The Front

John Wilcock, 1927–2018

Remembering one of the Village Voice’s founders

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By the time he was sixteen, John Wilcock was already working as a reporter on his hometown paper in Sheffield, England. (He dropped out of school to take the job.) As related in the lively biographical comic  John Wilcock: New York Years, 1954–1971, he soon found his way to Canada. In the comic, Wilcock states, “But 1950’s England and Canada felt stuffy and stagnant. And still relatively young and not wanting to waste my life, I soon took the plunge to the U.S.A., specifically New York.”

Such quotes match the life that followed. Wilcock shortly acquired a cheap ($46 a month) Greenwich Village apartment and spent his evenings drinking beer and chasing skirts. Bored by the local paper, The Villager, which consisted of “mostly bridge club party reports” and “an insipid column, ostensibly written by the editor’s CAT, named ‘Scoopy Mews.’ CAN YOU IMAGINE?,” Wilcock put up a notice in the Sheridan Square Bookshop seeking partners to start a more inspired publication. He shortly met up with Ed Fancher and Dan Wolf, and they batted the idea around for a number of months while Wilcock worked freelance writing jobs. Eventually he, Fancher, Wolf, and novelist Norman Mailer joined together to publish the first issue of the Village Voice, in October 1955. On early mastheads, Wilcock is listed sometimes as “News Editor,” other times as  “Associate Editor.” He was also a regular columnist with a dream beat: basically anything he wanted to write about as the nascent counterculture was bubbling up in downtown New York. Wilcock wrote about other writers, actors, artists, computer-dating pioneers — he riffed on whatever struck his fancy: “How about somebody advertising a few things for The Man Who Doesn’t Have Everything?”

But Wilcock seemed to be forever restless, and complained in print that he was not “regularly employed.” So in the December 5, 1956, issue, we get not only one of his typically free-ranging columns but also a genuinely bizarre full-page ad featuring the headline “Editor-writer Available.” Wilcock notes that, for a substantial workload of both writing and editing, he was making $25 a week at the Voice. As ever at the paper, wages were an issue. Beyond the printed references, statistics, and sample lead paragraphs, readers were also treated to a photo of Wilcock standing atop the Washington Square arch. The man always aimed high, literally and metaphorically.

Six months later it was announced in the Voice that Wilcock had “joined the staff of the New York Times’ Sunday edition in an editorial capacity.” It was also noted that the energetic reporter “will continue to write his regular page-two feature, ‘The Village Square,’ for which he has a wide following among Voice readers.”

Curiously, around this time Wilcock would use an image of himself with his back to the audience. Was he being arrogant? Melancholy? Perhaps he was contemplating what it would mean to actually leave the Voice one day. (The pose might remind Philip Guston fans of the painter’s portrait of his friend the composer Morton Feldman, after the two had had a serious falling out. The threads of those days are deeply entwined: Ads for Guston exhibitions at the Tanager Gallery on East 10th Street can be found in these same early editions of the Voice.)

And since Wilcock remained with the paper as the counterculture began heating up, he got to take part in what became a venerable Voice tradition: contributors bashing one another in print.

In the July 11, 1963, edition, Wilcock reports from Paris, writing a scathing review of the artist Allan Kaprow’s performance at a press conference: “The sheer monotony of it all eventually proved too much for me. If performers must feel obliged to make explanatory statements about their work — in advance — are we to conclude that art is unable to speak for itself?” (Kaprow was known for his seminal 1958 essay, “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock,” which, among other concepts, discussed Pollock’s dance around the canvas as he flung paint upon it and envisioned performance, events, and physical activities that would replace objets d’art.) Wilcock goes on: “Kaprow, a pioneer of Happenings, forecast his own absorption into the System two years ago when he wrote in Art News: ‘…Some of us will probably become famous. It will be an ironic fame fashioned largely by those who have never seen our work. The attention and pressure of such a position will probably destroy the majority of us as it has nearly all the others…’ ”

A few weeks later Jonas Mekas, one of the Voice’s film critics and explicator of underground movies to the masses (or at least to however many of them were reading the paper), took issue with Wilcock’s put-down of Kaprow, noting that his fellow Voice author must have written his critique under trying circumstances, “Because, as I was told by someone who was present at the events Wilcock described, his Voice report sounded like the job of a ‘stupid, conceited jerk.’ ”

Not unpredictably, Wilcock responded tout de suite —or what passed for swiftly in that age of slow-traveling periodicals and international mail routes — from Tokyo. His “Dear Sir” letter to the Voice editors appeared in the September 5, 1963, issue:

As far as we can ascertain, that was the end of that particular feud. But in the future we will surface more Voice features from this singular founder of the paper, a writer and editor who not only had a hand in the creation of the godfather of the alternative press but also helped launch the Underground Press Syndicate, which was a loose consortium of alternative papers; the East Village Other; and, along with Andy Warhol, Interview magazine.

Wilcock was sui generis, a character in the best sense of the word. He was driven to be what he lived. The week after Wilcock’s letter appeared excoriating Mekas, the film critic happened to quote the underground filmmaker Jack Smith in his column: “Movies aren’t just something like I came to; they are my life. After [making the underground classic] ‘Flaming Creatures’ I realized that that wasn’t something I had photographed: everything really happened. It really happened. I — that those were things I wanted to happen in my life and it wasn’t something that we did, we really lived through it; you know what I mean?” There is no doubt Wilcock knew what Smith meant. Smith had to make films; Wilcock had to invent a new kind of newspaper, and he and his partners gave us a new way of looking at the world.

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