HIGH TIMES MAGAZINE’S COCAINE YEARS
You’ve got to salute anyone taking the plunge into paper at a time when magazines meet their makers faster than the startling, saddening number of A, B and C-listers over the last five months. That’s not to say that just because you’re bloody minded enough to swim against the deadly swells of the magazine industry’s slow decline your publication will be any good, but it’s admirable nonetheless. With any luck, the new breed of editors and publishers will possess a single percent of the lunacy of Tom Forcade rather than sitting blandly in an office of vintage Eames pieces, stroking a vintage Woolrich coat.
For those of us a little bored of “you weren’t there maaaaaaaan” yippie types talking about dropping out and pranking folks, it’s nice to hear about something genuinely subersive, and the origins of High Times are just that. Tom started the magazine in 1974 with 12k and the proceeds of a drug deal and what could have been a burn-out fanzine, was a glossy creation, well-designed, hiring the best writers and at one point carrying over a hundred staffers. The professionalism of the Trans-High Corporation just made it all the more subversive.
Reading through Martin Torgoff’s excellent ‘Can’t Find My Way Home,’ his section on the magazine’s genesis with contributions from onetime High Times editor Glenn O’Brien who testifies as to just how manic the offices were and that the mysterious Mr. Forcade was very much the real deal, shifting and smoking a serious amount of dope, and suffering extreme mood swings that left him acting like a weed-addled Howard Hughes, even rocking a Fu Manchu ‘tache. How the hell did he get away with it all? Maybe the whole operation worked under the notion that authorities would never accept that the rag would be so closely affiliated with shifting weight, as that would be too obvious, and noone in their right mind would take a risk like that. Tom wasn’t in his right mind though, and reportedly attempted suicide a number of times, suffering depression over the death of his friend Jack Coombs in a plane crash during a smuggle gone wrong, and shooting himself on November the 19th 1978.
Tom was a product of the ’60s who left the army and became heavily politicised, before becoming THC’s own Hefner but rehashing (get it?) his life story here would be pointless, as friends and associates tell it a lot better in pieces like this George Petros piece, talking to cartoonist John Holstrom (‘Punk’ magazine and Ramones covers). The magazine industry needs mavericks, not business planners and reverential fanboys. Without Tom’s direction High Times entered an interesting phase – from 1979 to the mid ’80s, it added yayo to the table, (Holsteom cites the coke period as being 1981 to 1985, we’ll use the October 1979 issue’s freebase kit ads) with it superseding the weed focus; a sign of the times, think disco, Studio 54 and Hollywood’s blizzard, but it was Tom’s passing that opened these floodgates.
Perhaps for all his madness, he was keen to keep the class-As to the background. That’s not to say tooters, Triple-Beams and even Methaqualone-themed paperweight weren’t sold in the legendary ads section of the magazine, but cooking coke brought a certain darkness to the proceedings. For that half of the ’80s, writing for the magazine reportedly became an embarrassment to match Allan MacDonell’s Hustler tenure, as documented in ‘Prisoner Of X,’ (much to Larry Flynt’s displeasure) and removed the journalistic stepping stone it provided the previous decade. There was a LOT of cocaine coverage. Glenn hastily left. But here’s the thing – the content became even more morally murky, and with five years of great cover art under its leaf-buckled belt, High Times’s covers during the coke-era were pretty batshit crazy too, less subtle, but vastly superior to the current lurid look of the magazine, which seems to have stayed static since the ’90s. There’s a scattering of coked-out covers below.
The infamous Ohaus Triple-Beam
It doesn’t end there though. Journalist Steven Hager’s entry into High Times and as a documenter of subcultures is invaluable. You should know him as one of the first to get the term ‘hip-hop’ printed, and his fine 1984 book ‘Hip Hop’ remains hard to obtain. He also wrote the book ‘Art After Midnight,’ documenting NYC’s avant art scenes.You should probably give them a read, and help is at hand, as the very much in-print, ‘Adventures In The Counterculture’ incorporates both essays that made up the backbone of each book.
Hager is also quoted in ‘Samo Is Dead,’ Phoebe Hoban’s Basquiat story for New York magazine. Steven took over as editor of High Times in 1988 and his first editorial move was to focus on bud, and jettison opiates and cocaine from the magazine, taking it into the Cannabis Cup era. Steven’s hip-hop credentials, and the rise of blunted rap meant more rap talk in the magazine and a new audience of readers during the early ’90s willing to pay a Tower Records markup price because of a mention in The Source’s ‘Media Watch’ column.
Now High Times seems to be showcased locally in the racks outside gaudily decorated head shops, it’s great that it’s still going, but in 2009 a publication dedicated to weed feels like it page upon page of a stoner colleague crowing about how they hotboxed all weekend and were, like, stoned for three days solid and ate nine pizzas etc. etc. etc. Smoke the shit – don’t talk it. But High Times was the vessel that created that overfamiliarity with THC-babble, so their longevity is well-deserved. Long may it run three thousand word pieces on secret harvests, and break down lighting technology with alarming levels of detail.
There’s a great film to be made from Tom Forcade’s life story – aspiring publishers should be thinking in terms of their own biopics after they pass. Are your day-to-day antics maniacal enough to fuel a film? On a lighter note, there’s a great documentary in there too, charting the friendy softball tournament rivalry that High Times’s ‘Bonghitters’ squad maintains with fellow New York magazine Vanity Fair and their ‘Veefers’ who frequently marvel at the stoners’ sporting ability.