the column of lasting insignificance...
Chapter Three—The Village Voice
My theory about writing columns was that in the 600-1000 words allowed, there should be a minimum of 20 varied items, nothing longer than one and a half sentences. and the whole operating like a roller coaster.
The big advantage of writing a regular column, as Gilbert Seldes had taught me, was that it completely erases the necessity to have a ‘today’ angle, which is the bane of most newsmen's life. With a regular piece of space you can write about anything at all with no excuses. In fact your readers expect to be surprised, and so I made a special point of always being unpredictable with the subject matter varying widely from raising money from readers for CARE parcels to listing the numbers of strategic public telephones around town. Unfortunately, most people--even non writers--think of themselves as potential columnists and 90 per cent of the people who offer to write for new papers bill themselves as such. Even more unfortunately nine out of every ten of those write the same column over and over again.
I quickly discovered two things: one, that absorbing all the items in a good column gave the reader a feeling of omniscience--that he/she knew about everything that was happening (notwithstanding the fact that it could have been 20 items about anything else); and two, that it was easy to insert what I defined as ‘time bombs’. The "three-dot" style (which, as I said, I copied from Winchell, who was still writing for the New York Daily Mirror) offers a wonderful hiding place for nuggets of information or provocation that many readers skip right over without noticing unless it was something with which they were already familiar.
For example, I noticed the unfamiliar words A C I D R A I N spelled out in plastic letters on somebody's refrigerator and, on hearing the explanation, planted the phrase between wordier items in one column. Most readers would literally not register these words until, at some later date, they popped back into their consciousness in some other context. Then, they would remember having seen them before. My old friend Stan Russell once made a shrewd comment about observation. "You'll see something and not consciously notice it" he said. "Then you'll see it again and go on partial alert. The third time it appears, is like a neon arrow from God".
With his indisputable logic and rationality, Stan became an enormous influence on my life not least because he had read everything ever written about marihuana and swore that nowhere was there any evidence of its physical or medical dangers. He could argue the hind leg off a donkey, as my old grandmother used to say, and never lacked convincing evidence for his assertions. The time I went to him and moaned about some dilemma I was faced with--that I absolutely couldn't decide whether to do A or B--he gazed at me with mock sorrow and said: "I don't see those as the only choices".
"Not at all", said Stan. "Why don't you do both of them?"
After that I almost never saw only two alternatives.
"We build a box around our freedom of action", I wrote in a subsequent column, "and then complain there is no room to move about. Knock down the walls, burn the box, vote maybe, spoil the ballot".
Rarely would a column pass without a plug for some noteworthy book or--more often--an obscure, iconoclastic publication of some kind. Ed Sanders' provocatively-titled Fuck You magazine was carrying the poems of William Burroughs, W. H. Auden, Leroi Jones, Allen Ginsberg and Michael McClure. The Realist's Paul Krassner and Sanders' fellow member of The Fugs, Tuli Kupferberg ("Give My Regards to East Broadway/Remember me to Tompkins Square/Tell all the muggers on East 10th Street/That I won't soon be there...") had all been publishing subversive chapbooks for years but when I mentioned them in print, Voice editor Dan Wolf's plaintive comment would be: "Why are you always writing about your friends?" and "Isn't it time you got all those dirty words out of your system?"
When Dan died in 1996, there were endless eulogies about his editorial skills and encouragement of young writers, but to me he always seemed an amiable cypher, never attending any public function and rarely being seen outside the office. Certainly he never offered me any encouragement, or indeed thanks, unless one counts the maximum $25 that I was ever paid for a 1,000-word column. Tightlipped and un-humorous he was difficult to relate to on a warm, human basis, and always acted as though he was doing me a favor by running my column. "Pay him?" he replied when somebody asked how much the popular cartoonist Jules Feiffer got for his weekly cartoon strip. "Pay him? He ought to pay us!"
And yet, and yet....he produced a marvelously interesting paper, almost by inertia. His modus operandi was rarely to plan anything, waiting patiently to see what his contributors brought. He was, Sey Krim later wrote, "an early exponent of chance".
His colleague, publisher Fancher rarely commented (to me, at any rate) about editorial matters. He had cultivated the soft-spoken, reassuring manner of the typical psychologist, but often gave the impression of being narrow-minded, slow-thinking and authoritarian. He would sometimes leave me vaguely intimidating notes--"Please come and see me in my office in the morning" --rather than say what was on his mind, and the advent of the drug generation left him petrified with nervousness. He flatly refused to allow my column extolling Aldous Huxley's seminal "Doors of Perception" without an accompanying cautionary essay by, of all things, a Freudian psychologist.
Two decades later, in the 1980s, when a Voice editor named Geoffrey Stokes edited what was ostensibly a compendium of the paper's writings from its beginnings to the present, once again I was not included: apparently the hundreds of thousands of words I had written for the paper were not good enough to make the cut. Or maybe it was just that I was so obnoxious that revisionists thought it wise to exorcize me from the Voice 's history. Stalinist historians did it all the time.
Later when I mentioned this whimsically to some obese lady contributor, suggesting that I must have become persona non grata around the paper, I was actually rewarded with a mention: some gratuitous remarks about my "egotism". In the Voice's 40th anniversary edition I did a little better, being the subject of one sentence in a story of the paper's history and a putdown about my "banality" by Tallmer who was by then approaching the end of his illustrious career as a third-string drama critic for Murdoch's New York Post. In the 50th issue, in 2005, my essay, Andy Warhol Learns How to Make Movies, was included, but lacking any mention of my early role at the paper. I was not informed in advance about use of the Warhol piece, nor was I sent a copy by the then-management.
Perhaps Dan’s problem was somehow related to disapproval of my philosophy which I had laid out in one of my earliest columns "Everyone Is Assumed To Be An Ally", suggesting that it was best to offer a handshake or a friendly wave in passing to all, ignoring those who opted for aggression. Any expression of identity, whether unorthodox behavior or unpopular opinions, laid the grounds for a charge of exhibitionism, I had written, but an "exhibitionist" was usually making an honest statement of who and what he was, so that the like-minded could reach him.
"The first thing that must be accepted--and how few people will allow themselves to accept it--is that you are alone. Who thinks your thoughts? Who feels as you feel? Who dies when you die? You are alone, you have a life to live and you must have allies.
"No, that is wrong. There are no needs beyond physical needs; only wants. Life is easier with allies but it is not impossible. If you declare yourself, if you are honest in your intentions (whatever your intentions) you will always have allies...There is only one immorality and that is insisting that others live as you do".
In January 1958, harmonica wizard Larry Adler returned briefly from London to play a gig at the Village Gate. He had left some time before, after being incorrectly maligned as a communist for his collaboration with dancer Paul Draper, and I decided to devote a column to him. The first thing I wanted to know was why so few people played such a simple instrument that, in his hands at least, produced such wonderfully poignant music.
"I think one of its drawbacks is that it's almost too easy to play. I could teach somebody in 15 minutes, but then they might play all their lives and never put anything of themselves into it".
I loved Larry's poignant and evocative music—teamed with pianist Ellis Larkins he produced some stylish Gershwin--and he seemed to be the perfect choice for a new project with which I was getting involved. Several years of offbeat columny had given me a reputation for the bizarre, so it was fitting to be approached by Barrie Beere, a wealthy entrepreneur, who came to me with the idea of producing a record magazine with a spiral binding. With a hole in the centre, the magazine’s feature pages were interspersed with plastic '45s that could be played right on the phonograph. A similar magazine, Sonorama, had debuted in France, and Barry thought the idea was adaptable.
The magazine’s format was so unconventional, that its application to be sent through the mail at second-class rates prompted a lengthy discussion by Post Office examiner William A. Duvall.
We had already converted a backstage rehearsal tape of Julie Styne and Gypsy Rose Lee into one record, induced Jules Feiffer to illustrate a couple of routines by Mike Nichols and Elaine May, and picked up the sounds of Fred Astaire dancing to accompany an interview with him by Voice columnist Nat Hentoff, a noted jazz critic evolving into a human rights activist who had undertaken to write for the Voice on condition that he didn’t have to cover music.
But Adler presented a problem: he had been virtually hounded out of the country during the Joseph McCarthy era and the unjust taint of communism still surrounded him. How could we "rehabilitate" him for a magazine? Then I remembered reading that James Thurber had been a friend of his for years, so off I went to Thurber to ask if he'd write the laudatory accompanying piece to Adler's music. He did, and then collaborated with Tony Schwartz by providing the drawings for the latter's sound montage about city dogs. Sadly, ECHO was before its time and despite contributions by Fleur Cowles (on Salvador Dali), Thurber, Feiffer and Hentoff, it folded after three issues.
IN 1960, WHAT I later defined as the MMM Mutiny, was brought about by a visit to Mexico where I grew a mustache and was introduced to marihuana, mescaline, and the works of Henry Miller. At this juncture, my columns began to get more serious. I was ready to give space to almost every anti-Establishment movement whether it be against nuclear testing or ending the laws against abortion. The unimaginative inadequacies of local politicians, the short-sightedness of American policies towards Cuba or China, or examples of racism ("You've got to be taut to hate" my friend Hal Kapplow remarked) all vied for space with items about a man offering "No Tip" coins or plugs for Bob Kaufman's famous Abommunist Manifesto. ("Abommunists join nothing but their hands or legs, or other same...").
I asked readers to concentrate at noon one Saturday while I tried to transmit a telepathic message to them (nobody got it right); smuggled actress Julie Bovasso disguised as a man into McSorley's men-only saloon (we were caught and evicted) and invited readers to send in unaddressed love letters which I matched up and sent out again.
Along with early anti-nukes activist and Fuck You publisher Ed Sanders and others, I broke into the Washington Square Arch in the middle of the night. We climbed to the top and hung a banner condemning the Vietnam War, thinking for sure it would make the papers. But before any photographer arrived, a police cruiser went by and without further ado broke our new lock and removed it. Voice photographer Fred McDarrah who’d caught Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Dylan in their early days and who invariably managed to document everything that happened, missed that one.
Nightly I would make the rounds of the Village clubs, sometimes flirting with the staff and occasionally writing about an act. I met Ellen that way, an irresistible, fast-thinking brunette with whom I eventually spent ten years. We traveled together for four years and then got married in a registry office in Tokyo with the editor of the English language Mainichi Daily News (which carried my column) as best man. He hosted a party for us at the press club where we shared a cake inscribed "Make Love Not War". Ellen had changed her name to Amber and our honeymoon was spent putting together, addressing and mailing subscriber copies.
I kept meeting interesting people and usually wrote about them. One night I was very taken with the stand-up act of a new comic, Woody Allen and suggested that instead of me doing a routine interview we go off to some event together. A couple of days later, he called me to ask if I knew about Dr. Moreno's Psychodrama and would I care to accompany him to that? Of course, he said, he wasn't going to take part but it would be interesting to watch. Of course.
By the time we were seated in the class and Dr. Moreno called for volunteers to act out some little drama from their lives, Woody's hand shot up immediately. He called himself Walter Allen and nobody recognized this still-unknown comic. Walter's gig was to recreate the time when he came out of a Broadway theatre in the rain and couldn't get a taxi for his date who was nagging him unmercifully. Moreno's technique is very interesting because he continually has the participants swap roles "to tighten things up" but even with Walter/Woody playing the girl's role, his partner got so upset with his nerdy behavior that she slapped him across the face. For real. It made a great column even when I realized it was just another way for Woody to work out one of his bits in front of a different audience.
All of my fleeting encounters with celebrities seem to have been happy ones, so let's do all the name-dropping at once. Katherine Anne Porter told me my writing reminded her of Ring Lardner; Leonard Cohen seemed as familiar with my column when we met in the harbor at Hydra as I was with his ethereal songs; my neighbor during all my years at 26 Perry Street was Jerry Ohrbach, although he and his wife Marta Curro never became more than the amiable couple who lived next door; Burt Bacharach, while pianist at a tiny Fire Island bar in the '50s, good-naturedly never showed his boredom with my repeated requests for Have You Met Miss Jones? .
I was always running into Mary Travis around the Village—usually at the laundromat—although after attending her wedding party at the Figaro, I didn't see her again until 20 years later when I went backstage to see Peter, Paul and Mary after one of their Tokyo concerts. Was their famous 1963 song Puff the Magic Dragon actually about marihuana as has been rumored? I never asked and doubt if she would have answered if I had.
Another Village acquaintance--we had several friends in common--was the ethereal Judy Collins and I was egotistically flattered by her announcing my arrival over the sound system when I went to the studio as she was recording Where Have All the Flowers Gone?
The writer and later New York Post reporter Al Aronowitz invited me along on a trip to Las Vegas to interview Bobby Darin and took me over to meet Peter Falk at the Bronx studio where he was making a Colombo episode. When Falk, in turn, introduced me to Cicely Tyson who said it was her birthday, I offered her a joint. She drew back abruptly. "No thanks" she said, although it couldn't have been from a fit of moral indignation from the future wife of Miles Davis. Before the Beatles came to the U.S., Aronowitz invited me up to the Plaza Hotel to meet their manager, Derek Taylor. Did I have any ideas about the forthcoming visit that might be helpful? Nothing came to mind. Some years later Yoko Ono, whom I knew from around the art scene, bumped into me at a London gallery and glowingly reported how she had become friendly with John Lennon. They both signed a postcard from their bedroom protest (about the war) in Montreal but I never met either of them after that.
While visiting Nashville, Amber and I met a young entrepreneur Peter Rachtman who was producing a show at the by-then dilapidated Grand Ol' Opry and he gave us a lift back to New York in his private plane. A few days later he dropped over to our Village apartment with Karen Black and although—and maybe, because—we spent the afternoon talking and toking I can't remember a word of it. When I think about all these people now I realize how derelict I was not to have kept a diary. What kind of a careless writer can remember only the names and not the details?
At one Museum of Modern Art opening I was sitting in the garden when a middle-aged lady joined me at the table for a few minutes before getting up and moving off. Art critic Gregory Battcock rushed over. "What did she say? What did she say?" What did who say, Gregory? "That was Elizabeth Taylor, you idiot. You didn't notice?" No, I hadn't noticed. Truth to tell I was usually too blasé about stars to be aware of their significance, or maybe I was too stoned to pay attention.
The alternative press had made some impression abroad: in Italy, where one of the earliest readers of Other Scenes was the Marxist millionaire Arturo Schwarz, the definitive biographer of the magnificent artist Man Ray; and in London, where the television comic writer Denis Norden turned out to be a subscriber to the Voice. Later, when that superlative artist Feliks Topolski rang my Perry Street doorbell and said that in London I was a "famous" name to him, I blurted out "You're certainly famous to me." I had long admired the sketches of the Coronation he had done for CBS.
It was in the gas station next to our apartment that Norman Mailer introduced me to Anthony Haden-Guest with whom we were to later spent happy afternoons in his Kings Road flat at The Pheasantry, since torn down but at the time still notorious as the earlier home of King Charles II's mistress, Nell Gwynn. Mailer was acquainting Tony to the Village Vanguard jazz club, around the corner and whose proximity was what had brought Lenny Bruce into my life.
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National Weed (1974, issue #3)
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 my book, and thank you. —JW
- Complete column archives: 2006 - present
— Dear Reader,
— Dear Readers...
— John Wilcock ... Marijuana, the symbolic center of the underground society
— John Wilcock ... From the Archives: Cuba Diary—Havana, April 2011
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Nineteen (continued)--Travels
— John Wilcock ... From the Archives: When you vote, don’t forget the Republican Paradox
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Eighteen--The Quest for Magic: Around Europe by VW bus;
Regarding armchair travelers;
Pisa's Leaning Tower;
The magical Alhambra
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Seventeen (continued)--London's Magical library;
In the Cannes
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Seventeen--The Sorcerer's Apprentice
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Sixteen--JW'S Secret Diary (continued)
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Sixteen--JW'S Secret Diary
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Fourteen (Part Two--Manhattan phone book, JW'S Secret Diary
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Fourteen--Party Circuit
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Thirteen--Figaro Diary, part two, Soho Saturday
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Thirteen--Figaro Diary, part one, Soho Saturday
— John Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Twelve (continued)--Traveling with Nomad; SoHo Confidential
— John-Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Chapter Nine (continued)--Rip Torn on stardom… Robert Mitchum's gift; London: Julian Beck’s critique; Emmett Grogan and the Diggers; Greece: The Junta, Charlotte Rampling, and art hero Daniel Spoerri
— John-Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Chapter Nine--Bob Dylan in the Village, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, Richard Neville and OZ, What Does London Need Most?, The International Times
— John-Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Eight (continued)--Japan: a working honeymoon;
The Shinjuku Sutra
— John-Wilcock ... Manhattan Memories: Chapter Eight--Art Kunkin's LA Free Press; In LA with Hunter Thompson, Lenny Bruce; Visit by Warhol; Hakim Jamal plays god; The San Francisco 'Be-In'; Underground papers meet
— Manhattan Memories: Chapter Six (continued)--Tom Forcade: smuggler supreme; That pathetic drug czar
— Manhattan Memories: Chapter Six—The weed that changed the world--Confessions of a pot smoker
— Manhattan Memories: Chapter Four—Into the '60s--London's underground press; Jean-Jacques Lebel burns US flag; Everybody's friend: Jim Haynes; Lenny Bruce and the kitchen tapes
— Manhattan Memories: Chapter Three--The Village Voice (continued) --Lasting insignificance: the 3-dot column, ECHO and Larry Adler, Woody Allen plays classic nerd, A sample Village Square column
— Manhattan Memories: Chapter Two--Steve Allen derides TV columnist; Marlene Dietrich--glamorous grandmother
— Manhattan Memories: Chapter One--Chatting with Marilyn Monroe
— Manhattan Memories: Introduction.
- column archives: 2006 - present
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February 12, 2015
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.
Forty years ago the second of my three books about magic was published, A Guide to Occult Britain (Sidgwick & Jackson) covering a wide range of sites from Stonehenge to Loch Ness and King Arthur country to the witches of Pendle Hill. It is now available as an eBook on amazon.com.
"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