Tom Forcade Interview
In a telling interview just before his death, 'High Times' Founder Tom Forcade talks about music, politics, and drugs.
Prior to his death, Tom Forcade's wife, Gabrielle Schang-Forcade, conducted an impromptu interview with the High Times founder. This interview was featured in HiLife Magazine almost a year after his death in the September 1979 issue.
Tom Forcade was a difficult man to describe. He was known to the public, but I daresay his name will never become a household word. In fact, Tom was so uncommon, so futuristic, and so funny that we used to wonder if he fell to Earth from another planet. He liked to eat dessert first, followed by tacos with no lettuce, onions, or tomatoes. He loved to lie in bed all day, likening himself to a lion in the jungle who would only rouse himself for a good reason—like hunger.
Great ideas and fantastic notions were what made Tom spring out of bed and into action. High Times magazine was one of his best ideas, and he was perhaps best known as its inventor, publisher, and editor. But the list of Tom's achievements is long, and I doubt that the full impact of his life on the world is over. He was a cultural trail-blazer. In some ways, Tom was too far out to enjoy the more mundane aspects of life as an earthling. Although I miss my best friend and husband, I picture him now as a pure spirit, free of needing coats in winter or of ever again nicking his chin with a razor.
There are fates worse than death I am certain. The following conversation took place at 4:00 AM approximately three weeks before Tom's death by suicide from a gunshot wound to the head. The idea to do the interview was his. He insisted that I jump out of bed with him this time, despite the hour. I'm glad I did, too, because the idea was good.
HiLife: If you had to state your occupation in a couple of words, what would you call yourself?
Tom Forcade: A social architect.
What do you mean by that?I have to take mega concepts and make them work in mass and in macro scale.
Do you feel you have to do this?
If I want to eat regularly.
For what purpose?
For the good of society.
Aren't you also a culture broker of some sort?
Well, yes, I buy low and sell high. But I don't mark it up very much and I try to add a lot in the process.
People have compared your starting High Times magazine to a guy who went out to his backyard to dig a hole and accidentally struck oil... But I wonder if it was really so simple.
No. The first issue was easy. It's the last issue that's the hard one. You're only as good as the last issue.
What drugs do you take for your personal enjoyment?
I never met a drug I didn't like, but I never violate any local, state, or federal laws. I believe in clean living and I stay away from sugar. Why, do I seem high to you?
(Laughs) Editing High Times must require an encyclopedic knowledge of all drugs. How do you stay on top of what's happening?
I get messages from outer space. I also read a lot and collaborate with an extremely knowledgeable and responsible staff.
The magazine is tolerant of many different types of drugs, but it rarely mentions heroin. What is your view of smack?
It amounts to social control on a molecular level. I also find heroin boring.
What's the magazine's attitude on the legalization of marijuana? Will legalization help or hurt High Times?
That's a good question. I don't know the answer. “Repeal Pothibition” is simpler.
How do you resolve the dichotomy between being a businessman and an artist?
I make it and then sell it, and then I spend the money.
What motivates you?
I have a deep fear of killing myself out of boredom.
How do you choose your friends?
We choose each other. I've got a lot of friends but I don't have a lot of time, so I don't have much time to spend with friends. I like people who are funny.
What do you worry about?
Being extradited to another planet.
Why don't you want to go to another planet?
The nearest one is four light years away. That's a long time to be wearing handcuffs.
Do you sometimes worry about going to jail for some of the things you've stood up for?
Effectively, I've already spent the last ten years in jail—I've been under such close surveillance.
How do you spend the hours of your day?
I function on a conceptual level. I usually confer with two or three of my associates during the day, make a few phone calls, read a lot, do a little editing and writing, a little business. I work hard every day. I take responsibility for everything.
How come you don't have people out there prompting you, selling "Tom Forcade” dolls?
We're working on it.
Seriously, you keep an awfully low profile. Why is that?
I can barely deal with the number of people I relate to now while doing what I have to do. I can't cope with any more.
Is there any other reason?
Yes. I'm nervous. The government has tried to frame me several times in the past. In 1973 for explosives, for example. This is a matter of public record.
Is the government still out to get you?
Ask them... or I'll give you an answer. Let's put it this way: they have tapped the phones where I live, including my bedroom. They've read my mail, they've used superintendents where I live and work. To this day they've got informers planted against me. They've planted women informers to try to fuck me, they've planted informers in positions as High Times office boys, office managers, and accountants. They don't stop there either. The government has used informers against me as dope dealers, dope smugglers, pseudo-radical activists, gun dealers, explosives dealers, and even lawyers.
So why aren't you in jail?
I try to stay clear of trouble. I haven't broken any laws. My only real crime is not agreeing with the straight media.
How do you feel about the straight media?
I think that Tass and Pravda in Russia are probably as independent as Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, the Washington Post, and CBS. In the past 20 years, the entire media has been bought up and has become a subsidiary of big business. There is no media self-criticism in this country. The result is inevitable. What we read here is tightly controlled. Therefore, Americans are very provincial and have little idea what's really going on in the world. That's what I've seen after reading dozens of foreign newspapers and magazines every week. It's a sad thing. I think the people who work in the media, to the extent they're aware, are trying to do something about it. The people who own the media are blatantly controlled by the government and big business.
How do you keep the people who work for you safe from informants and infiltrators?
I try to work with people who are into writing and editing, not dealing, and I back them up with the best lawyers that money and commitment can obtain.
You've had a long association with the Youth International Party. What's the difference between the 1968 and 1978 Yippies?
In 1968, there were four Yippies and they stopped one of the biggest hypocrites of all time from being elected President, Hubert Humphrey. In 1978, there are many thousands of Yippies, and if another hypocrite like Humphrey comes along, they'll probably stop him too. But it's a different world today, that's for sure.
Who were the four Yippies in 1968?
I'm not talking.
In your opinion, are there any bad guys on the left?
No, they're all saints.
Are the leaders of YIP heroes to you?
Yeah, I've got to admire the commitment of the hardcore people who are still fighting and putting their energy, time, necks, and money on the line. They keep a lot of pressure on the government, which prevents it from being even more right wing than it is.
What was it like to work at the Underground Press Syndicate back in the 1960s?
Magic. Dangerous but fascinating—an incredible media conspiracy. I've seen great papers in those days. The San Francisco Oracle, East Village Other, Chicago Seed, Kaleidoscope, Helix.
What's it like now?
It's still interesting, but it's not new. I mean, there are about as many papers and about as many readers, but we've changed the name to Alternative Syndicate and times are different. It's still good.
You've written a couple of books. How did they sell?
Most of the books I’ve written never got published. I did a couple of anthologies. One sold 200,000 copies. I edited Steal This Book, which sold about a million. Bigger than Ezra Pound in total sales, but smaller than Coleridge. I could sell my other books. That would be nice.
You worked with Abbie Hoffman. He's a casualty of the drug laws right now. Are you sympathetic?
Well, yeah. We had a little money squabble over Steal This Book. Abbie was going to pay me back, and just at that time he was busted for coke. He was obviously set up, and he should definitely be given amnesty.
What about Jerry Rubin? Is he a friend?
Yeah, he's a friend of mine, now.
Yeah... at one point Jerry started, and Abbie helped spread, the rumor that I was some kind of agent. But Jerry later took that back publicly. I think he's better off not being a political leader. He writes good books.
Whatever became of the Zippies?
Zippie was just a word to get the attention of the media in 1972 at the presidential conventions, and to convey to the media that there had been certain progressions since 1968. After the 1972 conventions were over, the organization was returned to YIP.
What was it like in SDS back in the early 60s?
Well, it was better than being in the Democratic Party, but not as romantic as fighting in Bolivia with Che Guevara. Later it changed from a debate-society/picketing organization to a “more-revolutionary-than-thou” trip. That was an interesting period.
Do you miss the rock festivals of the 60s?
No. Good music, but I don't like the crowds.
What was your role at the rock festivals?
I never went as a spectator. I was always involved in their management on some level. It was an interesting viewpoint. Basically it was a great responsibility for me... I had a couple hundred thousand people, some were random, some chosen. It's surprising that worse things didn't happen. The good vibes were mainly due to a hard core of people who ran nearly all the rock festivals at that time. They took their jobs seriously. Good people.
Where did all the rock festival organizers go?
Many of them have gone on to do some extremely interesting things. But that's a whole book unto itself.
What do you do for entertainment?
Oh, fuck, sleep, read, listen to music, and work—ideally in that order.
Why did you live in hotels for seven years a while ago?
Why don't you like to be photographed?
It's like being shot to me. It steals your soul... it steals my soul, anyway. The Muslims believed that, and they make very good hashish.
What do you think are the important issues of the day?
What makes issues important is the willingness of people to do something about it. And on that basis, nuclear energy, the survival of whales, trees, and anything you do that will make things better is important. All the old problems are still around, and they still haven't been solved.
How big is the drug paraphernalia industry?
It's at least $350 million a year.
Do you believe in what you are doing?
Well, down in Jamaica rolling papers are illegal, and I'm sorry to report that people smoke spleefs made from paper bags. Try living without rolling papers, you know.
What is the official High Times position about the drug paraphernalia trade?
It's not a trade magazine, but we have to recognize that the paraphernalia business is very big and very important, and in a lot of ways glamorous and exciting. So are the people in it. They don't feel that way, because they're too close to it. The people in it are like anyone else, you know, from the White House to an LA recording studio. They like to get high, but they don't want to take the rap for it, understandably. It’s becoming a very professionally-run thing. There are forces of reaction against paraphernalia, but High Times has donated a lot of money to fend against them because we think it's in the best interest of our readers to oppose the laws against it. When the government tries to stamp out paraphernalia, they're trying to stamp out a whole culture.
How did you get the idea for High Times?
Through a combination of nitrous oxide and fear. I had just been acquitted of an explosives charge in 1973, and I went into a long period of self-examination to determine what I wanted to do next. The “movement” was over and I needed something to keep from killing myself out of boredom. And so, aided by many tanks of nitrous-oxide, I came up with High Times.
What are the magazine's politics? Radical, alternative...?
What's it like now?
It's an efficient work-like office, but there is room for creativity in it. There's not too much pressure, and that's healthy. There was a time when walking through the offices of High Times was like going through the midway in a sleazy carnival. There were people with pills in one room, grass in another, coke in another room, nitrous in the next room, glue in another room, and so on down the hall. But people were under a lot of pressure and maybe they felt they had something to prove. It's a lot healthier now. Things are more in perspective. We have the high without the hassle. It's a good magazine based on a good idea, and it knows its readers.
Exactly what kind of magazine is High Times?
It's an all-American magazine with a section on world news.