June 4, 2016 by John Wilcock
Chapter Twenty-two (part 2):
AROUND THE TIME I was working for Albert I was fortunate to meet a publicity man named Dana who enrolled me in what proved to be a fascinating gig: Traveling in Venezuela, which is the title of the book that resulted from it.
Not long after Venezuela discovered vast, hitherto-unknown sources of oil, the government of Carlos Andres Perez set up a Publications Commission empowered to produce a shelf of books to counter what they felt was a general lack of information about their country. “Isn't it somewhere near Brazil?” was what more than one bonehead had asked, and with the country’s tourist office such ignorance rankled. Dana had been hired to find somebody suitable to write one of the books about the country, and he found me. The Publications Commission even paid for me to make an exploratory visit, accompanied by Rona as my interpreter. We liked what we saw and on my return I immediately sighed a contract and prepared to go back and work on the book itself.
At this point I met Estela, a hip black teenager with a ring through her nose who claimed to have spent the last few months sharing the back of a huge limousine with a coke dealer. She had been so close to High Times founder Tom Forçade that she had accompanied him, she said, on his honeymoon with Gabrielle. She demanded I take her with me to Venezuela where she proposed to act as translator and when I demurred said she was willing to pay her own way.
It was hardly an opportunity I could afford to pass up, although I was innocently unaware of the sexual demands that would be made by a vigorous teenager, and nonplussed by her threats to tell my friends on my return that I wouldn’t fuck her enough. Looking back now I can hardly credit my low-level performance. But, of course, there was a lot of work to be done and Estela’s need to translate was minimal.
She had summarized her earlier life as an era of “cocks, cunt, coke, cars, and cameras” but declared that now she was 19 it was entirely over. She was quick-witted, highly intelligent, and clearly a bundle of erotic energy. On her promise to eschew any drugs whatsoever, I accepted her generous offer and a few days after arriving in Caracas accompanied my (black) guide to meet her arriving at the airport. The look on his face was memorable as, not surprisingly, the whole trip turned out to be.
Estela proved to be an amazingly competent and insightful translator. She was shrewd about where we went and the attitudes of the government guides who accompanied us, and the longer the trip lasted the more I realized how hard it would have been to do the book without her. As often as not the tourist people with whom we were traveling would forget that she spoke Spanish and conduct indiscreet conversations in the car about various drug smuggling activities going on around us (although not necessarily their own).
In Venezuela we visited the single most outstanding sight in all my years of traveling: Angel Falls whose uninterrupted plume of water drops 1,840 feet, 11 times the height of Niagara. Named after an American barnstorming pilot Jimmy Angel who crash-landed his plane atop the 3,000ft mesa in 1937, it sits at the end of a 20-mile valley, reachable only after a two-day trip up the river Carrao from Canaima. Airliners bound for Bolivar sometimes make a diversion down the valley and back to give passengers a view of the Falls, but we were flown there by army helicopter. It circled above the river a mile or two from the falls and I wondered nervously what would happen if it came down in this apparent wilderness where only an unbroken blanket of trees would break its fall.
But come down it did, in a patch of low brush about the size of a golf tee beside the frothing river. No sooner had we alighted than a woodsman named Fidel Blanco materialized and led us through the woods to his camp, a large structure of poles and canvas with a corrugated iron roof and other poles lashed together to form benches and tables. Several ‘rooms’ created by hanging canvas sheets were where visitors stayed when they came up the river by boat to make the final land trek to the foot of the falls.
Regrettably, I never saw Estela again. She probably went back to playmates nearer to her own age, and undoubtedly men with more stamina.
AROUND THE EARLY Eighties, as I mentioned earlier, I had decided that what I most missed about the U.S. was not just New York but the American way of life, the ease with which everything could be done, the frivolous attitude about virtually everything, and the way everything changed all the time. There was always something to catch your attention, change the direction of your vision—foreshadowing perhaps the annoying way that anchormen are always being shifted to another camera (but delightful to see when they take the cue a split second too late). So it was that that had prompted my return to America: New York seemed to have passed out of my stratosphere. (How odd that even an amorphous thing such as “the art scene” can be priced out of reach). What had drawn me to America in the first place was the bohemian reputation of Greenwich Village (and “the art scene” was its modern equivalent) so why not follow the universal American dream, and start a new life in California, especially Southern California.
I had never forgotten Skip Weshner's rhetorical, “What does it matter where you go man? Just get in the car and go”. To drive a car in Los Angeles is to enter a parallel universe for most New Yorkers. Suddenly, you're master of your fate, a mobile explorer roaming through an endless vista of sunny streets, cocooned in a sound chamber of deliriously off-the-wall opinions, or the music of your choice. It's a whole new world, with even the billboards, for example, being a sort of semaphore, conveying trends, opinions one-liners.
BUT RUNNING THROUGH a life in New York is the persuasive undercurrent: There's no place like here, the center of the civilized world. If I leave here I'm opting for a second-class life. Every New Yorker is brain-washed daily with this mantra so the almost universal assumption when you tell everybody you're going to pack up and go west is, “So of course you'll go to San Francisco?” In the opinion of most New Yorkers, LA is full of bubbleheads and narcissists.
So I went north to Herb Caen's Baghdad by the Bay and spent a penurious summer unable to find writing assignments at any of the area's publications and going through continual, rude rejections (or no response at all) from autocratic minions with few skills beyond hauteur. It seemed to be such a cliquey place; outsiders not welcome. I lived mostly in the gloomy cellar of my friend John Bryan (the editor with whom I'd run the Los Angeles Free Press for a while) and we found solace in a beatnik-style café off Mission. the city's equivalent of Manhattan's early Figaro cafe, a place of intensely comfortable hippie-ness.
One of my oldest friends, Alex (“Sasha”) Besher had been living in San Francisco for years so I asked him about what had happened to him after our first encounter when we had collaborated on Japan’s first underground paper, the Shinjuku Sutra.
”Well” he said, “it was in Tokyo that I got mixed up in the cultural kind of art weird world. There were the first proto Japanese hippies; I wouldn’t even call them hippies. The American Beat poet Gary Snyder was active and it was pretty much he who unified these people, who called themselves tribes. The most famous of them was the Red Crow tribe, the Akakarasu Buzoku tribe. They hung out in Shinjuku at the Fugetsudo and I got to be friends with them. They were living in weird communal places like ramshackle Japanese Inns with torn up tatami mats, just kind of very communal; they’d have their flow of foreign visitors from places like London. People that worked for the Beatles would show up and be the dignitary for the week or whatever.
”He dragged me into the office, grilled me about the Shinjuku Sutra and you. Apparently they had received an official complaint from Japan’s Ministry of Education, of course they threatened to expel me, they called my parents, threatened to sue them, all that kind of stuff. That was my first tangle with the establishment. I didn’t want to deal with any drunken Jesuits so that was the early demise of the Shinjuku Sutra.
“But then I got to know people; you know artists, photographers, poets and got to meet Meredith Weatherbywho was a publisher of John Weatherhill, great publisher. Got involved in some book projects with him. He would give me some raw Haiku that somebody had translated for a book and allow me to go to work on it. Then I got involved with another very colorful character, Jay Gluck. He was an oddball character, who’d been all around the world, apparently had spent time in Iran and somehow got a gig, very lucrative with the Oxford University Press (Survey of Persian Art), which is a classic in its field, monumental encyclopedic collections.
He leveraged that into all kinds of business deals with the Shah’s people and what not and that was a great big feather in his cap. I remember my next step in the publishing world was I was a proofreader for the survey of Persian Art. I learned a lot, well, I don’t know what I learned but anyway that was another step into the publishing world and then after I graduated from University I followed my girlfriend at the time; her father was a professor at the University of Chicago. So I ended up in Hyde Park, in Chicago just hating the place, the weather, everything about it was oppressive. Hyde Park was a little Ivory Tower ghetto with all its gargoyles and what not. I got my first job at the University Chicago Press in the Journals Division”.
His life had certainly improved since, I observed, keenly aware that San Francisco was one of everybody’s ideal places in which to live. And by this time, more than 30 years after our first meeting he’d married twice, had a lovely wife, and produced a trio of futuristic books (Rim, Mir, and Chi) which had taken full advantage of his Asian expertise.
”I always felt like being a writer”, he continued, “but I had no idea what I would write about, a writer with no material. I was basically an empty canvas, you know, I had no idea. Then I moved to the University Chicago Press the Books Division where I became a copywriter and I would have to read all these books and summarize them and then I did a year of graduate work at the University of Chicago in Russian literature, it meant nothing, I was just interested in it. But I got side tracked becoming the editor in chief of the Chicago Review, which is a literary quality publisher…it’s been around 80 years now. They were the first ones to publish William Burrough’s Naked Lunch. From there I got the idea, well there’s a lot of interesting material out there and having come from Japan, I started introducing contemporary Japanese poetry and literature in these issues and before I knew it I hit on establishing a small press which was the Chicago Review Press, with a partner who funded it all, he had the money.
“I didn’t want to turn a day older than Nabokov by the time I finished my first novel so my first novel was called Ninja and I remember sending it out to some New York agencies but nobody knew what Ninja was at the time. Now, everybody and their great grandchild knows what Ninja is. Ten years later Eric Van Lustbaden wrote a book called The Ninja. Sasha had sent me a copy of Rim and what I now remember the most about it was that it seemed to logically extend everything about the present into a (relatively) near future. The Internet was in its infancy but Sasha had envisioned it as a cyber replica of today’s life with all feuding and fighting between, say, the Klu Klux Klan or the KGB continuing their fighting in this imaginary world. I was impressed with his concept of being able to send avatars into this world to live an imaginary dream-like life. It seemed so far out. I never imagined that what he was writing was literally what subsequently happened. What had been the reaction to all this prognosticating, I wanted to know.
“Well, I’ve been influenced by, you know, I’ve been ghettoized and put in a science fiction genre. I don’t read science fiction, it doesn’t appeal to me, its hard science, boring stuff or George Lucas space troopers or what not. No interest to me at all. What is of interest to me is the movement of the culture and from living in Japan the almost prime evil history, study, application of consciousness. This kind of psycho spiritual dynamic, I’m not sure about the spiritualism at the moment, but certainly that. So, I was fascinated by the convergence of technology and consciousness. My earliest influences were… you know practically the only science fiction book I have ever read is William Gibson’sNeuromancer, and that blew me away and Arthur C. Clark’sChildhood’s End. Of course, Zen. That about covers it. And then there was a film, Bladerunner, very edgy…
JW: Right, which I never understood.
“Well, you know, I think that’s part of its charm and I think that it’s impossible to understand really anything. That’s the extent of our knowledge, the extent of the knowledge of a wise man is that you can’t really understand anything anyway, then you get into a level of a certain kind of acceptance and wisdom hopefully flows from there.
On a later visit, I found him putting the finishing touches to his trilogy about the Pacific Rim—Rim, Mir and Chi—which demonstrated on the way the world was headed. Forecasting a cyber world in which was duplicated all the best and worst of this one, he accurately predicted the kind of scenario that later became Second Life.
Aware that he didn’t care for his writings to be categorized as science fiction, I suggested that maybe he could be defined as a futurist?
“I call myself a reformed futurist” he parried, “because in the end futurism is really a linear concept. Futurism means you start in the past, go into the present and keep going into some sort of future. For me, as a reformed futurist, I see past, present, and future all being in one simultaneous time streak. Look what science fiction is today. Frankly the genre bores me to death. But consider the best-known writers in the field. After Gibson wrote Neuromance (he wrote) a bunch of other books that became steadily less interesting. In his last book he was writing about the present, his future is in the present. Then you’ve got somebody like Neal Stevenson, the biggest guru for sc-fi fans today. His science fiction takes place in the past, he’s writing historical novels (with everything about space robots and space wars, and hard science and living on Mars and all that kind of stuff which has no appeal to me at all”.
“Well, you’ve mentioned Butoh to me occasionally,” I said, “and it’s mentioned in all your novels. But I’ve never quite understood it, although I know it’s some kind of theatrical form?”
“It is a theatrical form and so it’s a striking metaphor. A poor definition, I admit, is that Butoh is the dance of darkness. It’s this very, very edgy post-millennial Japanese art form which was created by an artist named Tatsumi Hijikata. He had this epiphany of the typical Butoh as a kind of naked, skeletal body male or female, shaved head, chalk-white body moving in grotesque forms, doing grotesque things which are actually very subliminal and very meaningful and there’s a lot of imagery compressed into it. His epiphany of Butoh, the dance form, was the atomic bomb that fell on Hiroshima. It was like totally encapsulated in this one image of his of the dead and the living, don’t know if you’re dead or alive. That sort of for me morphed or leapfrogged onto my convergence theory about cyberspace or omni space and material reality”.
JW: Could the concept that you describe be something that presses or foresees some cataclysmic situation? I ventured, still not entirely clear about what Sasha was explaining to me.
“Absolutely. It’s a sort of benign metaphor, a Buddhist metaphor of the muddy pond and the lotus, which sprouts its seed at the bottom of all this muddiness and unclarity and chaos. It rises to the surface and it opens up as a beautiful, beautiful lotus which is a symbol of Buddhism. Butoh I call post-Zen because even for me Zen has become dated and I’m sure people will take me to task for that. Even Zen has become a commodity and is a linear thing, a gimmick and a gag”.
JW: How would you define Zen, I asked, so that people would understand it in one sentence? That has got to be one of these things that people throw around without having the faintest idea what they are talking about.
“Zen is the sound of the Zen master clapping with one hand. The charm and mystery of Zen is that it defies categorization, which is great. Conventionality gets blown to smithereens or it gets reprocessed into a different kind of conventionality. Anyway Zen is a short circuit of old rational and irrational impulses. For me Butoh is the dance of darkness because we are moving through life, which is actually a form of death. Gibson really opened people’s eyes with Neuromancer, opened the eyes of the world to cyberspace. But his world, his version of cyberspace is a Western one. It’s a carbon copy of this world of reality. In other words people are still driven by sex, greed, drugs, violence, and what not, but it’s all in Western clothing”.
JW: Okay, now this question would be one you could ask any novelist but it is still very relevant, and that is that in your day-to-day life, the things you come across, the things you read, the things you hear, do they become absorbed noticeably in the stuff you are currently writing, or is it that what you write is so clear in your mind already that you don’t need any extra input?
“Well, that’s a double-edged sword because no matter how far out I get into the creation of a new world or fusing different worlds or envisioning things, naturally I’m interpreting and receiving data from the world today. But I like to think that what I do with my work is that I’m not actually projecting the future from the resent, but I’m projecting the present from the future. In other words I try to go into a space—I call it the Z zone—which is a space in time that exists outside of space and time. So it’s not a linear or a chronological piece of history because most so-called futuristic writing, the linear futuristic writing or science fiction writing or fantasy writing is merely an extrapolation of what exists today. What I’m trying to do is get beyond (that) to what lies underneath and where all the stuff is bubbling.”
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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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
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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.”