the column of lasting insignificance...
Chapter Five (continued)
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.
“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.
Manhattan Memories is available at amazon.com.
comments? send an email to John Wilcock
also available on amazon.com...
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 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
Now on Boing-Boing!
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