New York City, Office of Larry Cohn, Epic Records, 1968, 4:00 p.m.
Larry Cohn sat in his Manhattan office, acutely aware that he had his work cut out for him. Cohn had come to Epic Records as a lowly trainee, and within six months had gotten himself promoted to director of MLR. His assignment was nothing short of the label's total overhaul: to splash some mud on its all-American image, epitomized by fresh-faced crooners like Bobby Vinton and Lester Lanin, and transform it into a home for the new pastime of a culture in upheaval rock and roll.
The first few times Larry Cohn met Peter Ivers, he did not remember his name and could not think of a reason in the world why he should. Peter was just another kid in a band that had made the pilgrimage to his New York office in search of a contract. Peter short, rosy-cheeked, and looking about twelve years old hung back quietly while the bandleaders, Jim Kweskin and Mel Lyman, schmoozed with Cohn.
The band was another story. Cohn didn't have to try to remember their names. Jim Kweskin's Jug Band had been one of the hottest groups to come out of the Boston folk revival, achieving national popularity and critical acclaim almost from its formation in 1963. Then, in 1968, just as they were breaking through to commercial success, Kweskin dissolved the band, shaved off the mustache that had become his trademark, and moved in with the Lyman Family, a commune that was widely thought of as a cult in a run-down neighborhood in Boston.
Kweskin's reputation was enough to pique Cohn's interest and win some highly prized office time. He had formed a new band, and the band was looking for a label. They would call themselves the Lyman Family, and while Kweskin's name would be featured prominently, it was clear to Cohn that the head of the "family," Mel Lyman, would be pulling the strings. It was Lyman who did most of the talking during the series of meetings in Cohn's office. Unfortunately, as far as Larry Cohn could tell, Lyman was insane.
Peter had gotten to know Lyman as a Boston musician. He admired his playing and counted him as an influence. Truth be told, while Peter Ivers may have been considered the greatest living blues harp player by a few small, knowing circles in Chicago and Boston, the title could well have gone to Mel Lyman. He was certainly its most recognizable public face, having achieved iconic status at the historic 1965 Newport Folk Festival the year Bob Dylan plugged in and infuriated a generation of folk purists. Lyman had quelled the riotous mob into reverent silence with an impromptu twenty-minute harp solo of the classic spiritual "Rock of Ages." In the brochure for the festival the following year, he appeared in an ad for a new brand of harmonica customized for the blues.
By the time he arrived at Larry Cohn's office, Lyman had at various times claimed to be the living embodiment of Truth, the greatest man in the world, Jesus Christ, and an alien entity sent to Earth in human form by extraterrestrials with a mission to save the world. Nonetheless, it took a series of conversations in his office for Cohn to let Kweskin and Lyman know they were going to have to look elsewhere to be signed. But by that time, Cohn had begun to strike up a relationship with Peter, whom he'd initially written off as a hanger-on. Peter was always ready with a goofy grin and a witty line, and Cohn had to laugh at the kid's chutzpah. Sometimes Cohn would take an almost protective, paternal interest in Peter warning him, for example, to steer clear of the likes of Mel Lyman, who regularly picked up his phone to hear one of his disciples say, "Hello, God?" and, without a trace of irony, would answer, "Speaking." ...