Mindfuckers pp 230-267
Rolling Stone pp 40-46 [#99]
The sadness of this empty room. A room full of things. Things that represent feelings I have known. Everywhere I cast my eyes I find old feelings. Remember me all my things seem to say. Remember the tears you shed over me, remember the beautiful sunrises I showed you. How many people have I loved? Let me count my things and see. My beautiful memories. Every one of you I embrace, I hold you so dear to my heart, you all make up my heart for without you I would have no feelings and without feelings I would have no life. Come unto me my children is how I feel for my beautiful things, my beautiful people, oh that I could once more lead you all safely home unto my heart and we would all be home.- Mel Lyman
After Mel Lyman unloaded his "last bulletin" in April, 1969, relegating the government of Fort Hill in Boston to his followers, his community began to expand nationally in a series of dramatic and opportunistic moves, particularly on the West Coast.
At the same time, however, Mel privately was retreating, increasing the remoteness of his control. The eight-foot-high stone wall around his house at Fort Hill was no longer sufficient shield, and he started traveling between homes on Martha's Vineyard, in New York, and finally in Los Angeles where a $160,000 mansion was purchased for him in the Hollywood Hills.
Now he was free to create without the earthly burdens of day-today Fort Hill life, to create consciously without worrying about who's editing the Avatar, who's minding the vault, who's to be Karma Squaded, who's naughty and who's nice, without having to tell 50 dutiful followers when to wash, fuck and wipe their ass.
"I won't have to worry about all the details, and all the little injustices, you know," Mel told writer Paul Williams in June, 1969 "I really had it down to complete control, I was telling people how to live... I didn't want to be doing it, but it was my job. It was my job because I was the oldest, and I was the wisest."
More and more Mel removed himself, even from his closest followers, holing up in attics and private rooms except at mealtime. And he was retreating on another front. He was digging deeper into his past, contacting old friends, writing letters, gathering the letters he'd already written, binding them into a book. With the elaborate recording and camera equipment he had collected over the years, he was preserving his childhood - taping thousands and thousands of 78 rpm records, visiting and photographing homes, schools and parks in California and Oregon where he was raised. Perhaps this was not so much a retreat as it was a search.
"There is always an order in life," Mel wrote, "life is the reflection of that order as man is the reflection of God... It takes a long time to find the meaning in our day to day activities but in reflection we will always detect the moving finger that traced the pattern we have followed, there is a plan. Every man is his own unique part of that plan, every life has a purpose. Lives that seemingly were lived with no kind of purpose at all might have simply served the purpose of distinguishing purpose by lack of purpose, it all fits together in some crazy way."
Now, midway in our story, the characters and scenes change somewhat, and it might be useful to recall some of the old guys and introduce some of the new:
George Peper, the community's resident photographer and film buff. A former tennis champ, actor and speed freak, he was one of the small band of pioneer squatters who moved to Fort Hill in the mid-Sixties. He toured the country in 1969 as an assistant to Don West, an assistant to CBS President Dr. Frank Stanton; later George toured some of Mel's old haunts for the purpose of this article.
Jim Kweskin, guitar-picking folkie famous for his Jug Band in the early Sixties. Mel Lyman was a member of that group, but later the roles were reversed, Jim joining Mel's band, the Fort Hill Community, eventually becoming their business manager. Recently he has attempted something of a comeback, singing at small clubs and recording a new album in San Francisco - one reason Mel started another community in that city.
David Gude, former Vanguard folk singer and tape editor, now a Fort Hill "heavy." A stoney, gap-toothed man with an unpredictable and schizophrenic wrath, Gude was one of the original Karma Squad members, the one who pulled the gun on Don West. In that capacity he paid a visit not long ago to this publication's offices.
Jessie Benton, folkie daughter of painter Thomas Hart Benton and ex-wife of, respectively, David Gude, Mel Lyman and George Peper. Currently unattached, she is still considered by most to be the "Queen of Fort Hill," certainly the most powerful female influence in the community.
Richie Guerin, another "heavy," the community's master cop, keeper of the vault, architect, guitarist and part-time butler. In 1968 he led the raid on the Avatar office, destroying 35,000 issues of that newspaper. One of Mel's most dedicated followers, he was forced last spring to destroy his own most ambitious creation at Mel's request.
Kay Boyle, author, longtime fighting liberal, and the outside world's most prominent anti-Mel, battling him for years over the possession of two of her children, Faith and Ian Franckenstein. She actually lived for a year at Fort Hill, during the early days when Faith was married to David Gude. Later, much against her will, Fort Hill tried to return the favor, but fortunately she had a good lawyer.
Owen "O.D." deLong, the brilliant political scientist once named by Mel to be his personal Buddha, the "world mind" working with the "world heart." An honors graduate from Harvard who often uses Henry Kissinger as a personal reference, deLong has worked as a speech writer for Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy and as a professional waiter for Melvin Lyman. He is a master fund raiser. It was after deLong was hired as program director for KPFK-FM in Los Angeles that the trouble there started.
Lisa Kindred, a jovial, hearty-voiced member of the old New York-Boston folksinging circuit, now a frequent performer at small clubs in the San Francisco Bay Area. Mel Lyman backed her on her second Vanguard album, then abruptly stole the tapes, issuing them years later under his own name. She was pissed.
Mark Frechette, rugged, hate-filled star of Zabriskie Point. Days after he was discovered by Michelangelo Antonioni he was also discovered by Mel Lyman, and even though the great director testily rejected all of Mel's suggestions for the film, Mark remains one of the community's main hopes for making it big in Hollywood, and, oh yes, one of its biggest single sources of income. After the film, Mark returned to Fort Hill with heroine Daria Halprin, but the relationship dissolved under mysterious circumstances. Today Daria's parents, dancer Ann Halprin and architect Lawrence Halprin, fear for her life and refuse to discuss the matter.
J. C. Lyman, Mel's hard-drinking, traveling salesman father. He was out of town that fateful March day in 1938 when Mel was born in Eureka, California. He recalled that as a child, Mel was "sort of a dreamer."
Dixie Duke, Mel's old grammar school teacher, recently retired, who remembered Mel as a "small, freckle-faced kid, full of the devil." We gave her a big surprise when we visited her in Santa Rosa, California.
Richard Herbruck, the Lyman Family's mysterious producer who suddenly came into being when the group moved West. His, supposedly, were the tapes that started the troubles at KPFK-FM. Yet no one at the time had ever seen him, talked to him, or received any evidence that he was even alive.
An anonymous witness, always good to have one of these in a story, don't you think? This man was an employee of KPFK-FM who personally saw all phases of the violence there. He finally agreed to talk about it, anonymously, but for a long while was unable to persuade his colleagues to do likewise.
This last year's expansion has brought with it a disturbing trend in tactics, a new kind of violence, directed for the first time against outsiders. Sometimes it is spontaneous and personal, the stomping of a book salesman, the assaults on reporters. Sometimes it is planned and squadron-sized, like the full-scale invasion of KPFK. No one knows the cause, whether the Family violence is born of a sense of success and arrogance, or a sense of defeat and frustration. Or whether it is born of any sense at all.
* * *
Time and daylight were running out on Martha's Vineyard, and George, dammit, was having trouble with the acetylene torch. People all over the West Tisbury area were closing up their homes, sitting down for dinner on this recent, misty midsummer Saturday night, but George was way behind schedule. For him, dinner would have to wait. The darkroom plumbing had to be finished, both hot and cold water, the torch was acting up, and now Jessie Benton had just laid another chore on him, a broken wooden chair that must be fixed immediately. "Mel's arriving tomorrow afternoon," she told him, "and it has to be done by then."
George struck on the garage floor and tried the torch again, carefully adjusting the flow of gas. It ignited, George drew back the flame for maximum heat, then it vanished with a pop, like a little hot cough. Shit, he said, the nozzle was getting too old and cruddy, too hard to light. But when he tried it again, he finally succeeded.
Now he took a thin paint brush from a dimestore paper bag, cut its bristles down to a quarter inch, and used it to apply soldering flux to one of the small copper joints that lay before his feet. The flux was needed, he explained, to keep the copper from oxidizing before the solder was applied.
By this time, George Peper, the Lyman Family's handsome, boy-faced photographer, had become pretty handy at building these darkrooms. He'd built one in Boston, one in New York and two in Los Angeles, wherever Mel might suddenly need to come and work. As film and media in general had grown more important to Mel, so had George, who was now considered one of Mel's closest insiders.
So George had a habit of mixing his lecture on plumbing and soldering with his lecture on the flux of life. "Everything we've done we didn't intend to do," he said as he roasted two pieces of joined pipe with the torch. "Like, we got into film because it was a necessity to get into film. We started living together because it was a necessity to live together, just an organic thing that happened."
Like it was a necessity for Melvin, after issuing his "last bulletin" to Fort Hill in April, 1969, to move to Martha's Vineyard and establish a kind of Berchtesgaden retreat on the property Thomas Hart Benton had given his daughter, Jessie. It was a necessity, late in 1970, to move to the West Coast, to Los Angeles - an "Aries-Capricorn city" with no traditions to bog down one's creativity, a city brewing with every cult yet known to these United States.
And now it was a necessity for Faith Franckenstein, Kay Boyle's lovely, platinum-haired daughter, to leave Fort Hill for San Francisco, to establish yet another community. Mel had found a marvelous recording studio there, said George, where the Lyman Family could make records exactly the way they wanted, and Faith had to find a house where they all could live.
George touched the wire solder to the hot joined pipes and it melted instantly, surrounding the smaller pipe like a thin silver moat.
"It's just amazing," he remarked, "Faith leaving here for San Francisco, just as you're arriving from San Francisco to come here."
"Yes," I said, "it's quite a coincidence." Which made George put down the torch and turn to me with an exasperated look on his face, as if I'd understood none of his lecture.
"There's no such thing as coincidence," he said coldly.
We walked from the garage to the studio next door where Jessie's father once painted. He hadn't painted in it for years, however, and much remodeling was still required before George could use it as a photo studio and darkroom. A two-foot-deep by 40-foot-long trench led from the studio into the darkness, and George used it to crawl underneath the house and make more measurements. The trench had been dug entirely by Fort Hill children, George said.
When we returned to the garage we were greeted by two of the children, Obray and Mario, who had trudged up from the "children's house" several hundred dark yards away. They had come to watch the soldering, but now, as George painted flux on another length of pipe, their attention focused on a new visitor, a huge brown June bug that had flown in from the evening's mist and landed on the garage floor. The insect crawled toward a battery-powered lantern near the entrance, sometimes stopping, sometimes meandering as it explored new marvels of the old cracked concrete.
George noticed it too, and slowly, without turning his head, he reached down and grasped the torch.
"Hey look," yelled Obray at the top of his whisper, "he's gonna burn the June bug." There was cause for excitement, certainly, because the bug was a good inch-and-a-half long, not like an ant or moth that burns crisp and tidy. A bug this size would no doubt boil and smoke and, I feared, smell. Do June bugs have special vocal chords for emergencies like this? Would it somehow, through the flames, protest and sear our consciences?
George lit a match and turned on the gas, It caught. He adjusted the flame to a nice blue white; held it for several seconds, then watched it pop out.
"God protects," he said with a slight, fatalistic smile. The children were disappointed, he could tell, as they watched the bug turn and slowly aim for the outside darkness. Would God wish such an opportunity to be missed?
George struck another match.
"One last time," he told Obray and Mario as they watched, fascinated. This time he let the flame burn longer before making final gas adjustments. The hollow hiss from the nozzle sounded firm and clean, just right for soldering the little critter.
Now George turned toward the June bug, holding the torch in his right hand. He had plenty of time. The bug wasn't moving fast, it wasn't aware of the plan. Easy, easy now, thought George.
Before he could inch forward, however, he heard that telltale little cough. The damn flame was out.
"That's it," he told the kids, setting down the torch.
"God protected it?" asked Obray.
"That's right," said George, "God protected it."A big horsefly flew in the window so I got the rolled up magazine and slapped him to the floor and he buzzed around on his back and then I really flattened him and it looked like his guts all came out but when I looked closer I saw that it was a bunch of little teeny worms and at first I thought that they were on him to eat him but then I saw that they were his babies I mean HER babies and they squirmed all around and I went and got the bug spray and gave them a good squirt but it didn't kill them, it only seemed to burn them and made them wriggle around all the more and so I lit a match to the whole works but it didn't burn too good so I had to singe each little worm at a time and then I saw some more of them wriggling out of the squashed mother's guts and so I set her on fire and the whole thing was pretty revolting.Everything you've heard about Mel is true," said Jessie, slicing off a juicy bite of steaming chicken breast. "He does manipulate us, but he doesn't manipulate us for evil. He manipulates us to be what we truly are. He is our soul."- Mel Lyman
Dinner time at the Martha's Vineyard community, and Jessie, George and I had been discussing Melvin's expertise as an acid therapist. That's how Jessie first met Mel. That's how many people first met Mel, but with Jessie it was a little more romantic. Let's see, this was in 1965 and Jessie was spending the summer with her folks right in the house where we were eating dinner.
She'd been given a vial of Owsley's acid, and she was just sitting there, lonely and waiting for someone to come and guide her on her first trip. When who should appear but the master himself, driving up the winding dirt road in that magic blue VW bus of his. David Gude, Jessie's ex-husband, was with him and Melvin was out scouting for another wife. He had just discovered the divine nature of music and, incidentally, himself at the Newport Folk Festival, and now he needed a woman who could sing. And David remembered that Jessie had a beautiful voice.
"When I first saw Melvin I was scared to death of him," said Jessie. "I sensed something in him that was enormous - I felt the fear of God. I mean, if you don't feel it, you're crazy. There have been times when he actually glows and the walls leave the room - that happens a lot."
So you can imagine what he was like under 1500 mikes of Owsley's purest. The trip lasted two days. Mel sang for her, read her his poetry, then took her back to Boston and married her. A few months later they moved onto Fort Hill.
Now Jessie was waiting for him again. Tomorrow afternoon, she said, he would be arriving from San Francisco where he and Jim Kweskin were recording a new album. The sessions had left him wasted, and he needed the rest.
"I mean he really is a delicate balance," said Jessie. "He needs an exact amount of sleep which he has got to get or it's just all over for the day. He has a whole structure: he sleeps eight hours, and when he gets up, he has a cup of coffee. He eats breakfast four hours after he's been up; four hours later he eats lunch, and four hours later he eats dinner.
"He spends the first eight hours of the day waking himself up, and he's got a million machines that help him - vibrators and that kind of stuff. That's why we're building a swimming pool in Los Angeles, you know, it's mainly for Melvin.
"And at a period of eight hours exactly after he gets up - when he's fully awake - that's when he's ready for conscious creation."
Conscious creation, the ability to harness the spirit and create blindly, innocently, spontaneously at will. Or something like that. It was Mel's need for a place where he could consciously create that first drove him to Fort Hill. When, after three years, the Hill got too busy and worldly, it drove him to Martha's Vineyard. And now it had driven him to the West, particularly Hollywood.
As Jessie spoke, I looked about the living room in which we were eating and noticed the evidence of that need, evidence that can be seen in nearly every living room of every Lyman community. On the mantel were two bookshelf speakers, reserved exclusively for Mel's records and tapes. From a ceiling beam hung an unrolled movie screen, reserved for his films.
In this particular living room, however, was abundant evidence of another creator, Thomas Hart Benton. His original paintings hung on every wall. Most of them were paintings of Jessie, a haunting, dark-eyed woman who in real life looks a little harder and smaller than the canvas variety.
Jessie was still talking about Melvin's health.
"He had all his teeth pulled out, you know. Three years ago. He had terrible teeth, that's because he loves candy. People used to say that Melvin had two weaknesses; one was candy and the other was women. In that order." Jessie laughed in her own brittle way.
"He hated his teeth. He said they were the only part of your body without spirit, because they didn't grow. He called them rocks in the mouth. The funny thing is now everybody on Fort Hill has lousy teeth, and the longer they stay there, the worse their teeth get."
"You mean Mel wears false teeth?"
"Oh, he never wears them. He has false teeth but he never wears them. Only when he's Richard Herbruck does he wear his teeth."
That name sounded familiar. Wasn't he that producer? ...
"Richard Herbruck is just somebody we made up," explained Jessie. "Like when Melvin goes out into the world, he wears his teeth and he becomes Herbruck. He's a maniac. Richard Herbruck was the guy who presented those tapes at KPFK. Did you ever hear those tapes, the introduction to those tapes? It's sheer nonsense, and nobody ever knew. I think somebody at KPFK said he felt it was a little pretentious, right? Pretentious! It was complete nonsense, every bit of it. It was historically incorrect, everything was wrong. And Melvin had done it on purpose."
It didn't make sense. If what Jessie said was true, if those tapes that KPFK was accused of distorting were just a gag, why did the Lyman Family retaliate so viciously? And if Richard Herbruck was a continuing front for Mel Lyman, why was she blowing it by telling me? Could she really be so glib?
"Richard Herbruck is just an outgrowth of this other person that Melvin created years ago," continued Jessie, "this kind of scientific maniac who wrote Autobiography of a World Savior. That book's tongue-in-cheek, you know. Melvin was involved with a bunch of scientologists on the East Coast, and he wrote that book for them. I mean, even the title, that's a joke. We do a lot of things like that. We do have our fun every now and then."
Well, no one can begrudge them that, certainly. There's little enough laughter on the Hill. But there were few giggles at KPFK after the boyish pranks of toothy Mr. Herbruck. And many of Mel's followers have reordered their lives around his Autobiography, despite its cutie-pie title.
In fact, as Mel has isolated himself more from the community's rank and file, his actions, whimsical or otherwise, appear to have grown harsher and more impulsive. After dinner, Jessie and George told me of two proclamations issued earlier this year that give some idea of how much Mel now controls his family.
According to Jessie, Mel visited the Hill one day and decided there were too many children, too many babies being made. So he declared a year-long moratorium on fucking.
"Really?" I asked. "And everyone obeyed it?"
"Sure," said Jessie. "Well, a couple of people screwed up, so then Melvin ordered all the women to get IUDs. One girl objected so much she ripped hers out with her own hand."
I asked about Lou, the pregnant ex-nun who runs the Fort Hill school, and Jessie answered, as if it was a matter of rationing food, "Yeah, well, she's gonna have to have an abortion." (It turned out, of course, that Lou was much too far along for that sort of thing. She's expected to break Mel's commandment next month.)
So Mel's into celibacy - hardly seems fair after all the women he's gone through. But then, the Need always changes, doesn't it? Such a moratorium would certainly account for the strange atmosphere of somberness and tension I felt during my visit to the Hill.
Yet, there was something else - a feeling of urgency, of feverish activity. I thought about the construction work and David Gude's admonition to Paul Williams, "Don't talk about the future." What was going on? Was some major change taking place?
"Things are always changing," quipped George. "You can never..."
"No but, you know, something bigger than that. Paul Williams mentioned something about maybe renting or selling the buildings."
For a good ten seconds George gazed down at the tablecloth, as if hidden somewhere in the white fabric were the words he needed. As usual, his eyes looked very tired; he's a handsome, healthy-looking man, but his eyes always seem dazed, as if he'd just stepped from a wind tunnel.
"Actually... something has happened...." he started slowly, straightening up and scooting forward. A former actor, George can really dramatize a story when he's in the mood.
"You came at just the right time. If you had come two weeks earlier, I can guarantee no one would have even spoken to you. There was that much pain and sadness."
Across the table Jessie watched and listened to George with no expression on her face.
"What happened on the Hill was this. For years we had been working on a thing called the Magic Theater. Part of the thing was going to be that recording studio that you saw at the lop of Five and Six. But it would have been much more than that. It would have been a place through which Melvin could bring his creation to the world - his music, his films, everything."
George took my notepad and started sketching a floor plan of the Magic Theater. The theater itself was a two-story building connecting Four-and-a-Half - formerly Mel's walled house - with the rear of the duplex, Five and Six. On the second floor of the theater was a large projection booth that also served as an engineer's control room for the adjacent recording studio. In fact, a tilted picture window, which today provides a magnificent view of the south end of Boston, was supposed to provide a view of a full-sized engineer's console.
Designed, of course, by Richie Guerin with his usual flair for flexibility and multiple function, the three-building complex would also have included a sound stage, storage rooms for equipment, props and film, two adjacent spiral stairwells for entrance and exit, a lobby, a kitchen, and a place for Mel to live.
And one feature I thought particularly visionary. George sketched a tiny square in the middle of the control room.
"Suspended from the control room was this thing called the Cockpit," he explained. "It was just big enough for one man, and Melvin could have crawled in there, and, without being seen, he could have controlled everything. I mean, it was like a Master Control, and he could have run the films, the music, the lights, everything at once."
By last spring, after three years' work, the Magic Theater was nearly completed - all but the roof and the interiors. That's when Mel paid a visit to the Hill.
"What happened was that the completion of the Magic Theater was taking too long, it had become a dream," said George, starting now to get a little vague. "It had become unreal... I mean, the dream had become more important than the Need... it was no longer organic, you know? I mean, something happened, something very complex, involving certain personalities... there's no point in going into it.
"I mean, what Melvin said when he told the people to tear down the Magic Theater was that he wanted to eliminate all dreams of creation, because that's what the creation had become - a dream."
Unfortunately, that's as specific as George would get. Or, perhaps, could get. He sounded genuinely troubled and confused, and he may not have known the real reasons himself.
Dinner was over and it was way past midnight. I walked to the children's house where I was to sleep, figuring, well, tomorrow afternoon Mel will arrive and I can get the reason direct from Master Control.
But I was wrong. As I was preparing for bed, George appeared and said, "Jessie and I have been talking and... well, we think you better go back to the Hill tomorrow morning. Mel's very tired, he just couldn't handle any interview, you know? And, I mean, really, you're not ready to see him yet."
I didn't see why not, but George said I still had too many concepts, that I hadn't shown a personal enough need, that I wasn't alive enough. I didn't know what he was talking about, of course; it was necessary to see Mel for the story. I told George I thought he was making a mistake, but it was no use. Jessie was adamant.
* * *
Back on the Hill I asked Richie about the Magic Theater, but it didn't help much. "Well, we no longer need the studio to record in," he said. "We no longer need a theater to show movies in because we're not doing movies right now. And what we do need is to finish fixing up the houses on a very basic level, to put in kitchens and bathrooms and proper staircases and windows, you know? And when you have so many things on a basic level that are incomplete, you can't be creative. The creation can't happen unless everything is in perfect order."
"Was that the mistake, that you were doing things out of order?"
"No, but the situation that came about was, like, the people who were working on it, they weren't totally into it. And the reason they weren't totally into it was because it wasn't necessary anymore, you know? There were more necessary things happening around them, which they neglected."
"Well, like the people they lived with, situations that existed on a personal level. People were confused and asleep and unconscious of what was really happening, and something real had to come along to wake them up.
"And that's what Melvin always does, you know? He immediately does something very, very constructive in a destructive way. And tearing down that structure out there is a much more real thing to the man who tore it down than putting it up, you see? I mean, putting it up is an idea, tearing it down is a reality.
"Like I worked on this thing for two and a half years, and the reality of it not being there..."
Richie gazed at the bare cement foundation next to Four-and-a-half and smiled. But his voice grew sad. "I tell you, man, the first three days when we started tearing it down, it was like... complete silence, nobody had anything to say to anybody. It was just agony. And you'd be working along, as fast and quickly and accurately as you could to do the proper job, taking out every nail, and all of a sudden you'd not be working and you'd drift off for one second to think about what you were doing. And the tears would come to your eyes, man, and you couldn't even see, and you'd have to blow your nose and stop and..." Richie chuckled. "...and then get back into it again. That's why we got it down so fast."
What would happen to the foundation, I asked.
"I have no idea, I really don't. Maybe it'll have to come down too. I have to wait and see what Melvin wants to do with these houses, you know, what he needs them for."
* * * Abandon hope all you who enter here:
Fort Hill needs workers. We guarantee you nothing. No wages. No advances. We give you room and food. Who do you work for now? Come work for The Lord. The rewards, if any, are not of this earth.
Call Kurt at 617-445-4566 American Avatar
- from a recent recruitment poster showing 13 Fort Hill men standing gleefully on the ruins of half-demolished House Four. Kurt said they printed several thousand posters, got two phone calls, one from a "14-year-old Aries" who read it on the men's room floor of a Chicago Greyhound station.
Several weeks later I received one last clue to the mystery of the Magic Theater when Paul Williams called after his escape from the Hill.
"Here we were supposedly building this thing for Mel to show movies in," said Paul, "and we were blowing it absolutely on a basic level about caring about people. I mean, the reason that Bob McQuaid left the Hill is 'cause nobody gave a damn."
Suddenly Paul hesitated. "Oh, I thought you... already knew that part of the story. Well I... I probably really shouldn't say anything more about it 'cause, you know... I mean, Mel always said never to talk about Fort Hill unless you knew exactly what you were saying."
And that's all Paul would reveal. Some escape.
Whatever the specifics, it may have been that Melvin, by last spring, had simply lost interest in the project. He was now firmly entrenched in Hollywood, living in luxury, surrounded by celluloid and lost hippie souls, embarked on a plan of Western conquest envisioned even before the first ground was broken for the Magic Theater.
Cut to Boston in the summer of 1968. A scruffy young man with angry, furry eyebrows walks the streets of Roxbury, a baby strapped to his back. He is divorced, broke and drained of hope. His name is Mark Frechette and he is alone. No wonder - it's three in the morning.
"I was a self-respecting hippie dropout bum." Mark recalled. "Then I started reading the Avatar and it changed my life."
That's right, folks. In just one month Mark Frechette was discovered by the men he now considers two of the greatest film directors in the world - Michelangelo Antonioni and Melvin Lyman. The fight between these two directors to control Mark lasted ten months and is one of the more interesting stories surrounding Zabriskie Point.
First Mark was discovered by Antonioni. Just how is one of the Lyman people's favorite legends, so we might as well let them tell it and get it over with. The following is from the last edition of American Avatar:
"The summer of 1968 was an eventful season, the primaries, Columbia, the assassination of Robert Kennedy, the televised furor of the Democratic Convention. In the midst of the excitement and the talk of youthful revolution came Michelangelo Antonioni to America to create a film about the violent revolution he saw coming. Antonioni's search for the perfect SDS cop-killer extended across the land, it was a small but well-noted event of the summer. Hundreds of young actors lined up in front of places like the Electric Circus in New York to be poked and questioned and tested to see if the part could really be theirs. It was said the Great Director was seeking someone with the incisive intellect of a Marxist grad student and the personal attitude of an Algerian bomb thrower." (Ed note: Frechette was neither.)
"Meanwhile, oblivious to the hopes of so many of his contemporaries, 20-year-old innocent Mark Frechette stood anxiously on a downtown street corner in Boston, scratching his beard, engrossed in an argument between a sailor and his date at a bus stop. The girl was getting nasty and bitchy as young girls do, and Mark was growing frantic waiting for the sailor to finally assert his manhood and belt the dumb broad across the mouth.
"As the argument intensified, a horror-stricken busybody in a fourth floor apartment took judgment and a flower pot in hand and prematurely ended the dispute by braining the sailor with a geranium. The insensitivity of this intrusion caused so much indignation in the idealistic Frechette, he shook his fist at the fourth story window, 'You motherfucker!' he screamed.
"Suddenly he was grabbed from behind. 'How old are you?' his accoster wanted to know. 'I'm 20,' Mark said, bewildered, trying to figure out what was going on. The man shoved Mark into his limousine next to a pretty young girl. 'He's 20 and he hates!' he said gleefully."
You can see why the Lyman Family would dig that story - and Mark Frechette. And Mark had already been digging the Lyman Family. He didn't really know any members, but he liked what Mel had to say in the Avatar. And sometimes when his young son would wake up crying at three in the morning, he'd take him for a walk around the Fort Hill tower where it was so nice and peaceful.
"After reading Mel in the Avatar, I realized if I was gonna do something with my life, it just meant digging in," said Mark. "You can't do anything if you don't have the basics together. I mean, I might have come to those conclusions anyway, in 20 or 30 years, but Mel really made me see what a fool I'd been. It made me grateful that the Hill was there, that Mel was there.
"So I decided to get my shit together and somehow try to repay these people who had helped me." The opportunity presented itself soon enough after Mark got the part in Zabriskie Point.
"I went up to see Melvin a couple days before coming out to the Coast. I'd heard he was interested in filmmaking and I thought maybe I could get him a good deal on some film equipment."
Actually, Mark had tried to see Mel a couple of times before he got the part, but without much luck. This time, Mel welcomed him inside his house, gave him a complete set of Avatars and talked to him the entire afternoon.
"As soon as I walked in, there was this humming in my ears," said Mark. "I can't explain it. I mean the whole damn room was humming. Mel sat me down and explained how much films meant to him, how important it was to make contacts in Hollywood.
"He said I could make Hollywood the next step in the evolution of Avatar, I could make those contacts. The longer I sat there, the more I realized he was right - he sure made me want to help, I'll tell ya.
"As I left, he said, 'When you get out there, keep in touch.'
Although Mark arrived in Hollywood in July, shooting didn't actually start until September. During that time he met the heroine of the film, Daria Halprin, a soulful-eyed woman from San Francisco.
"She was so beautiful, she'd knock you right off your feet," Mark said. "I guess I was nailed to the floor when I first saw her, otherwise I would've been blown over." At first, according to Mark, they didn't hit it off at all. "Mostly we just stared at each other. For months I was just completely overwhelmed by her."
Then came September 22nd, 1968, apparently an important date for Mark, one of the few he remembers. Of course, it had nothing to do with the film. That was the date Mark flew back to Fort Hill and stayed up all night with Mel.
"That was the first time I heard his music," recalled Mark. "We stayed up and smoked some of his fantastic weed, and listened to his music. All the music he ever recorded he played for me that weekend."
Most of it was music Mel had recorded privately, stuff he'd done with Jessie, plus a lot of instrumentals - "pure music." The two men spent the weekend discussing music and film, art and creation. They talked about how Antonioni was trying to capture the spirit of America, young America, in Zabriskie Point. And, why, isn't that just what Mel had already done with his music? Sure, it was a popular fad these days to use electronic rock in youth oriented films. But that's just a passing, surface kind of thing - we're talking about the spirit of America, the reality of America. Think about it, wouldn't Mel's music make a perfect soundtrack for the film?
On Monday Mark flew back to Hollywood with Mel's personal tapes under his arm. After much coaxing he got Antonioni to sit down one night and listen to them.
"It's hard to say what he thought of them," said Mark. "I noticed that during one of the more spirited pieces he was twitching in his chair quite a bit. I mean, he had a terrible slant on what was happening here in America; he had a real European outlook. I tried to make him aware of what was happening here. I told him about Fort Hill, about Avatar. I told him about Mel and what he meant to this country. But he never understood. It was really frustrating."
When Zabriskie Point was finally released it included the music of Pink Floyd, Kaleidoscope, Jerry Garcia, the Grateful Dead, the Stones, and the Youngbloods - plus "Tennessee Waltz" by Patti Page.
As the shooting continued, Mark tried another tactic. He'd casually deposit a copy of the Avatar on the set just before the cameras were ready to roll, usually a copy with Mel's picture on the cover.
Antonioni would storm onto the set, pick up the issue and yell "What's his picture doing in my picture?" - chucking the damn thing away. Didn't matter; Mark had that whole stack Mel had given him and the next day another one would mysteriously appear before the cameras.
If Mark was unable to convert Antonioni, he was doing a little better with Daria. The two were growing closer and closer and by Christmas were lovers as much off the set as on. She was still a little skeptical about Fort Hill, but in March, "after eight or nine months of my ranting and raving she had a vision. She saw the face of Melvin. She must have recognized it from the Avatar cover since she'd never met him before. A few days later she made her decision for Mel and agreed, once the movie was finished to live with Mark on Fort Hill.
"It happened while we were shooting up in Berkeley," said Mark. "We were in her apartment, having a fight. I was mad about something, I forget, and all of a sudden she just started shaking all over, crying and afraid, and something clicked. She just made up her mind right away. Suddenly she realized that what I'd been tryin' to tell her all these months was the truth."
And that made something click inside Mark. He'd been growing more and more pissed off at what he considered the basic dishonesty of the film, its portrayal of American youth as left-wing political revolutionaries rather than spiritual revolutionaries like Mel described.
"I got fed up with the whole thing. I got tired of getting up every morning to go and work in what was essentially a lie. So I just took off one day - let's see, it was March 15th." That was the day Mark failed to appear on the set.
Meanwhile, back at Fort Hill, Mel Lyman was in his walled house working, consciously creating, making plans for his triumphant invasion of Hollywood. Then he heard a knock on his door. Mark barged in.
"The whole thing was a big Hollywood lie, it wasn't real," he told Mel, laughing. "So I put a stop to it. I quit. I left them completely in the dark, I really threw a monkey wrench in the works!" Now Antonioni would feel the power of Fort Hill, he told Mel. Now Mark could devote his full time to the community.
Melvin patted him on the back and hastily ushered him to his living room couch. He offered him a joint. Mel was smiling, but inside, his mind was racing. Shit, what had this crazy bastard gone and done? His sentiments were right, of course, but what about the evolution of Avatar? What about Hollywood?
"Mel told me I should be cautious about this kind of thing," Mark said later. "He said such actions didn't necessarily produce anything, that I should be very careful."
At Mel's suggestion, Mark finally agreed to teach Antonioni just a temporary lesson. For six days he refused all calls from MGM. Production came to a halt. Then Antonioni himself phoned Fort Hill.
"I told him he wasn't making a film about any America I knew," said Mark. "I told him things just had to change before I would come back." Antonioni was panicked; the film was already five months over schedule. But so was Melvin.
Finally, Mark agreed to return and finish the picture - but only after Antonioni promised to spend ten days reshooting dialogue Mark thought too political, and to visit Fort Hill as soon as the movie was done. He kept the first promise, although the new dialogue was never used in the film, but not the second. Urgent business suddenly forced him to return to Europe.
When in April the shooting was over, Mark and Daria, alone at last, drove across the country to Fort Hill. It was a very happy time in their lives. They were the center of attention on the Hill, and they were in love. That sort of thing.
But, as Mel teaches us, that sort of thing doesn't last long. The following September Mark left for Yugoslavia to shoot a picture with Francisco Rossi, leaving Daria alone on the Hill. And here the story gets cloudy. In the first place, we don't have Daria's side of it; she's currently in Mexico, shooting a film with Dennis Hopper and unavailable for comment.
And her parents, San Francisco architect Lawrence Halprin and dancer Ann Halprin, refuse to say anything except that they are still afraid for her life. But from fairly reliable, anonymous sources we know that life on Fort Hill gradually became very trying for Daria. She may have been too independent for their tastes, but several people have mentioned violent encounters, some physical, between Daria and the Fort Hill women, particularly Jessie.
And there was this story from a publicist at MGM:
"One day Daria called me and said she was looking for work. She was living with the New York community at the time and said she had no money. Apparently they had taken it. She asked if she could do some TV commercials. I said absolutely.
"Without any trouble I lined up some jobs for her. But when I called her back in New York, she wasn't around. They said Daria had to be sent back to Fort Hill for retraining, that she was too much of an individual."
After Mark returned from Yugoslavia, their relationship began deteriorating. "By the spring of '70, things were really changing," he said. "It finally got to be a big drag, it just wasn't goin' nowhere." Mark tends to get conveniently vague about the details, but apparently it was the Hill, not personal disenchantment that broke them up.
"I mean, people on the Hill have to learn to put Melvin and the community ahead of themselves, and she just couldn't do that," he explained.
In July, 1970, Mark, Daria, and several other Hill people flew to Hollywood and rented a house on Edinburgh Avenue, sort of a pioneer outpost to start the Lyman Family's western expansion. Mel joined them in September and, as Mark recalls, "that sort of brought it all to a head."
A few days later, Daria left the community and moved into the home of a nearby girlfriend. She told Mark she would wait for him to join her. To everyone's surprise he did.
"The things that she said always carried a lot of weight with me," said Mark. "But it was a terrible situation. I was really a basket case - boy, I was torn."
Within a week there was a knock on Daria's door and three Lyman people entered, two men and a woman. They handed a small envelope to Mark. It was a ticket to Boston. He seemed relieved that the decision had been made for him and left immediately.
"Somewhere deep down inside I knew what I would really do is go back east," he said, "go back and let time wash away the pain."
Apparently the Family became furious at Daria for fucking Mark's mind and tempting him to leave the community. According to one friend, "Daria was terrified. They came after her and threatened to beat her up. She kept calling home, saying she was afraid she was gonna get killed." Twice Daria and her roommate moved in order to avoid the Lyman Family. When she split from the Edinburgh house, she left her Peugeot, but never returned to get it.
"I don't know if she'll ever come back," said Mark, sighing. "There's a chance, I suppose, but I don't know. She just didn't want to give what was asked of her."
Mark Frechette now lives in Los Angeles at the Sierra Bonita house. Two months ago he went to visit Daria while she was passing through town, but she wasn't in. He left a copy of Mel's new book.
Now Mel was finally established on the West Coast, but the Edinburgh Avenue house was actually too small. It was OK for writing his book, but he would need more room - and more people - before he could get into really heavy conscious creation.
So he sent people out to scout around Hollywood for other real estate. And then he started thinking... why limit ourselves to Hollywood? Sure there are millions of lost souls down here - plenty of work to do - but there are millions up north too. Shit, San Francisco is the hippie capital of the world. And don't we know someone with a house up there, one that we could use? . .
It was in October or November of last year that the occupation here took place," said Kay Boyle, sitting in her quiet, three-story home six blocks from the corner of Haight and Ashbury. "I was in Virginia as a writer-in-residence. And my son, Ian, called me one day and said that he was coming out to San Francisco from Roxbury. And I was very pleased because I thought it meant that he was leaving the community there.
"I believe he was never very happy there. He was one of the lower echelon people, and all the real jobs of drudgery were assigned to him, as to some others. He was not allowed to eat dinner sometimes if he hadn't finished sanding or waxing the floor, which seemed to me an extraordinary standard to have in a community of love and understanding of others.
"At any rate, he said he was coming out here, and I said I'm very happy and your apartment - which is downstairs where he has his Steinway and his books and everything - is waiting for you. The rest of the house is rented. And he said, 'Oh yes, I know that.' And I said, well, you know, just stay there and do whatever you want, but the people who are there have rented the house until June."
A week or two later, however, Kay was awakened at 7 AM by a call from her tenants. That's 7 AM in Virginia - 4 AM in San Francisco.
"They said that my son had moved in with a number of people; that they had closed the doors of the sitting room and the dining room, which did belong to the people who had rented the house; had given notice to one of the students who lives there. They announced there were going to be great changes.
"Well, I was far away and this was very distressing. I felt a great obligation to the people who lived there. The whole hall apparently was blocked with electronics equipment and things. The people who rented the house could not come in easily. They were afraid to come home at night. They had to go out and eat, they couldn't use their kitchen because the community people were using the kitchen."
In charge of the occupation were David Gude, Kay's ex-son-in-law, and a fellow named Owen deLong. When Kay asked them to leave, they refused.
"So I called my lawyer, Bob Treuhaft, and I called friends of mine who lived nearby. One of them, a black man who lives up the street, came down and said to them, 'Look, you can't do this, this house is rented to people. You've taken their telephone, their sitting room, their dining room, you can't do it.' And after he left, one of the Lyman people said, 'Well, we got rid of that big black rigger.'
"David Gude talked to me on the phone and accused me of being a capitalist, that I wished to hold onto property just for my own... indulging my own whims. He said, 'We are going to have that house if we have to burn it to the ground!'
"And I wrote him a letter, I said this house has been a refuge for runaway girls from Haight Street, for men coming out of jail for the first time - I mean, it's a terrible thing, a man who's been in jail, say, eight years and he gets his first 72-hour pass out, it's like being born again, it's terrifying - but this house has had real purpose, you know? But not the purpose of being taken over and held as a fortress for a really demented group of people." Finally, Treuhaft devised a plan to temporarily sell the house to a friend of Kay's for $1. Then he served legal notice on the Lyman family, forcing them to retreat from the premises.
"And the people of this house," said Kay, "the students who live here, who knew my son before and are very devoted to him, they said that when he really knew he had to go, he smiled for the first time since he'd been here. Because I feel that he has been a captive, a victim of this strange fascist philosophy, that he had wished to get out for years. And when the line was drawn, and he knew he could not abuse the responsibility of... his home, everything he owned - I mean, the place is his, the house is going to be his when I die - I think when he realized that he could not play this horrible role that he'd been forced to play, that he was relieved.
"And he got a job, he worked for four months, he lived with friends, he did not go back to the commune. He told people, told friends, he said, 'For the first time in four years I'm a free man again!' "
Kay Boyle stared across the large, formal living room now empty of the Lymans, of their equipment, of her children. And when she spoke again, she spoke softly and more slowly.
"And then, finally, in April of this year - Ian had been free for almost six months - they came after him, the Los Angeles group came after him. And he went back. They persuaded him, or forced him, I don't know what their methods are. They said he had to do penance for what he had done, that he had failed to get this house. So he was sent down to the Tenderloin district, to a flophouse there, to meditate. For a week. In the dark. In silence. To meditate upon his sins."
"We are the hope of the new age," confided Jim Kweskin in the attic studio of the Family's newly purchased Hollywood mansion. "The great music is in us and coming out of us. That's why we're in L.A., to put the Spirit back in films, in music. The Spirit's there but nobody's using it."
At least, not like they used to in the old days, said Jim as he opened one of several huge wooden trunks that lay on the attic floor. Inside were hundreds of 78 rpm records, each one hand-washed, treated with silicone and packed between thin foam rubber for protection against earthquakes.
"Melvin's spent years collecting these records," he said. "We got everything from Slim Whitman to Al Jolson. The Spirit that was in music at that time was unbelievable - none of this 16-track, technical electronic gimmickry."
Kweskin didn't know how many records were in the boxes, but there must have been at least 30 or 40 feet worth. Some of the trunks were labeled "Bing Crosby," "Crosby seconds," "Hank Williams seconds,'' etc.
"Too many people are wasting time and money playing bad music," said Jim, leaning against a new Dolby recording system just bought by Mel. "If people would hold it in until they absolutely had to play, the music would he great. That's why our album is so great - we waited three years to make it."
He was referring to Jim Kweskin's America, the album he and Mel were in the process of remixing in San Francisco. A few miles north, in Burbank, an executive for Warner Brothers Records chatted, somewhat skeptically, about the music they'd waited three years to get from Jim.
"It, uh... it's not like his other albums," said the executive, who asked to remain anonymous. "It sounds like a bunch of hymns - stuff like 'Old Black Joe' and 'The Old Rugged Cross.'
"Jim's kind of a strange guy to deal with, you know. One day he brought the tapes in to play for me, and right off he gave me a 20-minute lecture on how to thread the tape machine. Very intense guy.
"He played me the tapes, and during one of the songs, I think it was 'Old Black Joe,' I got a phone call. And Jim freaked, I mean really freaked, insisted I start the whole thing over again when I got off the phone." To give me a taste of what Jim was up to these days, the executive put on the album. Pretty somber stuff. On several of the cuts, particularly "Dark as a Dungeon," I noticed a strange, warbly falsetto that sounded like one of the Muppets on Sesame Street.
"You know who that is?" asked the executive. "Mel Lyman."
He recalled a curious request Jim had made the time he came to see him.
"He said the producer needed a first-class ticket from New York to San Francisco, for the session. I said, 'Boy, that's news to me, I'd never heard of any producer.' He said yeah, there was one, and he insisted he had to fly first-class."
"What was the producer's name?"
"Let me think... I'd never heard of him... Herbruck... Richard Herbruck, that was the guy."
At Pacific High Recorders in San Francisco, engineer Phill Sawyer remembered a similar encounter that happened after the session.
"Jim and Mel came in to give me the album credits," he said. "They told me to put down 'Mixed by Phill Sawyer, Produced by Richard Herbruck.' I said, 'Who's that?' There hadn't been any producer in the studio. But they insisted I put it down anyway."
Last month Warner Brothers finally released the album. It's probably too early to gauge the response, but reportedly Fritz Richmond, a former member of the Jug Band, heard it and said, "Jim used to be in the business of waking people up. Now he's in the business of putting them to sleep."
Actually, Jim Kweskin and his favorite backup group, the Lyman Family, did bring Warner Brothers another album during the past three years, and it was released in January, 1970. It was called American Avatar - Love Comes Rolling Down, featuring "The Lyman Family with Lisa Kindred." It had an unusual cover, Mel Lyman's silhouette, and an unusual history, having in fact been recorded at Vanguard Records in the mid-Sixties, when David Gude was still a tape editor there.
"That record ended my career at Vanguard," David said later. "It was a hell of a record - really a miracle. Lisa Kindred had a contract with Vanguard, and Melvin was a friend of hers, had known her for quite a while. He knew Lisa was going to make a record so he asked her could he back her up. Lisa loved Melvin and she said sure.
"So we made that record, and the musicians went home, and Melvin sat down and we edited the tapes, we programmed them, we processed them, Eben Given made the cover, Mel went home and wrote the notes. By the end of the week - it took us exactly one week - we had the complete product."
That's when the trouble started with Maynard Solomon, Vanguard president, said David.
"I went and presented it to my boss, and he didn't like it. He thought the harmonica was too loud, there was too much Melvin and not enough Lisa. He looked at it in these very business-like terms. He liked the record, I think, but he wanted to put Lisa out front and make her a star, 'cause that was the only way he knew how to make a record. Melvin didn't care about any of that."
Gude sighed, revealing that gap he has in his teeth.
"And so I argued with my boss for a long time. He wanted to make changes, and Melvin said absolutely not, you know. And everything Melvin said I recognized as the truth. Melvin was right and Maynard was wrong. I did everything Melvin told me to do, and finally I got fired because of it. Mel told me to go back and erase the originals, which is the cardinal sin in the recording industry, like a photographer destroying his negatives. So I left them with a mono copy of the record, 'cause that was the one thing they couldn't change much at all, a mono mix."
In other words, Maynard couldn't change the levels between Mel's harp and Lisa's voice.
"In fact," David continued, "we're still big advocates of mono over stereo. I mean stereo - at the present stage of recording - stereo does give you a certain clarity that mono does not give you, but you're still dealing with one source. The music itself comes from one source.
"Always, in any art you're expressing a oneness, whether you find it in a movie - watch a love scene in a movie and everybody's crying; they're all feeling the same feeling, that same oneness feeling - and that's what is so fascinating about art and about music in this case. Everybody who listens to it, they all feel one thing and they all feel that one thing at the same time. And that one thing, of course, is... it's God."
David laughed good-naturedly.
"I didn't tell Maynard about that."
Today Lisa Kindred, a pretty, down-to-earth woman, mainly plays small clubs in the San Francisco Bay Area, living a quiet North Beach life with her old man, a child and some cats. She tells a somewhat different version of David Gude's story.
"Yeah, that whole album was a weird trip," she recalled. "I was living in Cambridge when I first met Mel. This was about '64 I guess, and the Jug Band was together. We played together a lot, at the Club 47, places like that. Mel would come over with his friends, and they'd sit around and smoke dope. I don't smoke myself, I'm allergic to it, but he used to smoke more dope than anybody I met. I remember he used to get really ripped and come out to the kitchen and eat dog biscuits. He said they were good for his teeth. He was a very interesting person, very strange.
"Anyway, the album was supposed to be called Kindred Spirits. At that time there was no such thing as the Lyman Family. At that time it was still my album. The record could have been better you know, if David Gude had known what he was doing. He set up the session, and he'd do things, like he'd put Mel's harp and my voice on the same track.
"I was supposed to go to California, and just before I left I went to hear the tapes. David had told me the tapes were great, just great. I thought they were crappy. The mix was all wrong. There was too much harp, for one thing. So I went to California and sort of forgot about the whole thing.
"And a few weeks later I got a call from Maynard Solomon. He said, 'You won't believe this, but David has stolen the stereo master tapes.'
"So I figured that was that. I just wrote the whole thing off. And then years later, I was living out here in Califorma, I got a call from a girlfriend of mine. She said, 'Guess what. That album you made is out. It's on Warner Brothers.' I couldn't believe it. I hadn't heard from anyone all this time. I didn't hear anything from Warner Brothers. Finally, three months later, the people at Warner Brothers gave me a copy. It was called American Avatar. I said to myself, 'I know Mel is an Aries with a God complex, but this is too much!'"
"How did it sound?"
"It sounded just like the tapes. I think if it had been mixed right, it could have been a good album. There was some very good stuff on it. But as a whole... it sounded like a real nice home tape, you know? It had no great message. Just a bunch of people having a good time.
"All I ever got were the fees for the recording session. About $400. It would have been fine if they'd owned up and told me what they were doing up front. But to do what they did - I think it's against the law, isn't it? I mean, I ended up being a side man on my own album!"
After pouring some coffee and brown sugar into a heavy mug, Lisa thought for a moment, then said, "You know that album Creole Belle by Eric Von Schmidt? It's on Prestige, and Mel plays on it. And now that I think about it, there's not enough of Eric on it. There's too much harp."
On the inside cover of American Avatar, next to a photograph of the Fort Hill tower at sunset, Mel Lyman wrote these album
"I've been waiting to get this record released for three years and it is finally only possible now because I played the tapes for Mo Ostin a few months ago and he loved them. Everyone I have ever played these tapes for has been deeply moved, it is great music. The force that drew us together to record this music is the same force that is always evidenced in great works of art, and like all great works of art this music was created to elevate men we were merely the instruments... I have marveled at these tapes for years and have never ceased to find more and more in them, more grace, more perfection, more magic, more God. And now I have passed them on to Mo and he is passing them on to you in the form of a record album. This is no album, it is a miracle."
Maybe so, but today Mo Ostin, head of Warner Brothers Records refuses to talk about the album or its dubious origins, or about anything connected with Mel Lyman. For a period of two months - several times a week and several times a day - we called his office in Burbank. We wrote him. But he never replied.
Finally we settled for a stand-in - Stan Cornyn, who runs Warner's creative services department. He said that when Kweskin presented the Lisa Kindred tapes to Warner Brothers, no questions were asked.
"Mo has a basic faith in his talent," Cornyn explained. "So when that package and tape was delivered to us, we took it as it is. We consider ourselves an artist-oriented company, and that means that we work under the assumption that when tapes or records come in, that's that. We've got to assume that.
"I mean, artists are sometimes incredibly ahead of the rest of the world. Sometimes they're not so bright. You've got to take the good with the bad."
Apparently the world was not quite ready for the album American Avatar. It sold 1764 copies, of which 1000 were bought by Jim Kweskin.
* * *
These old sides are sure taking me on a trip... And Ray Charles said "What kind of a man are you" and I sat in my stuffy little room on 30th St. and played "The Great Pretender" and cried and looked all over Sanchez Street for pretty little Sophie "Lost in the Night" by Charles Brown and I found her and "Let's Make Up" by the Spaniels and "Be Mine or a Fool" by the Penguins and then she was in my room and I didn't come back to that cold empty world but she listened to Johnny Ace singing "The Clock" while I went fishing and the Dream Weavers sang "It's Almost Tomorrow" and Miss Sophie was gone and San Diego was dark and Mr. Lucero sang "Are You Satisfied" and I wanted "Only You" ...Fort Hill photographer George Peper had an assignment; he was to drive to Santa Rosa, where Mel lived as a young boy, and spend the day, Saturday, shooting pictures of Mel's past - an empty park bench where Mel once sat, a vacant lot where Mel's house once stood. He must have shot a hundred different holy places.- from Mel Lyman's 'Mirror at the End of the Road'
"We had a program on today called Wake Up," deLong told the KPFK staff. "I took it off the air, to try to make the listening audience wake up. I grabbed David in the hall to try to make David wake up, to wake the whole staff up. Everybody here is aware, in one way or another, that this station is about to die."
"Mel never made particularly good grades," continued Dixie, "'cause he wouldn't apply himself. The students got graded both for accomplishment and for effort, and I remember one time, Mel got an A for accomplishment, but for effort he got a low grade."
"I suppose if you can make an A without the effort, why make the effort?"
"Yeah, that was his attitude," said Dixie. "I agree with him now."
She reached for a copy of Mirror at the End of the Road that Mel, during a recent visit, had given her after carefully marking those passages he considered too pornographic for her to read. Protruding from the book was a Smokey the Bear bookmark.
"You know, George, I've been reading his book. And it depresses me, to read about all this mental turmoil he went through. I mean, he was such a happy li'l boy. I know he did have some trouble at home, his mother was divorced, I think, but he had this sister who was older and they seemed very close."
I asked Dixie if Mel seemed particularly spiritual as a child, and she dismissed the idea with a laugh.
"Oh," she said, "I'm not sure children know how to be spiritual."
"Not like he is now, anyway."
"I don't know," said Dixie, "is he interested in spiritual things?"
Suddenly it was apparent that Dixie Duke had not been fully informed of recent developments. I looked at George as he started to move uneasily in his chair.
"George," I asked, "haven't you told her about what's been going on?'
"Is it something bad?" asked Dixie, worried.
"No," said George, "nothing like that."
"You see, Mrs. Duke, a lot of people think that Mel Lyman is God," I explained.
Dixie sat straight up. "They what?"
"They think Mel Lyman is God."
"George, is that true?" she asked, her voice rising.
"Well..." George was embarrassed, squirming quite a bit now. "...they think he's a very great man."
"Does he think he's God?" persisted Dixie.
"No, no," said George, but I wasn't about to let him get away with it.
"But George," I said, "in the Christ Issue, what did Mel mean when he said he was Jesus Christ?"
Dixie was shocked. "He said he was Jesus Christ?"
"That was just for the people who needed to believe that," said George with a weak smile. But Dixie wouldn't drop it.
"He thinks he's God? Well, I mean, he's a nice person but... he thinks he's God?" Dixie was partly laughing, partly scolding, her Southern drawl now loud and brittle, crowing like a cock.
"That's ridiculous! You tell him to come see me. I'll tell him he's not God. Tell Mel to come visit me, you hear? I'll tell him he's not Jesus Christ!"
* * *
In his career as a confirmed human being, J. C. Lyman has gone through numerous odd jobs, hundreds of towns, tanks of fermented spirits and two marriages, but now appears to be stabilizing a bit after 58 years.
George and I stopped off in San Rafael to see him, on our way back to San Francisco. Thoughtful, good-natured and handsome, J. C. presently works as some kind of civilian supervisor at nearby Hamilton Air Force Base.
During the Depression he traveled widely as a "music salesman," peddling courses in the violin and guitar "and I think we may have offered the accordion there for a while." He was servicing one of his Oregon routes in March, 1938, when he got word of the birth of his second child and first son. Two days later he made it to the hospital in Eureka, California.
"I'm afraid Mel was not very pretty when he was born," recalled J. C. "He had yellow jaundice or something, and he looked quite ugly. But his mother was very proud of him."
J. C. poured a beer and chuckled. "His mother... she's rather unusual. She's a good person, very hard-headed. She lives in Portland now and I understand she rides a motorcycle. She was a high school tumbler, that sort of thing, and she used to be able to pick me up and throw me across the room. I used to drink a lot and that would upset her, you know."
In 1941, J. C. was called into the Navy for several years and didn't see too much of Mel.
"He was an average child, I would say. He liked cats, I remember, he was crazy about kittens. And he liked music. He used to roll the drums at school when they brought up the flag. When he was a little older he used to sit around a lot - sort of a dreamer, I guess."
Actually, J. C. never has seen too much of Mel. He divorced Mel's mother in 1949, saw him occasionally in the summers, got a letter from him about once a year. In other words, they remained on good terms.
"Then a few years ago he sent me a copy of his book, Autobiography of a World Savior." J. C. shook his well-tanned, gray-haired head. "I still don't know what to think about that book. That thing was a total surprise. I wrote him back, I said I didn't understand it. See, Mel's mother was a Danish Norwegian Lutheran and I was raised a Catholic, but I never was what you'd call religious.
"Anyway, in the last few years he's been writing me fairly regularly. He used to tell me about all his wives. And he'd tell me how he was out to change the world. He'd say, 'The life we live is like a world within a world.'
"The other night he told me he has a terrific responsibility. They're gambling, financially, but they're very optimistic. They're hoping the new book will be a big success. He told me that right now Mark Frechette is their main financial source.
"Mel has a lot on his mind that he has to think about. I could see that he was very busy. He told me he wants to go to France and start a commune there."
George interrupted. "That's Dvora's trip," he explained. "Her family has two houses 15 minutes from the Riviera. And I think she had her mother sign 'em over to Mel just before she died."
Dvora, I remembered her - she was the rather disagreeable girl that badgered me in the Fort Hill office.
"He wants to keep expanding," continued J. C. "He figures the world's a mess and he wants to change it. I'm all for it, myself. I'm very proud of him."
"Do you think he'll succeed?" I asked.
"Wouldn't surprise me at all. Wouldn't surprise me at all. He's a lot smarter than I am. He's a leader, that's for sure."
"Do you believe he's God?"
Looking at his apartment ceiling, J. C. gave the question a moment's serious thought, then said, "I'm not convinced 100 percent that Mel Lyman is God. I'm not 100 percent convinced. But then, I'm not too religious. I'm not too sure about a lot of things."
Before reaching San Francisco, George and I stopped at some pizza shack for dinner. It had been a long day and I figured it was time to relax. But when I looked up from my beer, I noticed George was glaring at me, furious.
"You shouldn't have asked those questions to Dixie and J. C.," he said. "All your concepts about Mel and God."
"Why not? It's part of the story."
"Not to them, it isn't. They know Mel on a much simpler level; they didn't have to be bothered with questions like that."
"When I went back into the house, Dixie was crying, did you know that?"
Now I knew George was lying, or rather, acting. As we were leaving Dixie's house, George had gone back in to give her a photograph of her and Mel. She wasn't crying, she was laughing. I could hear it through the car window. Besides, she was a rugged atheist, not the kind of woman who would cry easily.
"Come on, George," l said, "That's not true. I can't believe that."
As if that remark was a cue, George started this weird number, breathing noisily in and out through his nose, like the dragons you see in cartoons. His wind tunnel eyes were blazing, it was incredible.
He kept it up for at least two minutes, staring at me all the while. I spent most of the time staring at the pizza, and, I guess, smiling.
"Well, what are we gonna do," I finally said, "stare at each other all night?"
With that George shot out his arm and - whack! - smacked me in the forehead with the back of his hand. Right there in the restaurant.
"You're on a cheap ride," he fumed, almost in tears. "And it's about to come to an end."