Milwaukee writer Dave Luhrssen has long been well-known as a chronicler of the local music scene and in more recent years for his work as a film reviewer of the highest order. In the past few years, he’s also been making his name nationally as the author and co-author of a number of books, primarily on American history topics but also on film and other subjects.
The Shepherd Express arts editor's latest book, "Secret Societies and Clubs in American History," chronicles the history of secret societies, most notably the Freemasons, in the United States. Published by ABC-Clio, the book is out now. We caught up with Lurhssen to ask him about it and about some other projects he’s got simmering at the moment.
David Luhrssen: This project came to me, I didn't propose it ...
OnMilwaukee: It found you, you didn't find it.
Luhrssen: It found me. This is the same publisher that will me doing the classic rock encyclopedia. It’s a scholarly kind of a thing, and I had done some previous work with them on different encyclopedias they do.
OnMilwaukee: Why did they come to you? Did they think that you had some sort of knowledge in this area or did they just think that ... They just liked you research skills, your writing skills?
Luhrssen: Well, I think I grew into becoming deadline driven with other things that I did, but it could probably have had something to do with the book on the Thule Society, which they did not publish, but I think they were aware of it. I think it all fit together in a way that I'm their guy for obscure organizations that may have had some impact on the world.
OnMilwaukee: What fits into the subject of secret societies? Surely the Masons and things like that.
Luhrssen: That was in, of course, the first chapter because so many of these other groups were based in some way on Masonic ideas or Masons had something to do perhaps with forming them. The Masons seem to really have laid the groundwork in sense of ritual and secrecy and even the possibility of having a secret society that's out in the open. You know you have Mason lodges all over the place ...
Their core ideas, they tended to keep them secret, or as you were advanced up the hierarchy, you learned more about what the doctrine of the Freemasonry is all about. So there a lot of organizations like that that you kind of sign on for the low level of membership, and if you continue on, you get more and more deeply into it.
OnMilwaukee: So what are some of the ones that we wouldn't expect?
Luhrssen: Well the mafia is organized. And the mafia actually has probably the sort of same kind of Masonic rituals that fueled them. At least the old time mafia did.
They’re sort of very ritually steeped but coming from their own tradition of the triads and the tongs, it's like these were organized crime groups. The Manson family is in there.
One of the things I did was come up with an appendices of public domain documents of some kind that shed light on each organization. For Charles Manson, I was able to find his final statement to the court. It was really interesting.
It's out there but gathering it together ... Or books, parts of books or magazine articles from before 1923 when the copyright law kicks in. With Freemasonry, I was able to find early accounts of the Masons. The only thing I could not find in public domain because they were so new was Heaven's Gate, the UFO group, probably the smallest group in the book.
I thought they would be a good endpoint for it because maybe you could see the whole, in some ways, dissent of secret societies from something that probably was really influential in America, a networking opportunity for a lot of groups who wanted to use their influence for one thing or another, to a small, tiny little hardcore, sectarian cell of crackpots who were willing to kill themselves because of an astronomical phenomenon that was taking place.
OnMilwaukee: Do you get a sense that that Masonic power has diminished over the years?
Luhrssen: Well, what is really interesting about them ... I don't believe that was an organized Masonic conspiracy to control the world ... Masonic lodges had a certain inclination, politically and socially, at one point, and they tended to be interested in the 18th century, early 19th century in various types of, you could call it, social/political reforms.
A large number of people involved in the American Revolution were Masons, and many officials of our Republic, from early on, from (George) Washington to the Speakers of the House, Chief Justices, the U.S. Capitol dedication was a Masonic ceremony, the backside of the great seal on (American money) – the eye with the pyramid. "New world order" in Latin, that's a Masonic slogan. Yeah, these people were working together loosely. On the other hand, there were Masons in the British army fighting them ...
OnMilwaukee: So it's not necessarily a Masonic movement to free America.
Luhrssen: No, no. But the Masons who were here kind of decided this was the course of action to take. Benjamin Franklin was another prominent member, and when we was serving as an ambassador in Paris during the Revolution, he joined lodges there and was very much involved. Maybe the Masonic connection may have enabled France ... pushed France in the direction of allying themselves with the revolutionaries.
OnMilwaukee: Nowadays, when you go to Capitol Hill, do you get a handful of Masons?
Luhrssen: Yeah. Masonry went more and more mainstream after a while I suppose. It became more known as an affable social club. Still worth, on a local and political level, judges and county supervisors and so on. It's a really good place to make contacts.
Beginning with the 1960s, there's a period ... It's the same problem that the musicians' union faced, everybody wants to go their own way, "I don't want to be a joiner," this kind of thing. More than anything else, social changes undermined membership in the Masons and a whole lot of other groups, secretive or not secretive. The last important Masonic president was Truman who was a Grand Master in Missouri.
Of course you still have all these crazy anti-Masonic websites. For some reason, it was a Masonic plot to drop the atom bomb onto a Japanese city or something or other, I don't know.
OnMilwaukee: Are they especially magnetic for conspiracy theories?
Luhrssen: Because they are so pervasive and kind of obvious that they were influential at one time ...
OnMilwaukee: The secretive element maybe?
Luhrssen: The secretive element, but also highly influential on so many other groups that came later on. If you really wanted to sit there and connect and kinds of dots in a crazy way, you could see that the Masons were behind everything again. People pick up their ideas. The Elks club, a secretive lodge, they picked up a Masonic aura in the way that they organized themselves.
OnMilwaukee: So tell me a little bit, if you will, about the encyclopedia of classic rock.
Luhrssen: This book is really fun to work on. I'm actually, I'm doing it in collaboration with a local ... a friend of mine from way, way back in time named Michael Larson. He was in the punk scene early on with me and so on. He came back to Milwaukee a couple of years ago. He's teaching guitar out in Waukesha, at some music school out there. Mainly what we do, we get together and have a conversation about these bands, one after another.
OnMilwaukee: Did you guys make sort of master list to start?
Luhrssen: I did the master list, and we kind of went over that. "Oh and you forgot about blah, blah, blah." As we go along we've subtracted and added. It's not set in stone.
We had the conversation let's say about David Bowie I take copious notes and I go home and begin working. Some things I have written by myself so it's just sorting things, and it’s easy to knock out. It's a fun way to work. It's the same way I worked with Martin Jack Rosenblum on the "Searching for Rock and Roll" book. We had a three week deadline to knock out six chapters or something for the first edition of it. We just like sat and talked. I wrote the article for the next day, sent it in for his approval, then we'd get together again and sit and talk ...
OnMilwaukee: Very collaborative in a sense.
Luhrssen: I like working in that way. It's enjoyable. It's a way of getting ideas percolating ... kicking them back and forth. My background in newspapers and journalism ... I can just do these things really quick. I can sit down and write fast.
OnMilwaukee: Is this book a little more in your wheelhouse, sort of crossover between work and play?
Luhrssen: This is kind of like the music of my life. It's the music I heard from ages 15 to 17, 10 through 17 rather. And those, of course, are very formative years for everybody. The next step for me was the emergence of punk rock, which comes after this book. From 10 to 17, I spent uncountable hours listening to WZMF and WQFM, and standing around record stores reading the back covers of albums and picking up stuff on the cheap, the two for a dollar rack at Musicland ... all this kind of stuff that I did. This is really much more foundational to who I am than many other books I did.
OnMilwaukee: You're also working on a book on the next phase, right? The punk phase?
Luhrssen: That's the book with Steve (Nodine) and Clancy (Carroll) and Eric (Beaumont) – "That’s When the Brick Goes Through The Window" – and I have a lot of satisfaction with that project because I think that this was an important and little understood thing that happened here Milwaukee and in every other major city, pretty much in the world, even in surprising places like South Africa.
Again, Johannesburg, not unlike Milwaukee, everything was about a year late after London and New York. It's all very parallel. The thing about Milwaukee that I will maintain to the death is that the creativity here, the songwriting, the lack of feeling constrained by trends was remarkable and I think put Milwaukee way ahead of larger cities like Chicago.
I think that what happened here was valuable. Certainly people who live in Milwaukee, who weren't around at that time, ought to know about it. I think that there is this international, collector, fandom kind of thing ... there are people around the world who want to read the book, too.
OnMilwaukee: This is sort of the first book you're writing about something you were actually in. You were there.
OnMilwaukee: You're writing this sort of as a history but also as an eyewitness.
Luhrssen: It's kind of an odd thing that my name will be on the front cover, but I'm also in the book in a small way. It's an unusual situation. I guess it was my historical moment where I had a chance to sing in the chorus of the room in a small way.
OnMilwaukee: Maybe that will happen again ...
Luhrssen: I’m hopeful.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.