A tall man, bespectacled, with sandy brown hair and a thin, graying beard, Vickers has a lot to say partially because he lives in a world of extreme detail. Since moving to San Francisco from "a suburb of New York called New Jersey" in the late '70s, he's worked as a professional astrologer doing, by his count, 3,000 horoscopes, 15,000 readings, and 1,000 in-person consultations out of his Marina District apartment. Which itself is a riot of detail. The apartment walls are essentially wallpapered in unframed prints of impressionist masterworks; stacks of manila file folders threaten to fall off a bookcase piled high with books about music and reel-to-reel recordings of Bob Dylan performances on the radio, which he taped back in his East Coast days; songbooks from the Beatles, Emmylou Harris, and other esteemed rock and pop musicians rest on top of a small piano in the corner; yellowing magazines and newspapers are placed in whatever space is left that isn't taken up by records -- 1,500 LPs and 500 cassettes, he says. Which is just one of many little facts he'll throw out at you:
"They've done studies for decades that the biggest market [for music] is 25 to 45."
Or: "Twenty-three percent of Americans have a finished B.A."
Or: "You know only 1 percent of Americans are actually millionaires?"
Or: "Only 4,000 women on a planet of 6 billion people can afford a couture dress."
Or: "Thirty-five percent of Harvard M.B.A.s were unemployed in the last recession."
Charles Vickers spends a lot of time thinking about people, trying to figure them out, looking for consistency and patterns. In astrology, it's all about patterns.
Vickers came to his vocation as a music fan; he'd read interviews with his heroes -- Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen -- where they'd speak of an interest in astrology. A pianist and songwriter himself, Vickers began drawing up horoscopes. Thorough ones. He pulls out sheets of paper graphing the runic details of a person's potential life, filled with colored squiggles that track human trajectories -- "down to the minute," he says.
"People don't know what astrology is, because those little one-paragraph columns in all the magazines" -- he pauses, and then, in a conspiratorial whisper -- "are basically bogus."
So, in an attempt to shed light on the matter, since January Vickers has hosted a radio program, Surfing Astrology, every Thursday from 11:30 p.m. to midnight on KUSF-FM (90.3), where he elucidates -- quickly -- on the details of astrology. Johann Sebastian Bach and Erik Satie provide the background music ("People think I'm into classical because I'm very serious"), and on occasion he'll throw in pertinent quotations from "Big Bill the Wild Thrill Shakespeare." It's actually his third stint on Bay Area radio: For three years, he hosted a call-in astrology show on KPFA-FM (94.1), and also appeared on KMEL-FM's (106.1) morning show.
From radio to astrology appointments to whipping up quickie charts for people between sets at the restaurants and bars he used to play in, Vickers has learned something about folks. Namely, that they're predictable.
"The very first question almost every female asks, from 4 to 104, is, 'When am I getting married?' " Pause. "Interesting." Another pause. "Ninety-eight percent of their time -- and I charge a dollar a minute, minimum -- is men and relationships."
"Always career first, and money. Sometimes a lot of the cliches and generalizations are true."
Horoscope computer software is abundant, and Vickers does own an early generation Macintosh to help with his work, but he prefers going about his astrological business the old-fashioned way, consulting his ephemeris, a dogeared and well-marked almanac cataloging the positions of heavenly bodies; it's the third one he's gone through in his career. "A lot of the software's bogus. ... The planets spin on their axes, they rotate around the sun, they wobble, plus the whole galaxy, universe is moving, so that all the planets are spinning and moving, and everything is spinning, moving, and rotating."
Astrology and music are closely linked, Vickers says; they both share the concepts of "time, rhythm, math, and motion." Vickers' own musical career is an almost-but-not-quite success story, bringing him the occasional brush with fame. There was the time Albert Grossman's office encouraged him to send demos, but a deal fell through. And then there was the time when Doors and Janis Joplin producer Paul Rothchild promised him session work as a keyboardist and pianist. Vickers called for an update back in 1995, only to find out that Rothchild had died the day before. There are other people who've approached him, Vickers says, but "I can only talk about the dead ones."
On a demo tape of songs he recorded in Sausalito in 1987, he comes across as a talented enough ivory-tickler, but as a singer and lyricist he's a great astrologer, warbling more than he sings and generally holding forth on love or the fate of the planet; as Vickers himself confesses, people like his instrumental playing more than his voice.
Vickers considers himself a musician first and astrologer second, which is why he's not afraid to tell people the sometimes brutal truth about the trajectories of their lives -- never quite so dramatic as "you're going to die tomorrow," but he'll advise you when to be careful driving. Not that people always listen. "Astrology is half fate, half free will," Vickers says often, noting that many people have a lot of trouble with that "free will" part, or even with being realistic. The 55-year-old guy who's 50 pounds overweight still wants "the knockout 21-year-old chick." Some things even the stars can't help with.
And all the scholarly astrological advice in the world won't change the simple fact that Vickers has learned about human beings: "People want what they want, the way they want it, when they want it, and they want it simple, and they want it easy, and they want it tomorrow," he says, quickly, but slow enough to come out like a sigh.
-- Mark Athitakis
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