The Avatar staff has itself a chuckle every once or twice a week. That's how often the dirty books come in the mail. The Cambridge police tried to ban Avatar for obscenity last spring (a centerfold of four letter words was found "offensive"), and only succeeded in creating a cause célèbre The publicity was considerable; Avatar became Boston's leading underground newspaper and subsequently acquired, to use one editor's words, "a somewhat neurotic reputation." Ergo, free introductory offers from the dirty book people.
The members of the staff find this kind of thing amusing probably because the sex-obscenity-free speech syndrome just isn't that important to them. "We are not," they make it clear, "on a sex trip or a dirty-word trip or a political trip or any of that crap. We're above it." And they are. Anyone searching for a nice, normal, drug-crazed, left-wing, hippie-oriented, underground newspaper must be disappointed with Avatar.
It is only reasonable, for instance, that an underground paper be fiercely, passionately anti-American. This one is patriotic. "We dig America," says editor Ed Beardsley. "It's corny and makes us sound like Boy Scouts, OK, but we're really trying to make a better America. You take Washington and Jefferson and Lincoln, they were honest and great and had meaning in their lives. We dig 'em."
So, Avatar is atypical. Still that is hardly the word. Avatar is incredible. What began a year and a half ago as a "vehicle of expression" for thirty or forty artists who lived in three old houses on Fort Hill in South Roxbury is today the official organ of a religious sect. The Fort Hill community has, amazingly enough, evolved into a kind of Cluny for a curious and fascinating hippie religion. Sounds like a put-on; it isn't. This is a full-fledged religion, replete with dogmas and a real life Jesus. And Avatar is commissioned to spread the good word. "We think of it," said one of the founders, "as a hip Christian Science Monitor."
It is in the pages of Avatar that you find the dogmas. The basic premise is transcendental: the Spirit has always been present in history and continually manifests itself in the lives of great men and in the truths they teach. (The word "Avatar" itself is Hindu and means incarnation of the truth.) Because the individual soul is part of the Spirit, there is also a belief in the reincarnation of the soul. It is held, too, that one's fate is determined by the stars. Hence, astrology is taken very seriously by the Avatar people; "What's your sign?" in fact, is the question most frequently asked of visitors. As for drugs and sex - they are possible helps to the truth but are not, by any means, essentials. Except for pot - "pot is our only sacrament." It is also believed that the great men in history are no longer statesmen or military leaders but communicators. So the Avatar gospel is to be spread through the media, television, newspapers, films.
There is also a Jesus. His name is Mel Lyman. The dogmas are all his teachings. It is he who makes Avatar incredible. As a matter of fact, Mel, in every sense, is Avatar.
He's a soul-saver too. "Before I met Mel," says editor Beardsley, "I was a bastard. I had been in advertising and then a painter and a rock 'n' roll singer and I mean I just didn't know where I was going. I used to get blind drunk and beat up my wife and chase chicks. Mel made me realize what I was and showed me how to put meaning in my life."
There is nothing mysterious about Mel. He is a fairly tall, thin-faced, former computer operator, harmonica and banjo player. He is a bit of a visionary, a bit of a poet; just the man, you think, to start a new religion. "We consider Mel," Beardsley explains further, "as part of every great man of the past. We think of him as Jesus and Buddha and Mohammed. It's taken him this long to evolve. He is truth all the time. He is the Spirit today."
Mel agrees. "I am the truth and I speak the truth. I do not express ideas, opinions, personal views. I speak truth. My understanding is tinged by no prejudice, no unconscious motivation, no confusion. I speak clearly, simply, openly and I speak only to reveal, to teach, to guide. I have no delusions about what I am, who I am, why I am." He has a book out, too, entitled, modestly enough, Autobiography of a World Savior."
Mel receives all the homage due a divinity. His words are sacred. Correspondence is signed, "Yours in Mel." And even the Avatar people like to talk about the day he announced to the community, "I want a wall." A seven-foot wall now surrounds his house. "It took some doing," they will tell you, smilingly.
Mel's reputation, incidentally, is growing. And so, of course, is Avatar's. You can find it today in college bookstores, East and West. The letters and contributions keep arriving at the Avatar office. They come from such unlikely types as convicts and Vietnam soldiers and middle-aged housewives. "Keep up the good work," went the letter from some combat zone, "you are the guardians of reason and wisdom and compassion." And another wrote, simply, "You are right, Mel is God. Mel is Christ."
The hip ones, especially, are drawn to Avatar. It is not so difficult to weary of drugs and psychedelia, and then go searching. Avatar is there for them. Many write to Mel. One said, in a poem,
"I am dissatisfied
Everything is so empty
black ugly experience
I don't know what to do
there is nothing to live for
I try, god how I try."
Or another, in the Letters to Mel column, wrote, "I want to be able to talk to you. There is nobody else who I can say exactly what I feel to. It's really a drag that all of these things are going on inside me and then never get out. Now, I'm confused. I'm scared and unsure. I fear for the world and me. Can you show me some courage? Woody."
Spiritual hunger is a familiar enough theme these days. It is clearly in evidence here. It is too often forgotten, however, that there is also a very human and a very powerful desire to satisfy that hunger. It is Paul Tillich, in fact, who claims for man a certain primitive courage that almost compels him to make sense of a mad world and see purpose and meaning in his own life.
Mel appeals to that courage. He arouses it. And because of this, it is more than likely that his cult will grow. To a spiritually starved generation he offers an explanation. He sees the meaning in life. He's sure he's right. He has all the dogmas, all the answers. He's the Avatar. Hell, he's God. And he's a groovy God. He talks hip. You can understand him.
Mel puts you right with the spirit and yourself," said a British boy, a convert and the current business manager of Avatar. "You know, you have to go through hell before you reach tranquility. It takes guts to live. Mel taught me that."