My Odyssey Through the Underground Press
excerpt: pp. 394-399
None of this made much sense to Candy and me as we settled in from the highway, with our carload of household goods, our two cats, our young boyfriend along for the ride (who stayed only a few weeks), and our high hopes. And none of it would be made available to us just yet, either. We didn't get to live in the houses on Fort Avenue Terrace, or even in the apartments on Fort Avenue. There were other satellite houses and apartments farther away in the neighborhood, and we got to live in one of those. Rachel Brause, a slightly older, frumpy, but creative woman from New York who had somehow become a follower, but not a close friend, of Mel's, had an apartment a short couple of blocks away, with several bedrooms and a small sleeping loft. This was where we three were installed, at least until a more suitable place could be found. Rachel had endless stories about the Hill and its people, but we soon could see that she was not really an insider. With her house as our base, we set to work on Avatar, to the best of our ability. It was not easy to figure out what our role was.
Despite the intensity of community activity on Fort Hill, Avatar was headquartered in an old newspaper office in the South End, a rundown neighborhood of brownstone houses and commercial buildings close to downtown Boston, a ghetto populated mostly by blacks and hippies. Some of the people working on the paper lived in the neighborhood, which made sense to us as it resembled the way we had lived and worked in East Lansing, and some lived in Cambridge, where Avatar had originally been published, operating out of the offices of a music magazine named Broadside, whose editor, Dave Wilson, used to be involved in Avatar as well but no longer was. We knew from reading the early issues in Michigan that Avatar had been at the center of a huge censorship controversy in Cambridge, another in the now-familiar series of attempts by local authorities to suppress the underground press on the basis of "obscenity." That attempt had failed here, as elsewhere, but in the process it had made Avatar a cause célèbre, giving Mel the opportunity to vent his literary spleen in wonderfully obscene tirades and Eben the chance to create a notorious centerfold with the words "fuck shit piss cunt" in giant hand lettering, all these published as challenges to the would-be censors. The notoriety of the fight had helped increase the size of the staff and the circulation, had embarrassed the city fathers of both Cambridge and Boston, as well as the governor of Massachusetts, who couldn't resist getting involved, and had caused the Avatar offices to be moved to Boston in order to avoid the wrathful oversight of Cambridge officials. Now the office in the South End served as a sort of meeting ground for the various communities of folks interested in Avatar.
This was an entirely satisfactory arrangement for us, or at least for me, as a newcomer. I felt stimulated by all the different kinds of people who came through the place, and I had fun being in an urban environment close to the center of a city I found very interesting. Wayne set me up in a small office, where I had a rather empty desk and not a lot of responsibility. Avatar was published every two weeks, and all I knew for sure I would be working on was layout. Candy joined the team of typists who split time on a single IBM Selectric, laboriously producing the columns of justified copy for the paper in a tiny typeface. (Ironically, there was a full-scale Linotype machine sitting in the office, sort of a museum piece that, naturally, we didn't use.) We had plenty of time to explore the geography of the area and to get to know the people we were working with. One day soon after we arrived, a guy named Abbie Hoffman showed up at the office, full of the idea he was promoting for a Youth International Party that would storm the upcoming Democratic National Convention in Chicago, that summer. Most days were quieter than that.
But troubles had by now been brewing among the several factions of the loose alliance that was Avatar for a long time. From the very beginning, staff members allied with Mel Lyman and Fort Hill had insisted on a very major role for Mel's writings and his perfectionist standards in the production of the paper. This role had been controversial from the start. (Mel's first column, "To All Who Would Know, " excerpted above, took up a whole page in the first issue but had accidentally been printed with a line omitted, and Mel, through his lieutenants, had insisted on reprinting it, complete, in the second issue, over strong objections.) At the same time, these high expectations had established a standard of graphic excellence that had helped make the paper's reputation. It had certainly pulled us in. But now, nearly a year after the start of publication, the tension was intensifying. Mel's steadily increasing volume of writing - columns with such challenging names as "Contemplations," "To All Who Would Know," "Diary of a Young Artist," "Telling It Like It Is," and "Essay on the New Age," as well as a voluminous flow of letters to and from Mel and other miscellaneous writings - had both set a tone and personality for the paper that attracted many of its readers, and had caused the rest of the staff, those who were there for reasons of political organizing or to establish a more general voice for the counterculture, to feel forced into a corner of their own creation. They increasingly had the sense that Mel and his supporters were just using them and the forum of the paper to give voice to Mel's words, and that, given the chance, Mel would soon crowd them out completely.
Splitting the Baby in TwoShortly before Candy and I arrived on the scene for our first visit, starting with issue Number 18 in February 1968, this tension had resulted in a novel compromise: Avatar would henceforth be published in two sections, a full metropolitan-size news section, with political and cultural content resembling that of more typical underground papers, although its visual appearance had the airy grace for which Avatar had become known, and a tabloid-sized inner section that contained Mel's writing and the other output from the community, including Eben Given's rambling, meditative "Journals of John the Baptist" (sometimes known as "John the Painter," "John the Wasted," or "John the Waspegg"), astrology columns by Joey Goldfarb and others, and pictures and poems of the Fort Hill children, usually with a drawing of Mel by Eben on the cover and numerous photos of Mel inside. Only the outer news section was being produced in the South End office. The Fort Hill tabloid section was being produced by Fort Hill people at Fort Hill. Candy and I had not yet entered that company in any real way.
This was part of the reason I had little work to do in my empty new office adjoining the layout room. Another reason was that I was unclear whether anyone wanted me to do any reporting or writing. Wayne's long-time co-editor, Brian Keating, was in the process of relocating back to his home town of New York to undertake publishing a separate edition of Avatar there, so logically I thought there would be lots of work do, but I couldn't find it, and nobody told me. I was given little sense of direction and, as a newcomer town, I didn't feel I had any grounding for directing others to do anything. I remember writing one piece of commentary (I don't remember the subject) that got as far as being typeset and pasted up, until David Gude, visiting the office one day, read it in its pasted-up form and simply tore it off the page saying, "This is bullshit," or words to that effect. I didn't challenge him, didn't know how the rules worked or where the lines of authority lay, but I soon learned that this was very much the way events tended to unfold around Avatar. The Fort Hill behavioral model gave full authority in the moment to whoever was feeling something strongly enough to take a risk and act, no matter what action he or she took, independent of any prior system of morality. This rule was not usually put into words; only the behavior of the actors revealed what the rules were.
But both Candy and I were certainly captivated by what we saw and felt going on around us. We were both reduced emotionally to childlike conditions by the complexity of the life and subculture we had stumbled upon. We had both expressed this situation during our first visit, in letters written to Mel that were published in consecutive issues, Numbers 20 and 21, during March, about the time we arrived to stay. They give a good idea of our respective states of mind at the time. Mine, "Note from a Visitor," was laid out alone a page with one of Mel's "Telling It Like It Is" columns:What a waste it would have been, thinking how I came all this way and did not talk to Mel. But I sit here and I'm glad. Why am I glad? I am afraid to talk to him. I am afraid to go in and say, "Hello, I'm Mike and I came to talk to you, " with big exuberant exclamation points.Candy's letter was quite different from mine, although, like mine, it also gave Mel the kind of full and easy access to the deepest aspirations of the reader-writer that he loved to work with and respond to. She wrote:
But I sit here all nervous and glad to retreat unnoticed to a corner.
There is greatness in the next room... too much for me to touch without getting burned bad, burned good. I never in my life met anybody who I did not feel as if I could crush, who I was better than... didn't need to listen to.
I can't touch Mel... I just listen to low talking in the next room.
This is so good. People rap about how Mel is on an ego-trip, blowing himself up with self-importance. He is important, but it's not for him that you say it. You say it for yourself... he doesn't need it. He knows.
We all need Mel.Dear Mel,
You have always touched me and reached me and probably stood watching over me during all those times when I tore my guts out and screamed and clutched because I was nothing and there was nothing but blackness and emptiness everywhere. I could take nothing though much was offered. I could only ask for love because I couldn't take it. Every moment was one quake and I was surrounded. And I surrendered. I was nothing but a scream - and so was the universe. I knew that I was the universe and I didn't want it. This was the nature of the battle.
I started writing this letter because you spoke so closely to what I had gone through and I don't seem to know how to relate my past to my present. I have rejected dying while alive and have chosen peace but I don't have it completely. Peace? If there were any forever it would have to be everywhere. The hands are always ready to grab your guts again. I know them so well. I always end up shrugging and saying "on with it" and denying a whole bunch of it but I also keep being haunted and I can't decide what to make of it. There, that's it! Is there ever an end to it? To anything? This is the always and forever question - is there an absolute? Do I need an answer? I keep living without one but I'm writing this letter and I may bake bread or move up to the hill or do lots of things before I ask the question again. So it's shelved for a while and it will haunt me intermittently, perhaps until I die, as in "What is the ultimate use. "
I love you.
The Only AbsoluteMel loved talk like this, as he had made clear in previous responses to such letters. He responded to Candy with one of his favorite aphorisms, "The only absolute is 'MORE'." In other words, don't push for meaning or clarification of the questions that bother you most deeply; just keep doing "what's right in front of you," step by step, and meaning and understanding will come in their own time. This aphorism turned out to be one of the basic tenets of Fort Hill philosophy, something we would come to have drummed into us over and over in a thousand different situations, but sometimes it was hard to see it being practiced, even by those most in a position to be doing so.
For instance, Mel was even now, in the same issue in which Candy's letter and the response to it were being published, declaring a major change in the structure of the game, for reasons that were certainly not clear. A note at the front of the tabloid section of Number 21 announced that Mel would no longer be writing his several columns for the Avatar, although the paper would continue printing and reprinting articles already written. He would no longer write answers to letters; these would be answered by his "friends."
On the next page, under a picture of Mel with impossibly wide-open eyes, looking haggard and world-weary, was his "Declaration of Creation":I am going to burn down the worldOn the next page, his "Telling It Like It Is" declared,
I am going to tear down everything that cannot stand alone
I am going to turn ideals to shit
I am going to shove hope up your ass
I am going to reduce everything that stands to rubble
and then I am going to burn the rubble
and then I am going to scatter the ashes
and then maybe SOMEONE will be able to see SOMETHING as it really is
WATCH OUTThe only thing I know is that people have to get together and love one another. I mean really FEEL each other. People have to look so deep inside themselves and inside of each other that they see the SAME GOD, and we can't stop looking until we KNOW we SEE it. Just knowing it's there isn't enough because it might NOT be, you've got to look until you're OVERWHELMED with how much it is there.... Please, whatever you do, don't bless ME.......... CURSE me! HATE me! Do SOMETHING real!
For some reason, Mel was raising the stakes of the game he was playing with his readers. He was sounding like an angry and impatient teacher who thinks his students are defective. The next article illustrated another consequence of his mood. Mel and some of his followers had been invited - and according to advertisements had accepted the invitation - to conduct a Sunday morning service at Arlington Street Church, one of the prominent Unitarian Universalist churches in Boston. The date had been kept, but not by Mel. Eben Given, David Gude, and another of Mel's long-time friends had shown up instead, to a mixed reception, as exemplified by two letters from members of the congregation, one harshly critical and the other warmly favorable. In a third letter, to David, the minister who had arranged the event complained of the awkward situation Mel's absence had created for him. David's answer is especially revealing of the outlook from Fort Hill at that moment. He begins by calling the minister a "hypocrite." Mel Lyman, by contrast, is "Truth," "Life," "Love," "Consciousness," and "Christ." He then explains why the minister wasn't told about changes in Mel's itinerary and even attempts to extract some guilt from the minister:But neither Eben, Bob nor I could say any of this to you or your congregation because YOU DIDN'T ASK. If you had sincerely wanted to know we would have sincerely answered you. You say, "But I did ask, I asked you twice." But there was no depth to your question and so there was no depth to the response that we gave you. And it did hurt Eben and Bob and me, believe me.A second letter from the minister good-naturedly tried to bridge the gap between the two views of what had transpired; this was clearly a doomed undertaking. A few pages later, under a picture of himself sitting on the grass on Fort Hill, Mel gave his own version of what was happening in a letter to "Dear Readers":I want you to understand what I have been trying to do in Avatar and why it is time for me to do something else. So far I have only written what I HAD to write, I have been driven to say certain things in certain ways and I have said them, and now I am no longer driven. If I continued my writing in Avatar it would only be because I felt obligated to all the people who are following what I say so closely but in all honesty I must tell you that I no longer have anything to say, at least not in the present form. I have come, I have delivered my message, and now I am taking my leave. Those of you who understood me need no more words from me. Those of you who RESISTED me will find me in other people. I am the Truth, wherever, however, in whatever form it appears. As Mel Lyman writing in Avatar it appeared very simply and very directly.In the "Letters to Mel" section, along with Candy's letter, a young man describes his coming to believe that Mel is indeed God, but asks whether others could be God as well. Mel's answer speaks to the "spirit that is":The world we see, hear, touch is one aspect of that spirit. The world we feel, sense, aspire to, is another aspect. I am totally at home in both, in me they are the same. I seek to unite them in others. I am God only in the sense that I am one with the spirit of God. The Father is in me and I know Him well. He is my leader as I am yours. I can only lead you to Him and then you are me. I am building a road into the wilderness, all other roads lead to my road, it is the LAST road, it BEGINS at the crucifixion.The next page was devoted to yet another untitled, unsigned declaration of Mel's faith, this one faith in loneliness as "the sole motivation, the force that keeps man striving after the unattainable, the loneliness of man separated from his soul, man crying out into the void for God, man eternally seeking more of himself through every activity, filling that devouring need on whatever level the spirit is feeding, the arena of conflict, be it flesh, thoughts, aspiring to ideals...."
The issue ends with a final note from George Peper: "On Fort Hill, with Mel Lyman, our principal task is communication, to master every instrument necessary for us to become totally conscious in what Mel describes as 'the World of Sight and Sound'." He explains that henceforth work in films will supplant and "contain" all the previous expressions of Fort Hill in music, newspapering, and other media. He says that, for more than a year, Mel and others have been working and experimenting with inadequate film equipment, and solicits donations of equipment, funds, skills, and any other items that can be put to good use, in order to help them move into full-time work in their new chosen medium.
Imagine our surprise, Candy and me, invited to move from Michigan to Massachusetts to work on a newspaper we admired tremendously, in the belief that meaningful work was waiting for us, only to find ourselves walking into this turmoil of change, polarization, and redirected energies, in which it wasn't clear whether there would even be a newspaper for much longer. We didn't know what was happening, and we certainly didn't feel in control of our destinies at that point. We didn't have any way to predict what would happen next, and we weren't necessarily feeling very aligned with each other either.
Two Different WorldsI was noticing that the people on the Avatar staff who were based in Boston and Cambridge, rather than Fort Hill, were feeling rather threatened by the sense of impending change, in ways I didn't quite understand. I liked those people, and as I heard their versions of the story I found myself sympathizing with them and becoming confused about where my allegiance was. There was, for instance, Ed Jordan, also known as Ed Beardsley, who had been involved in the artwork and production end of Avatar from its beginnings, and who was the central figure in a collective household around the corner from the office, very reminiscent of my collective household in East Lansing. Ed would wonder aloud, "If Mel is God, then what about me and all of us, aren't we God, too?" This attitude didn't make him popular with the Fort Hill folks, but the question seemed like a good one to me. Besides, I enjoyed working on layout with him, with his irreverence and his zany sense of humor.
And there was Charlie Giuliano, who had known Mel for years, since the early days of psychedelic experiments at Harvard and later in Waltham, around Brandeis University. Charlie seemed sincerely interested in building Avatar into an alternative news source, and seemed hurt by Mel's putting him on the spot to declare his allegiance this way or that. I felt for him in his ambivalence.
Candy, however, had no such problem; she was clearly prepared to align herself with Fort Hill and its needs, whatever they would turn out to be.
Also, much more than Candy, I was enthusiastically absorbing whatever details I could about the lifestyle of the people we were getting to know. This activity filled a fair amount of my available time. I had never before thought much about the concept of "voluntary poverty," although the idea had had a certain vogue for a while among New Leftists. But here at Fort Hill, even though the phrase was seldom used and would not have been universally accepted as a description of what was happening, clearly most of these people, one way or another, had had access to lots of resources and privileges and had chosen to forego the easy life in favor of a life of principle that happened to be taking place in a poor neighborhood, in rundown houses, following a set of priorities that did not include money and what it could acquire as the primary goals. Looked like voluntary poverty to me.
Having lived for several years on relatively small amounts of money (mostly gleaned from my share of my father's rather small estate and from Social Security income that was available to me from the time he died until I turned 21) but not having had to struggle to support myself, and having been able to remain in school as long as I wanted without worrying about where the tuition would come from, I now felt somewhat flush and embarrassed by comparison to the Fort Hill folks, with their flocks of children and their patched clothing. At the same time, many of them had given up lucrative careers to live on the Hill, and they did own their houses and have some pretty nice material possessions around them. The houses had a tattered, almost magical elegance about them that fascinated me, that seemed to transcend and transform the mundane modesty of the furnishings.
And there was a certain self-righteousness to the self-imposed frugality of Fort Hill. An article in February 1968, in the local newspaper of Roxbury's black community, the Bay State Banner, described the attitude of this band of new white immigrants into the mostly black neighborhood:[L]iving without financial security is an important part of the philosophy of the Hill People. They believe that what they need they will find, and that their security comes in living for the moment at hand. "This is a way of life where you do away with everything except the moment," says Faith Gude. "The secret is to lose everything. I have to become everything that's going to happen. And then, the thing that happens is you. That's not something you can lose. "On the other hand, when I had mentioned my misgivings about my own financial status to Wayne Hansen, he had let me know there was another, seemingly less voluntary, side to the apparent poverty of Fort Hill. On that side of the issue, the lack of material goods was a real problem to be overcome; and the idea was to take advantage of whatever was available from whatever source and to make the most of it because the need was enormous. Again, this left me confused.
I did enjoy participating in the rituals of salvage and make-do that had developed under the circumstances. People from the Hill were in the habit of going to the open-air produce market that filled Haymarket Square in downtown Boston on Friday evenings. The usual practice was to go shortly before the market was to close, scout out where the surpluses were at the various stands, and make bargains for case lots or damaged goods just before they would be discarded anyway. Frequently, we would fill entire cars with huge amounts of inexpensive or free food and would be greeted as heroes upon returning to the Hill. Other types of inexpensive food, less dramatic but no less fascinating, included bulk purchases, dented cans, and day-old bread. We were clearly demonstrating the well known and observable principle at the time that America produced huge, wasteful overabundances of everything, and that there was more than enough to go around if you knew where to look.
I learned also that the abundant supplies of building materials used to refurbish the houses on Fort Hill were also to a great extent the result of this waste and surplus. Boston's neighborhoods at the time were filled with abandoned houses, factories, and other commercial buildings, sometimes burned out in fires and not rebuilt, sometimes just abandoned for urban renewal projects that hadn't happened or for who knew what other reasons? In any case, plenty of usable construction material - frequently very attractive Victorian-style decorative mouldings, stained glass windows and mirrors, built-in cabinetry, and similar wonderful stuff - was available for the taking, and the Fort Hill men took frequently. Sometimes a slight risk would be involved if you had to break into a building to get the goods, but often doors and windows were open; all you had to do was walk in and start dismantling. I found this occupation perfectly fascinating. I had a long-time interest in architecture and construction, had in fact nearly chosen to study architecture rather than journalism in college, and had already taught myself some basic construction and remodeling skills. Hooking up with this gang of folks who had a living laboratory of half a dozen houses that they were constantly renovating, making beautiful homes for themselves, and doing it with free, salvaged construction materials - well, this was just wonderful, as far as I was concerned.
I also had a strong desire to become familiar with the culture of these people. In my mind, and in my prior experiences, the reason for choosing to live low on the economic ladder was to free up more of one's time to enjoy the pleasures of friends and of life generally. Now, here was a group of fascinating and accomplished people, many of whom were musicians, poets, visual artists, historical philosophers, all of whom had an interest in astrology, spiritual and occult matters, and personal growth. They all seemed to be in relationship with each other, and they were raising more than a dozen kids together, with more on the way. There certainly was plenty to do to fill up the time when one was not working a nine-to-five job. I did what I could to pick up on all these activities, but, curiously, discovered a certain sense of pressure, of time scarcity, that kept most of the folks on the Hill from being comfortable just hanging out and sharing all these pleasures. By contrast, I found the people in the South End contingent of Avatar more available for this kind of pursuit, but generally less accomplished and interesting. Another paradox.
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