Brainiac On Banjo #065: Got A Light?

Time once again to return to those thrilling days of yesteryear – well, my thrilling days of yesteryear. You know I like to share.

A half-century ago there was a place where all the hippies met. Well, there were lots of such places: the just-referenced South Street in Philadelphia, St. Mark’s Place in Manhattan, the Haight in San Francisco, and the Lincoln Park neighborhood in Chicago, among many others. Gentrification runs deep, and into the hippies’ lives it crept like a summbych. We’ll catch up to present-day “reality” by the end of this piece.

The heart of Lincoln Park hippiedom was the intersection of Fullerton, Halsted and Lincoln streets. Festive little places like head shop Head Imports, our community restaurant the Feed Store, the Army-Navy store which sold the finest hippie clothes at affordable prices – as well as gas masks, which came in handy from time to time. The underground paper where I planted my roots, the Chicago Seed, moved to the neighborhood after being Nazi-bait across the street from the Moody Bible Institute, the place where Bettie Page went to school. The neighborhood grew into a formidable Weed of Destruction and I remain a very proud Seedling.

The area was anchored by two relatively ancient institutions: a fairly lousy restaurant named The Seminary, and the infamous movie theater The Biograph, known as the last place “John Dillinger” was seen alive and the first place he was seen dead. Of all the places I’ve just noted, only the Biograph remains extant. Both the Seminary and the Biograph have roles to play in my time travelogue.

Several years later, two former Playboy Magazine writers, Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, wrote a magnificent political science fiction trilogy named Illuminatus! It was a very clever look at conspiracy theories (Shea did a little work on the Conspiracy Trial, where I also labored), our ever-evolving culture, and our propensity towards paranoia and violence. It was clever, witty, ironic, and iconic and it appeared to be well-researched.

I say “appeared” because Shea and Wilson sited many sources throughout the books, including the Seed. But, often unbeknownst to those editors, the authors had planted that information in these publications, usually as letters to the editor written under pseudonyms. Shea’s own anarchist fanzine, No Governor, was cited. Even though my employer was victimized by this, as I was personally (they wrote a letter detailing what they inferred to be my sex life), I remain thrilled by their work. It was agitprop at its finest, and it followed in the footsteps of such famous Chicago writers as Ben Hecht and Charlie McArthur.

The Seminary restaurant was employed frequently as an important meeting location for sundry characters. The Biograph… well, that’s another matter. I am obligated to push the SPOILER ALERT button here: if you’re planning on reading the trilogy, which I recommend, you might want to skip to the next paragraph. The authors reveal the true mastermind behind the JFK assassination, and they make a decent case. Not a great case, but the idea that John Dillinger might still be alive in 1963 did not originate with them.

Both writers remained friends and both continued to write. Wilson was an expert in the field of Illuminatus-style conspiracies (he’d be a poster boy for the Wacky Right today, had he not died in 2007), and his sort-of-sequel to the Illuminatus! Trilogy, aptly named Schrodinger’s Cat after the thought-experiment that weaponized quantum physics, just might have been closer to a truth than the less paranoid might be willing to admit.

These books remain in print. There have been role playing games and the like that stalk Illuminatus! turf, as well as underground comix. The trilogy has been adapted into a lengthy award-winning play in England. And, now, 45 years after publication, Illuminatus! is becoming a television show.

NOT Schrodinger’s Cat!

Writer/director/showrunner Brian Taylor (Happy!, Crank) has partnered with Hivemind and Kallisti to create this show. He told Den of Geek “Illuminatus! is a kind of mind-blowing literary miracle… It manages to be completely seminal while as relevant today – if not more so – than the day it was published. Wilson and Shea have created a fractal-like world of conspiracy inside conspiracy that completely anticipates today’s internet-fueled, Post-Truth culture.”

I concur. What the hell, with recreational marijuana becoming legal in Illinois in two weeks, the time is right. Coupled with the upcoming Conspiracy Trial movie written by Aaron Sorkin, what is my nostalgia is now becoming your cultural fodder.

I think that’s comforting.

Well, maybe…