John Wilcock

Interview 101

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There were four editors on the masthead of the first issue of the original Interview magazine: Gerard Malanga, Paul Morrissey, John Wilcock, and Andy Warhol. Bob Colacello, who would edit the magazine some years later, would refer to Wilcock in particular, a journalist of British extraction who had dropped out of school at sixteen to work in the newspaper business, as an “aging hippie publisher.”

A lifelong reporter, Wilcock worked for papers in London, Los Angeles, and Tokyo. In 1955, he cofounded the alternative weekly the Village Voice, where he wrote a column called “The Village Square” and was known to spar with a young, overly self-confident Norman Mailer. He left the Voice after ten years to edit a rival publication, the East Village Other, and eventually went on to publish his own underground tabloid, Other Scenes.

Somewhere along the way he was a travel editor at the New York Times, and also penned a plethora of travel guides — including Traveling in Venezuela (1979), upon the invitation of the Venezuelan government.

Today, Wilcock is eighty-one years old and lives in sleepy Ojai, California (population 8,006), in the back of a small duplex squeezed between an orange grove and a horse stable. His slow movements and occasional wheeze belie the passionate recollections he offers, stories from a lifetime of producing the raw stuff of print “counterculture.” A 1973 profile in the New York Times had tagged him “an influential man nobody knows,” which still seems more or less accurate, as his name is nowhere to be seen in most accounts of the Voice and Interview’s founding. He remains a one-man publishing machine, his modest house filled with enough xerox machines and industrial paper cutters to make any DIY zine-ster flush with excitement. He’s also written three books on the occult, published the hard-to-find Autobiography & Sex Life of Andy Warhol, and has self-published a memoir in twenty-six installments, called Manhattan Memories. Finding myself in Irvine, California, for a weekend conference at which the keynote lecture happened to be about the US Department of State bringing a Warhol exhibition to Kazakhstan, I drove two hours up the Pacific Coast Highway to interview the veteran interviewer.

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Zach Hooker: First off, could you tell me about starting Interview with Andy Warhol?

John Wilcock: Well, I was spending a lot of time around the Warhol place. Literally, at least three or four full days a week. And one day, I had got back home, and Andy called me up — Andy only called me maybe six times, ever — and on this occasion he called up and said… well, he was bitching about how they couldn’t get this million dollars from Hollywood to go out and make this movie, this professional movie. And I’ve always had a hand in the alternative press, so I said, “Oh, Andy, you know all my friends do underground papers. Why don’t you focus on doing a paper instead?” So he paused for a bit and then just hung up, but he called back about two minutes later and says, “What kind of a paper?” And of course, Andy, he wanted to do a film paper of some kind. So he decided he wanted to do a paper called Inter-VIEW, “view” in all caps, “inter” in upper/lower case. And I told him, “Well, I can get you a printer for real cheap, the cheapest printer in town, and I can do the typesetting for you. We’ll split it fifty-fifty, you can foot the printing bill, and I’ll take care of all the typesetting.” And we got it up and running.

ZH: Was Andy doing a lot of interviewing around then?

JW: Andy’s idea was to take his tape recorder everywhere and just tape everybody. So that’s what Interview was, to begin with. Even now it runs a whole lot of those kind of interviews, but originally that’s all it was. Completely informal.

ZH: Just whatever made its way onto Andy’s tape recorder…

JW: Yeah. In the same way, his movies were just whatever happened in front of the camera. Originally, he’d just set up the camera and wouldn’t move it. Whatever happened in front of the camera was what the movie was. I mean, I remember the first time the camera ever moved. He was doing a movie about Edie — out at her apartment near Park Avenue, I think — and at some point she got out of bed and went to the refrigerator, and the camera moved and everybody jumped and ran out of the way… They had never seen the camera move. It was great. I loved those years. It was fabulous.

ZH: Did you ever interview Andy?

JW: No, because one specifically did not interview Andy. Because if you asked Andy questions he’d just reply, “Really?” or, “Oh, what do you think?” Or something like that. Him and Bridget Berlin would get in some long conversations from time to time, but if you were hanging around the Factory around that time, you learned not to ask questions — not of Andy, anyway. You asked other people — and that is basically how my book The Autobiography & Sex Life of Andy Warhol came about. But you didn’t ask Andy questions. To be a steady figure in that scene, you had to produce something, be creatively productive. It’s like his movies — just keeping the camera steady on a few people — after a while there’s just this incredible pressure to do something. We were filming out in Brooklyn Heights this one time, for example, and Edie was on camera and just plain ran out of things to say and threw her drink at a light, and the light explodes and everything goes black, and that’s how the movie ended…

The book I made is called The Autobiography & Sex Life of Andy Warhol, but there isn’t any sex, and there certainly isn’t any autobiography. I was talking to Charles Henri Ford, and tried subtly to bring up sex, and all he would say, enigmatically, is that Andy was a receiver. And far, far from any sexual connotation, he was exactly right. Andy just absorbed — you had to feed him things without expectation of any reaction. He loved input.

ZH: The Autobiography is really difficult to get a hold of these days.

JW: It came out as a five-dollar book in 1971, pretty much sold out, and now it is about $200 used on Amazon. A new edition is possible, and I hope it happens. It’s historically valuable for one reason alone — it’s twenty of the people really close to Andy at the end of the ’60s really trying to explain him… And while we are talking about interviews, those are sort of interviews, but they’re not really. They’re conversations.

ZH: So all the interviews, or conversations, in that book, were they just something you had sitting around, or was it a preconceived project?

JW: I never had any intention of really doing anything more than chronicling this stuff for kicks. But when the first Andy retrospective came up at the Whitney, about 1971, I realized all these talks would make a nice book, so I rushed it out. And the printer said it never paid for itself, so I never saw a penny from that. The thing has been in limbo since.

ZH: What made you start carrying a tape recorder around the Warhol scene in the first place?

JW: Well, I was spending so much time around the Warhol scene, and I couldn’t figure out why certain things were happening, so I started to talk to people and tape-record them. I remember, I was up at Andy’s all the time, and on the way home I’d always read the New York Post, and I’d read Leonard Lance’s column about some Warhol happening, and it would always be something I knew never actually happened. So I’d call Paul Morrissey and ask, “What’s this in the Post all about?” And he’d say, “Oh, Leonard Lance calls us up every Wednesday, and we always make up something exciting for him.” It was that kind of stuff… like Andy would bring a horse up into the Factory, or set up the camera right in front of the door so anyone going or leaving had no choice but to be in the movie. Stuff you could never get a straight answer about if you asked anyone, but stuff that everyone talked about. So I started to haul around this recorder, to record the banter. Like I said, I think of them more as conversations than interviews. All the people I have talked to, for the most part, I’ve always felt on equal terms with. Even someone like Leo Castelli, the art dealer, who had people like Lichtenstein, Rosenquist, Johns around him… I knew just as much about the scene as he did. I think it’s very important never to be in awe of who you are interviewing. I think that strategy has fallen by the wayside lately. It’s the attitude you need to have, though. Even when I talked to Marilyn Monroe or Marlene Dietrich, for example… it’s hard to shake the celebrity reverence, the awe, but I know that they are good at what they do, and I’m good at what I do, too. So there’s something mutual there.

ZH: Has interviewing always been a central part of reporting for you?

JW: Well, yes… I was thinking about it after you had contacted me. So, I started doing this little cable TV show around the early ’80s, and by that time I had worked and written for five of the world’s biggest dailies — the Daily Mirror and the Daily Mail in London, the Toronto Daily Star, the Mainichi Daily News in Tokyo, and the New York Times. And I realized that I had learned more about interviewing by trying to start a cable TV show than I had in thirty years of work as a reporter. And one of the things was that — and this was because I had to edit in camera, couldn’t afford post-production — the order I shot was the order they took it, so I didn’t bother with gathering background information and small talk, I would just jump in mid-sentence, interrupt a thought. Say I’d be with a tour guide. I wouldn’t even mention the fact I was there to film him, and then mid-sentence I’d start the camera and ask, “Well, what do you think of that?” Or something like that. A great deal of interviewing is catching people off guard, but not aggressively. Just giving them something they don’t expect.

ZH: It seems like you find many affinities between being on camera and the act of interviewing, regardless of if there is actually a camera present. I’m just thinking of all those references to Warhol’s camerawork, and this experience producing for public access.

JW: Yeah, it’s all mixed up, really. When you go and interview somebody… I started before there were tape recorders, there were no tape recorders until the ’50s or ’60s, really. So, it was in shorthand, all shorthand. And you can’t interview somebody and take shorthand. The mere fact of sitting there taking notes shuts them up. So basically you had to remember what they said, and not only remember what they said but the actual words they used. And I realized one way to do that — like when I went to interview Marilyn Monroe, for instance, one of my earlier jobs — what you have to do is ask the questions you are personally curious about, what you want the answers to. Because if you know what you want to know from them, when you get back home, of course you will remember how they answered the question, you know? So that was a big key to interviewing for me… asking the questions you want to know, not rote questions or something like that. And also catch them off guard a lot. I mean, I’m very amiable on camera, but some people get really nervous when you put the camera on them. You know what Quentin Crisp used to say? He used to say, “If you’re going to be on television, decide what you want to say and say it no matter what the question is.” Which is really great advice. So I’d put the camera on someone, and I’m very informal and friendly and I don’t challenge them. I’m not aggressive.

And then there is this trick to writing novels — you raise an issue, a question, and don’t answer it until later in the book. Keeps people curious. Well, you can do that in interviewing, too. I was talking to this art dealer once, and I asked something like, “Remember when Larry Rivers abruptly left your gallery, was he kicked out?” And then follow it up really quick with another question, so they are festering, waiting to answer that provocative question. You delay that answer as long as possible.

ZH: Regarding shorthand and notetaking, something important seems to hinge on the act of reproducing speech. The issue is how truthful to what the person “actually” said do you have to be, as an interviewer or a reporter.

JW: Well, when I write, I like to keep three things in mind: Keep it interesting and provocative, never have a word more than is necessary, and the third rule, which is the best one, is that even one unusual word in any sentence will give it life, will make a reader remember it. So the most valuable book you can have is a thesaurus. I use one all the time. I’m always looking for a word that is not too far from what I want to say but keeps the original meaning. And that’s the secret to doing an interview without taking notes, and getting it in exactly the sense the other person was using. You remember a couple key words, and you wrap the sentence or paragraph around those. You are going to either replicate exactly what the interviewee was getting at, or come up with something that sounds a hundred times better. And they aren’t going to deny they said it. Especially if it sounds good, they will probably believe that that is exactly what they said.

ZH: Talking about how video has influenced your take on interviewing and writing is making me think of Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party, a public access show from New York in the late ’70s that revolved around the Warhol scene to some degree. That show fascinated me a while back. Were you around for any of that?

JW: No, no. I was long gone. But Glenn O’Brien’s a big shot over at Interview now. I might have met him back in his early days in New York, but I doubt it. People like him and Bob Colacello have made that magazine kind of pompous, elite…

ZH: How long did you stay involved with Interview?

JW: Well, Andy and I had that fifty-fifty arrangement for a year, and during that time I had nothing to do with Andy or the paper or anything, with respect to content. I was traveling to Japan a lot, Greece… I’ve written a lot of travel guides. Not long after I got back to the city I was planning to leave the country again, for good, and I wanted to keep some part of the paper, because I had already been through this type of thing with the Voice… I was one of the people who started the Voice, and I didn’t make a penny out of it, you know. And even today they still run fifty-year-old articles of mine, post them on their blog, and I don’t get any kind of credit. Anyway, I didn’t want to go through that again, so I tried to persuade Andy to give me a portion of the ownership, and all he said is that I could either keep paying my half or sell it to him. So I just charged him the typesetting fee for the previous year, $6000 — twelve $500 bills — and he paid me most of it, and then just before I left, I went up to him and said, “Give me some artwork, Andy, because I know you’re not going to give me that last thousand dollars.” So he gave me a couple flower paintings, I think they had just came back from the Tate, and that was the end of my time with Interview. Since then, they have refused to mention my name at all or plug my Warhol book or my autobiography.

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ZH: About that experience cofounding the Village Voice, can you tell me a bit about how that paper situated itself in the midst of 1950s American Levittown conservatism?

JW: I think there was a growing awareness at the time that there was no real alternative to the straight daily press — in other words, any established newspaper. And not long after the Voice began — and I think this was one of the motivations for my cofounders Dan Wolf and Ed Fancher — the Village Independent Democrats began to challenge the Democratic Party in the same way the Voice challenged the established press. And there were all these other things happening that went along with what the Voice was doing. Jane Jacobs wrote this seminal book on American cities, while Robert Moses — who really was a czar, thought he was above the law — was trying to put a highway right through Washington Square Park, right through the Village. The Off-Broadway movement had gotten off the ground, which Jerry Tallmer had a lot to do with, founding the Obie Awards, et cetera. Anyway, these things were happening, these were the issues that the Voice covered, the issues they created awareness about. They justified the early existence of the paper.

ZH: What made you leave the paper?

JW: When I left the Voice I had recently met Walter Bowart, who started the East Village Other (EVO), which was the first real underground paper in New York. And Ed Fancher called me one day, absolutely furious that I was writing for both the EVO and the Voice, and demanded I choose one. He didn’t make this demand on anyone else — Nat Hentoff was writing for a slew of papers, for example. I think they were worried because EVO was a direct competitor to the paper — and it was certainly more hip than the Voice. So I think there was bad blood because of this, and after I left there was a sort of fatwa against me. No longer was I to be associated with, to be mentioned in any official history of the paper, not in Mailer’s memoirs, nothing. Even though they still rerun my pieces — my Warhol piece was even republished in the fiftieth anniversary issue — I never get credit. They don’t bother to mention my books or my website, and I certainly don’t get any money.

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ZH: Do you think your ideas regarding what journalism is, and the role of the underground press in general, made you difficult to work with?

JW: Well, that is certainly a possibility. The underground press, after it got rolling, began to realize there was little support for it from the straight press, and mostly hostility. This might have been the case with the Voice. The people who were making a lot of the underground papers, these were mostly college kids.

I don’t think it lent much credibility to the movement. And I was associated with all of that — I championed that. Maybe I shouldn’t have smoked so much dope around that time, or been such an advocate of the legalization of marijuana. I wonder if that strain of my career did more harm than good sometimes, in terms of journalistic reputation. I also coedited The Witches Almanac for thirty years, with a witch named Betty — Elizabeth Pepper. I know that couldn’t have sat well with a lot of circles in the straight press.

ZH: Any regrets?

JW: I have no regrets — I’ve always loved what I do. But somehow, I always end up written out of history all the time. It’s a real mystery to me. I can’t really understand why it is that nobody will mention me anymore. I’m not looking for ego satisfaction, I’m just looking for credit for what I did originally. But it’s just water under the bridge… What can I say — it’s gone. Time is gone now. I have no contact with most of those former colleagues, none at all.

So in a way, stuff like this, I feel like my whole life has been… I wouldn’t say a failure, but a series of me doing whatever I wanted to do, but never really being recognized nor recompensed for it. And I think I’ve realized it’s got to be my fault. It’s just what I do — get really fascinated by something, really into something, then leave before any kind of payoff. So I can’t really blame anybody. And why would I? I’ve always enjoyed myself.

You know, there was this one time… My mother is very shrewd. One time I was bitching about money to her, and she said, “I don’t know why you are complaining. You know you have never done one thing you didn’t want to do, ever?” And she was absolutely right, and that was the first time I ever realized it. She had told me the absolute truth — I never did anything I didn’t want to do. I still won’t, really.


You can read John Wilcock’s “The Column of Lasting Insignificance,” his entire autobiography, and selections from The Autobiography & Sex Life of Andy Warhol on his personal website, OjaiOrange.com.