the column of lasting insignificance...
Chapter Ten (continued):
Is there anything new that could conceivably be said about Woodstock that hasn’t been said already? I was in the strange position of being there and yet not being there, as I had rented a nearby farmhouse for the event and although Amber and I saw a steady stream of visitors and guests for two or three days (most of them anxious to get a shower or some sleep) we never went over to the muddy site itself. Frankly, I’m not crazy about either rock music or crowds and so I didn’t miss it; Amber, being younger, probably did.
The subsequent movie, contrary to the blissful remembrances of those who were there, was actually a lot better than the actual event in the opinion of some commentators. Irwin Silber, writing in Other Scenes, talked of the “incompetence and ineptitude” of the Festival promoters while complimenting Woodstock for “juxtaposing musician and audience, theme and reality, art and life in a marvelously visual counterpoint which is constantly inventive”.
“Perhaps Woodstock does not show us all the dimensions of Woodstock” he continued. “Abbie Hoffman and the ill-fated ‘Movement City’ are nowhere to be seen in the film. The overwhelming sense of communality in the face of mutual hardships which so many who were there talked about afterwards is only hinted at in some fleeting moments of a joint or bottle of wine being passed around."
“But most everything else seems to be there—the grass, the love-making, the unabashed laying on of hands and taking off of clothes, the relaxation, the occasional bad trip, the perpetual high, the skinny-dipping, the self-conscious reports on the size of their ‘city’ and the various social announcements over the loudspeaker system, and of course and mostly, the music.”
For a later music festival Abbie Hoffman asked for a free full page ad in Other Scenes, which of course I was willing to provide, happy to be able to have some papers distributed to a wider audience. When the print run was in, Abbie asked how much we charged wholesale for papers and when I told him 10c a copy (it was 25c on the newsstands) he handed over $10 for 100 copies to take to the festival. Then in a moment of sheer, arrogant chutzpah he proceeded to tear out his ad and—still in my presence— throw the discarded papers into the garbage.
The loose radical alliance that has carried us so far seemed to be falling apart. Although Hakim Jamal had maintained that black power was not necessarily anti-white, just consistently pro-black, he referred to the hippies as 'the creepies' and charged that "they are the best example of what white America has come to".
And Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver was even gunning for black politicians such as Cleveland's Mayor Carl Stokes. "I don't think people like that have much future at all”, he declared. “They will continue to be produced and they will continue to come up here and try to influence people but they will get more and more opposition from the community, and the day is gonna be reached when they won't be able to walk down the streets of a black community even with security forces."
As for white politicians, Cleaver had written them off completely as far back as the Chicago convention. "McCarthy? I think he is a good Democrat and as such a dangerous man. All Democrats are criminals and all Republicans are incorrigible criminals. They should be locked up".
What Tuli wrote was very much in line with my own thoughts. Factionalism, I realized, had done more harm to the unity of the 'movement' than anything else, and maybe that had always been the case. How often had people played the role of agents provocateurs even when that had not been their intention? Not long after five thousand of us had marched down Fifth Avenue together to protest the Vietnam War, Martin Luther King, who up to that time had been identified solely with the black liberation movement, declared: "The war in Vietnam, an obscene incredible travesty on history and justice, is very closely related to my personal battle, which is for racial freedom". And yet this was greeted with incredulity not only by the black liberal power structure but even by some of his own supporters.
In retrospect it seems hard to believe that anybody could disagree with him, but at the time he was crucified for making the connection. It undoubtedly led to J. Edgar Hoover''s stepped-up interest in him and to his death. In 1966 Hoover had only to hear that somebody was protesting the war to conclude that he was part of the international communist conspiracy. But King's lesson should have penetrated people's consciousness more deeply: how can you live off one phase of injustice, illiberality and censorship from another? They're all related.
All in all I was coming to feel that it was fruitless to believe, as we had for years, that protest about the way things were organized was going to make the slightest bit of difference, as long as what former president Eisenhower had called the military-industrial complex remained in control and the profit motive was the be-all and end-all of existence.
America at that stage of history seemed to have blown it. It was hard to see what was going to happen next. (I underestimated the country's astonishing ability to keep regenerating itself). Violent revolution--even if it came--didn't seem likely to solve anything, and I had a strong suspicion that whoever the winners might be in such a confrontation, they were likely to be just as power-mad as anything they replaced. A dozen years of poverty-stricken catalytic social action had taught me a lot about how little difference there was in the authoritarianism of both Left and Right.
A late Manhattan entry in the underground paper scene was the Rex Weiner's New York ACE, edited by Bob Singer, which avowed to "expose intrepidly the oppressive machinations of the bosses, to cultivate vibrantly the revolutionary culture of the young and untamed, to create a fiery avatar of people's art, to gloriously fulfill the ebullient re-emergence of socially nurturing people's journalism."
FROM LONDON, John Walker, reported in Other Scenes, May 1970, that John Lennon's peace campaign was getting instant dismissal from all sides. “It seems to contain something to offend everyone. Even more hostility is being aimed at his artist wife Yoko Ono (“Use your blood to paint. Keep painting till you faint. Keep painting till you die.” ). Beatle Lennon, with Yoko sitting quietly by his side, talked at the Apple office about peace to Sandy, my ever-loving and hard-working wife.”
Tim Leary’s personal hero was Humphrey Osmond whom he often referred to as “God’s secret agent” and in a piece for Other Scenes (Oct/70) titled Cosmic Courier nominated this “acid-king millionaire, test tube Pancho Villa” for ‘romantic immortality’.
After this somewhat overblown beginning, Tim reiterated the tale of Albert Hoffman in the Swiss laboratory of Sandoz, hoping unsuccessfully to persuade psychiatrists and medical researchers to use LSD. Next in the chain came Al Hubbard, wealthy from uranium mining, whose dream was of a chain of medically-approved LSD clinics dispensing the drug.
Shortly after (1962) setting up his own loose distribution system for LSD, Leary received a call from a mysterious Dr. Spaulding who claimed to have inside knowledge of a power struggle in Washington between the Treasury department’s narcotics bureau, and the medics and scientists who wanted to handle LSD as a medical matter. A crackdown was coming, the doctor said, and all sources for LSD would be sealed off. Meanwhile, a few wise heads in Washington had seen it coming and stockpiled the raw lysergic acid base. They had the largest supply in the world. How much could Leary’s group use?
“I looked at him in surprise”, Leary recalled. “He starts out like a fed and now he’s offering me acid. The scene was surrealistic. This famous, eminently respectable professor offering to set us up with unlimited supplies of acid. It was hard to keep from laughing. I asked him one question. Why?
“Oh, you know why, Tim. Can you see any hope for this homicidal, neurologically crippled species other than mass religious convulsion. Ok. How much do you want?’”
“That was the only time I met Dr. Spaulding. A week later the acid began arriving at Millbrook—in brown manila envelopes and hollowed out books mailed from different cities throughout the country. In hardly any time at all we have given away ten million doses”.
I wrote about 1972 as the Year of the Great Hoax "when millions of otherwise sensible people get the crazy notion that they are able to do something to shape the society they live in when dupes are told, and being dupes, believe that they are electing a president. Nobody tells the dupes that they're pawns; in fact, they're called voters and they're flattered and bribed, excited and entertained. Everybody joins in the game--newspapers, television, movie stars, wealthy novelists, even your friends. They all refer to the robot who's going to be president by different names and even pretend that he's different people!"
In the year of The Great Hoax, ran my argument, it was hard to find anything else to play because the people who ran the game were trying to make sure nobody dropped out and all the others wouldn't even talk about it.
"The best place from which to watch the game is from the top of the nearby hillside. That's where all the important people sit--the ones who don't care which way it comes out because whoever 'wins' will still maintain the important things of life: oil depletion allowances, bank rates, germ warfare research, agribusiness, imperialism, the space race.
"From this hill there's rather an amusing view of the valley below. It's much like the medieval battles that kings used to watch: dozens of knights on grey horses (a trick of the light makes them appear white close up) rushing around with banners waving, some with a handful of camp followers, others with countless throngs. From time to time what at first had seemed like a minor rally on the sidelines, suddenly surges forward, sweeping hundreds of foot soldiers with it. The crowd twists and turns as all try to see if one of the mounted men has a clear advantage and can make a run up the valley. Which is a dead end, of course.
"In the year of the Great Hoax, there's a role in the game for everybody, each according to his naiveté or cynicism. Some declare outright that one cipher is superior to another or else maintain that there's no difference between them (true) until the last moments of the game when they suddenly discover that more virtue resides in one quarter than the others (false).
“The all-important rule of the game is that it be confined to personalities: concepts and specifics are taboo. ‘Ending’ something (such as war or poverty) or ‘increasing’ something (the size of the Pentagon or welfare) may be advocated but the rules are insistent that, as promises cannot and will not subsequently be kept, that they must not be identifiable.
"Mainly though, it's important that the players keep their eyes on the board and don't start thinking in terms of 'ideas' which might distract attention from the game itself or, heaven forbid, to the people atop the hill who are running it. Welcome to the Year of the Great Hoax".
Interestingly enough, as I write this, we are on the verge of the ninth presidential election since I published the words above, and I can't honestly say that I've changed my mind about any of it.
More traveling came next, first to Switzerland and then to England. Back then nationalism seemed to have become so irrelevant a concept in a time of individual and tribal nomadism that maybe we were being cued to leave all this behind and roam the world for a while. When I met Urban Gwerder, the trilingual Hotcha ! hipster in Zurich who had become an expert on Frank Zappa, we were amused to realize that we’d both published about sixty issues of our respective tabloids in which were contained about 60% of the same images. Not a coincidence, but a clear indication of the shared take on the underground zeitgeist. How I loved those days of high creativity: typesetting and pasting up stories and pictures from everywhere, an international community of young (and some old) humanists.
In London, Richard Neville had earlier turned over the summer issue of OZ to a group of seditious pre-teenies to produce an issue of their own, the idea being not to patronizingly write about the lively youth scene, but to allow it to write about itself. The youngsters proceeded to publish a salacious issue so full of near-porn and other aggravations in their “School Kids issue”--a shamelessly shocking farrago of filth the law termed it--that on his return, he and his OZ colleagues, Felix Dennis and Jim Anderson, were arrested.
A fossilized dinosaur named Judge Argylle concluded that pictures and stories produced by a bunch of school kids were liable to corrupt the morals of...er, school kids. Argylle, in the dyky dress and elaborate wig favored by the judiciary, decided that the culprits' hair--almost as long as his own fake locks--was too lengthy and thus the trio's heads were shaven.
The Old Bailey trial was a farce with all the fake majesty of the law—judges in wigs and robes, everybody pontificating endlessly—and although they were convicted, jailed and shorn of their long hair, the conviction was overturned on appeal and the judge reprimanded for the idiot that he was.
In retrospect it was a turning point in the generation gap. The forces of common sense and open mindedness went to battle, many liberal academics acting for the defense, and turned back the reactionary tide. That free and easy summer in Ibiza could be regarded as a pointer to the new freedom that was about to come.
Amber and I attended the trial and though tempted to display my contempt of this court by remaining seated when the judge entered, I behaved myself and listened attentively.
Richard defended himself, maintaining that the relevant law was archaic and irresponsible. "The very offence of 'corrupting public morals'', he argued, "rests on the assumption that there is one all-embracing moral code to which all classes of the community subscribe, and that this is so weak, so unstable, that a single publication can bring it into jeopardy....It is the prosecution which corrupts public morality by seeking to rob us of our freedom of speech."
Despite support from numerous cultural and literary defense witnesses, the trio were found guilty and--certainly not to our surprise--the "straight" press by and large backed the verdict. Some individuals, however, were outraged. Sociologist Michael Schofield pointed out that it was not only the OZ trio that had been on trial but thousands of young people. "They have convicted a whole generation", he said, an opinion echoed by Time Out's David May who opined that this single act had polarized a generation.
"I can't say I'm surprised", said author Paul Ableman, "given the present state of the law. It just shows the absurdity of the law". Kenneth Tynan called it "the wrong verdict reached for the wrong reasons" and MP David Steel described it as "very disturbing".
David Hockney said: "I just think it's terrible. I now believe, whereas I never did in the past, that there is an attack on a certain kind of culture. The vindictiveness of the judge is just disgusting". Even Private Eye's Richard Ingrams, who had been unsympathetic to the counter-culture, commented that what was striking about this sort of case was that real pornography was not attacked, just literary pornography. "The whole proceedings are a total farce" he added. "Everyone comes into disrepute". John Cleese said he didn't believe that any kind of material could corrupt people. "The whole thing is very pointless".
Afterwards when I was talking to Jim Haynes, that famous American-in-Paris, he picked up on another aspect. "Do you know what to me is obscene?. The standard answer, of course, is violence--we all know that. But also what's obscene is materialism. A Rolls Royce car is for me a symbol of obscenity, a bowing down to materialism".
Recently, Jim continued, the Times had shown a picture of a Titian that had been sold for about two million pounds. "Everybody was bowing down in reverence to something which some cat did hundreds of years ago. Who cares? Let's demystify art a little. All it is is brush and paint. It's a medium that nobody uses any more except as a commodity to sell. And because the nature of the medium is its scarcity, the whole structure of supply and demand comes into being. If some cat wants to get his reputation pumped up a little bit, he becomes an artist, an imitation Titian. Everybody comes around and kisses his ass. It's bullshit. It's gross. The Rolls Royce is gross. Art is gross. The diamond ring is gross. Fur coats are gross. Beauty is ultimately gross. It's been made so.
"Germaine Greer in The Female Eunuch makes this point about the ecological effect of worshipping beauty, Miss Beauty, the stereotype: raping nature, destroying pearls, killing tiny furry animals. For what? It's ridiculous".
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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