May 14, 2016 by John Wilcock
All through the Seventies I was ambitious to start a new paper, less polemical than the Voice, more commercial than Other Scenes and with some of the elements of London's sarcastic Private Eye as well as the political and cultural elements of Britain's literary weeklies. The underground papers whose anarchistic style had promoted a more personal type of journalism, had nevertheless by this time, phased into “alternative journalism”, too narrowly political or small-town parochial to have widespread appeal and I believed that a good New York weekly could become a national paper. Because of my background, Other Scenes had always been more international than local, frequently carrying pieces by my friends in Greece, England, Japan, India, and Australia.
“The underlying theme of the paper”, my proposal read, “will be the ‘backstage’ of everything: what goes on behind the scenes in publishing, why advertising accounts change hands; why one record hits platinum and another doesn't, where the payoffs go. The media itself, together with all aspects of pop sociology, are subjects of great fascination to today’s public and these will get plenty of attention. Politics will not be ignored but treated with a rather more cynical view than that taken by our competitors. The paper will take an intelligent person's worldview of things: bold, provocative, and ready to give the shaft to certain people and institutions that well merit it but which for one reason or another seem to escape criticism and examination. Mostly, though, the paper will be witty, treating current affairs with good humor and wisdom, offering a vision of the brighter side of life”.
The proposed 36pp tabloid, with two colors and good graphics would appear on colored newsprint (buff, pink, or green) which “will make the paper stand out and be talked about”. My budget allowed a $15,000 initial sum for the purchase of a Compugraphic typesetting unit and about the same amount for editorial and office expenses, including eight editorial salaries ranging from $150-$300. The ambitious plan was to break even within one year with a circulation of 50,000 and a total expenditure of under a million dollars.
My first priority would be to define the audience by selecting the 400 ‘names’ that I believed readers would be most interested in, and build files on each of these. Obviously there would be many more but this was a start. In my vision the paper would be an exciting one, full of motion and life, and every subject transcending its base in such a way that instead of departments catering to specific tastes, everybody would want to read everything. And profiles, so often the evaluation of one writer, would offer a multitude of opinions solicited about the subject, many of them inevitably contradictory.
Among the projected columns were Mack the Hack, gossip from the taxi trade; Matchmaker, a column that arranged blind dates between readers whose letters were published; Sixty Seconds, brief telephone interviews with otherwise inaccessible personalities; UNderneath, gossip from embassy cocktail parties and that (largely ignored) international community beside the East River; Ragtrade Tales and Power Struggles dealing respectively with the garment district and Wall Street.
Other plans were to commission comic strips about the day-to-day adventures of the ubiquitous Sylvia Miles and Jack Finnegan's cult novel Time and Again, and run a series of pictorials on what's above the ground—the buttresses, cornices, gargoyles, and eccentric architectural features rarely seen by the pedestrians of a city where nobody ever looks up.
The plans for this paper, of course, never came to fruition but I’ve always appreciated maverick publishers, and after underground papers morphed into the “alternative press” there weren’t many trailblazing eccentrics to be found. One such, however, was Bruce Anderson whose broadsheet (“the country weekly that tells it like it is”) accompanied its logo with Joseph Pulitzer’s dictum that “newspapers should have no friends”.
Bruce, however, had admirers, some of them in his tiny northern California community of Boonville, but a surprising number in other parts of the country who regarded the Anderson Valley Advertiser as “the toughest little weekly in America”.
On my way north I drove through Boonville (whose most famous local son is the chef Thomas Keller who owned the French Laundry here) and chatted briefly with Bruce in his barn-like office.
The feisty editor has opinions about virtually everything, especially the roman a clef by local writer Bill Barich which he felt was a cut above most contemporary fiction by “a bunch of candy-assed, English-department bushwah or, worse, Politically Correct arguments delivered by bloodless cartoon figures or, worse yet, prolonged whines about low-intensity victimization”.
The abysmal standards of American education are a frequent target of his ire. “What most teachers offer is the subliminal message of ‘Be like me, keep your mouths shut, your head down, your noses firmly in the buttcrack of whatever drone happens to be in charge of the campus’.
Every week the Advertiser devotes three full pages to letters and some of his readers are as articulate and angry as himself, being prone to rants about the local sheriff’s “overt buffoonery, incompetence and just plain bad judgment” or noting the wine-growing region’s “peculiar blend of phony liberalism, fake feminism, unfounded police bashing, and general naiveté”.
Anderson became such a thorn in the local council’s side with his constant allegations about back-scratching and “palsy-walsyism” that they had him jailed a couple of times, once for contempt of court when he declined to tell them the source of a document that had shown them in a bad light. He was philosophical about it all. “I irritate them to the point that they want me out of the way” he shrugs. On another occasion, he’d gotten into a scuffle with the County Superintendent of Schools who slandered him as “a 10th-rate McCarthyite”. This one cost him 35 days in the clink. Looking back, he reflected: “I feel I should have held out for at least third-rate” he said.
I took a trip to Italy to stay with my friend Angelo Quattrocchi, whose own underground paper, Roma fatta, Roma sotto (‘Rome high, Rome low’) existed contemporaneously with all the rest of us. He was living on a farm in Tuscany and when we drove to the beautiful nearby village Roccastrada the dream re-emerged as strong as ever. I envisaged taking in a Canon copying machine, with its interchangeable color cartridges, and settling there for a few months to report on local events. We'd entice other Italian writers to contribute essays and put together the continuing saga of rural life that—we were sure—could be the world in microcosm. Well, maybe someday.
For a time, there were endless pages and pages—more of these ideas—but of course nothing came to fruition. An incompetent business man, I have never been any good as a salesman—of ideas or anything else—and this was no exception. Instead, I turned to a more affordable dream, a weekly cable television show. Manhattan Cable was devoting three channels to public access, one used by the city to promote its civic meetings and two others open to anybody who cared to produce live programs, or tape them from a small studio nearby. The cost was a mere $50 per half hour.
It was always lively in the early Eighties around Metro Access, the cramped studio owned by Jim Chladek from which public access shows fed live into MCTV. Robin Byrd, clad in a net two-piece bikini, was queen of the sex shows and while usually featuring strippers shrewdly confined her own bare-all to one show a year. Chladek himself did a Sunday midnight show (right after me) with absolutely no frills just sitting on camera answering technical questions. Sometimes Midnight Interlude, the nude interview show on Channel J, would be on a rerun with the studio phone number and eager viewers admiring the swinging couples would call up and interrupt Jim. The workhorse of Metro Access was Willy Hohauser, a pony-tailed teenager who often produced two shows simultaneously in the twin studios—issuing instructions and advice, operating cameras, putting on tape, answering the phones, taking out the garbage, whatever. Nothing seemed beyond him.
Because I needed a collaborator I sought out Joanna Walton, a quick-witted American whom I'd once met in London. I envisaged a show based on the proven formula of a couple in which the wise-ass woman always had the last word (Blondie & Dagwood, Sonny & Cher). Joanna, later killed in the Lockerbie crash, was one of the smartest women I had ever met and we did half a dozen shows together until she felt it was too much of a commitment.
After that I tried various guest co-hosts, one of whom was Jerelle Krauss, an art director at the Times. She brought along her friend Jim Turrell, a conceptual artist who did amazing things (in galleries) with light. Unfortunately none of them could be demonstrated here and Turrell himself was so abstruse and inarticulate that the entire show was a nightmare. I did learn two lessons: (i) how necessary it is to keep absolute control of the placing of inserts such as slides and tapes because Jim kept popping them in after he'd finished talking about them; and (ii) that however brilliant somebody might be, it might not make good television. An artist after all shouldn't be expected to be adept at explaining his art, or he'd be a writer or an actor. I had been in the habit of passing on to my guests the advice of Quentin Crisp to people about to make TV appearances: “Decide what you want to say, and then say it no matter what the question is”. In this instance, however, the advice proved to be inappropriate.
I introduced Jerelle to Elyse, a low-echelon advertising type, who co-hosted shows on which our guest was advertising hotshot Barry Day (who brought along hitherto unseen foreign commercials years before it became fashionable to do so) and they got along fine possibly because they were in agreement that I monopolized the time too much and hardly let them get a word in. Sadly it was true, I conceded, and suggested that they would just have to be more aggressive about interrupting. I do talk too much which is probably why I am so drawn to Appolonius of Tyana's aphorism, Loquacity has many pitfalls; silence, none.
My old friend Caroline Seebohm helped me put together half a dozen book shows in which one-minute reviews were interspersed with brief author interviews and this led me to transfer my earlier ambitions of producing a sort of “backstage-of-everything” newspaper into the medium of television. I planned to put together a show with brief segments about books, advertising (with Barbara Lippert, who had appeared on a couple of shows), art (with Mary Boone who declined to meet with me to discuss the project), travel and the subject of television itself (Nick Yanni, a friend, who hosted his own popular weekly show on public access). So long as the show was produced at the public access facility it could have been put together for about a grand a week—peanuts compared to the cost of a “professional show”—and eventually find a sponsor and a regular spot on one of the local channels.
Lacking the necessary commercial savvy, however, nothing came of this project either, although part of this is due to the fact that “professional” television had too much at stake at that time to concede that programs could be produced cheaply. They invoked the stultifying phrase “technical standards” to dismiss everything that didn't involve big budgets and/or a union crew which is why television has always been so expensive—and so lacking in new ideas. Let's face it, I was claiming in those early days—the Eighties, the simplest kind of television involves only one person with a camera and somebody willing to transmit it, and although I'm not suggesting that all programs be produced in this way nor do I believe that elephants have to be hired to appear in every opera.
I have never had much sympathy for the sulky panjandrums of the arts whose demand for ever-higher budgets structure the belief that creative people are incapable of improvisation and imagination.
And although critics often deplore viewers' attention spans, why should this not be an advantage? A good information-packed show could be paced as fast as a three-dot column with items succeeding each other in quick fire succession, something in the manner of Walter Winchell's radio bulletins only in the form of a pictorial collage. The type of show I visualized would have two or three segments of three or four minutes apiece with the remaining one-sentence items packed together in fast streams.
“What Made Simon So Sullen? might well have been the title of tonight's show” I noted in my diary of Sunday, April 26, 1981. I had invited Simon Watson-Taylor to appear, because in all the years I had known him we had never discussed his rather specialized literary expertise. It quickly transpired that this was not going to be the occasion, despite the fact that when we'd met before the show, he'd sloughed off any preparation on the grounds that he had plenty to say. Once the show began, though, he wouldn't explain the book Ubu Roi or patarealism, for which he was famous, dismissing it as “all that old stuff”. Nor would he respond to my attempts to draw him on Alfred Jarry (whom he'd translated into English) or discuss the naked, nubile ladies at Goa in India whom he'd earlier enthused about. All that was “sexist”, he claimed. Worse, he kept interrupting the conversation that Elyse had going about advertising and in general acted egotistical, patronizing, and negative. It was the first show that I erased immediately afterwards; it saved twenty bucks every time I recycled a tape.
After a while, I decided to change my approach to the John & Joanna Show and instead of presenting conversations for viewers to watch, I started to do the show alone with the camera fixed on my upper half, and another fixed camera behind me focused on the desk at which I was sitting. This second camera, the core of a chromakey setup, enabled me to change backgrounds at will by merely placing a picture in front of it. This wonderful invention allows all kinds of trickery. One Sunday night, Donna Hennes took a crowd of people down to Battery Park to celebrate the Spring Equinox—which happened to be 11 minutes into my Sunday night show. This, she claimed, was the only time of the year when you can stand an egg on end. So I said, “Okay folks, well, there she is and we’ve got an egg here and we’ll try it”. And at the exact moment, sure enough, the egg stood on end. (The earth is supposed to be equilibrium at that moment—but, for whatever reason, it works).
Handling what appeared on chromakey (i.e. projected on a blue screen behind you) from the studio itself, gives the presenter enormous control over the show, and Willy's only task in the control room became one of merely supervising and occasionally, at my cue, to run videotape behind me—or instead of me. I would advise my listeners to pay close attention to what I was saying when I ran tape because, I told them, that if they concentrated on the picture they'd miss what I was saying, whereas they'd see the picture peripherally anyway. Often I'd go out and do video tape specifically for this dual purpose such as crossing on a Staten Island ferry, videotaping from the top of a London bus or of colorful balloonists ascending into the sky. Visuals that needed no explanation. Next, I tried superimposing information—telephone numbers for various ‘causes’, say—on the screen as I was talking about one thing and showing tape of something else. My whole idea was to see how much information I could convey simultaneously without it becoming un-assimilable.
This concept had come to me at the New York World's fair some years previously when I attended performances in the IBM pavilion where an entire wall of screens would sometimes display different images and sometimes all the same. With a bit of practice one came to realize that the eye can absorb many different pictures at once—just as it did in everyday life.
One day I chatted with Clarence Greer, coordinator for Manhattan Cable's Public Access department and thus the man deputed to handle the couple of hundred producers on channels C and D. He felt that MCTV was no longer so embarrassed about the outspoken and sexually explicit content of some of the programs, and was grudgingly willing to admit that some subscribers signed up specifically because of access and the looser style of television that it allowed. Al Goldstein's Midnight Blue produced by my old pal Alex Bennett was at first reviled by the cable company and then used by its salesmen as a lure to customers to sign up.
My own view was that although the cable companies had only reluctantly accepted the mandate of providing access to anybody, nevertheless, it was a cheap, easy, and unprecedented way in which the ‘man in the street’ could communicate his/her opinions and it was a pity that inertia, laziness, or greed (i.e. the inability to see an immediate financial return) had kept participation so minimal. Often the callers to the open-mike shows were as entertaining as the hosts. “What do you call a dog with wings?” one asked tonight, and without waiting for a reply, cruelly riposted: “Lynda McCartney”.
Once I had acquired a video camera I used the studio less and less, teaching myself how to edit in the camera by putting together a show in consecutive segments and doing no post production beyond dubbing the VHS (and later, 8mm) tape onto a 3/4 inch format. This had some disadvantages, but also had the virtue of keeping all my interviews short because whatever went onto the tape was the show, with no opportunity for expanding or cutting later. I learned to start my interviews in the middle without an initial warm-up. Over the years and travel to a score of countries I gradually began to do a kind of jump-cut edit at the time that I bumped up the tape to the 3/4” format which was the only one that public access channels would accept.
Film producer Richard Rubinstein, who'd commissioned my Occult Guide to South America and a friend since our Ibiza days together in the Sixties, acceded to my request for sponsorship. My intention had been to expand on what I was doing—casual comment on camera with lavish use of chromakey together with lots of tape, gimmicks and—most essential—“production values”. Unfortunately Richard saw it a different way and wanted to make a conventional talk show host out of me. He hired a producer, built a set, even bought me some decent shirts and jointly we agreed on our list of interviewees, among them Steve Allen, Alger Hiss, adman Barry Day, George Romero, and Stephen King. Most of the shows were pretty dull and predictably Conversations With Wilcock sat in the vault unsold.
Manhattan Memories is available at amazon.com.
An updated A Guide to Occult Britain, complete with new illustrations, is also available at amazon.com.
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Now Available in Print!!
Don't let a real-life comic strip sneak by unnoticed. This one's too unusual (and brilliant) for that!
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 books, 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.”