This year is the 55th anniversary of the assassination of JFK. It also marks the beginning of a Golden Age of conspiracy theories that continues to thrive to this day.
My first sense of the reach of conspiracy culture occurred while listening to a Woody Allen standup album back in the 80s. He quipped that he was “working on a non-fiction version of the Warren report.” Though Allen’s comedy never represented the pinnacle of the mainstream, his one-liner was indicative of the general acceptance and shift in attitudes regarding the possibility of a conspiracy behind the president’s death. The album was released in 1968. Imagine if Lenny Bruce, who was followed by the FBI and hounded by legal issues for trumped-up obscenities charges, had made the same “subversive” gag prior to his death in 1966. His untimely death would have been even more untimely. Maybe it was.
Remember the dude who used to hang around Lombard in the Marina toting a sign that explained how Stephen King killed John Lennon? Apparently, this was on orders from Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon (who else?!) who communicated to the then-unknown King through magazines. This is according to New York Magazine, which could muster little else on the matter besides a side-by-side photo spread of King and Lennon’s assassin Mark David Chapman (why do assassins always have three names?).
Frankly, a better conspiracy theory would have been that J.D. Salinger was in on killing the Beatle, having written Catcher in the Rye specifically to program the impressionable mind of the future gunman to kill the rock star (in real life, Chapman declared the book was his “statement” on the matter). The fact that rock-n-roll didn’t even exist as such in 1951 when the book was first published would be of no consequence to proponents of this theory because Lennon did exist then. He was 11. And had to be stopped.
Chapman’s obsession with The Catcher in the Rye became an unfortunate touchstone in Mel Gibson’s schlockbuster flick, Conspiracy, in which he is tracked by evil government forces via electronic sales records of his purchases of the Salinger title. Bookstores wish their sales tracking systems were that sophisticated. Moreover, is Mel Gibson even allowed in bookstores? I submit that if Gibson, who is prone to frothing at the mouth with offensive invectives, strolled into Sonoma’s own Readers’ Books, proprietor Andy Weinberger wouldn’t let the actor leave without his rabies shots.
Of course the only thing more fun than reading conspiracy theories is making them up oneself. Here’s one I’ve been working on and will preview for you: I’ve been noticing depictions of masks on beds. And by mask, I don’t mean the “sleeping masks” flight attendants dole out on international flights, or those Darth Vader-esque sleep apnea masks. The leitmotif of my week has been images of Venetian masquerade-style masks – in beds, in old movies and records. Why? What do they portend?
The most famous is perhaps the grim countenance atop a pillow in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, which I recently saw clips of while watching Room 237, a documentary love letter to Kubrick conspiracies (he helped fake the moon landing and admitted as much through Native American symbols in The Shining, which incidentally was based on a Stephen King novel. But you knew that).
Then I was pawing through some vinyl and discovered Billy Joel’s album, The Stranger, which has a similar image of a mask on a bed. One of the tracks is titled “Vienna.” Where does Rhapsody: A Dream Novel by Arthur Schnitzler, the source material for Eyes Wide Shut, take place? Vienna. Coincidence? Or is Kubrick trying to tell us something about Billy Joel who name-checks The Catcher in the Rye in his tune “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” If Billy Joel et al didn’t start the fire, then who did? Perhaps we should ask the author of … Firestarter. Stephen King. See how this works? You can play too. All you need is an Internet connection and no life. Go!