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the column of lasting insignificance...
—for November 28, 2015 by John Wilcock

Manhattan Memories

Chapter Eight:
The Underground Press (continued)

Japan: a working honeymoon
The Shinjuku Sutra

Underground papers were springing up everywhere, especially on college campuses where their subsequent growth often came about as a result of being banned and thus moving off campus into the town itself. As a result of this development, they usually both broadened their coverage and increased their circulation.

"Why do the undergrounds pay so much attention to sex?" Neil asked me. "Is that part of the revolution?"

My response was that very largely, the emphasis on sex was at least partly a tactic to upset the smugly high-minded. That wasn’t all of it, of course, because obviously it meshed with the way young people felt, which was that sex should be open and free and that there should be no objection to nudity and sexual imagery. What we were reporting was merely a normal and very common activity of life. 

Sometimes the sex became art as, for example, when Claes Oldenburg created for Other Scenes a group of outrageous collages consisting of pictures of Vogue models onto which he had pasted cocks and balls cut from porn magazines. Claes, an early friend of our paper, contributed an amusing piece titled Some Momentous Monuments about imaginary projects he'd like to create. He visualized replacing Park Avenue's central strip with a sort of slipway down which enormous balls would continually roll into the arch of the Grand Central building from which they would be carried back underground to 96th Street to start their downhill journey again.

“They would be very large--10 or 12 stories high--in yellow, red and green like the traffic lights. Perhaps they should be chrome so that they would reflect the city as they rolled. They would not stop at intersections--they would keep rolling and you would have to try and make it through the intersection (with them bearing down on you). This would intensify the terror of Park Avenue. The traffic would continue to flow as things do in New York no matter what happens; it would be just another obstacle in New York. No mercy of course. You've have to calculate the frequency and speed etc. and there would be experts on that and betting, I suppose.”

Exciting and stimulating as New York had always been, California was a revelation, in that it offered a running commentary about a totally different new kind of life. I was tempted to drop everything and sit down and write a book, a joyful book about the beautiful young people who inhabited the West. A world within a world which coexisted separately but was beginning to surface through the more conventional societ,y and as a result, change that society forever.

In the underground circles in which we traveled everybody seemed to live joyfully, without rules and lacking the hypocrisy of the more urban scene. Nudity didn’t bother people one way or another. It was not “sexy” but natural, and some times it existed and sometimes it didn’t. Most folk accepted what came, usually without either great expectations or disillusionment. Maybe they had come to appreciate the lesson of Braque (and that of others) that “things merely are.” These young people were largely objective, adaptable, evaluative. Sometimes they liked what fate brought them, sometimes not, but they accepted or rejected it with clear heads. and honest explanations if, indeed, they found explanations even necessary. People were invariably straightforward and fearless with each other, apt to regard their fellows with a frank and appraising gaze. You quickly found yourself not laughing at them, but with them, amused rather than affronted by their ankle-length, velvet robes and plumed hats.

The flower children were religious, but it was not the religion of a church and its panoply. Their religion was nature, the sun and the moon and the stars, and crispy pebble-filled streams in soft woods. They believed in God, a benevolent god who was with them and in them and with and in all their friends. And their enemies too, who they chose naively to believe, were enemies only because they haven’t met and gently discussed their differences.

It was easy here in the West to be lulled by such innocence and illusion and it took a return to New York for reality to restore me to how life was not really so joyous after all.

America's war in Vietnam was causing some major re-evaluations about just what it was the country stood for. "The old myth had it that we are decent folks who admire Abe Lincoln and want, for foreigners, only free elections, an opposition press and enough protein" wrote Fred Gardner, in Other Scenes, March 1970. "For a long time this self-image has kept everyone smug and righteous while the cold warriors extended the empire through murder and intrigue.

"But in the sixties it backfired. As millions of American were mobilized to kill in Vietnam, more and more stood up to say that the war violated their country's tradition and spirit....the danger is that we, the people, will keep going on the basis of what they tell us. We shouldn't. We should believe our own eyes and eyes, our own instincts."

So wide was the gap between the old America and what was currently happening, it was almost as if we had become two countries. By no means everybody over 30 supported the war but it was hard to find any young person who did, and there was almost total unity among the protesters and a growing chasm on the other side. Even some of the normally gutless politicians were beginning to speak out.

The movement had its own clowns in Wavy Gravy and the two ridiculously bemedalled Pentagon clones, General Wastemoreland and General Hershey Bar who were to be found handing out literature and making hilariously satirical speeches at all major gatherings. Writing about Hershey Bar, our San Francisco correspondent John Bryan credited him with originating the slogans Make Love, Not War and Draft beer, Not Students. The "general", a former dancer and nightclub performer named Capyso Joe, came up with some great one-liners:

      "I'm going to get Congress to pass my new Bill HR-1776-1969 which says that no young man will have to go to Vietnam unless accompanied by his parents," and

      "The Arthritis Foundation now claims that war causes arthritis--a permanent stiffening of the joints."               

The particular issue of Other Scenes in which that appeared, was fairly typical in its internationalism. It included a letter from Cairo revealing how Egyptians were being propagandized by American media ("it's galling to see them practice their pious, self-righteous, self-serving deceptions on an international scale"), a story about Japanese public baths, an excerpt from Richard Neville's Play Power, reports from India and Cuba, an article making the point that ecology was being used as a red herring to divert radical protest and The Pimps of Pop, a story by Norma Whittaker about "rock imperialists". My own column suggested mildly that John Lennon and Yoko Ono lying around in a hotel suite and renting billboards protesting the war was not the most revolutionary of actions.

Just before leaving LA we went to a tea party at Aldous Huxley's house in the Hollywood hills, where fellow guests included Alan Watts, Leary, and other spiritual heavies. What an afternoon that must have been although, regrettably, memory fails me. It was, after three months, pretty much my farewell to the West Coast to which I didn’t return for several years.

Amber and I took off for Japan where I was scheduled to update my guide book about that fabulous country. When the subject of my early book comes up, my friends joke that today it’s more like Japan On $5 a Minute, but when I first wrote the book in the mid-sixties it was really not that hard to accomplish on $5 a day. Taxi rides began at about 30c, an extravagant meal cost under $3, and even Tokyo’s classy Okura hotel offered rooms for as little as $8.  A writer friend of mine, Rick Kennedy, stayed for six months in a Ueno ryokan, whose ¥1000 yen ($2.90) daily rate included a breakfast so huge it sometimes included 20 dishes.

Both he and I loved Shinjuku’s Fugetsudo coffee shop, its walls lined with avant garde murals and jazz album covers, filled from morning till late at night with young beats, artists and students playing chess and leafing through the piles of international publications. Pretty hostesses would be a feature of other cafes and, although they rarely spoke English, their attention could be engaged by inviting them to admire such trinkets as foreign matches, photographs, or other baubles.

I loved Japan from the first moment I saw it and in the introduction to my book, I explained what an immediate impression the vivid colors (bright red telephones, lush green rice fields, blue summer yukatas) made on visitors. And even more so, the distinctive sounds: the click of getas running along a station platform…popping plastic covers as the oshibori or hot napkins are unwrapped in restaurants… the crunching sound of ice being chopped into useable pieces on the sidewalks in summer… the repetitious click of hundreds of steel balls dropping into slots as you pass the open doors of pachinko parlor…the crash of steel shutters coming down as the shops close at ten o’clock in the business districts of small towns.

“It is still a poor country” I wrote, “and its people have long ago learned to make a virtue of simplicity, which is the basis of all good Japanese art. The word shibui, so hard to translate exactly, implies taste, appreciation, and patience. To the true connoisseur of shibui, a beautiful object does not become less beautiful with the passage of time but rather more so. A tea cup that develops minute cracks with constant use, for example, has indeed become a cup suitable for the drinking of tea.”

Alex Besher, teenage editor of the Shinjuku Sutra, Tokyo's very own underground rag. The trilingual Alex, or Sasha as everyone called him, was a 16-year-old American of Russian parentage who was studying at Sophia University.

“The whole hippie thing was starting to happen in the US” he recently recalled, “and of course we were quite removed from it all. Vietnam was in full throttle and there was a ripple of counter culture hitting Tokyo. In fact Tokyo in the Sixties was a very politicized, culturally edgy place… Butoh dance was taking the stage, a lot of underground theaters, art happenings, things like that.

“I had only heard of underground papers so I had no model; the only thing I knew was to get on the Bullet Express to go back to Kobe where I came from and hire the same printer I had used for the high school paper. So my take on the cultural scene in Tokyo in ’67 was reflected in the title. Shinjuku was a happening place, it was a crossroads of East and West; you had people coming from Afghanistan or India or China or on their way there. And, of course, the Fugetsudo was just around the corner”.

Sasha and I got along famously and we agreed to do a joint issue of the Sutra  and Other Scenes, each creating 12 pages, with me footing the bill and Sasha doing all the production (i.e, getting it printed).

The Shinjuko Sutra
The Shinjuko Sutra
(click on image for a larger view)

For my part I already had good friends in Japan and among other items I pasted up a page from Time correspondent Jerrold Schecter's forthcoming book about the controversial Soka Gakkai; a piece by Murray Sayle, a column by Shibata, semi-nude pictures of the Nichigeki Dance Troupe and--for a front page--the second page of a letter from a GI in Vietnam, describing all the pot-smoking that was going on. I had fabricated the letter, based on interviews to glean local color about Saigon, by handwriting it on a page ripped off from the local USO.

After six years together, Amber and I had decided to get married in Tokyo, with Willy's generous reception at the press club and a cake iced with Make Love, Not War. Right after the wedding we mailed out the Shinjuku Sutra to our subscribers. Amber being familiar with my compulsive ways (we'd already been together for four years) was not surprised by having to spend our honeymoon sitting on the floor of our hotel room stuffing envelopes.

On an earlier trip I had stayed one night in Frank Lloyd Wright's wonderful old Imperial Hotel with its rooms of porous volcanic stone and its cave-like, carpeted corridors, a hotel built to withstand earthquakes. Now they were pulling it down, ostensibly because of its "instability” but actually because the land was too valuable to "waste" on such a relatively small structure.

Other Scenes had begUn with a couple of random issues produced in Los Angeles, one containing Lenore Kandel's banned poem, FUCK HATE. (That was the entire poem). Ed Ruscha created an amusing logo for us in which a house whose chimney was a half-peeled banana spelling out Other Scenes in clouds of smoke. Earlier issues had been from Japan and London but now back in New York, we produced the paper from our tiny apartment at 26 Perry Street where we lived, published, and entertained a continuous stream of visitors.

Amber, the perfect hostess, pinned a list to the refrigerator door indicating our guests' preference for tea or coffee and in what form. It was one of the many things I loved about her although I was often too preoccupied to show it. She'd doodle "Somewhere over the rainbow..." on scraps of paper and occasionally proclaim: "Sometimes, I feel so lonely". I would dismiss this. How could she be lonely, I would ask, when we were together all the time? Alas, I didn't understand. Now she says this is a pathetic sort of memory to have about what was actually a ten-year relationship and, indeed, it is.

All I can say is that to me it was a blissfully happy—although clearly chauvinistic—relationship, during which we barely spent a day apart. How hard it is, though, to remember specific activities, most of the memories subordinated to my single-minded devotion to getting out the paper for which, thank the goddess, she was worth her weight in gold, bringing in most of the money to pay the rent and printing bill.

Most of Amber’s time was devoted to typesetting the paper on a rented IBM machine, a task at which she was so proficient that eventually we rented a small basement on West 10th Street and set up Ambertype, contracting successfully to do the typesetting for the numerous alternative publications that were emerging. She'd hire our friends to typeset, paying them by the hour, keeping careful accounts which subsequently proved how badly we’d underestimated our expenses. Even at the best of times we barely broke even but all the underground papers were in the same boat. None of us were doing it for the money but with the idealistic belief that we were helping to change the society. In these more commercial days it is sometimes hard to make people understand how much everybody we knew shared this belief and how little money seemed to matter.

For the third issue of Other Scenes I interviewed Bill Graham who was now running New York’s Fillmore on 2nd Avenue, packing in unruly crowds with weekly rock concerts which, to my elderly ears, all sounded alike. I'd first met Graham in San Francisco and when I asked him about the scene there. He was pessimistic.

“There was a golden opportunity in the Haight-Ashbury, which will probably not come up again in our generation, for a community of young people with new ideas about community life. But too many of them used or abused the privileges that were given to them--the fuzz didn't really harass anybody that much and what society said, in effect, was 'Let us see you do your stuff'. There was the park, and both acid and grass were flowing pretty loose, whether right or wrong, but what about the opportunity that presented itself? How did you use the park? How did you use the right to express yourself? Where was your political platform? Where was your theater?

“Where were the debates, the experimentation with dialog? Where were your art festivals, your fairs? You should have had flowers. But instead of that they found out that it became a tourist attraction because they wanted to look at you. Where were you at?"

It seemed clear that Graham associated me personally with all this, and I heard later that he'd described me to somebody as "a communist" but although Amber always complained that we weren't living the revolution "just reporting it" I felt that we were doing a pretty good job of that. My sympathies were entirely with the alternate society and its grievances about being misunderstood.  Nor did I see anything wrong with becoming a participatory journalist--in contradiction to the way I'd been trained--believing at that juncture that there was a "right" side and a "wrong" side and if helping a cause that you believed in was "un-journalistic" then so be it. I found myself working 24 hours a day on "just reporting it" and there wasn't time for much else (including my marriage).

When it came to the music scene I was totally out of touch with my contemporaries (all of whom were younger than me) because of my lack of interest in what I regarded as superficial music.  I like ballet, opera, most classical, jazz, pop, Broadway stuff, Sinatra, the Great American Song book, etc. A generation thing. The hot new group of the week sounded to me very much like the hot new group of last week or the week before. Contemporary music was very much a blind spot in my tabloid newspaper.

Monday, February 1, 1960:

The newsreel must be almost on its last legs, judging by the samples I’ve seen this week.  What a petty universe newsreel cameramen inhabit if we’re to judge by what arrives on the screen.  It’s a world in which the major sports, apparently, are barrel-jumping, water-skiing, high-diving and shark fishing; in which the heroes are men who devote their lives to constructing replicas of the Eiffel Tower with two million used matches; in which all the women are those angular, sexless fashion models who posture and display the outlandish creations of publicity-seeking designers; a world in which the major events of our time appear to be luncheons to honor Jerry Wald or Spyros K. Skouras; a world in which the commentator and scriptwriter vie with each other for cuteness and coy truisms.

The really major issues of today—injustice, greed, racial intolerance, national selfishness, and the constant fight against an encroaching bureaucracy—are ignored.  Because the newsreels with their slanted, holier-than-thou commentary about the inevitability of America’s might being right, live in a vacuum of platitude, apathy, and non-controversy. 

Is it possible that thousands of movie cameramen all over the world don’t take a few hundred feet of live, meaningful film each week?  Film that might pep up some of these dull documentaries?

The truth is that the newsreel is now almost the only dispenser of reactionary propaganda that never has to temper its tone through criticism.  People don’t criticize largely because the newsreel has sunk to such a lowly state that most viewers don’t give a damn about it.


Chapter Nine—Other Scenes
Bob Dylan in the Village
Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin
Emmett Grogan and the Diggers
Rip Torn on stardom… Robert Mitchum's gift
London: Julian Beck’s critique
Richard Neville and OZ
What Does London Need Most?
The International Times
Greece: The Junta, Charlotte Rampling, and art hero Daniel Spoerri


Manhattan Memories is available at amazon.com.


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also available on amazon.com...
Marijuana—The Weed That Changed the World

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


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Manhattan MemoriesManhattan Memories
An Autobiography
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"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."

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