Matrix Interview with Astrologer Michael Erlewine
Our interviewer is Tenzin Nyima December 23, 2008
Nyima: Thanks for taking this interview. I have been reading about you online from a Google search, and it says you knew Bob Dylan?
Erlewine: I hitchhiked with Dylan back in 1961; we were all part of the folk-music scene. I also had a blues band in the middle 1960s and Iggy Pop was my drummer.
Nyima: Wow, that is cool!
Erlewine: It was a fun time. I was in my early 20s.
Nyima: How did you originally get into astrology and when?
Erlewine: I became interested in astrology in the early 1960s, along with all kinds of other things like the I-Ching, tarot, Eastern religions, and metaphysics in general. I became more focused in these areas in 1964 when I spent a year in Berkeley, California studying music, Gurdjieff, and the like. I also took LSD that year, and that had a profound effect on how I viewed the world.
Nyima: What was that like?
Erlewine: Well, as they say, it was a trip! Its main value was to bring home to me that what I saw out there in the world around me was more-than-a-little influenced by what I believe inside here in my head. I saw for the first time how that worked and then knew that if I could change how I saw things, change my attitude, a great deal of the outside world would change also, and it did.
Nyima: How did astrology come into it?
Erlewine: The answer to this is a bit complicated, so hang on. Back then I was desperate to understand what my life was all about, desperate to find some meaning in all I saw going on around me. I felt very isolated from the world I was living in and the universe itself too often appeared as a dark cold space surrounding this little speck of earth where I stood. After all, in the 1950s this is what science taught us, something to the equivalent that man was a lucky speck in an otherwise dark and hostile environment – the vastness of cold space. Kids like myself, growing up back, then were indoctrinated that way.
As my mind began to loosen up a bit, and as I searched and struggled to find meaning in my life, the universe began to appear less hostile and at least a little more friendly. I began to connect with the basic messages life was presenting. There were messages for me out there if I could adopt the proper attitude and learn to receive them – to listen.
And all of this led me to oracles like the tarot and the I-Ching, which are nothing more than ways for the universe to speak to us anyway. As I understand it, we are surrounded by messages all of the time. They are everywhere around and just waiting for us to pick up on them. They are literally everything we need to know. At the time I was so unable to receive or hear these messages that very little got through to me. I had never been shown how to listen or meditate.
Oracles like the I-Ching and the tarot helped me a great deal to pick up on (become aware of) what my own mind was trying to tell me – what I actually thought. Through them I learned to use my intuition, to listen to what I desperately needed to hear. I am taking a lot of time here, so I hope you are still with me.
Nyima: No, this is fascinating. Go ahead.
Erlewine: Well, my main point here is that astrology is nothing but an oracle, although it is a somewhat complex one, meaning: you have to calculate a chart, learn to read it, etc. But if you study the history of oracles, there are many, many oracles that have a very complicated ritual that you have to go through to prepare yourself to receive anything at all. Astrology is one of those rituals. Some of us like it complex.
The point of astrology as I know it is to hear what the cosmos has to say about us based on the time we were born and what was going on with the solar system at that moment. If you have ever had your astrology chart read, then you know that the configurations in the heavens can actually speak to you through your chart, telling you more about who you are, what you are good for, and where you might be going, if you will listen.
At least when I came across astrology, it was like getting a second opinion on me compared to all the psychological lingo I had been raised with through the 1950s, ideas like: you were neurotic, paranoid, schizophrenic, depressed, etc. Back then this was the mindset we were brought up in, the way we were told the mind worked – psychology and mostly negative terms at that! Where was the good stuff? The 1950s was more concentrated on the glass that was half empty than the one half full.
So, astrology gave me another perspective to see my own mind, one not full of psychological labels, but kind of a new start so to speak on myself. So that is a little about how I discovered the value of astrology in my life.
Nyima: How did that knowledge ever turn into a business?
Erlewine: Well, the first answer to that is: slowly. In 1968 my brother Stephen opened a metaphysical bookstore in Ann Arbor called “Circle Books.” It became a real force for awhile in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I actually helped to design and build it physically and ended up calculating most of the astrology charts for customers that shopped there.
Nyima: Did you use a computer?
Erlewine: No, no. There were no computers back then and in the beginning not even any hand-held calculators readily available. I did all the charts by hand, using pencil, paper, log tables, and printed ephemerides – tables of planet positions. Each chart took a long time, but after many thousands of them I got it down to a science. This is how I made part of my living. I also was a musician, played gigs, and I was a janitor as well. It was a marginal existence, but one to my liking at the time because I needed most of my day to try and figure out who I was and why – that kind of thing. I hung out.
Nyima: Where did computers come in?
Erlewine: Well, before computers there were hand calculators, which first appeared in the early 1970s, and even then were too expensive for me. I believe it was not until the middle 1970s that you could get a 4-function calculator for around $20. At first they were hundreds of dollars each.
You can be sure that I bought a calculator as soon as they came within my budget range because even the little pocket calculator made it much, much easier to do astrology charts. My brother Stephen and I published an astrological calendar in 1969 called the “Circle Books Calendar” and that calendar, now called the AFA calendar, is still being published today, some forty years later.
Well, in the back of that calendar I would show astrologers step-by-step how to use the new 4-function calculators to calculate a natal chart. I knew that this would help them because it helped me so much to speed up the calculations.
As time progressed and calculators advanced, I was able to purchase a programmable calculator, which even made things easier for me, and that is a funny story in itself.
It was the early 1970s and I was already a full-time astrologer, although one with about zero money. I really, really wanted one of the new programmable Hewlett-Packard calculators, so I went to the bank and tried to get a $500 loan to buy one. Being really naïve, I made the mistake of telling the loan officer that I was an astrologer. I was proud of it. He takes out a long list of occupations ranked by their risk for loans. I watch his finger going down, down, down the list until it finally stopped. He looks at me and says “astrologers are listed just above migrant workers as far as risk.” The loan was denied. In fact, I had to go back again and again, until on the third time they loaned me the $500, probably just to get rid of me and the rest is history.
With that calculator I began to really write programs and some of my work was soon published by Hewlett-Packard in a book they brought out. I also was able to explore techniques (like Local Space relocation astrology) that had never really been looked at before.
Nyima: I read that you were the first astrologer to use home computers.
Erlewine: Well that may or may not be true. There were several astrologers interested in what computers could do for astrologers, like Neil Michelsen who used mainframe and mini computers and Robert Hand who had an early portable computer made I believe by Wang, and others. These were not home computers.
I got my first home computer in 1977, a Commodore Pet computer, the one with the little Chicklet-like keyboard. I probably was the first astrologer to program the new home microcomputers and I was for certain the first astrologer to make programs available others in the astrological community.
Nyima: How powerful was the Commodore Pet?
Erlewine: Well, the Pet had 8k of RAM. That was it. I had a complete planetary program running in that computer in 1977, one that did all kinds of things, which is kind of mind-boggling to me now, since today one of my computers has 16 gigabytes of RAM. Let’s see, my 8K was 8192 bytes of memory, and the one with 16GB has 17,179,869,184 bytes. Times have changed.
I did have the help of my friend James Neely, who essentially showed me how to make certain calculations work and shared some of his programs with me and other astrologers. Anyway, it was not long before I had a number of programs running and astrologers would call and write me for copies, which I always sent out free. However, after a time it seemed that all I was doing was copying and verifying little cassette tapes of my programs and sending them to astrologers all over. It was also kind of boring, so I decided that if I had to do that all day, at least I should make something to live on. And that was how Matrix Software was born.
Nyima: When was this?
Erlewine: I was programming in 1977, but I did not incorporate with the state until early 1978. By then I was programming not just on the Commodore Pet, but also on the Apple II and eventually (with my brother Stephen’s help) on the Radio Shack TRS-80 and other machines as they came along, like the early Apple MacIntosh, etc.
Nyima: Where did you get the name Matrix?
Erlewine: I chose the name Matrix because one of its definitions is “womb,” that from which everything originates or develops. I saw computers as a great gift for astrologers and Matrix was the womb (or one of them) from which this important technology would emerge.
Nyima: How did the company grow?
Erlewine: Well, I started in 1977 as mentioned, and kept on going. After some time, my brother Stephen joined me in the process. In 1980, I moved from Ann Arbor to Big Rapids, Michigan to raise a family. Brother Stephen soon followed and here we are still going strong today in 2008.
Nyima: Can you tell us something about astrology as a business for would-be astrologers.
Erlewine: Sure, because I had had to climb all the steps myself. In the beginning, astrology was for me a way to bring in extra and needed income. I already had some other jobs, but they were not quite enough to survive, at least not in any reasonable style and I did not require much at that time. Plus I was fascinated by astrology and what it told me about myself.
In the early years I did all kinds of things. Of course I did readings, readings, readings – all the time. And I gave classes in my home. In fact, at one point my office was in our living room and when the class was over and everyone left, my wife and I would unfold the couch and that would be our bed. I can remember more than once when some student would come back for something they forget and stood standing in ourdoorway, while right behind was our bed, all made up. We had about nothing in those days except each other, which was enough actually.
I also gave classes at the local bookstore, at the WMCA, at colleges, to groups – you name it. I believe the largest class I ever taught was to about 1200 people. I would travel any reasonable distance to speak on astrology. So I made my living by doing reading consultations, by giving classes, and by lecturing on astrology. This was before computers made the scene.
Nyima: What year was this?
Erlewine: I was doing astrology part-time years before, but I was making a living through astrology full-time by 1972. But, by “living” that left a lot to be desired.
To make this living, I had to do all of the above and these were lean times, for sure.
Nyima: Tell us about the Heart Center. What is that and when did it begin?
Erlewine: The Heart Center was established in late 1972 as a communion center and it actually does have a history, which will take a minute to relate.
In the last days of 1972, I woke up one morning after a late evening the previous night talking to a very intellectual (and stuffy) occult scholar. I was kind of drained by the discussion. Anyway, I woke up and had the strangest experience. I found myself dropping to the floor and began doing what amounted to a yoga exercise, quite spontaneously.
As the exercise continued, to my amazement, I found myself casting off (like a snake sheds his skin) all of the night before and probably various obscurations that had always clouded my life view. Through this process a symbol came to mind and that symbol has remained with me all these years.
Aside from the symbol itself, was a change of view on my part and I suddenly understood what happens when people come together to share with one another their ideas and their lives – the act of communion. From that came the idea and name for the Heart Center, which is a communion center, a place to come and be together. Today in 2008, that center is still there and has its own building right next to where we live, although today it is filled (on occasion) mostly with young musicians who come to record at our studio.
But for many years, it has been the home to hundreds of temporary visitors, some of which have stayed on for years. At one point we had a Sanskrit scholar, a swami, the head of the Hare Krisha astrologers, an astrologer who programmed for NASA, and others all living together in the same house, a house which had (at least back then) eight bedrooms. Today, some of those rooms are used for other purposes.
Anyway, the Heart Center has housed almost any well-known astrologer you could name, including Noel Tyl, Charles Harvey, Charles Jayne, Dane Rudhyar, Robert Hand, Axel Harvey, Theodore Landscheidt, John Townley, Alois Triendl, and literally hundreds more. Robert Schmidt and Ellen Black came and lived for years there. We had many conferences and many, many late-night discussions, not to mention great fun and fantastic meals. So that is something about the Heart Center.
Nyima: I know that Matrix was the first astrological software company, but can you tell me about other accomplishments?
Erlewine: Well, yes we were the first astrological software company, but what many don’t know is that we were also among the very first software companies on the Internet, period. In fact an article which was done for “Red Herring Magazine” some years ago stated that Matrix Software is one of only two software companies that are still in existence from that time, the other being a little company named Microsoft. I thought that was interesting.
As for other ‘firsts,” well by necessity there were a lot, since we were the pioneer in the field of astrological software. Among other things we had the first astrological research system (something my brother Stephen built), the first real report writing software on microcomputers, the first hi-res wheels on screen, and on and on. Little known, but still true, we were the first to have programs that spoke astrology verbally and even designed a program that produced VHS video cassettes that recorded a personal reading (spoken) over graphics using individual birth data, that is: each cassette was unique.
We also, of course, created the first large modular astrology programs for professionals. The first was called Blue*Star, and that was followed by Win*Star, a Windows based program, and so on. Today we have dozens of programs that do Astro-mapping, make astrology calendars, perform research, create ephemerides, and literally scores of interesting astrological techniques.
Nyima: What about programs for non-astrologers… are they any of those?
Erlewine: Many. Although we continue to provide professional astrologers with programs that help them make a living, in recent years I have been particularly interested in how to make astrology available to everyone. Knowing myself what authentic astrology can provide in the way of adding meaning to a life, I have been working on ways to make the essence of astrology available to anyone who is open to it.
Nyima: Are these the StarType programs?
Erlewine: Yes, among others. The StarType programs as small, relatively inexpensive programs that are all about bring the meaning of astrology forward and do not dwell so much on the technical parts of astrology. I use the shaver and the shave analogy. When folks want is a shave and the kind of shaver is less important, provided they get a good shave. The shave is the meaning of astrology, and the shaver is the astrological techniques that focuses the meaning.
And I have been very interested in adding astrological graphics to printed astrology reports. Over the last six or seven years I have designed some 13,000 tarot-like-card images for astrologers. I find that an image plus some interpretive text is very helpful. These images are in the StarType programs.
And these programs are about what astrology means and not about how technical it can get. This is starting to sound like an advertisement…
Nyima: It’s Ok. This interview is about what you have done and all of this is part of it. Where do you see Matrix going in the future?
Erlewine: Good question. Well, in addition to providing professional astrologers with high-quality programs, I want to bring authentic astrology to the web and make it available to a larger audience. We are working to do that today at Matrix and that is one of our primary foci in the years ahead.
Nyima: I think folks should know what other businesses you have founded, so tell us something about AMG. You have won major awards for that, have you not?
Erlewine: Sure. Since my background is in music, in the early 1990s I was fascinated with the rising popularity of the music CD, but I was horrified to find that many of the re-mastered vinyl recordings were not what they claimed to be. Let me give you an example. The recordings of Little Richard in the late 1950s are among the most powerful statements of rock and roll ever recorded. They are incredible!
Yet, Little Richard went on recording these same songs over and over, each time getting a little farther away from that initial genius and heat. When CDs started appearing claiming to have the original Little Richard hits, but were in fact warmed-over versions done twenty years later, I drew a line. I felt that it was an injustice to American music for young people coming up now to listen to these relatively lukewarm recordings of Little Richard (or anyone else) and think that this is representative of what Little Richard was all about.
So, from my little tiny office here in Big Rapids, Michigan I decided to review and rate all recorded music and set the record straight, no pun intended. Many famous reviewers of music at the time laughed to think that some unknown guy in a Podunk town in Michigan was going to tackle all recorded music, but we did. And not only music, but all recorded film and movies too, including every character in each cast.
Today, the All-Music Guide (allmusic.com) is the largest music database on the planet and has reviewed, rated, and detailed every major recording ever made. The same with film. The All-Movie Guide is one of the two largest movie guides in existence. And there is the All-Game Guide, and others as well that we created.
Nyima: I am told you have an incredible CD collection.
Erlewine: Not true anymore. I sold my collection when I sold the company, back in 1996. Sure, I still have a few thousand music CDs, but my major collection is now in a warehouse in Ann Arbor and (so I am told) consists of over 500,000 CDs. That’s a bunch.
Nyima: Michael, thanks so much for sharing with us all of this information. Do you have any parting words for where you want to take Matrix?
Erlewine: Well, I have just returned to Matrix after about a ten-year absence during which I built these large entertainment sites, so I am just now figuring all that out.
For one, I would like to involve the astrological community more in what we are doing and to this end we have launched Matrix Blogs, featuring top-level astrologers and Matrix Interviews, doing the same. I also want to create online panel discussions of topics important to astrologers.
Other than that, I want to continue what we have always done here at Matrix, which is to offer first-rate astrological software for professionals and for beginners.
My passion just now is to help make authentic ways to better know yourself through astrology (but also tarot, I-Ching, and other oracles) available to everyone out there on the Internet. Thanks for interviewing me.
Nyima: Thank you Michael.
About Astrologer Michael Erlewine
Michael Erlewine is an internationally-known astrologer with over 40 years of experience as an author, teacher, and counselor. Aside from founding Matrix Software (the first astrological software company), Erlewine is also an Internet content pioneer, founding sites like AllMusic.com, AllMovie.com, AllGame.com, StarTypes.com, and many others. He has authored more than 22 books on astrology (available on Amazon.com) and over a dozen books on music and film. You can Google “Michael Erlewine” or go to “http://www.startypes.com/main_bio.html” for more details.
Erlewine can be reached at Michael@erlewine.net and through the websites www.StarTypes.com and www.AstrologySoftware.com.
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