Behind bars Mark Frechette is a curiously satisfied man. "It was a good bank robbery," he said. "Maybe it wasn't a successful one, but it was real, ya know?"
Frechette, the one-time star of Antonioni's 1970 epic flop Zabriskie Point, and two other members of the Mel Lyman Family had walked into a Boston bank on August 29th, drawn pistols, and announced a holdup. A teller's alarm quickly brought police, who shot and killed Chris "Hercules" Thein, 22, and arrested Frechette, 25, and Sheldon "Terry" Burnhard, 30, with their guns and the money on the floor in front of them.
Frechette for five years has been a follower of Mel Lyman, the charismatic ex-harmonica and banjo player whose Messianic personality has drawn a large cult of devotees. The Lyman Family is still headquartered in a complex of old houses on the top of Fort Hill in Roxbury, Boston's ghetto, but has communal outposts in New York City, New Orleans, Kansas, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Cloistered and inwardly focused, the Family is gathered in loathing, with a profound disgust for American society that speaks in cliches from the mid-Sixties, uttered still in innocent fury. "I did what I did to stay awake," explained Mark, his chiseled features brittle and wan in the flourescent jailhouse light. "This society runs amok asleep. I was running amok but I was awake. When I was running amok, know what I mean?
"There was no way to stop what was going to happen," he said. "We just reached the point where all that the three of us really wanted to do was hold up a bank. It would be like a direct attack on everything that is choking this country to death." The government is the banks and the "real criminals" work in banks, he said, and "banks deserve to be robbed." And besides, he added, "standing there with a gun, cleaning out a teller's cage that's about as fuckin' honest as you can get, man." A. high-school dropout, Frechette speaks with no sense of irony, dropping lines like: "The generation that is in power will never give up that power...."
Frechette's story goes this way: he and "Herc" Thein had just returned from a season working on the Martha's Vineyard summer houses of the painter Thomas Hart Benton, a major benefactor of the Family and the father of Lyman's First Lady, Jessie Benton. They had been in Boston only five days when they hit the bank. Burnhard (the piano player in the Jim Kweskin/Lyman American Avatar albums) threw in and the three literally walked to the nearest bank.
The heist was something less than meticulously planned. "It never got to the point of 'Hey, let's go do a bank' until just about the time we were going to do it," said Mark. It was the Lyman Family's bank although the three didn't know that. There was no getaway car, he says, and also contrary to newspaper reports, no disguises. Police at first thought Thein was wearing a bank guard's uniform, but he merely happened to have on an Army-cut blue shirt with a patch on the shoulder.
"It's not like Chris," said his sister Barbara Thein in San Francisco. "He wouldn't put his life on the line for some crummy old money." But she said neither she nor anyone else in her family had seen or heard from Chris Thein since he went to Boston and joined Fort Hill a bit over a year ago. "He only wrote one letter to any of us in all that time. It was in answer to one from my mother in the hospital. But he never sent it, it was in his effects at Fort Hill."
"They just didn't think. They didn't think at all," said George Peper, a Fort Hill spokesman. "There were people in that bank who would probably recognize Mark," he said, people who had been given all the Lyman literature over the years much of which, a couple of years ago, was liberally plastered with Frechette's picture. It was going to be a "personal revolutionary act." There were no plans to flee, no route to the underground, there would be no communique. Just make your withdrawal and walk home.
"Something like this is going to happen more and more," said Peper. "And it's going to come from very real people. Not from thinking people. And not from revolutionary groups. It's going to be done by passionate simple people the everyday workingman who is just sick of what is going on in this country. The innocent are going to do this now. The innocent!"
"Now he's Jimmy Dean," interjected Faith Gude, daughter of novelist Kay Boyle and a top Family lieutenant, "and that's the jump he's taken. Not from good boy to bad boy. From Ricky Nelson to Jimmy Dean."
"We're not political here," said Jessie Benton. "We don't have any ideas up here. But we're very aware. We're bound to the soul of this country. We are the soul of this country... this was the most honest thing those three boys could do."
The Family awaits an approaching Armageddon, a time when the truly criminal will be revealed as the person who punched the alarm button in the bank. Until then, Lyman's curiously nonlinear Zeitgeist incubates in the hearts, not the heads, of his followers.
To get into Lyman, explained Frechette, is to put yourself in a place where "people feel bad, people hate what's going on in the world around them." And the Fort Hill code brutally pressures the believer to externalize, to put his gut feelings "on the line." In the pressurized atmosphere of the Lyman cloister, there is little of the escape we customarily allow for in our social institutions.
It's a world of righteous simplicity, and the gravity that locates it in the universe is this deep abiding hatred for something it identifies with the larger culture. That simplicity and that disgust seem to be the two common denominators between the dozens of proliferating personality cults; from the Lyman family through the Love Family in the hills to the Children of God on the Coast. Out of such cloisters of hate and loathing, perhaps we might expect more "innocents" to explode.
Mark Frechette, you see, says he still cannot understand why more people in this country did not understand Charles Manson.
The writer is a staff member of the Boston Phoenix.