My Odyssey Through the Underground Press
excerpt: pp. 434-440
Moving OnDuring this time, one day, I got to wave goodbye to Candy and Carol and several others, who were all driving together to Hollywood to live in the new houses there. Even though I hadn't had cordial relations with either of them in quite a while, and even though both of them had long since become involved with other men of higher standing than I (in fact, Candy was pregnant with Richie's baby at the time), their departure together for a distant home left me feeling somehow uprooted and disconnected. But within a few weeks, it was my turn to be transferred. Eben and Wayne had been in New York for some months, living in the house on 15th Street and working for a range of well-off clients, doing custom carpentry for high wages. Now it was time for Eben to move on (to Hollywood? I don't recall), and Wayne needed new partners. Les Sweetnam and I drove to New York in his little car in May 1971, there to make our fortunes for Mel. I have never been back to Boston since that time.
The first period in New York was exciting and gratifying for me. At last, I felt, I had a respectable role within the community, in an environment where I was fairly certain I could perform adequately. With only a few of us in New York at the time, I also had a nice room in a nice house; it felt quite civilized. And, of course, New York was in a way my hometown. Even though I had never lived in Manhattan before I was familiar with the environment and how to function there. Wayne made Les and me feel welcome as part of his crew, and in no time we were busily working and bringing home the bucks. Quickly, though, the pressure was turned up. We weren't making money fast enough, we needed to be more scintillating conversationalists at home, Mel's rooms in the lower unit of the house needed to be fixed up, et cetera.
I had a chance to share some of my frustrations with one of our clients, an interior decorator for whom Wayne had done lots of work. She sympathized with my plight and offered to buy me a visit to a psychic friend of hers, a tarot reader with an apartment uptown. One day after work, I slipped away to keep my appointment, hoping I would hear something like "You're too good to be hanging around with that gang; here's what you should do instead." But I couldn't bring myself even to mention the community until almost the end of the reading; maybe I was testing the reader on her prescience or something, although she probably knew my story already. When I finally, shyly mentioned my dilemma and my restlessness, she just said, "You're not done with them yet," and I took that as an instruction to go home and try to adjust. When I got home that evening, of course, I was soundly criticized for having gone so far afield looking for a kind of assurance the others believed I shouldn't have been wanting in the first place. Oops.
Within a few months of our arriving, the New York handyman operation was going well enough that more people were moved down from the Hill to take advantage of the profusion of available work and the relatively high wages. Eric was among the new transferees; we were thrown into working together again. Also new in New York was Jeremy, a long-time resident of the Hill from England who seemed to me to be willing to do absolutely anything in the name of spirit and spontaneity. He was currently in the country illegally because an earlier marriage to an American woman had fallen apart. Mel decided it was time for Jeremy to marry another American, and he moved Rachel Brause, my former housemate, back to New York, her hometown, for the purpose. Rachel's parents were led to believe their daughter had finally fallen in love, and a formal wedding was held in the house, in which they participated. Rachel and Jeremy proceeded good-naturedly to live as a couple, a very odd couple; her parents even gave Jeremy a job and hired our crew to paint their apartment.
The house on 15th Street couldn't accommodate everyone, so additional space had to be found. We sublet for the summer a small loft space on West 21st Street, and several of us moved there, living and sleeping and running a shop in the tight quarters, and heading back to the other house for occasional periods of cultural R & R. In addition to working as carpenters and handymen, we also started a second business. One of Mel's long-time friends, a taciturn, reserved inventor and mathematician named John Kostick, had spent a number of years developing designs for unusually strong three-dimensional structures based on principles of multi-directional symmetry. He even held a patent on the basic design, which he called a tetraxi (four axes), and he had developed a vast line of wire sculptures based on the tetraxi and elaborations of it, which he periodically attempted to market under the name "Omniversal Design." His "stars" were everywhere in the houses on Fort Hill.
The unusual characteristic of his designs was that they were simple to make out of ordinary materials, once a person learned the principles of weaving the parts together symmetrically. Suddenly, with an entrepreneurial community of us based in a wealthy district of New York, we (John, too, was living with us in New York) were using our evenings and other "free" time learning to make his sculptures. The shop space on 21st Street was outfitted with acetylene torches for spot-welding the bronze wire we used to make the sculptures, and vats of cupric acid and plastic coating material to clean and preserve the finished products. We would take collections of sculptures out on the streets and sell them to passersby, as in the past we had sold newspapers and magazines.
We also developed furniture designs using the same principles of symmetry, gaining maximum strength from lightweight materials. I remember two specific projects: a warehouse full of storage shelves in New Jersey, that we built from very light lumber in a labor-intensive but material-shy scheme, and, quite the opposite, a heavy, carefully contoured bench made of walnut, to serve as the couch in the living room of a gentleman in Greenwich Village.
When the sublet ran out at the end of the summer, Omniversal Design seemed to be doing well enough to merit some further investment. We found a larger loft on West 18th Street, near Fifth Avenue, with large windows facing the street and a high rear space with a raised floor area that we could readily develop into a two-story living area for five or six of us. We built in a kitchen (my mother donated an extra stove out of her house on Long Island), improved the bathroom, and developed the upstairs area into several bedrooms. The front part became a shop and store for Omniversal Design, and our living room for those rare occasions when we weren't working. We filled it with samples of the furniture possibilities inherent in John's sculpture designs.
Send Out a LifelineMeanwhile, back in the house on 15th Street, the New York community was receiving periodic infusions of news and cultural guidance from Mel and Fort Hill central. These infusions included the first of what would become a long series of music tapes prepared by Mel from a growing collection of 78 rpm records that he and Jim Kweskin were assembling in their travels around the country. The record collection was being lovingly preserved and stored in the Hollywood houses. The "Melzak" tapes were conceived as a compendium of the best popular music that had been produced in this country over the decades, carefully selected and sequenced. In choosing pieces for the tapes, Mel was looking for music that seemed to have been produced easily and spontaneously, when the spirit moved through the musicians and singers, without the labored effort of repeated takes and after-the-fact engineering. (The 78 rpm medium, in its simplicity, encouraged this possibility.) It was the same standard Mel used in evaluating his own music, and he was using the tapes to educate us in this principle, as well as to have ever more influence on what we listened to and thought about. The first tapes were of "race music," the black rhythm and blues music that Mel had listened to during his young adulthood, and which gradually evolved into rock and roll. Later tapes moved into numerous other styles, from country and western to swing to World War II-era pop and everything in between.
Tapes of the evolving music for Jim and Mel's new album also came to us from time to time, and finally the finished album itself arrived: "Richard D. Herbruck Presents Jim Kweskin's America, co-starring Mel Lyman and the Lyman Family." On the front of the jacket was a collage by one of the Hill women, composed of some of the community's favorite images of what makes America special: Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, John Kennedy, Gene Autry, Henry Miller, Billie Holiday, Vince Lombardi, Jimmie Rodgers, Lyndon Johnson, Marion Brando as Stanley Kowalski, Henry Fonda as Tom Joad, et cetera. On the back of the jacket, Richard Herbruck, the ostensible producer of the record, describes the excitement of the recording session and the interaction of the unlikely assemblage of musicians. "All in all it was a magnificent experience, one to never be duplicated.... And then we were done. The spirit of this once great country of ours had come and left its mark as minute little tracings on a plastic disc and the second American Revolution was underway." The liner notes also included a little essay from Jim, talking about the astrological sign of Cancer and its deep relationship with the musical history of this country:My soul was born in Cancer and it was born into the great river of the American Soul, still flowing in deep strains of hope and conquest. That soul was the Freedom that the earliest American dreams of and fought for which was the freedom to find God in themselves and follow Him, and it was finally born on earth as the spirit of a nation which would live in men, in Cancer... the sign of the birth of God in Man.You might wonder what he is talking about here. This little essay is an even more generalized, simplified, and romanticized version of American history than any that appeared in American Avatar. Are people expected to take this seriously? So much of the album and its liner notes is tongue in cheek, it's hard to know what Jim expected when he wrote this, if he wrote it. The truth is Mel is everywhere in this album; Jim is no more than the vehicle through whom the album became possible. Jim sings every song, but Mel's backup vocals and harmonica are frequently mixed equally with or even stronger than Jim's voice. The selection of music is surely the result of Mel's influence. The album starts on an upbeat note, with Jim singing Gene Autry's part in "Back in the Saddle, " and moves through several other country music classics from various time periods, including Woody Guthrie's "Ramblin' Round Your City" and Merle Haggard's "Okie from Muskogee," the recently popular redneck anthem. The arrangements are uplifting and richly textured. The second side begins with a similarly rousing version of "Stealin'," a classic number in the jug band style, but then moves to a long, slow, somber version of the gospel song, "The Old Rugged Cross," and an equally heavy "Dark as a Dungeon," the coalminer's lament by Merle Travis. The album ends with a long, serious choral version of Stephen Foster's "Old Black Joe." Jim and Mel seem to be attempting to take the listener through a journey from simple, happy feelings into a confrontation with the real and the serious. Or something like that.
[The American soul has been repeatedly expressed, he says, in great musicians born under the sign of Cancer]... and people who could truly hear them have felt history before it happened.
I am here once again to sing that song for you. And as this album was born in a burst of spirit and recorded simply in three days as it was sung... a new life for the world is bursting forth from the Heart of America.
The soul that is born in Cancer must always find its completion in Aries, when God and man become one. You can read the story of it in Mirror at the End of the Road by Mel Lyman. It is the story of life from the moment it doubts itself and receives its first intimations of immortality to the time it becomes God. . .as it grows from Cancer to Aries. You can hear that story in this album if you will step aside and let your soul listen. I am singing America to you and it is Mel Lyman. He is the new soul of the world.
One Isn't Enough, Let's Have Two MelsI have always found most of this album very pleasant to listen to, particularly the more upbeat songs. But I've never understood why it seems to take itself so seriously, while at the same time it's packaged in such a weird way. There are even two drawings of "monsters" adjoining the liner notes, credited to Anthony Benton Gude, the then eight-year-old son of Jessie and David. And those weird notes by Richard Herbruck, describing the epiphany of the recording session. Who is Richard Herbruck anyway, and where did he come from to become the producer of this record? The truth is, "Richard Herbruck" was just another manifestation of Mel Lyman, inexplicably using a pseudonym as a joke. Richard Herbruck was in fact the name of one of the men in the community, a rich kid from Ohio who had arrived a few years earlier.
He was known to everyone as Dick Libra, and rarely needed his legal name, which came complete with credit cards and respectability. He happened to look a bit like Mel too, similar coloring and body type. So during the days when Mel was traveling around a lot by airplane, he became Richard Herbruck in order to travel more anonymously. For some reason, it caught on, and he started being Richard more and more of the time. Soon, Richard was developing a public persona of his own.
In the period shortly before the appearance of "Jim Kweskin's America," Richard Herbruck had a brief fling with fame, as well as notoriety, through the efforts of the Hollywood branch of the family. It's a complicated and controversial story, one which I know primarily through published accounts, but it contains a number of familiar elements. In an attempt to gain media influence in the Los Angeles area, Owen de Long had applied for and been hired as program director at KPFK, the listener-supported Pacifica station in L.A. He had no radio experience, but he did have his impressive academic credentials and his self-assured manner. Joey Goldfarb was simultaneously hired as maintenance person at the station, and as part of his conscientious performance had built and provided to the station some shelves on which to store the profusion of recording tapes there. For his part, Owen generously offered to provide to the station broadcast tapes of a series called "History of Rhythm and Blues," ostensibly put together by Richard Herbruck. These were the first "Melzak" tapes that Mel had been producing and distributing to the various homes of the community. (Or maybe they were tapes in the same style produced just for this purpose, I have no way to know.)
For some reason, there was disagreement between the radio station's engineers and Owen over the sound levels at which "Richard's" tapes were put out over the air and, after a couple of disagreeable episodes, Owen simply pulled one of the tapes off the air in the middle of the program and asked listeners over the air to complain to the station about its sloppy engineering. Apparently, this was a signal to community members, who obediently called the station to make the complaint. This in turn precipitated a physical encounter between Owen and a station employee, who claimed he was injured when Owen pushed him against a wall. Owen was fired on the spot. The next day, a large crew from the community showed up at the station to reclaim their shelves and, as indicated by their behavior, to impress the KPFK staff with their seriousness. They did this by blocking all the exits, yielding only when station personnel called the police for assistance, and it was agreed the Fort Hill people would let traffic in and out of the station while they methodically removed their work. The whole episode was then exaggerated and boasted about in a column that "Richard Herbruck" wrote for the Los Angeles Free Press, part of a series of columns Mel as "Richard" was evidently writing in the Free Press and the Berkeley Barb at the time. These columns became controversial among the Free Press staff and were discontinued because "Herbruck's" defense of the KPFK episode included threats of further violence.
The facts as presented here are gleaned from two lengthy articles published in the Free Press by its longtime editor Art Kunkin, who made it his business in two articles, on July 30 and August 13, 1971, to investigate not only the KPFK episode but also the history and current doings of the community. He describes the commitment to excellence and perfection that he observed when visiting the community's Hollywood houses, and the pleasant interactions he had with the people there, despite their public reputation for violent and erratic behavior. He also includes "Richard Herbruck's" latest and last column for the Free Press, which occupies a full page of the paper, bordered by stars, with a tag line, "promises you everything, gives you nothing":We should be entering the new world, all the preparations have been made, it has all been written about and everybody wants it, it is so easy to imagine. A world where everybody loves each other and all motion is towards harmony and there is no more war or hate or fear and everybody is together all the time. It is very easy to imagine.Et cetera, et cetera. More of the same old diatribe against the pretentiousness and smugness of the New Age as it was emerging at the time. More complaints about the stagnancy of the government and the old institutions. A plea to stop infighting and unite against "the common enemy."
Yet here we sit in a grey and tumbling world out of place and bursting with song! What happened?...Perhaps we didn't want ENOUGH. Perhaps we have settled for too LITTLE. Perhaps what we REALLY wanted had nothing to do with everything we THOUGHT we wanted. Perhaps the new world hasn't really even BEGUN yet!Get together with your friends, pool your resources, make some money, buy a house, take on some responsibilities, learn to FIGHT for what you believe in, stop doping yourselves up, stop looking for a Utopia, look around you with clear eyes and make some clear decisions, THE ENEMY IS WITHIN! We have to start a new life here, we cannot live in this dying structure, it will kill us, it has already killed itself. Our only weapon is inner strength, a small group of people with a great deal of determination can transform the world, be the NEW Christians, fight for your life, fight for love, fight for a new world, fight for room to breathe, the Heart of God is a vast darkness that only the brave can know, this is a plea for courage, WE MUST GET TOGETHER AND FIGHT THIS CREEPING DECAY!So this was "Richard Herbruck's" message for the world of Los Angeles. Sounds a lot like all of Mel's earlier messages for the people of Boston and New York. I didn't read it until many years later - for some reason, the series of articles of which this was a part was not sent to us in New York - but it's easy to imagine such talk landing with a thud in the southern California of the early seventies. In any event, by the time "Richard Herbruck" went public as the "producer" of "Jim Kweskin's America," the entire KPFK-Free Press episode was in the past. The little bit of talk about it that reached us in New York focused on the spontaneity and unity of Owen and the rest of the crew as they confronted the wimpiness and low standards of KPFK. We didn't hear much about the violence or the unwillingness to reach any kind of compromise. It was a typical adventure for the community during those days. Some outreach toward the world, often through the media, would be begun with great hopes but often with unspoken ulterior motives, as Owen's "offer" of tapes was really the reason he was at KPFK in the first place, to promote Mel's work there. Then something would go slightly wrong, or the situation would be exploited beyond its tolerance, and the whole thing would come undone. After the fact, the Hill people were always right and strong, and the other people were always weak and misguided. But almost always the effect was that the high hopes would be shattered and the plans for major influence on the world would be disappointed.
Doing It All With MirrorsBy the time the news of the KPFK adventure arrived, such as it was, we in New York were busy with a new project. Mel's autobiographical collection, Mirror at the End of the Road, was now published, as Jim had indicated in the liner notes of "Jim Kweskin's America." The community had a distribution contract with Ballantine Books, under which they were placing it in stores but we had the right to sell it as well. We had boxes filled with books and were spending all our available time hawking copies on the streets of New York. Imagine the scene: you're walking down the street in Greenwich Village or Times Square and this young stranger approaches you, neatly dressed and looking sincere, and tries to sell you a book that is the life story of someone you've probably never heard of, who claims to be the savior for our age. It was a difficult assignment, but we went ahead with it, day after day when all our other work was done. I remember being on the street on the Upper East Side one day, a trendy part of town. Suddenly, around the corner came, unmistakably, Janis Joplin with two long-legged, bell-bottomed friends. I looked at her and said, "I know who you are." And, just as quickly as it takes to read these words, she fired back, "I know who you are, too," and continued walking. It was the high point of my brief book-selling career. She died a few months later.
Mel's book represented to us at the time the best opportunity yet to present what was special about him to the world. It seemed like the culmination of a long evolution, of which the Avatars had been a preliminary phase. The book was an assembly of his personal writings, letters and diary entries, poems, and photographs (as well as drawings by Eben of important scenes for which no photographs existed) of the years of Mel's development from a brash, frustrated young man to the spiritually accomplished person he had been just before the start of the community. Its moods cover an enormous range of emotions and diverse reactions to all kinds of situations, from silly word plays and pornographic complaints about the injustices of life, to sincere love letters and reminiscences, to contemplations about the eternal questions and little odes to his pets and his humble surroundings during difficult times.
It begins with a section called "Diary of a Young Artist" at the end of 1958, when he was first hitting the road to find himself, his marriage to Sofie on hold for the first of many times over the years. He wanders and rambles and suffers, moves his family of Sofie and a growing bunch of kids around the country trying to find some situation that works for them while he is becoming more proficient as a musician, and finds no peace. Then, in a section called "Judy" he lives through a devastating relationship over a couple of years with a young woman student at Brandeis, who eventually returns to her family in the Midwest and leaves him to "live with a broken heart," as he puts it in the dedication of the book. This experience catapults him unwillingly into a spiritual exploration, which is spelled out in the next section, "Dark Night of the Soul." As his musical career was finally taking off and he was making new homes for himself in New York and Cambridge, his longings for a higher understanding kept him restlessly seeking some meaning in life beyond the day to day adventure. Then in the last section, "Dark Night of the Spirit," it finally begins coming together for him, in the form of spiritual and personal strength to fill the emptiness all by himself if necessary, with no expectation of help from the outside or from God or anyone else. The "Contemplations" piece published in one of the American Avatars, the one that begins "Loneliness is the sole motivation, the force that keeps man striving after the unattainable," was written during this period. The book ends in mid-1966, with Mel's contemplation on the death by motorcycle accident - or was it suicide? - of his friend, folksinger and novelist Richard Fariña, and just before Mel and the people closest to him decided to throw in their fortunes together and move into the first house on Fort Hill. The epilogue is a playful letter to Eben, written as the book was being assembled, recalling the fun they had in their old days, of struggling unconscious with the big questions and the adventure of it all.
More Demands, More Opportunities to GrowAbout the time Mel's book and Jim's record finally made it out into the world (to resounding critical silence and sluggish sales), while we in New York were struggling to make money by any means we could - when we weren't assembling "stars" to sell or hawking books or remodeling one of our houses - a couple of events occurred to make life even more complicated for the entire bi-coastal community of us. With more and more of his people moving to the West Coast, and with his creative projects increasingly centered in the Hollywood mansion, but with the roots of the community still based in Boston and a large crew of us in New York, Mel decided that keeping in touch with all of us spread all over the place was taking too much of his time, with too long a drive between homes. The solution? Get a place in the middle of the country and move some people there; that way it would only take half as long to get "home" when he was on the road. Besides, he had had a fantasy for a while of a country place where his citified followers could learn to get back to basics. He and some of the others looked at a map of the country, drew lines between Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York, and decided to find land where the lines crossed, very near the geographical center of the 48 contiguous states, in northeastern Kansas. Coincidentally, the metropolis of northeastern Kansas and the surrounding area was Kansas City, winter home of Tom Benton, Jessie's famous father. Mel dispatched David Gude to Kansas to search for land there. Tom Benton offered to help fund the project, maybe in hopes of having some of his pet hippies closer to home more of the time. Before long, David had found the perfect place, 280 acres of rolling farmland with a big old farmhouse and a broken-down but serviceable barn and other outbuildings, in the economically depressed Flint Hills area of Kansas. Now it was time to fill the place up with people and bring it to life.
At about the same time, the community was contacted by a writer from Rolling Stone magazine, David Felton, who wanted to do a major feature on the community. Over a period of several months, which happened to coincide with the media coverage of the KPFK incident and the purchase of the Kansas farm, he visited most of the community's homes around the country (but not New York). Somehow, he ingratiated himself to the Fort Hill people he met, sufficiently so that they shared lots of their time and information with him, expecting him to produce an article generally favorable to the Hill and its view of its role in the world. He even got to interview Mel privately at the Hollywood house.
During the period when Felton was traveling in Fort Hill circles, Rolling Stone published an article on another large community based in Berkeley and Oakland, which had some similarities to Fort Hill. Led by a salesman-turned-guru, Victor Baranco, the More House group offered quick, materialistic solutions to personal problems, encouraging its followers to set themselves up as paid teachers of the methods used, sort of an early version of spiritual network marketing; unlike Fort Hill it also offered its adherents lots of opportunities for sexual exploration and other hedonistic pleasures. Reading and hearing about the More Houses intrigued Mel and some of the others, and Faith Gude, who was living in the San Francisco apartment at the time, was dispatched to Oakland to meet Victor Baranco and establish friendly relations with his community, if that seemed appropriate. Faith reported back that the extensive remodeling work of the More Houses fell far short of the standards to which we were working, and that the level of interpersonal confrontation and growth was also deficient by comparison. But one of the methods used in the More Houses to keep people focused on each other and their collective responsibilities fascinated Faith, and she brought it back and taught it to people in each of the Fort Hill communities around the country. It was a structured game in which people would sit in a circle and take turns being in a "hot seat," where each one in turn would get to hear criticisms and receive praises from the others. I don't remember what this was called, or what the ostensible purpose was (and I know that in the context of our overstressed and overexamined lives, out of the context of the superficial and ego-gratifying lifestyle of the More Houses, it seemed trivial) but I do remember that, for a period of a couple months during that fall of 1971 when I was in New York, we played the game frequently, several nights a week, adding one more burden to our already very full schedules.
15. On the Cover of Rolling Stone pp. 440-448 TOP 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 Home