the column of lasting insignificance...
The underground press had some unexpected allies or at least sympathizers. We were summoned one morning to a press conference at the Fillmore on 2nd Avenue to publicize some now long-forgotten movie. As we clustered in the seats down front nearest to the stage, Robert Mitchum entered from the side, casually tossing a baggie filled with pot to the nearest editors. “You may find this useful” he said. “Somebody just gave it to me as I came in”. Whatever the truth of this statement it was a shrewd gesture to make to the underground press whose members were all well aware that Mitchum had long before been the first movie star to be arraigned for marihuana possession.
Being busted, of course, came to be almost a credential for people who regarded themselves as part of the 'Movement'. There was no longer any shame in going to jail or being on some Establishment “enemies list”. Jerry Rubin boasted that it was “the proudest day” of his life when he was summoned to appear before the despised House Un-American Activities Committee, and he truly meant it.
In 1968, Jerry with his pals Abbie Hoffman and Paul Krassner had addressed us all at a crowded meeting in a Union Square office to plan a protest at the forthcoming Democratic convention in Chicago, and before the meeting broke up, the Yippies (Youth International Party) had been formed. When we assembled later in my apartment, I turned on my tape recorder.
Ed Sanders’ “Predictions for Yippie Activities in Chicago” started innocently enough with
but went on to forecast
There was lots more, but you get the idea.
The Yippies became the backbone of the street protests in the Windy City. On his return, Abbie said: “The cops drove us out in the street each night, teaching us how to survive and fight. How could city Yippies totally unorganized--although very together--take on superior armed forces in unfamiliar territory? But we never retreated! Let us make that point crystal clear. We persisted in fighting for our right to stay in the park the total time we were in Chicago...the first duty of a revolutionist is to get away with it...” Rip Torn later told me that he'd always admired Abbie as an actor. “He commits himself to doing a life act”.
In that same October Other Scenes we also interviewed Jerry: “We did real heavy things in Chicago”, he said, “but we weren't caught doing heavy things. We were caught not doing anything. I was arrested walking down the street looking for a restaurant...The government just doesn't understand what's happening. Their only way of understanding it is thinking it happens the way they do things, that is hierarchical--a few people on top telling those on the bottom what to do. they single out a few individuals to blame the whole thing on so they can handle it. But they don't realize it's total anarchy.”
The question of leaders, if indeed there should even be any, was always coming up in underground circles, it being generally accepted that Bob Dylan's line Don't follow leaders was sound advice. But leaders have a habit of springing up if only because of the media's need to personalize everything. For people like Abbie and Jerry, who lived on the oxygen of publicity, this presented problems. Forced into the role as spokesmen of the movement (which they did little to avoid) they were obliged to make a show of disavowing this to retain their credibility with the movement itself.
Others found themselves in similar circumstances and dealt with the dichotomy in different ways. Emmett Grogan of the much-revered Diggers, for example, managed to establish the legend that it was a name shared by all Diggers, a sort of generic handle like that of Gerard Winstanley, the medieval radical whose legend they invoked as the founder of their movement.
The 20th century Diggers first turned up in San Francisco's Haight Ashbury where they organized the community, collecting surplus food to redistribute as free meals in Golden Gate Park on a daily basis. They were the driving force behind the Be-In which earned them a national--indeed international--reputation. Soon there were Digger communities all over, community guardians, and philanthropists at the same time.
But there was an Emmett Grogan. He later wrote an autobiography, Ringolevio, based on the street games of his childhood on New York's Lower East Side, and in December 1970 he wrote a piece for Other Scenes in which he trashed pretty much everybody who claimed leadership beginning with Abbie who, he said was “trying so hard to yip a hype that he obviously never understood, weeps water because rock starlets don't have eyes for him. He publishes diarrhetical accounts of all the attacks he has uniquely suffered as a hero of the people...
“And Jerry Rubin learned the careful language of panic at the Berkeley Playhouse while bubbling all over for a leading role in the Do It foundation. He's a leader. Eldridge Cleaver and the Ministry of Education say he is a good leader. He'd lead anybody anywhere, anytime. He'd even lead children into a real love-war. He'd lead them right into battle, by radio.”
As the oldest of all the underground editors I stayed neutral most of the time, turning over my pages to pretty much anyone with something to say. But other editors were more outspoken. “What right do these characters have to all this space in the (Berkeley) Barb?” asked Nola Express' Bob Head discussing the conflict between Tim Leary and Eldridge Cleaver. “Are these people our leaders, and if so, why? They don't sound like the underground. I don't accept any of Eldridge's definitions of revolutionary (and) Leary should go write a book and think. Both of their wisdoms are very finite if they can't talk to each other. Two people claiming to be leaders and they can't carry on a conversation...”
In July 1969 I got a letter, my name misspelled, from Alastair Burnet, editor of The Economist :
We were running a regular column from London by my old friend John Walker who wrote of England's escalating anti-cannabis war. Social psychologist Michael Scofield, who had been a signatory of the full page Times ad to “Legalize Pot”, was forced off a government committee recommending more lenient sentences for smokers. Columnist William Deedes, a law and order freak whom Walker charged wrote the dullest column in British journalism, was behind Schofield's expulsion. He was chairman of a sub-committee examining the police's wide-ranging powers to arrest and search drug suspects which, in practice, meant they could stop and search young people at will. “The fuzz can get very bored in the wee small hours and need someone to play with”, Walker explained.
New York's Living Theatre were in London at that time, receiving a less-than-rapturous welcome from a sheep-like audience. Said Julian Beck: “This is the sickest country and the sickest audience I've ever played to”. At least he hadn't been arrested, which is what had happened in both New Haven and Philadelphia, in both cases for the company's addiction to nudity. In Philly, the magistrate dropped the indecency charges but imposed a $5 fine and $2.50 costs upon each actor for disorderly conduct after asking what was the point of removing clothing. “We're trying to break down the sense of shame that people have about their bodies”, Julian responded, “and to help them get rid of their inhibitions which we feel are dangerous. And to help them get to Paradise now”. Elsewhere in England, poet Adrian Mitchell was urging a more active approach. Decrying Britain's slavish adherence to U.S. genocide, he urged activists to plaster red paint everywhere as a symbol of protest.
Meanwhile, out in Los Angeles, our correspondent Jerry Hopkins was hanging out with The Doors and raving about the new Peter Fonda/Dennis Hopper film Easy Rider which had been the biggest hit for years with young audiences. This was the movie that made a star out of Jack Nicholson in a role that Rip Torn had turned down and, years later when I was talking to Rip about those days I asked him how he rated himself as a culture hero alongside Peter Fonda.
“Well I don't see myself as a culture hero”, Rip said. “but as a man who had to scuffle. Peter has had his own problems; alienation of a mother whose life ended tragically and a father who wasn't close to him. But he never had to worry about three hot meals a day. His image of that scuffler is on film whereas I feel I have lived some of these things. It seems my views and lifestyle were premature or ahead of the time.” Rip suggested that stardom was not all it was cracked up to be.
“Whoever tries to make himself a star is onto the notion of endless youth and prepares himself for a tragic end. He ends up being dust in the mouth. He spends all his life serving a cardboard cutout. He's going to have to worry about his image all the time; he can't be relaxed and enjoy life”.
We took the summer off and rented a cottage on glorious Mykonos, settling in on the hill behind the harbor before the tourist hordes arrived. One weekend our next door neighbor had the delectable Charlotte Rampling to stay and we all went to the beach. She was pregnant and accompanied by both her lover and her husband. Some years later I was surprised to see nude pictures of her in a porn magazine because she seemed to be too big a star for that. But the pictures were boringly respectable and most of her career, after all, has been spent in France where people are not so upset by the naked body. Anyway, she remains one of my favorite stars.
That summer was the time of the Greek colonels, the military government that staged a coup (with, it's generally believed, the complicity of the CIA) and encouraged American naval vessels to anchor in Mykonos' tranquil harbor and allow sailors ashore on r&r excursions. It was the first time the lovely island had experienced serious crime, notably a break-in at a store selling hunting weapons and the theft of several of these. The local merchants complained to the mayor, and the mayor in turn to Athens. Back came the threat that these complaints must be withdrawn or penalties would be enacted, and when I reported these events in my Penthouse column I was summarily fired by publisher Bob Guccione following complaints (I was told) by a retired U.S. military officer living in Greece.
There was much disagreement in liberal circles at the time about whether an illegitimate (i.e. right wing) regime should be boycotted or whether, as I believed at the time, tourism helped to ease some of the restrictions. In an early burst of puritanism, for example, the junta decided to ban long hair and short skirts, but the number of young visitors who ignored this soon became impossible to cope with and the regulation was rescinded. The same thing applied to censorship. There was much respect voiced for Helen Vlachos, the feisty publisher of the daily paper Kathimerini for standing up to the junta in print. “The only man in Greece is a woman” laconically observed one admirer.
In a country whose cosmopolitan visitors daily bought thousands of European newspapers, with their constant reminders of how Greece was attempting to stifle free speech, it was a simple strategy for the domestic Greek papers to reprint this critical comment. My attitude in the Nineties has become more pragmatic. Although I feel Cubans are helped by an increase in tourism, I also believe that every visitor to the former Burma (a name I am convinced it will one day reclaim) only helps the military government to stay in power.
But then in retrospect, things always look different. Regardez the case of warlord Robert McNamara who achieved fame and riches in the 1960s sending thousands of young Americans to their death. And then, 25 years later, he made another killing with his confessional autobiography saying it had all been a mistake.
While in Greece we took a long-distance ferry to visit one of my art heroes, Daniel Spoerri, who was living with his wife on the island of Simi. The previous year I had been passing through the galleries of New York’s Museum of Modern Art admiring what was probably the first retrospective of pop art. Because I’d been around that scene for some time, there wasn’t much that was new to me, but when I walked into one room I was stunned. I gazed at this chair affixed horizontally to the wall, its seat covered with the tray from a half-eaten breakfast—egg shells, toast crumbs, used cutlery, a smeared empty glass, a cigarette butt, a crumpled napkin. What stopped me in my tracks was the distorted perspective: the chair with this array was affixed to the wall by its legs, the artwork thrusting aggressively at the viewer.
I couldn’t remember that an artwork had ever affected me this way before, despite the fact that by this time astonishment around the art scene had become commonplace.
But that experience was an epiphany, something that changed my attitude towards art forever afterwards. What was the function of an artist? I asked myself. Surely, not to be merely decorative or entertaining. Shouldn’t an artist—of all people—be a revolutionary? Shouldn’t he/she create works radical enough to rock the viewer on his/her heels, to tip one off balance maybe for long enough to suspend time, to create space for the emergence/acceptance of other ideas?
I accepted the theory unconditionally. An artist, I intuited then, and have believed ever since, is not somebody who has to come up with solutions but to create—if only for an instant—that space in the consciousness for something alien to enter.
So it was with all this in my mind that I went to Simi to meet Daniel Spoerri whom I quickly learned had been making these artworks for some time. He was also an innovative cook, serving up turtle stew and a salad made by Kiske, strongly flavored with kapari (capers) from a bush in the garden.
Local fishermen usually throw turtles back into the sea but Spoerri was an imaginative cook who liked to try new ingredients. He told us of the recent fiasco in which hundreds of special red hens had been donated to Simi by an American aid project, the idea being that the villagers would fatten them up with this special nutritive grain that guaranteed high egg production. Unfortunately, nobody could afford the grain and the hens all ended up in the cooking pot.
Spoerri, an advocate of chance, has a lively mind which propagates what he terms Snare Art, the theory that time, weather, corrosion and dirt could all be regarded as the artist's collaborators, even after the creation was theoretically complete. As an example he listed the rats who devoured the organic matter on two of his pictures on show at Arturo Schwartz's gallery in Milan. “Taboos have as their objective, the preservation of traditions and forms, an objective that I reject” Spoerri declared.
In addition to stimulating conversation, the weekend offered one other bonus. In the most fleeting of meetings, Daniel introduced us to his departing house guest who was getting on the ferry as we got off. This was the redoubtable Pontus Hulteen who along with Spoerri shared a friendship with the great Marcel Duchamp and Jean Tinguely. Hulteen, as the founder director of Stockholm’s Moderna Museet, was the first museum director to give a show to Andy Warhol and in later years directed Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art which he soon left, explaining to Artforum: “I finally had to leave because I was no longer practicing my profession. I had become a fund raiser instead of a museum director”. He died in Stockholm, aged 82, and I’ll always regret that he didn’t stay for that weekend at Simi.
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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