How the seeds for 'High Times' magazine were planted in Phoenix

Author Sean Howe (“Marvel Comics: The Untold Story”) has just released “Agent of Chaos: Thomas King Forçade, High Times and the Paranoid End of the 1970s,” a biography of the founder of High Times magazine and a legendary counterculture figure. Howe said Forcade, who grew up in Phoenix, had “a substantial effect on journalism” through his work with the Underground Press Syndicate.

Read an excerpt from “Agents of Chaos” »

“UPS was active in defending its papers from government suppression—the kind of suppression that is currently on the rise, as seen at papers in Colorado, New York, North Carolina, New Jersey, and California,” Howe said. “And Forcade’s own court battle to obtain White House press credentials was used as precedent in the CNN vs. Trump decision in the Jim Acosta case. For all of Forcade’s contradictions, he was unquestionably a First Amendment warrior.”

Howe will discuss the book and sign copies at Changing Hands Bookstore, 300 W. Camelback Road in Phoenix, at 6:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 6. For more information, call 602-274-0067.

The following Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Who was Thomas King Forcade?

His real name was Gary Goodson. He was born in 1945 and raised in Phoenix. And there was a family name, Forcade, spelled the same way but pronounced differently, that he took on in 1967, when he decided to sort of insinuate himself into the counterculture movement.

How did he insinuate himself into the counterculture movement?

He volunteered to work for something called the Underground Press Syndicate, which was a consortium of mostly leftist newspapers around the country. And over the course of two years he took over more and more responsibility. And by 1967, he was showing up at conferences and gatherings of radicals and establishing himself among the power players of that world alongside people like Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin and John Sinclair. And everyone was immediately suspicious of him, because he had sort of come out of nowhere. And he didn’t want his face photographed. And he had a prickly personality. So there was always this air of mystery around him.

Talk a little bit about the underground papers of this era.

I think the first of the real underground papers was the Los Angeles Free Press. The Village Voice precedes that, but it was a little more bourgeois, for lack of a better term. Starting in the mid-’60s, these papers started popping up. So by 1967, there was the East Village Other in New York, Berkeley Barb, there was The Paper in East Lansing. And they decided to kind of form this syndicate to make themselves both appear more powerful and very practically, to share advertising and content. So it was kind of like a trade association. It was a collision of anti-war sentiment, the burgeoning drug culture, and counterculture of the time. They were very DIY endeavors. And they were well known for their sometimes psychedelic layouts, and coverage of rock music and politics.

The office where Forcade was running the Underground Press Syndicate got raided up in Phoenix after the Arizona Republic ran a story about the organization.

Phoenix, I think. was the center of state narcotics enforcement—kind of the worst possible place to start parading your beliefs about LSD. I actually wrote a lot that didn’t make it into the book about Phoenix in 1967, but it was not a place that was necessarily conducive to setting up a commune and talking about resistance to capitalism and forming liberated zones on the Colorado River. So he attracted a lot of attention. And by the end of 1969, he moved to New York City.

How did he come to found High Times magazine?

After he was indicted on a firebombing charge, stemming from an arrest at the 1972 Republican National Convention in Miami, he stopped trying to be a public face, and he kind of stayed underground for a little while. And now that the anti-war movement was done, he said there’s got to be a way to find a cause that we can attach ourselves to that can’t be compromised. And it’s going to be sex or drugs or something like that. And so he picked the drugs. He published High Times out of New York, left his name out of the magazine for the rest of his life, and just pulled the strings from behind the curtain.

High Times turned out to be quite successful.

It started out with a small press run and they distributed it through not just head shops, but also through weed dealers. They would throw a bunch of magazines in with a bale of marijuana. And those would be distributed to customers at the retail level. They weren’t able to get the traditional newsstand distribution because of the subject matter. So they were able to exploit what they learned about underground distribution, and also tie that to the world of drug distribution. And by 1976, they were rivaling Rolling Stone in circulation numbers.

And by then, they were on newsstands?

They were on newsstands by then. The distributors looked at how much they were selling and decided that they would cave to better terms. In 1977, Larry Flynt took over distributing. When Larry Flynt was shot, Forcade worried that they were coming after him too.

And how much did the weed smuggling play into the finances of High Times?

Several sources told me that there was a huge shipment of Santa Marta Gold, which was a Colombian strain of marijuana. That was the seed money, no pun intended, for High Times. I think as the magazine became more successful, Forcade’s different businesses were extricated a little bit more. But for a while, there was apparently some laundering being done through the magazine. I’ve been told by someone who was there that there was some creative bookkeeping, the classic two sets of books.

High Times had a huge cultural impact.

One of the things that they envisioned was that this was going to be a way to show people what weed looked like. There weren’t really color photographs of marijuana that you were going to stumble upon in the world. And there were descriptions of what it tasted like and smelled like, what different strains felt like, and so there was this idea that it was an educational tool in some sense. In the mid-’70s, there was a a parade of decriminalization in the states, until Carter’s drug czar left in a cocaine scandal. I think people today don’t necessarily realize that there was a lot of momentum toward legalization between 1975 and 1978. And everybody expected that the marijuana would be legalized by 1980. High Times played a very important part in that movement. Unfortunately, it was stalled. And it was decades before it really picked up again. There’s also a certain commercialization or commodification of marijuana that High Times probably bears some responsibility for.

I don’t want to spoil the ending, but he did end up killing himself.

There’s a history of mental health issues that he had. His family history included a lot of depression. And also some con artistry in his family history as well. So that was something that he always struggled with. The year that he died, his best friend died in a plane crash during a smuggling operation. That had a huge negative effect on him. He was also taking a lot of quaaludes. He was not medicated properly for his bipolar disorder. He had been prescribed lithium, but he often didn’t take it. And there were just a lot of things swirling around, between his personal life and the state of what happened to the counterculture that were really distressing him, so there was, unfortunately, this perfect storm of pressure on him. He died the same weekend as the Jonestown Massacre, which made for a very stark end of the ’60s dream there.

What was it that drew you into writing about this?

I read about Tom Forcade and I was just shocked that I had never heard of this guy who had such important positions and had such an important place in the world of journalism. He also was involved in a very important First Amendment case. He was involved in the nascent punk rock world in New York and he documented the Sex Pistols’ American tour, and put Johnny Rotten on the cover. He was a real power player in the radical movement of the early ’70s. So he was this exotic figure, this Forrest Gump figure, who popped up in all of these different places. I couldn’t believe that I’d never heard of him. And then once I started hearing these stories that people suspected him of being a government agent. it was all over. I needed to figure this guy out.

Was he a government agent?

I couldn’t figure it out. These days, I tend to think that he was not. Beyond FBI records, I had a very difficult time documenting the government records on him. There’s a lot more alluded to in the files that I do have. But people were immediately suspicious of him. And that was something that kind of followed him around for various reasons. Throughout his life, people thought he was a provocateur, people thought that he was collecting information on drug users. People thought that he was just a plant. And many of the people that I talked to who knew him still believe that. But, of course, many of the people that I talk to say that they’re certain he would never do that.