Is Mel Lyman God?
Did Los Angeles Avatar community 'destroy' KPFK?Art Kunkin
Mere mention of the American Avatar community at community supported KPFK-FM radio station in Los Angeles causes shudders, talk of 'fearing for one's life,' and bewilderment. When I was to meet Avatar family members at the Troubadour to talk about their "raid" on KPFK and then to visit their home, I was advised to cancel the meetings or take along a bodyguard. Yet after several contacts with Mel Lyman's friends in Los Angeles (I didn't cancel and I did go alone!) I found them cheerful, creative and very together people who I really liked. This article will attempt to explain this contradiction in response to the Avatar family. Why some people like them, why some (perhaps most at this time) fear them.
Why pay such attention to a relatively small Los Angeles community of about 20 people? First of all after five years of existence starting in Boston around Mel Lyman there are now 200 family members all over the country, not just 20 in Los Angeles. It think it very possible that now they are going to attract more people to their style of life and be a factor in many cities. There is great energy and considerable talent in their little community. The most active of recruitment-oriented groups as I have known them, whether as far left as Trotskyism or far out as Jesus Freaks only approximates the vitality of the community that Mel Lyman has put together.
Secondly, even though the American Avatar community has not been established very long in Los Angeles they have already made their mark through their much discussed Richard Herbruck Presents pages in the underground press. (See page 2 for their latest creation, and their programs on KPFK.) Even the local FBI has exhibited interest in them.
Thirdly, an insight into the Avatar family is an insight into the problems of our time and how some intelligent people are responding with their total beings. Why and how they provoke fear says much not only about them but about the people in whom the fear is induced. There are general lessons to be discovered about the advantages and problems of communal life as contrasted to isolated middle-class family existence.
Before getting into the details of Avatar life in Los Angeles, the now famous raid on KPFK, hassles with the Free Press staff and other contemporary events which I can report on first hand or through personal interviews, it would be well to provide some background. The source material will be a file of Avatar publications beginning with the earliest the underground newspapers published in Boston.
There is a story in this file which illuminated much about Avatar for me. Before the file was given to me at an Avatar house in L.A. two girls sat down and corrected by hand every typographical error in 23 newspapers and 4 magazines. They knew where every error was in the four inch high pile of paper and wouldn't consider giving the file to me without making the corrections! The episode showed such personal intensity, desire for perfection, seriousness about their public image almost to the level of fanaticism, and total dedication of the individuals to group functions, that it is easy to understand why people living 'normal' isolated family lives are both attracted and repelled.
The very first issue of Avatar dated June 9, 1967 has a long essay seemingly by Ralph Waldo Emerson which concludes with the editorial comment:"There is only one truth. There is as much God in Heaven as we can manifest here on Earth. And no more. And this means it is time for you to wake up... You have to open yourself. You have to want to know. You have to be greatly more honest with yourselves than you are."And this very first issue contains an article by Mel Lyman which states in part,"I am the truth and I speak the truth. I do not express ideas, opinions, personal views. I speak truth. My understanding is tinged by no prejudice, no unconscious motivation, no confusion. I have no pride to contend with, no hopes, no fears. In all humility I tell you that I am the greatest man in the world. First I'm going to attack what you mistakenly call love. Today love is hip. Love used to be something you were supposed to have for your wife. Now love is supposed to be something you were supposed to have for your fellow man. Love is learning how to smile like a Yogi... It makes me sick. Love doesn't even exist on this planet except in rare fleeting moments. I have never met a truly loving person in my life... Love isn't something you find, something you do, something you study, love is something you BECOME only when there is no more YOU... All the spiritual schools such as Zen, Scientology, Macrobiotics, Yogi ad infinitum are the faintest beginnings and are packed with the proudest sickest people in the world because they think there is a system to find love and they think they've FOUND it, a painless way to joy. Believe me gang, it just doesn't exist. You can't be beautiful be being nice, you can't be beautiful by being good, YOU CAN'T MAKE BARGAINS WITH GOD! Accept that fact NOW! Love comes through complete sacrifice of the personality, giving up everything you want for yourself and accepting everything you are and I don't mean running off someplace to do it, I mean here and now..."An unclassified ad in the same issue reads,"Mel Lyman is UnHappy. Why? Because he has no film to make movies. Make Mel Happy by sending money... Please hurry, I can't stand to hear him cry."Other features of Avatar Number One were an astrological emphasis, an article about a conflict with police at a concert, a critical comment about Red China, a column about balling ("Honest masturbation is a lot healthier than a dishonest lay"), a column on dropping acid and growing hair, and a column on the Love Experiment in Haight reprinted from New York's East Village Other: ("One leaves San Francisco with the feeling that it is here and now where the new world, a human world of the 21st Century, is being constructed...")
In Avatar issue 4 (July 21, 1967) there is a reprint from the L.A. Free Press on "Police Riot Mars Peace March in Los Angeles," we learn that Mel Lyman is performing music in Cambridge at the Club 47, and there is a column by Mel criticizing the hippies lack of Self Discipline. Perhaps if "sincerity" is used as a synonym for "truth" in the following statements by Lyman in 1967 we can see better what he is driving at. "... there is more truth in President Lyndon Johnson than in all the Learys and Ginsbergs... If there is more truth in a Southerner HATING a negro than in a hippie LOVING him then I am for the Southerner... do you really understand* what the word responsibility means, you haven't the foggiest, neither have our leaders but they are a lot closer to it than you are. WAKE UP..."
In Avatar (August 18, 1967) there is the first mention (in a column by Ed Fox) that a group had been living for a year on Fort Hill in Boston. There had been writeups about the community and a policeman came to visit, socially.
There is a transcript of a radio show with Avatar people which details some of the community life style as early as 1967."Wayne: A lot of people in the paper live on the hill.(At this point perhaps it should be stated that the Avatar was one of the most artistically produced of all underground papers. There was a lot of color, drawings, creative layout as in the psychedelic papers plus community news, anti-war articles, etc. as in the Free Press.
Kennedy (the interviewer): And they don't work particularly, they just live in common. Is this it?
Wayne: We work all the time. You have to do a lot of work to put out a newspaper. You have to work to keep your house together.
Mel: We make movies and we make records and we play music and we paint. The newspaper is just one thing we do.
Wayne: We also are working with the Roxbury beautification program to fix up Highland Park which is a Revolutionary War Monument.
Kennedy: So it's just a creative community down there, eh? How many people are in the community now, do you know?
Eben: There's more all the time. There's probably close to 50.
Wayne: With children. There's about 15 children.
Kennedy: What draws a person TO this? Why do you fellows find that you're drawn to this type of living away from what would be considered the average norm, the conservative type of living: Going through school, getting a job, raising a family? What has turned you OFF so about this?
Eben: Nothing's turned us OFF. We're artists and artists have always lived somewhat outside of ordinary..."
In Avatar 10 there is a letter from Mel to Mel,"Dear Mel: You are so great so great I can hardly stand it. I would rather read your words than anything that has ever been written, the world has been waiting for a man like you to come along for a long time now, thank God you're finally here. Love, Mel."By Avatar 12 the paper is fighting an obscenity battle with Boston city authorities and Mel pastes up an intentionally obscene editorial in the center of page three.
In Avatar 15 (Dec. 1967) there is a letter from Wayne Hansen to editor Harry Duncan of the Blue Bus"Dear Harry, We were all pleased to see that you have been using Mel's stuff in The Blue Bus but I'd like to caution you. Mel is a totally conscious person, and when he writes, he is a totally conscious writer. That makes it absolutely impossible to edit his stuff or to leave any typos in it ... Mel's stuff can be used as an example and a standard for perfection. Recently many people have commented to me about how clean the paper is, how carefully we must work to keep it looking so good. Well, that result comes from constantly striving to keep Ol' Mel happy. Every time we make mistakes in his column, misspelled words or left a couple out, Mel MADE us reprint it. God, what a ruckus that caused at first... but we did reprint the articles correctly... We've had to learn to have care and to take care at every level which Avatar operated. That's what makes the big thing together, having all the parts in place and working well. When you have tied the top (writing) to the bottom (distribution) with the same concern for perfection, you have a work of art. Then it no longer matters whether you're a church, a newspaper, or a bowling alley..."In Avatar 16 there is a letter from a medical student named Paul Viola to Mel, "Dear Mel. Glad to see someone defend the practice of insulting people for the sake of waking them up..."
Another reader (from Polaroid Corporation) writes to Mel,"Dear Mel, You make me sick with your happy horseshit about destruction and transformation... Who do you think you are with your cute pseudo-philosophic phrases. You chew out the swami types and then turn around and belch out the same kind of vomit they do... I really dig you, Mel baby."Mel's response, greatly abbreviated,"...My advice to you is to STOP THINKING. Love, Mel."Eventually there was some sort of fight between the Avatar people and Mel and his associates began producing the American Avatar. Sometime after the Chicago Democratic Convention, 1968 Mel writes, "Nothing has changed. The old men still have the power, they still believe they're in the right, they will continue to maintain law and order if they have to wipe out half the population of the world to do it. But who can blame them. They BELIEVE in their cause. Do YOU?"
And then Mel announced in the American Avatar, now a magazine, the following:"... So while most of you turn your heads and continue sticking to your silly romantic beliefs I'll let the rest of you in on a little secret. I'm Christ, I swear to God in PERSON, and I'm about to turn this foolish world upside down... Love, Christ"
TO BE CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
WITH A REPORT ON THE LOS
ANGELES AVATAR COMMUNITY
AND THEIR CONFLICT WITH
Sorry. We thought we could fit the whole story
in this space but we misplaced our type squeezer
and had to get these pages to the printer).
Part 2: Mel Lyman is God
* [In the version printed in issue 4, the second "Southerner" is written "southerner," and "do you understand what the word..." is "do you know what the word...". Perhaps these reflect some of the corrections Kunkin mentions having been made to his issues before he received them.]