the column of lasting insignificance...
One of my assistants, Nancy, spent a lot of time over at Bob Dylan’s place in the late Sixties, playing shesh besh (backgammon) with the rising star, and when I asked her about those days she told me of how they first met (long before he bestowed on her another name, Lola). She recalls going to a party upstairs at Max's Kansas City, opposite the Warhol ‘factory’, where everyone was arguing about Dylan's participation, or lack of it, in politics.
“People”, Nancy continued, “like the ridiculous AJ Weberman who was pillaging his garbage; Anthony Scaduto, his biographer; and one-legged Terry, an American Jewish radical who lived part of the time in Israel with his wife Sally. There was a heated exchange about Bob's desertion of the left. I had already been to Ibiza, dressed in Moroccan caftans and envisioned myself an expatriate who was above it all. I thought the whole conversation was insane and they were all nuts. I remember saying ‘you people need to move on in your lives’.
“One legged-Terry and Sally offered to drive me home to my apartment on Cornelia Street. The next morning I got a call from them--I must have dropped my passport in their car--so I threw my clothes on and ran over to their 13th Street apartment to pick it up. To my shock and surprise there was Bob playing shesh besh with a guitar of his lap. I had no idea Terry knew Bob but he must have told him about my Chicago 7 friends--Jerry, Abbie, Phil Ochs, etc.--and he was not amused. The JDL was trying to get him on board but he just wasn't interested. Some of Terry's friends from Israel stopped by and one of them, Danny Litany, (also a friend of Bob's) was a folk singer of note in Israel and they began playing and translating God on My Side into Hebrew. It was so moving.
“Years later when Bob invited me to be part of the Rolling Thunder Review you gave me the entire collection of Other Scenes and other underground papers to take on the road with us”.
Dylan had first arrived on MacDougal Street in early 1961, making Israel Young’s Folklore Center his early workplace, arriving daily and parking himself in the back to try out his new songs among his new friends. He wanted to talk a lot about folk music and though Izzy didn’t use a tape recorder, he kept a diary writing down Bob’s memories of learning blues songs from Arcella Gray, a blind street singer in Chicago; listening to Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl album and to a Texan named Mance Lipscomb whom he met through his rock ’n roller grandson.
“The stuff I do” Bob said, “is nearer to ‘folk music’ but the stuff I do now is old blues and Texas songs. I don’t want to make a lot of money, want to get along. The more people I reach—and have the chance to sing the kind of music that I want to sing—people have to be ready and (have seen me) once already. People often say that first time, this isn’t ‘folk music’. My songs aren’t easy to listen to”.
As Bob rambled away Izzy listened attentively and later wrote down his recollection of Bob’s reminiscences. His sometimes cryptic style albeit occasionally bereft of propositions and verbs, is very on-the-spot. Here’s a sample (Dylan talking) from Oct. 23, 1961:
“Cowboy styles I learned from real cowboys. Can’t remember their names. Met some in Cheyenne. Cowboys these days go to cowboy movies and sit there and criticize, wear their hats this way or that, pick up their way of walking from the movies”.
We published about 2,000 words of Young’s diary in Other Scenes (Dec 1968) and the thoughts of the young newcomer destined to be a superstar make fascinating reading 40 years later.
“First guitar I had, strings were two inches away from the fingerboard. I had a flatpick but I couldn’t play it…No one ever taught me to play guitar or harmonica or piano. Used to play boogy-woogyish type of stuff, played with rock and roll songs. Never knew the names of the songs…twelve bar blues played along with them. A few coffee houses refused to let me play when I came to New York. Bob Shelton helped by writing an article (which was) talked around, someone from Elektra came down but nothing happened. Bob Shelton’s been like a friend for a long time. Friends are pretty hard to come by in New York. Dave Von Ronk has helped me along in card games because he’s always losing”.
Here’s more of Nancy/Lola’s stream of consciousness reminiscences about those days…
“Amber was so sweet. You seemed to be so together in your life and travels. Your great apt. and office across the way was covered with fabulous posters and art.....
“A clear memory of Steef Davidson typesetting Steal This Book at the underground office on 204 West 10th Street.... . Steef made tons of typos on purpose because he wasn’t too fond of Abbie. Meeting Simon Vinkenoog and Karel Apple in the office with Steef. I got the huge amount of mail and underground newspapers from all over the world you received daily.
“I remember Carol Realini and Susan Downs typesetting frantically. We set Interview magazine at tight deadlines. The endless errands--to the Chelsea Hotel, to Tuli's, to the Post Office, to Alan Ginsberg, to John Giorno, Ahmed Yacoubi, Andy, Ed Sanders, Phil Ochs, Elaine’s, Max’s, Ed Ruscha. Other Scenes had to be put out above all so I was always picking up and delivering something. The Witches Almanac. Mayer Vishner, Jay Levin, Kathy Stream, Gabrielle Schang, Tom Forçade, The crazies (Zippie in Miami); the Pie Man, Dana Beale. The UPS Syndicate. Letters to you from Jann Wenner.
“On my first day of work you sent me to Paul Krassner's place with thousands of Realists piled high in that garage on Cornelia Street. I had never seen anything like his place before and he asked me if I wanted to run an errand with him over on Washington Street. It was some rich lawyer’s loft…first time I’d ever been in one. To my shock and surprise there was Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, Stew Albert and Phil Ochs. They were waiting for the new Weather Underground New Morning Communiqué. It was 1969 NYC, I was 22 and one of your loyal assistants.
“Being your assistant was entry to everywhere hip in my mind. You and Amber were real bohemians. I entered my future life. When I left for Europe in ’71 you gave me a list of people to look up all of whom were amazing. Richard Neville, Neil Phillips in London and Neil Rock on Ibiza”.
As Nancy recalls, there was always lots of mail from all over the world, partly as a result of the contacts I had made in my travels.
The Great Grass Famine was the title of Abbie Hoffman’s Other Scenes essay, in which he talked of his dealer friend Frankie’s troubles, when Nixon added to the Federal Bureau of Narcotics 300 new narcs whose priority was to nip in the bud (pun intended) the developing business with Mexican growers. The Feds, wrote Abbie, invested $10-20 million in this venture “plus a lot more deals with the Mexican government, and a lot more chemical defoliants.
“Not even the rich (pot) syndicates could outbid Uncle Sam, especially when he was drunk with imperialistic determination… Agents shelled out the bread and proceeded to wipe out almost the entire crop. The syndicates had some stored on this side of the border, usually in heavy barrels buried in the ground. By August keys were bringing $125 on the wholesale market in 1,000-ton lots and a lot of hassle because the whole border operation was demanding bigger and bigger rake-offs. In New York City a key was going for as high as six-fifty with the price expected to hit a thousand dollars by the end of the year”.
The inevitable result of all this, Abbie wrote, was that synthetic drugs started to compensate for the dope shortage….
Lyle Stuart and I had not been on good terms ever since 1959 when, as my very first publisher, he had put together a collection of The Village Square columns which pretty much failed to sell. (Copies on Amazon now go for less than five bucks). For years he had refused to accept my calls, and so when he announced a press conference for his Anarchist's Cookbook (it contained bomb-making recipes) I appropriately took along a smoke bomb which I let off at the back of the room. Lyle didn't appreciate the irony and I was quickly manhandled and hustled out by outraged aides. Lyle never ceased to deride me in subsequent years for letting off what he called "a stink bomb" at his otherwise classy function and although my friend Janet Wolfe, then director of Albert Ellis’ Institute for Rational Therapy, attempted to act as conciliator Lyle refused to be appeased, muttering (never-fulfilled) threats against me every time they met. Lyle was also Albert's publisher and although the latter's perceptive books were atrociously-written, they had impressed me, as I mentioned earlier. To this day I still carry one of the little yellow cards that the Institute handed out positing that, to a large extent, one's attitude determines one's circumstances.
Ideas to Make You Disturbed, says one side, listing Love-Slobbism ("I must be loved or approved by practically every significant person in my life--and if I'm not, it's awful"); Perfectionism ("I must not make errors or do poorly--and if I do it's terrible"); and Low Frustration Tolerance ("People and events should always be the way I want them to be; life must be easy").
The card's reverse, headed Ideas to Help You Function Effectively, carries a more positive message: Self-Acceptance ("It's definitely nice to have people's love and approval--but even without it, I can still accept and enjoy myself"; Fallibility ("Doing things well is satisfying--but it's human to make mistakes") and Realism ("People are going to act the way they want--not the way I want").
Other Scenes, a bi-colored fortnightly tabloid, carried the usual quota of stories on the lines of Abolish Compulsory Schooling!; Learning to Understand the Systems of Control; Everyday Sabotage for Everyone; The Age of Acquireous; How To Start Your Own Guerilla Radio and Robert Anton Wilson's The Permanent Universal Rent Strike as well as lists of welcoming committees in hospitable countries to which deserting GIs could flee, and updates on popular drugs such as yohimbine and mescaline. Claudia Dreifus' piece about "radical doctors who care" termed the AMA the "American Murder Association" because its collusion with drug, tobacco and insurance industries had caused it to oppose "every piece of progressive health legislation to appear in Congress".
Polyandry, pubic hair, and bare-assed astrology weren't subjects you'd find much written about in other places, but our contributors were a diverse lot and I gave them their head. And every issue featured work from the best underground cartoonists: Robert Crumb, Tony Auth, Kim Deitch, Justin Green, Trina, Denis Kitchen, the Mad Peck, Chris Pelletiere (with his Plainclothes Nuns); Gilbert Shelton's Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers in their never-ending search for dope; Bill Griffith's Mr.Toad in Trouble. A special favorite was Stack Frank's The Adventures of Jesus in which the eponymous hero goes into the desert for 40 days, turns himself into a camel to survive, but fails to fool the prince of darkness because he retains his halo.
A few of the cartoonists had been protegés of the great Harvey Kurtzman who later made his reputation by creating the long-running Little Annie Fanny for Playboy. When I first met Harvey, his assistant was a young Gloria Steinem whom the underground press later denounced for her CIA connections.
But we also ran stuff that commercial publications would have been happy to find space for, such as Nat Freedland's scoop on the jailed Charlie Manson's music royalties, Tim Leary's lengthy tribute to the alchemist who supplied him with LSD and Edward de Bono's refreshingly offbeat apothegms. "Lateral thinking is a laxative to relieve the constipation of traditional vertical thinking" was one of de Bono's maxims and "From the information processing point of view, humor is of much more significance than reason: humor is a restructuring process, reason merely an identifying one".
Richard Neville had been running my column in his Sydney-based OZ magazine but we didn't meet until Amber and I arrived in London bearing various cutting-edge stories such as Chester Anderson's cautionary treatise about how to handle LSD (which was--inevitably--about to cross the Atlantic); Anthony Haden Guest's bio of Maurice Girodias and his Olympia Press and a piece I had persuaded Anthony Burgess to write about hippy language. We got along blissfully with the OZ crowd, except for Germaine Greer whose constant sexual posturing prompted Amber and I to invite her for a threesome. We were only half-serious but Germaine quickly backed off from this challenge.
She'd already dismissed my writings as irrelevant just as I was later unimpressed by her posing as a revolutionary by rushing to get herself on every television show that would flatter her ego. Life magazine later took her to Washington to pose in front of the people who were demonstrating.
In London, just as in Tokyo, we wanted to produce a joint issue with the local underground and with the puckish Richard we could hardly have had a better collaborator. Following my usual pattern, I insisted we establish relationships with all wings of "our community" and off we went to meet Michael X. Up until that point I had been planning to substitute Malcolm X's face for the one that a caped British bobby was hanging from the gates of Buckingham Palace. It was a wonderful old turn-of-the-century photogravure that I had discovered on a bookstall along the banks of the Seine, and what I didn't know at the time was that the picture the policeman was putting in place was that of a convicted murderer who had been hanged that day.
At any rate, at the insistence of his aides, the picture I eventually used for the cover of Other Scenes/OZ depicted what proved to be horribly prophetic of Michael X's death. Several years later he was hanged in Jamaica for the murder of Gail Benson, the English girl to whom Hakim Jamal had introduced me.
When Richard and Louise decided to spend one summer in Ibiza, Amber and I joined them. The Spanish island proved to be the hip place to go, attracting “alternative society” young people from all over the world, almost all of them dope fiends and including a profligate doctor from Amsterdam who carted around a case of homeopathic remedies for almost everything, almost all containing cannabis tincture.
Although I haven’t been back since, almost half a century later, Ibiza is still apparently drawing crowds of young people, renowned today (reported the New York Times) for its electronic music scene attracting party people, just as it did then, of every age and demographic “from London fashionistas and Go-style ravers to French bobos and the prime minister of Spain”. Night life is still centered, after 40 years, on the nightclub Pacha with electrifying music and “a sea of people dancing with their arms in the air”. And now, just as in my day, you can escape to the much quieter island of Formentera, take a mud bath and plunge into the sea to wash it off.
“As you read this” Richard whimsically wrote in Play Power, “hundreds of world travelers are huddled together in crash pads, town squares, or on the backs of buses gnawed at by an identical craving: hunger…. People get embroiled in mystic drug rituals and forget to eat. Often, some time passes before it is realized that one is on the brink of starvation”.
What Does London Need Most? I asked rhetorically in OZ, and proceeded to answer my own question. "A little anger. Everyone is so goddam polite and docile about everything. They're told to line up and they line up to obey orders, and they obey orders. Don't accept rules just because they're there. Who made the rules and why? Do they make sense? That's what people should ask themselves before meekly obeying. Freedom comes by taking it, always has, not by waiting until somebody offers it to you.
"Why don't Londoners protest (Harold) Wilson's fawning acceptance of (Lyndon) Johnson's murderous war in Vietnam? They could protest some of the damn silly regulations like being told they can't have a telephone until the Post Office sees fit to give them one.
"Why don't they fight for the freedom to just be--to stand around on the sidewalk without being harassed, to play a guitar in the park without getting a license, things like that. If they got in the habit of fighting for little things there'd soon be a much freer climate. Most people would like their lives to be better but it just doesn't seem to have occurred to them that they can do anything about it.
“Look how many people were affected by the wiping out of pirate radio, for example, but most of them don't see it as a matter of principle but just the disappearance of a few pop stations. What the pirate radio stations should do--and what the government is afraid of--is criticize the way that arrogant politicians are doing (or not doing) their jobs. If you have a communications system and use it politically, to get social justice, you have a potent weapon that can never be effectively silenced. One of the troubles with England is too many busybodies and killjoys who immediately get officious and repressive if they see somebody doing something they don't have the guts to do themselves.
"Too many Britons think Vietnam is irrelevant, but in my opinion it's the main priority in the world today, and if Britain would just raise its voice on the side of the humane Americans who want to end the war, they might change America's attitude overnight".
While in London IT 's editor Roger Hutchinson invited me to guest-edit a 24-page 'American Colonialism' issue of his paper The International Times which we opened up with a cartoon about everybody's current villain, William Calley of Mai Lai massacre fame, and collages of the royal family rubbernecking in Times Square. The partnership of Victor Bockris and Andrew Wylie submitted their interview with Muhammed Ali in which the champ quoted his poetry:
Claudia Dreifus kicked in with her "Diary of a Traveling Feminist", Tom Forçade fulminated about counter cultural heroes who had sold out, and that truly trans-Atlantic writer Clancy Sigal emphasized how much the two countries were dependent on each other, predicting that "American influence" would be used as "a mystifying fog to con us away from Fortress America and into 'Europe'".
Other contributors included Tony Palmer, writing of the ease with which he sold his TV movie about Liberace to the BBC compared with the "humiliating process" independents must go through with the U.S. networks, and Renfreu Neff advocating that America stop wasting its time with other endeavors and concentrate on making The Great American Movie--"the only medium capable of containing its myths and fantasies".
But even in an issue denouncing American colonialism ("Hilton hotels are spreading throughout the world like cholera"), there were some surprises. Clive Irving, the British editor who'd been working in the U.S. for two years, devoted several hundred words to comparing the maturity and openness of American society to the "deadly deference" of Britain which, he wrote, assumed superiority because of age. "The fact that this society feels that it has to depend on repressive laws like contempt of court, conspiracy, and the morass of legal controls over areas of behavior which should be left to private taste and choice would suggest that, at root, the British ruling caste feel surprisingly insecure".
Irving pointed out that three of the major issues of the Sixties--environmentalism, consumerism, and women's rights--were each catalyzed across the Atlantic despite their universality. "Where were the British when these books were written? Complacently dreaming, like Candide, that everything was for the best in this best of all possible worlds....So many dark corners need to be opened up and would automatically be illuminated if they existed in America".
The last words on this interesting subject were actually the first in the paper: a letter from Seymour Krim which was a blast of common sense, with its suggestion that instead of bitching about America, a group of impartial Britons should form a committee to issue "a cool, rational straightforward statement" every few weeks to have "a policing effect on the mind of intelligent Americans". Because their national crimes were always being "tried" abroad, Sey wrote, Americans turned off on hearing incessant criticism but this form of shadow government could be a valuable corrective, which sometimes-provincial America would take seriously.
"Such a monthly statement, as I envision it, would cover America's role in world politics (wars, influence, supporting dictatorships etc), culture, manners, everything you over there find important in affecting your own lives. A compact paragraph on everything that bugs you (about the U.S.)".
Over in Paris, Jean-Francoise Bizot had started Actuel, one of the underground’s two glossy mags (the other was Richard Neville’s Oz) but with similar content to its newsprint contemporaries. From the beginning he welcomed any of his fellow underground editors and writers who made the trip. One of them was the New York Ace’s Rex Weiner who remembers that he traveled to Paris on a stolen First Class Swissair ticket given him by Abbie Hoffman as a bonus for toiling for months fulfilling mail orders for Steal This Book.
“I recall the most wonderful and endless lunch at a fine bistro with Bizot’s staff (including many beautiful Parisiennes), Rex told me, “and sitting in the office writing an article in my best French about Abbie’s trials and tribulations that actually appeared in Actuel, thanks to Bizot’s kind editing”.
Bizot died in 2007 after his Nova Press assembled an astonishing collection of covers (200 Trips from the Counterculture, Thames & Hudson) from dozens of underground papers which the year before I had observed filling almost every room of his chateau in a village north of Paris.
Nova’s bear-like publisher Bizot said: “The Underground Press Syndicate helped us enormously: it was more than just a press agency. You could get a hold of first-hand eyewitness news there, often superbly written as well as poems, manifestos, collages, the latest news on censorship and an abundance of illustrations by underground giants such as Robert Crumb, Ron Cobb, Spain Rodriguez, Clay Wilson, Jay Lynch, Martin Sharp and Greg Irons. They were a big factor in the success of Actuel although we also produced home-grown illustrators in the form of Jean-Marc Reiser, Francis Masse and Claire Bretécher…Crumb later said that the underground press ‘didn’t pay nothing, but you just felt so glad that somebody would publish your stuff at all’.
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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