the column of lasting insignificance...
When we ARRIVED on the west coast, Art Kunkin sent Eve Babitz to meet me at the airport and she took me on a breathless round of visiting her friends--the highlight of which was meeting Frank Zappa in his stone cabin in Laurel Canyon--before delivering me to the Free Press office where Art invited me to edit the paper. With memories of my battle with Bowart still fresh, I was cautious and insisted that I would be willing only if granted complete editorial control, retaining the right to change the layout, the content, the writers, to run or not to run whatever I liked. We both knew I would be in town for only a few weeks.
Allowed this freedom I immediately enlisted the help of John Bryan, the veteran underground publisher who'd published an iconoclastic paper, Open City, in San Francisco the previous year. John was every editor's dream, the kind of writer who, if there was an unexpected page in the paper needing to be filled, could stay up all night and hammer out a beautifully-crafted 3,000-word treatise on, say, censorship or police brutality. Between us we almost doubled Art's initial [circulation] to nearly 20,000. The paper was selling for a quarter.
One thing I noted was how the underground press was beginning to get more attention from the outside world, particularly with propagandists from afar, being flooded, for example, with expensively printed books containing the very forgettable thoughts of North Korea's dictator, Kim Il Sung and regular copies of the Cuban tabloid Granma.
A close look at the Los Angeles dailies was not inspiring. Hearst’s Herald Examiner was barely worth serious examination, its pastiche of columnists with nothing to say—the philosopher kind who tell you what they were thinking as they backed their car out of the garage—along with the stereotyped syndicate mix of blood, barbarity, and (anti) sex.
The Los Angeles Times was not much better, hugely dominated by its advertising which filled 80% of most pages, allowing for pockets of news stories which, quite often read as though they had been written by press agents. As for the Santa Monica Outlook, it had just adorned a story about some minor marihuana bust with 144-pt type while relegating the Vietnam War to a two-column head.
Thus, if ever there was a need for alternate journalism, this was surely the time and place. The electrifying Doors were playing at the Whisky Au Go Go and Sunset Strip was vibrating with music-fueled street action. One year after Kunkin had peddled his first Freep at the initial Renaissance Fayre (medieval finery, instruments, and graciousness spread over a sunny meadow), the paper was being eagerly read by thousands. New lifestyles were the rage, and poet Diane de Prima's book about commune living had created much curiosity. She noted that the same problem seemed common to all of them: where to draw the line between communal and personal property; how to relate to women and ways to avoid the same handful of people always doing all the work. Another writer, Carol Maddox, had similar experiences. "(Commune members) took a surprisingly hard line towards non-functional members", she wrote, although there was considerable disagreement on whether non-functional meant "being sick, sleeping, reading, digging music, hiking in the foods, or making love".
And there were a lot of "paper revolutionaries" lacking any long-term vision. "What usually happens when people start talking about revolution", Joan Baez once remarked, "is before you've got the word halfway out, it's already deteriorating into throwing stuff at policemen".
Making the transition from one of the Freep’s typesetters to acting as an inflammatory polemicist, was the black militant Hakim Jamal. He wrote frequently in 1970 of his late hero Malcolm X, speculating on his death and the threat he posed to some while still alive.
Unfortunately, I had left town by the time Hakim planned to introduce me to Angela Davis. He did, though, introduce me to a sweetly innocent English blonde named Gail Benson who had readily succumbed to his 'God' scam. This consisted of Hakim’s insistence that he was God and that he wasn't prepared to argue about it. There wasn't much to be said about a situation like that, and it was clear that this sort of intimidation was not going to end happily. It eventually did conclude with Gail Benson's murder in Jamaica and Michael X, with whom Hakim was by then spending all his time, being hanged for it. (Uncannily prescient, some time before Michael X’s death, I had collaged his image into an ancient photograph showing a policeman pinning the picture to the gates of Buckingham Palace).
Hunter Thompson came to town on a publicity tour for his Hells’ Angels book, lodging at Gene Autry's glitzy hotel on Sunset. I took along a bag of good weed as a gift and we spent an hour or two jointly bemoaning the state of the world. We stayed in touch and when I wrote to him later to ask him if he’d care to write a piece for the Christmas issue of my tabloid newspaper, Other Scenes, that Sunset hotel was still on his mind.
The remainder of Hunter’s eight-page letter dealt mainly with the how he and his friends had tried to elect a dope-smoking friend as mayor of their home town of Aspen, Colorado, a campaign that he later emulated (also losing) and about which he wrote a lengthy piece which ran first in Other Scenes and then—tidied up and lengthened—in Rolling Stone.
Although we continued to correspond, we never met again, but I followed his outlaw career with bemused admiration all the way to its glum end.
Next came Richard Whitehall for Cinema magazine who proved to be a much more perceptive critic, acknowledging that only after attending a screening of Chelsea Girl had he begun to understand how Warhol was exploring the medium. The difference between the two interviews reaffirmed how people carry preconceived ideas to new situations and how interviewers found in Warhol exactly what they were looking for. (As a reporter I'd long ago learned the familiar trick of manipulating quotes to back up a story written in my head even before the interview).
On the second day of the visit we all went over to the extravagant Beverly Hills home of Lou Irwin, post-hippy owner of a chain of 40 movie theaters. His house was memorable for campy wallpaper and indifferent art, but even more for rooms leading out of rooms in such repetitious symmetry that you could stand just about anywhere with a movie camera and shoot half a dozen different sets with barely a turn of the body.
After lox, bagels, coffee, and some semi business-like plastic conversation, we were off (via a rented gray Lincoln) to a Teenage Fair next to the Coliseum. Here, amid a jumble of surfing movies, young models in 50c paper dresses, balloons, posters and frozen bananas, half a dozen rock groups competed for attention. Andy seemed delighted to be at what was billed as "a psychedelic freak out"--light show, ancient newsreels shown backwards, synchronized strobes etc., as well as the first performance by the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band whose leader confessed they'd ripped off most of their ideas from earlier exposure to a show Andy had staged with the Velvet Underground.
The day ended at the Daisy where Susan Bottomley, who preferred to be billed as International Velvet, met Blow-Up's David Bottomley who took her home and painted her body with his own version of a currently popular psychedelic poster.
One night I accepted Lenny Bruce's invitation to attend his performance at a small theatre that sadly was only half-filled. The continued harassment by the law everywhere he went, was beginning to affect him, and his "act" was hardly an act at all by now, having becoming mainly a harangue about the way judges administered the law and how his words were constantly being misinterpreted. One amusing bit hinged on the way that police officers had stood at the back of the clubs where he played, taking down his words, which they later read out in a monotone in the very different ambiance of a crowded courtroom. It didn't seem fair, Lenny averred, for him to be penalized for somebody else's (inferior) performance.
Although a fundamentally religious man with a keen sense of morality, he came over as something very different, especially when he philosophized on the difference between priest and rabbi ("both shit but only one fucks") and questioned the infallibility of the black-robed hypocrites who passed sentence on him. As a man who used a public forum to explore the human condition and fearlessly bared his own life in illustration, he deserved more understanding and respect.
A ‘Human Be-In’ was announced for San Francisco's Golden Gate Park and on January 14, 1967 a group of us from the Freep drove up the coast together. As soon as we entered the park it was clearly a gathering of the clan, and yet one we had been unaware even existed. Virtually everybody was costumed in non-everyday garb. Many a trip must have been made through Salvation Army stores and the racks of theatrical costume houses, to retrieve all those old bonnets and regimental guard jackets with embossed brass buttons. A man in Indian robes was dancing slowly by himself in an admiring circle. Brightly colored paper kites were ubiquitous as well as bells, banners, balloons, bubbles, and bare backs. Smiling people were sharing big baskets of food.
We were genuinely astonished to observe all these joyous people all around us. It was a society en masse that none of us had seen before, one that we eventually came to appreciate was lacking both rules and hypocrisy, a society whose religion was nature.
The air was streaked with incense and hemp smoke around a central stage from which Mario Savo exhorted us to support his Free Speech Movement and repeated the fuck-words that had gotten him thrown off the campus of UC Berkeley. Poets Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, and Lenore Kandel (whose poem To Fuck with Love had earned her an obscenity charge) read from their works as Allen Ginsberg chanted Om!
A smiling, 46-year-old Tim Leary--daffodil clutched in his right hand--chanted "Turn On, Tune in, Drop Out". A parachutist landed near the stage, to tumultuous applause, and proceeded to dispense one thousand hits of free acid, before disappearing into the crowd.
The Diggers and other groups from the neighboring Haight-Ashbury community had spent weeks getting the event together and persuading groups like Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead to play. San Francisco's pioneering psychedelic newspaper the Oracle had declared the Human Be-In to be "the joyful, face-to-face beginning of a new epoch..." Later reports estimated that 20,000 had attended.
We drove over to see Max Scherr, former bartender at the Steppenwolf, whose student sellers were peddling fifty thousand Berkeley Barbs every week along Telegraph Avenue adjoining the university campus. Max published the paper out of his kitchen where we sat discussing the Be-In. We were excited and thought it had been a triumph; it was the first time, we affirmed, that we realized there actually was a community. But after noting the lukewarm reception to Jerry Rubin's pitch for more anti-war demonstrations, Max had a more sober assessment. "I was sad" he said, "that we didn't take all that energy and do something with it. At the very least we should have marched on City Hall or something".
On the other hand, the Haight-Ashbury crowd, whose views were manifested by the psychedelic Oracle, had already dropped out, maintaining that it was the activists--the people busy with such confrontations as lying in front of troop trains--who were among the obstacles to achieving the kind of society that we all sought. "Why don't you straighten out your own heads and let everybody take care of themselves?" was their argument. "We'll set an example by actually living the kind of world we want". And, of course, the obvious reply of the activists was: "Yeah, but you're only able to do that because we're fighting the battle for you". Stalemate. And both sides were absolutely right.
Years later that thought came back to me when I was reading Irwin Silber’s movie critiques in the Nation, usually writing about movies I'd already seen and enjoyed. His reviews always made me feel guilty about the film's lack of political content, and reading them quite spoiled the fun. The term 'politically correct' had yet to gain approval, but that was the mindset from which it sprang. It had been Silber who, praising the emergence of such groups as Bread and Puppet Theater, El Teatro Capesino and the radical film-making collective Newsreel, pointed out the contradictions facing radical artists who depended on the slick, established media to get their ideas out. It was the classical situation, he said: All 'enlightened' ruling classes had offered individual success to its fiercest critics "while carefully screening out the new ideas (and) weeding out those concepts overly threatening".
It seems odd, in retrospect, that the underground press met with so much opposition from even some of the intellectuals who you might have expected would support its "anti-social" attitudes. Surely they agreed that so-called anti-social behavior could be the most constructive of all social behavior, being an affirmation of the individual's right to exist individually in a collective structure. Freedom, I would suggest, is obtained only by taking it, without stopping to define its limits (and inhibiting one's actions) in advance. Asking for permission in advance is always less effective than acting first and apologizing later. (The political equivalent--a specialty of today’s Democratic party--is to refrain from doing anything in case it has repercussions).
Laws usually are reformed because of extensive defiance, a defiance that creates the climate for legislative change. In my view, the intellectual's obligation to society is pretty much the same as that of the artist; to present a vision of something that can be, rather than what is. All this, of course, with the proviso that 'can be' is based on a mutual respect for everybody’s freedom. True morality implies a tolerance for other attitudes and modes of life, not necessarily an endorsement of them. The major immorality surely must be the insistence (by coercion, blackmail, or legal threats) that others live and think as you do. Most members of the alternate society don’t regard anything as holy, and understand that nothing is above challenge and examination. The most firmly entrenched ideas, institutions, and individuals are the notions most in need of examination. Thus, in my humble view, it’s the rebel who keeps the society reflective, challenges the status quo and keeps alive the idea that there are always alternatives.
While still on the Coast, we joined about 30 editors at Michael Bowen's house in Stinson Beach, north of San Francisco, for the first meeting of the Underground Press Syndicate. Most underground editors were in their early 20s, and favored long hair, beads, open shirts, corduroys pants and sandals or moccasins.
We discussed whether UPS might make some restrictions on membership--to prevent us being gouged by somebody who joined merely to get everybody else's free issues (members had always been encouraged to use each other's material without hindrance or payment) but nothing was settled. Optimistically, the group talked of installing better inter-communication by ham radio, teletype and the still barely-used photo transmitting machines (faxes and portable phones had yet to make their appearance). Rolling Thunder, a representative of the Hopi Indian community--whom some believed already had their own esoteric communications network--spoke to the gathering.
The troubles the country faced, he said, were white men's troubles and these had to be solved by white men. But native Americans offered support and encouragement and were pleased that some of the younger people had returned to nature and "a faith in the Great Spirit" and that age-old Indian symbols had regained favor. He suggested, for example, that an evil symbol might best be contained by a circle and that such a human circle around the Pentagon might achieve this end. (The following year this event took place).
Max Scherr of the Barb turned up again and was nonplused by the devotion of some papers (the two Oracles, EVO, and a handful of others) to the Indian mystique. Most of the papers including the L.A. Free Press and Detroit's Fifth Estate adopted a much more radical stance, with the remainder somewhere in between. It echoed the split demonstrated earlier at the Be-In and was never--probably never will be--resolved: is it better to show an example by dropping out, or to keep fighting for everybody's right to drop out?
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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