the column of lasting insignificance...
Barely back from our travels I got a call from Tucson, somebody who identified himself as Tom Forçade who, having heard I had taken over management of the Underground Press Syndicate (Walter said EVO was too busy to handle it), offered his help. Tom claimed to have files of all the papers that had appeared so far and sent along the latest issue of his own digest, a newsprint magazine bizarrely penetrated with bullet holes from a .38 pistol (which was to later make a more dramatic reappearance at the end of his life). His office was located in a 1946 Chevrolet, a former school bus, in Phoenix, Arizona, from which he took trips visiting underground communities around the country.
Tom's Phoenix was a mix of psychedelic pages like the San Francisco Oracle (produced as frequently as its zonked-out artists could get it together) and hard-headed assessments of the underground itself. It defined the enemy as "ourselves, our parents, our popularly elected government (Johnson got the greatest landslide in history)" and observed that instead of being undercover, the modern activist was often more publicity agent than street fighter. "The technique now", Phoenix declared, "is to work on minds as well as bodies, an extension of Thoreau-Gandhi's non-violent techniques for effecting change".
As the magazine pointed out, the underground press was part of the scene rather than merely reporting on it, and despite having achieved what was then estimated to be several million readers it was still produced in basements and storefronts by armies of dedicated but usually unpaid believers.
"When they stormed the Pentagon, the underground press people were literally in the forefront. When they took over Columbia, the Liberation News Service and Newsreel people were inside helping and reporting. When the police busted them, no one produced press cards. They went to jail, too. They were on the streets at Berkeley. They are in the communes, a part of rock groups, acting with street theatre groups, demonstrating, petitioning, secretly being. The strength of the underground press lies in the people who do not melt away when threatened.” Avatar printed a centerfold of four-letter words and were busted in Cambridge for obscenity. EVO just kept on liberating, functionally unaware of a Brooklyn obscenity bust. The underground press is flexible. The staff of Connections quit publishing for the summer to devote their time to war and draft resistance. The Oracle people dropped out to meditate.
"The underground press is resilient. Practically all the papers can mount a street demonstration in a day, a benefit in a week, and a Supreme Court case in a month, without missing a single issue. Although these papers have been evicted from their offices and homes, harassed by the police, had their street sellers arrested en masse, had their benefit parties raided, been bombed, been burned, beaten, gypped, framed, and lost printer after printer, the underground press continues to increase in size and number".
But what the Underground Press Syndicate still needed, Tom and I agreed, was more coordination, and in our attempt to bring some semblance of order, we agreed to run it jointly with myself summarizing the mail in a monthly newsletter which Tom would then print and send out to member papers. Financing would come through the sale of "UPS subscriptions" which all member-papers would agree to fulfill to whoever paid for one (ie. Time magazine, libraries, wire services, etc). It was also the responsibility of UPS papers to send issues to all fellow-members with the understanding that anybody could reprint anything without payment or credit.
Not long after that, Tom came to New York, rented a basement on West 10th Street, gathered a tribe around him, put UPS on a sounder financial footing by selling Bell & Howell the rights to put all the papers on microfilm and started renting cylinders of nitrous oxide to keep the tribe relaxed and happy. What surprised people later was to discover that he had a business degree, but he first became notorious in underground circles for his daring exploits: flying in truckloads of Colombian marihuana, at least once crashing the heavily loaded plane into a hillside but escaping unhurt.
One such shipment, as I narrated earlier, reputedly brought him the hundreds of thousands of dollars with which he founded the world's first dope magazine, High Times. Revolutionary for its time it was nevertheless--to everybody's surprise--pretty much left alone by the authorities. Maybe too many people in positions of power were already familiar with the benevolent herb. Certainly I had smoked with off-duty cops, museum directors and big names who might still be embarrassed if I dropped them. And my lawyer, David Barrett, assured me that down at the courthouse he was as familiar with pot-smoking judges as drug defendants.
The subject of pot always seemed to be coming up and even today, when I pretty much smoke only when somebody offers me some, there are occasions when I still feel the cause of common humanity needs warriors to keep fighting for it. It's not very charitable, for example, to be indifferent about somebody dying and certainly not very kind to let them die in pain when you could do something about it. And yet that is the callous attitude of the folk who continually try to deprive sick people of something to relieve their agony. You might almost feel that it was genuine retribution, even karma, cancer, or something equally painful happened to them. Or their closest friends or relatives.
Deliberately allowing people to die in pain is exactly what the (DEA, NIH, etc.) do every day, something the Supreme Court mandated for many more lifetimes. Even with medical marihuana legalized in many states, it is still ignored by these unfeeling barbarians. They're all in corrupt partnership with the smugglers, the prison structure, the police, the vast federal bureaucracies, the hypocritical paid-off pols. Their shared credo is economic, not moral. They are willfully mindless about the consequences of their behavior. Then there have always been busts by self-serving liars who sought to enhance their careers. One such was the narc named Warner Stringfellow in Detroit who busted activist John Sinclair, of the White Panther Party for marihuana possession. Before going to jail, Sinclair wrote a poem about it
Sinclair’s arrest and 9-1/2 year sentence created a furor in the underground, and a massive rock concert at which John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and Stevie Wonder starred got Sinclair released on bond. Plamondon, by then on the lam, was later rearrested, but the sentences of both were eventually negated after a Supreme Court ruling that the convictions had come about through unlawful warrant-less wire-tapping. (That was in the era when the Supremes were ruled by notions of justice and not politics).
If “fighting for a clean planet… freeing political prisoners… abolishing capitalism” seemed fancifully unrealistic, and were an obvious challenge to the hidebound beliefs of a stagnant society, they were in tune with the alternative society’s realization that what had been the traditional liberal approach to solving problems no longer worked. It did no good to be reasonable with one’s adversaries and suggest, say, that a 50% improvement of something was needed. All that produced usually, was a pathetic, typically liberal compromise that resulted in settling for 25%.
On the other hand, as the combativeness of over-the-top groups such as Up against the Wall, Motherfuckers proved, a demand for 125% was likely to result in much greater rewards. The message was: don’t back off, just step up the demands.
At the beginning of the Seventies, I realized I had come full circle—from reporter to columnist to editor to publisher and now back to being a reporter once more. It’s true that my beat had become rather narrowly focused, based on the self-contained New York art colony, and I was even still publishing, if producing tiny newsletters could be regarded as that. Saturdays were being spent in Soho and environs, visiting the galleries, drinking in Fanelli’s bar on Spring Street discussing the ‘scene’ with my friends, while the rest of the week I was involved in a full roster of poetry readings, ‘happenings’, openings, concerts, and parties. At any one of these I would find at least a few people whom I thought of as part of the “art scene” with some of them, of course, involved like myself in two or three different aspects of it.
When I sat down for a discussion about how I had spent the past few years, it was with my old friend Neil Hickey with whom I made the case for The Publisher As Revolutionary. What had become known as “the new journalism”—as practiced by the likes of Tom Wolfe, Jimmy Breslin, and a host of New York magazine publisher Clay Felker’s protégés—was getting lots of ink but rarely did the laudatory essays about these ground-breaking new writers give tribute to the (mostly) younger scribes who were filling hundreds of pages of the underground papers every day.
And there was the whole pot thing. What an influence that had been. The first time somebody got stoned was probably the first time they hadn’t been in control of their own thoughts, and what possibilities that opened up! How many millions had forthwith cast aside all the evil propaganda, sampled pot and never been quite the same afterwards? It was impossible to overestimate how important the benevolent herb had been as a unifying banner and rallying point. Because in those days I rarely met anybody who didn’t smoke. And if I met people who didn’t smoke, they were no longer folk who thought the demon weed was evil. Although such people still existed, I knew, because occasionally I read about them.
Our discussion turned on whether the West Coast had become more revolutionary than the East: there were the hippies rioting on Sunset Strip and with the Artists' Tower for Peace (i.e. anti-Vietnam war) built nearby. (This gesture was followed by Leon Golub and other artists in New York meeting to decide how to respond.)
The example Mario Savio set at UC Berkeley with his Free Speech movement was echoed at scores of other campuses across the country, and that fabulous Be-In at Golden Gate Park was followed within weeks by “love-ins” not only in Los Angeles but elsewhere.
Neil pointed out that even junior high schools were starting underground papers. College kids, protesting the way their school was being run created dark thoughts for the power structure. Younger kids took note and started to act the same way. Jerry Rubin used to claim it was the kindergarten who would be heard from next. It was certainly true in a cultural revolution that you emulated the people, the activists, who were a little older than you. These were the ones you admired, and all the time heroes were getting younger and younger.
Neil said he thought that papers like Rat, and slightly to the left of Rat, the old guard papers like the Guardian and so forth, seemed to be for a revolution that came out of the end of a gun. Were they old-style Marxists, doctrinaire, orthodox socialists?
I said it did seem that papers like the Guardian and England’s Peace News, were being run by old timers, but by young old-timers. It was all in their attitudes. Probably the SDS and similar bodies were the same way. People who revered discipline and those who believed in a kind of joyless equality, in which nobody had any advantage and there were no incentives, and that to smile and enjoy yourself was not taking the revolution seriously—well, that was the drawback of these old-line papers. We might all agree with their philosophy and sympathize with their attempts to propagate it, but they made no attempt to reach out to a new audience. If you didn’t totally believe what they believed there was nothing there to read. Preaching to the converted was never truer. Better to have a paper that tries hard to trick everybody into reading it and then sock the message to them. Get ‘em into the story, get ‘em into the story—that was what I was taught when I worked for London tabloids. But that was a view that appeared suspicious to the mainstream radical movement.
Neil was always able to help me focus my thoughts in our lengthy conversations whether they were about the underground, about art and Andy Warhol and, oh everything. He’s a world-class interviewer, great at focusing and he had a great sympathy for the alternative society.
Today things are far less radical. The “alternative” papers are pretty mainstream and the ways of the radical printed word seem to be over. The media frontrunner now is the cyber world with its potentially worldwide audiences. The irony is that we’ve gone from not having enough alternative voices to a place where there are too many. When you can read words from anywhere, at any time, by anybody, who knows what’s true anymore?
Even though they were paying miniscule or non-existent salaries, the survival of most underground papers in the early days depended on rock music advertising and small ads of a frankly sexual nature that had never been allowed--even, or especially, by the Voice--until that time. An early ad in EVO which most people guessed had been planted by Bowart himself, read: "Keep me high and I'll ball you forever--Samantha".
But this, at first, was petty stuff. What was really bringing in the moolah were the full page ads by the myriad record companies hoping to cash in on this apparently infinite young, free-spending audience. Concert Hall, the UPS advertising agency, reported the total circulation of underground papers to be 1.8 million with a "secondary circulation" of another five million readers. The biggest papers such as San Francisco's Black Panther and the Los Angeles Free Press were selling as many as 100,000 copies, and even in a small place like Lexington, KY, the Blue Tail Fly claimed a circulation of 10,000. With several subsidiary labels, Columbia Records, headed by Clive Davis, was spending hundreds of thousands a dollars each month to ensure the veracity of the claim that, "the music is the revolution, man", a statement that even the politically-minded skeptics preferred not to challenge.
Enter the hippy capitalist and would-be tycoon Jann Wenner whose Rolling Stone resented the youthful activism whenever its attention strayed from the beat. All of a sudden an unholy alliance developed of which we only learned when Davis smugly announced that in future his companies' record advertising would be focused solely on "the music-oriented papers" of which--guess what--there was only one. At a single stroke, the record companies were able to defuse much of the revolution, shucking off these embarrassing papers that sought real change not merely a society filled with musical paper tigers. The social-climbing Wenner had always cravenly sought the approval of his affluent betters and disassociating himself from the radicals did wonders for his social life. Following the gradual collapse of the underground press as the record companies restricted their advertising to the less political papers.
In the June 1976 issue of the radical Yipster Times, Mike Chance added another element to the story: Rolling Stone, he wrote, had been bought off in the spring of 1968 with a $100,000 payment by the Xerox Corporation "in return for a pledge not to support leftist demonstrations at the Chicago National Presidential Conventions that summer". Chance wrote that his information came from Susan Lydon who had been one of the five founders of Rolling Stone the year before. She had left the magazine after the sell-out for "personal and political disagreements with Jann Wenner" who, two months before the convention, had declared that "rock music and confrontation politics don't mix".
At any rate, by the beginning of the '70s the more politically outspoken underground papers had lost their music advertising and not long afterwards they lost the sex advertising, too. Erotic ads having proven a big draw, a bunch of papers sprung up dealing only with sex and siphoned off that part of the revenue. Why bother with all that troublesome political stuff, we could imagine these new publishers asking rhetorically, when we could sell just as many papers and get more advertising without it?
As always the crowded apartment that served as our office (with Ambertype in a West 10th street basement) seemed to be constantly in motion; no time to keep a diary. So recently I asked my assistant, Rona, for her recollections.
“Here's a few off the top of my head”, she emailed. “We met when you put an ad in the Soho Weekly News for someone who could translate Spanish. You were then working for High Times. Meeting you was life-changing for me. First of all, I was fascinated to be reading and translating about shamanism for your Occult Guide to South America. And then all of the parties, openings, and performance art scenes. You would get a list of parties to crash on Friday afternoons and we would often meet at various venues. We also worked on the Nomad column for High Times. Then the newspaper, can't remember the name, with Frank Lauria and his Moroccan friend. I remember the first time we all met for organizing the paper was at your apartment on the west side. Maybe even Amber was there at that time, but you had already split. It was fun, but only lasted one or two issues.
“We went to Caracas together to do some writing for the Venezuelan Tourism department. I just remember being overwhelmed by the display of wealth that we encountered. Not necessarily in order but our other projects included working with Jim Buckley and that creepy partner of his on the National Opener, interviewing Frommer, and Albert Goldman who was waiting for Chic Eder to pass so that he could write his Dope book And the S&M Mistress in New Jersey--this was the first time you were speechless afterwards--for the New York Night Life book, and you sent me to sit at the Figaro Cafe for a week for some piece about then and now.
“In 1979 I held the benefit for you after your car crash. Because it being you I had entree to many artists and gallery owners who donated works for the auction, including Warhol, who I asked to do the invitation. You remember Noreen Ash McKay who volunteered to help me (and was actually a challenge) and I remember the night of the auction, Joyce Greller who was upset that I did not have her help with the benefit, wrote a scathing poem about Noreen and one less denigrating about me. She handed these out at the benefit and her escort for the evening was Jim Buckley's creepy partner on the paper we worked for.
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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