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My Odyssey Through the Underground Press
excerpt: pp. 429-434

on Robert Levey's "Fort Hill" article

Michael Kindman

By contrast, the face that the Hill presented to the world continued to be unperturbed and self-assured. Now that the magazine was no longer being published, other endeavors were receiving the attention of Mel and his close associates. The story of these endeavors was featured in an article in the Boston Globe, Sunday, February 1, 1970, "Fort Hill: Re-inventing Life on a Hilltop in Roxbury." Under a picture of several dozen members of the community sitting on the lawn in front of the tower on the Hill, sternly staring into the camera, the reporter, Robert L. Levey, offers the community's rationale for its treatment of both members and visitors:
The Fort Hill community has a single mind and a single heart....
[T]here is a severe authority structure on the hill. People are divided by function and they are all instruments in a plan for a new way to live that begins and ends with Mel Lyman....
[The] insistence that individuals continue to evolve and change leads to intense confrontations among those on the hill and between them and outsiders who come to visit or observe the community. There is a premium on persons being honest with each other to the point of insult. The motive is to bring people into deeper relationships of trust and common feelings.
My own presence in the community as a reporter was greeted with some suspicion and hostility. I was berated for not having the capacity to participate fully in the Fort Hill experience, for remaining rigid and aloof. I was informed that one member of the community had said of me, "He's so empty I didn't want to sit too close to him because I might fall in. " Twice, when I told people it had been good meeting them I was angrily accused of lying.
This impatience with outsiders stems largely from the facts that Fort Hill residents have each gone through a series of intense changes and experiences in their own lives. They harbor massive faith in Mel Lyman and they regard most of the other three billion people in the world as infants who have not proceeded very far [a]long the path of real life.
(Reprinted courtesy of the Boston Globe)
The article describes the ceaseless building projects on the Hill and the "standard of perfection," as it was known, to which we were working, as well as the traditional division of labor between men and women, and the devotion by which we were giving, typically, two-thirds or more of our individual incomes to support the Hill's projects. A new project of the Hill is mentioned, as the latest creative work to take the place of the now-defunct magazine. The author seems unaware that the "new" work is really old work recently taken out of the can. The old recording done by Mel and others with Lisa Kindred, during the days when the Jug Band was intact and David Gude was the recording engineer for Vanguard Records, had resurfaced. Jim was offered a new recording contract with Reprise Records, and had asked permission to purchase from Vanguard the rights to the old recording. This was now being released by Reprise, in the only version that still existed, the one with Mel's harmonica mixed to equal prominence with Lisa's voice, under the title "Love Comes Rolling Down," by the Lyman Family with Lisa Kindred. We on the Hill thought this was a wonderful turn of events, and we had grown quite fond of the music, which even the least of us had heard a number of times, but very few copies were sold. Much later, Lisa Kindred told another reporter she had not been consulted or even informed when the record was being prepared and released. The Globe article ends with a mention of one the more visible anomalies of Hill life at the time:
Fort Hill people are the first to point out that Mel Lyman's influence on this growing group has parallels with the case of Charles Manson and his "family," the accused mass murderers on the West Coast.
Pictures of Manson, in fact, are in evidence in some of the Fort Hill houses. Jim Kweskin was on the phone recently with an executive of the record company that will be putting out their album and the conversation got around to Manson.
"Sure, we got a lot in common," Kweskin said. "But Charles Manson talked about saving souls and he went around killing people. Mel Lyman talks about destruction and he goes around saving souls."

We Buy Another House

The air of unreality about the record release and the Globe article, in the context of increasing irrationality in our daily lives, was pervading everything. The United Illuminating Realty Trust, the holding company that held title to all the buildings the community owned, had finally succeeded in acquiring title to Number Four Fort Avenue Terrace, the original home of the community, which until now had been rented from a disagreeable neighbor lady, toward whom Mel felt an irreconcilable enmity. During the negotiation process, Mel had a dream one night about fighting with Lena, the landlady. In the dream he was hitting Lena on the head; awake the next day, he interpreted this as an instruction to damage the roof of the house, so it would lose its value and she would be more ready to sell. This was done; some of the men drove nails into the roof, and then complained to Lena that the roof was leaking and needed replacing. Or she could sell to the community, cheap. To underscore the point, they removed the top of the chimney. Lena gave in and accepted the offer, one she could hardly refuse, and the house was bought, for something like $4,000 (a typical price for the neighborhood at that time). As soon as we bought the house Mel ordered it vacated and cannibalized for building parts. Before long, the instruction came to destroy the house.
The day this order came down was a special one for me, in a crazy kind of way. Feeling desperate and unable to understand why I couldn't fit in to the community, I had built up my courage and asked for a second acid trip with Mel, hoping again to glimpse some kind of truth that way. I remember the moment of asking for the trip: I let myself timidly into Mel's house and waited quietly in his living room while he finished a conversation in the kitchen with one of the men. They got talking about a mouse that had moved into the kitchen cabinets, and Mel said, "I don't mind a mouse." I was convinced the comment was aimed at me in the next room. But, whatever Mel was thinking, he agreed to arrange a trip for me. Coincidentally (or was it?) Eric had asked for an acid trip at the same time for a similar reason, and the two of us were guided through the experience one Saturday night, not by Mel but by a group of his lieutenants.
I remember sitting in the kitchen of Mel's house during the most intense part of our rush, with Faith and Jessie and some of the others, who were teasing Eric and me about the way in which we never quite seemed to get along but couldn't seem to get away from each other, either. Later in the trip, we were upstairs in the large room we had recently created in the top of Number Five, intended to be Mel's recording studio and transformational journey site. I wandered away from the group for a few minutes, to admire the city skyline through the unusual front windows, which had been reworked by Richie to resemble the cockpit of a giant airplane. David Lanier, known as David Libra, who was nominally our primary guide, came up to me and ordered me back into the group; looking deep into my eyes, he told me he finally understood why I kept myself so aloof from the community all the time. "You're afraid you might kill somebody," he said. It had never occurred to me. Then we were out on the hilltop in the middle of the night, running around the tower at top speed, flying above the ground, it seemed. All in all, a very strange night.
When the rush of the trip finally ended, very early in the morning, I went home to Number 29 to rest up for the coming Sunday work day. When I woke up, still early in the morning, I wandered over to the Terrace houses and encountered Wayne Hansen, who was doing some early morning carpentry work, and toward whom in that moment I felt a brotherly bond that I could not explain, but that feeling of mysterious brotherhood became the overriding emotion of the day for me. Wayne told me that during the night Mel had ordered the demolition of Number Four (did that have something to do with our acid trip?), and that everyone would be working on that project as soon as the work day began. When everyone else was awake and ready to work, we went at it full throttle. I think most of the house was taken down in that one day, while the women and children played on the hilltop, and numerous strangers came wandering around. It was one of the first warm days of spring, and the hilltop park was full of baby carriages and puppy dogs, moms and dads and kids. The entire event had for me the air of an old-fashioned community celebration.
It happened that I had recently been reading one of Hermann Hesse's lesser novels, Beneath the Wheel, in which a socially retarded young German boy finds himself unable to fit into the vibrant life of his peers and his community and eventually dies an ambiguous death in the gutter. Is it accident or suicide? Is it inevitable or was there a choice? I felt on that Sunday as though the close-knit traditional town of the novel had suddenly come to life around me, and was I the misfit boy? I was certainly feeling disoriented, not just on that day but during all those months. A big question kept running in my mind that I couldn't discuss with anyone: Who would be the first person to die for Mel and the community? How would it happen? Would it be a work accident, or a suicide, or the result of a worse-than-usual physical fight? Would it be me? Would I find the strength of character to leave the community and expose its hypocrisies, and would I then be punished for doing so?

A Letter Home

A couple of months after the acid trip and house demolition adventure, I was working at a fix-up remodeling project in Brookline with Eric and Danny Oates, who had been one of Candy's and my hosts during our first visit to the Hill more than two years earlier. Two events of note happened during the few days we were on that job. Danny persuaded both Eric and me to try smoking cigarettes, something neither of us had done before. He explained that it could be almost as pleasant a high as marijuana, which we weren't getting too much of in those days and which we missed. (He was lying, of course.) Because smoking was very much the thing to do on the Hill - we were among the very few non-smokers - we gave in to Danny's urgings; for the next several years I smoked Camels, or later roll-your-own Buglers when money was especially tight, about half a pack a day. Smoking helped me feel and act like one of the folks.
The home we were working in was that of a religious but rather disorderly Jewish family. In some ways it reminded me of my family's home, not because we were religious (we were anything but) but because our home had typically been disorderly, and because the Jewishness of the home we were working in made me think of my family. For reasons that are unclear, I attempted to put the mix of my feelings in a letter to my mother. The letter paints a picture of my confused state of mind during the process I was undergoing, which can only properly be called brainwashing.
After describing my experiences in the community and the memories stimulated by my current work situation, the letter goes on to rhapsodize at some length about Mel and his mother, about whom he had written and spoken a lot, about their relationship and the lessons Mel learned from it that he was now teaching to us, and about the experience I was trying to have in his community (see sidebar 5)

The Colonial Era Begins In Earnest

It was unusual for me to attempt to put my feelings about my situation in writing. In fact, I hardly remembered how to write anything anymore. Once in a while, a directive would come from somewhere in the inner depths of the Hill, requesting or instructing that all of us write letters to tell Mel how we felt about some creative work he had produced or about our gratitude for his leadership. I would dutifully write such a letter, but doing it would be like dimly remembering something from my distant past. Less frequently, I would feel an impulse such as the one that made me write this letter to my mother, trying to put on paper some of the essence of the experience. But by far the greatest part of my energy was going into staying current with the demands of Hill life; any impulses toward a personal life or individual expression were at best an inconvenience and at worst the excuse someone else might need to humble or discipline me.
Increasingly, "dummies" like myself on the work crew were becoming just the means for Mel and his close associates to achieve more and more elaborate ends. We were no longer the "creation" that in earlier days Mel had said we were; now we were just used to produce work and money, while ever-larger projects were conceived. We were encouraged to find money wherever we could to help with the enormous expenses. During this period, the last of my inheritance from my father finally became available to me, about $2,500, the biggest single chunk of money I had had access to since shortly after his death. Unhesitatingly, I turned it over to the Hill, imagining it contributing to the studio and sleeping loft portion of the "Magic Theater" project, into which I had poured a tremendous amount of work.
Mel decided we needed a more permanent home in New York than the Soho loft that Brian Keating had kept for a couple of years. A nice two-unit brownstone was found on a quiet block of West 15th Street near Seventh Avenue, on the edge of the Chelsea district. First one unit, then the second were rented, and after a while a deal was struck to buy the building, in the name of Owen de Long and with an investment of our collective funds that equaled the total cost of all the houses on Fort Hill. We were moving into the big time, and the need for money was greater than ever. Mel started moving people between the Hill, the Vineyard, and New York - more opportunities to give people just the experiences they could use to grow in the way he thought they needed. The nicest accommodations in each location were reserved and upgraded for Mel's use.
The opportunity to recruit people in new places gave Mel the idea that some of his representatives should travel the country, seeking out souls ready for the Fort Hill experience. He dispatched Owen and a woman named Karen Poland to be the road crew. They traveled all over the country for a number of months, visiting campuses and urban centers, selling American Avatars and talking up the Hill and Mel. Eventually, they settled in New Orleans and established a temporary home base there in a rented apartment. Only one person joined the community from all their work, Chris Thein, known as Hercules.
Before much longer, the impulse arose to colonize California, too. I am not able to recall clearly the sequence of events, and of course no one was consulting me about any of it. But Mel's focus was definitely on collecting people and homes everywhere around the country that he felt was worth "saving," as though Mel directing energy toward a place was the only way it would be saved from certain dissolution. Definitely on his list was San Francisco, where he had settled as a very young man first leaving home, where he had met and married Sofie and become acquainted with her large and flamboyant family, where he had discovered himself as a musician. Shortly after initiating the New Orleans experiment, Owen was sent to San Francisco to rent an apartment with a view near Buena Vista Park, and a second home was obtained in the Outer Mission district, with the help of the family of one of the community's mainstays, the ex-husband of one of Sofie's sisters, who also lived on the Hill. A crew was dispatched to Los Angeles, as well, and a large house was rented in Hollywood. Before long, this house was outgrown and a second house was found, and purchased, I believe. Later, the first house was given up when a much larger house, really a mansion on a large plot of land in the Hollywood hills, was found and purchased. It was by far the most expensive and fanciest property yet added to the increasing holdings.
Mel was moving people around between the various homes at a faster and faster pace, and was doing a lot of traveling himself, getting to know the cities, houses, and people he was now working with in his expanding creation. Also, he was pursuing new creative projects. A strong impulse had overtaken him to reassemble the documents and memories of his childhood and his early career as peripatetic musician, laborer, and spiritual explorer. He was writing to old friends, asking them to return to him letters and other writings he had sent them. He conceived the idea of revisiting the places of his formative years and reacquainting himself with people from his past.
All this activity was leading eventually toward publication of an autobiographical collection of his writings, but that took about a year to manifest. During this time, as well, the opportunity arose to bring his current company of musicians to San Francisco to record a new album to be released under Jim Kweskin's contract with Reprise. A strange musical melange was assembled: Mel and Jim and several other musicians and indispensable groupies from the Hill, along with two of the folk musicians Mel and Jim knew from the Jug Band days, bassist Reed Wasson and dobro player Mayne Smith. Together they recorded an album's worth of music in just a few days, attempting to summarize the range of the best of American popular and folk music. This, too, would take about a year to manifest commercially, but the mood of all of us now scattered around the country was excitement about the new burst of creative energy.
Back on the Hill, of course, we were noticing a severe shortage of personnel and money, as more and more of Mel's favorites were moved out to the other locations, in a time when new people were showing up only occasionally because the community was not doing a great deal of outreach. Mel himself was absent more and more. In fact, his absences also required further sacrifice and investment on our parts. Rather than continuing to spend more and more money on plane fares, he decided after a while that what he needed was a fleet of high-powered vehicles in which to drive from place to place. Over a period of a year or so, the fleet was assembled: a Lincoln Continental limousine, a Mercury cruiser, a Mustang point car, a large Travco motor home, all of these customized and outfitted for Mel's very demanding tastes and needs, all connected with CB radios, all staffed and maintained by Mel's favorite traveling companions. The process of moving him between the various locations became a major undertaking in itself, really a traveling home for a portion of the community, leaving the work responsibilities of the people traveling with him to be taken up by others in their absence.

Topsy Turvy Time

When Mel was on the Hill, it was often to rest up and concentrate on his own work. For this, he often preferred to work during the late night hours and sleep during the day. Much was made of the fact that Mel, who despite his strong character and presence was paradoxically increasingly frail and sickly, took hours to wake up each day, gradually descending down to the mundane planes on which the rest of us hang out and then reorienting himself here each day in order to accomplish his rarefied creative work. He was also constantly switching between aspects of his personality, which had differing needs, and dramatically different appearances. He had all his teeth - the "rocks in [his] mouth" that had given him lots of pain and trouble - pulled, and thus developed a very convincing old man persona. In fact, he had long been known as "the old man" by certain of his admirers. But he could put in his false teeth and switch back to his youthful self in minutes. All this changing and adapting, naturally, required lots of support from others, required the most detailed and exactingly maintained accommodations, required lots of privacy and insulation from other people's concerns, because anything was likely to intrude on his attention and break his concentration. And he had a way of homing in on anything that was out of place in his environment and immediately experiencing it as a problem. I remember, for example, a time when Wayne cut and polished a new piece of glass for the top of Mel's dresser, but he left a small portion of the edge unpolished by mistake. The first time Mel entered the newly redecorated room, he put his hand precisely on that spot on the glass and cut himself; it was often that way.
One creative solution Mel came up with was to have the entire Hill move onto his schedule, so we would all be working when he was working, sleeping when he was sleeping. Beginning late in 1970, all of us who did not have daytime jobs off the Hill moved onto a day-sleeping schedule to match Mel's so the major construction work could be done at night when he was awake. My role in this endeavor was to find a way to make money on this schedule and also to be available as needed to work on the studio, or whatever the current construction project was. I don't remember phasing out the "American Dream" handyman operation but I must have, because during the period of overnight work I got a job as a cab driver with a company in Brookline, driving from late afternoon to midnight, then coming home to do construction work until morning, and sleeping days in Number 29, while the women and kids banged in and out of the house all around me.
I hope Mel got plenty of needed sleep during this time, because I sure didn't. I stayed on this schedule for over five months, as I recall, becoming more and more exhausted and frayed around the edges. Finally, one night, I fell asleep at the wheel of my cab on a side street in Jamaica Plain while heading back to Brookline to take a brief nap at a cab stand (the licensing agreements of the various cities in the area made it unacceptable for me to stop my Brookline cab within the Boston city limits); I crashed at slow speed into a parked car a few blocks from my destination. The manager of the cab company told me repairing the car would cost him everything he had made on me in five months and then some, and he fired me. Once again, I was subjected to a disciplinary talking to from Jim Kweskin and the other men on the Hill, as though I was solely responsible for having willfully cracked up the car. In the aftermath of this, I was given something I had wanted for quite a while: I was allowed to remain on the Hill full time, as a member of the in-house construction crew.


14. Moving On pp. 434-440

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