High Times Greats: John Wilcock

A 1988 interview with the late British newsman and fixture in the alternative-press community.
High Times Greats: John Wilcock
John Wilcock (L) with Village Voice columnist Bill Manville in 1960. Courtesy of John Wilcock/High Times, 2011

For the the December, 1988 issue of High Times, John Holmstrom interviewed John Wilcock (1927-2018), a pillar in the underground press scene and one of the founders of the Village Voice. To celebrate what would have been Wilcock’s birthday on September 13, we’re republishing the interview below.

The underground press, which flourished in the ’60s, actually had its origins in the ’50s, when weekly newspapers like the Village Voice were first published. John Wilcock founded the Voice, and was instrumental in the development and production of many underground newspapers during the ’60s, including the East Village Other, Oz, and the LA Free Press. He also founded the Underground Press Syndicate and helped develop ideas for High Times at the first editorial meeting. In fact, he was a major contributor to the first issue of High Times, which identified him as “the elder statesman of the underground press.”

John Wilcock currently produces, writes, directs and stars in Wait A Minute—the John and Joanna Show, a cable-TV show, shot on location from all over the globe, available on Viacom in San Francisco, American Cable Systems in LA, and Manhattan Cable in New York.

High Times: Can you tell us about the Underground Press Syndicate, which you founded with Tom Forcade?

John Wilcock: I’d just quit the Voice and decided to edit the East Village Other (EVO). Walter Bowart (EVO publisher) and I were sitting around the EVO office, and we realized that all these papers were starting to appear. There was The Paper in Lansing, Michigan and The Berkeley Barb and the LA Free Press and EVO, and The Rag in Austin, Texas. It occurred to us that we ought to have a syndicate so we could use each other’s material. The only agreement was we could all swap each other’s paper—we’d make sure everybody got each other’s paper and we could pick up anything we wanted. We were sitting around at the typewriter wondering what to call this thing. I was brought up in war-time in Britain, when the French Resistance were the big heroes—the French Underground, you know? So somehow, this word “underground” came out and we decided to call it the Underground Press Syndicate (UPS).

Just after we began it and set it in motion, I took off, because I was writing travel books at the time, so I was away for several months. When I got back, the UPS thing was in total chaos. EVO hadn’t been able to attend to that kind of business as well as getting out the paper. So Bowart said, “Listen, you’d better take this whole thing back and organize it yourself.” So he handed over all the UPS files and, almost simultaneously, I got this call from Tom. He identified himself and said, “I understand you’ve taken over the Underground Press Syndicate again. I have all the files of all the papers down here, and I wonder if I could be of some help. Maybe we could do it together in some way, you know?” And I said, “Sure. As a matter of fact, it might be a good idea to insure that there were no rip-offs if we both run it. We’ll open a UPS bank account, but we’ll both counter-sign checks. You handle all the details down there and I’ll collect stuff up here and write a newsletter report, send you the stuff every month, and you’ll print it and send it out.”

That was the initial impetus for the thing. The way we financed it was, at that time, things like Time/Life were getting interested in the underground papers. So we figured we’d sell them a subscription to all the papers. All they did was pay once and they got all the underground papers. Each underground paper fulfilled the subscription and the money went to UPS.

It went on for quite awhile with Tom and I doing it. Tom eventually turned up in New York and he was so efficient at the whole thing that he just took it over. I was only too happy for him to run it all. It turned out he had this degree in business administration, which is kind of funny for an underground guy. Well, that was the early days of UPS.

Tom and I were very close in the beginning, because I was his ally before he came to New York. As a matter of fact, he told me once where he first saw my name… There had been a happening in the Village some years before—some kind of art happening at which they were going to kill some animal. This friend and I were waiting for the thing to start, and we thought, “This is ridiculous. Why are we sitting here waiting for them to come in and kill this animal?” I think it was a chicken or something. So we just left—went over the wall, grabbed the chicken and let it loose.

This was reported and Tom was really impressed by this. He thought he’d better keep his eye on me, I suppose. So we were very friendly, because from the very beginning we shared a lot of the same beliefs.

HT: What beliefs?

JW: Tom was basically an anarchist in my view—an anarchist in the best sense of the word. He had the kind of cynicism that most newspaper people have about the system. Of course, back then, everybody basically shared the same fundamental beliefs about the material things, like the war and dope and racism and all this stuff.

HT: Tell us about your role in starting the Village Voice? How old were you?

JW: I must have been in my early 20s. I always had a big romantic feeling about the artists’ and writers’ community, and I felt that Greenwich Village was the center of the universe. When I came to New York, it was 1954. I found it kind of quiet and pleasant and ideal and very attractive and very glamorous, except that there didn’t seem to be anything. I mean, there was no paper. The local paper was called the Villager. That’s still around to some extent. It was even more boring than it is now, just tea party type coverage of the community.

I walked into Sam Kramer’s jewelry store on 8th Street, because this guy looked so weird with an earring in one ear and a beard—and that was still something like really weird. And I said, “Why is it that they don’t have a paper in Greenwich Village for the artists and writers?” And he says, “Well, why don’t you start one?” Well, I’d been there about four days or something. So I put a notice up in a bookstore in Sheridan Square. It said we were going to get this paper together, and everybody was summoned to a meeting to discuss it. That’s how I met Dan Wolf and Ed Fancher (Village Voice co-founders). The paper didn’t get started then, because nobody had any money. So I went to work for Pageant magazine.

A year later, I bumped into them in Julius’s bar and they said, “What happened to your paper?” I said, “Well, it never got anywhere. We didn’t have any money.” They said “We got this $14,000 from Ed’s Orange County telephone stock. So we’re going to start the paper.” So I quit Pageant and went to work for them.

I was a news editor, and said, “I’m going to do a column and it’s going to be called ‘The Village Square,'” because (Norman) Mailer was always talking about how hip he was, and the differences between hipness and squareness. So I thought it would be kind of a funny pun to have a column called “The Village Square.” I didn’t even put my by-line on it to start with. I figured I was on the front page of the first issue of the Village Voice with a story about folk singers in Washington Square. So we got this paper going, and of course, it started losing money from the very beginning. They couldn’t even pay me. I went to work for The New York Times for three years, when the Voice was going through all these early bad phases. At the beginning of the ’60s, I bumped into Arthur Frommer at a party and he was just starting to write travel books. I’d been working on the Times travel section, and thought “Gee, this sounds really exciting!” So I quit, and he gave me 1,000 bucks and I went to Mexico to write Mexico on $5 a Day.

Going to Mexico was really a conversion to me, because I discovered Henry Miller for the first time. I couldn’t believe anybody could write like Miller. It just seemed to be an incredible kind of opening up of everything. Then what happened was that Dave Solomon—you know who Dave Solomon is, of course…

HT: I’m afraid not.

JW: Dave Solomon was the editor in 1960 of Metronome, which was the music magazine that catered to the druggie musicians, as opposed to Downbeat, which was for the straight musicians. Dave Solomon went on to write The Marijuana Papers, The LSD Papers, and The Cocaine Papers. Anyway, he called up and said, “Listen, there are two professors at Harvard and they’re doing this experiment with these pills and if you want to come up and take the pills, we’ll keep an eye on you.”

Of course, it was psilocybin. I’d never heard of psilocybin at the time. Although I refused marijuana in the past… I mean, Mailer had offered me dope, and all kinds of people offered me dope. They said, “You understandably are nervous about drugs and stuff, but we’ll keep an eye on you. We want you to take these pills as an experiment and we want you to just hang out here. For three hours, you’ll feel real happy and we just want to take notes on what you say and stuff. And then afterwards, we want you to fill in a questionnaire.”

And I said, “Oh, shit. Why not? Anything for a column.” So I went up there and took these pink psilocybin pills and just totally freaked out. I had a marvelous time. I was so happy all afternoon. They took me out on 42nd Street and I was giggling away at everything. Suddenly, I saw a cop coming and I froze. I said, “There’s a cop! There’s a cop!” And Dave leaned over and said, “No law against laughing, man.” Which is one of the great early insights I had, you know, when I was stoned. So that’s what got me into dope.

I think I was probably the first person to write about dope in a relatively straight American paper. I started picking up mentions of it, like, say, the British Medical Association covered some report that had been made in India, and they quoted me from there. But that’s getting ahead of the story.

HT: What year was this?

JW: That would be about 1960, or 1961 at the latest.

HT: How did the ’60s underground publishing scene first happen?

JW: Probably Walter Bowart, singly, and the people who did the Oracle in San Francisco were the major influences. You see, the Berkeley Barb in San Francisco and the LA Free Press and the Village Voice—all of which predated the East Village Other—had all done old, hot-type printing. Bowart realized that once you started printing offset, you were released from linear constraints—you didn’t have to print a paper looking like other papers. You could do it any shape and any size.

HT: What about Ed Sanders? John Sinclair seemed to think he was the first underground publisher.

JW: I knew Ed from the early Village days in the late ’50s when he and Tuli (Kupferberg) had the East Side Bookstore over on 383 East 10th Street, and he was putting out Fuck You, which was this mimeographed magazine on very thick, orangey paper. He’d print up 10 or 11 issues of Fuck You and give them out, and put out a catalog offering these things for $75 a set or something. And he sent these catalogs out to colleges all over the country. Of course, everybody bought them because it had all the very heavy names in the American poetry scene, like Leroi Jones—the poetry underground, I guess.

Ed was so brilliant with language that he was influential in that way, but he didn’t really have much to do with the development of underground papers as such. The forerunners of underground paJohn Wilcock (L) with Village Voice columnist Bill Manville in 1960. Courtesy of John Wilcock (2011)pers were really more like Paul Krassner (who started The Realist).

HT: Do you think there’s an underground movement left to talk about today?

JW: There are always people working underground, except that at this particular time, there isn’t any sort of cohesive unit or united sort of exchanging things and doing the same stuff. I’d like to set up some kind of an organization so that we could all swap (video) tape all over the world. But it’s very hard to do something like that.

I just plug away. I basically do video like I’ve always been a writer. I wander around, put the camera on people without warning, ask them a few things and edit in the camera as I go along.

I started doing video when Nick Yanny, who used to do the Tomorrow’s Television Tonight Show, had me on. I was still giving away my little paper and he said, “Why do you spend $100 bucks giving out a paper for free when you could spend $50 bucks and do a cable show?” So I started going into the studio and doing little bits and pieces. After a while, I got a camera and started wandering around. I began to realize that it was a very effective tool for a reporter.

I feel that what’s wrong with television is perfection. Everybody wants perfection. It’s rehearsed and polished and prepared and predictable and there are no surprises. When people say they’re bored with television, they don’t really mean they’re bored with the programs, they mean they’re bored with the way television is presented. It’s ludicrous that a talk show should have to close down because the writers are on strike. A talk show is supposed to be about people talking, you know? Conversation, not people who learn a script!

The reason this is on my mind is that on my own show, I did a rap the other day about, “There are two kinds of people concerned with television—the people who make television, who think that it doesn’t work unless it’s perfect, and the people who watch it, who don’t give a damn.” I mean, if it’s interesting, people don’t care if the color’s a bit off or the sound’s not quite clear.

What I find really ironic is that people who make television are beginning to divine that people want reality. So what they’re giving them now is pretend reality.

HT: Like that soap opera/cop show, The Street.

JW: Right. And doing commercials that look like they’re done with an amateur’s camera, with shaking and all the rest of it. Yet it costs half a million to produce. I mean, if I wasn’t so old and so used to this thing, I’d be amazed. But I’m not amazed because that’s the way commerce is. It decides what somebody wants and then gives them an imitation of it.

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