How a Yippie conspiracist changed America, mainstreamed marijuana and was destroyed by his dream…
Thomas K. Forçade was one of the most influential figures of the counterculture, and changed American culture as much as his confederates Abbie Hoffman and Larry Flynt. Forçade built a media empire, revolutionized journalism, mainstreamed marijuana and helped found the legalization movement before his untimely and still-mysterious apparent suicide at the age of 33. But he was the counterculture’s Howard Hughes, who labored behind the scenes, shunned the spotlight, wrote under pseudonyms—and continued to move large quantities of grass right to the end. Nearly 30 years after his death, it is time those who stand on his shoulders to know the man and the myth that was Tom Forçade.
by Bill Weinberg, Cannabis Culture
The Youth International Party (YIP)—popularly known as the Yippies—came to fame in 1968, with the violence at that summer’s protests against the Democratic Convention in Chicago, where the pro-war candidate Hubert Humphrey won the nomination. The protesters themselves had overwhelmingly been the target of violence by the Chicago police and Illinois National Guard—yet in the aftermath, eight activists associated (to varying degrees) with the Yippies were charged with federal conspiracy. In what was widely perceived as a travesty of justice, five of the “Chicago eight”—Yippie co-founders Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and Dave Dellinger and Rennie Davis of the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (“The Mobe”)—were convicted of inciting to riot (although cleared of conspiracy) and each sentenced to five years. Bobby Seale of the Black Panthers was charged separately and convicted of contempt after being ordered bound and gagged in the courtroom by Judge Julius Hoffman. The convictions were reversed on appeal. But the trial—and the prankish antics by the defendants—catapulted Hoffman, Rubin and their cohorts to celebrity status. They were breathing the same rarefied air as the rock stars with whom they jointly defined the “counter-culture”—and they as eagerly exploited the media attention.
The irony of the outlandish conspiracy charges for First Amendment activity is that the Yippies did actually see themselves as a sort of conspiracy. Hoffman especially saw his mission as to bring a political consciousness to the hedonistic hippies, and to harness the creative energies of the counter-culture to protest the war in Vietnam. They set about this with a methodical intent that belied their seeming spontaneity. In fact, a case can be made that many of the vast cultural and political changes that swept America in the years of the Vietnam adventure’s grim endgame traced their origins to a New Years Day 1968 conclave, in a smoke-filled room in Hoffman’s apartment on New York’s Lower East Side, where the “Yippie” concept was conceived. And the smoke in that room wasn’t tobacco.
So the movement was riven with paradoxes from the start: Activism versus hedonism. Idealism versus opportunism. Ultra-democracy versus conspiracism. Anarchists versus hustlers. Disciplined cadre versus dope-fueled rabble. Even the “party” of Youth International Party was intended as a pun, with both senses of the word equally legitimate.
The Yippies’ unlikely fusion of these seeming opposites was, somehow, a real one. They saw themselves as the harbingers of a new culture, seeking to psychedelicize the left as well as to politicize the hippies. While the traditional left (like the Mobe) held orderly marches and chanted in unison, the Yippies used hit-and-run street guerilla tactics and bizarre theater, like their October 1967 “exorcism” ritual at the Pentagon. While the traditional left disdained marijuana and LSD as decadent self-indulgence, the Yippies embraced them as agents of liberation, and adopted their legalization as a cause. They saw themselves—however unrealistically—as genuine revolutionaries, and the notion of a populist revolution as the product of an elite conspiracy can be traced back to the 19th-century Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin and Auguste Blanqui, who fancied himself the secret mastermind of the Paris Commune from his prison cell. The Yippies’ ethic of media manipulation—”using the system against the system”—fit this mentality perfectly.
But if Hoffman played the media by acting the role of irreverent jester for the cameras, there is another figure who was arguably even more influential—yet virtually unknown because, by choice, he labored in the shadows. And rather than merely manipulate the media, this man of mystery (an image he consciously cultivated) actually built his own modest media empire in the 1970s, creating something that, at least briefly, approached a real alternative to the corporate press, and helped move the whole American spectrum to the left, the loose and the funky. Tellingly, he killed himself on the very eve of the Reagan revolution, in which those gains would be largely repealed.
With the country once again as divided as it was in 1968, perhaps it is time that Thomas King Forçade received his posthumous due.
THE YIPPIE YEARS: GENESIS OF THE CONSPIRACY
Born Kenneth Gary Goodson (the name-change came when he forged his new identity), he started life as the nomad brat of a military contractor. After stints in Okinawa, Alaska and Greenland, the family returned to their native Arizona—where Gary’s father met his death in a car accident when the boy was 11. Gary’s principal passion as a teenager was hot-rodding, his anti-authoritarian streak manifested by getting into chases across the desert with the Utah state police. He eventually graduated to smuggling in trunkloads of marijuana from across the Mexican border. He briefly served in the Air Force in 1965, but, feigning insanity, was dishonorably discharged before he could be dispatched to Vietnam. Back in the civilian world, he earned a degree in business administration from the University of Utah. In 1967, he caught the psychedelic wave, grew his hair long, and moved into a communal household in the Tucson area. When the commune was raided for marijuana and LSD by the police, and some members arrested, he became politicized—and somewhat paranoid. He changed his name and began publishing his drug-culture journal Orpheus, which seems to have been inspired by San Francisco’s contemporaneous Oracle. But this had more of an edge—each edition of one issue was shot through with a bullet as an artistic statement. He produced it from a 1946 Chevy school bus he drove around Arizona to avoid police harassment. The name Forçade was an intentional play on the word “facade”—a wink to the initiated that it was an alias (although some sources maintain Forçade was his paternal grandmother’s maiden name).
Isolated in conservative Arizona, Forçade identified with the then-mushrooming radical or “underground” press movement. Small publications were springing up from coast to coast. Some, like Oracle, were focused on psychedelic exploration and mysticism. Others, like the Los Angeles Free Press, were journalistic, full of leftist muckracking. But increasingly, papers like New York’s East Village Other, which merged the two sensibilities, set the template. The underground press came to be seen as the voice of the radical youth movement of which the Yippies were the avant-garde.
In 1969 Forçade drove the school bus to New York where he teamed up with John Wilcock of the East Village Other to launch what they dubbed the Underground Press Syndicate (UPS), which served as a clearing house for the numerous new radical journals around the country. (The acronym, of course, was another play—on United Parcel Service.) UPS affiliates could lift material from each other, and link as a network. Forçade’s friends back in Arizona continued to publish Orpheus, which now metamorphosed into the official “directory” and periodic anthology of the UPS. But the UPS national headquarters, in a big loft on New York’s West 17th Street, became Forçade’s new base of operations.
Already Forçade was harboring dreams of the counter-culture supplanting and becoming the mainstream. “A daily underground paper in every city, and a weekly in every town,” he articulated his vision. “The underground press,” he wrote in the UPS founding manifesto, “is crouched like a Panther, dollars and days away from daily publication and thus total domination in the print media. After the underground press goes daily, they’ll die like flies.”
He saw his enterprise as on the frontlines of a culture war: “The Underground Press Syndicate papers, as advance scouts for journalism in Amerika & the world, often find themselves in conflict with the last vestiges of honky mentality… uptight Smokey-the-Bears of the totalitarian forest running around with axe-wielding blue-meanie henchmen, stomping out the fires of a people who have found their voice and are using it.” But he was convinced of victory. “The fires are too many and too big.”
The UPS claimed a collective 20 million readers, and Forçade strove to make the venture economically self-sustaining. He sold the microfilm rights of all UPS affiliates to the firm Bell & Howell for re-sale to libraries—which simultaneously brought in money and made the material more widely available. He contracted one Concert Hill Publications of Pennsylvania as the syndicate’s official ad agency. Some expressed fears that UPS was becoming too capitalistic with this move, but revenues from rock bands and concert promoters flowed in, and the underground press movement grew.
In New York, Forçade cut a strange figure. In an era and milieu of self-conscious flamboyance, he went around in an austere black outfit resembling a priest’s cassock, with a matching black wide-brimmed cowboy hat and ever-present dark glasses. He also rode around in a matching black Cadillac. He seemed to relish the rumors surrounding him that he was moving large quantities of marijuana into the city. In these years—like Hoffman, a senior figure in the New York radical scene, and clearly a role model—he actively sought notoriety, while justifying it as a tool of social change.
But, with Richard Nixon now in power, there was also an increased sense of paranoia. The Senate Internal Security Subcommittee investigated the finances of Liberation News Service, the journalistic collective that serviced many UPS affiliates. Federal legislation was introduced that sought to ban publications that ran communiqués from armed groups like the Black Panthers and Weather Underground. Local district attorneys and police forces launched a campaign of harassment. The Phoenix office of the UPS was raided in an ostensible drug search; no drugs were found, but police confiscated files and subscription lists. Wrote Forçade: “With obscenity busts, they get your money; with drug busts, they get your people; with intimidation, they get your printer; and if you still manage somehow to get out a sheet, their distribution monopolies and rousts keep it from ever getting to the people.”
The obscenity busts were also real—there was a cross-fertilization between pornography and the underground press at this point, with the radical journals pushing the limits on sexual frankness, providing personal ads for amorous readers (a new idea back then), and (in theory at least) making erotic imagery less voyeuristic and objectifying and more participatory and instructive. These distinctions were, of course, lost on the authorities. And on May 14, 1970, Forçade registered a rather dramatic protest.
Dressed in his trademark outfit, Forçade showed up at the hearings of the President’s Commission on Obscenity and Pornography in Washington DC, carrying an open letter to the commission listing 45 publications that had been censored or shut down by busts or intimidation. His testimony accused the commissioners of being “walking antiques…trying to stamp out our…working model of tomorrow’s paleocybernetic culture, soul, life, manifesting love force, anarchy, euphoria…flowing new-consciousness media… So fuck off, and fuck censorship!” Concluding his comments, he stepped forward and—with a war cry of “The only obscenity is censorship!”—wafted a cream pie right into the face of the commission’s chairman, Otto N. Larsen of the University of Washington.
This event—which took place the same day that two black student protesters were killed and nine injured by police gunfire at Mississippi’s Jackson State College—is now known as the first Yippie pie-ing. The tactic would later be taken up by Yippie Pie-Man Aron Kay, who would go on to symbolically “assassinate” Nixon aides G. Gordon Liddy, E. Howard Hunt and John Dean; CIA director William Colby; UN ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan; conservative pundit William F. Buckley; anti-feminist crusader Phyllis Schlafly; pop artist Andy Warhol; California governor Jerry Brown; New York mayors Abe Beame and Ed Koch, and several other icons of the establishment. Other Yippies creamed H-bomb mastermind Edward Teller, anti-gay mouthpiece Anita Bryant and Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner, a perceived exploiter of the youth culture. (The tradition is still being carried on today by a loose network known as the Biotic Baking Brigade, which has pied many captains of government and industry in recent years, including San Francisco mayor Willie Brown, Microsoft magnate Bill Gates and corporate raider Charles Hurwitz.)
In August 1970, Forçade undertook another high-profile caper. Warner Brothers was filming a movie entitled Medicine Ball Caravan, that chronicled the adventures of a tribe of hippies—including ex-Merry Prankster Wavy Gravy and his Hog Farm commune—as they made their way cross-country to attend the Isle of Wight rock festival in England. Forçade intercepted the caravan near Boulder. In his Cadillac limousine (now painted a militaristic olive drab) was a wide assortment of fireworks and smoke-bombs. In his entourage was one of the Yippies’ most provocative characters, David Peel—the group’s official songster, whose John Lennon-produced album The Pope Smokes Dope was an underground classic then being banned all over the world (and who took his name from his habit of smoking banana peels). Peel’s incessant taunting of the caravan leaders as whores for Warner Brothers finally brought the situation to violence. The camp boss pulled a knife on Peel; then Forçade (decked out like a frontiersman in a fringed leather jacket with a skull-and-crossbones button reading “The American Revolution”) jumped the boss from behind. The whole episode was caught on film—and used in the movie. While Forçade claimed his aim had been to expose the caravan as corporate exploitation of the counter-culture, rumors circulated that he had actually been in Warner Brothers’ pay—to provide some on-camera violence and publicity. Others claimed he was piggy-backing a big cross-country marijuana run on the caravan.
In 1971, when rock producer Phil Spector was accused of sitting on money raised by ex-Beatle George Harrison and friends (Ravi Shankar, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan) at Madison Square Garden’s legendary Concert for Bangladesh, Forçade joined with another Yippie, AJ Weberman, to found the Rock Liberation Front—which occupied Spector’s office to demand the funds be released. The negative publicity worked. Finally, the money started to arrive at the relief organizations working at the camps in northeast India, where some 10 million had taken precarious refuge from the brutal war in Bangladesh.
But there was again an ambiguity of motives surrounding the next escapade, which represented both the pinnacle of Forçade’s career as a visible activist leader and the impetus for an abrupt change in his trajectory—the defining moment in his life. It was also the last gasp of the Yippies, and the group’s inevitable Oedipal revolt.
Forçade had, of course, been drawn into the Yippies’ orbit upon his arrival in New York. His first ego-clash with Hoffman surrounded production of Abbie’s third and most popular tome: the cleverly entitled Steal This Book. The previous two, the Yippie manifesto Woodstock Nation and the stream-of-consciousness Revolution for the Hell of It (written under the pseudonym “Free,” even though Hoffman’s highly recognizable image adorned the cover, and several inside pages), had been successful—as had Rubin’s own manifesto Do It! But Steal This Book would have to be self-published—given the provocative title (which Hoffman refused to compromise on), and the fact that it was an explicit how-to manual on subverting and ripping off the system, including detailed instructions on squatting, shoplifting and building pipe-bombs and Molotov cocktails, complete with charts and diagrams.
Woodstock Nation and Revolution for the Hell of It were credited to the celebrity-hungry Hoffman despite the fact that—by many accounts—they were actually collective efforts, with lesser-known and younger Yippies helping out on the editing and even writing. Steal This Book was to be an even more explicitly collaborative project. When Hoffman had to return to Chicago in 1969 to serve a 13-day jail sentence for writing “FUCK” on his forehead in public, he hired Forçade to edit, typeset and lay out the manuscript. Upon his return to New York, Hoffman was presented with a bill of $5,000 for two weeks of work. Unhappy with either the price or the work, he refused to pay. The Yippies organized a “people’s court” to settle the matter, with Hoffman and Forçade each presenting their case to a panel of three arbiters.
Forçade argued that his fee was based on what he was paid by Madison Avenue advertising agencies as a “youth market” consultant—which particularly galled Hoffman, as this was exactly the kind of work he regularly turned down. For Forçade, in turn, the Yippies’ spirit of volunteerism and shoestring improvisation masked exploitation. As panelist Craig Karpel put it: “If Tom was trying to use his competence to hustle Abbie, Abbie was trying to use his incompetence to hustle Tom.” The panel ultimately issued what was conceived as a compromise: Hoffman would pay Forçade $1,000. There is a famous photo taken after the verdict was announced, in which a smiling Hoffman extends his hand to Forçade, as one of the panelists, a young Yippie named Mayer Vishner, looks on between them, clearly hoping for reconciliation. Forçade makes no move to accept Hoffman’s hand, or even turn to face him; he looks at the camera, ramrod-straight and poker-faced.
After the verdict, Forçade hit Hoffman with a double-whammy. First, he held a press conference in which he announced that the “people’s court” had ruled in his favor because it had ordered Hoffman to pay him money. The “Abbie Guilty!” headline hit both the mainstream and underground media. Then, he sued Hoffman in civil court—which was seen as a grave betrayal of counter-culture ethics.
Ultimately, two rival editions were issued, identical in every particular except the title and cover. Ironically Hoffman’s was printed under the moniker of “Pirate Editions,” while Forçade’s smaller print run was a pirate edition of this version! Printed by “Hopscotch, Inc.,” Forçade’s knock-off was dubbed The “Steal Yourself Rich” Book. Hoffman’s name only appeared on the title page, not the cover. A line of small print read: “Large portions of this book were previously published under the title ‘Steal This Book.'” Of course, the text said nothing about getting rich, but much about living for free on the fringe of society, fighting the police and generally making trouble for the “Pig Empire.” The two titles exemplified the divergent philosophies of the two men: Hoffman’s saw theft as an act of resistance against the system of private property; Forçade’s as a mere hustle.
The Yippie split intensified with the presidential campaigns of 1972. Both the Republicans and Democrats would be holding their conventions in Miami. The Republicans stood behind Nixon, who had escalated the bombardment of Vietnam and spread the war to Cambodia. But this time the Democrats seemed poised to nominate the anti-war candidate George McGovern—in the first election in which 18-year-olds would have the vote. The old Yippie leaders announced that they were prepared to protest the Republicans, but not the Democrats. Hoffman, Rubin and Ed Sanders (the rock star/poet of The Fugs, a Lower East Side-based band) joined to co-author the book Vote!, which urged the anti-war movement to support McGovern. Read Hoffman’s jacket blurb: “This is the first time since 1776 that America is up for grabs. Vote and its yours.” Sanders: “I might have done a lot of crazy things before, but now, it’s time to get the rock and roll people to vote.”
The younger generation of Yippies wouldn’t go along with this. A counter-triumvirate to Hoffman/Rubin/Sanders congealed around Forçade, Dana Beal and Cindy Ornsteen, and insisted on protesting both parties at Miami. They assumed a more hard-left posture, arguing that the Democrats as well as Republicans were a party of big business and war, and that the founding Yippies had become ossified and sold out. The breakaway faction around Forçade dubbed themselves the “Zippies,” and adopted the slogan: “Put the zip back into YIP!” Another Zippie slogan was “We are not McGovernable!”
Accused a post-Miami manifesto officially purging Hoffman and Rubin as YIP leaders: “Their endorsement of the McGovern candidacy was an attempt to commit YIP to surrendering our independent identity to a party controlled by oil billionaires and labor reactionaries, the Connallys and Meanys. Our survival as a party is absolutely incompatable [sic] with that of the Democratic Party. We cannot represent the interests of youth within the Democratic Party.” It also accused them of being anti-democratic and elitist.
The folks around Hoffman and Rubin saw baser motives. Chicago ’68 had been the Yippies’ moment of glory, and these younger Yips had missed it. Forçade had still been in Arizona, and Beal had been in jail on a marijuana charge during the “Battle of Chicago.” Now they wanted their own chance to make history—or at least headlines.
Sexual rivalries may have also played a part—Forçade’s love interest, former Berkeley Barb reporter Gabrielle Schang, had recently dumped him for Sanders. In fact, some sources maintain that finding out Schang was in Miami with Sanders was what prompted him to go there and assume the role of protest leader in the first place—and that he took a New York City taxi-cab all the way down in a split-instant decision!
Finally, there were the inevitable rumors that Forçade was a paid agent provocateur—assigned a task of discrediting the protest movement as kneejerk nihilism, and even tilting the election to law-and-order candidate Nixon. In a possible revenge strategy by Hoffman for Forçade’s media zap against him over the Steal This Book affair, the old Yippies (or somebody) succeeded in selling this spin to the mainstream press. Wrote Jack Anderson in the Washington Post: “Published reports claim that the young radicals who slashed tires, threw rocks and terrorized Republicans at the national convention were really on the GOP payroll.” Mike Royko in the Chicago Tribune: “Is somebody in the White House the real leader of the Zippies?” Both stories mentioned Forçade by name, and Anderson even revealed his real name.
The Miami protests did indeed explode into violence, and even the Zippies afterwards said that real agents provocateurs had been at work. In an effort to split the Zippies from other groups at Miami—particularly Vietnam Veterans Against the War—poison-pen leaflets were distributed bearing Forçade’s face in the style of a “WANTED” poster, accusing him of dealing heroin and getting vets hooked on smack. This was almost certainly part of the FBI’s COINTELPRO (Counter-Intelligence Program), which widely used such tactics against the New Left and especially the Black Panthers (as declassification of documents subsequently revealed). A goon squad of burly crew-cut men with shirts reading “FUC” attacked and beat up protesters. It was said this stood for Florida Undercover Coalition, a semi-official extremist wing of the Miami police.
Worse, the Miami protests failed to win the media attention that had riveted the nation and the world in the summer of ’68. Wrote historian Todd Gitlin in his account of the protest movement, The Whole World is Watching: “There was, in fact, far less live coverage of the demonstrations at the 1972 Republican Convention in Miami Beach, though those demonstrations were numerically larger than the Chicago events.”
But the real trouble came in the aftermath—when Forçade was charged by federal prosecutors with possession of a firebomb and intention to incinerate the convention center. (He had been arrested during the protests for attempting to steal a portrait of Lyndon Johnson from the convention center, but the charge didn’t stick.) The nostalgia for Chicago ’68 was becoming too real. If convicted, he faced a lengthy prison term.
Initially, he considered going underground. He laid low for weeks, checking into motels under false names with Cindy Ornsteen (while planting the rumor that he had fled to Argentina). Finally he turned himself in to face the charges—and in one last hurrah of bravado boasted to the feds that the Weathermen would soon break him out of jail (as they recently had Timothy Leary). Shotgun-wielding guards were posted outside his cell around the clock.
Forçade was cleared of the charges, but the episode prompted a radical change of direction in his life. On the lam with Ornsteen, he had arrived at a new strategy to realize his ambitions—to build the radical press movement and effect social change—but this time from the shadows rather than the limelight. And, this time, to get rich in the process.
THE HIGH TIMES YEARS: THE CONSPIRACY REALIZED
1974 was a turning point. US troops were finally home from Vietnam. Abbie Hoffman, wanted on a cocaine sale rap, went underground. Jerry Rubin dropped out of activist politics. Richard Nixon resigned to avoid facing impeachment proceedings. And Tom Forçade launched High Times magazine.
The concept was brilliant, and more successful than Forçade himself had anticipated. A whole industry of marijuana paraphernalia and growing equipment had sprung up in recent years, and needed a place to advertise. And there was a public eager for the magazine’s unique mixture of sophisticated alternative journalism and marijuana pornography. A small print run disappeared from the news-stands in a flash; more were printed, and they too were gone in the blink of an eye. It was an instant sensation.
As Albert Goldman would write in a retrospective in High Times on the magazine’s founder 15 years after his death: “Starting the magazine on a $20,000 shoestring, Forçade would see the circulation double with every issue for years, until at its peak, in 1978, High Times was read by four million people a month, grossed five million dollars a year and had been acclaimed as the ‘publishing success story of the seventies.’ The same shrewdness exemplified by the concept and the financing was evinced in the design and packaging of the product… Forçade produced a slick knock-off of the paramount magazine formula of recent times: the Playboy-Penthouse sex mag. His reasoning was flawless. Dope was the sex of the ’70s: a universal pleasure fighting for full acceptance… [W]hy shouldn’t the formula that worked for pussy work for pot?”
Forçade had found his true calling. He had once theorized to the UPS: “You’re going to have to identify…some sort of base that the straight press can’t co-opt. Either sex, drugs or politics.” Precisely because drugs were illegal, they fit the bill perfectly. Sex could be commodified, and politics could go soft. But dope was inexorably outlaw—and especially after Nixon, who had launched a “War on Drugs,” and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). High Times was inherently oppositional.
In addition to full-color centerfolds of high-grade marijuana, there were columnists—principally Ed Rosenthal and Mel Frank—who provided explicit instructions on how to grow the stuff, and one, “‘R.’, Dope Connoisseur,” who reviewed the latest strains. As the magazine was popularized, the homegrown movement flourished. There were also first-hand accounts of smuggling, and domestic growers followed in the footsteps of High Times journalists to bring back exotic strains from Morocco, Afghanistan and Nepal.
But being the Hugh Hefner of the dope culture also fueled Forçade’s paranoia. While he was both full owner and real editorial director (closely managing the official publisher, Andy Kowl, and editor, Ed Dwyer), his name did not appear in the magazine. When he wrote, it was under pseudonyms like “Leslie Morrison.” At first High Times operated out of the UPS office; eventually both moved to a bigger space at East 27th Street. Forçade (who now developed a penchant for white suits—again with matching cowboy hat and ever-present shades) rented a loft across the street, or stayed in nearby hotels, where he hosted conclaves with the staff. He ceased to be a visible figure—he now craved anonymity as avidly as he had once craved notoriety. He had become the Howard Hughes of the counter-culture, as much as the Hugh Hefner.
His old sense of absurdist humor was still at work. The company he formed as official publisher of High Times was dubbed the Trans-High Corporation, or THC—the acronym for tetrahydro-cannabinol, the psycho-active ingredient in marijuana. Its official icon was the P-38, a twin-tailed World War II fighter which Forçade re-envisioned as the ultimate smuggler plane.
A remnant faction of the Yippies, meanwhile, continued to exist under the leadership of Dana Beal, from a building at 9 Bleecker Street in the East Village. They continued to launch protests at national political conventions (Kansas City, 1976), but marijuana legalization became their special cause. They held public “smoke-ins” around the country, the most prominent being the annual affairs in Washington DC on July 4, New York’s Fifth Avenue on May 1, and Washington Square Park on Halloween. They also launched their own publication, Yipster Times. Forçade and Beal remained close collaborators—High Times publicized and covered the Yippie events, and Tom sunk money into them.
He also sunk money into an array of other publications. Just before High Times was founded, the Underground Press Syndicate officially changed its name to the Alternative Press Syndicate, hoping to win greater mainstream legitimacy—and less heat from the authorities. The APS launched its own magazine, Alternative Media, published at the High Times offices, and conceived as a more serious and activist-oriented sibling journal. Forçade also quietly provided seed money for many new additions to the APS network around the country—from gay and feminist publications to the burgeoning ecologist, anti-nuclear and Native American press.
When the punk sub-culture exploded, many old hippies were aghast, but Forçade cheered it on, providing seed money, advertisers and national distribution for Punk magazine, the brainchild of cartoonist John Holmstrom (who did the back-cover art for the Ramones’ third album, 1977’s Rocket to Russia, and the front-cover art for the following year’s Road to Ruin). This became the prototype for a whole universe of punk fanzines, and was key to popularizing the genre in America. Forçade also slapped down $400,000 for a documentary of the Sex Pistols’ legendary and star-crossed 1978 US tour, DOA.
Forçade even for a time published (it is widely suspected) his own ostensible rivals to High Times, called Stone Age and Head—another of his obsessive pranks. And he opened his own bookstore in Soho, called New Morning (from the title of both a Bob Dylan album and a Weather Underground manifesto).
High Times, it must be emphasized, contained intelligent journalism, not just pot pornography. One star reporter was Rob Singer (who in the ’90s would serve a prison term for a huge California marijuana operation, which involved moving the stuff around in a fleet of refrigerated cross-country rigs). In 1976, he authored an in-depth and highly prescient piece, “Dope Dictators,” which documented the drug ties of various despots around the planet and predicted: “In the years to come the rhetoric of the Dope War will replace rhetoric of the Cold War as the justification for foreign military intervention. Instead of sending in the Marines, Washington will send in the narcs.” These lines anticipated the 1989 invasion of Panama, and the secret war currently underway in Colombia.
Key to High Times’ success was Forçade’s partnership with Larry Flynt, the publisher of Hustler. Flynt bucked the Mafia, which had traditionally maintained control of pornography distribution, by establishing his own distribution company for Hustler and his other magazines. High Times also used this company, which—in a practice unheard-of in the business—paid for magazines up front. This allowed Forçade to maintain High Times’ extensive payroll (it is said two staffers were hired just to roll joints for the rest!), throw lavish parties regularly, and still sink money into political causes.
And Forçade’s success extended to his personal life—he finally won the love of Gabrielle Schang, who became his common-law wife (and editor of Alternative Media).
However, there were also contradictions eating away at the dream. Forçade, it became clear, was (like Abbie Hoffman) manic-depressive—or, more accurately, afflicted with what is now called seasonal affective disorder, SAD. He was full of frenetic energy in the spring and summer, but grew despondent as the days grew shorter. His mood swings made life difficult for High Times staff. In one episode, he staged a “Saturday Night Massacre,” firing everybody—only to hire them all back the next day. Andy Kowl related to Albert Goldman an incident in which Tom produced a .45 pistol in the midst of an argument—only to hand it to Kowl and demand he shoot him.
While Forçade ploughed money into the DC-based National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML, founded 1970), he could also lord it over the organization in the most arrogant manner. In one famous episode, he showed up at a NORML benefit party at a posh Park Avenue apartment and intentionally offended the hostess—putting his boots up on the polished wood table, lighting a joint and meeting protests with “Go fuck yourself!”
Most bizarrely, even as High Times became massively successful, Forçade continued to smuggle massive quantities of marijuana into the country. He established a clandestine “smoke-easy” at 714 Broadway, where the city’s pot dealers congregated to share samples, compare prices and conduct business. Goldman relates one escapade in which Forçade was personally overseeing the ferrying of boatloads of Colombian to a drop-off point from a freighter off the Florida coast. The operation was discovered by the police, and Forçade fled into the Everglades, where he hid out for days before he made his escape.
One such operation in the spring of 1978 went horribly wrong—and cost the life of Forçade’s close friend and longtime smuggling partner Jack (O’Lantern) Coombs, who was flying in a load of Colombian in a twin-engine cargo plane. Forçade was to meet him mid-air in a smaller plane and guide him to a Florida drop-off point, where the cargo would be parachuted to a waiting ground crew. Coombs’ plane came in too low, hit tree level—and burst into flames. Forçade, it was said by those who knew him, always blamed himself for his friend’s death. This is counted as the beginning of his downward spiral.
Some of High Times’ journalistic coups also backfired. In 1978, President Carter’s drug policy advisor Dr. Peter Bourne—already under fire for allegedly approving a Quaalude prescription for a secretary’s recreational use—was spotted snorting coke at a NORML party in the fashionable DC district of Georgetown. High Times writer Craig Copetas had been present, and the magazine eagerly reported this hot gossip, hoping to shame Carter into following through on his promises to decriminalize marijuana. Predictably, it had exactly the opposite effect. Bourne was forced to resign, and Carter stepped up aid to Mexico to spray the defoliant paraquat on marijuana fields.
A key turning point in High Times’ fortunes came with the attempted assassination of Larry Flynt. In March 1978, during a legal battle against obscenity charges in Georgia’s Gwinnett County, Flynt and his lawyer were shot outside the courthouse. A white supremacist militant later confessed to the crime, but rumors of Mafia or CIA involvement abounded. They both survived, but Flynt was confined to a wheelchair for life—and during his lengthy recovery, the distribution business fell into disarray. High Times lost the sweet distribution deal on which it depended. Economic chaos loomed for the magazine.
Later that year, Gabrielle Schang interviewed Tom on tape at their Greenwich Village apartment, at his request. He spoke about his ongoing dreams of building a viable alternative press, about his fears of government surveillance. (“Effectively, I’ve already spent the last 10 years in jail—I’ve been under such close surveillance.”) Incredibly, he denied ever breaking any laws. (“My only crime is not agreeing with the straight media.”) He boasted of his voracious reading and work habits. Asked what motivated him, he said: “I have a deep fear of killing myself out of boredom.”
On November 16, 1978, alone in his bed, with Gabrielle in the very next room, Tom Forçade, depressed, insomniac and paranoid (and—allegedly—having taken Quaaludes in an effort to sleep), shot himself in the temple with a pearl-handled .22.
He was 33 years old.
THE AFTERMATH: STRUGGLE FOR THE LEGACY
There were, of course, the inevitable rumors of government involvement. Forçade’s old Yippie friend AJ Weberman—a notorious conspiracy theorist, author of the book Coup d’Etat in America, claiming Watergate burglar E. Howard Hunt killed JFK for the CIA—immediately charged that Schang was a paid agent and had killed Forçade for the CIA. He noted that right-handed Tom had been shot in the left temple. Mel Frank would assert that Forçade had been followed by mysterious black cars in his final weeks.
Schang became the new High Times editor, but control of THC passed to Forçade’s lawyer Michael Kennedy, and she remained at the helm only a few issues. A succession of new editors followed, but it was clear the magazine was foundering.
The general cultural atmosphere changed rapidly. Reagan was elected. Hippies—and even Yippies, like Jerry Rubin—became yuppies. Colombia’s marijuana syndicates morphed into the sinister cocaine cartels, and coke replaced pot as America’s fashionable youth drug—but now as a symbol of affluence, not rebellion. Hardcore porn put the sexual frankness of the old underground press to shame, but utterly betrayed any ethic of equalitarian eroticism and de-objectification.
High Times, its circulation plummeting, followed this cultural de-evolution. Under editor Larry “Ratso” Sloman (who would later write an unflattering biography of Abbie Hoffman), photos of sparkling cocaine replaced marijuana buds and hashish balls in the centerfold spreads. Serious journalism nearly disappeared from the magazine. The APS withered, and Alternative Media ceased publication.
The remnant Yippies around Dana Beal (adopting a plethora of ad hoc front organizations) continued with their smoke-ins and protests at the political conventions (Detroit, New York, 1980; San Francisco, Dallas, 1984), but with greatly reduced numbers and far less support from High Times. Forçade’s final interview was run in the premier issue of Overthrow, as Yipster Times was re-named in 1979. Adopting a punk aesthetic and launching the American branch of the UK Rock Against Racism movement, the latter-day Yips that year opened a rock club at 10 Bleecker Street (just a few doors down from CBGB), popularly called Studio 10 but officially the Thomas K. Forçade Memorial Multi-Media Center. It would be evicted in 1981, with the gentrification of the East Village. Overthrow would finally cease publication in the late ’80s (perhaps marking an official end of the underground press movement), although Beal continues even now to reside in the building at 9 Bleecker, where a faded sign over the door reads “Yipster Times”—an incongruous anachronism among upscale boutiques and eateries. He is currently touting it as “The Yippie Museum.”
In 1986, as crack was infesting the streets of America’s cities, Reagan launched his own renewed War on Drugs. In the inevitable crackdown on the paraphernalia industry, High Times’ advertising base was virtually wiped out; the Justice Department even launched an investigation into the magazine for conspiracy to distribute paraphernalia. As the cheap freeze-dried variety became ubiquitous, cocaine quickly went from being a symbol of yuppie prosperity to a stigma associated with the urban poor and criminal element. Ironically, the official anti-drug hysteria came just as the CIA’s “contra” operations in Nicaragua were overseeing massive cocaine imports into the United States. (Abbie Hoffman, who had cut a deal with the authorities and come out from underground in 1980, made opposition to the secret war in Nicaragua one of his new activist campaigns. He too would fall victim to an apparent suicide in 1989.)
It was clear that High Times had to change. Steve Hager was brought in as the new editor in ’86. He cleaned out the cocaine, brought back the marijuana and a degree of political idealism. John Holmstrom, formerly of Punk, became publisher. In the late ’80s and ’90s High Times underwent something of a renaissance, with writers such as Peter Gorman, Steve Wishnia, Preston Peet and myself covering the War on Drugs as a serious political issue. Dean Latimer, the news editor from the Forçade era, was brought back. But this came to an end in subsequent editorial purges. High Times remains today the proverbial shadow of its former self—and something of a self-parody, with lots of pot pornography and sophomoric humor, but very little real journalism or political consciousness.
Controversy also surrounded Forçade’s stated desire that a certain percentage of High Times’ profits go to NORML in perpetuity. Former NORML board member Don Wirtshafter has accused THC of cooking the books to avoid giving the organization what it is due under Forçade’s deal. In 2000, THC was officially turned over from the trustees of Forçade’s estate (including some fairly conservative family members in Arizona) to those who had been on High Times staff for more than 10 years—again, in accord with Forçade’s stated wishes. But both Ed Rosenthal and John Holmstrom have sued THC, claiming they didn’t get what they were owed under the arrangement. Rosenthal lost his case, and Holmstrom’s was dropped. Michael Kennedy (while never a trustee or share-holder) is still seen as the real brains behind THC.
Marijuana, of course, remains illegal, with some 50,000 doing time for the stuff nationwide (out of over a million nonviolent drug offenders)—although several states have decriminalized, and several others passed laws or referenda legalizing medical marijuana, sparking a states’ rights showdown with the feds. Ed Rosenthal has been officially licensed to grow medical marijuana for the city of Oakland, California, and is prevailing in the courts against federal efforts to prosecute him on various felonies.
New publications on the High Times model have sprung up—principally Cannabis Culture, Heads and Skunk (all published in Canada), Weed World (UK), Cáñamo (Spain) and Stickypoint (Australia). The whole notion of an “alternative press” has been changed by the Internet in ways Forçade never could have anticipated, with webzines and blogs filling a similar niche. The Independent Media Centers, which emerged from the 1999 Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization, are in some ways an updated answer to the UPS. But the IMCs are a uniform franchise, contrasting the homespun individualism of the old underground press. And the sheer abundance of electronic media also has a marginalizing effect. With the IMCs lost amid a cacophony of right-wing blogs, there is certainly no sense of a unified oppositional culture animating the new digital alternative media.
Yet, the USA is once again bitterly divided over an unpopular war, riven by stark cultural contradictions; and issues of government surveillance and abuse of power have only grown more pressing since 9-11. These parallels make this an opportune moment to look back, re-asses what has brought us to this point. The legacy of Tom Forçade is now more worthy of examination than at any time since his death.
Bill Weinberg is a former High Times news editor and currently editor of the online journal World War 4 Report. He is the author of Homage to Chiapas: The New Indigenous Struggles in Mexico (Verso Books, 2000), and is at work on a book on the secret war in Colombia.
This story originally appeared in the January/February edition of Cannabis Culture
Tom Forçade reminiscences at AcidTrip.com
Abbie Hoffman website
Ed Rosenthal’s website
John Holmstrom’s website
Yippie Pie-Man’s Homepage
The Yippie Museum
Cannabis Culture on the Forçade Trust controversy
Accuracy in Media on Ed Dwyer: “From Pot to Porn to AARP”
Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, April 1, 2007
Reprinting permissible with attribution