Freedom, Madness and High Times

Image of a weed plant.

Image by Kym MacKinnon.

I remember the first issue of High Times I ever read. I bought it at a head shop in College Park, Maryland for a buck in the Fall of 1974. It was the second issue. The cover featured a painting of an airplane with the words Trans-Marijuana Cargo lines written on it and a marijuana leaf on the tail. The article I remember best was about the hashish-smuggling-orange-sunshine-dealing Brotherhood of Eternal Love. In its early years, the section that my small-time dealing friends and I referred to the most was the Trans-High Market section that featured prices for weed, mushrooms, LSD and sometimes other drugs from around the US and Europe. As the 1970s progressed, I never missed reading an issue of the magazine.

In the late 1960s, it was about sex, drugs, rock-‘n’-roll and revolution. By the mid-1970s revolution was mostly no longer a part of the dynamic. Sure, there were still lots of freaks living outside the law or on its edges. Leftist politics still informed the lives of thousands and thousands of people in the US, especially in certain workplaces and cities, but the massive protests and the organizing those protests involved was quite diminished from a few years earlier. But lots more people seemed to be smoking weed and rock music was gaining an audience its artists had once only dreamed of. We used to say that US capitalism took the stuff it could sell and discarded revolution, which was ultimately anti-capitalist. In other words, it kept the sex, the drugs and the rock and roll and marketed it with the same fervor it marketed cars, tobacco and toothpaste. Rarely, if at all, did we consider how High Times was part of that transition, even as we did bong hits while reading the most recent issue.

I recall following the debates about the anarcho-dada political groups yippee and Zippie and thinking the debate itself was absurd. I never understood the fights between the groups and individuals in them. Their shenanigans were only effective when they were explained and all too often they weren’t. When the magazine debuted, it was unclear who was putting it out. Was it the DEA trying to entrap pot smokers and acidheads or was it some high-rolling smuggling syndicate? Perhaps it was as legit as we wanted it to be—a magazine for the counterculture freaks of the 1970s. I would bring this question up during various conversations, hoping to find some kind of verification or at least provoke some serious (albeit often stoned) debate. It was when I was hanging out at a house where Washington, DC’s Yippies lived that I first heard the name Tom Forcade in connection with the magazine. I had heard of Forcade in connection with the 1972 Republican and Democratic conventions protests. He was one of the self-proclaimed Zippie spokespeople quoted in both the mainstream and underground press. The Zippies were a small group of counterculture radicals who had formed in reaction to what they considered the Yippies’ cooptation by the mainstream. Like so many organizations—serious and not so serious—who were considered part of the antiwar/New Left, the Zippies were infiltrated by law enforcement. This fact and their attacks on Yippies Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman and Stew Albert caused many new leftists and antiwarriors to wonder if the entire Zippie phenomenon was just a black op and if Forcade was an agent of the state.

Those who knew him were quite certain he wasn’t. A new biography of Forcade, titled Agents of Chaos: Thomas King Forçade, High Times, and the Paranoid End of the 1970s and written by Sean Howe, also leans in that direction. However, like all who live their lives in a manner like Forcade that leaves many questions about the person unanswered, we will never know. In the end, it doesn’t matter. As Howe’s book describes in colorful, rollicking detail, Tom Forcade lived a life any outlaw would envy. In a culture where the outlaw holds a certain allure and respect, even though they all too often end up dying a violent death, Agents of Chaos gives Tom Forcade’s life the renown it deserves.

In telling Forcade’s story, the author Howe also provides a history of the 1970s. His background is the paranoia of the State as revealed by the Watergate hearings and their successors conducted by Senator Frank Church and others that revealed a vast undercover operation against US citizens by the FBI, CIA, NSA and other intelligence agencies. The main story here though is one about individuals involved in countering the wars of the government against perceived enemies foreign and domestic. It is also about these individuals, the groups they created and destroyed, and their desire to create a genuinely free land of the free. For many of us who were around at the time, the 1970s were a time of ennui and disappointment; disappointed that the massive movements of the 1960s were diminishing and our comrades were turning towards more conventional pursuits. Musician Jackson Browne described this aspect of the time in his song The Pretender.

I’m gonna be a happy idiot

And struggle for the legal tender…

And believe in whatever may lie

In those things that money can buy…

Where true love could have been a contender

Are you there? Say a prayer for the pretender

Who started out so young and strong only to surrender

Tom Forcade was one of those who wasn’t going to surrender. He certainly wasn’t going to go straight and get a job on Wall Street hustling junk bonds. This biography makes it clear that he just wasn’t wired that way. A bit of an egomaniac who disliked his name in the media, he was a pot dealer and a believer in the Yippie version of freedom—somewhere between mutual aid and US individualism. The Yippies were against imperial war and imperialism in general, but prone to rejecting groups who were very serious about contesting it. Like the Zippies (which, as Howe details, ultimately became the Youth International Party or Yippies), Forcade comes across as a dadaist living an impromtu drama. Was he crazy, a cop or just a manic individual whose politics were as chaotic as the times he existed in?

The reader is left to their own conclusions regarding this question. After reading Agents of Chaos, my understanding of Tom Forcade is that he was a bit of a madman in a mad time whose idiosyncrasies and ego served as engines for his perpetual motion. It was a motion that sometimes seemed part of his mission and other times completely contrary to it. In other words, he was a man of his times. God bless him.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com