times article of June 7 entitled “You Don’t Become Lou Reed Overnight” revealed that a tape on display at the New York Public Library Caught Between The Twisted Stars exhibition of material from Lou’s archive labeled “Electric Rock Symphony,” initially thought to be a 1970s demo for MMM featuring guitar and piano, actually dates from 1965 or possibly 1966. As the Times put it, this was “a sign of how long the ‘Metal Machine’ technique—feedback-driven guitar drones adapted from composer La Monte Young—had gestated.”

There is substantial evidence, then, that Lou wasn’t kidding around with MMM. So, what if it was Lou’s, admittedly speed-addled, attempt to bring Bailey’s message to the masses? If that sounds preposterous, think about it. Lou was no dilettante when it came to drone and La Monte Young’s music and could easily have been aware that drone was partly informed by Indian religious music. Bailey’s philosophy was rooted in Hindu belief systems. For Hindus, the sound Om is the first sound from the beginning of time and also encompasses the present and future. Quite simply, as David Frawley writes in his book Mantra Yoga and Primal Sound, Om is “the sound of God.” When chanted, Om is human drone.

In an interview with Lenny Kaye published in Hit Parader, April 1976, Lou references the Om sound in relation to MMM, saying, “That’s what I’m doing with the sound frequencies [of MMM]. Like certain combinations…there’s bound to be a combination that’ll hit you. And it makes things happen, like when people go OM to set a vibration in their body.”

As Lou once said, “My god is rock ’n’ roll. It’s an obscure power that can change your life… The most important part of my religion is to play guitar.” What if he wasn’t just talking about three chords? What if, by tuning the guitars to open fifths before leaving them to be played by electricity—which, of course, comes from other planets—not him, Lou was making fundamentally religious art that fulfilled his self-identified mission to bring Bailey’s teaching to the masses: in this case, the legions of new fans he’d gained through chart-topping albums like Transformer, Sally Can’t Dance and Rock N Roll Animal?


(This article was originally published in Ugly Things #61, Winter 2022.)


I’m profoundly indebted to Phil Milstein, founder of The Velvet Underground Appreciation Society, who graciously shared material with me and acted as a sounding board for my theorizing. I had a terrific conversation with Bettye Kronstad, who was in a relationship with Lou for five years and is the author of the excellent memoir Perfect Day published by Jawbone Press. Kronstad has just completed a screenplay based on her memoir. Lou’s biographers Victor Bockris and Aidan Levy allowed me to interview them, as did Charlie Frick, Lou’s bass player Fernando Saunders and Lou’s collaborator on the organic manifestation of Metal Machine Music Reinhold Friedl. Richie Unterberger kindly offered background on “I’m So Free.” I consulted all the major biographies of Lou and various Velvets reference books but the one that was most illuminating to me was My Week Beats Your Year: Encounters with Lou Reed which I highly recommend. Pat Thomas, the book’s editor (compiler was Michael Heath) put me in touch with Charlie Frick. Ezra Furman’s wonderful book on Transformer in the 33 1/3 series was also helpful. I didn’t get far with Alice Bailey’s writing, apart from her The Unfinished Autobiography: mercifully short and well worth reading if you can get your hands on it. Zulma Reyo’s exegetical writing on Bailey’s work was extremely helpful.

I’m also grateful to cultural historian Erik Davis for connecting me with Tom Lane and Tai Chi practitioner JP Harpignies. Author and professor Jeffrey Kripal introduced me to Steven Sutcliffe, specialist in new and alternative forms of religion and spirituality in late modernity. As is my wont, I gathered way too much material, but I hope I’ll be able to use that in a longer piece on Lou’s spirituality.

Images: Splendid photos of Lou in the 1970s kindly provided by Gordon Lyon, long-time collector of Lou Reed artyfacts. Photo of Alice Bailey from Photo of the cover of Morning of the Magicians supplied by Patricia Martinak of Alkahest Books.