The Lyman Family’s Holy Siege of America
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.”
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