Tom Wolfe , who died at the age of 88 ten days ago, was a great hero of the New Journalism movement which also included Hunter S. Thompson and many others. See Previous Post: The Archaeology of New Journalism. When this interview took place, one of his most famous books - 'The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test' - had just been published.
This interview was in the very first issue of Friends magazine, published on 22nd November 1969, designed by Pearce Marchbank. The founder and editor was Alan Marcuson. Jonathon was News Editor.
AMERICA’S A VERY FREE COUNTRY...REALLY
BY JONATHON GREEN
After the Marvel Comix style of his books, he is a pleasant surprise, quietly spoken and with less flights of fantasy, although the white suit was always there to remind one of the well-created image.
“I read a review of my last book in your paper”, he began, “I thought it was a load of crap . . . how about you?' Nevertheless he agreed that the time lag between writing his pieces and their eventual publication does them no good.
His conversation covered many topics, and resembled a milder and more considered version of some of his published work. Last here in 1966, when he wrote most of 'Mid-Atlantic Man', he talked of the changes he had seen both here and in the States, the personalities and the philosophies that have interested him.
He talked of his trips, but refused a joint, maybe the photo would have been too compromising. However we talked for over two hours to produce a rap that reads something like one of his own pieces. What follows might best be seen as `Tom Wolfe Today' . . .
Biba's and now there's 50 wild places like Biba's... and Biba has come to be a junior scale Harrods. That's what makes me think that rather than England's future being a sinking, decaying, gradually falling into the sea . . . instead, England's great product now has become style and people will come to England . . . it will be like a super Disneyland of European high fashion so people will come to England to take a train ride for example . . . they will come to England for a weekend of first class hotel service.
“Have you ever been to Disneyland? Disneyland is just great, because you walk in there and you've got a whole 1890's American village which instead of being like a museum they are all functioning . . . you can buy things like you can't buy anywhere else: like instead of popsicles you can buy frozen bananas with chocolate on them which was the old form of popsicles . . . and you get people with sticks on nails running around picking up trash as soon as it hits the ground, it's always clean — and I think this could possibly be applied to England because it's got such an intricate style . . . you know like Bond Street; it's incredible you can walk four blocks and there's a hundred stores for men each one dealing with the most esoteric items of dress.
"I think this carries through to a lot of areas, for example there's still people seem to take things like the proper use of titles very seriously . . . on one hand they make a joke out of it and on the other they’re damn sure when addressing an envelope that it comes out right that if somebody is a Viscount...
“When I started writing those pieces I didn't have any kind of theory it came out of a purely journalistic impulse it just seemed to me that suddenly I was surrounded by a whole lot of bizarre new sort of things and a lot of them being done by just ordinary people . . . I got fed up doing stories about movie stars because I really couldn't drum up a lot of interest anymore and I don't think a lot of other people were really interested.
"For example, for about six months when I was working for The Washington Post I was the Latin American correspondent... I was in Cuba and the Dominican Republic and all the places that should have been pretty interesting . . . and the managing editor of the paper asking me if I wanted to be permanent Latin American Correspondent — which was tremendous promotion for me because I had always just been a general reporter, which is the lowest job in the paper, but also the best . . . and I thought about this for a second and suddenly I just said 'No, I don't want it', and he says 'what would you like to do', and I couldn't think of anything off the top of my head and I just suddenly said 'Well, I'd like to do some more of those escaped ape stories', because that was the first thing that came into my mind and he said 'What are they?'
“And I said 'When I'd first come to the Post it was a Sunday afternoon and this story came in and there was some kind of chimpanzee lost in the suburbs and being Sunday afternoon and not much going on I went on out there — they sent me out there, and sure enough there was this ape going down these electrical wires and the police were out there and they didn't know whether they were going to shoot the thing or what to do, in fact after I started talking to people I found that this was the fifth ape that had escaped in that little suburb . . . and there were all these people with like a complete zoo . . . there was one guy had a tapir in his own backyard, you know what a tapir is, it's like a hamster that's crossed with a rhinoceros . . . and another woman had some carnivorous fish . . . and it turned out that all these people, just ordinary people, so they were taking these sort of exotic trips, and for vacations they were going off to places like Tahiti or Barbados and they would come back with these animals that were a sort of symbol of what they could bring back and they were doing something different and getting out of themselves . . . and it struck me that it was a kind of remarkable thing that was happening, that people on a kind of basic level were starting to break loose.
"And these stories intrigued me a lot more than anything that was happening in politics in America or anywhere else. Especially America, where politics are really dull even today with real issues, Vietnam, Racialism and so-forth . . . I mean: it's just put in a hundred thousand troops, pull out a hundred thousand troops, nobody really says seriously fight until the finish, until the last American is dead. It's a very stable country really. No one seems to realise what a stable country it is . . . and politics are dull, there are no surprises, you're not going to discover anything; and that's what journalism should be about: discovering things particularly the life around you.
“So that's what got me starting thinking about style . . . but when I did start thinking about style I realised that one of the first things that people do to show that their life has changed is to change their style. In one sense it's surface, but in another sense it's very revealing . . . the two things that have happened are this: dress and vocabulary . . . I am often accused of dealing in trivia for the amount of attention I spend on what people wear and their dialogue and I usually try and get their speech right but I think that's what it's all about...
“I am always greatly flattered when occasionally I've read in reviews that Tom Wolfe has become a cult figure . . . I always kind of secretly enjoy that sort of thing, because of this, if there is a cult I'd like to meet some of the members. The closest thing of being a cult around me is the act of parody... and I've done something about it which makes me feel kind of fulfilled; a true Christian mission in the world. The act of parody seems to liberate a lot of writers when they are parodying me they really seem to enjoy it.
Kenneth Tynan for example of the ‘Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test’ and I really don't think enough people here had read the book and knew what the hell he was talking about in this parody . . . I really think it was doing something for him. I really think Kenneth Tynan started writing well for the first time in his life, you know I think he enjoyed it, and in any case I think that's the reason people turn to parody there's no conscious motivation.
"Sure [Ken] Kesey was rockin' the boat the thing about him was that he was off on what I call 'a beyond catastrophe frontier', which is this. After all the threats you get to this question: What are we going to do? It's like having a blank cheque and saying 'What are we going to do with it', and that was like Kesey . . . I remember Kesey saying once “I knew all sorts of people who are neurotic, I have sympathy for them and I want to put my arm around them and help them but I can't feel what they feel” . . . Because there was never any hang-up that I could detect in his life; he didn't have a row 'with his family, and he wasn't a slave either, he was very close to his parents, but he was never tied to them; he had the absolute all-American background, he was the school athlete, the school scholar he was also on the dramatic squad, or whatever you call it, he was crew cut, he was a fraternity man; all the right things and in other words what I'm saying is there was nothing in his background to which the usual psycho-pathologist . . . What do you do with your potential? This was a question which obsessed him and finally obsessed him to the point of 'Can men become God? So Kesey used to do some very strange things that seemed sort of looney to everybody like lying on the floor and getting high and trying to communicate with all the planets. But his statement was 'You never know, if you don't try it', and a lot of it was just being high . . . he never had any fantasies about life hereafter or anything of that sort, he was very practical . . . he just thought somebody has got to swing from the heels and see how far they can go . . . occasionally Kesey didn't really realise that the people around him might not be as strong as he was ... [See four Previous Posts written in Sept 2011, starting here.
“Yes, I've taken acid ... I really didn't take it under the best of atmospheres so I had a bit of a struggle to keep sane but after . . . the thing that I got out of it more than anything else is that it wasn't really a light show that it was all about; but it was really much more the whole business of feeling that you had finally entered into other things totally without having a hallucination and this is the thing that will probably be very useful about LSD when it eventually gets over the publicity state it'll sort of tell people how the mind actually [works].
“There is a great question of how serious people are when they talk about revolution. I often get the feeling, when you meet, as you often do, somebody who is calling for total revolution and things, and saying we will not settle or agree to any demands, as soon as you agree to them. As soon as you agree to them we will rebel again. The total revolution is of people being photographed in fantastic gear in Look and Queen and Harpers Bazaar. You wonder how serious it is and whether people really want revolution because I have a feeling that there are a lot of revolutionists who are really_ frightened when the serious guys, the serious kind of Trotskyites, come around and they're wearing these greasy neckties and suits and yet they're into the hard core of organisation.
I was at Arethusa one night, and there was the other side of what we were talking about, the Lord Scruff look. You see a guy in front of the mirror, and he's ripping his shirt apart and messing up his hair and he's getting his jacket wrinkled and this is what he looks like when he gets into dinner . . . You see these great Lord Scuff types coming out in their ripped open shirts and scruffy hair and their leather vests and the rest of it and there’s the doorman dressed in a Lieutenant Colonel's uniform of 1869... You wonder where the serious core is ... nostalga de la bove ... it’s a very powerful thing, it's a funny mixture of a real longing for kinda primitive strength in quilt. I think one reason it’s catching on really strong in London would be the fact that there are say five hundred thousand unemployed...
“There’s a great little touch in ‘Midnight Cowboy’ in which Ratso and Joe Buck are walking through The Plaza in New York and there's a whole bunch of hippies handing out peace leaflets and Ratso Rizzo, who's never had a job in his life, he’s a Times Square hustler, he's very indignant and starts saying "Get a job ya creep" and there, in a very nice way, is the difference between the class difference of people who are swept by nostalgia for the mud and the proletariat like Ratso Rizzo.
“This was also very evident in Haight Ashbury when that was really a psychedelic scene instead of just a commercial one. There was so many middle class kids there who were taking great delight in the mud and sleeping four people on a dirty mattress and everyone drinking out of the same pot, and this scrounging sort of life. I mean what kick is this for a guy from the Fillmore district who’d just as soon, if he could forget about it and if he’s going to live a bohemian life he wants to live a sort of up-town bohemian life for a change.
“Maybe if the Beatles suddenly, turned up with crew cuts . . . but I don't think it will happen . . . Like the rumour that Paul McCartney is dead. Hemingway had the same thing there was a rumour that he was dead six or eight years before he died . . . Warhol had this kind of theory that was very interesting. Subliminal Celebrity Theory — there are certain types of people that are so famous that they no longer have any identity by what they do, in other words, like in the USA, Marilyn Monroe was only ever Marilyn. Elizabeth Taylor and Jackie Kennedy were both ones. Just Jackie.
“The [Merry] Pranksters still exist as a group. Kesey was here with two [Hell’s] Angels not long ago. And now I think there's nobody left on their farm. Kesey, I believe, is doing some writing right now. Over the last two years since the action ended they kind of come and go and it has been a very quiet scene. They've joined another group called the 'Hog Farm', which were always very closely allied to Kesey. They discovered a very useful device in this particular age. If people keep their hair short other people don't mind what they do.
“There are a lot of things I'm interested in covering but I really want to do some more books.
“You've just given me an idea I've never thought about before: Noel Coward is a real person. He wrote a poem once 'Love Song' I guess it was called, and this thing was terrific, it just breaks me up, and there's one passage in there which seems to me could apply to any difficult situation in life . . . `If it's a question of being sincere/ And dear if you're supple you've nothing to fear/ So she swung upside down from a glass chandelier/and I couldn't have enjoyed it more'. It sort of sums up a lot of things.
[It’s actually part of a verse from ‘I’ve Been To A Marvellous Party’ written for a revue entitled ‘Set To Music’ in 1938. [See Footnote]
“That's another sobering thought. When you go back to, say, some of the literature of the late 20's and the late 30's, like Evelyn Waugh novels particularly 'Vile Bodies' it's really about a lot of things . . . that are going on right now including this whole thing for nostalgia for the mud I was talking about just now you read in there like captive divigibles, you know, like tied down, and people dressing up like Indians and one thing and another . . .
“Have you ever read anything about the Regency, it's very similar to today, even down to LSD. In that case there was Humphrey Davy who invented Nitrous Oxide —Laughing Gas and there were all sorts of writers and painters who would go over to Humphrey Davy's and stick their nose in this silk bag full of laughing gas and go away and write down their experiences. There was a great vogue, the coachman's vogue, the coachman is of a very low status but he is a kind of dashing figure because he used to drive fast and he wore a lot of capes because of the cold I guess — so people started dressing like coachmen, it gave small coaches and a lot of big horses riding around like mad . . . and then there was a thing where they were all dressing like boxers, fighters — That was called the Bruiser Pose — which was again dressing like the lower orders for romantic effect.
'The Wild One' and they say 'oh that's the way we are supposed to look'. That thing has a curious history. There was a Motor Cycle riot in a town in California in which a lot of bars were broken into . . . there was this story about it which I thought was very weird. It sort of took these Motor Cycle characters as some sort of IBM men of the future ... automatons who'd been in the service of fascism — totally regimented, I think the author was really taken aback by those sun glasses because they look very sinister, they make people look like they have on uniforms . . . and he saw them as kind of Nazi troopers. `The Wild One' was a pretty good picture and didn't try to push this fascism thing.
“While I was down there at Tiles [nightclub in Oxford Street] talking to these kids who were dressed to the teeth with these fantastic suits on ... a kid comes down (whose name I can't remember, it was in the book somewhere) anyway he's the same age as them, but he's a public school boy who got sent down or something . . . He had on a suede jacket that had been custom made to look like a denim one and it cost 75 guineas or whatever . . . he was rejected by the mods, he looked very scruffy and they could sense that he was being scruffy on purpose and anyway they talk so differently...
“In America the money talks loud . . . it gets you almost anything you want, unless there's some moral stigma attached to it . . . as in the case of Hugh Hefner, there's a slight moral stigma because of the tit magazine ... so he's gone to great lengths to get around all that . . . It's only in New York that you have any trappings of a European style aristocracy, that's the wrong word . . . but even there the publicity for all sorts of people who are what used to be called Cafe Society, and the whole impact of the communications media as an industry there, have an effect . . . it's like me having a PhD; when I started working in newspapers I had to hide all that.
“I would say the only really American state would be Southern California — Los Angeles let's say, just because there's almost none of Europe left there at all. The one thing that's happening more in America is that it's breaking up into all kinds of areas so you can find almost any kind of life you want, that's why I really don't understand who so many of my intelligent compatriots can be so pessimistic about the United States right now, there's really a lot of freedom there . . . you can choose all sorts of areas to live in for the kind of life you want to lead ... of course things could be improved, for instance if you want to live in a commune you shouldn't have to run the risk of Vigilante raids . . . but there's plenty of areas where you can do that if you want to. Even the Government are beginning to change their methods for the better ...”
Mario Cassandro established restaurants with Franco Lagattolla – starting with La Trattoria Terrazza in 1959 – that served up food in a manner not enjoyed before. La Terrazza [also known as the “Trat”] in Romilly Street, Soho, was London's first restaurant of the modern era, new in its menu, its presentation of food, its design and its attitude. In 1961 the partners opened Tiberio in Mayfair; in 1964 they doubled the size of La Terrazza; and in 1966 they unveiled Trattoo in Kensington. [The Telegraph obit/27th June 2011]
In 1962 Alvaro Maccioni became manager of La Trattoria Terrazza’s newly opened Positano Room, which quickly became among the most fashionable dining rooms in London. In 1966, he left to form his own trattoria, the eponymous Alvaro in the King’s Road in Chelsea. [The Telegraph obit/29th
Nov 2013]. The Arethusa was also in Chelsea.
Noel Coward's lyrics read as follows:
'I went to a marvelous party/I must say the fun was intense,
We all had to do/What the people we knew/
Would be doing a hundred years hence.
We talked about growing old gracefully/And Elsie who's seventy-four
Said, ‘A, it's a question of being sincere,
And B, if you're supple you've nothing to fear.’
Then she swung upside down from a glass chandelier,
I couldn't have liked it more.]