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May 28, 2016 by John Wilcock

Manhattan Memories

Chapter Twenty-two (part 1):
Albert Goldman: The Art of Biography

The author of books about Elvis, Lenny Bruce
and John Lennon discusses his methods

WHAT A BIOGRAPHY SHOULD BE, said Albert Goldman, is “a study of character. What I want from a biography,” he told me, “is a sense of intimacy with the subject. I really want to know what it feels like to stand next to this guy, you know, to talk to him. Was he a bastard, was he overbearing, was he modest? What are the vibes he sent out? I think biography is vibes. That's what I find missing: That people in biographies often aren't real, they aren't alive, they aren't present. I would say it's like the difference between chronicle and history. In chronicle you have everything that happens; in history you understand it. That really important thing in biography, the critical thing, is that you have the pitch of the subject; it's like a tone, it's like a keynote. There has to be a certain keynote; it's like a key to music. And that's the key of this subject, of this personality.”

In Albert's spacious Columbus Square apartment fueled by incessant bottles of Evian and the occasional joint, we had lengthy talks about the tricks of his trade. While in England I had already done research for his book about John Lennon, and I pointed out that most of the people I'd interviewed on his behalf imposed their own vision on their narrative…

“Invariably, they are making themselves sound more interesting.”

So you always have to make an allowance for that?

“Well, you always have to bear in mind that this isn't something they're doing consciously,” Albert explained. “Many people lead other people to believe that they have an importance in someone's life that they don't really have.”

I told him that some of the people I tried to interview, wouldn't talk to me because they claimed that Albert had unfairly massacred Elvis in his most notorious tome. He looked at me with weary resignation as if he had heard it all so many times before, as indeed he had.

Albert Goldman
Albert Goldman

“Let me ask you something” he said patiently. “If you discovered all kinds of sleazy things about somebody whose life you were trying to explain, would you sweep them under the rug, pretend you hadn't heard them?”

My own impression was that some of the people who were most critical of Albert's Elvis book, were people who had never read it, but so revered Elvis that an attack on him seemed like an attack on their own self-esteem. And anyway some of the criticisms of Albert had been silly, such as the allegation that he didn't know much about music. Not only had he taught the subject at Columbia, but he had been a student of Darius Milhaud, and his writings had included a book about Wagner and articles for everything from Vogue to Commentary about Thelonius Monk, the Modern Jazz Quartet, the Bolshoi Ballet, Bach, Mozart, Indian dance, Arthur Schnabel, Leonard Bernstein, Beethoven, Nashville, Zoot Sims, Benny Goodman, Dylan, Bo Diddley, Carly Simon, Johann Strauss and Charlie Parker. This was someone who didn’t know music?

He was among the first people to write about John Lennon, recalling the startling impression the latter had made, when Albert traipsed up to New York's Regency Hotel to interview him for the Sunday edition of The New York Times.

“He answered the door dressed in white pajamas and led me into the bedroom where he got back into bed with Yoko. They both looked pale and spectral with their white impassive faces framed by great bunches of hair. He spoke fluently but never moved a muscle. After a while I wanted to pull back the covers to see if his head was still attached to his body. She said virtually nothing throughout the entire interview.

“In those days I was strictly a music critic; consequently, the conversation was largely confined to his records. I could kill myself today when I think of the opportunities I wasted, to get into themes to which later I was to devote years of wearying work and worry.”

The interview never ran because the Times was scooped by Rolling Stone. “I should have gone back for something fresh, as compensation for being blown away, but I have never been aggressive as an interviewer, which is my greatest defect in my present career. I can't squeeze people and I am too proud to pester them.”

To my suggestion that maybe it was inevitable that if you thoroughly investigated somebody's life you'd be bound to dig up some dirt, he replied with the observation that, of course, everybody has something in their life of which they’re not proud.

Lenny Bruce
Lenny Bruce

WHEN I BEGAN to work for biographer Albert Goldman on his books about John Lennon and Jim Morrison (the latter unfinished at Albert's death) my skills in researching took giant strides. Albert, whose bestsellers about Elvis, Lenny Bruce, and marihuana had all been controversial, was a great advocate of the fly-on-the-wall school of reporting, meaning that when interviewing somebody about earlier events, it was essential to take meticulous notes about the surroundings and the context of what he was talking about.

“Did you ask him what shape was the room? What color were the drapes?” were the kind of questions Albert would ask when I presented him with somebody's tape-recorded recollections. He also gave me some advice about when (if) I ever wrote a biography of my own instead of merely helping him with his. “Be sure to pick somebody with a lot of facets,” he said, “or you'll find yourself getting bored very quickly.” And, of course, a subject who was dead was a great improvement over a live one, about whom witnesses tended to be overly cautious.

“Biography works best in a very limited time zone. In other words, it's like certain fruits or vegetables; you have to pick the crop when it's ripe. There's a moment, an ideal moment for the harvest. The ideal moment in biography is after the man is dead—you must have the subject dead because as long as he's living he's in a position to suppress a great deal of the truth…(and) until you see how a life turns out you are in no position to judge that life. But then you can't let it go too long because you must have his contemporaries, his friends, and his lovers. You must have someone who was in close contact with him.” Albert's definition of what biography ought to be was… ‘A study of character.’

Talking of a potential interviewee, he instructed: “Most important, get him to describe best he can the personalities of each Beatle but especially John. Very important we get an idea of how they interacted. THE GREATEST SINGLE FAILURE OF MY BOOK IS ITS INABIITY TO TAKE YOU INTO A ROOM WITH THE BEATLES AND LET YOU SEE THEM RELATING TO EACH OTHER WITH NO CONSCIOUSNESS OF ANYBODY ELSE. THIS IS THE GAPING HOLE IN THE MIDDLE OF MY MURAL. IT DRIVES ME CRAZY.” These were the capitalized thoughts that steamed off Albert's typewriter.

“Don't rush this thing; retard it if possible so as to allow each part a chance to round off. Avoid, if possible, noisy pubs and backgrounds that fuck up the tape. Tell him to buy some booze and take it home. Explain how hard it is to work in a noisy ambience or one with weird acoustics. Be sure to push the machine up close and make sure the machine is in shape with fresh batteries. Be sure to get a signed release”.

And, about another development he wrote: “This is a bit of luck for us because so many Beatles themes have already been worked to death. This guy is fresh. What he will crave most is simply respect, acknowledgement that he is part of a history and was once a star. Tell him that we will give him a bit of a go in this book that everyone will read. Also, find out if he has any records he could play and you could tape on the spot. Put your machine close to the speaker, it will do a good job. I am very eager to have his opinion of the Beatles as they were at that time. What was their style? Who were they copying? What did they think was hip? What did he think when it was clear they were heading to the top?

“Oh yes, and get him to describe that van in detail so we can picture how the lads traveled. I am sure that they made with the jokes and bits while this poor bloke did most of the work. Just think, the oldest of the lot, Lennon was only 20, George was about 26. This was their time on the road. It must have been a green tour. How did he ever get them into shape to back him up? Amateurs don't adapt so quickly. I am keen to hear this tale.“

One week later, on February 11, Albert reported that he'd completed negotiations for an extension on his book's due date after some very nasty threats from the new head of Bantam, Linda Grey. “These new lady execs are the worst people to deal with; they are so insecure and unripe for their positions that they refuse to make decisions, push off their problems on others and then finally pull out a pistol and hold you up…in sheer terror for their own asses! In any case, the pact is sealed if not signed and I am free to kill myself for another six months…”

As he got further into the biography, Albert found himself referring back to earlier interviews, which now seemed to him to play a more significant part in the puzzle.

“(Michael Boyer) strikes me as in important source. Trouble with the original interview is that it was not sufficiently detailed, and it was not sequential. We need to know in detail how they related, so as to inspire John to characterize him as the only friend he made in London…a remarkable statement. If John Lennon had said that about me I would want to put into his biography, as much information as I could about our relation and why I thought John was so keen on me. Also give a characterization of Boyer as you see him; what sort of bloke is he? John, you know, did not believe in friendship. He said that people had need of one another for this or that purpose and when the need was filled, the relationship was over…I note that Boyer stipulated that nothing be quoted from his interview without his approval; we shall be happy to run anything by him that we use. The important thing is to get him talking in a way that is quotable. Incidentally, never hesitate to stand drinks or spend whatever is necessary to make our sources eloquent. Just get a receipt…”

“Bear in mind that Lennon was a compulsive talker who never stopped running his mouth no matter the condition of his mind. Even verging on unconsciousness he would talk on relentlessly. The problem I have encountered is finding someone who can remember what he said. It is not the words we are seeking to recover but the themes, the drift, the rhetoric…what the man had on his mind.

“(We could use) a good interior photo of the (Ad Lib) club and another of the famous elevator, where John had a terrible time one night on acid. See if you can learn whether the light was white or red…(Also) a little hand-drawn floor plan of the club so that the spatial relations are clear. Approximate dimensions would help and dance floor size…A word about what was visible outside the windows in the surrounding area.

“If you can get to see Larry Parnes try to arrange matters so that you can page through his scrapbook and copy some goodies. What I would love to have is a picture of Parnes at the height of his fame with his acts. Also a biography put together either by his office or some journalist. Very important to capture his personality. Was he loud or brash? Quiet and calculating? Lower class putting on airs? Perhaps the most important thing you could ask him is what led to the triumph of Merseyside as opposed to the London rock that he had developed with his Elvis spin-offs…we are facing here the triumph of the group over the solo star…”

What Albert repeated in letters and audiotapes to me was the persistence of the “hole in the center of the book” which he defined as a lack of information about what the Beatles did and said during their numerous nights at the Ad Lib and other hangouts. They socialized with so many people on these occasions, he pointed out, but finding credible witnesses had proved to be almost impossible.

The Lives of John Lennon
The Lives of John Lennon

“We have done splendidly with everything but the years of fame in London. How the Beatles could have been at one and the same time so famous and so public and yet so concealed beats me. Night after night they sat in those clubs and drank and talked and behaved as men do when they are stoned. There should be a wealth of anecdotes one could collect from those years of heedless babbling; but nary a story comes back. I have never seen anything like it. They must have had some kind of human tape eraser.”

And in a 1985 letter dated January 25 he wrote: “I am dismayed that so much time, work, and money has produced so little in the way of finished copy but all that I can say is that getting to the bottom of this story has been the hardest task of my lifetime…take my word for it, Lennon is a bitch”.

Looking back now through scores of his letters and transcripts of some of the talks we had, I realize that the choice of writing about Lennon may not even have been his. “You know I haven't been a totally free agent about the subjects I've chosen,” he said once, “because I have to make a living out of this thing and there might be somebody I want to write about that the world doesn't want to read about. So I've had to go toward the people that the world is infatuated with and what you find about these people often is that their lies were not in themselves very fulfilled by their lives.

“Elvis and John Lennon were both themselves very frustrated by their lives. They both had this feeling like, Why can't I have more? Why can't I be better off I mean, God knows everybody loves me, etc. etc., so why isn't there more satisfaction? It's characteristic of these people that they aren't focused, they don't have any real goals, they don't have self-definition that would enable them to fulfill themselves. It's their problem.”

Albert was a first-rate biographer, a great teacher and a much nicer person than people give him credit for. He was a generous employer, highly appreciative of his helpers and never stinted to share credit with them.

In the fall of that year, he expressed his gratitude for all the assistance I had provided. “I am writing to thank you for all your efforts on behalf of the book, which, I know well, entailed a lot of frustration and embarrassment from the bitter Brits. Imagine one professional journalist telling another that his inquiries were ‘impertinent’. Only the English can talk that kind of crap and not feel fools.” He congratulated me on one particular interview. “I thought you were most charming with the old crock and drew him out like an accomplished cellist plying his bow on a poor instrument. Nice style…you sounded a bit breathless on the tape at times. Are you getting enough exercise? You should try to find some errands that demand footwork. At our age the heart goes flabby and it is necessary to give it a workout.”


Chapter Twenty-Two—Albert Goldman: The Art of Biography

Traveling in Venezuela
Sasha and Neo-Futurism
Rise & Fall of an L.A. tabloid


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An authorized comic book biography of John Wilcock, 
art by Ethan Persoff and Scott Marshall

An authorized comic book biography of John Wilcock,
art by Ethan Persoff and Scott Marshall

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.

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January 2, 2011

John WIlcock at home in Ojai
Photo Credit: Carmen Smyth/News Press

A way with Andy Warhol : John Wilcock recalls life in iconic pop artist's inner circle
Marilyn McMahon, Staff Writer
Santa Barbara News Press

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.

Today, the 83-year-old writer, who has been described by others in his field as "a libertarian-anarchist" and "a talented Bohemian counter-culture journalist," lives a tranquil life in a rustic cottage he rents on the outskirts of Ojai.

(click here to access the Santa Barbara News Press online where the full text of the article is available by subscription)

January, 2011

The Return of the World's Worst Businessman

Sneak Peak “The Return of the World's Worst Businessman”
Tyler Malone
PMc Magazine

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,...

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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Jewcy Top 10 Art Books of 2010
Margarita Korol

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.

Said John Wilcock in explaining the book, “A lot of people really misunderstood him then and indeed still do, although there’s hardly a day when Andy’s name is not mentioned in the paper.” Especially interesting is the timing of Warhol’s booming popularity as it comes half a century after pop rushed the 60s, a period similar to our own with fluxes in economic, political, and civil rights climates.

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Monday, November 15, 2010

A Reader Comment from the recent New York Times Frugal Traveler post
RN—Sydney, Australia

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,

indifferent to self promotion and the hoarding of gold, it is great to see John get a dash of recognition.

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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Budget Travel Pioneer on a Time When $5 a Day Was Real (Frugal) Money Frugal Traveler

by Seth Kugel
John Wilcock at the New York Times

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.

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Manhattan MemoriesManhattan Memories
An Autobiography
by John Wilcock

“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
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