Some time in 1976, I went into this very hip bookstore in downtown Binghamton, New York where I lived and came across two books whose covers screamed for my attention with their flaming psychedelic designs. I picked one of them up and read the blurb on the back cover. It spoke of psychedelic supermen, conspiracies and a yellow submarine. Reading bits of random pages I knew right then and there that I'd stumbled upon my Rosetta Stone — an alternative world similar to my own that not only acknowledged the sorts of thoughts and fantasies and cultural and political references that I shared with my "out there" friends, but that did so with language that seemed like it had been plugged into the same sort of excessively electrified everything-at-once brain-sockets that our brains were sometimes plugged into. I fished the rumpled scraps of welfare-provided legal tender out of my pocket and bought both immediately.
Illuminatus! was unusual in its time because, in some ways, there seemed to be a sort of unspoken embargo against any novelist who wanted to be considered intellectually credible writing something this directly tied in to hardcore psychedelic freak culture.
If you were a countercultural person, you probably had read Kesey's Cuckoo's Nest; you read some Vonnegut; you read Heller's Catch 22; maybe some Marge Piercy. If you were into SF, you read some of Philip K. Dick's funny, gloomy, strange loopy multiple reality stories. In 1974, everybody read Stranger in a Strange Land by Heinlein and Diary of a Drug Fiend by Aleister Crowley. You might have been catching up on Burroughs' cut up trilogy, which sat in my bathroom and seemed conducive to picking up at random, particularly while stoned and crapping. Some of the characters in some of these books were hipsters or alternative in their ways, but you weren't going to get direct references to SDS and Yippies and tantric sex and groovy hashish meditations on the nature of reality in the language of the "kids" of the time. Besides being a dense, brilliant, philosophic, multileveled yarn, Wilson and Shea tapped on my brain and said "Hello, fellow tripper."
After finishing Part One, I headed back to the store and requested Part Two. The owner ordered it, but I wasn't going to sit around waiting and lose the buzz. I dived right into Part Three. One morning, with a good 100 pages or so left to read, I snorted a nice sharp line of speed (I was no speed freak, but on the occasions when I did take some, I loved to read and read and read… and read some more. I read most of Gravity's Rainbow that way) and I spent the day sitting in a local park devouring the rest of the book in its entirety.
It was just getting dark when I finished and started my brief walk home. But as I passed by the first house on the corner upon exiting the park this actual speed freak — bearded, hair spilling in all directions, rough looking and wild eyed rushed out of his door shaking bodily and glared at me."You've been watching us but we've been watching you. Who are you with?" Now, I was in the Illuminatus! Trilogy. "Kenny Goffman. I know who you are. Who are you with?" I noticed other characters peering out of the house from behind the blinds — speed freaks having a major paranoid episode, all because I'd sat out in the park right near their house all fucking day no doubt pretending to read a book. A quick sputtering of words including "rip off" and "bust" expressed the strung out man's concern that I was advance man either for some druggies bent on robbery or some narcs that were coming to get them that very day.
I waved the book in front of him."No, I was just reading this." He grabbed the book out of my hand, looked at the cover, flipped through a few of the pages and the tension instantly dissolved. Obviously, this was no fake. This was a book that someone who liked to get high would spend the entire day reading. "Where did you find this?" he asked — as though examining a rare artifact (which it was) before sending me on my merry way.
Upon arriving home, a group of friends and housemates told me that I'd arrived just in time. They were going to see The Man Who Fell To Earth, just recently released, and they knew that I would have been inconsolable if I found out I had missed them. They'd waited until the last possible minute.
Something about the mix — the Illuminatus! Trilogy, the Bowie-Roeg collaboration, the speed — put me in the most radically altered state I'd experienced up until that moment. That night, back home, I had my own sort of VALIS experience (the book had not been published yet) — the feeling that all the information in the universe had suddenly been mainlined right through my pineal (I would later describe the DMT experience that way, but this was without psychedelics) and I flipped between a state of agape and dread far into the night.
Eventually, after finally reading Part Two of Illuminatus! and many more books and essays by Robert Anton Wilson — including one in Oui called "10 Reasons To Get Out Of Bed In The Morning" that, broadly speaking, had its intended effect, I would meet the man in person.
In 1984, after publishing the first edition of High Frontiers (it would eventually become Mondo 2000), we were offered the opportunity to sponsor a Bob Wilson talk for $500. We arranged to have an event on the Vallejo, more colloquially known as "the Alan Watts Houseboat," in Sausalito. We called it a High Frontiers fundraiser, limited the crowd to 60 people and charged $40 per head, serving gourmet food cooked up by our own Mark Frost (aka Somerset Mau Mau). It was a rainy day and Wilson showed up in dress clothes. There was a massive puddle between he and the boat. He stood in front of that puddle for many moments, looking unhappy and — at one point — seemed to turn to leave. But then, he bucked up. He took off his shoes, rolled up his pants and crossed Puddle Perilous.
Wilson in person was different from Wilson in print. For the most part, Learyesque 8-circuitry was pushed to the margins; techno-optimism was also little to be heard. What we got (and this held true for most of the other times I'd see him speak) was a coruscating dryly humorous exploration of philosophy and the current state of humanity and the world that was, in some ways, reminiscent of George Carlin (or maybe "reminiscent" of Carlin in the future). It left us all transfixed and delighted.
I had various interactions with Bob over the years, only really feeling like I connected with him a couple of times. Once was at a SF convention when our private conversation turned to the predations of the mainstream book industry and we continued for a long hour over lunch. And another time; at the Disinformation Conference in Hammerstein Ballroom in NYC where he showed up backstage seriously upset that his airport pickup had been screwed up and that he hadn't had a chance to unwind from the flight before being rushed to the hall where he had to speak to a fairly large audience in just a couple of hours. And somehow, as we both nursed beers, I distracted him from his misery (partly, perhaps, because I was dressed in drag) with conversation about — again — book companies; and I also got him talking about Europe, which he loved and where he had just spent some time. Nothing cosmic, just your basic bipeds exchanging symbols of commonality. But I was happy to — in a small way — do for him what he had done for me for over two decades; pull him out of a bad emotional mind loop so that he could perform his assigned task.
Addendum: It occurs to me that commentators will quibble with my assertion that Illuminatus! was the first worthwhile novel that directly expressed and reflected the world of psychedelic freak culture and this will probably provoke lists of other books that some feel filled the bill before that (Actually, that would be fun). I'll just say that it was the first one that I came across that seemed to… and I haunted bookstores frequently, both in Binghamton NY… and in NYC whenever I had the chance. There were a couple of "Yippie" novels in the early '70s… but as much as I liked the authors, they weren't good.