the column of lasting insignificance...
—for October 17, 2015 by John Wilcock

Manhattan Memories

Chapter Five (continued)
Reefer Madness

Jan and Stan change my life
The man who turned on the world

Stan & JW

It was largely because of Stan that I was finally willing to sample marihuana, having turned it down when offered by Mailer several years previously. My experiences with Leary's psilocybin and later with mescaline had softened me up. Mescaline was easily (and legally) available from L. Light & Co, a British pharmaceutical company which packed it in little one-gram brown bottles for $6 and shipped it off by airmail. I took it on several occasions, experiencing wonderfully colorful scenes and sensations, but on the final time made the mistake of taking it with Sally Belfrage, an English writer friend I'd lusted after since meeting her years before. Naturally when stoned, my desires were magnified and I pestered her to collaborate. She was enjoying her own visions but finally, in exasperation, she flung off all her clothes, lay back naked on the bed and commanded: "Okay, fuck me!" Somehow, I just couldn't perform.

Pot's pungent smell was so unfamiliar when I began smoking it in the early 1960s that a transit cop in the subway once  told me to "put that cigarette out" and one of the most rewarding places to smoke in public was in the crowded lobby of Broadway theatres during intermission. You could tell by the expression, on those few people who recognized the smell, what their attitude was about it: they looked either envious or angry.

Working with sensitive antenna, one could smoke almost anywhere. Obviously if a fire truck was going past you could puff away standing next to a cop and he wouldn't notice, but usually the classier the event the safer you were. Take a dressy opening at the Guggenheim Museum, for example. The hosts might even be able to identify the culprit but with Senator Jacob Javits in attendance, they sure as hell weren't going to have him busted and court a headline such as POL GETS CONTACT HIGH AT MUSEUM BASH.

Actually I did panic at one swanky opening when, sharing a joint with artist Marty Greenbaum, a uniformed guard started towards us. "Be cool", Marty said. "You wanna know what that guard's gonna do? He's going to march nine steps in this direction, half turn and look at the crowd for 20 seconds, then turn and walk right back to where he came from". And that's exactly what the guard did--and Marty kept on smoking.

From the beginning of the Sixties and through the '70s, I was toking every day--albeit as a New Yorker, smoking after the day's work was done, rather than like one of those Californians who typically reached for a joint before getting out of bed.  One’s desire for dope, I have discovered, tails off later in life and these days I smoke pretty much only when somebody offers me some. I have often thought, though, that when the powers-that-be rant about making another study of marihuana it might be a good idea to study former smokers such as myself, rather than rustling up yet another set of neophyte guinea pigs.

Usually these studies conclude that persistent dope smoking results in the elimination of brain cells and if this is true, I can only mourn for the work I might have produced if I hadn't gotten stoned. In a typical year as a smoker, for example, I produced two or three books and 26 hours of television, but just think what I could have done as a non-smoker.             

Nobody sold dope in the blissful early Sixties. If you were enterprising enough to buy a kilo ($9) while you were vacationing in Mexico, you would wrap portions of it in aluminum foil and airmail it as gifts in cologne-soaked envelopes back to your friends. Just to be safe, Stan used to write on the envelope the return address of a fictitious Sister Maria Lopez at some non-existent convent, but in actual fact nobody ever checked the mail.

Crossing the border required a little more ingenuity. Carefully removing most of the black cigarettes from a packet of Negritos and replacing them with pot-filled replicas was one way; filling up a talcum can with grass topped with a wax layer (leaving just enough talc for a suspicious customs officer to sprinkle) was another. During one of my trips to Mexico I fell in with a pair of artists in Taxco and for a week we hollowed out styrofoam balls to stuff with grass, covering the spheres with papier mache,  a lace border masking the joint, smoothing them off with the glossy painted faces of jovial monks and nuns. A finish of clear varnish plus a colored ribbon for hanging, produced such beautiful objets d'art that doubtless many remain unbroken to this day.

I always rolled joints in a Rizla machine, padding each end with one-sixth of a regular cigarette which could be broken off before lighting up. Sometimes when an uptight hostess would ask what I was smoking I would show her the tobacco end of the joint and her suspicions would be allayed. Long enough to stub it out, anyway. The audacious smell of pot has always intrigued me; how simple it would have been to disguise the aroma (think of the sweet smell of treated pipe tobacco). One obvious conclusion is that retaining the smell has been an unconscious--yet deliberate--act on the part of most smokers, who tended to be anti-Establishment rebels and were defiantly waving what amounted to the black flag of anarchy to see who saluted.

Paul Krassner, a nonsmoker at the time, once accompanied me to a subterranean parking garage for the opening of Arrabal's incomprehensible Automobile Graveyard during whose intermission we adjourned to another level of the parking lot to discuss our mutual bewilderment. During the second act, my stoned laughter at almost every line convinced Paul that whatever the benefits of pot, it indisputably clouded one's critical judgment.  Laughter, of course, has frequently been my companion when high on dope.

A couple of years later I had the idea for a cartoon and Paul invited Howard Shoemaker to draw it: a bearded chap pulls down the blinds and methodically fastens the half dozen locks, bolts and chains on his door before levering up a floor tile and exhuming a tiny chest. From behind the bookshelves he salvages a book of papers, unlocks the chest and rolls a joint which he then lights. "I don't really enjoy smoking pot", he remarks in the last frame. "I just dig the ritual".

Sitting next to Tim Leary on the floor of the San Francisco Fillmore some years later, I seized the opportunity during a break in the bedlam to ask the good doctor what the fast-escalating drug thing was really all about. Tim leaned over conspiratorially and in one cryptic sentence explained it all. "Takes you out of your box" he said. Yes, I mused, maybe one’s first drug experience was also the very first time not to be in control of one’s thoughts.

I had been up to Millbrook in upstate New York--termed “tribal headquarters” by Tim--and I was aware how cautious they had become following the suspicion and vigilance of the local police.  So I asked what the situation was like now.

“We’ve been running seminars at which about a dozen people, carefully selected for background and interest, come to discuss theories and methods of consciousness expansion”, he said. “We concentrate on training people in neurological photography involving LSD. But no drugs are administered or used at Millbrook”.

Who was their main enemy? I asked. Who were the people trying hardest to prevent use and acceptance of drugs like LSD? And, by now, I had turned on my mini tape recorder. The casual conversation, as so often happened with Tim, had turned into a lecture.

John takes trips “Societies are by definition conservers, i.e. consciousness-contracting institutions”, he replied. “This is right and good. But the task of the individual has always been the same—and is always in opposition to society—to expand internal potential, to save his own soul, to live an ecstatic life. Anyone who possesses external power is threatened by the growth of internal power. The deadlock between those who know through experience and those who refuse the new experience will never be resolved. The theologians wouldn’t look through Galileo’s telescope because the bible told them his experience wasn’t possible. But the locus of this eternal dialog does change from generation to generation. Today’s ecstasy is tomorrow’s orthodoxy”.

One of the things that most impresses me about certain people is the manner in which they seemed to have incorporated everything known up to that moment into their state of awareness. Tom Forcade, the hippie Robin Hood, was like that, as was Andy Warhol. And even more so was Timothy Leary.

But Tim’s unbridled optimism, shared by many of us at the time, turned out to be over the top. “The external political battle over psychedelic drugs has been won” he declared. “Psychedelic drugs will be legally available or on a limited license or special permit basis within two years [this was 1964]. Within a generation they will be available the way airplane pilots’ licenses are. Within two generations they will be used routinely in all forms of education ad will be available the way liquor is now available. Any great breakthrough in the realm of ideas takes at least one generation to be accepted. Within 20 years, religious institutions will be using psychedelic drugs as sacramental aids”.

The son of a dentist and a devout Catholic, Tim had been kicked out of West Point but by the time I encountered him had achieved a spurious respectability as a professor at Harvard, which is surely what might have alleviated suspicion among straight people like myself when he began to peddle drugs. “The product he was selling was the experience of changing your reality”, was the later appraisal of a Michael Roth, a San Francisco academic. “Not by changing anything in the world but by changing the way your brain takes in the world”. Reviewing Robert Greenfield’s overly skeptical 2005 biography of Leary, Roth described it as “flawed by a lack of substance and an inability to separate fact from trivia”. Indeed, it was a good example of the distaste and outright hostility that so many people felt for the former professor. It was not shared by myself. Like many others, I felt that Timothy Leary had changed my life (and outlook) for the better. 







To: Mr. George Belk,
Director, Narcotics Bureau,
Federal Bureau of Investigation
90 Church Street, New York City

Dear Mr. Belk,

   For some time I have been noticing the growing requests for investigation of the marihuana situation. There are, as you undoubtedly know, several branches of LEMAR (an organization to legalize marihuana) already in this country and reputable figures have suggested that marihuana at least receive a thorough investigation instead of being (erroneously) classed with other more dangerous and addicting narcotics.

   The British medical journal, The Lancet, stated quite categorically that there appeared to be no danger in the smoking of marihuana itself, and called for a thorough study of its effects. The UN Bulletin on Narcotics has not only made this same point but has published the results of an enquiry into the relationship between marihuana smoking and crime and concluded that there is no evidence on which to accuse marihuana as a cause of crime.

    In my frequent travels (I write travel books) I have noticed the opportunities that this law gives to corrupt officials to "shake down" marihuana smokers. This is particularly true in Mexico and California where would-be smokers are approached and offered a supply, then arrested and robbed when they express interest. I have heard rumors, although I have no evidence to substantiate them, that this scene is not an unfamiliar one in New York.

   So far as I can gather, the major objection to marihuana is that it is alleged to lead to stronger things. From the experience of the people I have met (and I have lived in Greenwich Village for 11 years during which I have traveled in 27 other countries) this is no more true than the statement that liquor "leads to" alcoholism. And yet here is no sign of liquor being banned.

   The purpose of this letter, therefore, is to honestly solicit your answer to these questions: (1) Does the Bureau believe that the effects of marihuana are physically harmful and if so what is the evidence for this belief? (2) Is any objective scientific research taking place about its effects? (3) Is it the policy of your office to actively seek out, with a view to sending them to jail, people who smoke a weed that has been smoked for at least 3,000 years? and (4) What is the law relating to people who grow marihuana in their own gardens and then smoke it themselves?

   I would be grateful for clarification of these points so that I may print your answer, as well as my questions, in an early column.


John Wilcock



Chapter Six—The weed that changed the world
Confessions of a pot smoker
Tom Forcade: smuggler supreme
That pathetic drug czar


Manhattan Memories is available at


National Weed (1974, issue #3)

it's here...
Marijuana--The Weed That Changed the World


Over the past year, my combined medical and support costs from a stroke I had in April 2014 have been more than $100,000. If you'd like to help, use the Paypal donate button, or better yet, buy one of my books, and thank you. —JW

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On the Ground
John Wilcock had lived in the Garden of Eden he would have started the world’s first under- ground newspaper there. One can easily picture it: a paradisiacal incarnation of John’s 1960s legendary tabloid, Other Scenes, featuring a lively threesome on its cover and an interview inside with the snake, who, it turns out, really dug (in the argot of the day) cool, mellow people. An Eden on $5 a Day guide would have been sure to follow, precursor to the dozens of travel books that John Wilcock actually has methodically researched and authored over the years, beginning with Mexico on $5 a Day in 1960 for enterprising guidebook publisher Arthur Frommer. Still traveling the world at age eighty-four, no moss grows on John Wilcock, which Manhattan Memories makes clear. But there is more.

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The Underground Press, as it was called, was a groundswell of media activity running the gamut from radically political to seriously satirical. A new book, On the Ground: An Illustrated Anecdotal History of the Sixties Underground Press in the U.S. (PM Press) Edited by Sean Stewart (who between 2007 and 2009 owned and operated Babylon Falling, a bookstore and gallery in San Francisco), recalls the Underground epoch. Through interlacing interviews with Emory Douglas (Black Panther), Paul Krassner (The Realist), Art Kunkin (The L.A. Free Press), Abe Peck (The Chicago Seed), John Wilcock (Other Scenes), Jeff Shero (The Rat), Trina Robbins (Gothic Blimp Works) and many more (including Al Goldstein of Screw), the remarkable journals that shaped my life (and career) are revived as oral history.

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This is a book length comic series on John Wilcock. People who enjoy focusing on underground and alternative media are occasionally familiar with John's work, but most often the response is "who's that?" Outside of small press historians and collectors, John remains very unknown. Which makes no sense, the more you learn about him. We're very excited about the opportunity to tell his story. Art for THE STORY OF JOHN WILCOCK is by me and co-conspirator Scott Marshall. Story comes from an extended and ongoing year-long interview with Wilcock, himself. The focus is John's years in New York, roughly 1954-1971.

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Monday, November 15, 2010

A Reader Comment from the recent New York Times Frugal Traveler post
RN—Sydney, Australia

Not only did John Wilcock shake up staid publishing in the USA, from the Village Voice to the East Village Other, his influence extended to several continents, including Australia & the UK, where - in his mild mannered way - he pushed the boundaries of image and speech. The counter culture was nothing but a dull puddle, until John kicked out the jams and ignited the Underground Press, which attracted absurd prosecutions, that of course boosted circulations. An unsung hero of the sixties,

indifferent to self promotion and the hoarding of gold, it is great to see John get a dash of recognition.

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A Budget Travel Pioneer on a Time When $5 a Day Was Real (Frugal) Money Frugal Traveler

by Seth Kugel
John Wilcock at the New York Times

It was the first handwritten letter I’d received in 5 years. Or maybe 10. Signed by John Wilcock, a man I’d never heard of, and postmarked Ojai, Calif., it was waiting for me when I returned from my São Paulo-to-New York summer trip. Mr. Wilcock wrote that he had been an assistant editor at The Times Travel section back in the 1950s, and had written the first editions of “Mexico on $5 a Day,” “Greece on $5 a Day” and “Japan on $5 a Day” for Arthur Frommer in the 1960s.

By George, I thought. This man was the original Frugal Traveler.

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and in print...

Manhattan MemoriesManhattan Memories
An Autobiography
by John Wilcock

"A GOOD WAY to describe John Wilcock is to say that he is a talented bohemian counter-culture journalist who once played a major role in the emergence of America’s underground press. Born 1927 in Sheffield, England, he left school aged 16 to work on various newspapers in England, and on Toronto periodicals before moving to New York City. There in 1955 he became one of the five founders of the Village Voice in which he and co-founder Norman Mailer wrote weekly columns. Wilcock called his column “The Village Square”, an intended pun. He and young Mailer were not quite friends, although Wilcock was at times annoyed, but always amused, by Mailer’s monstrous ego."

-From the preface of Manhattan Memories, by Martin Gardner
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