My Odyssey Through the Underground Press
excerpt: pp. 402-404
There's Always Room For SacrificeThe magazine section of issue Number 23 illustrated again the depth of personal exploration and sacrifice that were implied by Mel's ethic and the Hill's attempt to manifest it in the world. After completing the United Illuminating charter, Eben Given had spent several days in New York helping Brian Keating fix up an office space in a Soho loft, from which to publish the New York edition of Avatar. While he was there, Eben had painted a mural of the tower on Fort Hill, in order to bridge the seemingly great gap between the Hill and the New York outpost. Then, after reaching a state of ecstatic creative intimacy with Brian, he had told Brian to destroy the mural by painting over it because he had realized his reasons for wanting to create it were no longer relevant or valid, and had returned to Boston. Brian had done so, leaving only a star hanging in a blank sky as a reminder of what had been. The magazine contained this story in the form of an exchange of spacey, visionary letters between the two of them, explaining to each other the mysteries of what they had just experienced, accompanied by a series of photos George Peper had taken of Eben creating the mural.
Reflecting again in yet another form the idea Mel had discussed in "The Structure of Structure, " that each moment needs to be free to create itself in its own way, Eben concludes his letter by saying,It's always seemed to me that the greatest truth of a picture is had in the painting of it-what it took to make it happen, what it felt like at the time. That's the part we don't see. There are museums and they are full of pictures but they're frozen and lifeless nearly all of them. A bad movie moves with more life than most of the famous paintings of history. But we didn't make it either. The life was there at the time and the picture is gone. The great picture is made with what we gave and so much more and most important, it must endure.I remember that my gut reaction on reading this for the first time was to mourn for the beautiful lost picture. But the correct reaction, in terms of the lessons we were being encouraged to learn, was to forget the picture and instead to celebrate the bond that had grown between Eben and Brian, and the growth they had each experienced in the process. Candy and I were struggling, internally, to get with the demands of Hill life. In this mood, we participated in the next escalation of the struggle to make the Hill and the planet a more suitable home for Mel.
Issue Number 24 was a kind of declaration of spiritual war by Mel on the others who felt they had some claim to the paper but were not ready to move into the routine of sacrifice and blind creativity that he was advocating. Abandoning the two-section format, the larger news section wrapped around the smaller magazine, without discussion, Mel instructed those of us producing the paper to re-introduce the earlier format, a single, tabloid-sized paper. This time, though, there was a difference. This issue had an uncompromising uniformity that allowed no space for any other viewpoint. On the front page was a large, bold headline I remember setting the press-type and thinking, "Whoa, the shit is really going to hit the fan now!"):You know what we've been doing up here on Fort Hill? We've been building a wall around Mel's house out of heavy, heavy stone.This headline was wrapped around a picture of a Fort Hill work crew celebrating after raising a heavy lintel stone over what would become the entranceway of an eight-foot-high stone wall around the front garden of Mel's house, Number Four and a Half. Such an action had become necessary because some visitor to the Hill, unaware that the red signal light meant to stay away for the moment because Mel was working, had managed to make it as far as Mel's front door at a moment when his presence wasn't welcome, and Mel had become furious. For weeks, all the available energies of the Hill's men had been devoted to learning masonry skills and building the wall, big and strong and impenetrable. The raising of the lintel was the symbolic completion of the task, and another opportunity to celebrate the unity of effort it takes to accomplish such work. Thus, four more pictures of the stages of the process appeared on the next two pages of the magazine. But that was just the beginning. Rounding out the issue were the following features, in the sequence listed:
- a letter to Mel from a teenaged admirer, broken-hearted at the announcement of his departure. His answer compares himself to the sun, shining brightly during the day but disappearing at night, giving us the opportunity to find its light in ourselves;
- a photograph of the sun in a recent eclipse;
- a page devoted to one of Mel's "Diary of a Young Artist" passages;
- a large photograph of Alison Peper in a moment of exclamation during a recent LSD trip guided and photographed by Mel;
- a letter from Mel to David Silver, a local television programmer-who had interviewed Mel and whose work Mel admired-congratulating Silver on a recent program for its ability to convey real feelings and experience through the medium of television;
- five more full-page pictures of Alison, expressing a variety of moods at various points in her trip;
- a reprint of one of Mel's "To All Who Would Know" columns: "How much you feel is an exact measure of just how alive you are. Every time you feel pain it is just that much more of you that is trying to be born. Every time you express what you feel it is that much more of you that has just been born. We are constantly surrounded by the opportunity to give birth to more of ourselves... ";
- twelve more pictures of Alison's trip, each one occupying an entire page; and
- a final picture of Mel on the back cover.
LIKE IT OR LUMP ITWhat appeared in Issue Number 24 could only be interpreted as Mel and the Hill thumbing their noses at the other members of the Avatar alliance, challenging them to get with the Hill's program or split. I remember finding it embarrassing taking the new issue out on the streets to sell, somewhat at a loss to explain to readers why the format had changed so dramatically, so suddenly. But I guess I accepted the challenge, another early opportunity to face difficulty and let go of old ideas in Mel's name. I found it more difficult to confront the likes of Ed Beardsley and Charlie Giuliano at the Avatar office, quite unable to help them understand why their contributions were being undermined in this way, quite unsure of what would happen next. They were very unhappy with the turn of events.
A meeting was called to bring together the Hill community with representatives of Avatar's "downtown" component, which took place around the big dining table in Eben and Sofie's house, Number Four. Candy and I attended, our first chance to share in the process of the Hill in one of its moments of yearning for a collective solution to a problem. I was struck by the intensity of the conversation and the emotions being exchanged, and by the seeming contempt in which the non-Hill people were being held. There seemed to be no room for compromise. I remember saying something about the difficulty of a person, such as myself, who didn't necessarily feel ready to commit to what was being asked, intending my comment to also apply to others in the same situation, and being cut off by Jim Kweskin, who angrily spat out, "Michael, you just want to know that you're all right," as if I were foolish and wrong for wanting that. At the same time, I could feel Candy, next to me, moving closer and closer to the Hill position and attitude, ready for anything and unquestioning of her willingness to give up whatever was necessary.
That meeting was our first encounter with Mel in the flesh. He sat around the table with the others, obviously feeling intensely whatever it was that was making this crisis necessary. At one point he insulted Jessie, telling her she was full of shit for some comment she had made. I was struck by how vulnerable he seemed, how his rather high-pitched voice sounded like that of a very young person. I had trouble integrating this with my notions of Mel the Great Man. Finally, the meeting ended, in anger and frustration, with no resolution whatsoever. I don't know how there might have been resolution, short of the "downtown" people saying they didn't really want to publish a newspaper after all and were now willing to give up their private lives and move to the Hill to do Mel's bidding. They clearly weren't ready for this. As Mel stamped out of the house, I attempted to introduce myself to him, wanting a personal encounter of some kind with him, and blatantly violating the rule he had recently been teaching about, to stay in the present and leave behind prior ideas of what might happen. He was in no mood to talk, and brushed past me to leave.
An Avatar Here, An Avatar ThereAs a result of that meeting, the Fort Hill mainstays encouraged those of us who were equivocating to declare our allegiance to Mel; and everyone on the Hill was encouraged to rededicate ourselves to building him a more perfect media laboratory in which to develop his people and his films. From the "downtown" point of view, the meeting was further evidence that Fort Hill had declared war on them. They proceeded to pull their resources together to publish a non-Fort Hill newspaper, not exactly using the name Avatar, but not not using it either. They laid out a newspaper that looked a lot like the metropolitan-size news section of Avatar, but that had no flag on the front page. On page two, in reverse, was the familiar Avatar logo, so the page could be held up to the light to reveal its true identity.
In addition to the confrontation of wills that the fight over the name represented, there was a question of whether Fort Hill had a legal right to deny use of the name to the others, based on who had been a member of the board when, and similar details.
For his part, Mel was furious. In retaliation, he ordered his "boys" to take action. On the night the new, renegade Avatar was delivered to the South End office, which we from Fort Hill had all but abandoned to the other staff, after that staff had gone home for the night, several carloads of us from Fort Hill raided the office, stole all the printed copies, and took them up to Fort Hill, where we locked them in the small room at the base of the tower. (I remember having to simply put my own free-press, pro-constitution values out of my mind in order to tune in to the adventurous spirit of the raid and the camaraderie of working with the other Fort Hill men on something that was obviously important to them. Was this a sellout or a betrayal, or was this an oblique way of protecting the truth? I was confused.) The next morning, the downtown staff had its turn to be furious, and there ensued several days of negotiations and angry recriminations between the two factions. In a final deception, the downtown staff were invited to Fort Hill ostensibly to work out a deal. While representatives of the two sides were meeting, others of us from Fort Hill took the papers out of the tower and sold them for recycling. A coup!
Both sides consulted lawyers and the legal situation was worked out in favor of the downtown staffs keeping the rights to the name Avatar, while Fort Hill retained the right to use the word Avatar in other name forms. Between June 1968 and the end of the summer, the downtown staff published, on their own, about half a dozen issues of a completely reconstituted Avatar Vol. II, whose contents were more typical underground newspaper material antiwar, countercultural stuff, music reviews, commentary on public events. During the same period, Brian Keating's New York Avatar also continued publishing, at least for a while. And, on Fort Hill, after a few months' break, there would soon appear the first of four more-or-less quarterly issues of a newly manifested magazine version of Mel's Avatar, under the name American Avatar. In other words, for a brief period, there were three different Avatars all publishing simultaneously.
6. Time to Get a Life pp. 404-409 TOP 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 Home