The cover of Alice Bailey’s 1934 book.
Recently, I was reading a feature about Jonathan Richman in a 1986 issue of SPIN. This startling (to me, anyway) quote from Lou Reed jumped off the page:
One of my big mistakes was turning [Richman] on to Alice Bailey, that’s where that insect song comes from. I said, “Do you know, Jonathan, that insects are a manifestation of negative ego thoughts? That’s on page 114.” So he got that. That’s a dangerous set of books. That’s why Billy Name locked himself in his darkroom at Andy Warhol’s Factory for five months.
Wait a minute: Lou Reed was interested in Alice Bailey? Like, the theosophist Alice Bailey? Like, the musician Lou Reed, from New York City? Magic And Loss, okay, but I can’t hardly believe that the Lou Reed I’ve listened to for most of my life ever gave a flying fuck about esoteric matters. And that’s why Billy Name became such a recluse? Shut the front door, I said to the 1986 issue of SPIN; surely, Lou was pulling the journalist’s leg, putting him on, taking the piss.
How little I know. As it turns out, not only was Reed genuinely interested in Bailey’s work, but the Velvets’ “White Light/White Heat” was inspired by Bailey’s A Treatise on White Magic. That “white light goin’ messin’ up my mind” wasn’t just the rush of speed; Lou was singing about some heavy astral shit! Rock historian Richie Unterberger developed the Reed/Bailey connection while researching his White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day-by-Day. Here’s Unterberger’s take on the song’s relationship to Bailey’s teachings, and to Reed’s occult interests:
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.’” And it’s known for certain that Reed was familiar with the volume, as he calls it “an incredible book” in a November 1969 radio interview in Portland, Oregon.
Additionally, in his “I Was a Velveteen” article in Kicks, Rob Norris remembers Reed explaining “White Light/White Heat” as one example of “how a lot of his songs embodied the Virgo-Pisces [astrological] opposition and could be taken two ways.” Norris, who would get to know the band personally at the Boston Tea Party, also thinks the “white light” concept might have informed another of the album’s songs, “I Heard Her Call My Name.” “He was very interested in a form of healing just using light, projecting light,” says Norris today.
Incidentally, Reed wasn’t the only major ‘60s rock artist influenced by Bailey; Kinks guitarist Dave Davies discusses white light energy in his autobiography Kink, which reprints a couple extended quotes from Bailey’s books. Also interested in “white light” was Lou’s friend from the Factory who ended up doing the White Light/White Heat cover, Billy Name. According to Reed’s unpublished 1972 ZigZag interview, Name “got so far into it he locked himself in a closet for two years, and just never came out…I know what he was doing because I was the one who started him on the books [by Alice Bailey on magic], and we went through all fifteen volumes.”
In this excerpt from The Velvet Underground Day-by-Day, Unterberger gives a detailed account of Reed’s 1969 interview with Portland radio station KVAN. Here’s the relevant passage:
The Velvets will later be portrayed as a kind of ultimate anti-psychedelic group, but are in fact very much people of their time. Reed even steers this particular discussion in a direction that would find favor with the most spaced-out of hippies. He’s just had his aura read, he says, and had his previous incarnations revealed by a ‘reverend’ in Los Angeles, where “they told Doug, for instance, if you have long hair, you should always get it trimmed a little, get the ends cut off, because you’d pick up spiritual wasps.” (For the record, Lou’s aura was white, with “some blue, some green.”) Reed also reveals that he’s had 1,143 past lives. “Geez, that’s a lotta lives,” the deejay replies.
Reed goes on to hint at the origin of the “white light” he sings about in ‘White Light/White Heat’ when he reveals that he has recently been investigating a Japanese form of healing in Los Angeles that’s “a way of giving off white light … I’ve been involved and interested in what they call white light for a long time.” He briefly talks about Alice Bailey and her occult book A Treatise On White Magic, another likely source of his interest in white light. “It costs like ten dollars, unfortunately,” he notes apologetically. (Reed’s interest in such matters might later seem rather unlikely, given his hard-bitten, realist image. But Rob Norris recalls discussing “angels, saints, the universe, diet, yoga, meditation, Jesus, healing with music, cosmic rays, and astrology” with Reed in the late 60s in an article for Kicks magazine. Furthermore, he recalls Reed being a member of the Church Of Light in New York, which studied Bailey’s work as part of its theosophical teachings.)
Lita Eliscu’s 1970 Crawdaddy interview with Reed, “A Rock Band Can Be A Form of Yoga” (reprinted in All Yesterdays’ Parties), also mentions Reed’s interest in Bailey’s writings—to wit, “The teaching planned by the Hierarchy to precede and condition the New Age, the Aquarian Age.” News to me. Despite the song’s obvious beauty, I always figured Lou was merely being snide in the chorus of “New Age.”
Here’s a frenzied “White Light/White Heat” from one of the Velvets’ Boston Tea Party shows in 1969: