the column of lasting insignificance...
Chapter Four—Into the '60s
CONSTANTLY SCANNING foreign magazines or clips sent to me by friends, I made a point of contacting people who caught my attention. In London, columnist Bernard Levin suggested we meet at the Cafe Royal, once infamous as a haunt of Oscar Wilde, but they wouldn't let me in without a tie so we had to go elsewhere. What first attracted me to Levin had been the novel way he wrote about Parliament, as if he was attending a rowdy party of morons, emphasizing the gaffes and ignorance that we now know are typical of politicians, but in those days seemed like lese majesté.
By the mid-Sixties, the London ‘underground’ had become just as aroused by the obscenities of the Vietnam war as were its counterparts in the U.S. The heterogeneous collection of sub-cafe society ranged from the ubiquitous poet/performer Michael Horovitz to luminaries such as Huntington Hartford, the AP heir, who was alleged to have his minions stake out attractive ladies at parties and proffer gifts in advance of their boss making the rounds to then be introduced. Art & Artists editor Mario Amaya (later to be shot along with Andy Warhol) was a regular presence, and the de facto philosopher, psychologist Ronnie Laing was reverently quoted. (He later brusquely turned down my request to write a piece for the seminal issue of OZ/Other Scenes).
Bill Levy was editor of the International Times, the first London underground paper which, of course, supported the twin pillars of its comrade publications everywhere: bringing an end to the Vietnam War and legalizing marihuana. In the issue of October 27, 1966, its editor dealt with both issues, calling Secretary of State Quintin Hogg “an unremitting shit” for his opposition to legalizing cannabis and describing a recent anti-war demonstration in Grosvenor Square as “a catharsis for a lot of people who would rather march and talk about it than act effectively”.
Calling them “conscience ridden intellectuals”, Levy insisted that those playing a power game must be willing to show and use force.
“The power game is a bum trip. This rally, fight, demonstration, show of solidarity did nothing to change my thinking. ALL POLITICS IS PIGSHIT. Political demonstrations are the use of one’s intellect for a neurotic thing. Speeches not followed by action undermine the will to act (and) actions—such as marches/demonstrations—that do not affect one’s purpose undermine the will to act effectively….political action is a net and an entanglement”.
It was an argument that was heard widely throughout the underground press which often sought to reconcile opposing viewpoints. On the one hand were those who felt that opting out and living-the-life was the best way to demonstrate that there really was an alternative to the capitalistic, greed-is-good society—“Turn On, Tune in, Drop Out” was the Tim Leary mantra.
But opposing this hedonistic dream were the activists who claimed that the only way to license and secure such freedom was through the efforts of people willing to fight for it. But did that mandate putting one’s life on the line? And if so, to what extent? Maybe the two sides might have been symbolized in the difference between, say, the tough-minded Chicago Seed and the multi-hued San Francisco Oracle.
“We thought we were heroes in those days,” says Bill, who for most of the years since has lived in Amsterdam, producing a radio show and writing. “We thought we were going to invent a new color. We did. It was, and is, called psychedelic”.
Alternative publishing in England had yet to pass muster with the Establishment. The so-called “maverick” leftwing printer owned by politician Woodrow Wyatt declined to print the International Times, pointing up the dichotomy between England’s professed “freedom of the press” and the laws that held printers and distributors responsible for a paper’s contents, a restriction that meant few would risk printing anything that might backfire. Another printer turned down IT because it contained an ad for contraceptives, and the magazine and book chain W.H. Smith, which then dominated distribution, refused to carry the paper at all. In July 1969 I got a sarcastic letter, my name misspelled, from the editor of the Economist, Alastair Burnett,
After London came Paris where I stayed for a day or two above George Whitman's bookstore across from Notre Dame, a celebrated crash pad for international writers. While there I unknowingly made the mistake of spending the night with one of his girlfriends and, returning to the bookstore late the following evening, found my bags on the sidewalk outside the store. I spent the night on a bench in the adjoining park.
Next day I ran into Ted Joans, the Illinois-born bearded black poet and onetime partner of Voice photographer Fred McDarrah in a lucrative "Rent a Beatnik" scheme. He had left the States because he hated what he felt it was doing to the world but was still tirelessly seeking nirvana. "Now that I've come to Europe, I've found there's also spiritual corruption here. Not as bad as in America but it's growing because of the imitation of the United States. I feel that if there is a spiritual revolution in the Western world it'll come through the poets. Allen Ginsberg is one of the living examples of that. And Leroi Jones, not only his words but carrying them out in actions".
Paris was in ferment in the late Sixties and Jean-Jacques Lebel, errant son of an eminent art critic, was the Bad Boy on the scene. I called to see him when I arrived--he was familiar with my Voice column--and he took me for an evening stroll around the Left Bank.
Encountering some rival who'd given his paintings a bad review, he muttered some imprecations, asked me to hold his hastily doffed jacket and launched out with his fists. The fight didn't seem to last long and nobody got hurt but how romantic, I thought, a country where people came to blows over literary disagreements. After I'd known J-J for some time I wondered if the whole thing had been staged.
Lunches with Jean-Jacques on long sidewalk tables outside the Deux Megots were always immensely multicultural, a mix of Britons, Americans, Dutch, Germans, Italians, and sometimes J-J the only Frenchman, interpreting everybody's bon mot, changing the subject in three languages, flirting with the ladies and verbally jousting with all comers.
Together in the Flea Market one afternoon I discovered a tattered Stars & Stripes and remarked that it would probably be useful for the anti-Vietnam protest march we planned to join the next day. As our shouting group approached the U.S. Embassy and before the flics dispersed us by flailing away with their lead-lined capes, Jean-Jacques suddenly grabbed the flag from my hand and sprayed it with lighter fluid, then turning it into a torch. The burning US flag was on the front page of next day's Herald Tribune, if not the first flag-burning then certainly the first I had seen a picture of. It was perhaps fortunate that I was not in the picture, even though by that time I had left The New York Times where the travel editor, Paul Friedlander, for whom I worked had been given to making sarcastic remarks about my other life as "a beatnik".
Writing about my old Parisian friend Jim Haynes, it’s difficult to know where to begin. Tireless, ubiquitous and with an address book that must be the size of the Manhattan phone directory he knows everybody, goes everywhere and invites new people to dinner every day. His dinners which for more than 30 years have been held almost every Sunday night at his atelier on the Rue de la Tombe Issoire are so widely known and accessible that the phone number is on Jim’s website (www.jim-haynes.com) and is endlessly passed on to friends and acquaintances. Usually there are about 70 or 80 people spilling into the garden from all over the world. Americans, Brits and French predominate, but it’s possible you’ll find Africans, Australians, Chinese…there’s no end to the variety. Volunteer cooks are appointed each week and a modest charge (about 20 euros) covers the meal and wine.
Louisiana-born Jim opened Europe’s first paperback bookshop in Edinburgh in the 1950s, helped create avant garde theaters there and in London, co-founded the Amsterdam-based sex paper Suck, then spent 30 years in Paris teaching “Media Studies and Sexual Politics” at a local university. He travels constantly—the Edinburgh Festival, the Cannes Film Festival, the Frankfurt Book Fair—and even in Eastern Europe has so many contacts that he published a group of People to People books about his friends in those countries who were willing to help visitors.
Reading one of his hyperactive diary-style newsletters is likely to induce dizziness. Here, paraphrased and greatly condensed, is his report on leaving Paris and spending two days in London:
Paul Krassner introduced me to Lenny Bruce, an outspoken comic who'd already created a sensation on the west coast with his attitudes, but mostly with his vocabulary. Lenny was about to open at the Village Vanguard and as it was only a few yards from my Perry Street apartment, I offered him a key so he could rest between gigs. One night I returned to find he'd left a bunch of flowers, another a row of candy bars accompanied by, "Wouldn't this be a great gift for a diabetic?"
Having Lenny around was much too good an opportunity to let pass by, and so I told him one night I'd really have to do a column about him. OK", he said, "bring that typewriter into the kitchen and we'll do it while I'm getting ready".... Then he proceeded to dictate both questions and answers:
What topics get the most attentive response from your audience?
"When I deal with a subject that connects with their own experience. Something that directly involves them. Theology, particularly if I talk about death in a philosophical or satirical manner. For example, I'm often tempted to talk to my mother frankly: "Ma, you're going to die and as a favor I'd like you to allow me to say or do anything I want about your body after death. Because I think it is archaic and horrendous the manner in which we relate death to our children. I'd like your permission," I'd say to my mother, "so that if I'm on the road somewhere and the super in my building calls me at four in the morning, the conversation might go something like this":
"Lenny", I said at this point, "it seems safe to assume you're using this interview to try out a routine. How much do you change these bits from show to show?". "Oh," he said, "I have a tremendous backlog; I could do a different show every night of the week. But I wouldn't be creating anything new, I'd just be recalling bits I had already done. From the creative aspect, if I do two shows a night, at the end of the week I've created a new 15-minute bit, worth about $1,000 on today's market".
He hung his jacket on the door and I glanced nervously at the needles sticking out of the pocket. He noticed my expression and said, "I've got prescriptions for all this stuff. It helps me jazz the words..."
What did he do, I asked, on nights he didn't feel funny--"I bomb!" he said--and what did he do to get funny? "What I will do is bare my soul and through this cathartic method achieve humor". He was finished dressing and ready to leave.
"Just before you go, Lenny, what people have influenced you the most?"
"Evelyn Waugh, Terry Southern and--thanks to John Wilcock's extensive library--Henry Miller".
Any actors or actresses?
"W.C. Fields, John Garfield, Jimmy Dean--who I loved to madness-- Eisenhower. I love them all but they haven't influenced me".
Well, I did watch that super routine change and grow in his performances over the next few days. But my guess is that over the years he never changed the philosophy of his opening words at his New York opening.
"Well", he said, shading his eyes and peering into the gloom, "do we have any spics here tonight? Any kikes, any micks, any niggers?"
Lenny was an equal opportunity freak before the words came together.
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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