As "outsider" teenage readers of Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea's classic Illuminatus! Trilogy in the early 1980s, it seemed to some of my friends at the time (all big Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Brautigan and Philip K Dick fans, too) that the novel's authors were trying to communicate something "in code" to their readers, like it was a message about "the conspiracy" that was coming from an underground resistance group. I thought that was bunk and fanciful nonsense, but it goes to show how strong of an effect that book had on kids' imaginations back then.
Illuminatus! was a touchstone for freethinking weirdos of that era, one of the rare books that even attempted to make sense of being born into an ever increasingly surreal world still reeling from things like the JFK/MLK/RFK assassinations, Watergate and the Vietnam war and where Ronald Reagan, a bad actor who once worked with a chimpanzee, had just become President.
It was also an interesting experiment in mass occult initiation -- sold at shopping malls across America -- that satirically tore away the veils of the modern world and (actively, not passively) imprinted a skeptical worldview on the reader. Read those books from cover to cover and there was virtually not a chance in hell that you'd be a normal person ever again. The Illuminatus! trilogy really made quite an impression, let's just say.
Wilson's non-fiction work, Cosmic Trigger, was of even greater interest to me with its cheerful speculations on Timothy Leary's channeled communications from "holy guardian angels," psychedelic drugs and Aleister Crowley. The so-called "23 enigma," I was familiar with already because of The Third Mind by William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, but it was explained in greater depth in Cosmic Trigger. It was the first place I'd read of Robert K. Temple's book The Sirius Mystery and it was also the first time I heard the name Terence McKenna. I can't tell you how many weird and wonderful things that book exposed me to.
It was instrumental in forming my worldview. Simply put, it's in my DNA. Cosmic Trigger is one of the UR-documents of my life (and career!).
The first time I met up with Bob Wilson, in the flesh, was at a day-long event called "Millennial Madness" that took place in the Scottish Rites Masonic Temple on Wilshire Blvd. in Los Angeles. It must have been around 1993. He was speaking at the event on a bill with Timothy Leary, medical marijuana guru Jack Herer and Paul Krassner. RAW was outside having a cigarette and I nervously offered him some of the spliff I was smoking, which he happily accepted and we chatted for a moment.
Wilson would be in town from time to time throughout the '90s giving lectures in New Age bookstores like The Phoenix in Santa Monica, a place that sold incense, candles and tarot card decks alongside of conspiracy theory 'zines, black magic grimoires and Ron Paul's newsletters. It was that sort of store. Of course, I was always right there in the front row. Wilson would usually hang about for a pretty long time afterwards, normally in the parking lot, talking, accepting weird offerings, and smoking cigarettes and joints, which always seemed to be around (Not that Bob was "holding," it would be offered to him by devoted fanboys like me and he wouldn't turn it down). Sometimes he would appear with Tim Leary at the Phoenix and they'd do a sort of double act.
So I kind of knew him from the time I was about 26 or 27, but even if he knew my face, I doubt that he knew my name. The first time I ever interviewed Bob was over the telephone from New York, in early 1997, back when my Pseudo.com talkshow, "Infinity Factory," was still an audio-only affair. Most of the questions I had for him related to his occult "contact" experiences as recounted in the first Cosmic Trigger volume.
I was still quite new at the "live on air" interviewer thing at the time and I think I over-prepared in a big way with seventeen pages pages of neatly typed questions prepared for a one-hour interview. It's a good thing I did overdo it because it became immediately apparent during the first few moments that he was simply in no mood to talk about something he'd written nearly 25-years earlier. During the first commercial break, I went into the control room and picked up the phone in a panic, informing Bob that -- yikes -- nearly ALL of my prepared questions had to do with Cosmic Trigger and specifically the parts about Timothy Leary's so-called Starseed Transmissions and what Wilson made of it after Leary's recent passing. It never occurred to me that he would be so annoyed by informed questions relating to one of his most famous books!
Bob's reply -- although not what I wanted to hear at that particular moment -- was revelatory and I've never forgotten it: It wasn't just that he had moved on from his 1975 thoughts on some mystical/occult/New Age matter, it was that he didn't want to spoil the fun of that book for future readers. "My current reality tunnel is quite different from the reality tunnel I had in 1975, but I'd rather let my readers come to their own conclusions, like I eventually did about this mystical-occult stuff and not do it for them."
"Hey, whatever, it was the Seventies..." has always been a pretty good excuse, I think you'll agree...
Somehow I got through it. Although, it hardly rose to the level of "traumatizing," I've never been able to bring myself to listen to that interview (It's on a cassette tape in a shoebox out in the garage. I found it just the other day along with a micro-cassette recording of Grant Morrison only moments after his first DMT trip in my Greenwich Village apartment in 1997).
After the interview, Bob put me on his list of his email friends, an informal electronic bullshitting cadre comprised of around 35 super-smart people that went on all day long with articles, mostly, but not always, passed on to Bob first, vetted by him, and then sent to the rest of the "Group Mind," as he called us. Bob sent tons of interesting stuff our way, I'd estimate as many as 20-30 articles per day. It gave you a very good idea of what he was thinking about for the entire day and what information sources he prized most highly (Science publications, in case you are wondering. Things about medical marijuana. Conspiracies. Old man jokes. He loved stuff about idiot Republicans, too).
If you'd have told the 14-year-old me that the 30-something me would be getting a few dozen daily messages (on a "personal computer"??? In my own home???) from the mysterious co-author of the Illuminatus! Trilogy, I would have been totally stoked, believe you me!
Later that year, on November 7, 1997, I had the chance to interview Bob again, this time on camera, at Pseudo, where they had recently upgraded the "radio studio" to a "TV studio" with those old webcams that looked like a pack of cards on a pivot. Mindful of how poorly the last interview had gone, and wondering if Bob was going to be grumpy again, I asked Genesis P-Orridge to co-host the interview with me as my "wingman." Although both of them had contributed dual introductions to a Crowley reader titled Portable Darkness -- and were two of the most high profile "23 enigma" proponents, as well, let's not forget -- they had never met before (I'm imagining that my copy of that book might be the sole copy signed by both of them. I'm not certain that Bob made the connection of who Gen was until after the interview was over and I presented the book to both of them to sign).
The show was live and due to traffic, Bob turned up at the very, very last possible minute to the Pseudo studios on the corner of Broadway and Houston. He was in New York to give The Institute of General Semantics's "Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture" that night at the Harvard Club, but his hotel was in New Jersey for some reason. This time the interview went a lot better, but for the first part of it (and you can kind of see this in the video), Wilson kept looking warily at Genesis, like he didn't really know what to make of him! Bob became more relaxed after I whipped out a joint during one of the commercial breaks which he and I huffed down in record speed.
You can't see him on camera, but there was a fourth chair in the room where this kid sat, clicking absentmindedly from camera to camera with a low-tech Radio Shack A-B-C video thumb switch! I mean this was LOW tech, but also pretty high tech, too, considering that this was live streaming Internet video eight years before anyone ever heard of YouTube. It may have been a 28.8 modem world still at that point, and the video might have looked closer to a flickery slide show the size of a postage stamp than actual "video," but it was still a lot of fun to be there that day.
Someone videotaped it off Manhattan Cable (where "Infinity Factory" could be accidentally discovered by viewers of "E.R" who channel-surfed just one click away on the cable box in New York City from 1997-1999!) and posted it up YouTube in six parts.
Later that night, Douglas Rushkoff, Genesis, Parker Posey and I went to Bob's lecture and he was on good form, speaking to a sold-out crowd at the Harvard Club. The subjects he spoke about that night were virtually identical to what he said during the interview, as if it was a dry run of the speech, but only Gen and I would have known this, of course.
After this, every time I found myself in San Francisco - -and I mean every single time -- I would make the drive to Capitola to spend some time with Bob. He always made me feel like he was very happy to see me. He picked my brain as much as I picked his, which is one of the best compliments someone you revere can ever pay to you.
It was Genesis who had passed along something to me that Brion Gysin had said to him about how "wisdom" is transmitted: That you had to "touch hands." What Gysin meant, in the mundane sense, was that you had to physically spend time hanging out with one of your heroes, there was no other way, to really learn what they were all about and to discover what it was that they knew that you wanted to know....
Where books alone would simply not suffice, it's quite a bit of fun -- and yes, a great learning experience -- to be able to open the refrigerator door of someone you admire, see what their coffee mugs say on them and check out their bookshelves. (For the record, Bob's mug had J.R. "Bob" Dobbs, messiah of the Church of the SubGenius on it (Bob was a SubGenius Pope). He didn't actually have a lot of books in his apartment, but he had tons of VHS videotapes. Lots of Clint Eastwood and Orson Welles movies. Bob was definitely not a "stuff" person.)
Whenever I visited Bob, I always had herb on me (shocking, I know), and we would sit on his little porch area outside overlooking the ocean and smoke and talk for a few hours. I can't recall how many times I visited him at his home in Capitola, less than ten, probably, but it was always a lot of fun and I always learned something new.
If you asked me to quantify what exactly it was that I learned from knowing Robert Anton Wilson personally, in that "touching hands" (or "getting stoned with") kind of way, and I had to separate that from his books, I'd answer, without much hesitation, that he really and truly was what he claimed to be, an "irrational rationalist." There was nothing superstitious -- and I mean nothing whatsoever -- about Bob Wilson. True, he had always been interested in "occult" things, but he himself was no "occultist," rather he was an observer of "occultism" (like an anthropologist would be). He never dismissed anomalist information -- he loved it -- but assumed (correctly, like both Aleister Crowley and Count Korzybski did) that even the most far out things will ultimately get scientific explanations.
The same was true of "conspiracy theories." He was fascinated by them and by the people who believed in them, but knew fully well what he was dealing with. I used to be fond of saying "I'm not a conspiracy theorist, I just play one on TV." RAW was pretty much the same in this regard. There are historically documented facts and criminal conspiracies (Watergate, Iran Contra, the P2 organization in Italy) and then there are "conspiracy theories" ("The Montauk Project," David Icke's reptoid Royals, Lyndon LaRouche) and Wilson did not confuse the two, I can assure you.
If there had been points in his life when he was more of a "believer," he had most certainly long ago moved on from that mindset by the time I met him. Bob "believed" in nothing, and could hold five competing theories in his head to explain something, adhering to none of them dogmatically. There's some confusion about what his political philosophy was like. Wilson is always claimed by the Libertarians because he was against people being arrested for victimless crimes, but the Libertarians won't tell you that RAW also was a strong proponent of the "basic income guarantee" which would make him more of a Socialist than Libertarian, of course, but really he was neither. He wasn't deluded by any political system is perhaps the best way to put it).
On one visit I showed up with a small TV crew and shot an interview with Bob for my late-night British TV show. This was in 1999. I actually don't even have a copy of this myself:
I also caught up with Bob in New York, when he was the headliner of an event I organized, the DisinfoCon, which was one of his last major public appearances, in February of 2000, and in Palm Springs where he was doing a New Age lecture on a group bill and invited me to drive out from LA to hang out.
[Video Link] Robert Anton Wilson at the DisinfoCon, February 19, 2000 at Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City.
The RAW fans contingent in Palm Springs were totally distinct from everyone else present (goths and cyberpunk vs New Agey senior citizens who wanted to hear about Pleiadian prophecy and 2012 Mayan stuff, which Bob just hated). Bob got really ripped on hard alcohol before his talk and swore like a sailor, which seemed to deeply offend the organizers of the event. We ended up hanging out in his hotel suite smoking pot. A young guy had given him a bag of these black psilocybin mushrooms which he'd managed to smuggle into America from Ireland, which Bob didn't really seem to want and gave to me (my god were they strong). It was in Palm Springs that I got to see firsthand how bad his post-polio syndrome had gotten. He was getting pretty wobbly on his feet, but this did not seem to dampen his enthusiasm in the least for copious amounts of Marlboro reds, whiskey and weed.
Mentally he was certainly as sharp as ever, that never changed, but his health seemed to go downhill quite fast in the years I knew him. The aforementioned "enthusiasms" were often consumed with rapacious gusto for a man of his age and he once revealed to me that since nearly everyone who he had ever loved in his life was already dead, he was going to smoke as many cigarettes and pound back as much Scotch as he damn well pleased. Bob's your uncle!
If I am making him sound a little bit cranky, he was a little bit cranky at times. But no worse than any other older man (I had 93-year-old Brother Theodore to compare Bob to). Once, after he'd gone though a litany of his aches and pains, he caught himself and asked me comically: "I'm not one of those old farts always complaining about their aches and pains all the time, am I?" I lied and told him that he wasn't "too bad" and he seemed relieved to hear this.
The last time I saw Bob, it must've been 2005, right after I got married, as I was leaving, he wheeled himself to the door, took my hand, looked me squarely in the eye and said "I'm very glad you made it down here to visit me, Richard. I was really hoping I would get to see you again before I died."
I'd never had someone say something so incredibly stark to me before, but I knew what he meant and he was looking very, very frail by this point. I probably wouldn't see him again.
I held his hand and kept his gaze and smiled at him for a moment, and then, realizing that he'd just said something "heavy," Bob laughed and told me to "Keep the lasagna flying!" and shut the door.