the column of lasting insignificance...
As aN admirer of High Times' founder Thomas King Forçade, with whom I ran the fledgling Underground Press Syndicate, I remember his short-lived smoking club in a Soho loft and an earlier storeroom on Greenwich Avenue, lined from floor to ceiling with more bales of weed than I'd seen since an earlier meeting with one of the big-time dealers in Morocco. On that occasion, the beat poet Ted Joans took me outside Tangiers to view the long-abandoned bullring and we both got so whacked on the kif of some friendly shepherd that we laid plans to take over the ring for a jazz festival. Of course, it never came to fruition, but the dream was so potent it remained with us for years to come.
On my return from Tangiers wearing a fez and carrying a stuffed camel saddle, I was met at the airport by Jan, a mink stole over her shoulders, two dachshunds on a leash and three glasses and a bottle of champagne in her purse. We celebrated the coup by sharing the booze with the cabby--but we didn't tell him what we were celebrating.
Right from its founding in 1974 by which time a vast underground society of drug users was out in the open, High Times was an immediate success, at its peak selling as many as 400,000 copies a month. Its founder, Tom Forçade (aka Kenneth Gary Goodson) had first come into my consciousness when he called me from Phoenix, where he published a home-made magazine much like the papers so many of us were now publishing. He had read in EVO that I was now coordinating the Underground Press Syndicate, and wondered if he could help? I jumped at the chance of sharing the chores and arranged for us to open a UPS bank account for which we both co-signed checks and got his agreement to mail to all UPS members the monthly newsletter I was prepared to write.
At the time, the fledgling syndicate was financed only by the $20 fee I had demanded from such establishment companies as Time Inc. for whom we had arranged group subscriptions of all member papers. Shortly thereafter, Tom arrived in New York, sold the rights to microfilm UPS papers to Bell & Howell and set up an office on West 10th Street where his group of friends termed themselves the Red Mountain Tribe. Heavy canisters of nitrous oxide were soon a fixture of the office.
What I hadn’t yet learned was that Tom was a consummate smuggler. He kept a low profile, avoiding being photographed— indeed any type of publicity—and had amassed $20,000 from a couple of small marihuana runs. It was with this that he founded High Times in 1974. Two years later, in a perilous coup, he landed nine tons of Colombian weed from a 44-foot sailboat off the Florida coast southeast of Naples, and was spotted in his loaded camper van which was chased by officers in a patrol car. A veteran hot rodder, he eluded his pursuers until obliged to drive off the highway into an Everglades swamp.
Beset by mosquitoes and swamp vermin for almost 24 hours, Tom and his companion finally crawled from the marsh, crept past a group of squad cars (the police had kept their windows closed against the mosquitoes), swung hand to hand across the bottom edge of a bridge and walked ten miles to a motel from which he called his companions to rescue him. His own load of weed was lost as he made his decoy run, but the rest of the crew escaped safely to share in the million dollars their adventure had netted.
An exponent of guerilla theater—he once donned clerical garb to attend the President’s Commission on Obscenity and Pornography and threw a custard pie in the chairman’s face—Tom was generous to underground causes and donated huge sums to NORML (the National Organization for the Reform of the Marihuana Laws), once renting a plane to fly a group of us to their Washington conference.
By 1976, High Times was being read by millions and was generating $5 million annually from paraphernalia suppliers, record companies, resorts and all the others competing for a share of the youth dollar.
At this point Tom and I decided to produce a weekly tabloid, National WEED, which I insisted be printed on yellow paper (yellow journalism!) and which sadly lasted only two issues, a preview edited by Bob Singer and the second and last one by myself in May 1976. HIS MAJESTY'S HASH HITS THE ROAD was the banner, referring to the recently harvested kif crop from King Hassan's mountain farms, and it shared the front page with a picture of a spiff-smoking Jamaican farmer and teasers about the stories inside of an Indian yogi pulling a truck with his penis, fairy pictures that fooled Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the demise of a pot decriminalization bill in Washington, DC. 200 Stories! 100 Pictures! 5 Comix Pages! was the come-on, along with "World-wide Prices" (marihuana prices, that is). Katmandu was offering the lowest rates per gram (10c) in the Trans High Market Quotations which were proclaimed as "a factual record of actual recent transactions".
It's amazing how many dope stories there actually are when you start looking for them. The 'straight' papers obviously wouldn't bother to report anecdotal stuff such as a giggling, stoned reporter interviewing Egypt's President Sadat or smugglers of "Bermuda boo" being busted on a yacht in Hamilton harbor. And few who covered the Lebanese war emphasized how much it was depleting the hashish crop. But WEED carried other stories, too. The recent arrest of David Bowie at a Rochester motel for marihuana possession was noted and we paid attention to the celebrated garbologist A. J Weberman, who made his name analyzing the contents of Bob Dylan's trash cans, turned his attention to Norman Mailer's garbage (wrappers from TV dinners, penciled odds on college football games, and baggage stubs predominated).
Sometimes, to counteract my ingrained irascibility, I felt I would have had a less negative attitude if I could have stayed high all the time, but my puritan upbringing would never have allowed that kind of indulgence. The fact is though, I always felt I was a better, kinder human being when I was stoned--more tolerant, more humane, more accepting of other people's quirks. Just cool.
Sometime in the '90s a colleague in Chicago whom I'd never met, Bob Perlongo, invited me to pool my marihuana files with his and join him in producing a book then tentatively titled The Hemp Almanac (this encyclopedic collection is now available on amazon.com). This was no mere polemic but a comprehensive view of the subject from every aspect: sociological, psychological, medical, historic, religious etc. It was--and still is--a very misunderstood subject and I agreed readily, devoting some thought to seeking a better title.
Musing on this one day in my hammock, I realized that the benevolent herb was literally the weed that changed the world. What single thing could you think of that had influenced more minds in the latter part of the 20th century? I suppose you could nominate religion or a taste for war, but they had always been around and, in any case, I didn't regard either of them as good role models.
But getting stoned, even on something as mild as pot, really worked a kind of magic and for many people surely might have been the first time they were not completely in control of their own thoughts. Takes you out of your box, Leary had said. Indeed. Millions of individuals never thought about things in quite the same way again after their first toke.
Clearly pot had changed the world of most people who enjoyed it, altering them not only physically by making them more aware of their own bodies but through mind shifts brought about in their attitudes and beliefs. It had divided most people into being either people who had smoked, along with millions of others who didn't see anything wrong with it, and the rest--rigid nihilists unwilling to accept any kind of change, either in society or themselves. These were invariably the folk who believed any kind of pleasure was sinful. In an earlier era they would have banned dancing, even music.
But for the adventurous soul who smokes pot for the first time, lo and behold!--it's not like he's been told. It doesn't make him violent. Doesn't turn him into an addict. Doesn't make him crave other drugs. But it does make him feel better, does stimulate his imagination and most definitely makes him feel warmer towards his fellow man. So he tells his friends, and they try it, too. And he begins to wonder, as so many people have wondered before, if the law really is an ass. As I write this in November 2007, there are about 1.8 million drug arrests each year—40% of them for marihuana.
I remembered how when I wandered the world meeting underground press editors and publishers they all sought two things: an end to the evil Vietnam War and the legalization or at least de-criminalization of marihuana. Everybody smoked, and everybody scoffed at the allegation that pot was a gateway drug that inevitably led to something stronger. (Yes, and of course, drinking made everybody become an alcoholic).
The anti-pot brigade might even have dismissed us as lazy hippies but all the ones I met were working their asses off, naively believing that they could make the world a better and happier place. And what were their critics doing? Making money hand over first by screwing their fellows in every way the greedy capitalistic system encourages.
Former army general Barry R. McCaffrey was drug czar at the time. He'd made a mess of things in Vietnam and now he was presuming to tell the world about the wickedness of drugs (although not, of course, the vast array of expensive legal pharmaceuticals in which society was wallowing). McCaffrey, thought nothing of lying to make his point, declaring that Holland's tolerance for marihuana had caused its murder rate to double that of the United States. Great sound bite! But the cold, indisputable truth is that Holland's rate is about one quarter of that of the U.S., causing one to ponder what in the world McCaffrey might have been on--other than the public dole, of course.
Bottom line was that in the so-called stoned Sixties young people looked to their elders and felt that quite frankly they'd made a mess of things. Not that this hadn't been true about every generation in history, but here was the first generation--empowered by their new sense of freedom--who felt they could actually do something about it. Their goals were vividly righteous: a greater appreciation of ethnic and sexual differences, less sexism and, perhaps most important of all, a deeper understanding of the environment and a determination to preserve it.
Now those baby boomers are all grown up (some still smoking pot) and many of their ideas have prevailed. And the question that has been asked countless times before is still cogent: How much sense does it make to send somebody to prison for smoking in his own home, a plant that he grows in his own garden?
The weed that changed the world.
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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 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