High Times Greats: Albert Goldman

The celebrity biographer gets his moment in the spotlight in a 1989 interview.
High Times Greats: Albert Goldman
Albert Goldman/ High Times

For the August, 1989 issue of High Times, John Holmstrom interviewed author and academic Albert Goldman. To commemorate the anniversary of Goldman’s death at the age of 66 on March 28, 1994, we’re republishing the Q&A below.

Although he’s best known today for authoring celebrity biographies about John Lennon, Elvis Presley, and Lenny Bruce, Albert Goldman has a more interesting past than your average, everyday pop historian.

In the late ’60s and early ’70s, he was the rock critic for Life magazine, where his column reached 16 million readers every issue. A few years later, he was writing articles about drug smuggling for national monthlies like High Times and New York. It was while he crossed over from covering the rock culture beat to following the drug culture that he crossed path with the mysterious Tom Forcade, who had just started publishing High Times. Albert Goldman was a prototype of the talent who appeared here under Tom Forcade’s direction—established, respected writers, photographers, and editors whose status brought respect and credibility to the marijuana movement by virtue of appearing in High Times.

As usual, Albert Goldman’s opinions and point of view are highly controversial. They certainly don’t reflect the views of anyone associated with High Times. While we don’t agree with his cynical view of the ’60s counterculture, we certainly defend everyone’s right to express themselves.

High Times: When did you first meet Tom Forcade?

Albert Goldman: The first time I met him was for an interview we did for my book, Grassroots. It’s a book about marijuana, and there’s an interview with a guy who calls himself “Mike the Marijuana Maven.” That personality was actually Tom Forcade, but I didn’t know it at the time. It was an interview with a “marijuana taster” or “expert,” a guy who claimed that he was hired by big syndicates to go down the fields and test out the crops for quality.

At that time I was starting to do a series on weed in New York magazine. I didn’t know the first fucking thing about it. It seemed to me such a crazy world that it was possible that a man would be hired just to do that. So I bought the shuck. I made arrangements to interview this guy.

My partner was the late chic eder, who was a professional criminal, recently discharged from prison for the umpteenth time. We were working on a project for New York on the traits of marijuana from the streets of New York up to as high as we could reach. chic, who was a very clever cut-in man, had gone down to High Times and sniffed out Forcade, and was ingratiating himself with him rapidly.

That was the first time I met Forcade. I was quite impressed with his ability to talk nonstop about marijuana, and he brought a lot of samples with him. We got pretty stoned, I tape-recorded it all, and that was that. Some time later, chic told me “Mike the Marijuana Maven” is really Tom Forcade and Tom Forcade is really the owner of High Times. That was a big bulletin in those days.

HT: How did the story in New York come out?

AG: It was a very successful story. It ran at the end of the summer in ’75. We wanted to go on from there—go down to Colombia, and trace the stuff back to the source. There were offers of a film, there was talk of doing a one-shot New York magazine piece, and chic said, “Why don’t we get the ‘Mastermind’ to finance the thing?” We used to call Tom the “Maven” or the “Mastermind.” We hammered out some kind of deal, and he agreed to underwrite an expedition by myself and chic eder to get at sources of weed and report the whole business.

We went down there for a couple of weeks. We were quite successful, on the other hand we goddam near got killed, and we finally came back, breathing heavily, and it turned out that Tom had disappeared. There’d been some kind of big scare and he had gone underground. As far as the people at High Times were concerned the deal had to be renegotiated or dropped. So I went back to New York magazine and cut a deal for a one-shot.

It was pretty well-known Tom was a drug smuggler, but I didn’t know much about it. I just didn’t know anything about drug smuggling. I was a greenhorn. So I began to hear these stories that chic and he had done this, and they’d done that, and they’d gotten caught in a swamp in Florida, all this stuff. At that point, I became increasingly removed from eder; I was working with another smuggling gang. I was living in Charleston, South Carolina.

The long and the short of it was that Tom and eder got pretty involved in their smuggling operations after a while, and eventually the whole thing blew apart. It turned out that chic was actually a federal informer. But before we learned that, chic got busted for bringing in a load in Miami, because being a federal informer naturally didn’t stop him from being a criminal, which is what he basically was. So everything got very complicated.

Once in a while, I would come back to New York, and I’d see Tom. He was always friendly in his own weird way. He was a very weird personality. He was entirely a creature of his moods, and his moods often ran to depression, sometimes psychosis, sometimes rage, sometimes anomie—no emotion at all, no physical kind of feeling. On the other hand sometimes he could be very friendly, cute, amusing—you never knew who you were going to find when you walked into a room with Tom Forcade. One minute he was terrific, and the next minute he was terrible. One minute he wanted to do everything, and the next minute he didn’t want to do anything at all. It was really bewildering. Of course, everybody danced attendance on him, because he had the money, he had the power, and he liked to play that game. He liked to play the kingpin, as he put it. A lot of people relied on him. They’d go to him when they were broke, when they were in trouble, or they needed a lawyer. He was the big macher.

HT: The big what?

AG: Macher. It’s a Jewish word. The big deal. So, those are my impressions of Tom.

Then, finally, in the middle of ’77, I came back to New York from Charleston. Things were kind of hot at that point, because there’d been a lot of busts, and a lot of people had gotten in trouble, and then this plane crashed, and the people had gotten killed. You know the drug game has always been a very violent-natured game. If you stay in it long enough, you see a lot of people go. I hadn’t been back in New York long when the chic eder trial came up. The thing he had done in Miami the year before finally came to trial. His lawyer was Michael Kennedy. Michael and chic invented this defense that chic was going to say he was a reporter, and had worked on these stories with me, so when he got busted down there, he wasn’t smuggling or bringing dope, he was a journalist observing how smugglers work. So they tried that out on the D.A. down in Miami, and the D.A. went crazy. He told them, “Look, if you insist on employing this defense, I’m just going to put out the word, and you know I’m going to prove in court, that your client is a snitch, and in the world he’s living in, that’ll get him killed.”

Michael Kennedy was horrified to find out that he was defending a snitch, and came back and told his other clients. Tom, I must say, took it very cooly. I didn’t take it so cooly, I felt betrayed. I felt angry. I felt chic was really a rat, and it was a terrible moment.

That was the moment I felt closest to Tom, because we were constantly conferring on our strategy, going over what we were going to do, how we were going to deal with these problems that were coming up…

I had a lot of empathy with him. He had come through for me with assignments when I was broke, and he had always been very encouraging when things really got tough. Like when I was working with criminals—there were big panics, you thought you were going to get arrested, you were going to get indicted, and there’d be a grand jury proceeding—it was a continual hassle. He was always a tower of strength in those situations. He had a lot of courage in the face of peril. He was a very weird character, yet he was someone that I think a lot of people really cared a lot about. They had a lot of sympathy, they had a lot of affection, they had gratitude towards him, and you felt something about his pain. Obviously he’d always been in pain. He had suffered a lot, and that gets to you, too.

I spent a long time gathering material to write a profile about Forcade. I felt I arrived at a few conclusions that were important. Tom illustrated a character type, which I think is very characteristic of modern times, and that is a person who’s without any clear moral sense. You could never say where the center was, because there wasn’t any center. His life was sort of a long improvisation. It was just like his moods. You never knew what his personality was going to be, so how could you say what his morality was. or what his principle of being was.

It was easy to have 20 different versions of Tom Forcade, because it would depend on which mask the person was acquainted with. This was very much what I found with John Lennon, and I’m sure a lot of other people today, if you would examine them in depth, you would find this is going on. I think this is characteristic of our day. Like back in the ’50s they used to say what was characteristic of society was this so-called psychopathic personality, a personality that shows no guilt. I think in our day, you could say what’s typical is the personality that shows no consistency, where there’s no principle of unity. There’s no core. That’s what I saw in Tom. a continual movement this way and that way. One minute he’s a political radical, the next minute he’s just an outlaw. The next minute he’s not an outlaw, he’s an idealist. He’s all those things, but then again, you can’t be all those things and be any of them for real, you know, because you’re fundamentally contradicting yourself.

Tom, I think, represents the great problem of adjusting to values of the counterculture to the ’70s and to the modern world. He had a theory that you can make the system work against itself. In other words, you can go out and make the money doing the things that the system does, like publishing High Times, which was modeled on Penthouse and Playboy and magazines like that only using drugs instead of sex as the theme, and then you can take that money made by exploiting the system and use it to finance the values of the alternate culture. Well, it’s a theory, but when it went into practice, it just didn’t seem to produce much.

What that period in my life represented actually was an attempt on my part to follow the counterculture out of its old groove and into its new groove. The theme of the counterculture had now become the criminal culture, and that required a lot more courage, and shrewdness, than anything I’d done in the past. It also required a lot more action. What had I done in the past? I’d gone to concerts, which is a pretty soft life. Now, I was down in the swamps, carrying guns, and any minute we could get blown away or arrested, or get in a plane crash and get killed. So, it was an attempt to go to the front, and function like a war reporter in the drug wars.

All those guys who write all those books, they’ve never been to any of those places or done any of that shit, they just get it from the cops. Like those two guys who wrote The Kings of Cocaine. It’s like, what nerve. They collect all these reports from the police and publish them, you know? I don’t get the sense, in fact, I know goddam well they weren’t out there bringing any cocaine in, you know? But I used to ride right along with the action. The problem was that when it came time to publish it, you couldn’t, ’cause on the one hand you didn’t want to implicate the guys who were doing it, those were people you knew intimately, and on the other hand the police could grab you, grant you immunity from prosecution for yourself, and then lead you to tell about everybody else, and if you wouldn’t talk, then you’re in contempt of court. You were caught between two fires. On the one hand you had the smugglers, on the other hand you had the heat. Now, if you wanted to publish those stories, you’d have a further problem in that there’s been a great middle class recoil against drugs of all kinds. So it turned out to be a thankless task. A great adventure, a great experience, but not much yield in terms of writing. I finally had to give it up, because it wasn’t going anywhere. So I turned to writing Elvis.

HT: You started the Elvis book right after that?

AG: Yeah. I took the Elvis contract in the spring of ’78. I didn’t want any parts of the scene anymore. I mean all I was seeing was people being killed, and burnt, and fucked up. It was getting ugly. The romance was gone, the ugliness had set in.

HT: So what are you working on now?

AG: I’m just coming off the Lennon project, bringing out the paperback, and I’m doing a little journalism.

HT: You’re not planning any more celebrity biographies?

AG: No, I’m not, because it’s so boring and deadly. When you examine these people they just shrivel up to nothing, and then the public hates you for revealing that fact. It’s like drug smuggling. You do it a few times, and then you get pretty disgusted with it. I’m a divided character. I’ve always been. One part of me is Professor Goldman, with a PhD, who taught English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University for 20 years, and loves classical music, and one part of me is the guy who wrote about Lenny Bruce, and drug smuggling, and all that.

Generally, what happens when I get through with a long stretch on one course, I pack over onto the opposite course. Right now, the counterculture is shot in the ass. There wouldn’t be much to write about anyway. It seems dead today. It’s a very elementary kind of culture, rock ‘n’ roll, and I think it’s been braindead for about 20 years now, and I don’t see a helluva lot out there that interests me.

HT: I thought your Lenny Bruce book was great. It seems you have more of an affinity for Lenny than Elvis or John Lennon.

AG: Far more, because there was a lot more to him as a person. On the other hand, the public is much more interested in John Lennon than in Lenny Bruce. So, if you’re going to make a living out of writing, you have to come to terms with what the public is interested in. On the other hand, just because it interests them, that doesn’t mean I’m going to present it to them the way they want it presented, and perpetuate all the myths and lies. That I would never do, no matter how much money was in it.

That’s a vicious, and explosive sort of career, and I don’t seek that. I’ve never sought notoriety. I mean, shit, notoriety just comes out of the nature of the beast, you know. So, I’m looking around now, studying the options, and I’m not sure what else is next.

I did write, at one time, a 650-page manuscript about my adventures in the drug smuggling world, but never made any serious attempt to publish it. It would have to be revised extensively, in terms of the way public opinion is developing now. It doesn’t seem practical to get it published.

HT: You never know. The drug problem is so horrible now, the public might actually consider the impossible, and think about legalization as a real possibility.

AG: It’s conceivable. It’s gotten so out of hand now, you don’t recognize it anymore. Colombia was always a very wild place. It was very scary, but the kind of shit going on there in recent years wasn’t happening like that.

But there’s a logic to everything. These guys are insignificant people, but the logic of crime leads to bigger and bigger operations, more and more corruption, more and more killing, and more and more disruption of the culture and the economy. It’s like a cancer, and finally it just fucks up everything. Finally, some powerful government is going to have to step in. like with Al Capone, and say, “That’s it. We’re not going to have any more of this shit.”

HT: And we’ll live in a police state?

AG: That’s what people want now. I think there’ll be an immense repressive effort. And I think what you have now is a generation that’ll dig it. This Yuppie Generation, they’re busy repressing themselves day and night, so why shouldn’t they be busy repressing other people? They operate under endless taboos in a new Victorian society, so I don’t think they’ll put up much opposition to repressing anything.

I see the pendulum swinging towards real repression. Heavy repression. “Send in the troops,” that’s the attitude now. And you can’t say it wasn’t provoked, because it has been. The thought that the shit that went on in Colombia could start here—and it has started in Miami—that’s pretty hard to take. When you go in and start shooting down the Supreme Court, it’s out of hand. baby.

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