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 p.m., 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 workday. 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 of Crawdaddy 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.”
What Ever Happened to Jim Kweskin?
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 Theater near Aquatic Park. Thin and scholarly in a gray 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 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. Greed starts 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 exercises; 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, Mass.
“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, you know?
“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, I mean, 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. Even 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 St. — Harvard’s main drag — the modest storefront coffeehouse 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 St.
“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 or 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 after all had 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 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 be pregnant 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, said Bikes, 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 Jim, 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 Kweskins 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 offers a hint: “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 backing role on the album 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, that Jim 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 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 is 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 a benefactor. Not only did he give them Jessie, but many of his original works and two summer retreat houses on 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 indicative, 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.
* * *
“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 giggled 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 I realized that without Mel the band didn’t mean a damn thing to me. 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 commercial, 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, said Jim, 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 onstage 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 that people often associated with various Jesus freak sects, I asked him? 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 nonbelievers, 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.
Jim took a breath when he had finished reading the text, 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.”
War Games at Bootcamp Melbin
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.”
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 on 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 building construction and contracting — 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 handmade, 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 thine 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 have also long since dissolved.) Also Faith’s brother, Ian, other friends, some children and one grandmother
“It was when my ex-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 stately San Francisco home she has owned for so 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 all time.
“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 he do that?”
“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 disciplined. 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!’ “
* * *
“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 talk to some new people, 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.”
* * *
“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.
“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?”
The fat man paused to let the mystery sink in. 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 have a lot of people making the decisions, 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 Fort 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 same 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,” Wilson shrugged. “Lew was a graduate student of Harvard, on the National Board of U.S.-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 article 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 things. “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.” And it went on, “In 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 Mel Lyman as he read his own writing in print. What was wrong with line 10? Shit, some careless, inhuman hippie motherfucker 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 lines. 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 it 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, center-spread interview of 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 stumps 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 bona fide 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 and the original methods of editorial decision, 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 does 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.
“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 was intensifying, the Fort Hill influence was becoming 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 kill
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.
At 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 cause of black identity. And the Avatar was 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.
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’s 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 fistfights. 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 Peper, 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, 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 1,500 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 the Avatar 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 held 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. An Avatar 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 a.m., 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.
“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. I came in and 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 did the Fort Hill people not 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 did it. 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 through Avatar, 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 Art
The Infinite One With
To Revolutionize Total Universe
Rex, You’re Absolutely Right
And in issue 13:
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 be so hard for you to take, imagine how it makes ME feel….
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 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:
“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 aint Him. You’ll see. I aint about to prove it for you, much too corny, I’m Him and there just aint 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 aint 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 off and keep right on waiting, that’s what those damn fool Jews did last time I came, in fact they’re still doing 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 cigarette, 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 Visit to the Max Museum
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 story 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.”
And similar, if less harsh, accounts of intimidation were coming in, involving The Village Voice and The Los Angeles Free Press. And several people had 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 that has a beginning or a place. “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 nonbeliever 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,” responded the others, “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 over 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 (“Year of the Fork, Night of the Hunter”) marked “office copy — please save.”
As one might expect, the office was blessed from one wall by a framed photograph of Mel, 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. 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 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 half a block and right on Fort Avenue Terrace, the long gravel alley on which five of the Community’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 to the rear of the studio, 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 and David and Richie were — well, only one person is at the top, of course — but they certainly had more authority than Paul Williams.
Perhaps it was this kind of humiliation that, several weeks later, became more than Paul could endure.
* * *
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 — maple, oak, pine, redwood — and purposes. Giant outdoor shutters can in seconds change a warm living room with a spectacular view of the Fort Hill tower and Boston to a darkened sound stage or theater. Skylights convert to handy stepladdered 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 of following the Need. 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 been used as a movie set, a recording studio, 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 swift 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 the editor of Broadcasting Magazine and then the 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.”
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 3:00 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 a grueling I’d never seen, just firing questions at this poor guy until he finally broke.”
Harry Bikes recalled a similar confrontation at the height of the zealot 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. And I have to admit the tape we did was much better.
“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, said Don, that he 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. 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 $1,800 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 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.’ “
* * *
Pass the butter?” asked Richie, tearing apart a slice of white bread and nodding thanks.