The Lyman Family's Holy Siege of America, by David Felton. Part I. Rolling Stone. No. 98. p.40-60. (reprinted in Mindfuckers) Dec. 23, 1971.
The Lyman Family's Holy Siege of America, by David Felton. Part II. Rolling Stone. No. 99. p.40-60. (reprinted in Mindfuckers) Jan. 6, 1972.
"The Manson Family preached peace and love and went around killing people.
We don't preach peace and love..."
At the south end of Boston lies the Roxbury black ghetto, a dirty oasis of trees, homes and small stores that suddenly emerges from blocks of old factories and railroad yards. Like many of our nation's famous darktowns, Roxbury includes hundreds of decaying apartment buildings housing too many people on not enough land, ruthlessly noisy elevated trains, and a sprawling, brand new, all concrete police district station.
Yet there's something different here. It can be seen from all over Boston: a tower, an ancient brick watchtower that rises needlelike from a secluded hill - Fort Hill - in the center of Roxbury. A relic from the original American Revolution, the structure stands some 70 feet above an abandoned city park. The stone tablet commemorating it is itself nearly 100 years old and starting to crumble around these words:
On this eminence stood ROXBURY HIGH FORT, a strong earthwork planned by Henry Knox and Josiah Waters and erected by the American Army June 1775 - crowning the famous Roxbury lines of investment at THE SIEGE OF BOSTON.
Five years ago a small community of young white intellectuals and artists from the Boston-Cambridge area moved onto the hill and "took over" several empty apartment houses bordering the park. Relations with the black neighborhood immediately deteriorated, and soon guards, members of the new Fort Hill Community, could be seen patrolling the fort for the first time in almost 200 years.
Since then peace has returned, relations have improved, and there is some question on a recent summer evening why guards are still needed at Fort Hill. Or who, exactly, is being watched. It's dark, about 9:30 PM, as one of them approaches holding a flashlight. He appears troubled, glancing nervously up and down a long row of houses now owned by the community. Inside the first house some 60 Fort Hill members are eating dinner, methodically cleaning their plates after a 12-hour work day. Suddenly the guard turns and walks briskly to an area at the rear of the houses where garbage is dumped. He shuts off his flashlight and from a large green plastic garbage bag secretly retrieves a suitcase packed the night before. Then, without looking back, he runs as fast as he can, as fast as he's ever run, past the garages, past the basketball court, past the tool sheds, down the long dirt driveway at the rear, through the winding paved streets of the ghetto and the straight paved streets of the first factories, past the nearest subway station, where they'd be sure to check, to a second station, blocks and blocks away, more difficult to find.
As the sentry boards a subway train, safe for the moment, the interior lights reveal his panting, boyish face. He is Paul Williams, a rock author and first editor ofCrawdaddy Magazine, who several months ago gave up his writing career to join the Fort Hill Community.
"I was very frightened, sure," he admitted later at his New York hideaway. "I said I was leaving the day before and they said I wouldn't be allowed to. They said they'd be watching me 24 hours a day. So I was super paranoid, super cautious. But that doesn't bother me. I mean, they owed it to me, in a sense, to keep me on the hill.
"If I grow enough, someday I may come back. I care about Mel Lyman more than anyone outside of myself; someday I may be able to care about him more than me. [The people who can, have something really beautiful going.]"
I am going to burn down the world
I am going to tear down everything that cannot stand alone
I am going to shove hope up your ass
I am going to turn ideals to shit
I am going to reduce everything that stands to rubble- Mel Lyman
and then I am going to burn the rubble
and then I am going to scatter the ashes
and then maybe someone will be able to see something as it really is
Wife Sophie Lyman, banjoist Obray Ramsey
& future deity Mel in 1961
The career of artist Bruce Conner is as unpredictable as his pioneer assemblages and films. For 15 years he has dabbled among the great and weird, the straight and near-straight around the country. He has produced light shows, played the harmonica and run for supervisor of San Francisco. Lately he has earned his living in that city as a minor box office attraction, collecting $2 a film buff at the Interplayers Cinema near Aquatic Park. Thin and scholarly in a grey business suit, Conner sorted out change during a Von Stroheim twin-bill not long ago and recalled the man who taught him to play the harp.
"I met him about 1963, '64, in Massachusetts," said Conner, handing some of his change to the popcorn lady. "I was staying at Leary's Newton Center, and Mel was one of those people who just came in and out. He was living with a bunch near Brandeis, all students and dopers. This guy in Anthropological Review had just written about morning glory seeds and how they got you stoned, and Mel was there three or four nights a week at the coffee grinder, grinding up seeds from this 500-pound bag we had in the kitchen.
"And everybody was getting fucked up. Mel just had them swallow the seeds, not soak them and everything the way it said in Anthropological Review, and all these people were falling down on their faces and hemorrhaging and falling down in the bathroom and talking about how great it was afterwards."
Conner snickered over a neatly trimmed goatee.
"I remember once, Mel called up and said, 'I got 12 people, I want to bring 'em over, we've all taken the seeds.' I said no, but he came anyway. All these people showed up and he said, 'I want to see your movies.' And I ran A Movie. And in the middle of it, somebody just exploded all over the place, threw up all over the place. And Mel thought that was great. 'It was so much for him he just had to throw it all out,' was the way he saw it." The recollection of it reduced Conner to giggles. "Of course, the ladies upstairs saw it as a bunch of vomit all over the floor."
The box office phone momentarily returned Conner to the present. "Interplayers. Right. Fury is running right now. It's on again at 10:30. Greedstarts at 9:00. OK?" He hung up and continued.
"We'd talk about things. One time Mel was talking about morning glory seeds and how they put people to sleep sometimes, and I thought that was a real drag, you know. That must not really be enlightenment. And the conversation went into talk about rituals and exercise, and all of a sudden it started hinging around what is God, what is Cosmic Consciousness and everything.
"And I told Mel one of my private theories. I said that mostly what people do when they talk about God is a projection of what they think God is, and it always comes down to a projection from a person. So the best way to find out what God is is to say you're God yourself. And maybe the first way to do this was if somebody was on the phone and they said, 'Oh my God!' and then you say, 'Yes? What is it?' And you could just go on from there."
A soiled, bearded student in tattered jeans peeled off two dollars from a large roll and exchanged them for a ticket and brochure of coming attractions.
"I didn't think about it after that," said Conner. "It was just an idea - I wasn't gonna use it myself. But in retrospect, I figure Mel must have used it. This was in '63, '64."
* * *
Many of the people interviewed for this tale asked not to be identified. Therefore I have changed their names, and in some cases, their appearances and even sexual persuasions. There's a little bit of the Big Molder in each of us, isn't there? Let's call the next fellow Harry Bikes, an overstuffed man with swollen tits who now lives in Cambridge and writes for a major organ of the Establishment. He belonged to one of Mel Lyman's earliest communities - the hearty band of experimenting dealers and dopers that hung out near Brandeis College in Waltham, Massachusetts.
"I guess it was in the spring of 1963 that Mel showed up on campus," Bikes remembered. "He was living with a girl, a student named Judy Silver. At that time I assumed he was, like, from North Carolina, which he said he was, that he was a simple kind of person. This is how he was coming on - kind of Appalachian, very casual, you know. All he carried around was a simple army jacket with a lot of pockets for his harps. And he had his banjo.
"Later it turned out he wasn't from North Carolina at all. He was from Oregon or someplace and he'd been to Junior College, and he was a lot more sophisticated than he was letting on."
Bikes sat back expansively in his basement apartment. As he spoke he had a habit of fondling himself, scratching his T-shirted belly or tugging at a tiny black goatee-within-a-goatee that hung from his lower lip.
"We were all living in this house on Hartwell Street, called Hartwell House, and we were all very tripped out. I mean really, really wasted, totally stoned. Three teaspoons of morning glory seeds is roughly equivalent to 500 micrograms of LSD, a very strong trip. I remember I painted the living room with a nine-foot-high Yin/Yang, and the thing would roll out at me like a ball of fire, then turn around and recede until it was a pinpoint and I thought it was going to disappear in the wall. That's how tripped out we were.
"We got caught up in Leary's thing and got very spaced out, and something very weird happened to Mel. Like he would say to people, he'd give them acid or morning glory seeds, and he'd say, 'Get stoned, wait five hours, then come talk to me,' that kind of thing. There were a lot of subtle little power relationships."
"He had a kind of insidious way of getting into people. He had a tremendous understanding of character, and he knew how to extract pain. Mel was very big on pain and suffering and loyalty.
"Like I was bucking Mel's authority so he painted over all my murals one night. I mean, that really hurt me when he did that. And the next day I asked him why he did it and he said he wanted me to experience pain."
Also there was this crafty, stubborn quality about him, said Bikes. "We had this landlord who was going to evict us. Somebody had bought the house, some developer. Everybody split, but Mel stayed there for months. Months. Like the guy went to court with him, took the plumbing out, took the gas out, took the electricity out, and Mel just wouldn't leave. They were sawing the roof off of him and had the house boarded up, and Mel would come home at night and rip the boards off - just purely out of resistance. If you excited his interest in that sense, or if you tried to resist him or overwhelm him, he could be devilish, just absolutely devilish.
"He had a willingness to cope, you know, that made a lot of people feel important. Very strange kinds of people. Let's say someone that I would consider a nerd, he would take interest in - if they came to him in a suppliant manner. And I guess that's what the appeal was. He had a way of elevating the humble and humbling the elevated."
The more deeply his story developed, the more Bikes appeared to enjoy telling it, embellishing it with smug grins, high-pitched laughs, scratches, goatee tugs and pregnant pauses, as if he had told it many times before. Though he called himself one of Mel's antagonists, he seemed curiously enthralled by these memories.
"Signals were going out," continued Bikes, his eyes wide and gleaming. "When Mel left North Carolina he sent Sophie, his first wife, back to the West Coast. And later he sent his best friend, Eben Given, out to Sophie, and they lived together a number of years. And Mel would be sitting at the kitchen table writing 15-page letters to Sophie and to different people in North Carolina. He had a weird network of people all over the country that he had these very deep personal exchanges with.
"Then Judy got all fucked up - this is his second old lady - I mean like she got really twisted. I don't know if it was the acid or the scene or whatever, but she split. She went back to Kansas. She was totally out of the picture by the summer of 1963.
"Judy is probably the most important thing in Mel's life. He worshipped Judy, really loved her. Then she split, you know? She couldn't help it, she was totally freaked out. They took her away."
* * *"Late May, 1963, 43 Charles Street, Waltham, Mass. Hard times. I am lower than I've ever been in my life... Judy and I were so happy and wanted a baby and so I gave her one for us and she was afraid and I tried to comfort her and she wanted an abortion and I begged her to see the natural cycle through and she had an abortion and I cried and went away and traveled and was very unhappy and then I got busted and Judy bailed me out and now we are back together and Judy is flunking out of school for good and is such a frightened little girl and has never had hardships and is weak and afraid and frantically searching for something valid and good in the world to cling to and forget herself through and so she runs in and out of our home, takes long drives alone, sits around almost dead and I sit alone doing my time ahead of time and I can't reach her as she's almost catatonic..."* * *
-Mel Lyman in his new book, 'Mirror at the End of the Road,' published by American Avatar and dedicated "To Judy, who made me live with a broken heart."
By this time Boston, particularly the Club 47 in Cambridge, had become the center of the American folkie movement. Located at 47 Mt. Auburn Street - Harvard's main drag - the modest storefront coffee house attracted national attention in the late Fifties with the debut of a cantankerous dropout from Boston University named Joan Baez.
Soon students from Harvard, Radcliffe, Brandeis, Tufts, Boston College and Boston University were crowding in to boost local singers like Jackie Washington, Tom Rush, the Charles River Valley Boys, Geoff Muldaur and Jim Kweskin. In 1963 the Club 47 moved four blocks away to 47 Palmer Street, a slightly swankier, brick and glass basement, and started importing talent - Dave Van Ronk from New York, Muddy Waters and Paul Butterfield from Chicago and Doc Watson from Deep Gap, North Carolina.
Locally, however, Jim Kweskin, having formed his Jug Band with Geoff Muldaur, Fritz Richmond, Bruno Wolf and Bob Siggins, had become the biggest draw.
It was a time of candles jammed into wine bottles," recalled one veteran. The music had an academic, even snob appeal, with fanatic traditionalists jamming into Harvard Square to compare notes. It was a period of revival. The Charles River Valley Boys were popularizing bluegrass. Jim Kweskin was bringing back jug band music, whatever that was.
Later the revival abruptly ended, rather rudely for some enthusiasts, at the Newport Folk Festival of 1965. A sense of betrayal was in the air after Bob Dylan, who had, after all, helped start the whole thing, got up and sang music that was clearly more rock than folk.
After Judy Silver went back to Kansas in 1963, Mel Lyman, who had been taught the mysteries of the banjo by Obray Ramsey in North Carolina, was hired by Jim Kweskin to play rhythm banjo. The choice was not entirely Mel's. He had been sentenced to either a job or jail after he was busted on dope in Tallahassee.
One fan of the period remembers Melvin as a short, thin man who wore suspenders, played the harp and was extremely confident and poised. That's what he remembers - how poised he was, as if he had been playing with the band for years.
"He became very much the spiritual focus of the band," recalled Harry Bikes. "And Kweskin totally fell under Mel's cloud. It made for a lot of conflicts in the band, needless to say. Mel would get like very moody. Sometimes he'd play and sometimes he wouldn't - very weird. He had a way of dramatizing his presence or his feeling. He'd be up on the stand at the Club 47, and he would just say, 'Well, I'm not into it.' And that would bepregnant with meaning, you know? And we would like grope to understand the significance of why he's not into it."
In the next year or so, Mel continued to write letters and gradually began drawing his "weird network of people" closer to him.
"Mel brought his family in from the West Coast and they settled on River Street in Cambridge. Sophie and Eben and Mel began, like, gathering people. Signals were going out.
"And Kweskin was dealing. Kweskin was a pretty heavy dealer - top quality 'A' reefer, strictly grass. Then Jim had a really bad experience. He went to New York to pick up some grass, and some people ripped him off. They bashed him over the head with a brick - he was almost killed. It was a very traumatic experience for him, really turned his head around about a lot of things. This was in '65. I don't think he ever dealt after that again. It seemed to be a turning point in his life and, I would say from a distance, the Jug Band's life."
* * *
Longtime friends of Jim Kweskin must surely be puzzled by his latest album, released just this month by Warner/Reprise. Not only is it the first new Kweskin music recorded in several years, it represents a final reversal of authority begun in 1963 when Jim and Mel first appeared at the Club 47 (a pattern of "spiritual infiltration" that is repeated in nearly every Lyman Family enterprise).
The title hints at it: "Richard D. Herbruck Presents Jim Kweskin's America - co-starring Mel Lyman and the Lyman Family." Giving co-star billing to someone who, by conventional definition, plays a back role is unusually charitable, to say the least.
But it goes further than that. Here's what Kweskin writes in his section of the liner notes:
"The soul that is born in Cancer must always find its completion in Aries, when God and man become one. You can read the story of it in Mirror at the End of the Road by Mel Lyman. It is the story of life from the moment it doubts itself and receives its first intimations of immortality to the time it becomes God ... as it grows from Cancer to Aries. You can hear that story in this album if you will step aside and let your soul listen.
"I am singing America to you and it is Mel Lyman. He is the new soul of the world."
That's right, Jim's a Cancer, Mel's an Aries.
It is clear, from the notes, from the music inside, from the album cover, thatJim Kweskin's America is actually Mel Lyman's America. Particularly from the cover. This grotesquely crude collage, prepared by a member of the Lyman Family, includes many of Mel's fondest American heroes - Abraham Lincoln, James Dean, Matt Dillon as played by Jim Arness, John Kennedy, Jimmie Rogers, Vince Lombardi, Henry Miller, Marlon Brando, Woody Guthrie, Gene Autry, Henry Fonda, Louis Armstrong and Superman, men often chosen for their astrological signs as much as anything else. For instance, Kweskin writes in his notes, "At every turning point in the life of America a Cancer has stood up to sing a new soul as it flowed into the old and transformed it. Stephen Foster, George M. Cohan, Louis Armstrong, Woody Guthrie, Jessie Benton..."
Jessie Benton? She's one of Mel's earlier old ladies and the daughter of painter Thomas Hart Benton, whose aging beady-eyed face can be seen at the very top of the album cover. He's very important to the Lyman Family, sort of the benefactor. Not only did he give them Jessie, but many of his original works and two summer retreat houses at Martha's Vineyard, where Mel takes certain followers to train as leaders.
The cover also includes one picture of Jim and two of Mel. And, perhaps most revealing, a photograph of the Royal Inn Hotel in San Francisco where a room was reserved during the recording of the album. That room, on the top floor, is circled in black. Mel Lyman slept there.
The album raises some other questions. Like, will an audience partial to the lively, carefree "fun music of the old Jug Band readily adapt to an eight-minute version of "Old Rugged Cross" or a seven-minute version of "Old Black Joe"?
And who is Richard Herbruck, the mysterious "Great Producer" who presented, in addition to the album, a program on KPFK-FM in Los Angeles last spring that ended in a violent confrontation with crowbars and police? His identity will be discussed later; for now it's interesting enough to know that Warner Brothers hasn't the foggiest idea of who he is.
* * *
Mel Lyman, Marilyn & Jim Kweskin
recreate Holy Moment a year on: Newport '66
"At one point I needed a banjo player in the band. So this friend of mine said he knew this guy who was playing banjo out at Brandeis University. He brought him in, and it was Mel. And that was the beginning of..." Jim Kweskin giggles at the thought of it all. "... the beginning of the change of my entire life."
Kweskin's dark moustache is shorter than it used to be, trimmed almost to Hitlerian proportions; but otherwise Kweskin, during a recent interview, looked about the same as he always has - gaunt and handsome with curly black hair and intense eyes of still, deep water. His manner was polite but cold, almost antiseptic.
"I knew immediately that he was a whole different kind of person than I had ever met," he continued, "the things he said and the things he did and the way he played. And his timing. Things would happen to him that could never happen to anybody else. I began to realize he never made a telephone call when the line was busy, he never called anybody and they weren't home. Or he would wake up in the morning and talk about somebody he hadn't seen in two years, and he'd walk out down the street and run into them. Things like that happening, you know? And you'd say it was a coincidence - maybe once or twice - but it happened every day. It was like some kind of miracle every day."
Finally Kweskin realized that without Mel the band didn't mean a damn thing to him. "I'll tell you how it happened. I did a TV show with the Jug Band, the Jonathan Winters Show; this was in '68. And it was really corny. We put on costumes, we were trying to make it big in the music business. I saw that show, and I mean we really stunk. It was everything that I ever didn't want to be.
"And very close to that time, a few weeks later, I saw a little show on Channel 2, the educational channel in Boston, called What's Happening Mr. Silver?, the David Silver show. And all it was was an interview with Mel. The technique was poor, the camera work wasn't good, nothing was. And this little show moved me so deeply, just Mel's presence on TV was so strong and so alive, that I realized everything I was doing was a waste of time. What I really ought to be doing was helping to get Mel more opportunities to be on TV and to have his writing and his music and whatever he created out to the public.
"I'd been fighting with him inside of myself for almost a year, but it was that show that was the turning point. All of a sudden I knew that nothing else was important except that the whole world had to see Mel Lyman."
To join the service of Mel, Jim said he had to give up his career, his possessions and his music. "I had to start right down at the very basis and bottom of hard work. I had no authority. I had no position. I wasn't anything except one of the guys who worked on the construction of the houses. That's where it starts, just like boot camp.
"You get constantly stripped of everything that's a lie in your life, of every illusion you have about yourself. It gets constantly stripped away till finally you're left with absolutely nothing but the real, barest you. And that's what happened to me over the last three years. I was in like, musically, what you'd call retirement for three years.
"And now, just about six months ago, I decided to go out in the world again and build up a new career as a solo entertainer. I was born to go out into the public. I knew that before I met Mel Lyman, I just didn't know why. And it was living with and having Mel inside me that showed me why."
"Yeah, the music that comes from me now comes from much deeper, deeper inside me. And therefore it affects people in a much deeper way. The things that happen in the room, you know? If it gets to the point where I want it to get to, the whole room comes together. I mean, the audience and myself and everybody is doing the same thing at the same time, and you can just feel the spirit in the room. And that's something that I could never do if I didn't have Mel Lyman inside me."
I asked Jim what his new act was like. Did he sermonize or what?
"We don't sermonize; I don't know, we don't preach," he said, barely smiling. "But we don't always do what they think they want. I mean, we demand that the audience get personally involved in what's happening, and a lot of times, they just don't want to. Sometimes it's a simple thing like having them sing along. Or other times it's having some sort of personal input, get them to talk a bit, or say something or do something."
"And if they don't?"
"Well, we demand it."
"Do you quit playing, or...
"Sometimes. We've been known to sit up on stage for hours and not do a thing. And maybe we'd get everybody to hate us." Kweskin started to laugh, as if specific incidents were in mind. "It's awful. But out of that thing sometimes very great music comes. Sometimes you have to create an embarrassing or painful or angry situation just so that everybody's in the same place at the same time."
Wasn't this the sort of intimidation, I asked him, that people often associated with the Jesus freaks? Maybe he didn't understand the question.
"Peace and love!" he said scornfully. "It's just so limiting, it's ridiculous. It's denying 75 percent of human nature. I mean, I walk down the street and I talk to some of the Jesus freaks or some of the peace and love people, you know? And they're dead. They're sound asleep. They feel absolutely nothing. All they do is spout out words. I mean, it's obvious we're not spouting out a bunch of words that somebody taught us how to say."
Kweskin started to shout in fervent, rhythmic patterns, as if he had a running jump and was sliding in with each phrase. "That's what we're on this planet for, to make people realize that it isn't all the same. That's why we make films and make music, to educate these people. Of course, there are millions of non-believers, there are millions of uneducated people, there's millions of people who don't know the difference. And our whole purpose in life is to show them the difference, to make them feel the difference.
"Here, just listen to this." Kweskin withdrew a manuscript from his briefcase and, with a slight missionary tremble to his voice, started reading it word for word. It was Mel Lyman's "Plea for Courage," an essay the community apparently feels is one of his most important.
"'We should be entering the new world,'" Kweskin began, "'all the preparations have been made, it has all been written about and everybody wants it, it is so easy to imagine.'"
But, of course, we're not entering the new world, says Mel, because all you hippies out there are sitting around in a drugged Utopian stupor instead of getting off your asses and organized.
"'... you're all too full of dope and pride and ideas and yourselves to know what's even good for you anymore... I really hate you bastards cause you're killing me, you're stinking up the whole world with your filthy hair and dirty clothes and empty slogans... why don't you kill yourself?'"
Basically the 1200-word essay, which has been reprinted free in several underground publications, is an attack on the kind of weekend hippies that hung out in the Haight in 1966, about the time Mel started cutting his hair.
"'The few who know our deepest needs are still unfulfilled are regarded with great suspicion and contempt for not allowing people to "do their own thing." I don't want you to do your own thing, I want you to do my thing,wake up! ...
"'The same dollar that we set out to stamp out has stamped us out and we never even realized it....'"
And Mel's solution? "'Get together with your friends, pool your resources, make some money, buy a house, take on some responsibilities... we must get together and fight this creeping decay!'"
Jim took a breath and replaced the manuscript. "That's why we moved to the West Coast," he said, "the need to expand, the fact that Los Angeles in one sense is the film and communications capital. We want to, slowly, as much as we can, get involved with the media.
"There's a whole community of, well, what used to be called hippies - I don't know what they are now - but there's thousands of them out here who are, you know, just waiting for Mel Lyman. He's like the rock that's dropped into the pond, he's going to have more communities. He's going to have hundreds of communities. Before you know it, the whole world's going to be his community."
Kweskin and the Fort Hill kids:
There was a photo of Charlie Manson in their bedroom, because he'd "made a gesture" ...
Being the Incredible History
of the Boston Avatar,
a Story of Conspiracy and
Corporate Intrigue, Internal
Subversion, Violence and
Theft, and Mysterious
Control, All at the Hands
of One Man (Was He
Just a Man?) Who Was
Never Even There
"It took me a long time to understand that Avatar was not a collective term but an individual term. In other words, not Avatar, but the Avatar." -Harry Bikes
How does a poor, simple American boy with a police record and a distaste for steady work come to acquire, in five years, more than a dozen elegant homes in four major cities, a fleet of cars and trucks to service them, recording and film equipment worth tens of thousands of dollars, and retreat houses in Martha's Vineyard and estates in Provence, France, near the Riviera?
That, on the surface at least, is the history of United Illuminating Inc., the Lyman Family's corporate front. Today United Illuminating owns eight multistoried old homes at Fort Hill in Boston, owns a five-story brownstone and leases a loft in New York City, leases a posh hillside duplex in the Buena Vista area overlooking San Francisco, and owns two houses in Los Angeles, one of them the Hollywood Hills mansion of late industrialist George Eastman which they purchased "at a steal" for $160,000.
To pay the mortgages and rent, plus ample bills for food, utilities and maintenance, many of the community's 100-odd members hold regular jobs in the outside world - anything from waiting on tables to designing or remodeling buildings - turning over all pay "except carfare" to United Illuminating. Then there are the superstar incomes, the bread from Jim Kweskin and from Mark Frechette, the hero of Zabriskie Point who everyone is hoping will soon be discovered again for another acting assignment. Further, a surprising number of members come from wealthy and prominent families, for whatever that's worth.
Nowadays the Lyman people can afford to purchase their elegance more or less pre-packaged, as they did in their recent West Coast acquisitions. But in the past that elegance came hand-made, by their own, disciplined hands. When Mel Lyman and his small band of friends moved to Fort Hill in 1966, they moved into squalor. Fort Avenue Terrace, which skirted the base of the historic watchtower, was like a ghost street. The rotting structures there were without heat, light, plumbing or paint; they were uninhabitable, according to any but the most desperate hippie standards, and in fact had not been lived in for years.
Bought as shells for small sums, each today would bring $40 grand upward but for their ghetto location. They are models of warmth, taste, innovation and craftsmanship. In keeping with Mel's master bootcamp building and training plan, they have been stripped to the studs and rafters and entirely rebuilt, in some cases stripped and rebuilt again after Mel discovered a "mistake."
The Fort Hill Community in those early days was a rough life, and one wonders why Mel Lyman chose it. There is little indication he envisioned at that time the size and purpose of the community to come. True, he had already experienced several intimations of his own immortality. At the Newport Folk Festival of 1965, his last appearance with Jim Kweskin's Jug Band, Mel got a special request from God for a solo harp version of "Rock of Ages." At first Mel tried to resist the vision but finally gave in ("... like what Christ had to do before mounting the cross, he said not my will but shine be done and then there was no cross, no death...") and played the hymn for a soulful, trembling ten minutes. It followed the festival's final act, and most of the fans had already left for their cars.
Soon afterward Mel wrote his first book, a rambling, abstract, 80-page riddle called Autobiography of a World Savior, based loosely on the Superman-Krypton plot ("Long long ago in another dimension on another planet I volunteered for an assignment the nature of which I knew little . . ."). Some people, including rock writer Paul Williams, have made their Decision for Mel based on that book alone, even though Mel later described it as a private, tongue-in-cheek joke written for some Scientologist friends of his.
Why, then, the move to Roxbury? For some time Mel had been hanging out with the film freak crowd at Max's Kansas City, in much the same way he had hung out with Bruce Conner and the others at Leary's place; in fact, he briefly went with Vivian Kurz, one of Warhol's lovelies, and Jonas Mekas helped publish his Autobiography. Mel, therefore, was getting itchy to create. He was developing certain theories, some his own, about music and art, and he needed room to work.
David Gude, a folksinger and tape editor at Vanguard Records whose faith in Mel eventually led to his dismissal, explained it like this:
"I couldn't appreciate Mel's music until he told me a little about it, you know? And then when I listened to it with that understanding, it was really a miracle. Mel said that so much music is rehearsed, today especially, just rehearsed to death so you never really hear anything original.
"But Mel said a lot of great records have been made and these great moments happen all the time. He said he wanted to make this the rule instead of the exception. He wanted to set up a situation where this would happen every time.
"In other words, you get a bunch of musicians in there, if you get a great piece of music, it's usually innocent. I was going to say "by accident," but a better word would be that it happens innocently. And Mel wanted to create a situation where it could be done consciously."
It sounded like a contradiction.
"It is," said Gude. "It is completely. It's almost impossible. How can a person create innocently and yet set out to do just that? The only way is if he can somehow tune in on the spirit, an inspirational spirit, you know? In other words, if he can all of a sudden make himself inspired, or, if he lives in a place of truth all the time."
* * *
Among the very first members of the Fort Hill Community were three couples: Mel Lyman and Jessie Benton, former wife of David Gude; Mel's artist friend Eben Given and Sophie Lucero, former wife of Mel Lyman; and David Gude and Faith Franckenstein, daughter of novelist Kay Boyle. (These three marriages, too, have long since dissolved.) Also Faith's brother, Ian, other friends, some children and one grandmother - Kay Boyle herself.
"It was when my ax-son-in-law David Gude left Vanguard Records that I first heard of Mel Lyman," Kay recalled as she sat in the living room of the Victorian San Francisco home she has owned for many years. "And then when I went up there in '66 I met him for the first time. He was, I felt, very insignificant looking and very weak looking. He never at any time tried to talk with me; I was completely ignored by him.
"My daughter and David said they had a room for me, they wanted me to come and live there, you know? Their idea was that I would make my life there and eventually sell this house. Then there was not the idea of spreading out as they have now."
A radiant, gray-haired woman of amazing graciousness, Kay Boyle spoke in a calm manner that intimated little of her five-year battle with Mel Lyman over possession of Faith and Ian. That battle, at least in Faith's case, she has probably lost for good.
"I took a job with the University of Massachusetts in Amherst for a year, and drove over from the commune. And even before certain confrontations came up with some people at Fort Hill, life became impossible. For instance, underneath my room David would record all night with Mel, right underneath, you see. And I thought, 'Well, I'll get used to it, it doesn't really matter. One of the little grandchildren had his crib in my room. I thought, 'We'll get used to it.'
"But then David would say to me in the morning, 'I hope we kept you awake last night. That was the intention, we didn't have to do that.'"
"Why did they?"
"To make me realize what reality was or something, I don't know.
"I think there were not more than 30 people living there then, and there was a great turnover. At the beginning, I believe, it was considered a place where people could go and get drugs. I would come down sometimes in the morning and there would be about 20 people rolled up in blankets asleep on the floor. And I'd pick my way over to the kitchen to help Faith get breakfast, and I'd say, 'Who are they?' and she'd say, 'I have no idea.' The door was open and they'd just come in.
"I think Mel, as time wore on, got much more strict about things, and discipline. I suppose he had not developed his pitch to the point that he has now. And, I don't know, I think more recently the notoriety of Manson had an effect on him. I think he saw even greater dimensions that he might rise to in some way.
"When I went back there last summer, I was astounded to see Manson's photograph in the children's playroom. And I asked Faith if they thought he was innocent and she said, 'It doesn't matter. He made a gesture against all the things we do not believe in.' Which is a very distorted point of view, I would say. To say the least.
"They change the flowers under Manson's photograph daily - that's what I was told by one of the girls."
Kay had mentioned certain confrontations. Like what?
"I once got into a fight with Howard Kilby. Howard was a strange fellow, from the Bible Belt. His mother used to send him little sermons each week. Anyway, I went up there about 6:30 one morning, it was two below zero or something, and the heat had gone off in the house. I went up to my grandchildren's bedroom and they were lying literally blue with cold, absolutely freezing. And I took them down and sat them in front of the oven and started getting breakfast ready.
"And Howard breezed in. Faith had said to me, 'Howard comes in every morning early and takes butter, bread, stuff like that, out of the icebox for his lunch. Don't let him.' But I wasn't in any mood to fight then. I said, 'Look at these poor kids. Look at them. The heat's gone off.'
"And Howard was helping himself to butter, and he said, 'Beautiful'" Kay's voice assumed a mocking high pitch. "'It's just beautiful to see children cold like that. Children should be cold and hungry all the time - then they're close to reality.'
"I was so furious. I blew up. I said, 'God, I've never known such hatred, real hatred, in people as on this hill!'"
* * *"So I guess this takes us to... July 9th, 1967." Harry Bikes rocked back in his chair, his face gloating with implication. "And there begins the sordid tale of Avatar.
"Once the basic requirements of survival had been met we were able to devote some time to other things. We no longer filled our spare time talking to each other because we no longer had anything to talk about. We wanted to make new friends, we wanted to share what we had. We had something good and something can only stay good if it is shared. And so we created a newspaper called Avatar and with it we reached out and made a lot of new friends."-Mel Lyman
"It took me a long time to understand that Avatar was not a collective term but an individual one. In other words, not Avatar, but the Avatar. Understand?"
From another room in the basement, some somber Gil Evans on jazz FM added to the late evening weirdness.
"There were essentially three groups of people. There were some people in Cambridge, some people in the South End and some people on Fort Hill. And these three groups kind of got together. It was one of those things - the beginning of smoke-ins, you know, the new culture - and everybody had to have an underground paper. But nobody knew how to do a paper, right? So they went to Dave Wilson, who was the editor of Broadside, and Dave offered them his facilities at 145 Columbia Street, the Broadside office.
"They had three editors. They were trying to set it up to represent a lot of different people."
"Mel himself was not an editor?"
Bikes scoffed. "Mel never set foot in the Avatar office at any time. It was always remote control. Always."
* * *
Broadside is now defunct, but its former editor, Dave Wilson, appears at 36 to be alive and jovial as ever. He still has the office at 145 Columbia Street, Cambridge, from which he helps run Riverboat Enterprises, a record distributing firm specializing in old blues and folk. He is also marketing a videotape version of Broadside.
"The name Avatar," said Dave, "was a Hill suggestion. We felt it had a nice spiritual meaning and embodied our concept of the paper as a sort of hip Christian Science Monitor, one which would speak fairly and openly but with some sort of higher spiritual feeling.
"A seven-man board of directors was set up that included three people from Fort Hill, myself, and three other people. And there were three editors - myself, Lew Crampton and Wayne Hansen."
Hansen was from Fort Hill, and Crampton, active in local Boston politics, soon turned out to be a Fort Hill sympathizer.
"We really didn't understand what the Fort Hill Community was all about," said Wilson, shrugging. "Lew was a graduate student of Harvard, on the National Board of US-China Relations, you know? Wayne seemed to be a very reasonable cat. Well, it didn't take long for the shit to hit the fan."
No longer than it took the first issue to hit the stands. By and large the 16-page edition was a good representation of the underground press at that time - some suitably cryptic psychedelic art by Eben Given and a fellow named Ed Beardsley, a column on astrology in the Aquarian Age, a column on legal rights, and a column on dope. Dave Wilson wrote the first of a regular series of columns on fucking.
But there was one column, "To All Who Would Know" by Mel Lyman, that must have caught a few readers off guard. For one thing, it was the only column to take up a whole page, It didn't really need a whole page, it was just printed larger and had a nice white frame around it.
And it said the darndest thing: "To those of you who are unfamiliar with me let me introduce myself by saying that I am not a man, not a personality, not a tormented struggling individual. I am all those things but much more. I am the truth and I speak the truth.... "ln all humility I tell you that I am the greatest man in the world and it doesn't trouble me in the least."
But something did trouble Lyman as he read his own writing in print. What was wrong with line ten? Shit, some careless, inhuman hippie mother-fucker had dropped a phrase. Where it read, "The rest of you might just as well pass because I am going to attack everything you believe in . . ." it was supposed to read, "The rest of you might just as well pass right now and write me off as an egomaniac, a madman, a self-centered schmuck because I am going to attack everything you believe in..." Someone, Mel decided, should be taught a lesson.
"Now Mel's writing was nothing to jump up and down about," recalled Wilson, "so you can imagine how I felt when Wayne Hansen came in and said, 'Mel demands that his article be reprinted in its entirety in the next issue.' He said it was a disciplinary action, that Mel said we must strive for perfection.
"Lew sort of sat on the fence. My attitude was, bullshit, if he's that offended, we'll print a correction, that's all. See, at that time I didn't understand I was dealing with God's will.
"Anyway, the three of us voted and it was two to one in favor of reprinting the whole thing. Which we did." All 51 lines. Correction, 52. It was printed a third time, incidentally, in issue 22.
After the first issue, said Dave, things got heavier and heavier. "The problem at this point was that the Fort Hill Community was highly organized and the rest of us weren't. The office was getting flooded with Fort Hill people; they were dedicated but they were pushing people aside.
"All of a sudden the paper didn't resemble what is was supposed to at all. We'd have these editorial meetings, and later, articles we'd agreed upon would not appear; new articles would be in their place. My copy was often conveniently lost."
After five issues of the biweekly paper, Dave Wilson was asked to resign by the Fort Hill people. They had already made it easy for him to accept the idea; by this time the editorial content was almost entirely under their control. Mel Lyman now had two pages devoted to himself - his "To All Who Would Know" column and a fan page called "Letters to Mel." Large photographs of him were starting to creep in, and other Fort Hill writers were plugging him in their columns.
Scheduled for issue six were two more items that must have offended Dave's journalistic tastes - a long, centerspread interview with Mel by a local talk show host, and a new Lyman column of short, emotionally charged thoughts called "Diary of a Young Artist":I sit here looking so cool and calm and blowing smoke rings when actually I'm so frantic my big guts are eating up my little guts and I want to go raving mad and scream and tear my hair and shit on the floor and rub my face in it and jack off on the wall and rub my hair in it and tear off my leg and suck the bloody stump and flop around like a fish out of water and fuck myself into a coma and twist myself into a knot and spin around the world. But why will they say that I am mad?The introduction to Mel's interview in issue six hints at the audacity of the Hill people, officially incorporated as United Illuminating, in their fight with Trust Incorporated, the bonafide Avatar publishers:
"For the purpose of simplification, United Illuminating, not Trust Incorporated, was more or less represented as publisher of Avatar, and while many consider themselves a part of both groups, those who do not have asked us to make that distinction here . . ."
So Dave Wilson quit. "But I was still on the board of directors," he remembered, "we still had a four-to-three majority; and at that point a lot of people were getting bullshit from the Hill people. So we called a board meeting, and the four of us decided, all right, no more Mel Lyman in the paper." They voted to reestablish the original lines of authority, thus effectively ousting the Fort Hill volunteers from the office.
It was a close victory, and people felt uneasy when they separated that evening. And for good reason. Dave was about to receive his first real dose of Melvin's manipulative power.
"The next day the Hill people returned and, to our surprise, completely capitulated," he said. "They agreed to all our terms. It was great. We were so overwhelmed by our new feeling of brotherhood that we immediately elected three new persons to the board."
Two of the three, it turned out, were secretly aligned with Fort Hill. And one of them, Brian Keating, had risen to the rank of editor by issue number seven.
* * *
"While we were all on brown rice," said Harry Bikes, who continued working for the Avatar after Dave Wilson split, "Mel was out buying camera equipment. You know, he had Bolexes with telephoto lenses and all this fucking sound equipment. They were milking the paper. His people opened the mail, and money filtered out to Fort Hill. Like they'd send down some new guy to the office, some really dedicated office worker, and pretty soon he'd be taking the petty change. These guys were easy to expose, and as soon as they were exposed, they'd evaporate. But as soon as they'd evaporate, another would come to take their place.
UN-CLASSIFIED Mel Lyman is UnHappy. Why? Be-
cause he has no film to make movies.
Make Mel Happy by sending money
to Mel Lyman c/o United Illumina-
ting Avatar Box 1, 145 Columbia St.
Cambridge Massachusetts 02139.
Please hurry I can't stand to hear him
"The money coming out of the paper was going directly to Mel - the money the street sellers brought in, the money from advertising, the subscription money. But we were given not a cent, we were given a bunch of papers to sell. We were really living in incredible squalor while the Fort Hill executives were going back and forth to New York and they had cars and everything, you know? We were the suffering capitalists and they were the prosperous communists."
The Avatar was prospering, that's for sure. Circulation was building, there were more pages and more ads. And, of course, more Mel. By issue 11 there were two full pages of Letters to Mel (three full pages by issue 17). He was writing two additional columns, "Essay on the New Age" and "Telling It Like It Is," plus bunches of random truths and poems used more or less as fillers.
As it intensified, the Fort Hill influence became personal to the point of obscurity. Many of the Lyman people were getting their pictures and private thoughts into the paper. The work of one girl, a former mental patient named Melinda Cohan, was particularly arresting:Laugh and kill, laugh and killAt the same time, the paper was covering hard news in a much more determined and relevant fashion, devoting full, well-designed pages to local politics, the Resistance and the struggle for black identity. And the Avatarwas making news. With issue 11 came the first busts. Peddlers all around Boston were getting hauled off for obscenity and selling without a permit. Local courts were convicting them on obscenity charges.
play and work then laugh and kill.
On a cold and sunny day take a friend out far away
take him where the fields are turning
light a match and set them burning
tie him to a log to die
smile so he will wonder why
drive back home and go to bed
dream about your friend that's dead.
To his credit, Mel Lyman, who by this time was listed in the staff box as Warlock in Residence, decided to fight the censors with all the power of his devilish wrath.
"There are a bunch of dirty cocksuckers down in Cambridge who are giving us a hard time about our goddamn paper," he wrote on page three of issue 12. "Well, fuck 'em, if they don't like it they can shove it up their fucking asses... imagine the nerve of those guys, I'll bet they eat pussy... I'm warning you guys, if you don't lay off I'm gonna smear your filthy sex starved faces all over the Boston area, I'm gonna draw pictures of you all fucking each other in the ass and sucking each other's cocks and I'll have you doing things so terrible you'll wish you never heard of the Avatar... I'll rent a goddamn airplane and drop them all over the whole goddamn motherfucking state. This is just a polite warning, you're playing with dynamite, don't fuck with me ..."
Which prompted this Letter to Mel in the following issue:
"Regarding page three, your No. 12 issue: I agree almost wholeheartedly with Mr. Mel Lyman's creed. However, I take exception to one point: Mr. Lyman, what's so wrong with eating pussy?- J.F.D., Beacon Hill."
To further provoke the authorities, Mel devoted the entire centerfold of issue 13 to four words drawn three inches high by Eben Given: FUCK SHIT PISS CUNT.
Eventually, with the help of Boston attorney Joseph Oteri, the convictions were overturned, but long after the Avatar had attracted support from fighting liberals around the country. And many new subscribers.
But the fight between Mel and City Hall was a mild, gentlemanly affair compared to the one brewing between Mel and the so-called "downhill scoffers" who were still officially running the paper.
"By this time we were getting very ambitious," said Harry Bikes. "We had composing machines, we were getting a Telex. We had a solid readership of 35,000 per issue, big advertisers were getting interested. There were actually two Avatars - a Boston Avatar and a New York Avatar. There was a hell of a potential there.
"The Boston Avatar, starting with issue number 18, was coming out in two sections. There was a full-sized outer paper, which was primarily the newspaper. And there was a tabloid insert, which was the Mel paper. The news section was done down at the plebeian office, and the Mel section was edited and designed on Fort Hill, really in Mel's kitchen.
"The Mel insert was beautifully designed and very spacey, a lot of graphics and white space. And, needless to say, lots of pictures of Mel."
"Nobody objected to that?"
"Of course we objected. I mean, when you get 17 pictures of Mel in one issue... but what could we do? It was the only paper, you know? So there was a struggle building."
Then, as Bikes put it, the "religious war" started. "Mel withdrew his favor, more or less announced that that was it. And a lot of people felt, of course, that that wasn't it, that it should continue. And incredible battles started, to the point of fist fights. Fort Hill came down and they cleared out all the equipment, the composing machines, all the records and files. They took them up to the Hill."
This was in April, 1968, right after issue number 23. It's not clear why Mel so dramatically changed his mind. In issue 21 he had announced he no longer had anything new to write, that all future words of his would be reprints. Perhaps that had something to do with it. Some say he was getting more interested in making films. Harry Bikes had a plausible, if bizarre, explanation.
"There had been a terrible incident," he recalled, scratching his belly. "This cat came up to the Hill, one of the black people involved with Avatar, named Pebbles. Pebbles was kind of a crazy guy, he considered himself to be a guru. In all likelihood he was a guru. And he went up and demanded to see Mel. And this guy actually got through and knocked on Mel's house, went inside and made a scene. And they had to throw him out.
"Well, Mel decided his forces had failed him, they hadn't maintained security. So as punishment he set them to work building this wall around his house. He ordered them to stop the paper and build this fucking wall!"
Sure enough, issue 24 appeared without the outer news section at all. It was simply a tabloid produced on the Hill that included practically no writing, some pictures of Mel's forces building the wall, and 20 photographs of Alison Pepper, one of the Hill women, on an acid trip. There were no ads, and the only "news" headline was on the front page: "You know what we've been doing up here on Fort Hill? We've been building a wall around Mel's house out of heavy, heavy stone."
Meanwhile the downhill scoffers were trying to organize themselves, without much success. "Finally," said Bikes, "there was a sort of compromise editorship where I was going to be co-editor with Ed Beardsley. And Mel called us up to the Hill for a private audience - which he photographed and recorded. Mel's very big on documentation; he likes to invite people in for official visits and record and photograph them, and study them.
"He's a master at making people uncomfortable. Like when you go into his house, you have to take your shoes off. And then he doles out little favors. Like he snaps his fingers and his women will serve you coffee or brownies. Or he'll pull out some incredible joint or get you whacked out on acid.
"See, at this time they were all going through acid therapy. He was taking them one by one in his private audience and hitting them with 1500 mikes of pure acid. And studying them - filming and recording them. And playing really weird soundtracks for them like pure noise - machine gun fire, screams. And then when they were absolutely out of their minds, he would plug them into this Lyman Family group sing - love, togetherness, you know. He was playing with these people, programming them."
On this particular night, however, Mel simply explained to Bikes and Beardsley how the Avatar was his, his spirit, how they couldn't use theAvatar logo if they were to continue publishing.
"I said I didn't care," said Bikes, "I wasn't hung up on the name. I wanted a paper. We didn't need Avatar on the front page to sell it. But that scoundrel Ed Beardsley - who was really a bouncy, beagle-like kind of buffoon - when he designed page two of the next issue, he made this mock newspaper front, see, with the American flag and a dateline." Harry picked up a copy of issue 25. "And he reversed the Avatar logo. I didn't want it there, but he kept saying, 'Well, it's on page two and it's reversed.'"
Dramatically he held the paper up to his desk lamp. "But when you held page one up to the light, there it was - the Avatar he couldn't get rid of!"
Everyone on the Hill caught the reference, said Bikes. They considered it an act of blasphemy and betrayal. It was all news, no pictures of Mel. AnAvatar had been printed without the Avatar's consent, and the copies were right there in the Boston office, waiting to be distributed.
"So, in the middle of the night, around 4 AM, a flotilla of cars arrived from Fort Hill." He paused and gloated; this obviously was his favorite part of the story. "And in a matter of an hour or so they removed the issue, 35,000 copies, save for some 500 copies which we had taken home with us when they came off the truck. They had keys to the office, and they took the whole issue away and locked it in the Fort Hill tower."
That edition never appeared in public.
"For the better part of a week there were negotiations, threats, scenes," said Harry. "Fort Hill invited us all up for a big steak dinner at Kweskin's house, and we tried to iron it all out. And in the midst, they summarily removed the 35,000 papers from the tower and sold them for $35 worth of scrap paper.
"It was at that point I realized we were dealing with very dangerous people."
* * *Meanwhile Dave Wilson was fighting on another front. "We had worked like bastards on that issue," he said. "At that point we were all enough incensed that we realized this was war." They enlisted the aid of a prominent corporate lawyer in Boston, asked him to investigate the matter on a business level.
THIS IS MELINDA. She was just born. She has lived for ever in one small dark room. One had to crawl through a long bat-infested tunnel to get to her. She was black and covered with things gathered from the city dump. No facilities. Now she is with us on this earth. See the beginning of light in her little eyes? See how her little hand claws out trying to grasp life? See how she leans out towards your heart. Help her. Help to Melinda means help to entire AVATAR family.
Thousands (or at least 50 or so) of Melindas anxiously arc awaiting adoption by you or your group. Your Melinda will receive a monthly cash grant, as well as spiritual counseling, blankets, use of a bath-tub, and holy spirit. Each month you will receive a letter written in her own hand, and a photograph of her as she becomes more with it! You all will develop a warm, loving relationship. Send your contributions to AVATAR -- we'll take it from there.Avatar
"Lo and behold we found that Fort Hill had been sloppy; they never filed the changes in board membership of Trust Incorporated. As far as the state was concerned, it was still the original seven-man board, and I was still president. We sent out certified letters for a special board meeting. Only six people showed up, only two from Fort Hill, and we just ramrodded through a whole nice little agenda of things."
First they threatened Mel Lyman and Fort Hill with legal action if the printing equipment wasn't immediately returned. It was. Then they named Dave Wilson and Harry Bikes co-editors and laid the legal groundwork for the Boston Avatar to continue unhampered. And they forgave Ed Beardsley for his tomfoolery and let him work on the art staff.
"We were determined to keep publishing," said Harry Bikes. "We worked around the clock putting out the next issue, typing it, pasting it. We had finished the paper, all but a few details, and I went home to sleep.
"The next day I was supposed to come in at noon and pick up the flats and go to the printer. Dave met me at the door. He says, 'Sit down. You can't go in there.' I says, 'What's the matter? What's the matter?'
"It seems that in the middle of the night Beardsley had defected, by going down and ripping up all the flats and crumbling them in many little pieces and shoving them in the waste basket. He was sitting there on the steps, crying. I wanted to go over and kill the motherfucker. Beardsley was the perfect double agent for Mel; he didn't know who he was from day to day."
Dave Wilson shook his head. "That was an incident I couldn't understand for two years. Two years later I found out what made Beardsley act the way he did. Antonioni, you know, discovered Mark Frechette, one of the Fort Hill people, for that part in Zabriskie Point. What I didn't know was that Ed Beardsley was also being considered for the part.
"And that night Antonioni made his decision and chose Frechette over Beardsley. Beardsley just became enraged when he got the news."
But even Ed Beardsley couldn't stop the scoffers.
"We went back inside," said Bikes, "and in about four hours dug the paper out of the trash barrel and restored it." He giggled with confidence. "You know, flattened it out, waxed it down, fixed it up, retyped places where it was fucked up, and so on. All the flats were torn up, it was unbelievable."
"Why didn't the Fort Hill people want it printed at this point?"
"Spite. They just didn't want it to happen. They were going to do everything they could to prevent it. But when we came out with that paper, after they destroyed the flats, we broke their back. It was not a great artistic triumph, but we did it." Harry Bikes started pounding his desk for emphasis. "We didit. We did the fucking paper. We went out on the streets and we sold it. We got money. And we did others."
* * *
They did four others. Then Dave Wilson got tired, resigned, recommended Harry Bikes for the editorship and split for the New Hampshire countryside to meditate. When he returned three weeks later, the war was over. The editorial board, its balance shifted by Wilson's resignation, had selected a different editor. Ed Beardsley.
Then Bikes quit too. "I remember Dave and I just walked outside," said Harry, "sat down on the front step, looked at each other and laughed our fucking asses off."
Back on the Hill, Mel Lyman, in control once again, was making plans. He had done all he could to reach the Boston and New York areas. As always, his vision was growing. And, miraculously, his inspiration to write had returned.
"I find that I still have many words to write and Avatar is the only way I can write them," he wrote a friend. "I'm still getting a lot of letters from people who need to read me and I can only reach out and touch them throughAvatar, and only if Avatar is a national publication.... Avatar cannot be just a local publication anymore, that isn't enough for me. Somehow you have got to see that it finds its way into every little corner it belongs in. A great deal is being demanded of me now, people from all over the country are making me feel their need for more understanding and I can't turn them away....
Many changes were in that first edition of the "third cycle." Mel right off had raised the price to 50 cents (later to $1). It was renamed American Avatar and was much slicker, resembling a national glossy magazine more than anything else. Mel's pictures and writings were prominently, though tastefully, displayed throughout; on the cover was a photograph of Paula Press, a 17-year-old, dark-eyed favorite of Mel's who later left the Hill people after she became disillusioned with some of their more violent practices.
The issue's only reference to the old Avatar was in the lead editorial:
"We, the old staff of the original Avatar, are back once again. We are here under the name, American Avatar. Before Avatar fell into the hands of vermin we had a purpose, we are back with that purpose. Before America fell into the hands of vermin it had a purpose, we are back to fulfill that purpose. We are sick to our stomachs of counterfeit Avatars and counterfeit Americas, we are here to do something about them both, to dwarf them with a real standard, leadership."
The magazine lasted for four issues, each a different shape and format, published irregularly between the summers of 1968 and 1969. Now safely out of the hands of vermin, Mel was free to reveal himself more specifically. He'd come pretty close to it in answering some of the earlier Letters to Mel, for example in issue 11:MEL, THOU ARTAnd in issue 13:
THE INFINITE ONE WITH
TO REVOLUTIONIZE TOTAL UNIVERSE Rex Summit
REX, YOU'RE ABSOLUTELY RIGHT MelDear Mel,But it was in the third issue of American Avatar that he dropped the final veil. On page three, next to a picture of him floating lotus-positioned in the universe with a halo above his head, a drink in his hand and a leering, shit-eating grin on his face, Mel published the following Message to Humanity:
Today I went tripping. While on my wanderings, I went inside of a church in Copley Square. I was totally awed by its magnificence. I felt very insignificant as I looked up at the dome hoping, and yet afraid that I might see the face of God. I didn't see Him, instead I saw your face, the face of Mel Lyman glowing against changing patterns of color. What gives? Either you've got me believing your egotistical ideas or maybe you really are Him!?!?! Lovingly and obediently yours,
A very stable Hobbit
I really am Him, shouldn't he so hard for you to take, imagine how it makes ME feel...Hi gang, I'm back, just like the book says. By God here I am, in all my glory. I thought I'd never come. But I'm here now and getting ready to do the good work. Maybe some of ya think I sent Him. You'll see. I sent about to prove it for you, much too corny, I'm Him and there just sent no question about it. Betcha never thought it would happen like this did ya? Sorry to disappoint you but I've got to make the most of what's here and there sure as hell sent very much. No turnin water to wine and raisin the dead this trip, just gonna tell it like it is. You've waited a long time for this glorious moment and now that it's actually here I expect most of you will just brush it oft and keep right on waiting, that's what those damn fool Jews did last time I came, in fact they're stilldoing it. Oh well, what's a few thousand more years to people who've been suffering for millions. So while most of you turn your heads and continue sticking to your silly romantic beliefs I'll let the rest of you in on a little secret. I'm Christ, I swear to God, in person, and I'm about to turn this foolish world upside down...The "Christ issue," as it is fondly referred to by the community, revealed another, perhaps more important vision of Melvin's. The entire front cover was a simulated television screen, a screen of the future, on which an image of Mel Lyman, looking soulfully emaciated and holding a cigaret, would someday be broadcast. That is still the dream of Fort Hill, to "take over the world through communications," particularly television, despite several unsuccessful and sometimes brutal attempts to make it a reality.
With the last issue of American Avatar, however, the Fort Hill Community retreated from public view for nearly two years. It was time for internal growth.
"After the Avatar period we could have lost our innocence," said Hill veteran David Gude. "We had a lot of people who were living together then, and we weren't able to just sit down and make records or create as we dreamt of creating. And so that started really a whole period of people learning to live together. I mean, Melvin again was creating, but this time he was creating people."
A crew from Fort Hill: David Gude is second from the right.
"Paul," he said sharply, "don't talk about the future."
Our ol' Pa is so funny.
He likes candy a lot.
He is so fun to play with.
We make funny newspapers.
We are making newspapers to look at them.
We are a funny family.
We are a big funny family.
The hill is good and bad.
The hill top is very funny.
Shortly before the summer of 1971, disturbing reports began trickling in about the Lyman Family's attempts to infiltrate the underground media. Nearly all of them involved violence of one sort or another. After young Paul Mills wrote a relatively mild article about Mel Lyman in the April 16th issue of Fusion Magazine, a window in his car was smashed and Jim Kweskin allegedly phoned Paul's mother and posed as an old friend to find out his address. That same day Fusion editor Robert Somma was essentially kidnapped; Lyman people refused to leave his office unless he would accompany them to Fort Hill, which he did. He was unharmed.
"I will forewarn you," Somma said later, "they really don't joke around. They're as malicious and malevolent as any group I've met." He said three other writers had quit the story out of fear before Mills finally completed it.
There was the rumor that Raeanne Rubenstein, current editor of Crawdaddy, had been slapped around by Fort Hill recruit Paul Williams when she wouldn't give more space to an essay he'd written about Mel. She refused to discuss the matter on the phone, but Paul later admitted it. "It was stupid," he said, "I don't know why I did it, exactly, but I had been living with the New York community and was very impressed, you know, at the way they stand up for what they have to have."
Similar, if less harsh, accounts of intimidation were coming in from The Village Voice and The Los Angeles Free Press. And several people reported that frightening incident at KPFK, the first encounter with the Lyman Family where police had to be called. In this case too, those involved refused to talk on the phone. "It's not going to be discussed by me or any member of this staff," barked Elsa Knight Thompson, acting station manager. "I don't have to explain why. And if you don't like it, call back after the 10th of this month and talk to the new manager."
When the incident was mentioned to Jim Kweskin, he suddenly turned cold and suspicious.
"What do you know about it?" he asked.
"Just... rumors, really."
"Tell me about them. Tell me about the rumors."
"Well, mainly that you retaliated after one of your people, Owen deLong, was fired as program director. That's about it."
Kweskin's voice was deliberate and somewhat righteous. "What you heard is true. But it didn't happen because Owen deLong was fired. It happened because Richard Herbruck - who is a very important person in the community, the Producer, produces all sorts of things - produced a bunch of radio shows that were completely destroyed by the engineers at KPFK. The volume kept changing all the time; at one point the sound went off completely during one of Richard Herbruck's introductions.
"And we sent our own engineer down to help them and they locked our engineer out. We sent people down to help, and all we met was hate. And resistance. And pride. And ego. Until finally we got so angry that we had to do something to make those people feel how angry we were. Something had to be done to make the people at KPFK feel, feel that something, feel as bad as we did, feel what a destructive job they were doing."
But wasn't it this sort of incident that was giving the Lyman Family the reputation of Manson's?
Kweskin dismissed the idea scornfully. "The Manson Family preached peace and love and went around killing people. We don't preach peace and love.
"And," he added, smiling, "we haven't killed anybody - yet."
* * *
I climbed the crumbling stone steps to 27 Fort Avenue, Roxbury, the front office and nerve center of Fort Hill. A square-jawed young man named Jeff and a dark-haired storybook princess named Anna answered the door hugging and giggling, took me inside to the office and immediately asked me my sign and, when I confessed ignorance, my date of birth. It was the first of perhaps 40 times I was to be asked that sort of question. Fort Hill considers astrology to be a second language, a tongue in which I was about to receive a kind of crash course.
Everything has a sign, to them, not just people but animals, plants, events, cities, countries - everything with a date or location. "Mel knew the signs of everybody in the National League," recalled a downhill scoffer. "You know, he'd say, 'Baltimore's got a great Aquarian pitcher... too many Capricorns in the outfield.'" Generally they use the language not so much for forecasting as Monday-morning quarterbacking. Which tends to reinforce their belief that the universe, at least Mel Lyman's universe, is "unfolding as it should."
What's particularly disturbing to a non-believer is the way, once you tell them your sign, they raise their eyebrows, chuckle affirmatively and say nothing, as if with one utterance you had lost the chance to marry their daughters.
Anna had some book open and was researching my birthdate. Finally she looked up and said brightly to the others in the room, "He's a Gemini-Sagi."
"Wow," they responded. "a Gemini-Sagi." I expected applause but the matter was immediately dropped.
There was a monster switchboard-intercom system on the main desk, and Anna hit one of the buttons. "Send Paul over," she instructed. Paul Williams would take me to the studio where the men were working, she said.
In the meantime I did a quick check of the office. They had the usual office stuff - files, supplies, mimeo and photo duplicating equipment. A stack of Avatars lay on one table, next to a copy of the ROLLING STONE issue on Charles Manson marked "office copy - please save."
As one might expect. the office was blessed from one wall by a framed photograph of Mel Lyman, as was nearly every room in all the houses. On a shelf above the intercom was a small reference library, and I started jotting down the titles: Illustrated Yoga, Webster's Dictionary, Linda Goodman's Sun Signs, Astrology for the Millions....
"What are you writing that stuff down for?" interrupted a chubby, unpleasant-looking girl named Dvora, who had just entered. "Do you think that's where your story is? It's not." The room grew chilly.
I continued: Information Please Almanac, I Ching - Office copy.
"Look, he just keeps on writing," she said to the others, then turned to me. "Can I see your notes?"
I said no and her eyes narrowed. "What's your sign?" she asked hostilely.
"Oh," she snickered.
(Later the Lyman people were good enough to do my chart and have it interpreted by one of their astrological experts, a soft-spoken woman named Adele.
("Gemini is the conscious mind and Sagittarius is the super-conscious mind, so that your chart is full of purpose," Adele reassured me. "And your purpose is to communicate, to communicate to the world. You have Uranus in the tenth house, the house of outstanding goals, and Uranus is the planet of communication - so that goes with Gemini. Every time I look at your chart I feel a writer."
("Really?" I asked. "You mean if you didn't know anything about me, you'd know I was a writer, just from my chart?"
("Yeah, everything in your chart is about communicating. And because your sun is in the house of Aquarius, it's revolutionary, which means using your abilities for the masses of people. Like being a writer for Rolling Stone."
(Needless to say, I found the explanation fascinating. And so did my twin sister, Mary, who was born 13 minutes before me and, according to Adele, has a nearly identical chart. A former nurse, Mary now lives at home in West Los Angeles with her husband, a systems analyst, and three children.)
Two other books, I later discovered, were especially important on the Hill and had been read by everyone: The Godfather, because, as one girl put it, "We're just like the Mafia up here." And Instant Replay, because Mel digs football, really digs it, particularly televised professional football. During the season all four communities devote their weekends to it (and now Monday nights, thanks to the ABC network), usually watching two games at once on side-by-side color TVs. It all has to do with a team of people working as one unit at the direction of one man or something.
Just then the office phone rang and Jeff, the giggling, square-jawed fellow, answered. As he listened his face turned mean and bitter, his brow lowered, his square jaw jutted forth. It was more news about that damned housing project the city wants to build next to Fort Hill. Finally he started shouting. "As far as I'm concerned they're all a bunch of racists and faggots! The only thing I'd do is... is straight assassination. I mean, how are people gonna change except through violence?"
Jeff's tirade persisted as Paul Williams appeared at the doorway, introduced himself and escorted me from the office, up Fort Avenue Terrace, the long gravel alley on which five of the Hill's eight structures stand. It was about three in the afternoon and the men had another hour to work before lunch.
As Paul explained it, the men generally started work at nine in the morning, broke for breakfast at 11, broke again for lunch at four and finished work and cleaned up just before dinner at nine in the evening. It was a schedule Mel had worked out for maximum health, appetite control and work output. Times and amounts of coffee intake were similarly dictated.
The studio where the men were working was upstairs in the last building, an old, two-story duplex known as Five and Six. Actually they were working behind the duplex, building a new two-story addition, the top floor of which could be entered from the studio. Where there were now beams and studs there would soon be a roof and walls.
Paul introduced some of the workmen, most of them Fort Hill veterans, including David Gude and Richie Guerin, the Community's brilliant young architect who bore an unnerving resemblance to pictures I'd seen of Mel. I asked Paul why there was so much building and remodeling going on. "I think they're getting ready to rent them or sell them," he said, "some of them, at least, and so they..."
"Paul," Gude cut in sharply, looking up from the board he was sizing, his thin mouth straight and grim. "Don't talk about the future."
"Right, uh..." Paul caught his breath. "... we really don't know what's going to happen."
It suddenly became apparent that Paul Williams was a recruit, a pledge - a "dummie" or "turd," as such people are referred to on the Hill. I had naively assumed that a writer with a book and some reputation would automatically start at a higher level. But no, he was at the bottom bottom, and David and Richie were - well, only one person was at the top, of course - but they certainly had more authority than Paul.
Perhaps it was this kind of humiliation that, several weeks later, became more than Paul Williams could endure.
* * *
Richie the architect:
everything is flexible, you never know about the Need
Every room at Fort Hill has been changed by the gifted handiwork of Richie Guerin, a former architectural student who five years ago dropped out and joined the Community at the age of 19. But the studio atop Five and Six is one of his masterpieces. Remodeled with materials partly bought and partly scrounged from other old buildings, the huge room is a bouquet of blended woods and purposes. Giant outdoor shutters can in seconds change a warm living room with a spectacular view of Boston to a darkened sound stage or theater. Skylights convert to rooftop exits, and baseboards unscrew for instant electrical rewiring.
"Everything is flexible 'cause you never know what you're going to need," Richie explained. "Everything is done by necessity. Necessity always breeds a perfect balance of form and function. If you follow the Need. I mean, this place is a good example. We did just what we had to do, there were really no ideas. And out of the Need came things that were, wow, really far out."
And the Need changes all the time, doesn't it? You never know when the Big Coach may suddenly call a different play. In the short history of Fort Hill, the Need has transformed house Five and Six several times. The building has served as a movie set, a recording studio and a film vault. The basement was used for target practice when the Hill was in its armed guard period. And most recently, I was to learn, the Need changed so swiftly and ruthlessly, the Community was nearly torn apart and destroyed.
Even as Richie spoke, the first floor of Five and Six was being used to store a roomful of professional television and videotape equipment, a vestige of the days in late 1969 and early 1970 when Mel Lyman had designs on the CBS-TV Network.
The story of that Need came from Don West, now editor of Broadcasting Magazine and then assistant to CBS President Dr. Frank Stanton. On Stanton's behalf he first visited Fort Hill in July, 1969, with plans to film the Community for an experimental documentary project.
"For me this was a completely mind-blowing experience," West remembered. "I came right out of the 34th floor of CBS, I was approaching middle age, and I just fell in love with the Hill. And, I thought, they with me.
"I guess they thought I was the route to taking over CBS; they probably found me a very pliable instrument. I suspended most of my critical judgment and just let it happen, if you know what I mean.
"When I went up there the first day I was not allowed to meet Mel Lyman. However, I did meet Mark and Daria Frechette and Jim Kweskin, George Peper, David Gude, his woman Faith, Mel's first wife Sophie and his second wife Jessie. They said they were representing Mel so he wouldn't have to sit around and answer a bunch of silly questions. And it's true, the Hill is Mel Lyman, it's an extension of him."
Jessie Benton, as painted by her father
Thomas Hart Benton, Hill benefactor
For three days West simply waited and tried to blend in with the Fort Hill life. He even pulled guard duty. Finally on the third night, about three in the morning, Mel appeared.
"When I first saw Mel Lyman he looked like he was on the verge of death. He was incredibly emaciated, he could not have weighed more than 100 pounds. I really believed he was about to die, he looked so incredibly sickly. At that time he was virtually living the life of a monk, isolating himself inside his house, producing things, films. There was a red light on the outside of his house, and when it was on, boy, you did not get in."
With Don that early morning was a friend and colleague, Stan White, now an art director in New York. Mel asked both of them to watch his films. "I thought the films were quite good, considering he had no technical background and no decent equipment. I'm not sure Stan White would agree, but they really affected me. There was one where Mel got up one morning before the children and did a film of the children waking up. And it was very moving."
That was the film, edited in his camera, for which Mel later recorded a harmonica soundtrack using only the memory of the film as his guide. The two creations matched perfectly - a miracle often retold by the Lyman family.
Mel also showed them his movie of Jim Kweskin on acid. "I don't understand drugs very much, particularly LSD," said West, "but Kweskin completely changed his personality. In fact, he changed his signs on that trip. I don't know if it was on the cusp or what, but I remember Kweskin gave up one life and took on another. It was a very long trip."
A little too long, perhaps, for Stan White, who apparently wasn't as impressed with the films as West. "In discussing the films afterwards," said Don, "Stan asked Mel a question, a simple, logical question, something like, 'Do you think you could follow a script?'
"Mel said no, absolutely not, and then he flew into a rage. He turned to Stan and shouted, 'When did you die? When did you die inside? You double Cancer you!'
"I couldn't understand what got into him. Apparently Mel did have some very personal problems. I just stood there, I didn't know what to do. And all the other people in the room, all the Fort Hill people, had gone into this almost catatonic thing, you know? Like they were... like they were molded out of wax."
The two left the Hill immediately. White never returned, but West appeared again in October, this time with videotape equipment and a camera crew from Boston's WGBH.
"The working title for the project was The Real World," said Don, "and I had the idea of contrasting two communes - this young people's commune in Boston and an old people's retirement commune in Seal Beach, California. I had hired the Video Freex of New York to film the old people's commune."
After shooting Fort Hill all day, the WGBH crew left and Don West and the Lyman Family sat down to view the tapes.
"Suddenly they confronted me - there were about 30 of them - they said that what we'd shot was bullshit, it was superficial. David Gude said something like, 'You talk about the Real World - this is the real world,' and he pulled out a German Luger and shoved it in my face. 'This is our real world!'
"God, he sure made his point with me. That was the first time I saw a gun on the Hill." Later West discovered that the Fort Hill guard was completely armed.
"They wanted to make every situation a confrontation. As an independent observer I'd have to say their techniques are very severe. If a guy makes a mistake they really give it to him. I remember one guy had said something wrong over the radio..."
"Yeah, they had this walkie-talkie-type radio system in all the houses to alert everyone if there was trouble. And this guy had said something dumb or obscene over it. And they put him through the damnedest grueling I'd ever seen, just kept firing questions at this poor guy for 10 or 15 minutes until he finally broke."
* * *
Harry Bikes recalled a similar confrontation at the height of the Hill-scoffer war of April, 1968: "About this time there was an incident at the Club 47. It was their last night, the club was closing, and the Lyman Family was supposed to perform. Their act had really changed, it was like a church meeting. Kweskin would get up there and lecture, and the audience would yell 'fuck you,' that sort of thing.
"Anyway, that night Eben Given and Brian Keating got in a wild fist fight over something or other, and the whole family went berserk, right on stage. Then everybody went up to the Hill where they were having an enormous reception for Mel. It was his birthday and the ladies had made an incredible cake.
"But after a couple of minutes, the whole thing turned into a kangaroo indictment of Brian Keating. They busted him of every last vestige of self respect; he was just destroyed in front of our very eyes. He was saying, 'I have no answers. I have nothing to say.' And then he just collapsed on the floor. I have never seen a man cry like that.
"Eventually they busted Eben and threw him off the Hill. He was reduced to a spineless fool. The guys were coming out every morning and nailing his door shut. And he'd just go out the window and never say anything about it.
"The whole thing is about spinelessness."
Bikes had a secret. "You know what they call Jim Kweskin on the Hill?" he asked, gloating. "They call him Squishy."
* * *
"Anyway," continued Don West, "after David and the others confronted me, I told them, 'All right, I'll do my own taping.' And I handed a camera to George Peper.
"George is the scion of a wealthy Connecticut family who lived under really pampered conditions. He was a New England tennis champion and everything. But when Mel found him he was at the bottom of the barrel, he was into a lot of drugs, you know? But George, who had never handled a camera in his life, really did a beautiful job."
So beautiful that Don invited George to accompany him around the country and help shoot other segments of The Real World, including a mental institution in Delaware. "It was a heavy decision for him," said Don. "He had been on the Hill for four years and he didn't want to go. He was actually afraid of the outside world. But he did a fantastic job."
George traveled with Don West until mid-January, 1970. During that time the news broke across the country that Charles Manson had been arrested for the murder of Sharon Tate.
"George became tremendously excited when the news came out," remembered West. "At his insistence, we stopped at a roadside phone booth and he called Mel. I never found out the substance of that conversation, except something to the effect that they considered Manson to be the anti-Christ, representing evil, and Mel to be Christ, representing good.
"I remember George was terribly anxious to get into the Manson trial; he kept asking CBS if we could get him a press pass so he could get in. I'm quite sure if you got Mel Lyman and Charles Manson debating in front of a camera, the film that came out of that camera would be something else."
A few weeks later the short, grand partnership of West and Peper ended abruptly - after CBS looked at the tapes they'd shot. "The upshot of the show was they found it far too radical," said Don. "I think they felt I should leave CBS, and I did leave.
"But to my dismay, the Hill and I also split. What happened was, I had given them a complete television system to use, a half-inch system with a camera, plus an Angienux lens and a Sonheisen microphone - about $1800 worth of equipment. The Hill had borrowed that equipment from me, but when I went to retrieve it, they refused to give it up."
West sounded apologetic. "I guess I still am in a hangup about the rights to property. On my last visit to the Hill, to get the equipment, they told me, 'You're not the same guy who came up here before.' And that was true in a sense. I'd been burned a lot. The Video Freex refused to shoot the old people's commune. I had tried to effect a change in the CBS system; had I been successful, it would have been a different network. I jeopardized my career and my family. I put every dime I had into that farce. And now the Hill was keeping my equipment and having nothing to do with me.
"When I say we split, I mean I've never seen them again."
"Do you think they were friendly only when you were useful to them?"
"It would be hard for me to resist that conclusion," West admitted sadly. "The fact is, they still call me now and then when they need something. In March of this year George Peper called me from New York City, said he was looking for a publisher for Mel's new book.
"After I hung up I thought to myself, 'God, they never stop. They never stop asking for things.'"
* * *
"Pass the butter?" asked Richie, tearing apart a slice of white bread and nodding thanks. It was just after 4 PM and the dozen studio workers were seated at a round table just off the main dining area of the Fort Hill mess hall. Two plain-faced women had just cooked and served up a starchy meal of macaroni and cheese, bread and punch, and now they sat on stools a few feet away, giggling to each other. Apparently they had already eaten.
Hungry and good-spirited, the men gossiped behind the backs of absent girls and novitiate "turds."
"How's David Plaine doin'?" asked David Gude of square-jawed Jeff.
"Aw, he just needs a friend," said Jeff.
"He doesn't need a friend, he needs a trainer," sneered Kurt Frank as the others laughed.
"Today he said to me-" and here Jeff's voice took on a stupored, dumb-beast quality- "'Think I'm gonna leave the Hill'"
Richie's mouth dropped open. "You must be kiddin'," he said.
"So this morning he didn't show up for work," said Jeff. "He was supposed to paint. And I went to his room, and he had his bags packed."
"You must be kiddin'!" laughed Richie, a bite of bread dropping on his lap.
"I said, 'What do you think you're doing?' He says, 'Think I'm gonna leave the Hill.' I said, 'Well, David, what's it gonna be? You wanna go painting or you wanna go to the vault?'"
David Gude listened and smiled, revealing a huge black gap in his front teeth, as Jeff continued in a stupored voice.
"'Well, I sure don't wanna go to the vault.' I said, 'So what are you going to do?' He thinks real hard for a minute and says, 'Think I'll run away.'"
Everyone had stopped eating now, shifted, and focused his attention on the smiling jaw.
"So Bruce Virgo and Bruce Scorpio grabbed him by the shoulder, lifted him up and said, 'All right, let's go to the vault.' And he just exploded, started screaming and waving his arms and legs. He'd been asleep before, you know? But now he was suddenly real.
"They took him outside and threw him to the ground. I was so mad I jumped on his chest, and I was just about to smash him in the face, you know?" Jeff clenched his fist and drew it back over his shoulder.
"Yeah? Yeah?" said Richie.
Jeff dropped his arm. "And then I thought about that thing David Gude said about Primitive Love, you know? And I just got up and said to him, 'You decide.'"
Gude seemed disappointed. "That don't matter," he protested, "you could've hit him in the face anyway. That's Primitive Love. You know, pow!" and he thrust out his own clenched fist, stopping an inch from Jeff's bull's-eye jaw.
"That's right, pow!" shouted Kurt, laughing, almost smashing Gude from across the table.
"Shit yeah, pow!" laughed Richie, nearly decking Kurt.
"Pow!" said Jeff.
"Pow!" said Kurt.
"Pow!" said Richie.
"Pow!" said David.
"Pow! Pow!" They were all up out of their seats now, leaning across the table, laughing wildly, filling the air with fists and bobbing faces. Their good humor had a simple, campfire quality to it, the inbred wit of real family closeness. One could forget momentarily that it was inspired by actual violence... and something about a vault?
After a few seconds the men settled down, however, leaving Jeff to finish his story.
"So David Plaine went back to his room. And a few minutes later he came out and said he wanted to go painting."
There was even a moral. "He was just waiting," explained Jeff, "for someone to talk him out of it."
Kurt looked up from his lunch and nodded. "Yep, he just needed a friend."
* * *The wise man builds his house upon a rockAnd the hands of three tiny Lyman children, two boys and a girl, came tumbling down upon the third floor of 27 Fort Avenue, where, for my benefit, an impromptu concert of sweet angel voices was in progress. And the hands came up when the floods came up.
The wise man builds his house upon a rock
The wise man builds his house upon a rock
And the rains come tumb-bel-ling down.The rains came down and the floods came upAnd the whoosh lifted the children into the air, their hands shooting away from their tiny protruding bellies, their angel melody dissolved by the flood of shrieks and shrill giggles. Anna, the long-gowned storybook princess, had led them in the song while giving me a tour of the Fort Hill Community.
The rains came down and the floods came up
The rains came down and the floods came up
But the house on the rock stayed firm.
The foolish man builds his house upon the sand
The foolish man builds his house upon the sand
The foolish man builds his house upon the sand
And the rains came tumb-bel-ling down.
The rains came down and the floods came up
The rains came down and the floods came up
The rains came down and the floods came up
And the house on the sand went - whoosh!
Like 29 and 31 Fort Avenue next door, 27 Fort Avenue is an aging, three-story apartment building used mainly as a dormitory by the Community. The three buildings are around the corner from Fort Avenue Terrace and generally are in worse repair than the homes on that block. In fact 29 was nearly in a skeletal condition, all pipes and wires - another remodeling project of Richie's.
"The men do all the work themselves," said Anna as we walked outside. "Rather than just paint things over, they scrape down to bare wood and start at the bottom - like life, you know?"
We cut across the weedy little park that skirts the base of the Fort Hill tower, as Anna, her gown blowing in the late afternoon breeze, told me everything she knew about the historic structure: that it was the highest point in Boston, maybe, and was full of pigeon shit.
From the park we could easily see all the Community houses, Anna pointing them out. Next to Five and Six was Four-and-a-Half, which belonged to Mel when he still lived on the Hill. You can tell by the eight-foot-high stone wall that surrounds the entire front yard.
"Like, there's an awful lot of history in that wall," said Anna. "Like Mel had a dream, and afterwards he told Richie, he said, 'Now Richie, like, I want you to build a wall.'
"If you look closely, you can see how the stones on the bottom are rough and uneven but the stones on top, after the men got into it, are smooth and even - like life, you know?"
Next to Four-and-a-Half is a vacant lot... in which a story is buried somewhere. Anna said she didn't know the story, but earlier photographs of Fort Hill show a large, dark home similar to the others standing on that spot. Actually I heard several stories but for a long time could confirm none of them.
One story was that the home, known as Four, was uninhabitable and had to be torn down. That was the one told most by people on the Hill. Another, told by a few Hill people, was that the home was uninhabitable but was completely repaired by Richie & Associates. When they tried to buy it from the owner, however, she asked an outrageously high price, so they made it uninhabitable again, removed all the plumbing and wiring and everything, and bought it for a lower price.
Months later I heard a more complete account from a long-time Hill resident who had recently defected. According to him, all three stories include elements of the truth, particularly the last.
"The house incident climaxed a series of smaller incidents between the Hill and the neighborhood that came to a head in the summer of 1969," he recalled. "What happened was, all the neighborhood kids liked to ride their bikes on the hill. All the Hill kids did too, for that matter, all the kids, white and black.
"But that summer one of the neighborhood kids apparently knocked over one of the Lyman kids with his bike - I'm not sure of the specifics - and Mel immediately ordered the guards not to allow any more bike riding on the hill."
Lyman had no right to enforce such an order, of course; the hill area itself is a public park. And the neighborhood parents, infuriated, marched en masse to the Community for an angry Sunday afternoon confrontation. Somehow the meeting ended peacefully, but feelings were tense and bitter, and soon the guards started carrying guns.
About the same time, said the defector, relations also broke down between the Community and the owner of House Four, an eccentric old landlady named Lena. For various reasons, including nonpayment of rent, she wanted the Lyman people out; and when they balked, she decided to sell the place for $3000. She even found a buyer, a group of local black musicians called Black Music Inc.
Well, the Fort Hill Community freaked. "It wasn't the black thingnecessarily," claimed the defector, "although Richie was on his trip and everything; it was just the reality of a group of strange people moving right into the middle of our Community - the foreignness of it all." A foreignness similar, no doubt, to a group of white hippies moving into a black ghetto.
"Finally it was decided by us that they simply could not live there. Of course, we had no legal way to stop them, so we literally made the house condemnable - by destroying it."
The Hill people rationalized that since Four was condemnable when they moved into it in 1966, they had a perfect right to leave it that way when they moved out. To avoid detection, they decided to work at night and wreck the inside of the house only. Extra guards were posted to keep the area free of inquisitive intruders, particularly Lena the landlady.
"I remember the first night very well," the defector said. "It was a windy, rainy October night; I was posting guard. They started on the roof, dismantling the chimney. Then they cut through some rafters below.
"Suddenly I looked up and saw the silhouette of her coming across the hill - Lena - this muttering old hag with a stick in her hand."
An alert was sounded and the Fort Hill wreckers immediately fell silent, pulled the plugs on their power tools and shut off the lights. David Gude rushed up to Lena and started berating her furiously, even pushing her about, until she reluctantly turned and trudged off to her home a few blocks away. The wreckers continued.
"Finally the whole first floor caved in," recalled the defector. "It was no longer safe; they had sabotaged the main beams. Within a couple of nights the structure was fairly fucked.
"Naturally the neighborhood became enraged. There was a meeting between Black Music Inc. and Fort Hill, sort of as a prevention of war. A bunch of our guys went down there, and I remember at one point we said, 'OK, if you want a war, we'll give it to you!' And as I say, we were ready, we had guns and everything."
Apparently the meeting worked. There was no war, not even any legal action. Eventually Fort Hill bought the gutted house and razed it completely the following spring, starting on Easter Sunday.
Wouldn't it have been more profitable, I asked the defector, had Fort Hill bought the house before it was gutted?
"I know," he said, "but the point is, you see, we live for the moment."
Anna pointed out the rest of the houses. Next to the vacant lot is the children's house, actually two houses, Two and Three, connected by a wood-paneled hallway Richie built. And finally there's One, the mess Hall. The children's house, said Anna, serves as both nursery and school. With minimal supervision, the children live by themselves, after being taken from their mothers about the age of two.
"It's not as bad as it might sound," she explained. "I mean, we're all one big family here, the Lyman Family, you know? And like, the father is Melvin."
Anna offered to take me over to the children's house and introduce me to Lou, the kids' new teacher. On our way I asked her about the vault.
Her delicate face suddenly hardened; she appeared frightened and began stammering. "The vault? ... what? ... I mean, where did you? ... who mentioned the vault?"
"Some of the men were talking about David Plaine at lunch, and they mentioned the vault."
She shook her head. "I don't really know... it's this room with brick walls all around and no windows and a door you can lock, you know? And sometimes people who are, you know, having problems....
"But we hardly ever use it. You have to be very careful how you use it. But there's no light inside, you know? And you can really learn about yourself."
Anna hurried up the front steps and into the children's house. It was after five and the sun was lowering behind the Fort Hill Tower, causing the shadow of the thick, weathered erection to extend and penetrate the dark shrubbery behind the homes.
* * *
"We believe that woman serves God through man," said Lou, an attractive former nun now in her first stage of pregnancy. "I was sort of into women's lib before I came up here, you know, 'cause so many men are such piss-ants, such faggots. But when I came up here and started serving them breakfast, I really began looking up to them."
She shoved a spoonful of strained vegetables into the squirming infant on her lap.
"The men here on the Hill are real men; the men out there are faggots, with their long hair and everything. If they weren't, they wouldn't let their women get away with the things they do."
Lou learned about the true role of women from something Mel wrote in the Avatar. "If a woman is really a woman, and not just an old girl," wrote Mel, "then everything she does is for her man and her only satisfaction is in making her man a greater man. She is his quiet conscience, she is his home, she is his inspiration and she is his living proof that his life, his labors, are worthwhile.
"A woman who seeks to satisfy herself is the loneliest being in God's creation. A woman who seeks to surpass her man is only leaving herself behind. A man can only look ahead, he must have somewhere to look from. A woman can only look at her man . . . I have stated the Law purely and simply. Don't break it."
Not that anyone does. Most of the Hill women, if they're not holding down outside "female" jobs as waitresses or secretaries, spend their time cooking, sewing, cleaning house, tending the children and serving the men. They seem to do so with great relish, developing an almost worshipful attitude toward the men.
"I mean, couldn't you feel it in those men at lunch?" asked Lou, "how strong they were? How simple? Life here is so simple. Of course, the more simple life is, the harder it is. Let me tell you, there's a lot of hate and frustration up here. And pain.
"When I first came up here I was a bitch." Lou sneered at herself. "A bitch, hah, that's putting it mildly. I was a viper. I hated Mel Lyman, I hated everyone here. I resisted like hell. And the thing that shocked me was how much they still cared about me. I mean, with me my hatred was personal, 'cause I hated on such a low level. But they taught me how to hate on ahigher level."
Why did she first hate Mel? I asked.
"Because he was stronger than me. I guess I wanted to be God too. But finally I had to break down; he was so much stronger than me, I finally had to accept it."
"Do you believe he's God?"
"Yeah, in the sense that Jesus Christ came down on earth. But he's dead, so Mel's the son of God now." As she said these last words, Lou raised her eyes in adoration toward a photograph of Mel on the opposite wall, the one on the cover of the Christ issue.
"When I first met Mel," she continued, "it was really weird 'cause he was the most down-to-earth, easygoing guy I'd ever met. Until he looked at you, and then, oh God, his force just filled the room.
"Now I love him intensely, I'm his forever. I want to conquer the world for Mel. I get so mad at that world out there I want to kill, I want to shove Mel in their hearts. He's the only one who knows how to deal with feeling, the feelings you have at the time, whether they're love, or hate, or fear."
She said Mel was a great leader, like Abraham Lincoln. "We believe very much in Abraham Lincoln and other great leaders of the past - even Hitler. Anyone who causes change in society is an agent of God." I asked Lou how she thought Hitler had changed society. She looked puzzled, finally exasperated. "I don't know. I don't know," she said, a bit irritated. "My problem was I thought too much. I betrayed my heart. That's what you are, you know, when you think instead of feel - a traitor."
By this time Lou had finished feeding the baby that was on her lap. She wiped its mouth, kissed it, then turned to me and said sweetly, "That's all Mel wants, you know. He just wants to put a great big heart in that world out there, and get us away from the mind."
Lou is the woman hired a year ago to teach all the Fort Hill children.
It was time, I figured, to go see about my sleeping accommodations for the night. Jim Kweskin had suggested I stay at Fort Hill for several days if I ever wanted to get the "real story," and he hinted, if I ever wanted to see the real Mel.
I told Lou I'd see her later, that I had much to learn, and she leaned forward and confided cheerfully, "I'll warn you. They're not gonna leave you untouched."
* * *
Indoors, in every Lyman home in every Lyman community, the Family moves on stocking feet, first depositing its shoes in an entrance hall, or in the case of the Fort Hill mess hall, an enclosed front porch. Keeps things cleaner, was the only reason I was ever given.
It was just after nine and the mess hall porch had been filling up steadily with boots, shoes, slippers and sandals, male and female, until there were maybe 40 or 50 pairs, nearly covering it wall to wall. Some of them had been worn in work around the Hill that day, but most had been worn on private jobs throughout the city.
The banquet table - three regulation-sized ping pony tables covered with white linen - was almost surrounded by cordial, chattering young people, their plates steaming with some kind of casserole and vegetables served buffet style. I took a modest portion, partly because again it looked quite starchy and partly because Harry Bikes had told me of a dinner he'd attended where a Lyman veteran approached him menacingly and said, "You took two pieces of chicken!"
Apparently one could sit anywhere, and I chose a spot next to Kurt Franck and across from Richie Guerin. On the wall behind Richie hung another photo of Melvin, and it was amazing how much Richie looked like his master. Many of the young men resemble Mel's picture but not as much as Richie, who could easily double for him if he were maybe eight or ten years older.
Most of the men and women at Fort Hill are in their 20s and extremely handsome, their faces fresh and glowing, their eyes - well, they're not weird or anything, it's just that you always notice their eyes. Maybe because they always notice you.
The men wear their hair shorter than many of their contemporaries, not cop short, but about the length of maybe a Hollywood bank teller's. Most of their ears are visible. The women nearly always wear dresses; I can't recall any exceptions.
Anna, one of the Hill's prettiest, sat down next to a bashful, red-haired fellow named Paul, and they immediately became the butt of the evening's joke. Jeff started it. "What's goin' on down there?" he inquired in a teasing, Protestant Bible-school manner. "You guys having a little personal relationship?"
The two giggled and blushed. Everyone joined in, laughing, the men fabricating implications in their ripest falsettos. It was a joke. Get it? Because Paul and Anna couldn't possibly be having a personal relationship; if they were, the matter would have been treated much differently. Such couplings are harshly discouraged on the Hill.
"Every once in a while, you know, you can tell when somebody's got a little trip going," Richie said later, "and two people go off and have their little room somewhere. And they eat alone and try to pull one of those separatistkind of numbers, and have this little family scene away from the Family. It's like ridiculous. And sometimes that has to be dealt with.
"There's no secrets here, absolutely not. Everybody knows everybody clean through - clean through. I mean like, nobody can get away with anything, you know, and that's what makes it so real."
In the meantime a few last Fort Hill diners had straggled in and somehow found a place at the table. Richie surveyed the room, then asked, "Where's David Plaine?"
There was silence. "Maybe he knows turds aren't welcome here," someone said contemptuously, and the conversation resumed. Kurt, a former math whiz at M.l.T., asked me what my sign was and I asked him why astrology was so important on the Hill. He shrugged and said, "It's just a real quick way to talk about people."
With nearly 50 people participating in the banquet, scraping their plates, chewing, chatting with those next to them, the din was considerable, yet cheerful and certainly not unusual or unpleasant. But suddenly Dvora, the unpleasant looking girl I'd met earlier in the front office, threw down her fork and shouted, "What is this, a cocktail party?"
As if they had been rehearsed, the entire group of people shut up at once. You could still hear the scraping and chewing, but nobody said a word, or even managed a sheepish grin. After a few minutes I asked Kurt why no one was talking.
"Last night the trivia got pretty heavy," he whispered, "so we decided not to talk at dinner unless there was something important to say." I wondered what he meant by heavy trivia.
More minutes passed, and finally the scraping and chewing stopped too, leaving an occasional chair squeak as people shifted into good staring positions. Then there was a new sound. Not everyone caught it at first - footsteps approaching from outside, boots trudging up the front steps, the front door opening and closing, bootsteps changing into sock steps, slowly stalking down the rug-covered hallway floor toward the dining room.
It was David Plaine. Someone started singing and the others followed: "For he's a jolly good fellow, for he's a jolly good fellow..."
A sensitive-looking young man with glasses and a painful face, David Plaine meekly stood at the dining room entrance and took his medicine. He was crying.
"...which nobody can deny." Richie made a loud fart noise with his mouth, and the crowd broke up laughing and jeering. Lou jammed a kitchen towel in David's face and said, mocking him, "Here, dry your tears, baby." Angrily he snapped his head back, which produced a chorus of boos.
When no one asked him to sit down at the table, he walked out to the kitchen where Lou began lecturing him in whispers. She must have hit a nerve because a short while later he turned around, ran down the hall and out the door, Lou calling after him, "Go ahead, that's right! Leave! Run away!"
At the table, Richie motioned to two of the larger men, and the three immediately bolted up and ran after him.
* * *
"They hate to see people leave the Hill, 'cause in a way they're very parasitic," said Norman Truss, a former member of the Lyman Family who split from the Hill two years ago upon the recommendation of his psychiatrist. "You know, if you watch children, how they have to have all their things organized and in little piles? That's the way the Hill is; they want you on their pile.
"Did you meet Kurt? Kurt Franck? He's such a smart person, really a nice guy. He tried to leave one night and they ripped the wires out of his car."
Then there's the one about Marlena, said Truss, the girl who finally had to buy her way off the Hill.
"She was Richie's girl. God, Richie - he's really sick. He's sort of the head of their Gestapo. He's got a Luger and he used to teach target practice in the basement of the studio. They've all got guns up there - to protect them from what they call the 'nigs.'
"Anyway, Marlena lived on the Hill with Richie for a year and a half - until she had this sort of nervous breakdown. At that point her relations with the Hill were really falling apart.
"Now, I told you those people were parasites, and one of the best ways to get in their good graces is to give them money. So she offered Richie $1000 that she'd been secretly saving in a bank account."
Despite the offer, said Norman, Marlena's relations continued to deteriorate, and somehow shortly after that - Norman doesn't have those details - she was able to sneak off the Hill without anyone stopping her.
"However, a few days later, Kweskin calls her on the phone and says, 'What about the money?' And she says, 'Look, there's no written note, and since when does the Hill start keeping its promises?' Man, ten minutes later, Richie's on the phone: 'Marlene, you promised Melvin that money. And if you don't pay it, you'll be sorry.'
"Finally they settled on $700, and she sent him a check immediately, she was so scared. And they left her alone. Later she found out why Richie was so desperate - he'd already purchased a color TV for Melvin, that motherfucker.
"See, most of them on the Hill, they're just using Mel to get off on. They say Mel is God, but I don't think they really feel it." Truss admitted his bias. "I mean, how could you think he was God? Not until I saw him walk across water would I believe that."
The wealthy son of a Boston underwear wholesaler, Norman is a slightly bloated fellow who spends much of his time collecting rare species for a terrarium that now nearly fills one of his family's four garages.
"A shrink would have a field day with 90 percent of the people on that hill," he continued. "When I lived there they had the upper echelon people and then the people they called the dummies. And the game they played was called 'do as I say, not as I do.' I mean, you couldn't win. The only rules were the ones Mel made up as he went along, and he changed them from day to day. And if you argued, 'But yesterday you said this,' they'd come back with some shit like, 'As long as it flows, man.'"
According to Truss, the Hill's only consistent rule is: Thou Shalt Not Think for Thyself.
"One time Melvin had an operation on his ass. I don't know what the problem was, exactly, but they were all sittin' around talking about it. And some kid says, 'Oh, you mean Melvin has an asshole like everyone else?' And he was ostracized for a week; he was almost beaten up right on the spot."
Norman walked by a recent addition to his terrarium and offered it a piece of lettuce, which it devoured savagely.
"I'll tell you something about Mel Lyman. The things he says are true because he's read a lot, but he's never had an original thought in his life. He's read a little Emerson, a little Alan Watts - besides being totally mad, he's very shrewd. He's a perfect con artist.
"Have you seen his films? His films are deplorable - terrible, amateurish. He's not a creative person. If he were, he wouldn't need 30 people around him kissing his ass all the time."
Norman's voice was getting more agitated, and there was a slight wheeze to it.
"Like Jim Kweskin. Jim Kweskin had the nerve to call me up a while back and ask for money. You know how he speaks in this real sing-song, childish type voice? He said, 'Melvin's found this wonderful house in L.A., and we were wondering if you'd like to donate some money so we could go and buy it for him.'
"I felt like saying to him, 'Tell Melvin to shove his house up his hemorrhoidal ass.'"
* * *
Although she was one of the youngest members of the Hill, and certainly one of the youngest to win Mel's special attention, Paula Press was in many ways typical of the women who joined the Lyman Family - particularly because of her background and her immediate circumstances. She may be more eloquent and beautiful than most of the others, but her reasons for joining, and finally leaving, the Community are representative and say much about Fort Hill.
Today she lives in a modest downstairs apartment in downtown Boston from which she keeps closely in touch with a number of women who have left the Hill.
"All my life I'd been just sort of not able to make friends, always wanting to be popular but never knowing what to do or what to say," she said in a fragile yet controlled voice. "I went to a private girls' school in Cambridge, and my father worked for M.l.T. And then I started reading Avatar, and I went down and started working in the office. This was in '68, and I was 17.
"And that's when I got to know the people. I got pregnant, and I guess that started it. It just heightened my need to be accepted by a group, you know? And eventually I moved up there on the Hill."
Paula remembers vividly her first encounter with Melvin.
"I was walking by the Hill - it was a grey day, very eerie - and Mel was there, standing next to the tower. I just kept walking; I didn't say a word to him, but I knew who it was. And shortly after that I got a message from George Peper that Mel wanted to see me.
"So then it blossomed, and I was accepted immediately. I was his material. He saw something in me, sad eyes or something, which then I believed - I believed it so I sort of made it. I'd walk around with sad eyes, half tearful eyes."
She laughed at herself, but even so, her eyes did seem a bit sad, pure brown circles set deeply in a face fair and model-perfect.
"And suddenly, it was such a snow-balling thing, being accepted for the first time in my life. Not only being accepted but being revered, you know? If you're in with Mel, regardless of what kind of shmuck you are, the rest of the Hill admires you, worships you. Which is more than I ever wanted."
"What was it like, the first time you went to see him?"
"Well, did you see his living room in Jessie's house - Four-and-a-Half? It's very curtained and very dark and velvety. The whole environment enhances his aura. You know, it's like The Wizard of Oz, in the movie, where he comes out - this big head in a ball of fire.
"Mel is really effeminate-looking, thin and misty like a drawing. He's like a bird or a cat, and he always crouches like this." Here Paula jumped up and perched on the edge of her apartment couch, her slim arms dangling around her knees.
"He'd crouch anywhere, on a chair, on my stereo. It was really eerie - his cackling, his singing. He doesn't sing, actually, he moans and he calls it singing. He moans to a guitar or something - ooooooooh, you know? Did you see 2001? The monolith scene where they go oooooooooh - he sings sort of like that. Did he play some of his music for you?"
I said I hadn't met him.
"Oh, well it's..." Something was bothering Paula. She let out a short, puzzled laugh, frowned and shook her head. "That's funny, that little thing, you know?"
"I didn't think it, but you said you never met him, and there was a little thing, a vestige I guess. I got this Hill feeling, like, 'Oh, you never met him, then you're a little bit... inferior.'"
She laughed again. "I don't feel that way, but it's a vestige, like a tailbone."
After she met Mel, said Paula, she asked him to guide her on an acid trip, since he was considered an expert in that sort of thing. "I wanted to take it because I felt so unhappy and bottled up, and I thought, wow, he'd be there so I could really cry and scream and freak out, and afterwards I'd feel better.
"But he gives really strong doses, and I hallucinated and everything. He was growing horns, they were growing all over the room, and he was changing from various kinds of animals. He was watching TV, and when he turned it off - now in retrospect it seems so stupid - he turned it off, and that light that keeps shining on the TV, that little teeny thing? That became like a beacon to me; that was my goal.
"And the combination of the music and his singing and his talking and his telling me that I was the superstar of the Hill, that I had the potential of changing the world, that he could change the world through me... the combination of that and the TV light made him seem like - I hate to say God - just an incredibly wise person."
* * *
Kay Boyle recalled a similar manifestation of Mel's power from the time she was living with her daughter Faith on Fort Hill.
"One night when I was there, my daughter was cooking supper, and I was sitting having a Dubonnet in the sitting room.
"And she said, 'I'll play you something, a tape.'
"And she played me something - a girl having an LSD trip, with David and Mel who were guiding her, whatever it's called.
"It was so shocking, it was so ghastly, it was so awful.
"She was screaming, 'I love you, I love you, this is so marvelous. Oh Mel, you are the most beautiful man.'
"And he was chortling like a - really like a devil.
"And she said, 'Oh, don't go! Don't ever leave me. Oh no!'"
Kay Boyle sighed and clasped her thin hands tightly in her lap.
"And afterwards Faith came out and said, 'How did you like it?'
"And I said I thought it was dreadful, and she said, 'Mama, that was me.'
"I hadn't recognized my own child's voice."
* * *
Swooping from her perch, Paula Press reassembled herself on the living room couch.
"I consider everybody from the Hill sick, sort of," she said. "They're people who cannot function in the world, for one reason or another. I couldn't when I went up there. They've always felt inferior, so they get together and they form their own little world. And they're really out of it, out of life, they're so out of touch with reality, you know?
"I mean, even now, when I reread Mel's writing, there's a kernel that I still believe in. Not what he feels about 'niggers,' as he says, or 'kikes,' but some of the other stuff. It's just the way it's practiced that's so warped.
"They talk about love and they live in such hate. They preach hate. You must have gotten a lot of HP."
"Hill Philosophy. 'You only grow through pain' - that's an HP. 'Misery is the greatest source of knowledge.' 'Loneliness is the only thing that unites the world' - which is sort of true if you think about it. But it's not the only thing, it's just one of many.
"They say that falling in love is the flash, it never lasts. You may grow together, but eventually you'll still be two lonely people, so you take someone else. And that's what the idea for a commune was - a whole group of people united in their loneliness and working for something constructive."
Is there much personal love on the Hill? I asked Paula.
"I think there is, but if it's felt for any amount of time, it gets so suspected and everybody gets so jealous, that it's destroyed. I saw that happen all the time. People beaten up verbally. It was like a play almost - the same words with different actors.
"Many people would gang up on one person, and they'd make you feel like a worm. I even got really nasty when I was there, I never thought I had it in me. These poor shmucks were wandering around like flies in a spider's nest - such innocuous people. And I would get my cheap thrills by making them feel low. I suddenly realized I had this power, and I got out of control with it."
When I asked Paula about the vault, she became very excited, almost exhilarated. "The vault?" she said. "What's the vault? It must be something new! Tell me about it."
"Apparently it's some kind of room with no windows where they lock you up if you've been bad."
She seemed dismayed, twisting her head back and forth, trying to shake out the idea.
"This is beyond anything I've ever heard. I can imagine them killing. They would kill with their hands if they had to. They don't need a gun.
"They get more like the SS every day. I wonder if Mel's patterning himself after that?"
With this thought, Paula began to sort of laugh and jabber at the same time, almost hysterical.
"I'm waiting for the ovens.
"They'll turn the tower into a giant oven.
"Smoke will be steaming out.
"I'm sure they'll do something completely efficient like lampshades also."
* * *
...back here with Norman Truss in front of his giant garage terrarium. Norm, speaking of garages, could you tell the folks about Mel's Volkswagen bus?
"Well, Melvin had this Volkswagen bus that became like a second penis to him. And one day, after it had broken down or something, he sent it to Howard Kilby, this mechanic who had lived on the Hill but at the time was living off the Hill. And when Mel got it back, it still wouldn't start. Howard thought he had fixed it, you know, but anybody can make a mistake, right?
"Now a sane person would call up and say, 'Hey Howard, what's wrong with the bus? Ya didn't fix it.' Something like that. But not right away call up, like Richie did, and say - 'We're gonna kill you.'
"They sent people down to Howard's place in Brookline and started to harass him. And finally Richie went down there and he beat Howard up. He broke open a window of Howard's house - this is while Howard was asleep at night - and like an animal, crawled in, leaped on his bed and started pistol whipping him. He was yelling, 'I'm gonna kill you, you son of a bitch!'
"Then something really weird happened. Right in the middle of beating him up, Richie suddenly stopped and started to cry. He was sobbing and saying, over and over, 'What am I doing? What am I doing?' Then, just as suddenly, he went back to whipping him.
"Howard later went to the police and filed charges, and I understand Richie spent several days in jail. This happened two years ago this summer."
* * *
Today, on the outskirts of Cambridge, Howard Kilby lives on the creaky third floor of an old apartment house. In the hallway outside hang several paintings and collages of astrological significance, plus a drawing by Eben Given of Mel Lyman as San Sebastian, arrows protruding from bleeding wounds.
Inside, Howard, his straight hair tied and hanging to the small of his bare back, sat at the dinner table, mulling his words and staring into space.
"I really don't want to talk about it," he said, releasing a heavy, sad breath. "What good would it do? Why mention it? Mel Lyman was good to me. He was a friend when I needed a friend."
"Is it true, about you and the bus?"
Howard thought it over for a moment, then smiled and nodded.
"Yeah. But Mel wasn't responsible. You know, there's certain things you just don't want to talk about.
"I'll say this: I know I don't have any friends on the Hill now."
* * *
From the other side of Boston, Richie Guerin laughed vigorously, his fresh, freckled, Melvinish face beaming upward like a high school football coach.
"Yeah, I had some personal problems with Howard," he said. "I went to jail for eight days. I don't know, I didn't know how to talk to the guy. I was on my own trip. He pissed me off and I was gonna get him, you know?
"And like in a rage one night I told him I was going to kill him. You know how you say things like, 'Oh, you motherfucker, I'm gonna kill ya,' one of those things. And he thought I was going to kill him, so he called the police, you know, and they arrested me, and I got thrown in jail and had to go to court."
Richie had to break off for a second and enjoy one of those warm little chuckles only reminiscence can produce.
"He was supposed to check out Mel's bus, and he didn't do a proper job. And I told him, I said, 'Wow, if you did a proper job, how come it doesn't work? You know, it's pretty fucking obvious.' And he said, 'Yeah, well, I did check it out.' And, like, he was just calling me a fucking liar, and I got into that 'Oh, that motherfucker called me a liar' - you know, that silly shit."
"They say you beat him up."
"Matter of fact, he beat me up. He was so freaked out that at one point he jumped me and started wailing on me. And I didn't want any part of beating him up, 'cause he's a little dude and he's like a very frail cat. And I didn't want to hurt him, you know? I realized that it wasn't happening on that level, and I passed. I just pushed him away. And, like, I've never really laid a hand on him."
That matter disposed of, Richie sauntered over to the Fort Hill tool shed, one of his most prized areas of authority, situated near the garages behind Fort Avenue Terrace.
"Each man has to have his own set of tools. He keeps them with him, and like these are the only tools that are shared by all the men," he explained as he entered the shed and pointed out several pieces of elaborate power equipment - a joiner, a lathe, a buzz saw. Then, to his embarrassment and growing annoyance, Richie spied a messy pile of wood chips near the saw blade.
"And when something like this is left here, Bruce Scorpio is responsible - because he has chosen to be responsible for these machines. He really loves them. But if he steps out of line one day, if he blows it, well, I hate to see that, because I've cut too many boards by hand to get something that whizzes them off in no time fucked up by carelessness."
Richie grabbed some chips in his hand and shook them like an angry bear.
"It's just a lot of crap on here. It should be clean, in order for the machine to be absolutely like brand new. All this stuff should be swept up, and if it's not, you know, I raise hell: 'Who the hell left the shit in the garage?' Man, it's like: 'Who didn't flush the toilet,' you know?" This time there was a touch of wrath in his laughter.
"It's ridiculous to not do a job thoroughly. It's a . . . lack of a person's . . . being very thorough. And the only way you get him to be thorough, is to keep after him."
"How do you do that?"
"Whatever's necessary, you know? Like all I gotta do is tell him and he's going to feel awful, and he'll come down here right away. But if he said, 'Well fuck you, man, I don't feel like doing it,' I'd sock him in the teeth. And see if that hurts him enough, you know? I'll do anything to make him feel bad, so that, like, he will do the right thing. I care for the guy so I want him to be right on, I don't want him to be fucking up."
"I don't see much evidence of fucking up around here, but . . ."
"Well, it gets more subtle. The higher it goes, the more subtle it becomes, you know, and you're always striving for more perfection and greater order all the time.
"So you're always in danger of fucking up?"
"Oh, absolutely! There's never a chance of having it all together, for sure." Richie gloated with enthusiasm. "Never."
While we were on the subject of self-improvement, I figured Richie would be a good person to ask about the vault. He hesitated at first, but then, once again, he really got into it.
"It's... uh... solitary confinement, you know," he said with a chuckle. "It's usually like, it's a thing you would choose to do - if you're so fucked up. And like you sit there and dig yourself."
"Where is it?"
"In the basement over there," said Richie, pointing to the rear of Five and Six. "It's just a concrete room."
"How long do they stay in it?"
"Well, I mean, how long do you need to get yourself together? Paul - do you know Paul, the redhead? He was in there for a while."
"Are there windows?"
"Unh unh," he said proudly, "you don't know what time of day it is or nothin'!"
"How did he finally get out?"
"He wanted to be out."
"And it changed him?"
"Oh yeah, you could see it, like he's a really together person."
When I asked Richie the nature of Paul's crime, he became defensive again.
"Well, I don't know, it's a very personal thing... the kind of thing people misunderstand the most, you know. The vault is just something to make youfeel, to make you respond, some kind of pressure. Everybody needs a pressure, you know, in some form, to keep them alive, to keep them pushing 100 percent all the time. And like it was created out of a Need, you know? - for something like that."
I asked Richie who was in charge of Fort Hill security.
"Whoever feels responsible for it," he said. "I always feel personallyresponsible for it, you know? I can always feel when the guards aren't doing their job right, and I'll sneak up on them and stick my gun in their heads and scare the shit out of them! And a lot of them wake up.
"A good example of how together they are," he said, "is like when Paul... well, what Paul did to get thrown in the vault was, he stole one of the cars in Los Angeles, to drive East, right? And people were sent from here and New York. And they intercepted him on the highway! It was in Carmel, New York, and they intercepted him on the highway, got the car back and brought him back here.
"And that's how together it is between all the communities. I mean, even the police can't do that."
* * *
Paula Press, her voice trembling and almost tearful, recalled a visit from the Lyman security force when she was living on the Hill with a man named Bob McQuaid.
"The Karma Squad is, if they decide someone is misbehaving or something, and sometimes they'd give you warnings and sometimes they wouldn't, like Bob and I got Karma Squaded. We were cleaning up the apartment late one night, and they came and beat him up. And Bob has a five-year-old son, Kuel, who was there. I kept him in the other room.
"It was David Gude and Richie and maybe Jim Kweskin or George Peper. It was in the kitchen. At first they tried yelling - see, the Karma Squad, there's two ways. Either they come and they really just beat you up and kick you off, or they come and they try to make you feel.
"Feel!" Paula said the word hatefully, as if it actually had a bitter taste.
"They come and, you know, you get defensive. Because often they're unfair and unjust, so you try to defend yourself, and they say, 'You're just being defensive!'
"So you have to pretend somewhat, make tears come out, and pretend that you're really feeling. And if they don't think you're feeling enough, they'll start to knock you around a little bit, and push you and maybe, you know, punch you, and say, 'Now are you feeling enough? If you can't feel anything emotionally, maybe this, maybe this will teach you a lesson!'
"At first they talked to him, and he just turned to stone. They started yelling at him, trying to make him break down and cry and stuff. And I was in a fit, crying and everything. They kept using me by saying, 'See what you've done to her? See what you've done to her?' And it was they who were doing it to me.
"They punched him until he stopped trying to, until he just, you know, stopped trying to fight back at all. He was like huddled on the floor. He never really tried to fight back.
"So Bob left the Hill and Kuel stayed with me. And Kuel was - his mother had died - Kuel was very dependent on me. I always loved him and he was just beginning to sort of trust me. And then a week later they called Bob back, and said, 'As long as Kuel's on this Hill, there's a part of Bob McQuaid on this Hill. So Kuel has to go.'
"Bob came back and took Kuel, which is probably the best thing because they're all they have, the two of them. But at the time, I mean it was wrenching enough for Bob to leave. I mean that really hurt me - a kid, a five-year-old kid, you know?"
* * *
It was to be my last supper with the Community at Fort Hill, and several hinted that it was extremely important for me to attend. They weren't specific, but as we assembled on this recent midsummer Sunday evening, certainly the air was heavy with events about to break.
For instance I knew that Mel Lyman, who had been living and working on the West Coast for several months, landed at Martha's Vineyard that afternoon. Would he possibly be making an appearance?
And Faith Franckenstein, Kay Boyle's regal, platinum-haired daughter who more or less governed Fort Hill in Mel's absence, was herself leaving the next day to start a community in San Francisco. She sat at the head of the table and occasionally shuffled official looking sheets of paper. What might she have to announce?
And what did David Gude mean when he silenced Paul Williams about the future?
The dinner itself was much like the first one I attended, orchestrated by silences and waxen stares. But after dessert Faith walked to the other end of the banquet table and stood behind a massive silk-lined wood pulpit on which she rested her paperwork. She said she would start by reading a few "bulletins," the old ones first.
The bulletins, it turned out, were historic sets of rules periodically written and issued by Mel Lyman during the life of Fort Hill. Most of them were remarkably specific, regulating habits of diet, physical fitness, sex, sleep, even cleanliness: "To bathe less than once or more than twice a week is sick," went one of the decrees. Many of the listeners had heard them before, it appeared, and seemed to enjoy them as much for their nostalgic as their instructional quality.
Then Faith paused for a moment, looked directly at the Family and slowly picked up a different sort of bulletin, fresh and handwritten. When she was sure of everyone's attention, she began to read:
"This bulletin is to announce that there will be no more bulletins from me. People are so eager to follow a set of rules, it's a security. From now on you must make up your own from your own experience, and if you come across some that you feel would benefit others, then you should type them up and send them around. This is a democracy. I am not the ruler, I am the spirit of democracy."
The group appeared stunned. Almost catatonic.
"All my old rules are only valid if you have found them to be true," Faith read. "Majority rules from now on... Rules must be formed from experience and adapted to changing situations, law must be born organically and formed by the needs of the moment. Common sense is the highest virtue I know of, conscience is the highest ruler....
"I will only step in and make demands if everyone else fails to do their best. We are an experiment in the loftiest form of government humanity has ever evolved, a system of living together where each man has room to develop to his fullest potential, is totally responsible for all his actions, and totally responsible to everyone else's....
"It can only work if everyone follows the voice of conscience from within and the voice of necessity from without, and that's a very thin line to tread. And that is the only God I know of. Mel."
Without another word Faith picked up her papers and returned to her original seat at the table. Already Lou was crying. Faith motioned toward me, saying to the others. "Perhaps you'd all like to tell David what it's going to mean not having Melvin around anymore."
Not having Melvin around anymore. Around where? Fort Hill? Or is Mel abdicating on a higher level? Or is he... suddenly I wondered about Mel's health in this his 33rd year.
The answers that came from the table didn't seem to help much. They were spontaneous, sincere, often impassioned; it's just that they didn't seem to relate to each other in any way I could understand.
"To go on painting," said one man.
"It means people getting along with people," said a woman.
"To me the most important thing is caring," said Anna. "To me there's nothing else. I want to serve Melvin, but the only thing I can do is to learn, and that means caring. 'Cause people cared for me."
Of course, you have to remember some of these answers were separated by long silences, maybe a minute, two minutes.
Dvora had her dark vision. "To me Fort Hill is just a ruin, but the ruin is still greater than anything I know."
"Why do you think it's a ruin," interrupted Ed, a ferocious-looking man who at that time was Faith's husband.
"Because it's in pieces."
"I mean Melvin's gone," said another fellow, "so we just have to carry on," an idea that for some reason threw Faith into a rage.
"What ruined this place," she yelled in a menacing manner, "is people like you, people who dig it for what it is! Melvin has never been able to raise it above the level of the people here. Don't say words unless you know what they mean." The poor man said no more that night.
"I feel I've learned to use tools and build," said a man named Bruce, "but I haven't learned a fucking thing."
"Shut up, Bruce," was the response of a woman several seats down. "You're just saying the same thing and you don't mean it." Bruce, crushed, did shut up. Until Ed started yelling at him.
"Is that all there is to it?" asked Ed. "That girl just told you you were full of shit, and you let her get away with it."
"I just said what I felt," protested Bruce, a little confused.
But Ed continued. "She just put her foot in your damn mouth, and you just let her kick you!" Then Ed whipped around to the rest of the stunned table and shouted, "What's everybody afraid of, man?" One guy started to answer, but Ed cut in: "I'm not talkin' to you, give somebody else a chance. What about the rest of you? What are you afraid to say?"
A new, timid girl named Annie finally answered. "I'm afraid to say I don't know. I really want to learn about Mel, and I don't know where to begin."
For some reason, that answer did it. Faith was now soothing and sweet, almost cooing, as she addressed the flock. "Actually, that's where all your responsibility lies. If you do care, you have to share it with people like Annie. That's how simple things have to be now. There is no higher purpose. There is no Mel Lyman." At this remark, Lou, who had been weeping into a kleenex since the bulletin reading, suddenly burst into loud sobs that tended to break up her speech pattern. "The trouble is," she cried, "we all say we... know then we... then we... don't do anything about it so... we better find some other answers... answers and... find 'em... fast 'cause we don't... have any time."
It went on for another 15 minutes, but that was the gist of it. Whatever it meant, something monumental appeared to be going on. Mel had issued his last bulletin and was about to make a move.
Afterward I told Faith it seemed like an historic occasion and asked if there was a copy of the bulletin I could have.
"It's all right with me," she said, "but I better get permission. I'm not even supposed to have this one."
* * *
The next day I mentioned Mel's last bulletin to Norman Truss and he broke out laughing.
"You know how many times he's sent that bulletin? About 40 times. He's always leaving the Hill for the last time, but he needs them as much as they need him.
"He's so insecure he has to prove himself every five minutes. God doesn't, but Mel does."
When Faith handed me a copy of the bulletin that afternoon, I noticed to my surprise that it was dated April 28, 1969.
The sadness of this empty room. A room full of things. Things that represent feelings I have known. Everywhere I cast my eyes I find old feelings. Remember me all my things seem to say. Remember the tears you shed over me, remember the beautiful sunrises I showed you. How many people have I loved? Let me count my things and see. My beautiful memories. Every one of you I embrace, I hold you so dear to my heart, you all make up my heart for without you I would have no feelings and without feelings I would have no life. Come unto me my children is how I feel for my beautiful things, my beautiful people, oh that I could once more lead you all safely home unto my heart and we would all be home. - Mel Lyman
After Mel Lyman unloaded his "last bulletin" in April, 1969, relegating the government of Fort Hill in Boston to his followers, his community began to expand nationally in a series of dramatic and opportunistic moves, particularly on the West Coast.
At the same time, however, Mel privately was retreating, increasing the remoteness of his control. The eight-foot-high stone wall around his house at Fort Hill was no longer sufficient shield, and he started traveling between homes on Martha's Vineyard, in New York, and finally in Los Angeles where a $160,000 mansion was purchased for him in the Hollywood Hills.
Now he was free to create without the earthly burdens of day-today Fort Hill life, to create consciously without worrying about who's editing the Avatar, who's minding the vault, who's to be Karma Squaded, who's naughty and who's nice, without having to tell 50 dutiful followers when to wash, fuck and wipe their ass.
"I won't have to worry about all the details, and all the little injustices, you know," Mel told writer Paul Williams in June, 1969 "I really had it down to complete control, I was telling people how to live... I didn't want to be doing it, but it was my job. It was my job because I was the oldest, and I was the wisest."
More and more Mel removed himself, even from his closest followers, holing up in attics and private rooms except at mealtime. And he was retreating on another front. He was digging deeper into his past, contacting old friends, writing letters, gathering the letters he'd already written, binding them into a book. With the elaborate recording and camera equipment he had collected over the years, he was preserving his childhood - taping thousands and thousands of 78 rpm records, visiting and photographing homes, schools and parks in California and Oregon where he was raised. Perhaps this was not so much a retreat as it was a search.
"There is always an order in life," Mel wrote, "life is the reflection of that order as man is the reflection of God... It takes a long time to find the meaning in our day to day activities but in reflection we will always detect the moving finger that traced the pattern we have followed, there is a plan. Every man is his own unique part of that plan, every life has a purpose. Lives that seemingly were lived with no kind of purpose at all might have simply served the purpose of distinguishing purpose by lack of purpose, it all fits together in some crazy way."
Now, midway in our story, the characters and scenes change somewhat, and it might be useful to recall some of the old guys and introduce some of the new:
George Peper, the community's resident photographer and film buff. A former tennis champ, actor and speed freak, he was one of the small band of pioneer squatters who moved to Fort Hill in the mid-Sixties. He toured the country in 1969 as an assistant to Don West, an assistant to CBS President Dr. Frank Stanton; later George toured some of Mel's old haunts for the purpose of this article.
Jim Kweskin, guitar-picking folkie famous for his Jug Band in the early Sixties. Mel Lyman was a member of that group, but later the roles were reversed, Jim joining Mel's band, the Fort Hill Community, eventually becoming their business manager. Recently he has attempted something of a comeback, singing at small clubs and recording a new album in San Francisco - one reason Mel started another community in that city.
David Gude, former Vanguard folk singer and tape editor, now a Fort Hill "heavy." A stoney, gap-toothed man with an unpredictable and schizophrenic wrath, Gude was one of the original Karma Squad members, the one who pulled the gun on Don West. In that capacity he paid a visit not long ago to this publication's offices.
Jessie Benton, folkie daughter of painter Thomas Hart Benton and ex-wife of, respectively, David Gude, Mel Lyman and George Peper. Currently unattached, she is still considered by most to be the "Queen of Fort Hill," certainly the most powerful female influence in the community.
Richie Guerin, another "heavy," the community's master cop, keeper of the vault, architect, guitarist and part-time butler. In 1968 he led the raid on the Avatar office, destroying 35,000 issues of that newspaper. One of Mel's most dedicated followers, he was forced last spring to destroy his own most ambitious creation at Mel's request.
Kay Boyle, author, longtime fighting liberal, and the outside world's most prominent anti-Mel, battling him for years over the possession of two of her children, Faith and Ian Franckenstein. She actually lived for a year at Fort Hill, during the early days when Faith was married to David Gude. Later, much against her will, Fort Hill tried to return the favor, but fortunately she had a good lawyer.
Owen "O.D." deLong, the brilliant political scientist once named by Mel to be his personal Buddha, the "world mind" working with the "world heart." An honors graduate from Harvard who often uses Henry Kissinger as a personal reference, deLong has worked as a speech writer for Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy and as a professional waiter for Melvin Lyman. He is a master fund raiser. It was after deLong was hired as program director for KPFK-FM in Los Angeles that the trouble there started.
Lisa Kindred, a jovial, hearty-voiced member of the old New York-Boston folksinging circuit, now a frequent performer at small clubs in the San Francisco Bay Area. Mel Lyman backed her on her second Vanguard album, then abruptly stole the tapes, issuing them years later under his own name. She was pissed.
Mark Frechette, rugged, hate-filled star of Zabriskie Point. Days after he was discovered by Michelangelo Antonioni he was also discovered by Mel Lyman, and even though the great director testily rejected all of Mel's suggestions for the film, Mark remains one of the community's main hopes for making it big in Hollywood, and, oh yes, one of its biggest single sources of income. After the film, Mark returned to Fort Hill with heroine Daria Halprin, but the relationship dissolved under mysterious circumstances. Today Daria's parents, dancer Ann Halprin and architect Lawrence Halprin, fear for her life and refuse to discuss the matter.
J. C. Lyman, Mel's hard-drinking, traveling salesman father. He was out of town that fateful March day in 1938 when Mel was born in Eureka, California. He recalled that as a child, Mel was "sort of a dreamer."
Dixie Duke, Mel's old grammar school teacher, recently retired, who remembered Mel as a "small, freckle-faced kid, full of the devil." We gave her a big surprise when we visited her in Santa Rosa, California.
Richard Herbruck, the Lyman Family's mysterious producer who suddenly came into being when the group moved West. His, supposedly, were the tapes that started the troubles at KPFK-FM. Yet no one at the time had ever seen him, talked to him, or received any evidence that he was even alive.
An anonymous witness, always good to have one of these in a story, don't you think? This man was an employee of KPFK-FM who personally saw all phases of the violence there. He finally agreed to talk about it, anonymously, but for a long while was unable to persuade his colleagues to do likewise.
This last year's expansion has brought with it a disturbing trend in tactics, a new kind of violence, directed for the first time against outsiders. Sometimes it is spontaneous and personal, the stomping of a book salesman, the assaults on reporters. Sometimes it is planned and squadron-sized, like the full-scale invasion of KPFK. No one knows the cause, whether the Family violence is born of a sense of success and arrogance, or a sense of defeat and frustration. Or whether it is born of any sense at all.
* * *
Time and daylight were running out on Martha's Vineyard, and George, dammit, was having trouble with the acetylene torch. People all over the West Tisbury area were closing up their homes, sitting down for dinner on this recent, misty midsummer Saturday night, but George was way behind schedule. For him, dinner would have to wait. The darkroom plumbing had to be finished, both hot and cold water, the torch was acting up, and now Jessie Benton had just laid another chore on him, a broken wooden chair that must be fixed immediately. "Mel's arriving tomorrow afternoon," she told him, "and it has to be done by then."
George struck on the garage floor and tried the torch again, carefully adjusting the flow of gas. It ignited, George drew back the flame for maximum heat, then it vanished with a pop, like a little hot cough. Shit, he said, the nozzle was getting too old and cruddy, too hard to light. But when he tried it again, he finally succeeded.
Now he took a thin paint brush from a dimestore paper bag, cut its bristles down to a quarter inch, and used it to apply soldering flux to one of the small copper joints that lay before his feet. The flux was needed, he explained, to keep the copper from oxidizing before the solder was applied.
By this time, George Peper, the Lyman Family's handsome, boy-faced photographer, had become pretty handy at building these darkrooms. He'd built one in Boston, one in New York and two in Los Angeles, wherever Mel might suddenly need to come and work. As film and media in general had grown more important to Mel, so had George, who was now considered one of Mel's closest insiders.
So George had a habit of mixing his lecture on plumbing and soldering with his lecture on the flux of life. "Everything we've done we didn't intend to do," he said as he roasted two pieces of joined pipe with the torch. "Like, we got into film because it was a necessity to get into film. We started living together because it was a necessity to live together, just an organic thing that happened."
Like it was a necessity for Melvin, after issuing his "last bulletin" to Fort Hill in April, 1969, to move to Martha's Vineyard and establish a kind of Berchtesgaden retreat on the property Thomas Hart Benton had given his daughter, Jessie. It was a necessity, late in 1970, to move to the West Coast, to Los Angeles - an "Aries-Capricorn city" with no traditions to bog down one's creativity, a city brewing with every cult yet known to these United States.
And now it was a necessity for Faith Franckenstein, Kay Boyle's lovely, platinum-haired daughter, to leave Fort Hill for San Francisco, to establish yet another community. Mel had found a marvelous recording studio there, said George, where the Lyman Family could make records exactly the way they wanted, and Faith had to find a house where they all could live.
George touched the wire solder to the hot joined pipes and it melted instantly, surrounding the smaller pipe like a thin silver moat.
"It's just amazing," he remarked, "Faith leaving here for San Francisco, just as you're arriving from San Francisco to come here."
"Yes," I said, "it's quite a coincidence." Which made George put down the torch and turn to me with an exasperated look on his face, as if I'd understood none of his lecture.
"There's no such thing as coincidence," he said coldly.
We walked from the garage to the studio next door where Jessie's father once painted. He hadn't painted in it for years, however, and much remodeling was still required before George could use it as a photo studio and darkroom. A two-foot-deep by 40-foot-long trench led from the studio into the darkness, and George used it to crawl underneath the house and make more measurements. The trench had been dug entirely by Fort Hill children, George said.
When we returned to the garage we were greeted by two of the children, Obray and Mario, who had trudged up from the "children's house" several hundred dark yards away. They had come to watch the soldering, but now, as George painted flux on another length of pipe, their attention focused on a new visitor, a huge brown June bug that had flown in from the evening's mist and landed on the garage floor. The insect crawled toward a battery-powered lantern near the entrance, sometimes stopping, sometimes meandering as it explored new marvels of the old cracked concrete.
George noticed it too, and slowly, without turning his head, he reached down and grasped the torch.
"Hey look," yelled Obray at the top of his whisper, "he's gonna burn the June bug." There was cause for excitement, certainly, because the bug was a good inch-and-a-half long, not like an ant or moth that burns crisp and tidy. A bug this size would no doubt boil and smoke and, I feared, smell. Do June bugs have special vocal chords for emergencies like this? Would it somehow, through the flames, protest and sear our consciences?
George lit a match and turned on the gas, It caught. He adjusted the flame to a nice blue white; held it for several seconds, then watched it pop out.
"God protects," he said with a slight, fatalistic smile. The children were disappointed, he could tell, as they watched the bug turn and slowly aim for the outside darkness. Would God wish such an opportunity to be missed?
George struck another match.
"One last time," he told Obray and Mario as they watched, fascinated. This time he let the flame burn longer before making final gas adjustments. The hollow hiss from the nozzle sounded firm and clean, just right for soldering the little critter.
Now George turned toward the June bug, holding the torch in his right hand. He had plenty of time. The bug wasn't moving fast, it wasn't aware of the plan. Easy, easy now, thought George.
Before he could inch forward, however, he heard that telltale little cough. The damn flame was out.
"That's it," he told the kids, setting down the torch.
"God protected it?" asked Obray.
"That's right," said George, "God protected it."A big horsefly flew in the window so I got the rolled up magazine and slapped him to the floor and he buzzed around on his back and then I really flattened him and it looked like his guts all came out but when I looked closer I saw that it was a bunch of little teeny worms and at first I thought that they were on him to eat him but then I saw that they were his babies I mean HER babies and they squirmed all around and I went and got the bug spray and gave them a good squirt but it didn't kill them, it only seemed to burn them and made them wriggle around all the more and so I lit a match to the whole works but it didn't burn too good so I had to singe each little worm at a time and then I saw some more of them wriggling out of the squashed mother's guts and so I set her on fire and the whole thing was pretty revolting. - Mel LymanEverything you've heard about Mel is true," said Jessie, slicing off a juicy bite of steaming chicken breast. "He does manipulate us, but he doesn't manipulate us for evil. He manipulates us to be what we truly are. He is our soul."
Dinner time at the Martha's Vineyard community, and Jessie, George and I had been discussing Melvin's expertise as an acid therapist. That's how Jessie first met Mel. That's how many people first met Mel, but with Jessie it was a little more romantic. Let's see, this was in 1965 and Jessie was spending the summer with her folks right in the house where we were eating dinner.
She'd been given a vial of Owsley's acid, and she was just sitting there, lonely and waiting for someone to come and guide her on her first trip. When who should appear but the master himself, driving up the winding dirt road in that magic blue VW bus of his. David Gude, Jessie's ex-husband, was with him and Melvin was out scouting for another wife. He had just discovered the divine nature of music and, incidentally, himself at the Newport Folk Festival, and now he needed a woman who could sing. And David remembered that Jessie had a beautiful voice.
"When I first saw Melvin I was scared to death of him," said Jessie. "I sensed something in him that was enormous - I felt the fear of God. I mean, if you don't feel it, you're crazy. There have been times when he actuallyglows and the walls leave the room - that happens a lot."
So you can imagine what he was like under 1500 mikes of Owsley's purest. The trip lasted two days. Mel sang for her, read her his poetry, then took her back to Boston and married her. A few months later they moved onto Fort Hill.
Now Jessie was waiting for him again. Tomorrow afternoon, she said, he would be arriving from San Francisco where he and Jim Kweskin were recording a new album. The sessions had left him wasted, and he needed the rest.
"I mean he really is a delicate balance," said Jessie. "He needs an exact amount of sleep which he has got to get or it's just all over for the day. He has a whole structure: he sleeps eight hours, and when he gets up, he has a cup of coffee. He eats breakfast four hours after he's been up; four hours later he eats lunch, and four hours later he eats dinner.
"He spends the first eight hours of the day waking himself up, and he's got a million machines that help him - vibrators and that kind of stuff. That's why we're building a swimming pool in Los Angeles, you know, it's mainly for Melvin.
"And at a period of eight hours exactly after he gets up - when he's fully awake - that's when he's ready for conscious creation."
Conscious creation, the ability to harness the spirit and create blindly, innocently, spontaneously at will. Or something like that. It was Mel's need for a place where he could consciously create that first drove him to Fort Hill. When, after three years, the Hill got too busy and worldly, it drove him to Martha's Vineyard. And now it had driven him to the West, particularly Hollywood.
As Jessie spoke, I looked about the living room in which we were eating and noticed the evidence of that need, evidence that can be seen in nearly every living room of every Lyman community. On the mantel were two bookshelf speakers, reserved exclusively for Mel's records and tapes. From a ceiling beam hung an unrolled movie screen, reserved for his films.
In this particular living room, however, was abundant evidence of another creator, Thomas Hart Benton. His original paintings hung on every wall. Most of them were paintings of Jessie, a haunting, dark-eyed woman who in real life looks a little harder and smaller than the canvas variety.
Jessie was still talking about Melvin's health.
"He had all his teeth pulled out, you know. Three years ago. He had terrible teeth, that's because he loves candy. People used to say that Melvin had two weaknesses; one was candy and the other was women. In that order." Jessie laughed in her own brittle way.
"He hated his teeth. He said they were the only part of your body without spirit, because they didn't grow. He called them rocks in the mouth. The funny thing is now everybody on Fort Hill has lousy teeth, and the longer they stay there, the worse their teeth get."
"You mean Mel wears false teeth?"
"Oh, he never wears them. He has false teeth but he never wears them. Only when he's Richard Herbruck does he wear his teeth."
That name sounded familiar. Wasn't he that producer? ...
"Richard Herbruck is just somebody we made up," explained Jessie. "Like when Melvin goes out into the world, he wears his teeth and he becomes Herbruck. He's a maniac. Richard Herbruck was the guy who presented those tapes at KPFK. Did you ever hear those tapes, the introduction to those tapes? It's sheer nonsense, and nobody ever knew. I think somebody at KPFK said he felt it was a little pretentious, right? Pretentious! It was complete nonsense, every bit of it. It was historically incorrect, everything was wrong. And Melvin had done it on purpose."
It didn't make sense. If what Jessie said was true, if those tapes that KPFK was accused of distorting were just a gag, why did the Lyman Family retaliate so viciously? And if Richard Herbruck was a continuing front for Mel Lyman, why was she blowing it by telling me? Could she really be so glib?
"Richard Herbruck is just an outgrowth of this other person that Melvin created years ago," continued Jessie, "this kind of scientific maniac who wrote Autobiography of a World Savior. That book's tongue-in-cheek, you know. Melvin was involved with a bunch of scientologists on the East Coast, and he wrote that book for them. I mean, even the title, that's a joke. We do a lot of things like that. We do have our fun every now and then."
Well, no one can begrudge them that, certainly. There's little enough laughter on the Hill. But there were few giggles at KPFK after the boyish pranks of toothy Mr. Herbruck. And many of Mel's followers have reordered their lives around his Autobiography, despite its cutie-pie title.
In fact, as Mel has isolated himself more from the community's rank and file, his actions, whimsical or otherwise, appear to have grown harsher and more impulsive. After dinner, Jessie and George told me of two proclamations issued earlier this year that give some idea of how much Mel now controls his family.
According to Jessie, Mel visited the Hill one day and decided there were too many children, too many babies being made. So he declared a year-long moratorium on fucking.
"Really?" I asked. "And everyone obeyed it?"
"Sure," said Jessie. "Well, a couple of people screwed up, so then Melvin ordered all the women to get IUDs. One girl objected so much she ripped hers out with her own hand."
I asked about Lou, the pregnant ex-nun who runs the Fort Hill school, and Jessie answered, as if it was a matter of rationing food, "Yeah, well, she's gonna have to have an abortion." (It turned out, of course, that Lou was much too far along for that sort of thing. She's expected to break Mel's commandment next month.)
So Mel's into celibacy - hardly seems fair after all the women he's gone through. But then, the Need always changes, doesn't it? Such a moratorium would certainly account for the strange atmosphere of somberness and tension I felt during my visit to the Hill.
Yet, there was something else - a feeling of urgency, of feverish activity. I thought about the construction work and David Gude's admonition to Paul Williams, "Don't talk about the future." What was going on? Was some major change taking place?
"Things are always changing," quipped George. "You can never..."
"No but, you know, something bigger than that. Paul Williams mentioned something about maybe renting or selling the buildings."
For a good ten seconds George gazed down at the tablecloth, as if hidden somewhere in the white fabric were the words he needed. As usual, his eyes looked very tired; he's a handsome, healthy-looking man, but his eyes always seem dazed, as if he'd just stepped from a wind tunnel.
"Actually... something has happened...." he started slowly, straightening up and scooting forward. A former actor, George can really dramatize a story when he's in the mood.
"You came at just the right time. If you had come two weeks earlier, I can guarantee no one would have even spoken to you. There was that much pain and sadness."
Across the table Jessie watched and listened to George with no expression on her face.
"What happened on the Hill was this. For years we had been working on a thing called the Magic Theater. Part of the thing was going to be that recording studio that you saw at the lop of Five and Six. But it would have been much more than that. It would have been a place through which Melvin could bring his creation to the world - his music, his films, everything."
George took my notepad and started sketching a floor plan of the Magic Theater. The theater itself was a two-story building connecting Four-and-a-Half - formerly Mel's walled house - with the rear of the duplex, Five and Six. On the second floor of the theater was a large projection booth that also served as an engineer's control room for the adjacent recording studio. In fact, a tilted picture window, which today provides a magnificent view of the south end of Boston, was supposed to provide a view of a full-sized engineer's console.
Designed, of course, by Richie Guerin with his usual flair for flexibility and multiple function, the three-building complex would also have included a sound stage, storage rooms for equipment, props and film, two adjacent spiral stairwells for entrance and exit, a lobby, a kitchen, and a place for Mel to live.
And one feature I thought particularly visionary. George sketched a tiny square in the middle of the control room.
"Suspended from the control room was this thing called the Cockpit," he explained. "It was just big enough for one man, and Melvin could have crawled in there, and, without being seen, he could have controlled everything. I mean, it was like a Master Control, and he could have run the films, the music, the lights, everything at once."
By last spring, after three years' work, the Magic Theater was nearly completed - all but the roof and the interiors. That's when Mel paid a visit to the Hill.
"What happened was that the completion of the Magic Theater was taking too long, it had become a dream," said George, starting now to get a little vague. "It had become unreal... I mean, the dream had become more important than the Need... it was no longer organic, you know? I mean, something happened, something very complex, involving certain personalities... there's no point in going into it.
"I mean, what Melvin said when he told the people to tear down the Magic Theater was that he wanted to eliminate all dreams of creation, because that's what the creation had become - a dream."
Unfortunately, that's as specific as George would get. Or, perhaps, couldget. He sounded genuinely troubled and confused, and he may not have known the real reasons himself.
Dinner was over and it was way past midnight. I walked to the children's house where I was to sleep, figuring, well, tomorrow afternoon Mel will arrive and I can get the reason direct from Master Control.
But I was wrong. As I was preparing for bed, George appeared and said, "Jessie and I have been talking and... well, we think you better go back to the Hill tomorrow morning. Mel's very tired, he just couldn't handle any interview, you know? And, I mean, really, you're not ready to see him yet."
I didn't see why not, but George said I still had too many concepts, that I hadn't shown a personal enough need, that I wasn't alive enough. I didn't know what he was talking about, of course; it was necessary to see Mel for the story. I told George I thought he was making a mistake, but it was no use. Jessie was adamant.
* * *
Back on the Hill I asked Richie about the Magic Theater, but it didn't help much. "Well, we no longer need the studio to record in," he said. "We no longer need a theater to show movies in because we're not doing movies right now. And what we do need is to finish fixing up the houses on a very basic level, to put in kitchens and bathrooms and proper staircases and windows, you know? And when you have so many things on a basic level that are incomplete, you can't be creative. The creation can't happen unless everything is in perfect order."
"Was that the mistake, that you were doing things out of order?"
"No, but the situation that came about was, like, the people who were working on it, they weren't totally into it. And the reason they weren't totally into it was because it wasn't necessary anymore, you know? There were more necessary things happening around them, which they neglected."
"Well, like the people they lived with, situations that existed on a personal level. People were confused and asleep and unconscious of what was really happening, and something real had to come along to wake them up.
"And that's what Melvin always does, you know? He immediately does something very, very constructive in a destructive way. And tearing down that structure out there is a much more real thing to the man who tore it down than putting it up, you see? I mean, putting it up is an idea, tearing it down is a reality.
"Like I worked on this thing for two and a half years, and the reality of it not being there..."
Richie gazed at the bare cement foundation next to Four-and-a-half and smiled. But his voice grew sad. "I tell you, man, the first three days when we started tearing it down, it was like... complete silence, nobody had anything to say to anybody. It was just agony. And you'd be working along, as fast and quickly and accurately as you could to do the proper job, taking out every nail, and all of a sudden you'd not be working and you'd drift off for one second to think about what you were doing. And the tears would come to your eyes, man, and you couldn't even see, and you'd have to blow your nose and stop and..." Richie chuckled. "...and then get back into it again. That's why we got it down so fast."
What would happen to the foundation, I asked.
"I have no idea, I really don't. Maybe it'll have to come down too. I have to wait and see what Melvin wants to do with these houses, you know, what he needs them for."
* * *
Abandon hope all you who enter here:
Fort Hill needs workers. We guarantee you nothing. No wages. No advances. We give you room and food. Who do you work for now? Come work for The Lord. The rewards, if any, are not of this earth. Call Kurt at 617-445-4566 American Avatar
- from a recent recruitment poster showing 13 Fort Hill men standing gleefully on the ruins of half-demolished House Four. Kurt said they printed several thousand posters, got two phone calls, one from a "14-year-old Aries" who read it on the men's room floor of a Chicago Greyhound station.
Several weeks later I received one last clue to the mystery of the Magic Theater when Paul Williams called after his escape from the Hill.
"Here we were supposedly building this thing for Mel to show movies in," said Paul, "and we were blowing it absolutely on a basic level about caring about people. I mean, the reason that Bob McQuaid left the Hill is 'cause nobody gave a damn."
Suddenly Paul hesitated. "Oh, I thought you... already knew that part of the story. Well I... I probably really shouldn't say anything more about it 'cause, you know... I mean, Mel always said never to talk about Fort Hill unless you knew exactly what you were saying."
And that's all Paul would reveal. Some escape.
Whatever the specifics, it may have been that Melvin, by last spring, had simply lost interest in the project. He was now firmly entrenched in Hollywood, living in luxury, surrounded by celluloid and lost hippie souls, embarked on a plan of Western conquest envisioned even before the first ground was broken for the Magic Theater.
Cut to Boston in the summer of 1968. A scruffy young man with angry, furry eyebrows walks the streets of Roxbury, a baby strapped to his back. He is divorced, broke and drained of hope. His name is Mark Frechette and he is alone. No wonder - it's three in the morning.
"I was a self-respecting hippie dropout bum." Mark recalled. "Then I started reading the Avatar and it changed my life."
That's right, folks. In just one month Mark Frechette was discovered by the men he now considers two of the greatest film directors in the world - Michelangelo Antonioni and Melvin Lyman. The fight between these two directors to control Mark lasted ten months and is one of the more interesting stories surrounding Zabriskie Point.
First Mark was discovered by Antonioni. Just how is one of the Lyman people's favorite legends, so we might as well let them tell it and get it over with. The following is from the last edition of American Avatar:
"The summer of 1968 was an eventful season, the primaries, Columbia, the assassination of Robert Kennedy, the televised furor of the Democratic Convention. In the midst of the excitement and the talk of youthful revolution came Michelangelo Antonioni to America to create a film about the violent revolution he saw coming. Antonioni's search for the perfect SDS cop-killer extended across the land, it was a small but well-noted event of the summer. Hundreds of young actors lined up in front of places like the Electric Circus in New York to be poked and questioned and tested to see if the part could really be theirs. It was said the Great Director was seeking someone with the incisive intellect of a Marxist grad student and the personal attitude of an Algerian bomb thrower." (Ed note: Frechette was neither.)
"Meanwhile, oblivious to the hopes of so many of his contemporaries, 20-year-old innocent Mark Frechette stood anxiously on a downtown street corner in Boston, scratching his beard, engrossed in an argument between a sailor and his date at a bus stop. The girl was getting nasty and bitchy as young girls do, and Mark was growing frantic waiting for the sailor to finally assert his manhood and belt the dumb broad across the mouth.
"As the argument intensified, a horror-stricken busybody in a fourth floor apartment took judgment and a flower pot in hand and prematurely ended the dispute by braining the sailor with a geranium. The insensitivity of this intrusion caused so much indignation in the idealistic Frechette, he shook his fist at the fourth story window, 'You motherfucker!' he screamed.
"Suddenly he was grabbed from behind. 'How old are you?' his accoster wanted to know. 'I'm 20,' Mark said, bewildered, trying to figure out what was going on. The man shoved Mark into his limousine next to a pretty young girl. 'He's 20 and he hates!' he said gleefully."
You can see why the Lyman Family would dig that story - and Mark Frechette. And Mark had already been digging the Lyman Family. He didn't really know any members, but he liked what Mel had to say in the Avatar. And sometimes when his young son would wake up crying at three in the morning, he'd take him for a walk around the Fort Hill tower where it was so nice and peaceful.
"After reading Mel in the Avatar, I realized if I was gonna do something with my life, it just meant digging in," said Mark. "You can't do anything if you don't have the basics together. I mean, I might have come to those conclusions anyway, in 20 or 30 years, but Mel really made me see what a fool I'd been. It made me grateful that the Hill was there, that Mel was there.
"So I decided to get my shit together and somehow try to repay these people who had helped me." The opportunity presented itself soon enough after Mark got the part inZabriskie Point.
"I went up to see Melvin a couple days before coming out to the Coast. I'd heard he was interested in filmmaking and I thought maybe I could get him a good deal on some film equipment."
Actually, Mark had tried to see Mel a couple of times before he got the part, but without much luck. This time, Mel welcomed him inside his house, gave him a complete set of Avatars and talked to him the entire afternoon.
"As soon as I walked in, there was this humming in my ears," said Mark. "I can't explain it. I mean the whole damn room was humming. Mel sat me down and explained how much films meant to him, how important it was to make contacts in Hollywood.
"He said I could make Hollywood the next step in the evolution of Avatar, I could make those contacts. The longer I sat there, the more I realized he was right - he sure made me want to help, I'll tell ya.
"As I left, he said, 'When you get out there, keep in touch.'
Although Mark arrived in Hollywood in July, shooting didn't actually start until September. During that time he met the heroine of the film, Daria Halprin, a soulful-eyed woman from San Francisco.
"She was so beautiful, she'd knock you right off your feet," Mark said. "I guess I was nailed to the floor when I first saw her, otherwise I would've been blown over." At first, according to Mark, they didn't hit it off at all. "Mostly we just stared at each other. For months I was just completely overwhelmed by her."
Then came September 22nd, 1968, apparently an important date for Mark, one of the few he remembers. Of course, it had nothing to do with the film. That was the date Mark flew back to Fort Hill and stayed up all night with Mel.
"That was the first time I heard his music," recalled Mark. "We stayed up and smoked some of his fantastic weed, and listened to his music. All the music he ever recorded he played for me that weekend."
Most of it was music Mel had recorded privately, stuff he'd done with Jessie, plus a lot of instrumentals - "pure music." The two men spent the weekend discussing music and film, art and creation. They talked about how Antonioni was trying to capture the spirit of America, young America, in Zabriskie Point. And, why, isn't that just what Mel had already done with his music? Sure, it was a popular fad these days to use electronic rock in youth oriented films. But that's just a passing, surface kind of thing - we're talking about the spirit of America, the reality of America. Think about it, wouldn't Mel's music make a perfect soundtrack for the film?
On Monday Mark flew back to Hollywood with Mel's personal tapes under his arm. After much coaxing he got Antonioni to sit down one night and listen to them.
"It's hard to say what he thought of them," said Mark. "I noticed that during one of the more spirited pieces he was twitching in his chair quite a bit. I mean, he had a terrible slant on what was happening here in America; he had a real European outlook. I tried to make him aware of what was happening here. I told him about Fort Hill, about Avatar. I told him about Mel and what he meant to this country. But he never understood. It was really frustrating."
When Zabriskie Point was finally released it included the music of Pink Floyd, Kaleidoscope, Jerry Garcia, the Grateful Dead, the Stones, and the Youngbloods - plus "Tennessee Waltz" by Patti Page.
As the shooting continued, Mark tried another tactic. He'd casually deposit a copy of the Avatar on the set just before the cameras were ready to roll, usually a copy with Mel's picture on the cover.
Antonioni would storm onto the set, pick up the issue and yell "What's his picture doing in my picture?" - chucking the damn thing away. Didn't matter; Mark had that whole stack Mel had given him and the next day another one would mysteriously appear before the cameras.
If Mark was unable to convert Antonioni, he was doing a little better with Daria. The two were growing closer and closer and by Christmas were lovers as much off the set as on. She was still a little skeptical about Fort Hill, but in March, "after eight or nine months of my ranting and raving she had a vision. She saw the face of Melvin. She must have recognized it from the Avatar cover since she'd never met him before. A few days later she made her decision for Mel and agreed, once the movie was finished to live with Mark on Fort Hill.
"It happened while we were shooting up in Berkeley," said Mark. "We were in her apartment, having a fight. I was mad about something, I forget, and all of a sudden she just started shaking all over, crying and afraid, and something clicked. She just made up her mind right away. Suddenly she realized that what I'd been tryin' to tell her all these months was the truth."
And that made something click inside Mark. He'd been growing more and more pissed off at what he considered the basic dishonesty of the film, its portrayal of American youth as left-wing political revolutionaries rather than spiritualrevolutionaries like Mel described.
"I got fed up with the whole thing. I got tired of getting up every morning to go and work in what was essentially a lie. So I just took off one day - let's see, it was March 15th." That was the day Mark failed to appear on the set.
Meanwhile, back at Fort Hill, Mel Lyman was in his walled house working, consciously creating, making plans for his triumphant invasion of Hollywood. Then he heard a knock on his door. Mark barged in.
"The whole thing was a big Hollywood lie, it wasn't real," he told Mel, laughing. "So I put a stop to it. I quit. I left them completely in the dark, I really threw a monkey wrench in the works!" Now Antonioni would feel the power of Fort Hill, he told Mel. Now Mark could devote his full time to the community.
Melvin patted him on the back and hastily ushered him to his living room couch. He offered him a joint. Mel was smiling, but inside, his mind was racing. Shit, what had this crazy bastard gone and done? His sentiments were right, of course, but what about the evolution of Avatar? What about Hollywood?
"Mel told me I should be cautious about this kind of thing," Mark said later. "He said such actions didn't necessarily produce anything, that I should be very careful."
At Mel's suggestion, Mark finally agreed to teach Antonioni just a temporary lesson. For six days he refused all calls from MGM. Production came to a halt. Then Antonioni himself phoned Fort Hill.
"I told him he wasn't making a film about any America I knew," said Mark. "I told him things just had to change before I would come back." Antonioni was panicked; the film was already five months over schedule. But so was Melvin.
Finally, Mark agreed to return and finish the picture - but only after Antonioni promised to spend ten days reshooting dialogue Mark thought too political, and to visit Fort Hill as soon as the movie was done. He kept the first promise, although the new dialogue was never used in the film, but not the second. Urgent business suddenly forced him to return to Europe.
When in April the shooting was over, Mark and Daria, alone at last, drove across the country to Fort Hill. It was a very happy time in their lives. They were the center of attention on the Hill, and they were in love. That sort of thing.
But, as Mel teaches us, that sort of thing doesn't last long. The following September Mark left for Yugoslavia to shoot a picture with Francisco Rossi, leaving Daria alone on the Hill. And here the story gets cloudy. In the first place, we don't have Daria's side of it; she's currently in Mexico, shooting a film with Dennis Hopper and unavailable for comment.
And her parents, San Francisco architect Lawrence Halprin and dancer Ann Halprin, refuse to say anything except that they are still afraid for her life. But from fairly reliable, anonymous sources we know that life on Fort Hill gradually became very trying for Daria. She may have been too independent for their tastes, but several people have mentioned violent encounters, some physical, between Daria and the Fort Hill women, particularly Jessie.
And there was this story from a publicist at MGM:
"One day Daria called me and said she was looking for work. She was living with the New York community at the time and said she had no money. Apparently they had taken it. She asked if she could do some TV commercials. I said absolutely.
"Without any trouble I lined up some jobs for her. But when I called her back in New York, she wasn't around. They said Daria had to be sent back to Fort Hill for retraining, that she was too much of an individual."
After Mark returned from Yugoslavia, their relationship began deteriorating. "By the spring of '70, things were really changing," he said. "It finally got to be a big drag, it just wasn't goin' nowhere." Mark tends to get conveniently vague about the details, but apparently it was the Hill, not personal disenchantment that broke them up.
"I mean, people on the Hill have to learn to put Melvin and the community ahead of themselves, and she just couldn't do that," he explained.
In July, 1970, Mark, Daria, and several other Hill people flew to Hollywood and rented a house on Edinburgh Avenue, sort of a pioneer outpost to start the Lyman Family's western expansion. Mel joined them in September and, as Mark recalls, "that sort of brought it all to a head."
A few days later, Daria left the community and moved into the home of a nearby girlfriend. She told Mark she would wait for him to join her. To everyone's surprise he did.
"The things that she said always carried a lot of weight with me," said Mark. "But it was a terrible situation. I was really a basket case - boy, I was torn."
Within a week there was a knock on Daria's door and three Lyman people entered, two men and a woman. They handed a small envelope to Mark. It was a ticket to Boston. He seemed relieved that the decision had been made for him and left immediately.
"Somewhere deep down inside I knew what I would really do is go back east," he said, "go back and let time wash away the pain."
Apparently the Family became furious at Daria for fucking Mark's mind and tempting him to leave the community. According to one friend, "Daria was terrified. They came after her and threatened to beat her up. She kept calling home, saying she was afraid she was gonna get killed." Twice Daria and her roommate moved in order to avoid the Lyman Family. When she split from the Edinburgh house, she left her Peugeot, but never returned to get it.
"I don't know if she'll ever come back," said Mark, sighing. "There's a chance, I suppose, but I don't know. She just didn't want to give what was asked of her."
Mark Frechette now lives in Los Angeles at the Sierra Bonita house. Two months ago he went to visit Daria while she was passing through town, but she wasn't in. He left a copy of Mel's new book.
* * *
Now Mel was finally established on the West Coast, but the Edinburgh Avenue house was actually too small. It was OK for writing his book, but he would need more room - and more people - before he could get into really heavy conscious creation.
So he sent people out to scout around Hollywood for other real estate. And then he started thinking... why limit ourselves to Hollywood? Sure there are millions of lost souls down here - plenty of work to do - but there are millions up north too. Shit, San Francisco is the hippie capital of the world. And don't we know someone with a house up there, one that we could use? . .
* * *
It was in October or November of last year that the occupation here took place," said Kay Boyle, sitting in her quiet, three-story home six blocks from the corner of Haight and Ashbury. "I was in Virginia as a writer-in-residence. And my son, Ian, called me one day and said that he was coming out to San Francisco from Roxbury. And I was very pleased because I thought it meant that he was leaving the community there.
"I believe he was never very happy there. He was one of the lower echelon people, and all the real jobs of drudgery were assigned to him, as to some others. He was not allowed to eat dinner sometimes if he hadn't finished sanding or waxing the floor, which seemed to me an extraordinary standard to have in a community of love and understanding of others.
"At any rate, he said he was coming out here, and I said I'm very happy and your apartment - which is downstairs where he has his Steinway and his books and everything - is waiting for you. The rest of the house is rented. And he said, 'Oh yes, I know that.' And I said, well, you know, just stay there and do whatever you want, but the people who are there have rented the house until June."
A week or two later, however, Kay was awakened at 7 AM by a call from her tenants. That's 7 AM in Virginia - 4 AM in San Francisco.
"They said that my son had moved in with a number of people; that they had closed the doors of the sitting room and the dining room, which did belong to the people who had rented the house; had given notice to one of the students who lives there. They announced there were going to be great changes.
"Well, I was far away and this was very distressing. I felt a great obligation to the people who lived there. The whole hall apparently was blocked with electronics equipment and things. The people who rented the house could not come in easily. They were afraid to come home at night. They had to go out and eat, they couldn't use their kitchen because the community people were using the kitchen."
In charge of the occupation were David Gude, Kay's ex-son-in-law, and a fellow named Owen deLong. When Kay asked them to leave, they refused.
"So I called my lawyer, Bob Treuhaft, and I called friends of mine who lived nearby. One of them, a black man who lives up the street, came down and said to them, 'Look, you can't do this, this house is rented to people. You've taken their telephone, their sitting room, their dining room, you can't do it.' And after he left, one of the Lyman people said, 'Well, we got rid of that big black rigger.'
"David Gude talked to me on the phone and accused me of being a capitalist, that I wished to hold onto property just for my own... indulging my own whims. He said, 'We are going to have that house if we have to burn it to the ground!'
"And I wrote him a letter, I said this house has been a refuge for runaway girls from Haight Street, for men coming out of jail for the first time - I mean, it's a terrible thing, a man who's been in jail, say, eight years and he gets his first 72-hour pass out, it's like being born again, it's terrifying - but this house has had real purpose, you know? But not the purpose of being taken over and held as a fortress for a really demented group of people." Finally, Treuhaft devised a plan to temporarily sell the house to a friend of Kay's for $1. Then he served legal notice on the Lyman family, forcing them to retreat from the premises.
"And the people of this house," said Kay, "the students who live here, who knew my son before and are very devoted to him, they said that when he really knew he had to go, he smiled for the first time since he'd been here. Because I feel that he has been a captive, a victim of this strange fascist philosophy, that he had wished to get out for years. And when the line was drawn, and he knew he could not abuse the responsibility of... his home, everything he owned - I mean, the place is his, the house is going to be his when I die - I think when he realized that he could not play this horrible role that he'd been forced to play, that he was relieved.
"And he got a job, he worked for four months, he lived with friends, he did not go back to the commune. He told people, told friends, he said, 'For the first time in four years I'm a free man again!' "
Kay Boyle stared across the large, formal living room now empty of the Lymans, of their equipment, of her children. And when she spoke again, she spoke softly and more slowly.
"And then, finally, in April of this year - Ian had been free for almost six months - they came after him, the Los Angeles group came after him. And he went back. They persuaded him, or forced him, I don't know what their methods are. They said he had to do penance for what he had done, that he had failed to get this house. So he was sent down to the Tenderloin district, to a flophouse there, to meditate. For a week. In the dark. In silence. To meditate upon his sins."
* * *
"We are the hope of the new age," confided Jim Kweskin in the attic studio of the Family's newly purchased Hollywood mansion. "The great music is in us and coming out of us. That's why we're in L.A., to put the Spirit back in films, in music. The Spirit's there but nobody's using it."
At least, not like they used to in the old days, said Jim as he opened one of several huge wooden trunks that lay on the attic floor. Inside were hundreds of 78 rpm records, each one hand-washed, treated with silicone and packed between thin foam rubber for protection against earthquakes.
"Melvin's spent years collecting these records," he said. "We got everything from Slim Whitman to Al Jolson. The Spirit that was in music at that time was unbelievable - none of this 16-track, technical electronic gimmickry."
Kweskin didn't know how many records were in the boxes, but there must have been at least 30 or 40 feet worth. Some of the trunks were labeled "Bing Crosby," "Crosby seconds," "Hank Williams seconds,'' etc.
"Too many people are wasting time and money playing bad music," said Jim, leaning against a new Dolby recording system just bought by Mel. "If people would hold it in until they absolutely had to play, the music would he great. That's why our album is so great - we waited three years to make it."
He was referring to Jim Kweskin's America, the album he and Mel were in the process of remixing in San Francisco. A few miles north, in Burbank, an executive for Warner Brothers Records chatted, somewhat skeptically, about the music they'd waited three years to get from Jim.
"It, uh... it's not like his other albums," said the executive, who asked to remain anonymous. "It sounds like a bunch of hymns - stuff like 'Old Black Joe' and 'The Old Rugged Cross.'
"Jim's kind of a strange guy to deal with, you know. One day he brought the tapes in to play for me, and right off he gave me a 20-minute lecture on how to thread the tape machine. Very intense guy.
"He played me the tapes, and during one of the songs, I think it was 'Old Black Joe,' I got a phone call. And Jim freaked, I mean really freaked, insisted I start the whole thing over again when I got off the phone." To give me a taste of what Jim was up to these days, the executive put on the album. Pretty somber stuff. On several of the cuts, particularly "Dark as a Dungeon," I noticed a strange, warbly falsetto that sounded like one of the Muppets on Sesame Street.
"You know who that is?" asked the executive. "Mel Lyman."
He recalled a curious request Jim had made the time he came to see him.
"He said the producer needed a first-class ticket from New York to San Francisco, for the session. I said, 'Boy, that's news to me, I'd never heard of any producer.' He said yeah, there was one, and he insisted he had to fly first-class."
"What was the producer's name?"
"Let me think... I'd never heard of him... Herbruck... Richard Herbruck, that was the guy."
At Pacific High Recorders in San Francisco, engineer Phill Sawyer remembered a similar encounter that happened after the session.
"Jim and Mel came in to give me the album credits," he said. "They told me to put down 'Mixed by Phill Sawyer, Produced by Richard Herbruck.' I said, 'Who's that?' There hadn't been any producer in the studio. But they insisted I put it down anyway."
Last month Warner Brothers finally released the album. It's probably too early to gauge the response, but reportedly Fritz Richmond, a former member of the Jug Band, heard it and said, "Jim used to be in the business of waking people up. Now he's in the business of putting them to sleep."
Actually, Jim Kweskin and his favorite backup group, the Lyman Family, did bring Warner Brothers another album during the past three years, and it was released in January, 1970. It was called American Avatar - Love Comes Rolling Down, featuring "The Lyman Family with Lisa Kindred." It had an unusual cover, Mel Lyman's silhouette, and an unusual history, having in fact been recorded at Vanguard Records in the mid-Sixties, when David Gude was still a tape editor there.
"That record ended my career at Vanguard," David said later. "It was a hell of a record - really a miracle. Lisa Kindred had a contract with Vanguard, and Melvin was a friend of hers, had known her for quite a while. He knew Lisa was going to make a record so he asked her could he back her up. Lisa loved Melvin and she said sure.
"So we made that record, and the musicians went home, and Melvin sat down and we edited the tapes, we programmed them, we processed them, Eben Given made the cover, Mel went home and wrote the notes. By the end of the week - it took us exactly one week - we had the complete product."
That's when the trouble started with Maynard Solomon, Vanguard president, said David.
"I went and presented it to my boss, and he didn't like it. He thought the harmonica was too loud, there was too much Melvin and not enough Lisa. He looked at it in these very business-like terms. He liked the record, I think, but he wanted to put Lisa out front and make her a star, 'cause that was the only way he knew how to make a record. Melvin didn't care about any of that."
Gude sighed, revealing that gap he has in his teeth.
"And so I argued with my boss for a long time. He wanted to make changes, and Melvin said absolutely not, you know. And everything Melvin said I recognized as the truth. Melvin was right and Maynard was wrong. I did everything Melvin told me to do, and finally I got fired because of it. Mel told me to go back and erase the originals, which is the cardinal sin in the recording industry, like a photographer destroying his negatives. So I left them with a mono copy of the record, 'cause that was the one thing they couldn't change much at all, a mono mix."
In other words, Maynard couldn't change the levels between Mel's harp and Lisa's voice.
"In fact," David continued, "we're still big advocates of mono over stereo. I mean stereo - at the present stage of recording - stereo does give you a certain clarity that mono does not give you, but you're still dealing with one source. The music itself comes from one source.
"Always, in any art you're expressing a oneness, whether you find it in a movie - watch a love scene in a movie and everybody's crying; they're all feeling the same feeling, that same oneness feeling - and that's what is so fascinating about art and about music in this case. Everybody who listens to it, they all feel one thing and they all feel that one thing at the same time. And that one thing, of course, is... it's God."
David laughed good-naturedly.
"I didn't tell Maynard about that."
* * *
Today Lisa Kindred, a pretty, down-to-earth woman, mainly plays small clubs in the San Francisco Bay Area, living a quiet North Beach life with her old man, a child and some cats. She tells a somewhat different version of David Gude's story.
"Yeah, that whole album was a weird trip," she recalled. "I was living in Cambridge when I first met Mel. This was about '64 I guess, and the Jug Band was together. We played together a lot, at the Club 47, places like that. Mel would come over with his friends, and they'd sit around and smoke dope. I don't smoke myself, I'm allergic to it, but he used to smoke more dope than anybody I met. I remember he used to get really ripped and come out to the kitchen and eat dog biscuits. He said they were good for his teeth. He was a very interesting person, very strange.
"Anyway, the album was supposed to be called Kindred Spirits. At that time there was no such thing as the Lyman Family. At that time it was still my album. The record could have been better you know, if David Gude had known what he was doing. He set up the session, and he'd do things, like he'd put Mel's harp and my voice on the same track.
"I was supposed to go to California, and just before I left I went to hear the tapes. David had told me the tapes were great, just great. I thought they were crappy. The mix was all wrong. There was too much harp, for one thing. So I went to California and sort of forgot about the whole thing.
"And a few weeks later I got a call from Maynard Solomon. He said, 'You won't believe this, but David has stolen the stereo master tapes.'
"So I figured that was that. I just wrote the whole thing off. And then years later, I was living out here in Califorma, I got a call from a girlfriend of mine. She said, 'Guess what. That album you made is out. It's on Warner Brothers.' I couldn't believe it. I hadn't heard from anyone all this time. I didn't hear anything from Warner Brothers. Finally, three months later, the people at Warner Brothers gave me a copy. It was called American Avatar. I said to myself, 'I know Mel is an Aries with a God complex, but this is too much!'"
"How did it sound?"
"It sounded just like the tapes. I think if it had been mixed right, it could have been a good album. There was some very good stuff on it. But as a whole... it sounded like a real nice home tape, you know? It had no great message. Just a bunch of people having a good time.
"All I ever got were the fees for the recording session. About $400. It would have been fine if they'd owned up and told me what they were doing up front. But to do what they did - I think it's against the law, isn't it? I mean, I ended up being a side man on my own album!"
After pouring some coffee and brown sugar into a heavy mug, Lisa thought for a moment, then said, "You know that album Creole Belle by Eric Von Schmidt? It's on Prestige, and Mel plays on it. And now that I think about it, there's not enough of Eric on it. There's too much harp."
* * *
On the inside cover of American Avatar, next to a photograph of the Fort Hill tower at sunset, Mel Lyman wrote these album notes:
"I've been waiting to get this record released for three years and it is finally only possible now because I played the tapes for Mo Ostin a few months ago and he loved them. Everyone I have ever played these tapes for has been deeply moved, it is great music. The force that drew us together to record this music is the same force that is always evidenced in great works of art, and like all great works of art this music was created to elevate men we were merely the instruments... I have marveled at these tapes for years and have never ceased to find more and more in them, more grace, more perfection, more magic, more God. And now I have passed them on to Mo and he is passing them on to you in the form of a record album. This is no album, it is a miracle."
Maybe so, but today Mo Ostin, head of Warner Brothers Records refuses to talk about the album or its dubious origins, or about anything connected with Mel Lyman. For a period of two months - several times a week and several times a day - we called his office in Burbank. We wrote him. But he never replied.
Finally we settled for a stand-in - Stan Cornyn, who runs Warner's creative services department. He said that when Kweskin presented the Lisa Kindred tapes to Warner Brothers, no questions were asked.
"Mo has a basic faith in his talent," Cornyn explained. "So when that package and tape was delivered to us, we took it as it is. We consider ourselves an artist-oriented company, and that means that we work under the assumption that when tapes or records come in, that's that. We've got to assume that.
"I mean, artists are sometimes incredibly ahead of the rest of the world. Sometimes they're not so bright. You've got to take the good with the bad."
Apparently the world was not quite ready for the album American Avatar. It sold 1764 copies, of which 1000 were bought by Jim Kweskin.
* * *
These old sides are sure taking me on a trip... And Ray Charles said "What kind of a man are you" and I sat in my stuffy little room on 30th St. and played "The Great Pretender" and cried and looked all over Sanchez Street for pretty little Sophie "Lost in the Night" by Charles Brown and I found her and "Let's Make Up" by the Spaniels and "Be Mine or a Fool" by the Penguins and then she was in my room and I didn't come back to that cold empty world but she listened to Johnny Ace singing "The Clock" while I went fishing and the Dream Weavers sang "It's Almost Tomorrow" and Miss Sophie was gone and San Diego was dark and Mr. Lucero sang "Are You Satisfied" and I wanted "Only You" ... - from Mel Lyman's 'Mirror at the End of the Road'
Fort Hill photographer George Peper had an assignment; he was to drive to Santa Rosa, where Mel lived as a young boy, and spend the day, Saturday, shooting pictures of Mel's past - an empty park bench where Mel once sat, a vacant lot where Mel's house once stood. He must have shot a hundred different holy places.
While driving to the quiet, railroad-track town fifty miles north of San Francisco, George briefed me on the latest news headlines from the Lyman Family: One, that they were buying a 280-acre farm near Marysville, Kansas; two, that Mel had received a prison letter from Charles Manson, and three, that Mel now had four wives, one in each community - Heidi in Boston, Adele in San Francisco, Eve Chayse in New York, and her sister Gail in Los Angeles.
"It's one reason why he keeps traveling," snickered George.
In Santa Rosa he drove to a small, yellow and white stucco house and introduced me to Mrs. Dixie Duke, a 61-year-old Southern belle who years ago taught Mel Lyman all he knows about the fourth, fifth and sixth grades.
"He had red hair, I remember that," she said with an infectious Mississippi drawl. "He was a small, freckle-faced kid, full of the devil. I liked Mel. He wasn't an angel by any means, but he and I got along well.
"He was more original and creative than the others. He could draw cartoons and make up little skits, that sort of thing. Mel would make these little books you could flip through and make them move, you know? Cartoon things?"
Now retired, Dixie brought out a box of classroom photos she'd collected over 24 years. She started shuffling through them.
"I remember when he was in low six, he and Chester and Dennis made up a skit. I forget what it was about, but I'm sure it was clever. But part of it was about a race and they had to blow this trumpet, you know? And Mrs. Wright, the principal - she had something wrong with her where, if she stayed still too long, she went to sleep. So she was sleeping during this skit, and the trumpet went off and scared her so much, oh my, we never did hear the end of that one."
* * *
"We had a program on today called Wake Up," deLong told the KPFK staff. "I took it off the air, to try to make the listening audience wake up. I grabbed David in the hall to try to make David wake up, to wake the whole staff up. Everybody here is aware, in one way or another, that this station is about to die."
* * *
"Mel never made particularly good grades," continued Dixie, "'cause he wouldn't apply himself. The students got graded both for accomplishment and for effort, and I remember one time, Mel got an A for accomplishment, but for effort he got a low grade."
"I suppose if you can make an A without the effort, why make the effort?"
"Yeah, that was his attitude," said Dixie. "I agree with him now."
She reached for a copy of Mirror at the End of the Road that Mel, during a recent visit, had given her after carefully marking those passages he considered too pornographic for her to read. Protruding from the book was a Smokey the Bear bookmark.
"You know, George, I've been reading his book. And it depresses me, to read about all this mental turmoil he went through. I mean, he was such a happy li'l boy. I know he did have some trouble at home, his mother was divorced, I think, but he had this sister who was older and they seemed very close."
I asked Dixie if Mel seemed particularly spiritual as a child, and she dismissed the idea with a laugh.
"Oh," she said, "I'm not sure children know how to be spiritual."
"Not like he is now, anyway."
"I don't know," said Dixie, "is he interested in spiritual things?"
Suddenly it was apparent that Dixie Duke had not been fully informed of recent developments. I looked at George as he started to move uneasily in his chair.
"George," I asked, "haven't you told her about what's been going on?'
"Is it something bad?" asked Dixie, worried.
"No," said George, "nothing like that."
"You see, Mrs. Duke, a lot of people think that Mel Lyman is God," I explained.
Dixie sat straight up. "They what?"
"They think Mel Lyman is God."
"George, is that true?" she asked, her voice rising.
"Well..." George was embarrassed, squirming quite a bit now. "...they think he's a very great man."
"Does he think he's God?" persisted Dixie.
"No, no," said George, but I wasn't about to let him get away with it.
"But George," I said, "in the Christ Issue, what did Mel mean when he said he was Jesus Christ?"
Dixie was shocked. "He said he was Jesus Christ?"
"That was just for the people who needed to believe that," said George with a weak smile. But Dixie wouldn't drop it.
"He thinks he's God? Well, I mean, he's a nice person but... he thinks he's God?" Dixie was partly laughing, partly scolding, her Southern drawl now loud and brittle, crowing like a cock.
"That's ridiculous! You tell him to come see me. I'll tell him he's not God. Tell Mel to come visit me, you hear? I'll tell him he's not Jesus Christ!"
* * *
In his career as a confirmed human being, J. C. Lyman has gone through numerous odd jobs, hundreds of towns, tanks of fermented spirits and two marriages, but now appears to be stabilizing a bit after 58 years.
George and I stopped off in San Rafael to see him, on our way back to San Francisco. Thoughtful, good-natured and handsome, J. C. presently works as some kind of civilian supervisor at nearby Hamilton Air Force Base.
During the Depression he traveled widely as a "music salesman," peddling courses in the violin and guitar "and I think we may have offered the accordion there for a while." He was servicing one of his Oregon routes in March, 1938, when he got word of the birth of his second child and first son. Two days later he made it to the hospital in Eureka, California.
"I'm afraid Mel was not very pretty when he was born," recalled J. C. "He had yellow jaundice or something, and he looked quite ugly. But his mother was very proud of him."
J. C. poured a beer and chuckled. "His mother... she's rather unusual. She's a good person, very hard-headed. She lives in Portland now and I understand she rides a motorcycle. She was a high school tumbler, that sort of thing, and she used to be able to pick me up and throw me across the room. I used to drink a lot and that would upset her, you know."
In 1941, J. C. was called into the Navy for several years and didn't see too much of Mel.
"He was an average child, I would say. He liked cats, I remember, he was crazy about kittens. And he liked music. He used to roll the drums at school when they brought up the flag. When he was a little older he used to sit around a lot - sort of a dreamer, I guess."
Actually, J. C. never has seen too much of Mel. He divorced Mel's mother in 1949, saw him occasionally in the summers, got a letter from him about once a year. In other words, they remained on good terms.
"Then a few years ago he sent me a copy of his book, Autobiography of a World Savior." J. C. shook his well-tanned, gray-haired head. "I still don't know what to think about that book. That thing was a total surprise. I wrote him back, I said I didn't understand it. See, Mel's mother was a Danish Norwegian Lutheran and I was raised a Catholic, but I never was what you'd call religious.
"Anyway, in the last few years he's been writing me fairly regularly. He used to tell me about all his wives. And he'd tell me how he was out to change the world. He'd say, 'The life we live is like a world within a world.'
"The other night he told me he has a terrific responsibility. They're gambling, financially, but they're very optimistic. They're hoping the new book will be a big success. He told me that right now Mark Frechette is their main financial source.
"Mel has a lot on his mind that he has to think about. I could see that he was very busy. He told me he wants to go to France and start a commune there."
George interrupted. "That's Dvora's trip," he explained. "Her family has two houses 15 minutes from the Riviera. And I think she had her mother sign 'em over to Mel just before she died."
Dvora, I remembered her - she was the rather disagreeable girl that badgered me in the Fort Hill office.
"He wants to keep expanding," continued J. C. "He figures the world's a mess and he wants to change it. I'm all for it, myself. I'm very proud of him."
"Do you think he'll succeed?" I asked.
"Wouldn't surprise me at all. Wouldn't surprise me at all. He's a lot smarter than I am. He's a leader, that's for sure."
"Do you believe he's God?"
Looking at his apartment ceiling, J. C. gave the question a moment's serious thought, then said, "I'm not convinced 100 percent that Mel Lyman is God. I'm not 100 percent convinced. But then, I'm not too religious. I'm not too sure about a lot of things."
* * *
Before reaching San Francisco, George and I stopped at some pizza shack for dinner. It had been a long day and I figured it was time to relax. But when I looked up from my beer, I noticed George was glaring at me, furious.
"You shouldn't have asked those questions to Dixie and J. C.," he said. "All your concepts about Mel and God."
"Why not? It's part of the story."
"Not to them, it isn't. They know Mel on a much simpler level; they didn't have to be bothered with questions like that."
"When I went back into the house, Dixie was crying, did you know that?"
Now I knew George was lying, or rather, acting. As we were leaving Dixie's house, George had gone back in to give her a photograph of her and Mel. She wasn't crying, she was laughing. I could hear it through the car window. Besides, she was a rugged atheist, not the kind of woman who would cry easily.
"Come on, George," l said, "That's not true. I can't believe that."
As if that remark was a cue, George started this weird number, breathing noisily in and out through his nose, like the dragons you see in cartoons. His wind tunnel eyes were blazing, it was incredible.
He kept it up for at least two minutes, staring at me all the while. I spent most of the time staring at the pizza, and, I guess, smiling.
"Well, what are we gonna do," I finally said, "stare at each other all night?"
With that George shot out his arm and - whack! - smacked me in the forehead with the back of his hand. Right there in the restaurant.
"You're on a cheap ride," he fumed, almost in tears. "And it's about to come to an end."
On the afternoon of August 12th, 1971, Jim Kweskin and two hefty associates, David Gude and Owen "O.D." deLong, paid a visit to our reporter in his San Francisco office. The ostensible reason for the meeting was to finish an interview begun earlier with Kweskin. But as it turned out, the three visitors did most of the questioning. They had heard rumors, they said. Some very strange people had been questioned - they mentioned Kay Boyle and Phil Sawyer - and they were worried about the reporter's attitude toward Mel Lyman. The following is an edited, taperecorded transcript of that encounter. It begins as Kweskin, Gude and deLong are seated in front of a desk occupied by the reporter.
Jim Kweskin (he speaks slowly, soberly, a little nervous at first): We've been misrepresented so many times, and obviously you have delved deeper than any other person from the outside. And that doesn't bother me. What bothers me is, one of the things that I'm concerned about, is how truthful, how honest you can be. I don't feel like you really feel anything from us yet. I think it's still all in your mind.
David Gude: In other words, from what feedback we're getting, we're getting a very opinionated feeling. That is, that you already have a feeling. That is, that you already have a feeling, that you're no longer open. You know, we've opened ourselves completely to you, and now we're getting a very funny feeling back again, and it's weird and...
Kweskin: Now maybe the kind of questions that you're asking people are setting them up.
Reporter: My questions do not go in the story, the answers go in. And if this is to be a truthful story and an open story, it's your answers which will determine that, not how I go about getting it. I wouldn't be worrying too much about the questions I ask. I'd worry about the answers.
Gude: You're still not digging what I'm saying. What you write, contradictions, negative things, positive, doesn't matter. All we're really interested in now is you. (Pauses dramatically.) Now a lot's been given to you, a lot of information, a lot of trust. Our life is hard enough without giving to somebody things that can make our life more difficult. It's just a question now whether we want to go any further with you. At the moment we're feeling a little distrustful of you - not because of what you're going to write, it has nothing to do with that, strictly you as a person. I mean, you know where we all live, you know so much about us now.
Reporter: When we talked before, you said that if you haven't experienced Mel Lyman you're missing something. And I agree. I agree. And I don't think until I do meet him I'm going to know what you're talking about.
Kweskin: Well, that's not true. That may be true, but that shouldn't be true. Because what happened to you on the Vineyard, what happened to you on the hill - being with David Gude, being with George Peper - that is Mel Lyman. If David felt like you truly felt him, or George Peper or any of us felt like we had truly made some personal impression on you, then we would be open to having you meet Mel. But your personal life, your personal self, we have gotten none of that from you.
I mean, I truly don't feel like you want to be my friend. I feel like you want to ask me a bunch of questions, but you have no desire to be my friend whatsoever. I want to tell you something, man. You want to write an article about Fort Hill? You want to know what that other thing is? What it is that you don't know about yet? What it is that will get you to Mel Lyman? That's what it is. Human feeling. And until you have some, until you express some, until you are that person, you're not going to find out any more.
Gude: Our goings on are no mystery. I mean, we're published in newspapers, we're doing everything we can to broadcast everything about ourselves, all the time. And you know, I personally can't even talk anymore about KPFK or anything. I mean, there's this kind of mistrust and this kind of feeling, these morality judgments that...
Reporter: I'm not making any morality judgments...
Gude: You are. You're making us stand on our heads to try and explain ourselves and I'm sick of it, because we're doing - all the time - everything we can for the sake of art and for the sake of promoting things and helping people.
Reporter: Nobody doubts your sincerity or high purpose. Nobody I've talked to. But it's simply that you have a habit of, as they say, laying your trip on somebody else.
Gude: That is a fucking lie, and you believe it just like all the rest. (shouts) It's a figment of your imagination, and you're pursuing it.
Reporter: I'm only pursuing your answer to that.
Gude: No you're not. You're pursuing it for yourself. Don't lay it all on the fact of trying to make it like some article you're writing. You're writing it for yourself. You are learning, you are seeking Mel Lyman in every way possible. (speaks more slowly.) And I'll tell you something else, the people who can understand us are working with us. There are a lot of people in the world who are just sick of dealing in the way that Maynard Solomon does, in the way that even Lisa is trying to make us deal with her. We don't live that way any more, we don't live by those rules. We simply produce from the heart. (speaks bitterly, almost gagging.) And to hell with all those ass-wiping motherfucking businessmen who do nothing but strangle you and just want the bucks, and don't give a shit about God or love or art or anything. And you can put us down for not dealing on their level, but fuck them and fuck you too. If you don't understand it and you can't see
Reporter: One thing that puzzles me, David, is you're so defensive.
Gude (shouts): I'm not defensive! I'm tired. We've been working well over 24 hours, and I've got a very, very tight schedule. And I see nothing but more of the same kind of misunderstanding and you with these same kind of questions. It's going nowhere, so I've got to put a stop to it.
Kweskin: The only people we lay any trip on are people who are obviouslynot even trying to do anything in this world, like the people at KPFK, who let their records run for five minutes on the end of a thing - shew, shew, shew - over and over again who don't give a shit about their listeners, who don't give a shit about their station...
Gude: Who fucked up our tapes when we gave them to them in great trust.That's why we went down there.
Kweskin: And I'll tell you - anybody in this world, who believes in anything, who is strong and believes in what they're doing, is accused of laying their trip on somebody. It's true of every great politician that's ever existed, of every great religious leader that's ever existed. Mohammed laid his trip on everybody, laid his trip on ten billion people.
Reporter: Against their will?
Kweskin: Sure, yes. Read your Bible. Christ, man, laid his trip on people. He said, "Dig God, man. If you don't dig God, you might as well pack it up and forget about it."
Reporter: That's not really the same thing is it?
Kweskin: Yes, it's exactly what we do. Exactly what we do.
Gude: Absolutely. At KPFK that is the entire story, it's the story of the crucifixion. They crucified us down there.
deLong: Look at people like the great musicians of the past. I mean, you could ask that very same question to Bach. "Why don't you produce something that the public could get into? Why are you producing these things that nobody likes? Don't you want to reach people?" You know what creation is? You can't help yourself. There's nothing you can do about it. God gives you the ability to create, and if you don't follow what he gives you, you die. No matter what your faults are, no matter what you think you should be doing, no matter what you think other people might want, no matter what you think other people might think of you, it doesn't matter. It comes from your guts, it comes from your heart, and comes from your soul. And it's called creation.
Reporter: But if Bach had done a little bit more than that, if he had, say, gone up and forced people to listen to it...
Gude: Hey, man, he was an Aries, and he damn well might have. If someone came along and fucked him over, he goddamn well might have slugged him right in the teeth. I mean, Hitler was a creator. Is this your whole problem? You never have been able to understand the whole concept of violence?
Reporter: I'm really not talking about violence so much as forcing people to accept against their will.
Gude: You're stretching it now. I mean, what does that have to do with creation, whether one person is forced to or not?
Reporter: It depends what your ultimate purpose is. Is it just to create, to entertain yourselves? Or is it to try to spread the word, to try to make people realize what Mel Lyman is like? If in the process of doing that, you turn them off by the methods you use, are you accomplishing that? That seems to be a logical question. Or is that not a concern of yours?
Gude: A lot of people are turned off, but they'd be turned off anyway. They were already turned off. We just gave them something to say they were turned off about.
Kweskin: We've won a lot of people. Reporter: How many, do you know?
Kweskin: Millions, I'm not just talking about the people who live with us. I'm talking about the people who have felt something, and it has affected their lives, positively or favorably. Millions.
Reporter: How do you know?
Kweskin: I know. I know by the amount of people that come to see me in clubs, what they say about me and about Mel Lyman. Strangers from all over the country. I can tell by the things they say. I can tell by what they do from the audience. Right now the performances that I've been doing in the clubs have been higher than any church that anybody's been in. God has come into the room. Several times. And those people may have thought I was demanding, and maybe I was demanding, but it happened and there were a lot of people who felt it. And there are a lot of people who come up to me afterwards with nothing but love in their faces. (At this point David Gude stands up and starts slowly pacing about the room. Actually, he is swaggering, his body swaying back and forth, his heels hitting the floor hard as he casually examines the walls, the ceiling, the full-length window of the small, fourth-story room. Gradually he circles closer to the reporter.
Reporter: What are you going to do next, do you know? After this album do you have any plans?
Gude (with mock toughness): Yeah, we're going to tie you up in the chair and beat you till you understand. We might dangle you out the window by one leg. Perhaps knuckle you around the room a little bit. (Everyone laughs.)
Kweskin: Are you scared of us?
Kweskin: In any way whatsoever?
Kweskin: Why not?
Reporter: (aside to Gude who now stands directly behind the Reporter, gloating down on him): I've heard some stories about you.
Gude: I have quick hands. (More laughter.)
Kweskin: Why not?
Reporter: I believe you respect the truth. Don't you?
Kweskin: I'm not sure you can tell the truth.
Gude: (returns to his seat, in his own way gets serious). If you got something to be afraid about, then, you know, that's the reality that perhaps will have to come to be. I don't know. I mean, as far as you go with us, that's what you'll get back. But it's really whatever you want, whatever you want, whatever you create. As a person.
Kweskin: The important part of this whole story, the personal part, the part that matters to me, the part that matters to all of us, you're never gonna get. 'Cause you're too impersonal.
Reporter: But don't you think with quotations from Mel's book and other writings and with what all of you have said, that that part, that feeling, will come through no matter what I do?
Kweskin: In other words, you are saying that the feeling of Mel Lyman is going to come through in spite of you.
Kweskin: Well, we want the feeling to come through because of you.
deLong: Because of you.
Kweskin: That's what we want.
deLong: That should be a quote, by the way.
Reporter: So what you really want me to write is "What Mel Lyman Means to Me."
Kweskin: Or I should say, the truth will come through in spite of you. That's the quote. If you want to quote me, that's what you can say. The truth will come through in spite of you. I would like the truth to come throughbecause of you.
Reporter: But you already have your mind made up that it can't.
Reporter: Because of the questions I've been asking.
Kweskin: Because of the look in your eye. Because of the way you've been talking. Because of the feeling I get from you. Because of the questions you've been asking. I want you to have a heart, man, I really do. (During this, David Gude's expression has changed noticeably. His face is drawn tight against his cheek bones. His eyes are narrow, his mouth thin and bitterly straight. He appears almost delirious with rage. Now he stands, his fists clenched, and shouts.)
Gude: There's a little bit more to life than just your fucking newspaper!
Reporter: I know that.
Gude: I don't think you do. I think you're a vicious con man and a killer. You kill us. You kill the spirit - you and a million people like you.
Reporter: How are you going to change me? And a million people like me?
Gude: We've been trying for a long time now, haven't we! What's it gonna take? (Gude leans over the desk and, with a huge, violent sweep of his right hand, smashes the tape recorder, knocking it to the floor several feet away. Nonetheless, the sturdy little fucker keeps recording.)
Reporter: Get out, all of you.
Gude: You feel anything?
Reporter: You want me to be afraid of you.
Kweskin: I want you to feel something, that's all. We've been sitting here for hours trying to make you feel something, something good. But you won't.
Gude (continues screaming): You refuse to feel a goddamn thing. You refuse me as a person. You refuse him as a person. You hate his guts as a person. And we've been putting ourselves out and putting ourselves out. And you're making money from it.
Reporter: I'm not doing it for the money.
Gude: What are you doing it for?
Reporter: I think it's an important story, as I've said from the start.
Gude: What is important, man? (hits desk with fist) Am I important? I wish you would make me feel it. What do I gotta do to make you feel me - David Gude? (Reporter walks to the door, opens it.)
Gude: That's what you feel from me - throw us the fuck out right? I'm hurtin' inside and you're throwing me the fuck out. 'Cause you're scared.
Reporter: I'm not scared.
Kweskin: Then why you throwin' us out?
Reporter: This is not the way I work.
Kweskin: You want to know what Mel Lyman is? I'm going to tell you what Mel Lyman is. Mel Lyman is the person who made me want to feel people. He made me feel something. And now I can't live without it.
Gude: He made us care.
Kweskin (now also starts to scream): That's what life is all about. Feeling. And I don't feel you. And if you do, I want to see it. And if you don't knowhow, why don't you ask? And I don't mean with words.
deLong: What do you think God wants from you? If you express your feeling, it's not gonna jeopardize your story. We can go on from here and create a greater story.
Kweskin: You want to write an article about Mel Lyman? You're going to have to show us your feelings or you're not gonna get your story.
(Exit Kweskin, Gude and deLong.)
* * *
Owen deLong is a normally quiet, powerfully built man with a distinguished goatee and academic record. In various capacities he attended Harvard from 1957 through 1968, graduating magna cum laude from the department of philosophy in 1961 and earning his Master's degree from the department of government in 1965. While working on his doctoral dissertation, "The Ideological Origins of Pragmatism in US Foreign Policy," Owen was given 15 assignments as a Harvard teaching fellow in history and government.
He was a consultant on Western Europe and East Asia for the Arthur D. Little "think tank," a fund raiser for the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton and a volunteer speech writer for Senators Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy. Owen lists among his personal references Dr. Carl Kaysen of Princeton and Dr. Henry Kissinger.
So it must have been a bit humiliating when Melvin ordered him, as punishment for failing to commandeer Kay Boyle's San Francisco house in late 1970, to work as a waiter at one of the Frascati restaurants in West Hollywood. Oh well, it was a rich-mouth restaurant, and the fledgling Edinburgh Avenue community needed the money. Plus the job allowed Owen enough daytime off to look for better assignments. Particularly in the media.
First he sought out KCET, Channel 28, Los Angeles' educational television station.
"This was last November or December when Owen and George Peper visited the station," recalled Charles Allen, KCET program director. "They said they were working with a creative group of persons from Boston, and they had come out to see what kind of climate there was for the arts in L.A.
"Owen did 90 percent of the talking. He said Peper was an outstanding filmmaker, although Peper himself did not have much to say and I was unable to ascertain any specifics of his film background. At no time did either of them mention the names American Avatar or Mel Lyman."
On several occasions, said Allen, Owen returned to the station and talked at length on governmental and foreign policy. He even attended a party one night where he met most of the station's producers.
"He had a very outstanding resume, which was interesting to us because at that time we were getting into a great deal of news analysis. And Owen looked extremely brilliant on paper. He was articulate and seemed very, very bright."
Eventually, Allen said, Owen was not hired because funds for another news analyst's job did not come through. Also Owen had insisted that George be hired at the same time. "He was adamant that both work together, which was something we didn't take very seriously. I mean, normally when a filmmaker comes in looking for work, he has cans of film under his arm. But the silent Mr. Peper had nothing."
After that episode, Owen may have dropped out of sight for a while. We don't really know. In January of this year, United Illuminating Realty Trust bought the house on Sierra Bonita, and in April, "James Kweskin et al." purchased the Eastman mansion on Hollywood Boulevard. So perhaps deLong et al. were busy moving into those places.
But sometime in May Owen's resume finally worked and he was hired as program director for KPFK-FM, the liberal, politically oriented Pacifica radio station in Los Angeles.
"Then, I guess it was in late May or early June," Allen remembered, "I got a call from Marvin Segelman, the station manager at KPFK. Marvin said, 'Did you ever speak to a fellow named Owen deLong?' I said yes. And he said, 'Well, a peculiar thing has happened here...'"
So peculiar, in fact, that for two months afterward everyone at KPFK refused to talk about it. They were even reluctant to file police reports until, a week or two later, the FBI insisted on it. Finally, after receiving a promise of anonymity and a short lecture on the power of a free press, one witness, a man who had worked at KPFK for some time, agreed to discuss the matter, over the phone, long distance.
"Owen's a difficult person to describe," he began. "Superficially, he was very quiet. And he spoke very softly, and he moved very slowly, the sort of person one might describe in other circumstances as bookish, intellectual - withdrawn, perhaps. Certainly not outgoing or boisterous.
"One thing that clearly sticks in my mind was the first meeting that he had as Program Director with the programming portion of the staff here. He came in and he said, you know, 'I'm sure you all would like to know who I am and what I have in mind,' and started to give us a little speech about what his philosophy was for programming, which was extremely strange. I had no idea what he was talking about.
"I remember one thing. The National Lawyers Guild planned to hold here in Los Angeles a symposium similar to the Detroit Winter Soldier thing, and we wanted to broadcast it live. That sort of thing is exactly the stuff we put on because nobody else will put it on. And Owen was very negative about it. 'I'm not even sure that here at the station we want to have something which is what you've been calling public affairs.' And he got very mystical and said, 'People here in Los Angeles are searching for something. I don't know whether there's an answer, but I think we should try to find it and give it to them.'
"Everybody was slightly confused, but people here are pretty tolerant and we thought, OK, we'll give him a chance. But then things just got weirder and weirder. Something was wrong. Nobody could put their finger on it at the time, but everybody felt it."
"There was a growing uneasiness about him?"
"Oh yes, definitely. Let me tell you the specific thing which coalesced the staff's opinion and culminated in the assault. Every so often at the station we have open time, time scheduled on the air where for any variety of reasons no program is available. And it turns out that during this month there was an hour, I think once a week in the afternoon, that was free like this. And Owen said he had something he wanted to put in there. He said, 'I have these friends of mine who have produced a very fine and interesting music program, sort of a history of rhythm and blues.'"
"At this time had he said anything about American Avatar or Mel Lyman?"
"No, no. It had been known - I don't know how this came out - that Owen in fact had belonged to a commune back East. But for all we knew it was just a bunch of people who got together and cooked meals in a big pot.
"OK, so he brings in a tape, and after it was broadcast he complained that it wasn't broadcast at a loud enough level. And the person in charge of those details, the Production Director, said, 'OK, well, when you bring the next one in, I'll check it to make sure the board operator didn't foul up.'"
When Owen brought in the next week's tape, said the witness, he carefully pointed out that it was preceded by a test tone, a standard procedure for setting levels.
"The Production Director took the tape down personally, set it up on the tape machine, checked the test tone level, made sure it was absolutely perfect and ran the tape. Well, Owen came down while the tape was on and again started complaining that it wasn't loud enough. He wanted to turn the broadcast volume up. The board operator pointed out that if one turned the broadcast volume up, one risked the danger of overmodulating the signal and causing distortion and increasing the background hiss of the tape to an objectionable level."
According to the KPFK engineers, the tape itself was at fault "The Production Director had inspected the earlier tape and said he thought the basic problem was that the program material wasn't recorded loud enough on the tape. And you can't compensate for that. There's absolutely no question about this. Several people checked this, it was definitely below the norm. It was definitely below the quality of the stuff that we produce and broadcast regularly here.
"OK." Here the witness took a deep breath. "On the third program, a week later, about two minutes before it was over, Owen goes down to the broadcast studio, goes in, orders the person on duty at the master console to phase the program down and to give him a live microphone. Now this is strictly against every rule of operation here and probably even violates some FCC rules, I don't know. One does not interrupt programs for any reason unless it's some really dire emergency. Also, he did not identify himself. The point is, it was highly irregular.
"And Owen went on the air - the poor engineer is just sitting there with his mouth hanging open - and he said, 'This program is being taken off the air because it's not being presented properly, in the proper technical fashion.' And some other statement to the effect that it's a shame programs which are produced as well, artistically and technically, as this program can't be aired properly. And furthermore, if listeners have any concern about this radio station, they should call and write and complain about this.
"No sooner had he said this, I mean the words had hardly quit resonating through the room, than our telephone switchboard began to light up - ten or 12 calls. Which is automatically suspicious, because we've had any number of weird things go out over the air, real emergencies, disaster, what have you, and there is always a five-to-ten-minute lag before phone calls start coming in. And these calls came in instantly."
After several almost identical calls in, David Cloud, the station's associate musical director, told the switchboard he'd take the next one.
"David must have talked to this person at least seven or eight minutes, and he was just saying the same old thing, getting more and more berating. So finally David said, 'I hope you don't mind me asking, and you certainly don't have to answer this if you don't want to, but did someone ask you to call?' And the person said, 'No, I did it spontaneously.' And David said, 'OK, well, I appreciate your being honest,' and the guy finally hung up.
"So then David put the phone down and turned around... and Owen deLong was standing there. He'd been standing there for 30 seconds or so, and apparently heard the last part of the conversation. He had an absolutely ferocious look on his face and shouted at David, 'Come here. I want to talk to you!' He was quite clearly angry, and David was quite clearly frightened. And David said, 'I don't want to talk to you right now. I'll talk to you later.'
"At that point Owen rushed over, grabbed David's shirt and his arm, his left arm, grabbed him and pushed him a good ten to 12 feet against the sharp outer corner of this wall. There was an L-shaped metal brace on the corner, and it hit him right in the back, about an inch away from his spine. Owen grabbed his arm with such force that the imprint of four of his fingers was clearly visible for about a week; it had broken capillaries under the skin. And David had this huge bruise, six or seven inches long, up his rear end to where his kidneys were. He couldn't sit down for at least a day. He was almost picked up off his feet; he's very slight, about 6'3",", 140 pounds. And Owen's about a six-footer, 190 pounds.
"So then David broke away from him, ran down the hall, and Owen was chasing him, shouting and screaming. And he had this absolutely maniacal look on his face. I have never seen a look like that on the face of any human being before. An absolute and total contrast to any state I had seen Owen in before, a complete Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde transformation. David was terror-stricken, he was afraid for his life. He ran toward the back part of the building where some other staff members, who had been alerted by the switchboard operator, ushered him into the lounge part of the women's restroom. And everybody's asking, you know, 'What happened, what happened?'
"And then Owen comes to the door of the lounge, opens the door, comes in, closes the door behind him, puts his back to the door, holding the door closed, blocking it, saying:
"'I want to talk to you! David, you have to talk to me! David, YOU ARE IN MY POWER!" That's an exact quote. 'DAVID, YOU WORK FOR ME! I'M RESPONSIBLE FOR YOU!'
"And all David said was, 'Owen, I don't want to talk to you. Please go away and leave me alone.' Several people pushed Owen out of the way, and David ran outside the building, onto the sidewalk, where he was finally able to regain his senses."
Actually, what he did was run up to two KPFK production people more or less for protection. They were standing in front of the building, a few feet from Cahuenga Boulevard West, and David starting chatting with them, as casually as he could, gradually catching his breath. A few moments later the door opened and out walked Owen deLong. Slowly he approached the three.
He was completely different," said the witness. "He was very calm, not aggressive or violent, and he had this absolutely dazed look on his face - you know, staring straight ahead, looking at somebody but not seeing them, that sort of thing. He looked as if he were really spaced out on acid. He didn't even acknowledge David's presence."
When Owen started speaking, the words were almost inaudible blending with the low, rhythmic rush of cars from the nearby Hollywood Freeway.
"He kept mumbling and saying things to himself. Things like, 'The fellow who produced this program will never produce another program for us again. It was such a good program. Too bad the program won't be on. The fellow who produced this program will never...'"
* * *
In the meantime someone had phoned station manager Marvin Segelman, who was at lunch. He returned, took Owen out for coffee, talked with him for a bit and fired him. "Owen said he was only trying to wake David up," recalled Segelman. "I said that's fine, but no touching, no hitting, you know?" He also fired Joey the Janitor, a member of the Lyman Family who had been hired by Owen and who had built, at the Family's suggestion and expense, a fine set of shelves in the record library. KPFK agreed to pay for the shelves, said Segelman, but no bill had been presented.
That night a meeting of the KPFK board and staff, about 40 people, was scheduled in the station's auditorium upstairs. Owen asked Segelman if he could attend and give his side of things, and Segelman, a fair-minded liberal to the end, said OK. The following is from an edited tape recording of that meeting, also attended by Mark Frechette:
Marvin Segelman: One of the issues involved in recent days which I think has manifested itself as something which must be dealt with by us is the question of Owen, and his position as program director. Owen has asked to express himself and his ideas to us, and I think that possibly the best opening for this meeting is at this point to listen to Owen and to react to him and then have an opportunity to relate to each other as best we can.
(As Owen speaks, he struts dramatically about the room, punctuating his remarks with loud boot stomps, long silences and cold stares inches from the faces of individual staff members. No one interrupts.)
deLong: We had a program on today called "Wake Up." (Stomp, stomp, stomp.) I took it off the air, to try to make the listening audience wake up. (Stomp, stomp, stomp.) I grabbed David in the hall to try to make David wake up, to wake the whole staff up. (Stomp, stomp, stomp.) Everybody here is aware, in one way or another, that this station is about to die. Somehow each of you ultimately resists the spirit. (Stomp, stomp, stomp, stomp.) You didn't even want to talk to me, after what I had done to David. You wanted me to leave the building. I was dangerous. Something might change. (Stomp, stomp.) Well, I'm leaving. And I don't know whether anything will change or not. And I think the only thing I've been able to do, and it's all that I had hoped to do, is to provide the opportunity for all of you to change. (Stomp, stomp stomp.) If you can. (Stomp, stomp, stomp.) But that's the only thing that will save this station. And I don't know whether the spirit will ever come again or not. And I don't know if you'll recognize it when it comes.
A defiant woman: Who said the station's about to die? I don't think anybody here feels that. I don't think anybody here feels the station is about to die.
Frechette: That's what wrong. There isn't one person here, besides Owen, who feels that.
A low-voiced, slightly pompous man: That's quite a presumption for anyone to make.
Frechette: It's also the truth.
Pompous man, scornfully: The spirit? Station dying? Come off it.
(deLong and Frechette stomp out of the auditorium. There is a pause, then the entire staff breaks out in laughter and cynical giggling.)
A frightened woman: Marvin, could I interrupt for a second? have a terrible... I'm afraid. Could I just say something? I have an awful premonition... a maybe foolish fear... of an explosion or a bomb or something.
Pompous man: I don't think so. What we have heard, it seems to me, is something that I've heard many times before. But I don't think... that we have any cause for fear. At all. If I were to deliver myself of any opinion in terms of what we have just heard I would spell it P ... I ... T ... Y. It's terribly unfortunate but I don't think that any of us ought to react in any spirit of any kind of fear at all. If anything, that man needs compassion it seems to me, of every person in this room, irrespective of what we may think, either in a personal way or as a result of actions that took place here in this building this afternoon. It's quite obvious, at least to me, that that man needs help. And I think if any of us here are in a position to give it to him, we ought to try and do so.
* * *
"It was so fine and efficient," said George Peper, shoving a recent forkful of pancakes into his beaming mouth. "Jessie and I were living out in L.A. at the time, and we were just talking about KPFK that morning. And we got a call from Mel in New York.
George wiped some syrup from his chin. "Mel called, and we weremobilized in half an hour. Three cars full in half an hour!"
Three cars full, ten people speeding east on Sunset Blvd. in the afternoon sun. Mark Frechette, George, Owen, David Gude, the whole crew. Mark sitting in the back, adjusting his grip on the crowbar, slapping it into his other hand, thinking about what Owen said the night before, "station's about to die, station's about to die."
At Highland the cars turned left, heading north past the Hollywood Bowl to the northbound lanes of the Hollywood Freeway, then off at Lankershim, left on the overpass to Cahuenga Blvd. West, up a service alley to the rear of a modern, two-story, brick and concrete building, KPFK.
"We were all sitting around in the hallway, drinking coffee," Marvin Segelman said later. "You know, there's kind of a reception area there and we were just sitting around. And they came in the front door. They were armed with hammers and screwdrivers and crowbars.
"They announced they were gonna take back their shelves. And, well, I told 'em they could do that. We were going to pay for them, they were beautiful shelves. But I said they could have them back. I wasn't about to stop them.
"They stationed people at the front and back. Half of them went to the music library and started ripping out the shelves, and the other half went to the doors. I just told everyone to keep working and not say anything.
"But then our chief engineer went to leave, and they wouldn't let him. They sort of shoved him back, not hard, they just wouldn't let him leave."
Apparently that was the door manned by Mark Frechette. "I was just the back door man, that's all," Mark recalled, chuckling. "I just played the big Nazi part, you know. There's plenty of room to play the Nazi part around here. The guy wanted to go through and I just told him to go ask someone else. 'My orders are no one goes through.'
"I was mad. And the thing that got me mad was there was nothing to get mad at. They all just kept working. We thought there was gonna be resistance, you know? I mean, when there's no opposition, there's no change."
David Cloud was quietly working in the music library when four men he'd never seen before suddenly stormed in and started demolishing the new shelves with crowbars. "Hey, what do you guys think you're doing?" he shouted. A female employee grabbed David and led him from the room, cupping her hand over his mouth. "I'll explain it to you later," she said. Segelman told him to "go to my office and lock yourself in."
Meanwhile, said Segelman, some of the Lyman people were going up to employees at their desks, particularly secretaries, and verbally intimidating them, yelling at them to "wake up," or silently staring at them bug-eyed.
"Finally, one guy who works for us on our Folio, a big guy simply bolted out the front door and called the cops."
KPFK Operations Director Paul Fagan also was in the reception area when the Lyman forces marched in. "It appeared to be a fairly well-executed paramilitary operation," he said later. "No instructions were given. Each person seemed to know exactly where he was supposed to go.
"The effect was to terrorize the entire station, just by their numbers and strangeness. They stared, they followed people; they stared, you know, with that kind of vacant stare of controlled rage."
Fagan's first reaction was to protect the master control room, the station's nerve center, and he rushed to the rear of the first floor where it was located. Just in time; David Gude had already taken his position inside.
"I told him to leave," said Fagan. "He wouldn't, so I grabbed him by the shirt and pulled him out. He just stood there with this look of glee on his face, because, I guess, I was forced to touch him."
The control room door was then locked, and Fagan started patrolling the halls looking for trouble. "I mean, they walked in with hammers and crowbars. There was no way to tell what they intended to do. If any of us had lost control and started slugging, it would have been a Donnybrook."
At one point Fagan tried to escape through the front door, but Owen grabbed him from behind and demanded, "What's going on, Paul?" Fagan jerked free and said something sarcastic about oh nothing, just a bunch of guys roaming around with crowbars.
Owen stared at him fiercely and repeated, "No really, what's going on?"
Then, said Fagan, Owen lunged forward as if he was going to strike him. Paul recoiled, pointing his finger and shouting angrily, "Don't do that again!"
Owen smiled and acknowledged Fagan's hand. "What's that?" he asked, teasing.
"Uh... it's my finger."
"No it's not, it's a gun. Would you kill me?"
Fagan stuttered. "I, uh... I don't know, I..."
"Well, I would kill you."
Fagan pushed deLong aside and continued his patrol. "I walked into the music room where a group of them were taking down the shelves. It was really bizarre, like some strange kind of church service. They all stopped what they were doing and began this strange litany."
The litany, recalled Paul, consisted mainly of single words chanted in ominous tones.
"Afraid," said one.
"Not real," said another.
According to Fagan, "When I asked one of them, 'What do you mean?' another would answer, 'No spirit,' something like that. Then one guy pointed at my hair and said, 'I hear the hair continues to grow after the body's dead.'
"'Are you going to kill me?' I asked, and one of them said, 'We would if we wanted to, but you're dead already.'
"Finally, after they finished dismantling the shelves, one of them - I guess it was David Gude - came up with his crowbar and began slowly moving it around my head and my body.
"'You and David Cloud better watch out,' he told me. I said 'For what?' and he said, 'You'll find out soon enough.'"
This sort of thing, Fagan recalled, was going on all over the building. "It was eerie: individually they weren't much, but you could really feel the power of the group as a whole.
"I don't know if 'terrorizing' is the right word, exactly. What they were doing was, they were mindfucking us, you know?"
As the police arrived the last of the shelves were being removed and carried outside to the three cars in the alley.
The police checked the IDs of the invaders and took down their names. But when KPFK refused to file an official complaint, the made no arrests, simply waited until the shelves were removed and the building cleared. Later, agents from the FBI advised Segelman to file a report, "just to get it on the record."
"I remember one person shouted, 'This place is dead, we might as well go ahead and blow up the building,'" said our earlier witness. "That was the thing that made us feel there perhaps was some danger to the staff members."
As a precaution, Segelman hired a private guard to protect KPFK for a week.
Somewhere in all this was a lesson, and Mel Lyman figured it should be taught to more people than just the staff at KPFK.
A few days later he wrote a little sermon and asked the editors of the Los Angeles Free Press to print it. For some reason they consented, without even a proof read. Headlined THE WORLD IS DYING, the item attacked "all those empty faggots and KPFK," and concluded with these words:"You know what I'm gonna do, I'm gonna get up an army of all the people in this world who still have enough balls to fight this creeping decay and we're gonna go around raiding all you creeps, and there ain't nothing you can do about it, just sit on your beards and wait for us to come. It will probably take me a long time but there's nothing else to do. I don't give a damn about my life anymore because I'm a living, feeling, dedicated human being all alone on a big dead planet. I don't want to do God's Will. God is angry at you, I know, he tells me so. You killed Him. You stuck a joint in his mouth and put him out to pasture, you palmed him off on your friends as "peace and love. You made a mockery of His Great Strength. You crucified Him in HIS NAME. But he'll get you, he ain't that easy to lay aside, he's inside you right now and mad as hell. You forgot about His Wrath. He'll make a Big Earthquake and swallow you all up, ideas and all. And He's inside ME! He makes my heart pound He's so big inside me. He's coming back, and not like you thought he would, he's coming back Mad. He is the great destroyer. "War and Hate,
* * *
Mere mention of the American Avatar community at community supported KPFK-FM radio station in Los Angeles causes shudders, talk of 'fearing for one's life,' and bewilderment. When I was to meet Avatar family members at the Troubadour to talk about their 'raid' on KPFK and then to visit their home, I was advised to cancel the meetings or take along a bodyguard. Yet after several contacts with Mel Lyman's friends in Los Angeles (I didn't cancel and I did go alone!) I found them cheerful, creative and very together people who I really liked." -Editor Art Kunkin, "Is Mel Lyman God?" Los Angeles Free Press,
July 30, 1971
Dear Mel,Paul Viola
Glad to see someone defend the practice of insulting people for the sake of waking them up. Been my method all the time. But it would be advised: No, no - you'll only turn people off by trying to tell them what's wrong with them. Almost started feeling guilty.
Your judgments are usually correct. They usually match mine, that is. This is one of the correct ones.
Pull their hats down over their eyes, Mel. Spin them in circles, so they land with a rude bump on the tip of the spine. Enough bumps, and they smile, scratch their head, and say "Oh! ... Yeah!"
It's a good paper. Thank you. Did you think you had any Avatar-reading med students?
"My feelings are very mixed about him. In one way he's like colossally evil and dangerous, and in another way he's like, you know, just the fact that hecan gather all these people around him and make them believe in him so much means that there's something in him that's - unusual, for lack of a better word."-Paula Press
"Spiritual hunger is a familiar enough theme these days. It is clearly in evidence here. It is too often forgotten, however, that there is also a very human and a very powerful desire to satisfy that hunger. It is Paul Tillich, in fact, who claims for man a certain primitive courage that almost compels him to make sense of a mad world and see purpose and meaning in his own life.-Anthony R. Dolan, "Do You Know the Courage Man?"
"Mel appeals to that courage. He arouses it. And because of this, it is more than likely that his cult will grow. To a spiritually starved generation he offers an explanation. He sees the meaning in life. He's sure he's right. He has all the dogmas, all the answers. He's the Avatar. Hell, he's God. And he's a groovy God. He talks hip. You can understand him."
National Review, Dec. 3, 1968
"I fail him every day. I fail him all the time. And he puts up with me. As long as I can be of service to him, I can stay near him. And it is these things that are the most important thing in my life. I've given up, you know, making a name for myself, or making money, or my family. All those things I have put aside. Any personal gratification that I get from something, well, that's great, you know? But what does it have to do with mankind? What does it have to do with this planet, and with the world? And those are the things that he is concerned with. And they're obviously the most important things."-David Gude
"In a funny way, though children are my life, I don't live for them. In other words, if you as a person have a greater purpose, you can't help but give your children a greater purpose. In my life here, at any moment I may be called away from my children. I was sent away from them this time last year. I had to leave 'em and go all by myself down to New York, and it was awful. But that was still more important to me, doing whatever Melvin tells me is still more important to me, you know, than even the children."-Faith Franckenstein
"When I'm in the same room with Mel, I feel like a big dummy. I feel my own stupidity and my own heaviness, my own prides and my own ego and all the things that, you know, somehow I trick myself into believing aren't there. When he's around you just see it all, you just see yourself so freely. You can't help it.-Jim Kweskin
"When he's angry, there's nobody that's ever angrier. When he's happy there's nobody that's ever happier. When he's sad, there's nobody that's ever sadder. When he's funny, there's nobody that's ever funnier.
"I think if I hadn't met Mel Lyman I would be dead."
What a waste it would have been, thinking how I came all this way and did not talk to Mel. But I sit here and I'm glad. Why am I glad? I am afraid to talk to him. I am timid to go in and say, "Hello, I'm Mike and I came to talk to you," with big exuberant exclamation points.-from a letter in Avatar
But I sit here all nervous and glad to retreat unnoticed to a corner.
There is greatness in the next room... too much for me to touch without getting burned bad, burned good. I never in my life met anybody who I did not feel as if I could crush, who I was better than... didn't need to listen to.
I can't touch Mel... I just listen to low talking in the next room.
This is so good. People rap about how Mel is on an ego-trip, blowing himself up with self-importance. He is important, but it's not for him that you say it. You say it for yourself... he doesn't need it.
He knows. We all need Mel.
Mel,Hitch-hiking-feeler-bum-thinker-doer-that is me
I know you from some other time. Remember? I'm the little sensitive guy that used to listen to you when you spoke to the crowds by the river. You looked at me once, and you knew. It's great to see you again. I'm living now Mel. I picked up an Avatar in Boston and saw your name. I knew. I would break an arm to sit and talk through the night with you Mel. I think you have The Key and I will need it to unlock the door.... how do I find you? I'm not familiar with the Boston area but I'll find you somehow. That will be fun too. Someday soon I'll walk in and say, "Hi Mel" and you will know. Wow, we have some great things to talk about.
Wayne Hansen to Harry Duncan, editor, the Blue Bus:
"We were all pleased to see that you have been using Mel's stuff in The Blue Bus but I'd like to caution you. Mel is a totally conscious person, and when he writes, he is a totally conscious writer. That makes it absolutely impossible to edit his stuff or to leave any typos in it ... Mel's stuff can be used as an example and a standard for perfection. Recently many people have commented to me about how clean the paper is, how carefully we must work to keep it looking so good. Well, that result comes from constantly striving to keep Ol' Mel happy."
"By any standards whatsoever, Mel Lyman is the best writer alive on this planet today. That is such a small thing in the face of what Mel is that it almost makes me laugh to say it, it's like saying Mel knows more about contemporary football than anyone else around (also true), but I say it because I know it will surprise a lot of you when you finally realize I mean what I say in that first sentence, I feel it from the bottom of my heart and every inch of the way up, and that's the purpose of this essay, to let you know what Mel's writing is to me and to help you realize that Mel's words contain more of the magic ingredients that fill emptiness than any other product on the shelves. When you reach for printed matter, reach for Melvin."-Paul Williams, essay on Mel Lyman prepared for Crawdaddy
"His voice nasal and off-key, is most readily compared to Woody Guthrie's, but where Guthrie sings extroverted 'hey-hey-hey's' between verses, Lyman moans, often throughout entire songs. Lyman knows that his voice is awful but for his kind of performance, It makes no difference. His gentleness, honesty, and warmth pervade the Orleans; the audience becomes noticeably kinder by the end of the evening than it was at the beginning."-Linda Kalver, "Lyman Happens at Orleans,"
Boston After Dark, May 11, 1966
Dear Mel,My love and happiness to you,
I called Boston today and talked to Maria at Avatar and she gave me your address. I always feel so close to you in my mind and heart it jolts me when I realize that years have passed since we have seen each other.
That day I came home from the mental hospital. Walking into you house and seeing you there with tears in your eyes. No one has ever cried for me, Mel. No one but you. And then kneeling in front of you and you took my hands and held them and the shadows that were in front of our eyes came down for that moment and we looked at each other and really, really saw, and there is just nothing else to say. You are in my heart, you have and always will be. You know I love you for I do, and you, therefore, know it. It doesn't even require you being near. It is just there, lying soft and quiet and warm, a little thing deep inside, like a glow. I don't even get curious about it. I just accept it. How nice and how comforting that it has always been there.
I love you Mel, and if love keeps one safe, your protection is immense.
Dear Mel,Love, Wayne
I can't seem to not write this letter to you. I have tried, but I keep ending up here in front of the typewriter. I even tried writing this letter to someone else - it must be because I read the book all the way through the completed version last night for the very first time.
For me to approach the book to read it is already an awesome responsibility. I stand in awe of its greatness and purity - I can't believe it. It's full of miracles and its greatest miracle is its reality. It really is the new bible, born to be read and read again, inexhaustible in its capacity to teach. Sometimes I come to a passage I've read before and I say 'oh no, I can't read that one again, I couldn't stand it,' but I read it and it's not what I remembered at all, it's something new each time.
I want to take Mirror at the End of the Road and wave it in front of every face in America and shout "Read this!" I can't wait until it's printed so I can go and do just that. Nowhere, ever, has such an opportunity as this book been made available to people. I want to make sure they don't miss it. They can't afford to lose out, and I can't afford to let them.
I want to go on and on, but this book is of the Spirit, and it beggars praise or criticism or personal opinion. In the past Christian martyrs died for the Spirit and Christian crusaders killed for it, but you make the greatest sacrifice of all, you LIVE for it.
-Preface, Mirror at the End of the Road
Dear Mel,Thank you so much,
I had never heard of Avatar till a friend gave me no. 9. Now I shall never be without it. I was a strange blend of straight and hippie, and I was lonely. I didn't really fit in with either. But now I am not alone anymore, for you have reached out and touched me.
When I came to Boston - to the hill, I saw you as my goal - as my Christ - and I wanted to crawl into your body and see the world through your eyes and mind and body. But I couldn't so I settled for listening to your every word and becoming one of your faithful followers. Yet I feel that I've lost a part of you - I know that I will gain so much more. I cannot continue any longer - my mind is blank and my emotions are taking over. So I end this letter half finished - only to say that I hope you understand that this is all one foolish child can say to her Christ,
Eva (the little Virgo-Aquarius)
Dear Mel,Love from your little sister and
I just finished reading a book called Siddhartha, and while I was reading it I had a weird, familiar feeling - I knew Siddhartha. You are Siddhartha. How much you must know - how much you must have lived - how hard it must have been.
I never got the last issue of Avatar, but I just bought No. 22. It's 3:00 A.M. and I just found out that you're leaving. I'm so shook, I can't sleep - now and I'm scared of the dark anyway.
Mel, I love you! I need you so bad! In 3 days I'll be seventeen (yes, only a mere child). Maybe I don't matter to you, but I've always felt that you loved us all, no matter what. I may not have made it this far if not for you. I've learned too much too fast and am terrified by it. Twice I tried to cop out and both times I made it back in time. I won't go into detail because it's not important now. Anyway you have been my greatest help in times when I can't trust myself. I may even become a stable person after all, but for now I'm afraid again. Oh Mel, you are the best thing in my grey little life. Everything is so dull. But I love the sunshine and I love you! Oh, baby, please don't go! Help me! I need you! I'm begging! I'm crying!
I've been telling myself I'll go to Boston in the summer and see you but I m broke and Mom will worry etc. I will leave right now if I can catch you and worry about other things later.
Do you know watt I was going to do when I got to Boston? I was going to scream with joy and run all the way to 37 Rutland St. and when I found you I was going to kiss your feet. I adore you.
Can I still come? Where are you going? Will you answer me please? I'll do as you say whatever you say.
Oh Mel, I'm so afraid! I'm afraid of the dark and of being alone now. I'm crying in big sobs now and can't write much more! Please don't leave me! I love you! Please, please, don't leave me all alone!!
"God I love him; how the hell will I weasel out of this one?"-Paul Williams, essay on Mel Lyman
I LOVE you, Mel, I love you all. Christ, am I going QUEER, loving people with names like Mel and Wayne and Brian and Skip? And Eben? But no, I still play with myself occasionally; I still give chicks the eye; no, maybe I'm bisexual. No, dammit. Maybe - just maybe - I'm finally shedding all my hangups and finally beginning to LOVE.
Keep it coming. No, on second thought, take it easy - I don't know if I can take it. NO. On third thought, KEEP IT COMING - and I'll write you again when I become anti-matter.
Max Lefcourts on Madison Avenue has always wondrous shoes. One pair indeed was shaped somewhere in Italy especially for Mr. Lyman. It took the passionate Latin soul to shoe Christ.... Once shod, Mel became a perfectly perfect Twinkle-Toes and danced straight out of the shop with Owen deLong and over to the CBS building where I awaited. He said, "Owen bought me some shoes. How do I look?" "Like Mel Lyman," I said. Which was true and which made him happy.-Brian
(Under a picture of Mel's shoes in the Avatar, Third Cycle-Second Issue)
I never believed in God before I heard of you, but I do now; you are my God. Thank you for being. Even though it probably makes you sick, I love you.
Dear Mel,Love Mel
You are so great I can hardly stand it, I would rather read your words than anything that has ever been written, the world has been waiting for a man like you to come along for a long time now, thank God you're finally here.
* * *
Mel today (with teeth):
"My past is very important to me." Boxes of letters.
The jet descended into one of those rare Los Angeles nights when late autumn breezes turn the city into a basin of warm coals. George sat by the window, staring first at the million lights below, then the stars. He seemed at peace with the ride. "Taurus moon," he finally announced as the runway beacons came into view. "It's always smooth like this when there's a full moon in Taurus."
Wayne Hansen was there to meet us and took us immediately to a gold Mercury limousine idling outside the terminal. As we approached, the driver's side of the car suddenly exploded and out popped a handsome young chauffeur wearing a black tuxedo, black cap and tiny black glasses. He spoke not a word but went straight to his work, in four staccato movements grabbed George's bag, dumped it in the trunk, slammed the passenger doors shut and sped off toward the Hollywood Hills.
Despite his swiftness and dark glasses, he was at once recognizable from his many photographs. There was no mistaking the gaunt cheek bones and well-trimmed, boyish hair, and I felt a strange calm knowing I was in the hands of the Great Prankster. It all seemed so symbolically right. "Next time go to hell, and leave the driving to Mel." There were no introductions except for George leaning over in the front seat and whispering, "Hello, brother." Yet I was sure of his identity. For one thing I had seen that black cap before in snapshots from the Mirror book. And then, as we raced up La Cienega at 4 AM, Wayne asked him some mock chauffeur questions and called him "Richards." Of course - the Richard Herbruck thing.
How long would they play this game? I wondered as we all piled out at the Eastman Mansion. I stared at the chauffeur for a sign, a grin perhaps, but he simply whipped around with George's bag and hurried into the servant's entrance. I smiled knowingly at George, but he acknowledged nothing, just told us to take off our shoes and led us through a side door to the living room.
As George had explained earlier, the Los Angeles Community was operating on a night schedule, which meant that dinner would be served in an hour or so. Thus the atmosphere seemed one of formal relaxation after a hard night's day. Fires were burning in many of the rooms, and one by one members of the family, their faces scrubbed and clothes neatly ironed, wandered in and sat around the main fireplace. For the most part these were the vets, Melvin's oldest and closest disciples. Jessie was there, David Gude, Eddie, Melinda. Jim Kweskin would have been there had he not been touring. Each person said hello, sat down and stared silently, usually straight ahead. There was no small talk. Also no big talk, no reading, no fidgeting, no music, no TV, no joking and no touching. The silences were unnerving; someone should poke up the fire, I thought, then maybe turn around and jab a few times at these smouldering zombies.
At one point George mentioned the smooth plane ride attributable to the peculiar aerodynamic qualities of a full Taurus moon. "It was full two days ago," sneered Melinda, concluding the discussion.
I kept looking for the chauffeur. What was he doing, changing clothes in some backroom phone booth for yet another theatrical prank? After about 20 minutes a woman walked in whom I had not yet met, a strangely beautiful and slender woman in a long white fairy dress. She was introduced as Eve Chayse, Gail's sister, and appeared friendly, high spirited and extremely pale, as if she had just given blood for a noble cause.
"Would you like to meet Mel?" she asked, and I realized that the moment to impress these dullards with my insight was at hand. "I think I already have," I announced; but the murmur that followed resembled confusion more than adulation, and I had to quickly recover with "but, yes, I would like to." As we climbed the stairs to the second floor, she asked, "When do you think you met Mel?" I mentioned the chauffeur and she laughed, "Oh, no, that was Richie. Everybody gets them mixed up."
Richie! That crazy, gun-toting spook! What was he doing in Los Angeles? Naw, it couldn't have been Richie; the chauffeur didn't even say hello. Richie was taller, wasn't he? I'm being tested; maybe this is some kind of trap. I was becoming paranoid as Eve pointed to Mel's attic studio, the same room Kweskin had shown me several months before, and instructed, "Just go up those stairs and to your left. He's waiting for you."
She returned downstairs, leaving me at 5 AM on that Final Stairway with some kind of supreme being or supreme bastard just a few feet away, "waiting for me," she said, that bird-crouching, mind-fucking creature of attics, caves and lofts, waiting and listening to my footsteps--and me without any shoes! I recalled something from the introduction to hisAutobiography:
"... the battle only really begins when man has finally, through exhaustion, worn out every tangible means, devoured everything in sight and arrived right back where he started with an empty belly and a world with no food, having cried all of his tears and standing completely naked and alone knowing full well that there is no comfort outside of himself, that he must walk that lonesome valley BY himself with no kind words, no friendly faces, no helping hands..."
I truly don't remember his first words, I was so startled by what I saw. It was something like "hello" or "so you must be..." something friendly and ordinary--but I remember that most certain feeling that this figure could not possibly be Mel Lyman. Indeed, he resembled remarkably a thin, not unpleasant hair-lipped fellow I had known in junior high school. That was my first thought: they'd fished this guy out of my past. And he did look and sound exactly like a post-operative hairlip. He did not appear like his photographs in any way. He seemed at least 10 to 15 years older, his face was sunken, his tiny eyes hopelessly committed to longwrinkled sockets; his jaw jutted forth like a cartoon farmer's. He stood, slightly hunched, in a dull blue sport shirt, his hands buried in the rear pockets of his pegged and cuffed gray-plaid pants. His voice, although nasal, was quite warm and down-home; and I suddenly was aware of a feeling I'm sure many must have the first time they see him. I felt sorry for him--not in any indulgent, bleeding way, but in the way one feels sorry for an underdog.
He showed me his room, his recording equipment, his records, his earthquake-proof Hank Williams collection; things seemed hardly to have changed at all since the visit with Kweskin. Mel seated himself at one end of a couch and, without any real provocation, began describing his personal past in the most extreme detail, reading from Mirror at the End of the Road, elaborating, reminiscing about his travels, his poverty, early bum days down and out in the Bowery--"I thought, am I gonna spend the rest of my life debating how to spend my last 50 cents? I bought a quart of beer, lay down on a doorstep and fell asleep"--reminiscing about friends and lovers, Sophie, Jessie, Eben and most of all, Judy Silver.
"God, I really loved that girl," said Mel, picking up a copy of the book he dedicated to her. "She left me in July of '63. That's when I joined the Jug Band. I didn't want to be a professional musician, but I had to join or the judge would have thrown me in jail for dope."
"She went back out to Kansas, and her parents put her in the nut house." Mel spoke with a trace of bitterness. "Her parents were Jews and they were trying to burn me out of her soul. They actually burned the clothes I gave her. You can imagine how they must have felt. They were just Wichita, Kansas, Jews who made their money in the junk business."
Mel sat back and drew his feet up on the couch. I noticed he was wearing shoes, black slip-ons. "I met her in New York. I was playing music at a party, Christmas Day, 1962, and she was there. She was down from Brandeis. It was the music she fell in love with. I could see it really weave a spell, it made her almost glow, you know? She said she fell in love with me, but she really fell in love with the music. She fell in love with my purpose rather than my person. Now, of course, there's really no line between my purpose and my person "
I asked Mel about the religious experience he had playing "Rock of Ages" at Newport '65. "I wanted to save the world with music," he said in mild self-parody. "I still do, but I was more naive at that time. Newport was the last time I played with the Jug Band. I hated the Jug Band. Here I was playing great music, really great music, and they were playing--I don't know what it was--I always call it rinkydink music."
"Anyway, that Sunday I played 'Rock of Ages' and it was awful. In the first place I didn't want to do it. The musicians were not giving the people what they wanted; the people were hungry, and the musicians were just shitting around, just being selfish. And then I wasn't well-known, the audience didn't know me, it was like stepping up there without your clothes on, you know?"
"But I kept having this fucking recurring image in my sleep, of playing 'Rock of Ages.' Every night I'd toss around in bed, I'd say, 'Don't make me do it. Don't make me do it.' Finally I said, 'OK, if it's gotta be done, I'll do it.' Then I could sleep again."
To further explain the crisis he must have been going through, Mel went into a short, informal discussion on the relief one feels after finally accepting responsibility.
"So Sunday night came along, and everybody went up there and did their trick," continued Mel. "Finally Dylan got up there, and frankly, I've never seen him worse. He was just selfish, that's all. The people wanted folk music and he wanted rock and roll. After I saw that, I knew I was gonna have to play."
When Mel asked if he could play the hymn for the people as they were leaving, the festival directors, including Pete Seeger, started citing curfew laws. "I was kinda insistent, I guess. I told them, 'Look, I'm gonna do it whether you like it or not; why don't you make it easy on me.' I was shaking in my boots."
"The finale was really ghastly, all those people singing 'We Shall Overcome,' but they didn't mean it. The people just looked like funny little robots. Then I played 'Rock of Ages.' The people heard it as they were leaving, but it was more for the musicians than the people. The musicians were spellbound. They were hearing what they should've been doing. Some of the musicians were crying--I was told that later."
"I must've lost ten pounds during that song. The sweat was just pouring down. The spirit was so strong I could barely get it out--you know, the harmonica, that's a pretty tiny hole for all that spirit to go through, that little tiny reed."
"Were you still shaking in your boots?"
"Well no, not once I started," said Mel. For some reason the thought caused him to laugh vehemently in a rather peculiar fashion. In his laughter he sounded very much like those persons--you've heard them-who laugh as though they were given only one laugh for their entire life, so that as soon as they let it out, they must reel it back in again for future use--an asthmatic, backward sound: "ha ha ha ha, yuk yuk yuk yuk," the kind of laugh one associates with shared secrets and, occasionally, nakedness and drool.
Only in Mel's case he seemed to reel in a lot more than he let out, roughly about three backwards to every one forward: "ha ha ha ha, yuk yuk yuk yuk, yuk yuk yuk yuk, yuk yuk yuk yuk." Mingled with his words, it had a vaguely disconcerting effect.
"You're only afraid," he laughed, "before the crucifixion, ha ha, yuk yuk yuk yuk yuk yuk. No sense in being afraid after the nails are driven in, ha ha ha ha, yuk yuk yuk yuk, yuk yuk yuk yuk, yuk yuk yuk yuk."
Disconcerting because I still had doubts about the identity of this man, and the laughter only confused me more. It was completely alien to what I considered a set of fairly sensible preconceptions I had nurtured over the past months. Was this Mel Lyman or some terminal junkie they had bailed out of the deformity ward at County General, shipped back to Boston and locked in the vault for two weeks with a copy of Mirror at the End of the Road--all for the purpose of my visit?
On the other hand, his laughter was so like that of the other vets--particularly George's and Richie's--it implied a long-standing relationship of power and influence. As George said, there's no such thing as coincidence. But these indulgent qualms would have to wait. Ostensibly Melvin was continuing his story.
"From Newport I went straight to Woodstock, hitched a ride with Maria Muldaur's ex-husband. That's in the book, remember the part about the cave? I thought I would live in this cave for a while, just be a holy man and live with God. But once again I realized I belonged to the people, because I was such a great instrument, you see? So I returned to the people, and after that there was such great music, incredible music, for two months. That music had been stored up in me for so long.
"And I started teaching. I used to teach astrology, macrobiotics, yoga, the I Ching. I had a course for everybody, yuk yuk yuk yuk. "
"Was there a community forming around you at that time?"
"I've always had some kind of community with me," said Mel. "Communities were always forming around me--in Oregon, in North Carolina. I'm like a seed. Drop me somewhere and I'll grow a community, ha ha, yuk yuk yuk yuk yuk yuk."
Mel paused for a moment and sensed he was needed by the community downstairs. "You know, we're on a night schedule here," he explained, "and I think it's just about time for dinner." Sure enough, it was getting quite light outside the attic windows. "But before we go to dinner, there's something I want to show you."
He took me to a large closet off the entrance hall downstairs. "Come inside and we'll close the door," he said. "I really like the smell in here." The closet was lined with cedar, another of the many patrician comforts in this fascinating mansion. But this was more than a closet, I soon realized, it was a shrine. We were surrounded by the most important relics of Mel's private past, mostly letters and photographs. Collected, boxed and filed in order on the many shelves were hundreds and hundreds of letters, nearly every letter he ever received or ever sent, the latter returned from friends at his request.
"My past is very important to me," explained Mel, opening up a cardboard box jammed with snapshots. "It's all material for creation." He withdrew a handful and started rummaging through them. "There's me and Judy the night we met, at that party in New York. Says the whole thing, doesn't it? Look at her face: you can tell she's in love with me." He picked up another stack. I recognized many of the pictures from the Mirror book; they included not only people but objects and the insides of empty rooms.
"There's our little dresser, there's my coat," he continued. "Here's a picture of me and the Jug Band when we were on The Steve Allen Show. There's Johnny Carson giving me a hard time. There I am giving Johnny Carson a hard time. There's Judy and me in a restaurant we used to eat at. There's her parents, before they took her off to the nut house."
I asked Mel what made her come apart. "Those fucking bastards over at IFIF gave her acid," he said bitterly. "I told her not to take it. I knew her head couldn't take it."
Mel closed the box and replaced it on the shelf. "Right after the Lisa Kindred session I went back out to Kansas and saw her for the last time. She was about to marry this guy, I stayed with him as a matter of fact. I remember her asking me, 'What do you want from me?' I said, 'Everything.' She said, 'I thought you were gonna say that.' "
We returned to the entrance hall, Mel shut off the closet light and closed the door. "I realized on that last trip out there that a man can't get everything from a woman; a man can't use a woman as an excuse for finding himself." He stared ahead and smiled. "What I wanted was to marry her. If I had, right now I'd be running a little bookstore in Denver."
I could hear the new day's first traffic trickling down the winding tributaries of the Hollywood Hills. Throughout the city paperboys and streetsweepers were processing the news. And here in the Eastman Mansion dinner was being served, a Chinese dish that included bean curds, mushrooms, noodles, stringy green stuff and maybe meat. The dinner was as bizarre as any I'd eaten with these people, not so much for the hour, but the hour and the formality. The dining room table was elaborately set with baroque silver and china. Mel sat at the head, of course; the others apparently sat at random. The whole scene was tinted with the oranges of dawn, old chandeliers and dying embers in the dining room fire.
Suddenly the kitchen door swung open and in strode the chauffeur, still wearing his black tuxedo. I'd forgotten about him. Only he wasn't the chauffeur anymore. By removing his cap he'd now become the butler. And by removing his dark glasses he'd now become, quite clearly, Richie. Which made no sense at all. Why would Richie, the Hill's most gifted architect and craftsman, be pulling KP? Another game? Another punishment?
If it was a game, it was played most seriously. He never spoke, never smiled, as he looked after the crumbs and garbage of the others. Nor did he eat; when he wasn't serving or bussing, he stood at rigid attention, his back to the wall, awaiting whatever commands collective whim might produce. In this role he was forced to take abuse without responses friendly game, perhaps, but I found it hard to swallow.
At one point Richie dropped a fork or something, and Jessie jeered, from the side of her mouth, "This is the noisiest butler we ever had." "Better send him back to the Hill," said someone else, and the whole group began laughing and staring at his stoic face. Then Jessie reached for a cigarette, and instantly, with the reflex precision of a bayonet artist, Richie bent over the table and lit it for her.
By now I was pretty well convinced I was in the presence of the one true Mel. The way he ate, for one thing. It's not that common to see a 33-year-old man gumming his food. I had noticed his lack of teeth earlier--it accounted for the hair-lip appearance--but assumed he would snap false ones in for eating.
More convincing was the respect he received from the others. His voice was never raised, never arrogant, and never ungentle. Yet his every request was fulfilled, his every question answered, with almost fearful dispatch. On the way to dinner Mel had wanted to quote me something from Mirror at the End of the Road. A copy was not at hand, so he suggested to one of his followers, quite casually, "There should be a copy of the book in every room." By the time we sat down, there was.
And now Mel was questioning George. "I understand you played the 'Colors' tape last night."
"Yes," replied George from the other end of the table.
"You know," said Mel, "that's a stereo tape. Did you turn the thing to stereo?"
"I did, yes."
Mel patted his mouth with a linen napkin. "The left channel is weak, you know. Did you remember to boost it on the left?"
The question caught George off guard. There was a tell-tale pause and people stopped eating. "I... I'm not sure," he stammered, "I think so."
"Was my voice in the center?" Mel asked.
"Oh yes, sure," said George, relieved. This seemed to satisfy Mel; he nodded and the sound of forks and plates continued.
There were long silences. Things got so quiet near the end of the main course I could hear short rumblings from the stomach inside the girl to my right.
Then David Gude piped up from across the table. He was addressing me. "Did you ever get your tape recorder fixed?"
"It was never broken," I said. "I figured I better use a sturdy model if I was dealing with dangerous types such as yourself." He smiled a hard kind of smile, exposing that black gap in his upper teeth. So much for small talk. After another 45 minutes Mel put his napkin down, stood up, said nothing and left. One by one the others did the same.
Later I asked Mel about the silences. "We're all so united internally," he said, "there's no point in talking--unless, you know, something specific has to be discussed or a decision has to be made. Of course, it's not always like this morning. Some nights we joke a lot. I mean, I do crazy, crazy things. Some nights we'll talk in different accents, for example. Lately, I've been telling stories a lot."
Such internal unity, I said, was hard for an outsider to understand. In the silences there seemed to be such emptiness and sadness.
"Not emptiness," Mel corrected. "But much sadness, much sadness. To express sadness is joy. Nothing is more joyful." He looked at me as if explaining the obvious. "That's what great music is all about."
We were sitting at a wrought iron patio table near the newly installed pool and sauna bath. Mel leaned forward and slowly rubbed his mouth, a nervous habit he may have developed after having his teeth removed. "You know, the people in Los Angeles have been together the longest," he explained. "Every community has its identity, its own purpose. Boston is sort of like a boot camp, you know? A tough boot camp, only about half the people make it through. Then New York, of course, is the business; it's a business city and that's where we handle the business end of things. There's the star business, John Kostick's stars, it's getting bigger all the time. And they make furniture there, plus some people have jobs working on other houses--they get $ 10 an hour, every one of them.
"Then there's the farm in Kansas. Did they tell you about that?" For the first time Mel started speaking seriously about the future, and there was a shade of compassion in his voice. "There's all these kids that don't know what to do with themselves. For them life is so abstract, they have no values. They need to go out in the woods and rediscover life. Many of them, in fact, have tried that; but they had no plan, and after a couple years they had nothing left, there was no life after that.
"This has been on my mind for years. If I can set up a place, a basic step where people who don't know nothin' can go, that would be real basic training. Fort Hill is something like that, but for many of these kids it's still too structured, still too much in the city, you know? The farm will be ideal, plus the place will grow food for all the other communities."
It sounded like a master plan. The established communities, all located in cities famous for drawing transient young seekers, would serve as recruiting stations for the farm; in turn, the farm would supply food, plus new soldiers, for work in the cities.
"These new people need a whole new world," said Mel. "It's understandable; the old one has served its purpose and they've got to create a brand new one. This is a whole new culture. We're really starting a new country."
I asked him the purpose of the West Coast communities.
"Well, San Francisco is still too formative to tell," said Mel. "I mean, I go someplace 'cause I feel the need. I don't stop and ask why. The hardest one to define is Los Angeles. It's the creative center of the whole works, Los Angeles, really the creative center for the whole world. This is the home of the creators, the city has a pulse, a dynamic soul. It's hardly ever exposed, of course, mainly in the films of the Thirties and Forties. I'll probably do all my music and films here. We're gonna do some great films.
"You know, we laid out the book in this house. Would you like to see where?" With that, Mel stood up and took me inside to the library whereMirror at the End of the Road was pasted up, then to the basement darkroom where the book's photos were printed and the backyard toolshed where Eben Given worked on the drawings. Next to the toolshed was a volley ball court that Mel was having converted to a regulation-sized basketball half court. To the Lyman people, for some reason, playing basketball is almost as important as watching football.
As we continued strolling around the mansion's several acres, Mel explained how he was able to locate and finance such regal property at only $16,000 down. "It takes a lot of faith," he said. "People have faith in me and I have faith in God, ha ha, yuk yuk yuk yuk yuk yuk." A short time later he said, "You know, my faith is not a blind one. I've been living on faith so long, I'm pretty good at it."
Good enough, apparently, to make some plans. Mel pointed out certain areas of the land he planned to change. A shady section near the pool would become a fishpond, a steep portion of the hill below would support more houses. "Richie will design 'em and hang 'em off the side. We got lots of geniuses here. We got somebody who can do anything."
Richie was certainly one of those geniuses, I thought, as we returned to the patio and passed by his most recent creation, an all-redwood sauna bath that blended perfectly with the surrounding trees and included tricky wooden latches. Richie now earns $100 a day designing similar saunas for upper-crusty clients throughout Los Angeles. So what the fuck's he doing slinging hash in a tux at six in the morning? It seemed pointless to ask.
During our walk I noticed no other people on the grounds; apparently they were inside, finishing their morning chores before retiring to bed. Why, exactly, was everyone on a night schedule? I asked Mel.
"I'm like the tides," he said casually. "My schedule seems to creep back an hour earlier each day--like the tides." Yes, that would be like the tides, I thought; it all made perfect sense. Thus, two weeks from now the Los Angeles community would be operating on a day schedule, gradually returning to a night schedule two weeks later, at the end of Mel's period. Like so many of Mel's programs, it not only provided a logical order for the community to follow, but heightened the separation between the community and the world outside. While most of Los Angeles lived, unquestioning, by the sun, the Lyman Family lived by the moon.
As we sat down at the patio table, George appeared and began shooting pictures of Mel. Mel feigned annoyance. "Dammit, George, if you're going to take pictures of me, the least you can do is get me my teeth." George giggled and scurried inside.
It seemed like a good time to find out about the Magic Theater. Mel hesitated for a moment, then let out a deep sigh. "Let's see if I can explain it-that's a hard one.
"Before I tore it down, I was going to use it as a place to show my films to the world, to play my music. It would have been like a church. Rather than go out into the world, I was going to bring the world to me. It would really have been super LSD; people would've gone in one door and come out eight hours later completely transformed!
"Then after Jim Kweskin started recording his last album, I realized there were existing channels that could do the job better than my personal theater."
Mel paused and stared ahead. I waited for him to go on, but he just kept staring. Finally he raised his eyebrows as if to say "next question." But surely there was more to this one. What about Bob McQuaid? I heard he had been mistreated or something.
Again Mel paused; he seemed to choose his words carefully. "Well, you know, there's the vault, you heard about that. And you heard the story about how Paul stole the car and they put him in the vault so he could see himself. Well, the same sort of thing happened to McQuaid. They put him in the vault, and then they got so involved in building the theater, they completely forgot about him and why he was there."
"I heard they neglected the human element or something."
"You mean, they mistreated him? Or..."
"He broke out. The people were so into the theater, he got out and they didn't even realize it. That's when I decided the theater had to be torn down. In a way, you see, Bob McQuaid served a great purpose."
So that's what Richie meant by neglecting "the people they lived with." But Mel had a further revelation.
"On that very same day," he recalled, "Jim called me from Los Angeles. See, Richie was in charge of the theater, but he also was supposed to be on Jim's album. Jim called up and said, 'I need Richie.' I told him, 'Richie can't come right now; he's got a theater to tear down.' So Jim said, 'Well, why don't you come, you be on the album?, You see how it all worked out? Me making the decision to tear down the Magic Theater left me free to work on Jim's album."
So that's what George meant by "organic development."
"In Los Angeles," said Mel, "I realized--shit, the whole world could be a Magic Theater. It's already set up--everybody has a TV set. Now the idea of the original Magic Theater seems so small." He sighed again. "But it served its purpose."
Just then George returned holding a wadded up towel which he unwadded on the table, revealing a shiny pink object, Mel's teeth. Mel put them in his mouth, then pulled them out as fast. "Yeckkkk!" he shuddered, "Didn't Eve rinse these off before she gave them to you? Did she just give them to you?"
"Yeah, uh, I guess so," answered George.
"Take 'em back and rinse 'em off. They've been soaking in that stuff all night. I hate the taste of that shit."
George picked up the teeth and flew inside the house. I asked Mel if persons joining the community didn't object to giving up their personal freedom.
"You give up what you might have thought was personal freedom," he said. "But there's more freedom here than most places, an internal freedom. People here don't have concepts. They live in the moment here more than anywhere I know."
"What role did acid play in this evolution?"
"We use acid on occasion, but not so much anymore. For one thing, acid ain't what it used to be. I mean, I can take people through changes of consciousness without acid. Those silences you mentioned. If you were to go through some of those, enough of those, it would probably have the same effect on you as if you took acid."
Mel smiled and shrugged. "I never gave it to people who didn't want it. People came to me and asked. And I don't think I ever gave acid to anyone who hadn't had it before.
"You know, people take acid for different reasons. Jimmie used to take a lot just to groove, just to enjoy himself. So one day I gave him a couple thousand mikes. He didn't groove. He just stared at himself, and he didn't like a lot of the things he saw. You see all the tricks you do, you see all the defenses, all the tricks you've worked up to avoid pain. In other words, he saw what I saw in him."
"I heard you filmed one of his trips where he actually changed his sign. Is that possible?"
"He became more of a Cancer, Jim's a Cancer with a Capricorn moon. In the Jug Band he was always more of a Capricorn, he lived more on the surface. He wasn't aware of that soft Cancer soul. In other words he became more true to himself."
George arrived with the freshly rinsed teeth. Mel took them, eyed them suspiciously, gingerly tasted them. "You're gonna see me lose 18 years right now," he said, inserting the solid pink plastic plate, adjusting it with his hand over his mouth, then withdrawing his hand.
I guess that's what happened. I guess he lost 18 years. That, or maybe he cast a spell, whammied me with his eyes, dropped acid in my bean curds or did some sleight-of-hand trick with a mask made of rubber unknown on this planet. I was looking at a brand new, entirely different face, one in its 20s, very similar to the photos I'd seen of Mel Lyman but fresh and friendly, more friendly, in fact, than even the pictures George was taking later portrayed.
Probably any dentist could explain this incredible transformation. But could he explain the way Mel's head snapped back or the laugh that boomed from that new magic mouth after I expressed my bewilderment? It was a hearty laugh that had no yukyuks.
It left me with a relaxed feeling I'm sure others have felt in his presence, the feeling of having one's doubts washed away. This was truly Mel Lyman.
He joked about his teeth, took them out, put them in upside down for a weird horse effect, and finally, as George finished shooting, took them out again. Mel complained they hurt his mouth; he said he only wore them during the increasingly rare occasions he was in public.
Which led us to the subject of Richard Herbruck. Mel brought it up. "I understand you don't believe there's a Richard Herbruck," he said. I nodded. "Well, there is. He's very much alive." Mel then explained the whole routine, unfortunately off the record. That was the deal. However, I can say that my original doubts, particularly those raised by Jessie Benton and the people at Pacific High Recorders, were confirmed. But there's a funnier and weirder twist to it all which Lyman promised to reveal soon, when Richard Herbruck presents... himself!
Not that any of it is very important, except that Herbruck's name did get kicked around a lot during the KPFK thing. Mel dismissed that episode rather good-naturedly, I thought. "It was all done in innocence, all done in anger," he said. What effect would the fear and bad publicity have on further efforts to infiltrate media? "All publicity is good publicity; I don't care what kind of publicity it is, it helps. After all, it doesn't hurt people to fear."
It's true, Mel does get you to think about things in a different way. "I understand you recently got a letter from Charles Manson," I said.
"Yeah, you want to see it?" He disappeared inside the house for a minute, then returned with a small piece of light blue stationery which he handed me, waiting for me to read it. In the letter, apparently dictated from jail to some of his women, Manson pledges servitude to Mel Lyman and asks his help in breaking out of prison. Mel's response was to send a copy of Mirror at the End of the Road, which he said was confiscated by the jailers, plus a letter.
"His letter made me very sad," said Mel, " 'cause he's so close and so far away. He came so close to the truth, he came so close to really being a compassionate man. I just wanted to get hold of him and kick him that one step further. I told him in my letter things like, 'I'd like to meet you someday,' 'you have to trust me,' that sort of thing."
Mel looked up from the letter, "You know, I don't think he was guilty. I don't think he was there at the murders."
"It makes no difference to the law whether he was actually there or not," I said.
"But I don't think he was guilty. He couldn't consciously tell his followers to do that and still know what he does. He was guilty of being a bad leader, that's all."
But didn't Mel once claim he was Christ and Manson was the anti-Christ?
"I might've said that," admitted Met, "but actually he's more like John the Baptist. I mean, I say a lot of things for the sake of communication, and the actual words aren't that important."
Mel shook his head sadly, referring to the letter. "He wants to go out in the desert; he's still fighting his personal battle. They're X-ing themselves out of the world, you know? I'm just the opposite. I'm X-ing myself into the world."
From around a corner of the mansion, one of Mel's women came bearing a huge bowl of multicolored ice cream. She placed it in front of him, gave him a spoon and left, saying nothing.
"I can't say that people who have money are bad," Mel continued. "I can't find the bad people. Everybody's scrubbing with the wrong soap all the time. Recently I rode on a plane with a gay banker; I couldn't find anything wrong with him. On my last trip to New York I met a Japanese banker, we talked for hours, talked about economics.
"I mean, I've lived all levels of life. I used to have a saying: Christ is where you find Him. I can love or hate anyone, ha ha, yuk yuk yuk yuk yuk yuk."
The soap remark was a bit mystifying, but the rest made sense. Still, it seemed at odds with what I'd heard about Mel's racism.
"I certainly don't pretend all races are the same," he explained. "Ever since I was a kid I've had trouble with Jews. But I also believe a man of any nationality can rise above that nationality, can put that nationality to use. Take Jimmie Kweskin, for example--Jimmie the Jew we sometimes call him. I use him in the way his Jewishness will be most effective; I use his business sense. That's why he's business manager. I acknowledge that characteristic and put it to work."
Mel beamed confidently at the thought of having harnessed a natural resource. "I like to talk in topical languages 'cause people can get into it. Like I might say something like, 'all niggers are stupid,' you know? Just to wake people up, get them involved."
I mentioned his writings about hippies. "With hippies I come on very strong," said Mel, " 'cause it takes that to reach them. I mean, hippies are very strong, most of 'em, and it takes strong language to reach them."
What sort of trouble had he had with Jews? Mel shook his head. "I've fought so many Jewish parents... the way they hold on to their kids, you know? It's rare that parents approve of me anyway. I almost never get along with parents. It's all the same battle. Kay Boyle--I wanted her kids and she wanted them. Eventually, I won.
"One of the few parents who has understood me is Thomas Hart Benton, and that's because he's an artist, a creator. He creates in the medium of art, and I create in the medium of people."
The medium of people. It seemed such an incongruous phrase to be coming from this mild, toothless fellow. Could he really pull it off Who was this man? Even though it was really just a matter of semantics, the Big Dumb Question, I felt, could no longer be avoided. Was he God?
Mel's face was blank. "No."
But you're not like the others, I said.
He smiled. "No. I mean, people have been saying Mel Lyman is God for a long time, and I don't know what they mean. I don't know what they mean by the word God. Some people's concept of God is so small, I'm much more than that. So I guess to them I would be God."
"But didn't you say you were God?"
"I doubt it. I might have said it, you know, metaphorically. I wrote a letter, a great letter, it's gonna be in my next book, which sort of explains all this. It's a letter to God; so, you know, how could I be God?" Mel's face brightened as he considered the riddle. "But I can tell you I know God better than anybody in the world."
"Are you more than human?"
"Man, there isn't anything more than human. Human is limitless."
"But you did say you were Jesus Christ."
"Jesus Christ is such a small word. I mean, I'm doing the same thing as he did. I'm the same instrument in a different time." He was getting evasive.
"But Christ said he was God, the son of God, God on earth."
Mel snickered. "So they said he said."
"But that's not what you are?"
Turning away, Mel surveyed the pool and beyond, the front lawn, the wall of trees, the entire Los Angeles basin. "It's a hard question," he said. "All I can tell you is I'm His best instrument on earth. And that kind of includes all those other things."
He looked down at his hands for a moment, then impishly raised his eyes and look at me from the corner of them. "I'm Superman. Maybe that's what I am. When I was a little kid I always dressed up as Superman; I was always dressing up as Superman and flying off somewhere, you know? Even when I was in my early 20s, up in Oregon, I got drunk one night and dressed up as Superman. I tried to attack a cop, I remember."
When we were talking about Manson, I had a question to ask, then lost it. Attacking a cop brought it back. The question of violence. Most people are raised pretty non-violently, I said, and things like the KPFK incident, therefore, are completely foreign to their thinking. Was this obstacle to accepting the Lyman Family really necessary?
"Most people who are non-violent don't even know what violence is," said Mel. "I think people cheat themselves out of a lot of wonderful experiences. And after all, the way you grow is through experience."
Yes, I argued, but you can't have a society with people hurting each other for the sake of their own experience.
"Sometimes you have to take that chance. I'm glad I tried to attack that cop."
Mel shrugged. "We haven't killed anyone."
OK, I said, but then you have Kweskin going around saying, "We haven't killed anyone--yet." What's that supposed to mean?
He turned back to the pool and started drumming his lips with his fingers. At first he spoke almost to himself. "Let me see if I've killed anybody yet... my mind must be getting tired... it's getting late." He rubbed his eyes.
"I know I've been mad enough to kill sometimes. I remember one time this cat made me so mad--and you know how much I love cats, right? I wanted to smash that cat, smash it on the floor, again and again. I picked it up like this, you know?" He raised an arm over his head and assumed a menacing stance. "Then suddenly all the energy just drained out of my arm and I laid the cat back down on the floor." His arm floated back down to his side.
"I found there is an internal break of some kind that prevented me from killing that cat," said Mel. "But I wouldn't have found it out if I hadn't tried it, see what I mean?"
The parable had a kicker. "I suppose you could say God prevented me from killing that cat. But if you want to know for sure, better get your own cat and try it yourself."
It was getting late, nearly II AM. Mel said he wanted to take a sauna bath and a swim before going to bed. Which prompted a final question. Considering the importance he placed on need, necessity, was it really necessary for him to live in such luxury?
"The question has never come up, really," he said. "But I do have to take care of my body. I need to swim every day, to take a sauna bath every day."
"But you are quite a materialist, according to your book. You value your possessions highly."
"Oh yes, yes," admitted Mel with a smile. "The world is full of things. Some of them are people and some of them are chairs."
I went inside and used the kitchen phone to reserve a plane back to San Francisco. Near the phone was a handmade chart, "Ye Olde Shower Roster," on which the time and date of every shower taken by members of the household were registered. It was good to know that life with the Lyman Family was proceeding in a clean and orderly fashion. A couple of women were performing odd chores about the kitchen, perhaps getting things ready for that evening's breakfast. In the basement darkroom, George was already developing the pictures he'd taken that morning.
While outside, alone in his shiny new pool, Mel Lyman, healthy and confident in this his 33rd year, was treading water.
On December 8th, 1971, Mel Lyman sent the following letter to his fourth grade teacher, Dixie Duke, in Santa Rosa:
Dear Mrs. Duke: Received your warm and friendly letter this morning. I thought I'd better write and warn you about the ROLLING STONE article before you got the wrong impression. The first installment just came out and the second installment will be in the next issue. This is the one that will probably contain parts of your conversation with David Felton. The first one is mainly negative, made up mostly of interviews with people who don't like me. They've used me to glorify themselves and completely distorted all the facts, they've even changed history to make me look bad and themselves good. I'm not complaining, mind you, I'm just pointing out that most of the things said about me and my communities are untrue; I'm used to being misinterpreted. I've made a lot of enemies over the last ten years and they get in a dig every chance they get. Still, it's good publicity. I sound like a very exciting character, kind of a modern day John Dillinger. The next issue will hopefully be a little closer to the truth as the people interviewed are not necessarily hostile towards me and also this coming issue will contain a direct interview with me and at least I will be represented by my own words. There are a lot of things you aren't going to be able to understand about me, my religious convictions, etc., but it is all just language anyhow and words are never as important as personal evaluation. Received your lecture about the merits of profanity. I had to laugh. I, too, wished there weren't so many dirty words in the book but you have to remember that the book is made up entirely of letters I wrote in my youth and I couldn't tidy it up now just because I'm a little older and wiser. It was an accurate history of growing pains. And for my obsession with bodily excrements I can only plead guilty, in some ways I'm afraid I will always be a vulgar little man. But again, to me it's only language, I use the words that best communicate the thought or feeling; can you think of a better way to say, "aw, shit!" It seems you were put off a little by my trials and tribulations in the book, and the worst parts were left out because I was even too miserable to write letters. But... that is one of the reasons I put the book out; to show that the human spirit cannot be defeated and that adversity only strengthens a man's character; it grinds out the littleness in him, it deepens him.... And that is why so many young people come to me for guidance, because they know I can understand their problems. So rest assured that I haven't lost any of my appreciation for the beauty of the world, spending so much time in the ugliness only served to distinguish beauty by the lack of it.... And the weaker souls among us need encouragement. A lot of people just don't have it in them to get up after they've been knocked down. And those of us who have that kind of strength must share it... over the years I have learned how to build, I have learned how to start at home with the people around me and that is the basis of my communities. I remember when you made me play baseball against my will because I was afraid I would fail. I remember when I was afraid of a bully and you said if it was you you would go out and lick him. We had a community and you were the leader, and now I am the leader of my own community. Life is really very simple, it is only the attempts to communicate it that make it seem complex. Well I guess I'm giving you a schoolboy lecture but it's nice to know that I've learned something, isn't it. Write me again after you've read the two issues of ROLLING STONE and tell me if you still like me.... Love, Mel
* * *
Henry Poirot is the young Bay Area sales manager for Ballantine Books, the company distributing Mirror at the End of the Road. On Saturday, November 13th, he met with George Peper and Owen deLong, and this is his account of what occurred:
"The way it happened was George and Owen looked me up, you know, to persuade me to push Mel's book harder. They struck me as very... intense people. Right off, they wanted to do my chart. Anyway, one thing led to another, and the three of us got together on a Saturday morning to play basketball. Afterwards, we went up to their house on Buena Vista for a coke, and they asked me what I thought of Mel's book. Well, I'm used to talking straight with people, and I thought we were on a friendly basis, so I told them in effect that I didn't think it was worth shit, although I'd promoted it to book store owners more than I ordinarily push a single book. I mean, I'd written a promo release on my own and so forth, but I told them that the book seemed rather absurd to me. I mean, so Mel went through a bum trip and suffered for a few years, right? Well, what the fuck, we all did that, right? I don't set myself up as any critic, but I can read, I'm as literate as the next guy, and I found the book wanting - nothing personal, just a critical opinion.
"Well, right away when they caught the drift of what I was saying, George and Owen began to insult me, call me names. They said I was lazy and accused me of wanting a free ride, a cheap ride. Then, abruptly, very, very quickly, George kicked me in the face. My glasses flew off somewhere, and I was groping around on the floor trying to find them, and George jumped on top of me and grabbed my shirt collar and kept yelling insults at me. I was very disoriented, everything had happened so suddenly, and the thought entered my mind that they might crucify me. I mean, I was aware of the parallels between the Manson people and Lyman's people, and I just didn't know what they might do.
"Ordinarily, I'm the kind of guy who when somebody kicks me in the face, I'll try to kick him in the balls, but I didn't pursue it physically in this instance because they had me outnumbered, and I truly didn't know what they were capable of doing to me. Anyway, I gathered myself together and left. I mean, George was always talking to me about 'feelings,' and I never knew what he meant.
"Anyway, George called me early that evening. He pointedly refused to apologize, and when I made some reference to his attacking me, he said something like, 'It happened, that's the way things are. Now let's get on with business.'
"When George kicked me and jumped on me, I really did think of crucifixion. I looked at George's eyes and I could see a total lack of control. One minute we were talking, I thought reasonably, and the next - whammo! - George came at me like out of a catapult.
"Well, we're still on business terms, but we don't play basketball on Saturday mornings anymore."