Mindfuckers pp 168-188
Rolling Stone pp 44-48 [#98]
Kweskin and the Fort Hill kids:
There was a photo of Charlie Manson in their bedroom, because he'd "made a gesture" ...
"It took me a long time to understand that Avatar was not a collective term but an individual term. In other words, not Avatar, but the Avatar."-Harry Bikes
How does a poor, simple American boy with a police record and a distaste for steady work come to acquire, in five years, more than a dozen elegant homes in four major cities, a fleet of cars and trucks to service them, recording and film equipment worth tens of thousands of dollars, and retreat houses in Martha's Vineyard and estates in Provence, France, near the Riviera?
That, on the surface at least, is the history of United Illuminating Inc., the Lyman Family's corporate front. Today United Illuminating owns eight multistoried old homes at Fort Hill in Boston, owns a five-story brownstone and leases a loft in New York City, leases a posh hillside duplex in the Buena Vista area overlooking San Francisco, and owns two houses in Los Angeles, one of them the Hollywood Hills mansion of late industrialist George Eastman which they purchased "at a steal" for $160,000.
To pay the mortgages and rent, plus ample bills for food, utilities and maintenance, many of the community's 100-odd members hold regular jobs in the outside world - anything from waiting on tables to designing or remodeling buildings - turning over all pay "except carfare" to United Illuminating. Then there are the superstar incomes, the bread from Jim Kweskin and from Mark Frechette, the hero of Zabriskie Point who everyone is hoping will soon be discovered again for another acting assignment. Further, a surprising number of members come from wealthy and prominent families, for whatever that's worth.
Nowadays the Lyman people can afford to purchase their elegance more or less pre-packaged, as they did in their recent West Coast acquisitions. But in the past that elegance came hand-made, by their own, disciplined hands. When Mel Lyman and his small band of friends moved to Fort Hill in 1966, they moved into squalor. Fort Avenue Terrace, which skirted the base of the historic watchtower, was like a ghost street. The rotting structures there were without heat, light, plumbing or paint; they were uninhabitable, according to any but the most desperate hippie standards, and in fact had not been lived in for years.
Bought as shells for small sums, each today would bring $40 grand upward but for their ghetto location. They are models of warmth, taste, innovation and craftsmanship. In keeping with Mel's master bootcamp building and training plan, they have been stripped to the studs and rafters and entirely rebuilt, in some cases stripped and rebuilt again after Mel discovered a "mistake."
The Fort Hill Community in those early days was a rough life, and one wonders why Mel Lyman chose it. There is little indication he envisioned at that time the size and purpose of the community to come. True, he had already experienced several intimations of his own immortality. At the Newport Folk Festival of 1965, his last appearance with Jim Kweskin's Jug Band, Mel got a special request from God for a solo harp version of "Rock of Ages." At first Mel tried to resist the vision but finally gave in ("... like what Christ had to do before mounting the cross, he said not my will but shine be done and then there was no cross, no death...") and played the hymn for a soulful, trembling ten minutes. It followed the festival's final act, and most of the fans had already left for their cars.
Soon afterward Mel wrote his first book, a rambling, abstract, 80-page riddle called Autobiography of a World Savior, based loosely on the Superman-Krypton plot ("Long long ago in another dimension on another planet I volunteered for an assignment the nature of which I knew little . . ."). Some people, including rock writer Paul Williams, have made their Decision for Mel based on that book alone, even though Mel later described it as a private, tongue-in-cheek joke written for some Scientologist friends of his.
Why, then, the move to Roxbury? For some time Mel had been hanging out with the film freak crowd at Max's Kansas City, in much the same way he had hung out with Bruce Conner and the others at Leary's place; in fact, he briefly went with Vivian Kurz, one of Warhol's lovelies, and Jonas Mekas helped publish his Autobiography. Mel, therefore, was getting itchy to create. He was developing certain theories, some his own, about music and art, and he needed room to work.
David Gude, a folksinger and tape editor at Vanguard Records whose faith in Mel eventually led to his dismissal, explained it like this:
"I couldn't appreciate Mel's music until he told me a little about it, you know? And then when I listened to it with that understanding, it was really a miracle. Mel said that so much music is rehearsed, today especially, just rehearsed to death so you never really hear anything original.
"But Mel said a lot of great records have been made and these great moments happen all the time. He said he wanted to make this the rule instead of the exception. He wanted to set up a situation where this would happen every time.
"In other words, you get a bunch of musicians in there, if you get a great piece of music, it's usually innocent. I was going to say "by accident," but a better word would be that it happens innocently. And Mel wanted to create a situation where it could be done consciously."
It sounded like a contradiction.
"It is," said Gude. "It is completely. It's almost impossible. How can a person create innocently and yet set out to do just that? The only way is if he can somehow tune in on the spirit, an inspirational spirit, you know? In other words, if he can all of a sudden make himself inspired, or, if he lives in a place of truth all the time."
* * *
Among the very first members of the Fort Hill Community were three couples: Mel Lyman and Jessie Benton, former wife of David Gude; Mel's artist friend Eben Given and Sophie Lucero, former wife of Mel Lyman; and David Gude and Faith Franckenstein, daughter of novelist Kay Boyle. (These three marriages, too, have long since dissolved.) Also Faith's brother, Ian, other friends, some children and one grandmother - Kay Boyle herself.
"It was when my ax-son-in-law David Gude left Vanguard Records that I first heard of Mel Lyman," Kay recalled as she sat in the living room of the Victorian San Francisco home she has owned for many years. "And then when I went up there in '66 I met him for the first time. He was, I felt, very insignificant looking and very weak looking. He never at any time tried to talk with me; I was completely ignored by him.
"My daughter and David said they had a room for me, they wanted me to come and live there, you know? Their idea was that I would make my life there and eventually sell this house. Then there was not the idea of spreading out as they have now."
A radiant, gray-haired woman of amazing graciousness, Kay Boyle spoke in a calm manner that intimated little of her five-year battle with Mel Lyman over possession of Faith and Ian. That battle, at least in Faith's case, she has probably lost for good.
"I took a job with the University of Massachusetts in Amherst for a year, and drove over from the commune. And even before certain confrontations came up with some people at Fort Hill, life became impossible. For instance, underneath my room David would record all night with Mel, right underneath, you see. And I thought, 'Well, I'll get used to it, it doesn't really matter. One of the little grandchildren had his crib in my room. I thought, 'We'll get used to it.'
"But then David would say to me in the morning, 'I hope we kept you awake last night. That was the intention, we didn't have to do that.'"
"Why did they?"
"To make me realize what reality was or something, I don't know.
"I think there were not more than 30 people living there then, and there was a great turnover. At the beginning, I believe, it was considered a place where people could go and get drugs. I would come down sometimes in the morning and there would be about 20 people rolled up in blankets asleep on the floor. And I'd pick my way over to the kitchen to help Faith get breakfast, and I'd say, 'Who are they?' and she'd say, 'I have no idea.' The door was open and they'd just come in.
"I think Mel, as time wore on, got much more strict about things, and discipline. I suppose he had not developed his pitch to the point that he has now. And, I don't know, I think more recently the notoriety of Manson had an effect on him. I think he saw even greater dimensions that he might rise to in some way.
"When I went back there last summer, I was astounded to see Manson's photograph in the children's playroom. And I asked Faith if they thought he was innocent and she said, 'It doesn't matter. He made a gesture against all the things we do not believe in.' Which is a very distorted point of view, I would say. To say the least.
"They change the flowers under Manson's photograph daily - that's what I was told by one of the girls."
Kay had mentioned certain confrontations. Like what?
"I once got into a fight with Howard Kilby. Howard was a strange fellow, from the Bible Belt. His mother used to send him little sermons each week. Anyway, I went up there about 6:30 one morning, it was two below zero or something, and the heat had gone off in the house. I went up to my grandchildren's bedroom and they were lying literally blue with cold, absolutely freezing. And I took them down and sat them in front of the oven and started getting breakfast ready.
"And Howard breezed in. Faith had said to me, 'Howard comes in every morning early and takes butter, bread, stuff like that, out of the icebox for his lunch. Don't let him.' But I wasn't in any mood to fight then. I said, 'Look at these poor kids. Look at them. The heat's gone off.'
"And Howard was helping himself to butter, and he said, 'Beautiful'" Kay's voice assumed a mocking high pitch. "'It's just beautiful to see children cold like that. Children should be cold and hungry all the time - then they're close to reality.'
"I was so furious. I blew up. I said, 'God, I've never known such hatred, real hatred, in people as on this hill!'"
* * *"So I guess this takes us to... July 9th, 1967." Harry Bikes rocked back in his chair, his face gloating with implication. "And there begins the sordid tale of Avatar.
"Once the basic requirements of survival had been met we were able to devote some time to other things. We no longer filled our spare time talking to each other because we no longer had anything to talk about. We wanted to make new friends, we wanted to share what we had. We had something good and something can only stay good if it is shared. And so we created a newspaper called Avatar and with it we reached out and made a lot of new friends."-Mel Lyman
"It took me a long time to understand that Avatar was not a collective term but an individual one. In other words, not Avatar, but the Avatar. Understand?"
From another room in the basement, some somber Gil Evans on jazz FM added to the late evening weirdness.
"There were essentially three groups of people. There were some people in Cambridge, some people in the South End and some people on Fort Hill. And these three groups kind of got together. It was one of those things - the beginning of smoke-ins, you know, the new culture - and everybody had to have an underground paper. But nobody knew how to do a paper, right? So they went to Dave Wilson, who was the editor of Broadside, and Dave offered them his facilities at 145 Columbia Street, the Broadside office.
"They had three editors. They were trying to set it up to represent a lot of different people."
"Mel himself was not an editor?"
Bikes scoffed. "Mel never set foot in the Avatar office at any time. It was always remote control. Always."
* * *
Broadside is now defunct, but its former editor, Dave Wilson, appears at 36 to be alive and jovial as ever. He still has the office at 145 Columbia Street, Cambridge, from which he helps run Riverboat Enterprises, a record distributing firm specializing in old blues and folk. He is also marketing a videotape version of Broadside.
"The name Avatar," said Dave, "was a Hill suggestion. We felt it had a nice spiritual meaning and embodied our concept of the paper as a sort of hip Christian Science Monitor, one which would speak fairly and openly but with some sort of higher spiritual feeling.
"A seven-man board of directors was set up that included three people from Fort Hill, myself, and three other people. And there were three editors - myself, Lew Crampton and Wayne Hansen."
Hansen was from Fort Hill, and Crampton, active in local Boston politics, soon turned out to be a Fort Hill sympathizer.
"We really didn't understand what the Fort Hill Community was all about," said Wilson, shrugging. "Lew was a graduate student of Harvard, on the National Board of US-China Relations, you know? Wayne seemed to be a very reasonable cat. Well, it didn't take long for the shit to hit the fan."
No longer than it took the first issue to hit the stands. By and large the 16-page edition was a good representation of the underground press at that time - some suitably cryptic psychedelic art by Eben Given and a fellow named Ed Beardsley, a column on astrology in the Aquarian Age, a column on legal rights, and a column on dope. Dave Wilson wrote the first of a regular series of columns on fucking.
But there was one column, "To All Who Would Know" by Mel Lyman, that must have caught a few readers off guard. For one thing, it was the only column to take up a whole page, It didn't really need a whole page, it was just printed larger and had a nice white frame around it.
And it said the darndest thing: "To those of you who are unfamiliar with me let me introduce myself by saying that I am not a man, not a personality, not a tormented struggling individual. I am all those things but much more. I am the truth and I speak the truth.... "ln all humility I tell you that I am the greatest man in the world and it doesn't trouble me in the least."
But something did trouble Lyman as he read his own writing in print. What was wrong with line ten? Shit, some careless, inhuman hippie mother-fucker had dropped a phrase. Where it read, "The rest of you might just as well pass because I am going to attack everything you believe in . . ." it was supposed to read, "The rest of you might just as well pass right now and write me off as an egomaniac, a madman, a self-centered schmuck because I am going to attack everything you believe in..." Someone, Mel decided, should be taught a lesson.
"Now Mel's writing was nothing to jump up and down about," recalled Wilson, "so you can imagine how I felt when Wayne Hansen came in and said, 'Mel demands that his article be reprinted in its entirety in the next issue.' He said it was a disciplinary action, that Mel said we must strive for perfection.
"Lew sort of sat on the fence. My attitude was, bullshit, if he's that offended, we'll print a correction, that's all. See, at that time I didn't understand I was dealing with God's will.
"Anyway, the three of us voted and it was two to one in favor of reprinting the whole thing. Which we did." All 51 lines. Correction, 52. It was printed a third time, incidentally, in issue 22.
After the first issue, said Dave, things got heavier and heavier. "The problem at this point was that the Fort Hill Community was highly organized and the rest of us weren't. The office was getting flooded with Fort Hill people; they were dedicated but they were pushing people aside.
"All of a sudden the paper didn't resemble what is was supposed to at all. We'd have these editorial meetings, and later, articles we'd agreed upon would not appear; new articles would be in their place. My copy was often conveniently lost."
After five issues of the biweekly paper, Dave Wilson was asked to resign by the Fort Hill people. They had already made it easy for him to accept the idea; by this time the editorial content was almost entirely under their control. Mel Lyman now had two pages devoted to himself - his "To All Who Would Know" column and a fan page called "Letters to Mel." Large photographs of him were starting to creep in, and other Fort Hill writers were plugging him in their columns.
Scheduled for issue six were two more items that must have offended Dave's journalistic tastes - a long, centerspread interview with Mel by a local talk show host, and a new Lyman column of short, emotionally charged thoughts called "Diary of a Young Artist":I sit here looking so cool and calm and blowing smoke rings when actually I'm so frantic my big guts are eating up my little guts and I want to go raving mad and scream and tear my hair and shit on the floor and rub my face in it and jack off on the wall and rub my hair in it and tear off my leg and suck the bloody stump and flop around like a fish out of water and fuck myself into a coma and twist myself into a knot and spin around the world. But why will they say that I am mad?The introduction to Mel's interview in issue six hints at the audacity of the Hill people, officially incorporated as United Illuminating, in their fight with Trust Incorporated, the bonafide Avatar publishers:
"For the purpose of simplification, United Illuminating, not Trust Incorporated, was more or less represented as publisher of Avatar, and while many consider themselves a part of both groups, those who do not have asked us to make that distinction here . . ."
So Dave Wilson quit. "But I was still on the board of directors," he remembered, "we still had a four-to-three majority; and at that point a lot of people were getting bullshit from the Hill people. So we called a board meeting, and the four of us decided, all right, no more Mel Lyman in the paper." They voted to reestablish the original lines of authority, thus effectively ousting the Fort Hill volunteers from the office.
It was a close victory, and people felt uneasy when they separated that evening. And for good reason. Dave was about to receive his first real dose of Melvin's manipulative power.
"The next day the Hill people returned and, to our surprise, completely capitulated," he said. "They agreed to all our terms. It was great. We were so overwhelmed by our new feeling of brotherhood that we immediately elected three new persons to the board."
Two of the three, it turned out, were secretly aligned with Fort Hill. And one of them, Brian Keating, had risen to the rank of editor by issue number seven.
* * *
"While we were all on brown rice," said Harry Bikes, who continued working for the Avatar after Dave Wilson split, "Mel was out buying camera equipment. You know, he had Bolexes with telephoto lenses and all this fucking sound equipment. They were milking the paper. His people opened the mail, and money filtered out to Fort Hill. Like they'd send down some new guy to the office, some really dedicated office worker, and pretty soon he'd be taking the petty change. These guys were easy to expose, and as soon as they were exposed, they'd evaporate. But as soon as they'd evaporate, another would come to take their place.
UN-CLASSIFIED Mel Lyman is UnHappy. Why? Be-
cause he has no film to make movies.
Make Mel Happy by sending money
to Mel Lyman c/o United Illumina-
ting Avatar Box 1, 145 Columbia St.
Cambridge Massachusetts 02139.
Please hurry I can't stand to hear him
"The money coming out of the paper was going directly to Mel - the money the street sellers brought in, the money from advertising, the subscription money. But we were given not a cent, we were given a bunch of papers to sell. We were really living in incredible squalor while the Fort Hill executives were going back and forth to New York and they had cars and everything, you know? We were the suffering capitalists and they were the prosperous communists."
The Avatar was prospering, that's for sure. Circulation was building, there were more pages and more ads. And, of course, more Mel. By issue 11 there were two full pages of Letters to Mel (three full pages by issue 17). He was writing two additional columns, "Essay on the New Age" and "Telling It Like It Is," plus bunches of random truths and poems used more or less as fillers.
As it intensified, the Fort Hill influence became personal to the point of obscurity. Many of the Lyman people were getting their pictures and private thoughts into the paper. The work of one girl, a former mental patient named Melinda Cohan, was particularly arresting:Laugh and kill, laugh and killAt the same time, the paper was covering hard news in a much more determined and relevant fashion, devoting full, well-designed pages to local politics, the Resistance and the struggle for black identity. And the Avatar was making news. With issue 11 came the first busts. Peddlers all around Boston were getting hauled off for obscenity and selling without a permit. Local courts were convicting them on obscenity charges.
play and work then laugh and kill.
On a cold and sunny day take a friend out far away
take him where the fields are turning
light a match and set them burning
tie him to a log to die
smile so he will wonder why
drive back home and go to bed
dream about your friend that's dead.
To his credit, Mel Lyman, who by this time was listed in the staff box as Warlock in Residence, decided to fight the censors with all the power of his devilish wrath.
"There are a bunch of dirty cocksuckers down in Cambridge who are giving us a hard time about our goddamn paper," he wrote on page three of issue 12. "Well, fuck 'em, if they don't like it they can shove it up their fucking asses... imagine the nerve of those guys, I'll bet they eat pussy... I'm warning you guys, if you don't lay off I'm gonna smear your filthy sex starved faces all over the Boston area, I'm gonna draw pictures of you all fucking each other in the ass and sucking each other's cocks and I'll have you doing things so terrible you'll wish you never heard of the Avatar... I'll rent a goddamn airplane and drop them all over the whole goddamn motherfucking state. This is just a polite warning, you're playing with dynamite, don't fuck with me ..."
Which prompted this Letter to Mel in the following issue:
"Regarding page three, your No. 12 issue: I agree almost wholeheartedly with Mr. Mel Lyman's creed. However, I take exception to one point: Mr. Lyman, what's so wrong with eating pussy?- J.F.D., Beacon Hill."
To further provoke the authorities, Mel devoted the entire centerfold of issue 13 to four words drawn three inches high by Eben Given: FUCK SHIT PISS CUNT.
Eventually, with the help of Boston attorney Joseph Oteri, the convictions were overturned, but long after the Avatar had attracted support from fighting liberals around the country. And many new subscribers.
But the fight between Mel and City Hall was a mild, gentlemanly affair compared to the one brewing between Mel and the so-called "downhill scoffers" who were still officially running the paper.
"By this time we were getting very ambitious," said Harry Bikes. "We had composing machines, we were getting a Telex. We had a solid readership of 35,000 per issue, big advertisers were getting interested. There were actually two Avatars - a Boston Avatar and a New York Avatar. There was a hell of a potential there.
"The Boston Avatar, starting with issue number 18, was coming out in two sections. There was a full-sized outer paper, which was primarily the newspaper. And there was a tabloid insert, which was the Mel paper. The news section was done down at the plebeian office, and the Mel section was edited and designed on Fort Hill, really in Mel's kitchen.
"The Mel insert was beautifully designed and very spacey, a lot of graphics and white space. And, needless to say, lots of pictures of Mel."
"Nobody objected to that?"
"Of course we objected. I mean, when you get 17 pictures of Mel in one issue... but what could we do? It was the only paper, you know? So there was a struggle building."
Then, as Bikes put it, the "religious war" started. "Mel withdrew his favor, more or less announced that that was it. And a lot of people felt, of course, that that wasn't it, that it should continue. And incredible battles started, to the point of fist fights. Fort Hill came down and they cleared out all the equipment, the composing machines, all the records and files. They took them up to the Hill."
This was in April, 1968, right after issue number 23. It's not clear why Mel so dramatically changed his mind. In issue 21 he had announced he no longer had anything new to write, that all future words of his would be reprints. Perhaps that had something to do with it. Some say he was getting more interested in making films. Harry Bikes had a plausible, if bizarre, explanation.
"There had been a terrible incident," he recalled, scratching his belly. "This cat came up to the Hill, one of the black people involved with Avatar, named Pebbles. Pebbles was kind of a crazy guy, he considered himself to be a guru. In all likelihood he was a guru. And he went up and demanded to see Mel. And this guy actually got through and knocked on Mel's house, went inside and made a scene. And they had to throw him out.
"Well, Mel decided his forces had failed him, they hadn't maintained security. So as punishment he set them to work building this wall around his house. He ordered them to stop the paper and build this fucking wall!"
Sure enough, issue 24 appeared without the outer news section at all. It was simply a tabloid produced on the Hill that included practically no writing, some pictures of Mel's forces building the wall, and 20 photographs of Alison Pepper, one of the Hill women, on an acid trip. There were no ads, and the only "news" headline was on the front page: "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."
Meanwhile the downhill scoffers were trying to organize themselves, without much success. "Finally," said Bikes, "there was a sort of compromise editorship where I was going to be co-editor with Ed Beardsley. And Mel called us up to the Hill for a private audience - which he photographed and recorded. Mel's very big on documentation; he likes to invite people in for official visits and record and photograph them, and study them.
"He's a master at making people uncomfortable. Like when you go into his house, you have to take your shoes off. And then he doles out little favors. Like he snaps his fingers and his women will serve you coffee or brownies. Or he'll pull out some incredible joint or get you whacked out on acid.
"See, at this time they were all going through acid therapy. He was taking them one by one in his private audience and hitting them with 1500 mikes of pure acid. And studying them - filming and recording them. And playing really weird soundtracks for them like pure noise - machine gun fire, screams. And then when they were absolutely out of their minds, he would plug them into this Lyman Family group sing - love, togetherness, you know. He was playing with these people, programming them."
On this particular night, however, Mel simply explained to Bikes and Beardsley how the Avatar was his, his spirit, how they couldn't use the Avatar logo if they were to continue publishing.
"I said I didn't care," said Bikes, "I wasn't hung up on the name. I wanted a paper. We didn't need Avatar on the front page to sell it. But that scoundrel Ed Beardsley - who was really a bouncy, beagle-like kind of buffoon - when he designed page two of the next issue, he made this mock newspaper front, see, with the American flag and a dateline." Harry picked up a copy of issue 25. "And he reversed the Avatar logo. I didn't want it there, but he kept saying, 'Well, it's on page two and it's reversed.'"
Dramatically he held the paper up to his desk lamp. "But when you held page one up to the light, there it was - the Avatar he couldn't get rid of!"
Everyone on the Hill caught the reference, said Bikes. They considered it an act of blasphemy and betrayal. It was all news, no pictures of Mel. An Avatar had been printed without the Avatar's consent, and the copies were right there in the Boston office, waiting to be distributed.
"So, in the middle of the night, around 4 AM, a flotilla of cars arrived from Fort Hill." He paused and gloated; this obviously was his favorite part of the story. "And in a matter of an hour or so they removed the issue, 35,000 copies, save for some 500 copies which we had taken home with us when they came off the truck. They had keys to the office, and they took the whole issue away and locked it in the Fort Hill tower."
That edition never appeared in public.
"For the better part of a week there were negotiations, threats, scenes," said Harry. "Fort Hill invited us all up for a big steak dinner at Kweskin's house, and we tried to iron it all out. And in the midst, they summarily removed the 35,000 papers from the tower and sold them for $35 worth of scrap paper.
"It was at that point I realized we were dealing with very dangerous people."
* * *Meanwhile Dave Wilson was fighting on another front. "We had worked like bastards on that issue," he said. "At that point we were all enough incensed that we realized this was war." They enlisted the aid of a prominent corporate lawyer in Boston, asked him to investigate the matter on a business level.
THIS IS MELINDA. She was just born. She has lived for ever in one small dark room. One had to crawl through a long bat-infested tunnel to get to her. She was black and covered with things gathered from the city dump. No facilities. Now she is with us on this earth. See the beginning of light in her little eyes? See how her little hand claws out trying to grasp life? See how she leans out towards your heart. Help her. Help to Melinda means help to entire AVATAR family.
Thousands (or at least 50 or so) of Melindas anxiously arc awaiting adoption by you or your group. Your Melinda will receive a monthly cash grant, as well as spiritual counseling, blankets, use of a bath-tub, and holy spirit. Each month you will receive a letter written in her own hand, and a photograph of her as she becomes more with it! You all will develop a warm, loving relationship. Send your contributions to AVATAR -- we'll take it from there.Avatar
"Lo and behold we found that Fort Hill had been sloppy; they never filed the changes in board membership of Trust Incorporated. As far as the state was concerned, it was still the original seven-man board, and I was still president. We sent out certified letters for a special board meeting. Only six people showed up, only two from Fort Hill, and we just ramrodded through a whole nice little agenda of things."
First they threatened Mel Lyman and Fort Hill with legal action if the printing equipment wasn't immediately returned. It was. Then they named Dave Wilson and Harry Bikes co-editors and laid the legal groundwork for the Boston Avatar to continue unhampered. And they forgave Ed Beardsley for his tomfoolery and let him work on the art staff.
"We were determined to keep publishing," said Harry Bikes. "We worked around the clock putting out the next issue, typing it, pasting it. We had finished the paper, all but a few details, and I went home to sleep.
"The next day I was supposed to come in at noon and pick up the flats and go to the printer. Dave met me at the door. He says, 'Sit down. You can't go in there.' I says, 'What's the matter? What's the matter?'
"It seems that in the middle of the night Beardsley had defected, by going down and ripping up all the flats and crumbling them in many little pieces and shoving them in the waste basket. He was sitting there on the steps, crying. I wanted to go over and kill the motherfucker. Beardsley was the perfect double agent for Mel; he didn't know who he was from day to day."
Dave Wilson shook his head. "That was an incident I couldn't understand for two years. Two years later I found out what made Beardsley act the way he did. Antonioni, you know, discovered Mark Frechette, one of the Fort Hill people, for that part in Zabriskie Point. What I didn't know was that Ed Beardsley was also being considered for the part.
"And that night Antonioni made his decision and chose Frechette over Beardsley. Beardsley just became enraged when he got the news."
But even Ed Beardsley couldn't stop the scoffers.
"We went back inside," said Bikes, "and in about four hours dug the paper out of the trash barrel and restored it." He giggled with confidence. "You know, flattened it out, waxed it down, fixed it up, retyped places where it was fucked up, and so on. All the flats were torn up, it was unbelievable."
"Why didn't the Fort Hill people want it printed at this point?"
"Spite. They just didn't want it to happen. They were going to do everything they could to prevent it. But when we came out with that paper, after they destroyed the flats, we broke their back. It was not a great artistic triumph, but we did it." Harry Bikes started pounding his desk for emphasis. "We did it. We did the fucking paper. We went out on the streets and we sold it. We got money. And we did others."
* * *
They did four others. Then Dave Wilson got tired, resigned, recommended Harry Bikes for the editorship and split for the New Hampshire countryside to meditate. When he returned three weeks later, the war was over. The editorial board, its balance shifted by Wilson's resignation, had selected a different editor. Ed Beardsley.
Then Bikes quit too. "I remember Dave and I just walked outside," said Harry, "sat down on the front step, looked at each other and laughed our fucking asses off."
Back on the Hill, Mel Lyman, in control once again, was making plans. He had done all he could to reach the Boston and New York areas. As always, his vision was growing. And, miraculously, his inspiration to write had returned.
"I find that I still have many words to write and Avatar is the only way I can write them," he wrote a friend. "I'm still getting a lot of letters from people who need to read me and I can only reach out and touch them through Avatar, and only if Avatar is a national publication.... Avatar cannot be just a local publication anymore, that isn't enough for me. Somehow you have got to see that it finds its way into every little corner it belongs in. A great deal is being demanded of me now, people from all over the country are making me feel their need for more understanding and I can't turn them away....
Many changes were in that first edition of the "third cycle." Mel right off had raised the price to 50 cents (later to $1). It was renamed American Avatar and was much slicker, resembling a national glossy magazine more than anything else. Mel's pictures and writings were prominently, though tastefully, displayed throughout; on the cover was a photograph of Paula Press, a 17-year-old, dark-eyed favorite of Mel's who later left the Hill people after she became disillusioned with some of their more violent practices.
The issue's only reference to the old Avatar was in the lead editorial:
"We, the old staff of the original Avatar, are back once again. We are here under the name, American Avatar. Before Avatar fell into the hands of vermin we had a purpose, we are back with that purpose. Before America fell into the hands of vermin it had a purpose, we are back to fulfill that purpose. We are sick to our stomachs of counterfeit Avatars and counterfeit Americas, we are here to do something about them both, to dwarf them with a real standard, leadership."
The magazine lasted for four issues, each a different shape and format, published irregularly between the summers of 1968 and 1969. Now safely out of the hands of vermin, Mel was free to reveal himself more specifically. He'd come pretty close to it in answering some of the earlier Letters to Mel, for example in issue 11:MEL, THOU ARTAnd in issue 13:
THE INFINITE ONE WITH
TO REVOLUTIONIZE TOTAL UNIVERSERex Summit
REX, YOU'RE ABSOLUTELY RIGHTMelDear Mel,But it was in the third issue of American Avatar that he dropped the final veil. On page three, next to a picture of him floating lotus-positioned in the universe with a halo above his head, a drink in his hand and a leering, shit-eating grin on his face, Mel published the following Message to Humanity:
Today I went tripping. While on my wanderings, I went inside of a church in Copley Square. I was totally awed by its magnificence. I felt very insignificant as I looked up at the dome hoping, and yet afraid that I might see the face of God. I didn't see Him, instead I saw your face, the face of Mel Lyman glowing against changing patterns of color. What gives? Either you've got me believing your egotistical ideas or maybe you really are Him!?!?!Lovingly and obediently yours,
A very stable Hobbit
I really am Him, shouldn't he so hard for you to take, imagine how it makes ME feel...Hi gang, I'm back, just like the book says. By God here I am, in all my glory. I thought I'd never come. But I'm here now and getting ready to do the good work. Maybe some of ya think I sent Him. You'll see. I sent about to prove it for you, much too corny, I'm Him and there just sent no question about it. Betcha never thought it would happen like this did ya? Sorry to disappoint you but I've got to make the most of what's here and there sure as hell sent very much. No turnin water to wine and raisin the dead this trip, just gonna tell it like it is. You've waited a long time for this glorious moment and now that it's actually here I expect most of you will just brush it oft and keep right on waiting, that's what those damn fool Jews did last time I came, in fact they're still doing it. Oh well, what's a few thousand more years to people who've been suffering for millions. 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...The "Christ issue," as it is fondly referred to by the community, revealed another, perhaps more important vision of Melvin's. The entire front cover was a simulated television screen, a screen of the future, on which an image of Mel Lyman, looking soulfully emaciated and holding a cigaret, would someday be broadcast. That is still the dream of Fort Hill, to "take over the world through communications," particularly television, despite several unsuccessful and sometimes brutal attempts to make it a reality.
With the last issue of American Avatar, however, the Fort Hill Community retreated from public view for nearly two years. It was time for internal growth.
"After the Avatar period we could have lost our innocence," said Hill veteran David Gude. "We had a lot of people who were living together then, and we weren't able to just sit down and make records or create as we dreamt of creating. And so that started really a whole period of people learning to live together. I mean, Melvin again was creating, but this time he was creating people."
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