The column of lasting insignificance…
October 10, 2015 by John Wilcock
I had first met Tim Leary in Mexico at a dinner party in Cuernavaca to which I was taken by my companion at the time, a Berkeley divorcee who seemed to know everybody who mattered. My memories of Tim were this tall, smiling professor conventionally dressed but for some bright red socks. Obviously his mind was pretty sharp but the conversation did not seem in any way unusual. I didn't know anything about his background--how his years as a clinical psychologist and now at Harvard had soured him on the basics of a discipline that merely helped "patients" to adjust to a society which itself was out of kilter. "Psychotherapy", he had written, "is in some respects an implausible procedure offering to the individual the opportunity to learn those things about himself which, by definition, he does not wish to know".
Something dramatically new was needed to open up people's minds, Tim felt, and he was beginning to think the answer might lie in some consciousness-changing drug. A voracious researcher, he was familiar with Havelock Ellis' turn-of-the-century experiments with peyote and those of William James and doubtless knew about the experiences of Dr. Albert Hoffman, the Swiss chemist who had invented LSD in 1938 and psilocybin 20 years later.
By the late 1950s, R. Gordon Wasson's studies about the mystical and religious properties of Mexican "magic" mushrooms had been widely publicized as well as the ways the English psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond had been using LSD to rehabilitate alcoholics in a Canadian mental health clinic. Similar experiments had been taking place in England at the Powick mental hospital in Worcestershire and many of the patients (given the drug without their consent) subsequently suffered horrendous flashbacks which continued for years. At the time, though, LSD seemed to be a new wonder drug capable of dramatically inbueing its subjects with a new sense of reality.
"That summer in Cuernavaca", wrote Leary biographer John Bryan of 1960, "Tim was looking for a 'cure' that would not only help struggling humanity but himself. He sought a youth potion, a magic elixir to bend his mind, tone up his muscles, stiffen his cock, drive the death-thinking, middle-aged blues away".
What he found, sampled and was transformed by, was the magic mushroom, psilocybe mexicana.
"You are never the same after you've had that one flash glimpse down the cellular time tunnel" Leary wrote. "You are never the same after you've had the veil drawn".
The phone rang in my Greenwich Village apartment one Saturday afternoon and a voice identified itself as Michael Hollingshead, a visitor from London where he said he'd been told that I always knew about what parties were going on. I said that, indeed, I was shortly setting off for one uptown with my friend Sophie, and if he'd care to wait for me at 9pm on the steps of the main post office on Eighth Avenue, I'd pick him up en route. I duly introduced them and after the party didn't see either of them again for two years during which time they married, had a child and separated. It was only much later I discovered that Hollingshead had been the courier bringing to Leary his first supply of LSD direct from Albert Hoffman's lab. "The man who turned on the world" is how Michael subsequently styled himself.
Meanwhile, Leary and his working partner Richard Alpert, under the cover of scientific research, were handing pink pills of psilocybin turning people on singly and in groups--400 in the first series of experiments of which 157 answered a questionnaire. Nine out of ten said they wanted to repeat the experience, 83 per cent said they had "learned something or had insight" and 62 per cent (including myself) swore it had changed their lives for the better. My experience came via Dave Solomon, the genial editor of the jazz magazine Metronome, whose emphasis on the impeccability of "these two Harvard professors" quickly overcame my misgivings. "And besides", Dave added, "your friend (novelist) Dan Wakefield will be present and we'll all watch over you".
What I recall most from that afternoon is the pervasive feeling of goodwill, gusts of laughter from me about whatever subject was discussed, and a scary moment as we walked along 42nd Street and I saw a cop approaching. Dave took my arm to calm my paranoia and whispered in my ear. "No law against laughing man; no law against laughing". It was an epiphany.
Subsequently described by High Times as “an elder statesman of turned-on America”, Dave went on to write seminal books about LSD, cocaine and marihuana, was busted over his relatively minor connection to a drug-conspiracy smuggling scheme and spent more than five years in a British jail. Deported back to the U.S. in 1983, he told the magazine that he had first experienced mescaline as far back as 1957 while working as an editor at Esquire. He died in the ‘90s.
One afternoon not long after my first drug experience I tried LSD for the first time. The celebrated movie director Milos Forman arrived back at the Village apartment where he staying to find half a dozen of us totally stoned. It must have been a shock but he took it in his stride and refrained from evicting us all until we came down.
Al Aronowitz, probably the most sympatico chronicler of the underground in the "straight press' (he was a feature writer for the New York Post) invited me up to the Plaza Hotel to meet Derek Taylor. "We're bringing the Beatles over to introduce them to America and thought you'd be interested," Derek said, "and, of course, you might have some ideas". I didn't, but I was flattered to be asked. I knew of the Beatles partly because of my regular monitoring of the British papers and magazines. And because Art Unger had told me of the incredible sales racked up by his Datebook whenever it featured Beatles' pictures; what were the chances of doing a whole issue devoted to the group? It seemed a pretty safe bet, I agreed. The issue sold a million copies.
A moviemaker named Stan Russell and his girlfriend Jan Tice had been the major influences on my life early in the 1960s. Jan, a slender model with waist-length hair whose quick mind belied her soft voice and laid-back manner, were virtually inseparable except when Stan felt it necessary to rendezvous with some other beauty, usually Nancy Friday. Jan had a remedy for that. "I make sure I fuck him until he's exhausted just before his date" she confided. She would frequently explain to me that being beautiful (and she was gorgeous) carried its own hazards, one being the way it made her a target for unwanted hostility. I expressed surprise. "Yes" said Jan. "I might be just standing by myself at a party and somebody will challenge me in some way by saying how much they hate my shoes--or my attitude".
"Goodness", I said, "How do you cope with things like that?"
Jan looked me in the eye. "I stare right back just like this" she said, "and I've found that I only need to remember two possible responses: I say either, 'Oh well, I'm just a dumb chick, you know' or I say, 'Oh, I don't agree with you at all; why do you say that?' I've found that one or the other will deal with just about anything".
She went on to explain that the best policy was always to say yes to everything because "you can always say 'no' later, whereas if you say 'no' it's much harder to say 'yes' later".
It was Jan who taught me always to carry what she termed "de-fusers"--a marble, perhaps, or a foreign coin or even an attractive pebble. "When somebody's angry, I just hand it to them and if they accept it--even if they're puzzled--it defuses the situation. Sometimes, later in the conversation if I get angry they'll hand it back and this little de-fuser can go back and forward interminably".
I tried this and it works. Even to this day I carry de-fusers in my pocket, and I thought of Jan nostalgically years later when I was sitting across the table from Walter Bowart, EVO’s former publisher. He kept subtly imitating my postures. If I leaned on the table, he leaned on the table. If I crossed my legs so did he. "It's just body language" Walter explained. "If you act the same as the other person, it subconsciously makes you seem more sympatico".
Jan lived in a magnificent floor-through apartment at Fifth Avenue and 9th Street, complete with marble-topped tables, four-poster bed, ornate hat racks, cane rocking chairs, and a grand piano. Paul Desmond, a near-alcoholic, loved to play the piano at parties and Jan and Stan spent a lot of time persuading him to forsake his booze in favor of pot, although his conversion never lasted for long. There were lots of parties at Jan's pad, and after one rowdy session at the Corner Bistro with a bunch of cronies we all went back to Jan’s place for what inevitably turned into my first (and only) orgy, about which I remember little except that author Rona Jaffe refused to remove her panties (much to the annoyance of her date, Voice columnist Bill Manville).
Rona had started as an editorial assistant at a publishing house before writing a novel The Best of Everything—considered pretty sexy at the time--which was then made into a successful movie by Jerry Wald. She had planned to be a writer when she was seven years old, and once told an interviewer: “I thought what I really wanted was to be a journalist and travel in the jungle with a man, and to share the experience with him”. She brought her journalistic talents into play at the orgy, subsequently selling the story to a skin magazine, reputedly for $2,000.
According to Jan, the way she met Stan was by spotting him in the street and following him, planning to strike up an acquaintance. Stan walked into a building on West 66th Street and through an office door so Jan followed him--only to find herself in Dr. Harold Greenwald's group therapy class. When everybody took turns identifying themselves, Jan said: "Oh, I just followed this nice-looking man here because I liked the look of him" and thereafter she attended the class regularly.
She took me along once, to satisfy my curiosity, and immediately after the session opened and Dr. Greenwald asked how everybody had spent the weekend, one nondescript fellow piped up with: "I dreamed that I was at a group fuck with everybody in the class". Greenwald was unfazed. "I'd like you all to tell me, in turn, how you feel about that" he said. We were about one and half minutes into the 50-minute hour. No wonder, I thought, group therapy was reputed to bring fast results.
With Jan and Stan I had many enjoyable days. I accompanied them upstate to tend an acre of hemp they had planted in Rockland County, nurtured by frequent visits carrying water in collapsible canvas buckets, and sacks of A&P fertilizer. Unfortunately, just before the harvesting, neighboring deer devoured the entire crop. Our most memorable caper was Stan's idea: enlisting Eugenia Lewis to photograph a naked Jan against historic New York backgrounds. The idea was to produce a sensational book (this was in 1960, long before everyday nudes were in fashion).
We took pictures without incident early one morning beside the Washington Square Arch, but on our second foray--to Wall Street--were spotted by a passing police car and ended up in court. At the trial, in a brilliant coup, our lawyer made the successful argument that the Disorderly Conduct subsection under which were charged--causing a crowd to collect--was invalid because the only crowd had been a melee of enthusiastic policemen (several patrol cars turned up after the initial report was filed). We were all acquitted but this dream-tabloid story never appeared because that very day was when Bobby Kennedy was shot.
Manhattan Memories is available at amazon.com.
also available on amazon.com...
National Weed (1974, issue #3)
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
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
Now on Boing-Boing!
An authorized comic book biography of John Wilcock,
This IS a book-length comic series on John Wilcock. People who enjoy focusing on underground and alternative media are occasionally familiar with John's work, but most often the response is "who's that?" Outside of small press historians and collectors, John remains very unknown. Which makes no sense, the more you learn about him. We're very excited about the opportunity to tell his story. Art for THE STORY OF JOHN WILCOCK is by me and co-conspirator Scott Marshall. Story comes from an extended and ongoing year-long interview with Wilcock, himself. The focus is John's years in New York, roughly 1954-1971.
January 2, 2011
A way with Andy Warhol : John Wilcock recalls life in iconic pop artist's inner circle
During a journalism career that began when he was 16, John Wilcock has interviewed celebrities — Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich, Milton Berle, Steve Allen and Bob Dylan, to name a few — was part of enigmatic pop artist Andy Warhol's intimate circle in the 1960s, traveled to exotic locations all over the globe, has written dozens of books ranging from frugal travel to magic, was one of five founders (Norman Mailer was one of them) of the Village Voice and co-founded Interview magazine (still in circulation) with Mr. Warhol.
“The Return of the World's Worst Businessman”
John Wilcock is not what you would call a household name, and yet, he has had a measurable impact on art, journalism and culture-at-large over the last century. He co-founded Interview with Andy Warhol. He also was one of the co-founders of The Village Voice. He has written for countless print and online publications: Frommer’s, The Daily Mirror, The Daily Mail, The East Village Other, The Huffington Post, The New York Times, The Ojai Orange, etc. So why, one feels inclined to ask, is he relatively unknown? The answer seems simple: Wilcock has called himself “the world’s worst businessman.” This self-description makes sense because listening to him one hears the voice of a writer and a traveler and an enthusiast, not at all the voice of a businessman. In an age when it seems like everyone is all about business—art as a business, fashion as a business, everything as a business—it is refreshing to hear someone self-identify as “the world’s worst businessman.” It seems less like he has failed as a businessman and more like he has refused to become one. In addition to all his other accomplishments,...
Wednesday, December 29, 2010
Jewcy Top 10 Art Books of 2010
This brilliant remake of a pop primary document is brought to you by John Wilcock, probably the Most Interesting Man in the World in the realm of writers. The Village Voice cofounder had also edited Warhol’s seminal mag Interview in the 70s. The fruit of the book is in the genius of its redesign. After 40 years out-of-print, the newly edited edition is “beautifully redesigned in a bright, Warholian palette” that surrounds a trail of Harry Shunk’s internationally Pop-art-informed camera as well as transcribed interviews with those closest to Warhol that ultimately make up an oral history of the artist’s Factory period. By looking at him through the scope of his peers, this book is the equivalent of Pittsburgh’s Warhol Museum in illuminating qualities of Warhol’s warped mirror on which our American culture was briefly reflected.
Monday, November 15, 2010
A Reader Comment from the recent New York Times Frugal Traveler post
Not only did John Wilcock shake up staid publishing in the USA, from the Village Voice to the East Village Other, his influence extended to several continents, including Australia & the UK, where - in his mild mannered way - he pushed the boundaries of image and speech. The counter culture was nothing but a dull puddle, until John kicked out the jams and ignited the Underground Press, which attracted absurd prosecutions, that of course boosted circulations. An unsung hero of the sixties,
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 Săo 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.
"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."