the column of lasting insignificance...
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A couple of days before one Christmas in the early Seventies, carefully clutching Andy Warhol’s invitation as an alibi, I crashed the Village Voice’s annual party in what I told myself would be a sentimental farewell gesture before bowing out of the New York scene. I was about to leave the New York, after 17 years, to live once again in Europe. (As it happened I didn’t stay there for very long and was soon back on the Soho scene).
The party was my first contact with the Voice for several years because although I been one of the cofounders, and a weekly columnist for the first ten years of its existence, I had been persona non grata over there since helping the East Village Other get started (1965) and my occasional peaceful overtures since, either by mail or by mutual friends, had been coldly rebuffed. The Voice never forgave the underground press for coming into existence, and never forgot my role in helping to midwife that birth. Nobody in authority at the paper made any comment to me at the party but it can’t say that I enjoyed myself very much. What seemed surprising, and depressing, about the party was the caliber of the guests: local businessmen, third-rate political hacks, shyster lawyers, a handful of New School academics and a few rich vulgarians such as Huntington Harford.
Because of the poor company and such moody thoughts, I said goodbye to the party pretty early and couldn’t escape the thought that in some ways, my goodbye was to the alternate media in general. It seemed years ago since the underground papers had been alive and flourishing, its editors friendly to each other and sharing a common purpose. Enthusiasm was boundless then and we had all believed we were going to turn society around and be ready for our place in the brave new world. But now here was the Voice—forerunner of the underground press and the best-known exponent of “alternative journalism” in the world—a bastion of the status quo, its staff, contributors, and friends all locked into the lifeless literary scene that it tried to bypass when it had started, a generation before.
The Voice, of course, had been seen as a model of reactionary politics to most of its successors, the self-styled underground press. But objectively were they any better at this time of history? Some were still bogged down in the dialectics of kill-the-pig, others in the joy of communal living. A number had blatantly sold out to a corrupt rock industry. None seemed to be offering much in the way of practical solutions to the problems we all faced, although who could blame them? For most papers it had been three to five years of constant financial hardship, police and official harassment, internal power struggles and, to a large extent, indifference from the straight community.
Among the successful papers, Art Kunkin’s L.A. Free Press had modeled itself after the Village Voice from the very beginning, and the formula proved successful. Kunkin, an expatriate New Yorker, did for Southern California what the Voice had already done back east: identified and polarized a community that didn’t know it existed until the paper arrived to serve as a clearinghouse. The Freep cut its teeth during a time of social upheaval in the mid-Sixties (love-ins, riots on the Strip, free rock concerts, Leary’s road-shows, the Watts riots, Chicano uprisings, Bank of America bombings) and built up a vast readership with a combination of subversive social comment and racy sexist ads.
While Kunkin, a professed Trotskyite, bought an expensive home in the hills, drove a telephone-equipped roadster and milked the paper to finance a printing plant and a chain of bookstores, staffers and contributors were punching time clocks and living on sub-standard wages—if, indeed they were paid at all. People who’d lent money to the paper were blandly ignored, their loans never repaid. Eventually disillusioned staffers split away to form a series of alternative papers, only one of which—John Bryan’s Open City—ever presented a real alternative. (Bryan was done in, partly by lack of support from people who were still faithful to the Freep, but mainly by rock superstar Leon Russell whose nude record ad brought the paper an obscenity bust. Russell not only refused any financial help, but declined to involve himself in the subsequent legal proceedings in any way).
Something of a similar nature happened further to the north with Max Scherr’s Berkeley Barb, which along with the Freep, New York’s EVO, Jeff Shero’s Rag in Austin, and Michigan’s The Paper, constituted the initial membership of the Underground Press Syndicate. Scherr, a forty-ish anarchist who’d been running a Berkeley bar during the emergence of the street scene in the early sixties, threw together his first Barb almost alone, peddled it in the streets and through its influence helped to bring about the cataclysmic events which made the University of California’s Berkeley campus the center of student revolution. The Barb was a hodge-podge of biased reporting, sexual anarchy, Black militancy, activist politics, acid agitation, and cynicism. It was usually the sloppiest-looking underground—and always among the most fascinating.
But Scherr, too, viewed success in old-fashioned terms: a fat bank account for himself, pittances for his employees. He was miserly, greedy and possessive and eventually many of his staff, too, peeled away to start a rival paper, the Berkeley Tribe, which never matched its parent’s interest or irreverence. (As a matter of fact it was downright insular for a long time, disdaining help from or for people outside the “tribe”). No other underground paper has ever matched the financial success and public acceptance of the Freep and the Barb, although EVO in its early days had probably the best chance of bridging the gap between the freak and straight communities. EVO’s founder Walter Bowart was certainly the first of the new-style publishers to conceive of a visually revolutionary paper rather than merely using offset techniques to save money while producing the same linear predictable package that the straight press had offered since Gutenberg. (Not many would associate American underground papers with “art”. A handful of North American papers—Oracle, Kaleidoscope, Georgia Straight, Logos, Harbinger, Nola Express, Astral Projection, Other Scenes, Seed, Open City—dabbled with the concept from time to time but it had more adherents in Europe with OZ, Amsterdam’s Real Free Press, Paris’ Actuel and Hotcha! being the stand-outs).
With a few exceptions, the underground press in America had barely changed since its inception five years before. All were honorable, all worthy, all had integrity—but somehow the spark had long ago faded. Instead of working to develop a larger community, most papers have decided to settle for the local freak scene: Goddess knows, the job they did was important enough, and the sacrifices most of their editors and staffs made to do it deserved respect, but somehow the excitement and imagination was gone. Maybe, I mused on this eve of my departure, it was related to the down period America was going through.
What major changes that had ensued had sometimes lessened the papers’ impact: New York’s once-gutsy Rat was taken over by Women’s Lib Liberation Workshop who, whatever the merits of their case, failed to prove themselves capable of producing a paper relevant to the community at large, rather than merely one section of it. (Sure, a paper run by males is male chauvinist; but the papers run by females were so excessively female chauvinist that even women didn’t read them.)
Similar criticisms could be made about papers taken over by Gay Lib, Irish Nationalists, Israeli freedom fighters, transvestites and toenail biters. Nobody would deny that each has a “cause” of some sort to present, but diverting an existing paper’s audience solely to the specific problems of a splinter faction does less for their case than they suppose.
To some extent the split that had plagued the movement from the beginning (and maybe every community from the beginning of time) had also polarized the papers. Should a corrupt society be challenged head on and fought at every opportunity? Or should it be ignored and circumvented until it became ineffective because of its utter irrelevance?
The problem had surfaced at the very first Be-In in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in January 1965 when 20,000 heads gathered to celebrate an emerging community that most of the world learned about only at Woodstock three years later. On that winter day in San Francisco, the alternatives were there for all to see: on the one side, Tim Leary, Ginsberg, the rock bands, the Oracle people... on the other, Scherr and his Berkeley Barb, Jerry Rubin, Mario Savio’s Free Speech Movement. All grooved together, elated by the show of strength and confident about the future.
Beneath the surface however, were the arguments: between the Oracle people (“Straighten out your own head, man; don’t confront the enemy and prolong the bad vibes; drop out”) and the radical Berkeley community (“Who’s going to stop the racism, end the war, confront the killers so you people can afford the luxury of dropping out?”). Neither side realized the importance and necessity of the other; both sides were right—and wrong.
And since that day the situation had seesawed, first with one viewpoint in the ascendancy, then the other. (Chicago, obviously, was the activist peak; Woodstock the time of the doped-out freak). As I contemplated this history, on the eve of leaving it all behind, the activists were in disarray, disillusioned with the obvious ineffectiveness of protest and demonstrating, devastated by the tactical error of Mayday. Many had left the struggle, and most of those remaining had become robots, repeating endlessly the same motions. The spark had disappeared.
The alternative press, obviously, was reflecting this mood—and seemed unwilling to or incapable of making any serious changes. The predominant theme in America had become theft, whether it be of the public at large by bankers and aerospace chieftains, or as individual victims of the telephone company and utility companies. Everybody no matter what their social level, seemed able to rationalize stealing, if only because they were not getting legally what they deserved. I was depressed, disillusioned and ready to try a new life back in England.
+ + +
As it happened my stay in Europe turned out to be brief. Being away from the U.S. made me realize how much I had come to appreciate the American way of life—and how much my psyche needed it. What I had failed to understand was what a prodigious capacity the country had for regeneration, how quickly everything could change (Nixon was gone!) and how—with all its faults—America was probably still the free-est country in the world. And probably the easiest in which to live once free of the shackles of extreme poverty.
Not everybody realizes that the daily newspaper is frequently scooped by monthly magazines which expend resources on exploring some issue or country in such depth that their stories spawn news stories—which turn up later on the front pages. The Atlantic is especially adept at this sort of thing and I was reading about China’s climb to super-power status, for example, long before any meaningful newspaper story on the subject.
I had been quoting from magazine pieces—stories that I felt had legs, that pointed to the future, that we’d hear more about—as far back as my Voice days, aided by sympathetic publishers who’d add my name to their comp list. Victor Navasky’s Nation was an early one but the granddaddy of them all was William Buckley’s NationalReview which started up the same year as the Voice and has kept up my (free) subscription to this day. I have quoted the Conservative periodical many times, and a few years before Buckley died, I wrote him an appreciative note saying that although I had not become a Republican after reading hundreds of issues of his magazine, I was certainly more sympathetic to the common sense aspects of the Conservative viewpoint than I had been originally.
Nobody, of course, has a monopoly on the truth or even what’s the most sensible policy about almost anything. I have found myself agreeing occasionally even with the likes of Dr. Laura or Bill O’Reilly (but almost never with the obnoxious Rush Limbaugh). “People of many political stripes came to see his life as something of an art form” said Buckley’s obituary in the New York Times, which described him as the “liberals’ favorite conservative” and certainly he gained many admirers when he advocated the decriminalization of marihuana. It might be presumptuous to guess that he was a smoker himself, but his tolerant attitude towards this and so many other things pointed that way.
In the golden Soho years, my weekly column took the form of a minimag subtitled John Wilcock’s Secret Diary. There was nothing secret about it, of course, because I used to hand it to everybody I met on West Broadway and its environs. It was a 5 1/2 x 4" newsletter on colored paper with a different colored head. It covered a week at a time, and I was always making notes for next week's issue. Most recipients gave me a perfunctory thanks, almost nobody ever made any comments about it either at the time or later, but I was satisfied with the knowledge that it was a beat I had to myself. So far as I could see, nobody else was writing about the ‘art scene’ itself, apart from the prissy reviews in the glossy art magazines. So I may not have been the ideal social historian of that particular scene—but I'm almost certainly the only one.
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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