“The underground has always been about reporting on stuff that in the future may be accepted wisdom but at the moment may be just beyond the pale.”

An 82 year old libertarian-anarchist who once interviewed Marilyn Monroe and Marlene Dietrich, writer of Insight travel guides, co-founder of The Village Voice, Warhol insider, weekly columnist/proto-blogger for over 50 years, John Wilcock is a man of contradictions who, to paraphrase Rodney Dangerfield, gets no respect.

jw at the nytimes

John at the New York Times

Wilcock’s autobiography, Manhattan Memories, chronicles Wilcock’s co-founding of Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine, slated in 2010 for an anniversary IPad edition; his bohemian travel book, Mexico on $5 a Day, the first of several Frommers tourist guides;  and his important role in The East Village Other, an underground newspaper which pioneered psychedelic and alternative culture, and influenced international underground journalism, as well as being one of the catalysts for Jann Wenner’s Rolling Stone Magazine.

Despite his journalistic achievements, and friendships and encounters with all the major Village names from the Velvet Underground to Lenny Bruce, Wilcock’s name is often forgotten, and in the case of Norman Mailer, who’s ego clashed with Wilcock’s editorial instincts, actively expunged from history.

John remembers little about his upbringing in northern England, beyond “hiding in the coal shed” during the blitz, but after a tabloid apprenticeship in the early 1950s he booked a $20 assisted travel ticket to Canada, securing a job writing for Liberty Magazine after impressing financier Jack Kent Cooke, future owner of the Washington Redskins. While writing for Cooke’s magazine Liberty, a trip to New York City was enough for Wilcock to fall for Greenwich Village’s myriad charms.

Realizing the need for a quality Village newspaper he solicited intellectual and financial interest, and in 1955 co-founded The Village Voice with Norman Mailer and three other investors.  He wrote a weekly column called The Village Square for ten years, chronicling Greenwich Village’s astonishing cultural vibrancy, during which time Wilcock also wrote a travel column for the New York Times and began his series of travel books for Frommers.

The Village Voice became a successful fixture on the alternative cultural scene, but in 1965 Wilcock left to edit and write for the even edgier East Village Other, launch Other Scenes, co-edit The Witches Almanac, and in one year edit underground magazines in New York, London, Los Angeles, and Tokyo.

Eventually he headed west to California, settling in Ojai, via a 12 year sojourn in a nudist colony in Topanga, and in the 1980’s and 1990’s wrote 25 Insight Travel Guides, and continued to publish his weekly column.  Recently the hassles of airport security have curtailed his globetrotting, and he now spends most of his time writing and publishing, as he has always done, for apparently the sheer joy of it. It clearly isn’t for the money.

He is, by his own admission, one of the most “unsuccessful businessmen ever.” (He was never paid a single cent by the publishers for his Warhol biography, the first of its kind).

A free thinker, “Don’t Trust Authority” is a phrase he tries to live by.  He’s frustrated with Congress, its lack of meaningful choice, and the fact that democracy is so often subverted by the greed for power. He  wryly acknowledges the contradictory truth that the freedom to be anti-establishment often has to be  preserved by the establishment itself.  A realist, he’s disappointed with Obama, but expected nothing less.  He admired Carter and Clinton as honest and humane, a political rarity, but quickly acknowledges the faults of both men.

His current “Column of Lasting Insignificance” was briefly in the Huffington Post and can now be found at his own website, where he highlights and forecasts the zeitgeist, often humorously, believing that the underground press, whether in print or the internet, frequently uncovers trends and stories years ahead of the mainstream media.  He self-publishes an occasional cut-and-paste newsletter called Ojai Orange, and produces a video magazine, Wait a Minute, for local access TV that is done on the fly, with no post-production.

March 30th sees an updated edition of his “Autobiography and Sex Life of Andy Warhol”, out of print for years, an insiders look at Warhol’s 1960’s avant garde entourage of the scene’s brightest and strangest, many of whom Wilcock interviewed for the original book.  Hopefully Andy Warhol’s continuing cultural cachet will ensure that this time around Wilcock’s role in the iconic Factory studio doesn’t go unrecognized.

  • Baffidils

    Have you ever thought about publishing an e-book or guest authoring on other blogs? I have a blog based on the same subjects you discuss and would love to have you share some stories/information. I know my readers would enjoy your work. If you’re even remotely interested, feel free to send me an email.

  • Mare

    Well written Neal! I’m impressed….

  • LD

    No one could ever accuse Mr. Wilcock of having led a boring life — just think of the Village between ’55 and ’65; Coltrane, Angelou, The Clancy Brothers, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Dylan, and of course Lou Reed’s Velvet Underground.