the column of lasting insignificance...
Chapter Seven: EVO (continued)
AT ITS HEIGHT, UPS had 600 members in several countries with at least as many papers linked sympathetically if not actually on the official UPS list. The best papers--those above plus Philadelphia's Distant Drummer, Abe Peck's Chicago Seed, Detroit's Fifth Estate, the San Francisco Oracle, Milwaukee's Kaleidoscope, New Orleans' Nola Express, Vancouver's Georgia Straight, and Montreal's Logos--were highly professional and sophisticated with good graphics and use of color. Eventually there were four underground papers in New York City: the East Village Other, Jeff Shero’s The Rat, Rex Weiner’s ACE, and my own Other Scenes.
Apart from myself, most of the editors were under 25, lucid thinkers who were very much in touch with what was going on around them, some exploring communal or other societal experiments. They were active revolutionaries who eschewed the familiar journalistic rules that called for "objectivity"; underground newspaper writers got their heads beaten along with everybody else in the demonstrations.
What made all this inexpensive literary action possible was a technological revolution in the physical way that newspapers were made. Up to that time, the "hot type" process meant that every line had to be typeset individually on a slug of molten alloy which cooled instantly to create an inch-deep metal slug with the type in reverse along the top. All these individual lines were laboriously fitted into a metal form from which a papier maché impression was taken. I told you in an earlier chapter that when I'd worked at the Times, my Wednesday night task was to work "on the stone" down in the print room.
The 'form' was locked up; a papier maché impression of it made; from that a curved alloy "plate" created; this in turn wrapped around cylinders on the press itself; finally reels of newsprint were threaded through and printed. A lengthy, complicated and expensive process.
Along came offset, (a process that had been around for years but hadn't been used to print newspapers) and where something that had been merely typed could be pasted down, along with pictures or graphics of any kind. This page is photographed, printed in "negative" on a thin, aluminum or plastic sheet and used as the master from which almost unlimited copies are run off. A poet can print his/her poems; somebody with a tiny press not much bigger than a mimeograph machine can turn out brochures for pennies; and, most significantly, a kid with two hundred bucks and a typewriter could be in the newspaper business.
And all this came at a time when, for the first time in history, it wasn't necessary to grow old, or to pay years of dues, before being a success, or at least making the sort of money that young people previously had barely dreamed of. Kids were leaving college, forming pop groups, and making their fortunes every day. The balance of power was shifting dramatically and the underground press was creating a vast backdrop of and for it. And America was not only at war--an unjust war, most believed--but increasingly at war with itself and here the underground papers were on the front line of the battle.
By the late Sixties, the revolution had spread to the Army and Andy Stapp's The Bond was telling servicemen that being used as cannon fodder in an unjust war to retain US dominance over the world was no reward for the degradation of groveling before officers, snapping one's heels together and saluting. It was widely known that the misery and boredom of serving in Vietnam was creating a huge drug problem among the grunts. Then the 'fragging' began--an increasing number of officers dying from 'accidents' with grenades going off in their bunkers. Stapp told of the sad demise of much-decorated Lt-Col. Weldon Honeycutt of the 101st Airborne Division who, after repeatedly ordering his men to storm Hamburger Hill, had a $10,000 price put on his head by the mimeographed sheet, GI Says.
“The mood of guys in the army is one of restlessness” Andy said. “On the one hand you have this tremendous feeling, a great upsurge of mass sentiment against the war and the officers. But the men are still somewhat intimidated. They are still scared of the brass, scared of the lifers. There have been very heavy prison sentences meted out in retribution…. The officers are all for the war. The role they play makes it much less dangerous for them. They get much higher pay, awards and glory and all that, plus they are indoctrinated with a fascist-militarist education in ROTC. The enlisted men are not so heavily indoctrinated and they are scared they are going to get maimed over there… The men hate the officers but the only thing holding them back is fear. They are scared. What the ASU (American Servicemen’s Union) is trying to do is to rip away this veil of fear, trying to make the guys feel more confident.”
The ASU’s platform included:
The generation that had come before, the Eisenhower '50s, might have suspected that something was wrong but they were either too complacent to change it, or they were unable to discern a means by which it could be accomplished. And that was fine with the older generation which basked in the privileges that had always come with being part of the Establishment (for want of a better word). But in the Sixties, the older generation didn't at all like what they were seeing--while at the same time secretly envying it. I ran a cartoon in Other Scenes showing two straight guys putting down hippies, one saying; "They've got long hair and they're always smoking dope and they fuck everybody--and I wish I was one".
The manner in which this anxiety/jealousy manifested itself was through repression from the authorities. Underground newspapers were a sitting target and one after another was busted for selling in the streets without a license, working out of allegedly unsafe premises, busted for selling to minors, busted for so-called obscenity, busted because it was said marihuana had been found on the premises (often true, sometimes planted). This was nothing new; there have been plenty of precedents in history for cracking down on a "free' press, and presumably always will be.
"A lot of underground press people that I've talked to seem to believe that you can't possibly get the truth from the establishment press," my old friend Neil Hickey observed during a long discussion we were having about the subject. "That seems to be a premise that unites the underground press".
"Yes, I said, "I think that one of the main things is the way the straight press deals with marihuana, which everybody knows is harmless, including the reporters and some of the editors who smoke it themselves. And yet they'll describe this kid who's been found growing it in his window box as a junkie and a menace to society and it's all so hypocritical. They know it's harmless and they pretend it isn't; how can we believe them about anything else? It's like the so-called 'body-count' from Vietnam--a figure basically plucked out of the air each day to give the press something to report".
A few days earlier the actress Viva had made something of the same point when I'd asked her why so many people put down the Warhol scene for being--what they incorrectly assumed--was sexually licentious.
"It's because they're all so guilty that their country is committing genocide" Viva explained. "They can't face the fact that they're all like Nazi Germany. They've got to work off their guilt on something else so they try to find, you know, something wrong with the morals of the country. So they can feel they should be complaining about something, when they should be complaining about the war".
It was an interesting point because it had already occurred to a lot of people that everything that was going wrong with America was centrally linked, yet the advocates of "bombing the gooks out of existence in Vietnam" were continually trying to say they were unconnected; the best example maybe, when Martin Luther King had tried to fuse the plight of the black working class with the anti-war movement or when Leary's acidheads found common ground with Dick Gregory's battles against racism. Interestingly enough, the Left--or the Movement as it was rapidly becoming--was itself polarized, as I subsequently discovered was always the case, although I still hadn’t yet learned how short-lived our “revolution” was going to be and how brief our spell in the public eye.
When the Sixties first arrived I was past 30, and thus older than most of my fellow underground editors, but age seemed less relevant at a time when an entire cross-section of society appeared to share so many common aims. When the decade was over we came to realize how little had changed, how few of our dreams for a more equitable society had been realized. The bad guys, which the radical movement identified as the right wing--the gluttons who never had enough--were still in charge, their self-interest and greed still the guiding principle. (A study of how the Communist nomenclature of Russia and China transformed themselves, from custodians of the people’s resources into capitalist owners of the same, may be instructive here).
There had been some changes, of course, and most notably it was not only in the way that the underground press had shown an entire generation that there was an alternative truth to that being served up by the Establishment media (the “straight press”) but that that media itself had undergone a transformation. If they had watched our machinations with interest they had steadfastly declined to support our campaigns or, indeed, our rights, but some of them at least had veered off in a new direction. There was much talk of “the new journalism” as displayed by Tom Wolfe, Jimmy Breslin and the rest of Clay Felker’s merry gang at the Herald Tribune, although what they mostly displayed was a lively change of style rather than content. Although they shared our penchant for making the stories more personal, they were not--with rare exceptions--writing radical copy. Underground writers tended to feel that most disputes had a right and a wrong, and rather than seek “balance” they didn’t hesitate to take sides.
At the time none of us were giving much thought to defining ourselves, and it was not until a couple years later that I had the occasion to spell out exactly what we were up to. The impetus came from Andy Warhol who had been invited to produce an issue of the upscale magazine Aspen and asked me to contribute.
In its simplest sense, I wrote, the underground was the loosely (dis)organized collective of artists, writers, and creative people whose work--while appreciated by each other--was still not acceptable to the Establishment. And sometimes, even after high-level esteem, that aura of “underground” might still hang around a former hero, Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg being prime examples.
It appeared to be no accident that so many underground heroes were poets, for poets--sensitively attuned to society’s fast-changing nuances--were usually the first to put into words what so many of their contemporaries felt. Their language, a kind of code, was a scream for revolutionary change (if they were good poets), articulating society’s needs and especially the needs of the young who always felt constrained by the rules and traditions of their elders.
And so here and now, in the mid-1960s, for the first time in history, the young dissenters, malcontents, actually had a medium of their own--the underground press--through which to express their dreams and demands.
But underground or not, every creative soul with integrity and ambition sooner or later faced the dilemma, obliged to choose between success or “selling out”. Of course an artist wanted acceptance, to be appreciated (and rewarded) for his/her talent. But at what price? Naturally life becomes easier if days of grubbing around grungy downtown galleries are replaced by glossy acceptance on the upper East Side, serious reviews in the art pages, and all the tokens of the good life.
But in return, our aspiring art star must produce. No longer the luxury of creating when the muse happens to strike, he must satisfy the demands of his new master, the gallery owner (the French marchand seems more appropriate) who needs to pay an exorbitant rent on the backs of his artists.
So how much of the subsequent art was art-to-order and how much still came organically? And was there a difference? These were questions the genuine artist preferred to put aside as long as possible, often remaining in the “underground” rather than grabbing the first commercial offer that came along.
Walter returned from an acid bath weekend at Millbrook with a wild look in his eye and a vow to re-energize his East Village Other, although it seemed to me that we were already about as involved as we could be with this whirlwind of youthful dissent. Misguidedly, however, Walter’s first idea was to trash a dramatic portrait of LBJ wearing a swastika armband which we had planned for our next cover. Luckily he announced this intention just far enough in advance for me to hide a photocopy of it in a drawer. The cover was saved.
Our next battle came over Andy Warhol with whom I had been hanging out since Cinematique's Jonas Mekas shamed me into watching his films. Bowart’s filmmaker pal Dick Preston sneered that Andy was no filmmaker, emphasizing his lack of talent. And Walter himself insisted on us running an exceptionally naiïve piece trashing Chelsea Girls. I said it shouldn't run; it made us look so un-hip. Walter overruled me and I quit, planning to recoup out west with Amber, before setting off to revise my book in Japan.
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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