The Daily Heller: Look Him Up, John Wilcock, Master of the Underground

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John Wilcock (1927-2018) was one of the great “happening” characters of midcentury America, beat myth to Hippie legend. He was founder of half a dozen underground papers, and started one of the first citizen-access cable television shows. His achievements are a dense package.

A British journalist who moved to New York’s Greenwich Village in the mid-1950s, he most notably co-founded The Village Voice, helped found UPS (The Underground Press Syndicate) and launched Other Scenes, his main endeavor. He also worked with Andy Warhol to create Inter/View magazine. The story behind these endeavors, along with his writing for other counterculture wellsprings Wilcock helped to create, is chronicled in a biographical comic.

A ubiquitous presence in the East and West Village, he had a vision of how art and culture could be harnessed and moved progressively forward. Recently, a Wilcock website/archive was launched featuring PDFs of all the Other Scenes issues and more. I invited comics maker and archivist Ethan Persoff, its creator (who along with Scott Marshall is co-creator of the three volumes of Wilcocks comics) to talk more about this key, late figure of the underground culture.

What inspired you to document, annotate and scan Wilcock’s Other Scenes?
Oh man, Other Scenes is just a very cool paper. I’d go so far as to say if you spend a little time with it you’ll realize this is just one of the coolest newspapers ever made.

These are tough issues to find, too. Working with John I was able to secure a full run. To people who collect or study these things, Other Scenes is often included amongst the best of the papers from that era. It has amazing design and really unique uncensored content. John’s connections to the art world of the era also means it is probably the only underground paper that included pop artist heavyweights like Claes Oldenburg, Warhol, Shunk-Kender photography and more.

There’s also the politics of the paper. I work in preserving underground papers and it’s fully possible to radicalize yourself by reading these things. Just start on issue one and go through a few issues in order, and a lot of the modern world will feel artificial and stupid. I do think that era was freer and more intelligent. Or at least it respected intelligent thought more than today. You can improve your life view by reading 1960s underground papers, and that’s why I like to provide them to the reading public whenever possible.

John gave me permission to post the issues, which felt great, as it’s amazing such a weird set of documents hadn’t already been devoured by some corporation. I also archived The Realist for Paul Krassner—incidentally I first learned of Wilcock through The Realist, where he was a columnist.

Wilcock was one of the founders of The Village Voice. Why did he leave the Voice and start Other Scenes?
Oh, there’s drama involved! For the answer on John leaving the Voice, and how he ended up solo, I’d refer you to the comic. John was fired from The Village Voice for reading everyone’s mail and smoking pot. (See Jerry Tallmer’s piece.) And to the Voice‘s discredit, they actively disregarded John’s contribution to forming the paper itself, Norman Mailer going so far as to write Wilcock out of the official history. So, there’s that conflict between people and then leading up to Other Scenes there are a few other publications in between the Voice and O.S. 

John followed the Voice by first becoming a travel writer, both for The New York Times and then a travel book writer for Arthur Frommer. (His bestselling Mexico on Five Dollars a Day is a 1960s classic.) He then wrote for papers like The Realist. I’d say his big break came when he was offered over a summer’s worth of editorial control at the Los Angeles Free Press. Art Kunkin went on vacation and let Wilcock run the paper for about half a year. It was at the LAFP that John first began “Other Scenes” as a column (a funny page from the comic on John being fired from the Voice from its syndication on Boing Boing: and here’s a pretty good one on the history of East Coast LSD).

John then helped initiate the East Village Other with Walter Bowart, which ran the “Other Scenes” column. Another great opportunity! So, if you can consider something: John co-founded The Village Voice, the East Village Other *and* Inter/View. He *also* co-created National Weed with Tom Forcade, which became High Times. These are all significant foundations of most modern news writing.

John should have stayed at the East Village Other, but true to form, there was a disagreement with Bowart. John disapproved over how EVO reviewed a Warhol film (Chelsea Girls) and John quit EVO over this. 

Somewhere simultaneous to John’s work on LAFP and EVO he began his own paper. That’s when Other Scenes arrives. It was first intended as a single sheet newspaper, but later becoming a tabloid. That was Other Scenes. The comic spells this out more clearly, as I’m sure this is a packed paragraph, but The Village Voice is 1955–1965, and Other Scenes is then 1967, with all this other stuff happening in between.

I admit that I had never seen those first five or six issues. The evolution from a formless paper to a newsprint entity is fascinating. What did you learn from going through issue by issue?
I actually had a difficult choice on whether or not to present these issues in straight chronological order. The first year of issues is much less focused than the second year. By year two, Other Scenes has both its editorial identity and its visual identity. 

The first sets of issues—which I’m delighted to hear not even YOU had seen—are clearly in search of a visual identity. Zero consistency. But there’s such a bold interest on John’s part to find that identity in those initial steps. Each issue tries different stuff out in terms of what limited options they had on a budget: paper size, color, ink. The decisions he makes are wonderful: from selecting the first issue to be offset print on a pink sheet, to folding four issues together as a single item, to even making an entire print sheet to unfold to be a poster. The first year isn’t without its standout moments, too—the logos are by Ed Ruscha and the writing includes a huge stable of top-tier talent. There’s a huge push from designers and publishers to nail down an idea before they publish a magazine, and the first year of Other Scenes suggests otherwise; throw out every idea every time, even if it means page size will vary and the logo changes every time. Pretty soon you’ll find what sticks and then you have the second year, with that Cooper Black logo that just sings perfect with every page. I guess the lesson: Try everything out and let your readers watch you while you figure it out.

What do you believe distinguished Other Scenes from the other New York undergrounds, notably the East Village Other, which I argue led the pack?
Well, first, I would agree with you that EVO is the best. And it can be argued that John had a part in the East Village Other at a formative level. So I’d call Other Scenes his solo effort after he left the band. Both papers pair very well together and you can learn different perspectives from each.

I was thinking about this question, and while the singular editorial voice is definitely one difference, the decisions with printing is another. San Francisco Oracle clearly was the most impressive psychedelic paper, but it only lasted seven or eight issues. I think Other Scenes does just as many interesting things with colored ink on its pages that the Oracle tried, often exceeding them. He was hanging around the Warhol Factory all the time and you can see many Warhol techniques used on the newsprint—combining greens and oranges into brown overprints with purple, stuff like that. I think John was simply more risk-friendly than any other paper.

East Village Other was and is the best underground group effort, but John is a great solo show.

When I first met Jeff Shero (who put out the New York Rat), he answered the phone and I mentioned John was with me and he’d like to visit. Shero, who had an intense energy to him that could feel intimidating, bellowed out into the phone, “oh the big dog is in town!” This is how I think people saw John and Other Scenes. Wilcock and Other Scenes were simply badass and tough. A one-man band is the only metaphor I keep considering.

I can also suggest that the entire aesthetic of the DIY zine movement of the 1990s is really already there in Other Scenes‘ issues. Think of the best zine you’ve ever read and then put it tabloid size, mix in numerous spot color inks, have it come out during the most psychedelic acid-soaked era in world history, and you have Other Scenes in the ’60s when it was peaking.

Wilcock was also a pioneer of public access TV—local television broadcasts that were not burdened by FCC rules, the precursor of cable. What was his ultimate contribution to the revolution in media?
Great last question! John had the “John and Joanna” show on NYC cable. A great handout he made for the show that he distributed is here.

I don’t think he did any radio, but I have heard a few appearances he did with Radio Free Oz (Firesign Theater) as a guest. The excellent archivist Taylor Jessen shared those recordings.

I certainly consider John to be among the first zine publishers too, as Other Scenes became a Xerox publication in the 1970s, an offshoot of that being John Wilcock’s Secret Diary, which are amazing personal pieces printed on folded blue Xerox paper in 1975.

John was around many video artists through his connection to Warhol. I think John would say every new media idea is “just fabulous, really.” He also made numerous YouTube contributions before his death. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was among the first account holders on YouTube. 

In many formats of putting out DIY media, John was there before anyone. I think many people can find a sense of purpose in John’s goals. He’s a great story about following yourself and making a positive effect on others, in front of following the empty allure of money.

Posted inHistory The Daily Heller