“I guess I was always a newspaperman, even before I grew up.”
John Wilcock arrived in New York City as a young man who hadn’t finished high school and found his new home missing a crucial element: small newspapers aimed at younger people, in their teens and early 20s, not bogged down with current events but interested more in what was hip and of the moment.
“There were nine papers in New York City, nearly all dailies or weeklies, fairly big papers,” recounts Wilcock, now living in southern California. “I’d worked through papers with a million, 2 million, 3 million circulation. I’d always been very interested in little papers. Although there were plenty of little papers in England, or were then, there were hardly any of that type of journalism here.”
An ambitious man, Wilcock and a group of four friends founded the Village Voice, a legendary publication read religiously by the trendy, the counterculture, the artists and the young in New York. It is also considered the first alternative newsweekly in the country.
“We weren’t much interested in daily news but we were interested in people and what they did,” Wilcock recalls. “We had everything in [the paper] — sports, every type of thing except current events.”
While the entire team viewed themselves as equals, Wilcock quickly became the paper’s columnist. According to legend, the late Leonard Cohen, among many other notables, read Wilcock’s columns without fail.
The Village Voice not only attracted the type of young, free-spirited following like the papers of Wilcock’s native England, it introduced him and the other staffers to the luminaries and characters of the city as well, including Andy Warhol.
“His photographer, Jonas Mekas told me about Andy. He said, ‘Come along, we’ll make one of his films.’ We went to one of the early movies Andy was making,” Wilcock said. “He just fascinated me, the way he put together these little bits and pieces.”
The two became friends and collaborators, traveling around the country, working together on the magazine Interview. Wilcock also wrote Warhol’s biography, The Autobiography and Sex Life of Andy Warhol.
“I was a useful person to have around and someone who didn’t cause a lot of trouble,” Wilcock said. “It got so I could talk to Andy. Very few people could talk to Andy. You could never get a proper answer out of him.”
Within a short time, Wilcock was going to Warhol’s Factory on a daily basis, joining his group as they moved around New York City. Warhol had a singular sense of humor, he said: One night, as the group arrived for a film premiere, the theater’s owner made an honest mistake, greeting the first person out of the vehicle as though he were Andy Warhol. “It wasn’t Andy, he hadn’t gotten out of the car then. The guy who owned the movie theater welcomed him as Andy and nobody told him any different. Andy loved things like that.”
When Warhol got frustrated that people weren’t paying enough attention to him and his work, Wilcock suggested Warhol start his own publication. “All my friends start papers,” he says. “By that time there were half a dozen underground papers. Most were in touch with each other. It was new to him,” but that suggestion turned into Interview.
As the ‘60s turned into the ‘70s, the underground press Wilcock helped to pioneer in the U.S. grew. But after 1972, the publications that might’ve been considered “underground” a few years prior had changed mindset.
“They might’ve called themselves the underground press but it was different,” he says. “They were grown-ups who acted in a very civilized way and didn’t play around. We were very serious but we weren’t tied down like the straight press, doesn’t say certain things, can’t say things in a certain way. We were totally free and easy, we printed anything that appealed to us.”
On this week’s It’s All Journalism, host Michael O’Connell talks to alt-press legend John Wilcock about his long career, including helping to launch the Village Voice in the 1950s and hanging out with Andy Warhol in the 1960s. John is currently living in assisted care in Southern California. His friends have set up a GoFundMe account to help pay for John’s expenses.