Mindfuckers pp 299-320
Rolling Stone pp 54-58 [#99]
Mel today (with teeth):
"My past is very important to me." Boxes of letters.
The jet descended into one of those rare Los Angeles nights when late autumn breezes turn the city into a basin of warm coals. George sat by the window, staring first at the million lights below, then the stars. He seemed at peace with the ride. "Taurus moon," he finally announced as the runway beacons came into view. "It's always smooth like this when there's a full moon in Taurus."
Wayne Hansen was there to meet us and took us immediately to a gold Mercury limousine idling outside the terminal. As we approached, the driver's side of the car suddenly exploded and out popped a handsome young chauffeur wearing a black tuxedo, black cap and tiny black glasses. He spoke not a word but went straight to his work, in four staccato movements grabbed George's bag, dumped it in the trunk, slammed the passenger doors shut and sped off toward the Hollywood Hills.
Despite his swiftness and dark glasses, he was at once recognizable from his many photographs. There was no mistaking the gaunt cheek bones and well-trimmed, boyish hair, and I felt a strange calm knowing I was in the hands of the Great Prankster. It all seemed so symbolically right. "Next time go to hell, and leave the driving to Mel." There were no introductions except for George leaning over in the front seat and whispering, "Hello, brother." Yet I was sure of his identity. For one thing I had seen that black cap before in snapshots from the Mirror book. And then, as we raced up La Cienega at 4 AM, Wayne asked him some mock chauffeur questions and called him "Richards." Of course - the Richard Herbruck thing.
How long would they play this game? I wondered as we all piled out at the Eastman Mansion. I stared at the chauffeur for a sign, a grin perhaps, but he simply whipped around with George's bag and hurried into the servant's entrance. I smiled knowingly at George, but he acknowledged nothing, just told us to take off our shoes and led us through a side door to the living room.
As George had explained earlier, the Los Angeles Community was operating on a night schedule, which meant that dinner would be served in an hour or so. Thus the atmosphere seemed one of formal relaxation after a hard night's day. Fires were burning in many of the rooms, and one by one members of the family, their faces scrubbed and clothes neatly ironed, wandered in and sat around the main fireplace. For the most part these were the vets, Melvin's oldest and closest disciples. Jessie was there, David Gude, Eddie, Melinda. Jim Kweskin would have been there had he not been touring. Each person said hello, sat down and stared silently, usually straight ahead. There was no small talk. Also no big talk, no reading, no fidgeting, no music, no TV, no joking and no touching. The silences were unnerving; someone should poke up the fire, I thought, then maybe turn around and jab a few times at these smouldering zombies.
At one point George mentioned the smooth plane ride attributable to the peculiar aerodynamic qualities of a full Taurus moon. "It was full two days ago," sneered Melinda, concluding the discussion.
I kept looking for the chauffeur. What was he doing, changing clothes in some backroom phone booth for yet another theatrical prank? After about 20 minutes a woman walked in whom I had not yet met, a strangely beautiful and slender woman in a long white fairy dress. She was introduced as Eve Chayse, Gail's sister, and appeared friendly, high spirited and extremely pale, as if she had just given blood for a noble cause.
"Would you like to meet Mel?" she asked, and I realized that the moment to impress these dullards with my insight was at hand. "I think I already have," I announced; but the murmur that followed resembled confusion more than adulation, and I had to quickly recover with "but, yes, I would like to." As we climbed the stairs to the second floor, she asked, "When do you think you met Mel?" I mentioned the chauffeur and she laughed, "Oh, no, that was Richie. Everybody gets them mixed up."
Richie! That crazy, gun-toting spook! What was he doing in Los Angeles? Naw, it couldn't have been Richie; the chauffeur didn't even say hello. Richie was taller, wasn't he? I'm being tested; maybe this is some kind of trap. I was becoming paranoid as Eve pointed to Mel's attic studio, the same room Kweskin had shown me several months before, and instructed, "Just go up those stairs and to your left. He's waiting for you."
She returned downstairs, leaving me at 5 AM on that Final Stairway with some kind of supreme being or supreme bastard just a few feet away, "waiting for me," she said, that bird-crouching, mind-fucking creature of attics, caves and lofts, waiting and listening to my footsteps--and me without any shoes! I recalled something from the introduction to his Autobiography:
"... the battle only really begins when man has finally, through exhaustion, worn out every tangible means, devoured everything in sight and arrived right back where he started with an empty belly and a world with no food, having cried all of his tears and standing completely naked and alone knowing full well that there is no comfort outside of himself, that he must walk that lonesome valley BY himself with no kind words, no friendly faces, no helping hands..."
I truly don't remember his first words, I was so startled by what I saw. It was something like "hello" or "so you must be..." something friendly and ordinary--but I remember that most certain feeling that this figure could not possibly be Mel Lyman. Indeed, he resembled remarkably a thin, not unpleasant hair-lipped fellow I had known in junior high school. That was my first thought: they'd fished this guy out of my past. And he did look and sound exactly like a post-operative hairlip. He did not appear like his photographs in any way. He seemed at least 10 to 15 years older, his face was sunken, his tiny eyes hopelessly committed to longwrinkled sockets; his jaw jutted forth like a cartoon farmer's. He stood, slightly hunched, in a dull blue sport shirt, his hands buried in the rear pockets of his pegged and cuffed gray-plaid pants. His voice, although nasal, was quite warm and down-home; and I suddenly was aware of a feeling I'm sure many must have the first time they see him. I felt sorry for him--not in any indulgent, bleeding way, but in the way one feels sorry for an underdog.
He showed me his room, his recording equipment, his records, his earthquake-proof Hank Williams collection; things seemed hardly to have changed at all since the visit with Kweskin. Mel seated himself at one end of a couch and, without any real provocation, began describing his personal past in the most extreme detail, reading from Mirror at the End of the Road, elaborating, reminiscing about his travels, his poverty, early bum days down and out in the Bowery--"I thought, am I gonna spend the rest of my life debating how to spend my last 50 cents? I bought a quart of beer, lay down on a doorstep and fell asleep"--reminiscing about friends and lovers, Sophie, Jessie, Eben and most of all, Judy Silver.
"God, I really loved that girl," said Mel, picking up a copy of the book he dedicated to her. "She left me in July of '63. That's when I joined the Jug Band. I didn't want to be a professional musician, but I had to join or the judge would have thrown me in jail for dope."
"She went back out to Kansas, and her parents put her in the nut house." Mel spoke with a trace of bitterness. "Her parents were Jews and they were trying to burn me out of her soul. They actually burned the clothes I gave her. You can imagine how they must have felt. They were just Wichita, Kansas, Jews who made their money in the junk business."
Mel sat back and drew his feet up on the couch. I noticed he was wearing shoes, black slip-ons. "I met her in New York. I was playing music at a party, Christmas Day, 1962, and she was there. She was down from Brandeis. It was the music she fell in love with. I could see it really weave a spell, it made her almost glow, you know? She said she fell in love with me, but she really fell in love with the music. She fell in love with my purpose rather than my person. Now, of course, there's really no line between my purpose and my person "
I asked Mel about the religious experience he had playing "Rock of Ages" at Newport '65. "I wanted to save the world with music," he said in mild self-parody. "I still do, but I was more naive at that time. Newport was the last time I played with the Jug Band. I hated the Jug Band. Here I was playing great music, really great music, and they were playing--I don't know what it was--I always call it rinkydink music."
"Anyway, that Sunday I played 'Rock of Ages' and it was awful. In the first place I didn't want to do it. The musicians were not giving the people what they wanted; the people were hungry, and the musicians were just shitting around, just being selfish. And then I wasn't well-known, the audience didn't know me, it was like stepping up there without your clothes on, you know?"
"But I kept having this fucking recurring image in my sleep, of playing 'Rock of Ages.' Every night I'd toss around in bed, I'd say, 'Don't make me do it. Don't make me do it.' Finally I said, 'OK, if it's gotta be done, I'll do it.' Then I could sleep again."
To further explain the crisis he must have been going through, Mel went into a short, informal discussion on the relief one feels after finally accepting responsibility.
"So Sunday night came along, and everybody went up there and did their trick," continued Mel. "Finally Dylan got up there, and frankly, I've never seen him worse. He was just selfish, that's all. The people wanted folk music and he wanted rock and roll. After I saw that, I knew I was gonna have to play."
When Mel asked if he could play the hymn for the people as they were leaving, the festival directors, including Pete Seeger, started citing curfew laws. "I was kinda insistent, I guess. I told them, 'Look, I'm gonna do it whether you like it or not; why don't you make it easy on me.' I was shaking in my boots."
"The finale was really ghastly, all those people singing 'We Shall Overcome,' but they didn't mean it. The people just looked like funny little robots. Then I played 'Rock of Ages.' The people heard it as they were leaving, but it was more for the musicians than the people. The musicians were spellbound. They were hearing what they should've been doing. Some of the musicians were crying--I was told that later."
"I must've lost ten pounds during that song. The sweat was just pouring down. The spirit was so strong I could barely get it out--you know, the harmonica, that's a pretty tiny hole for all that spirit to go through, that little tiny reed."
"Were you still shaking in your boots?"
"Well no, not once I started," said Mel. For some reason the thought caused him to laugh vehemently in a rather peculiar fashion. In his laughter he sounded very much like those persons--you've heard them-who laugh as though they were given only one laugh for their entire life, so that as soon as they let it out, they must reel it back in again for future use--an asthmatic, backward sound: "ha ha ha ha, yuk yuk yuk yuk," the kind of laugh one associates with shared secrets and, occasionally, nakedness and drool.
Only in Mel's case he seemed to reel in a lot more than he let out, roughly about three backwards to every one forward: "ha ha ha ha, yuk yuk yuk yuk, yuk yuk yuk yuk, yuk yuk yuk yuk." Mingled with his words, it had a vaguely disconcerting effect.
"You're only afraid," he laughed, "before the crucifixion, ha ha, yuk yuk yuk yuk yuk yuk. No sense in being afraid after the nails are driven in, ha ha ha ha, yuk yuk yuk yuk, yuk yuk yuk yuk, yuk yuk yuk yuk."
Disconcerting because I still had doubts about the identity of this man, and the laughter only confused me more. It was completely alien to what I considered a set of fairly sensible preconceptions I had nurtured over the past months. Was this Mel Lyman or some terminal junkie they had bailed out of the deformity ward at County General, shipped back to Boston and locked in the vault for two weeks with a copy of Mirror at the End of the Road--all for the purpose of my visit?
On the other hand, his laughter was so like that of the other vets--particularly George's and Richie's--it implied a long-standing relationship of power and influence. As George said, there's no such thing as coincidence. But these indulgent qualms would have to wait. Ostensibly Melvin was continuing his story.
"From Newport I went straight to Woodstock, hitched a ride with Maria Muldaur's ex-husband. That's in the book, remember the part about the cave? I thought I would live in this cave for a while, just be a holy man and live with God. But once again I realized I belonged to the people, because I was such a great instrument, you see? So I returned to the people, and after that there was such great music, incredible music, for two months. That music had been stored up in me for so long.
"And I started teaching. I used to teach astrology, macrobiotics, yoga, the I Ching. I had a course for everybody, yuk yuk yuk yuk. "
"Was there a community forming around you at that time?"
"I've always had some kind of community with me," said Mel. "Communities were always forming around me--in Oregon, in North Carolina. I'm like a seed. Drop me somewhere and I'll grow a community, ha ha, yuk yuk yuk yuk yuk yuk."
Mel paused for a moment and sensed he was needed by the community downstairs. "You know, we're on a night schedule here," he explained, "and I think it's just about time for dinner." Sure enough, it was getting quite light outside the attic windows. "But before we go to dinner, there's something I want to show you."
He took me to a large closet off the entrance hall downstairs. "Come inside and we'll close the door," he said. "I really like the smell in here." The closet was lined with cedar, another of the many patrician comforts in this fascinating mansion. But this was more than a closet, I soon realized, it was a shrine. We were surrounded by the most important relics of Mel's private past, mostly letters and photographs. Collected, boxed and filed in order on the many shelves were hundreds and hundreds of letters, nearly every letter he ever received or ever sent, the latter returned from friends at his request.
"My past is very important to me," explained Mel, opening up a cardboard box jammed with snapshots. "It's all material for creation." He withdrew a handful and started rummaging through them. "There's me and Judy the night we met, at that party in New York. Says the whole thing, doesn't it? Look at her face: you can tell she's in love with me." He picked up another stack. I recognized many of the pictures from the Mirror book; they included not only people but objects and the insides of empty rooms.
"There's our little dresser, there's my coat," he continued. "Here's a picture of me and the Jug Band when we were on The Steve Allen Show. There's Johnny Carson giving me a hard time. There I am giving Johnny Carson a hard time. There's Judy and me in a restaurant we used to eat at. There's her parents, before they took her off to the nut house."
I asked Mel what made her come apart. "Those fucking bastards over at IFIF gave her acid," he said bitterly. "I told her not to take it. I knew her head couldn't take it."
Mel closed the box and replaced it on the shelf. "Right after the Lisa Kindred session I went back out to Kansas and saw her for the last time. She was about to marry this guy, I stayed with him as a matter of fact. I remember her asking me, 'What do you want from me?' I said, 'Everything.' She said, 'I thought you were gonna say that.' "
We returned to the entrance hall, Mel shut off the closet light and closed the door. "I realized on that last trip out there that a man can't get everything from a woman; a man can't use a woman as an excuse for finding himself." He stared ahead and smiled. "What I wanted was to marry her. If I had, right now I'd be running a little bookstore in Denver."
I could hear the new day's first traffic trickling down the winding tributaries of the Hollywood Hills. Throughout the city paperboys and streetsweepers were processing the news. And here in the Eastman Mansion dinner was being served, a Chinese dish that included bean curds, mushrooms, noodles, stringy green stuff and maybe meat. The dinner was as bizarre as any I'd eaten with these people, not so much for the hour, but the hour and the formality. The dining room table was elaborately set with baroque silver and china. Mel sat at the head, of course; the others apparently sat at random. The whole scene was tinted with the oranges of dawn, old chandeliers and dying embers in the dining room fire.
Suddenly the kitchen door swung open and in strode the chauffeur, still wearing his black tuxedo. I'd forgotten about him. Only he wasn't the chauffeur anymore. By removing his cap he'd now become the butler. And by removing his dark glasses he'd now become, quite clearly, Richie. Which made no sense at all. Why would Richie, the Hill's most gifted architect and craftsman, be pulling KP? Another game? Another punishment?
If it was a game, it was played most seriously. He never spoke, never smiled, as he looked after the crumbs and garbage of the others. Nor did he eat; when he wasn't serving or bussing, he stood at rigid attention, his back to the wall, awaiting whatever commands collective whim might produce. In this role he was forced to take abuse without responses friendly game, perhaps, but I found it hard to swallow.
At one point Richie dropped a fork or something, and Jessie jeered, from the side of her mouth, "This is the noisiest butler we ever had." "Better send him back to the Hill," said someone else, and the whole group began laughing and staring at his stoic face. Then Jessie reached for a cigarette, and instantly, with the reflex precision of a bayonet artist, Richie bent over the table and lit it for her.
By now I was pretty well convinced I was in the presence of the one true Mel. The way he ate, for one thing. It's not that common to see a 33-year-old man gumming his food. I had noticed his lack of teeth earlier--it accounted for the hair-lip appearance--but assumed he would snap false ones in for eating.
More convincing was the respect he received from the others. His voice was never raised, never arrogant, and never ungentle. Yet his every request was fulfilled, his every question answered, with almost fearful dispatch. On the way to dinner Mel had wanted to quote me something from Mirror at the End of the Road. A copy was not at hand, so he suggested to one of his followers, quite casually, "There should be a copy of the book in every room." By the time we sat down, there was.
And now Mel was questioning George. "I understand you played the 'Colors' tape last night."
"Yes," replied George from the other end of the table.
"You know," said Mel, "that's a stereo tape. Did you turn the thing to stereo?"
"I did, yes."
Mel patted his mouth with a linen napkin. "The left channel is weak, you know. Did you remember to boost it on the left?"
The question caught George off guard. There was a tell-tale pause and people stopped eating. "I... I'm not sure," he stammered, "I think so."
"Was my voice in the center?" Mel asked.
"Oh yes, sure," said George, relieved. This seemed to satisfy Mel; he nodded and the sound of forks and plates continued.
There were long silences. Things got so quiet near the end of the main course I could hear short rumblings from the stomach inside the girl to my right.
Then David Gude piped up from across the table. He was addressing me. "Did you ever get your tape recorder fixed?"
"It was never broken," I said. "I figured I better use a sturdy model if I was dealing with dangerous types such as yourself." He smiled a hard kind of smile, exposing that black gap in his upper teeth. So much for small talk. After another 45 minutes Mel put his napkin down, stood up, said nothing and left. One by one the others did the same.
Later I asked Mel about the silences. "We're all so united internally," he said, "there's no point in talking--unless, you know, something specific has to be discussed or a decision has to be made. Of course, it's not always like this morning. Some nights we joke a lot. I mean, I do crazy, crazy things. Some nights we'll talk in different accents, for example. Lately, I've been telling stories a lot."
Such internal unity, I said, was hard for an outsider to understand. In the silences there seemed to be such emptiness and sadness.
"Not emptiness," Mel corrected. "But much sadness, much sadness. To express sadness is joy. Nothing is more joyful." He looked at me as if explaining the obvious. "That's what great music is all about."
We were sitting at a wrought iron patio table near the newly installed pool and sauna bath. Mel leaned forward and slowly rubbed his mouth, a nervous habit he may have developed after having his teeth removed. "You know, the people in Los Angeles have been together the longest," he explained. "Every community has its identity, its own purpose. Boston is sort of like a boot camp, you know? A tough boot camp, only about half the people make it through. Then New York, of course, is the business; it's a business city and that's where we handle the business end of things. There's the star business, John Kostick's stars, it's getting bigger all the time. And they make furniture there, plus some people have jobs working on other houses--they get $ 10 an hour, every one of them.
"Then there's the farm in Kansas. Did they tell you about that?" For the first time Mel started speaking seriously about the future, and there was a shade of compassion in his voice. "There's all these kids that don't know what to do with themselves. For them life is so abstract, they have no values. They need to go out in the woods and rediscover life. Many of them, in fact, have tried that; but they had no plan, and after a couple years they had nothing left, there was no life after that.
"This has been on my mind for years. If I can set up a place, a basic step where people who don't know nothin' can go, that would be real basic training. Fort Hill is something like that, but for many of these kids it's still too structured, still too much in the city, you know? The farm will be ideal, plus the place will grow food for all the other communities."
It sounded like a master plan. The established communities, all located in cities famous for drawing transient young seekers, would serve as recruiting stations for the farm; in turn, the farm would supply food, plus new soldiers, for work in the cities.
"These new people need a whole new world," said Mel. "It's understandable; the old one has served its purpose and they've got to create a brand new one. This is a whole new culture. We're really starting a new country."
I asked him the purpose of the West Coast communities.
"Well, San Francisco is still too formative to tell," said Mel. "I mean, I go someplace 'cause I feel the need. I don't stop and ask why. The hardest one to define is Los Angeles. It's the creative center of the whole works, Los Angeles, really the creative center for the whole world. This is the home of the creators, the city has a pulse, a dynamic soul. It's hardly ever exposed, of course, mainly in the films of the Thirties and Forties. I'll probably do all my music and films here. We're gonna do some great films.
"You know, we laid out the book in this house. Would you like to see where?" With that, Mel stood up and took me inside to the library where Mirror at the End of the Road was pasted up, then to the basement darkroom where the book's photos were printed and the backyard toolshed where Eben Given worked on the drawings. Next to the toolshed was a volley ball court that Mel was having converted to a regulation-sized basketball half court. To the Lyman people, for some reason, playing basketball is almost as important as watching football.
As we continued strolling around the mansion's several acres, Mel explained how he was able to locate and finance such regal property at only $16,000 down. "It takes a lot of faith," he said. "People have faith in me and I have faith in God, ha ha, yuk yuk yuk yuk yuk yuk." A short time later he said, "You know, my faith is not a blind one. I've been living on faith so long, I'm pretty good at it."
Good enough, apparently, to make some plans. Mel pointed out certain areas of the land he planned to change. A shady section near the pool would become a fishpond, a steep portion of the hill below would support more houses. "Richie will design 'em and hang 'em off the side. We got lots of geniuses here. We got somebody who can do anything."
Richie was certainly one of those geniuses, I thought, as we returned to the patio and passed by his most recent creation, an all-redwood sauna bath that blended perfectly with the surrounding trees and included tricky wooden latches. Richie now earns $100 a day designing similar saunas for upper-crusty clients throughout Los Angeles. So what the fuck's he doing slinging hash in a tux at six in the morning? It seemed pointless to ask.
During our walk I noticed no other people on the grounds; apparently they were inside, finishing their morning chores before retiring to bed. Why, exactly, was everyone on a night schedule? I asked Mel.
"I'm like the tides," he said casually. "My schedule seems to creep back an hour earlier each day--like the tides." Yes, that would be like the tides, I thought; it all made perfect sense. Thus, two weeks from now the Los Angeles community would be operating on a day schedule, gradually returning to a night schedule two weeks later, at the end of Mel's period. Like so many of Mel's programs, it not only provided a logical order for the community to follow, but heightened the separation between the community and the world outside. While most of Los Angeles lived, unquestioning, by the sun, the Lyman Family lived by the moon.
As we sat down at the patio table, George appeared and began shooting pictures of Mel. Mel feigned annoyance. "Dammit, George, if you're going to take pictures of me, the least you can do is get me my teeth." George giggled and scurried inside.
It seemed like a good time to find out about the Magic Theater. Mel hesitated for a moment, then let out a deep sigh. "Let's see if I can explain it-that's a hard one.
"Before I tore it down, I was going to use it as a place to show my films to the world, to play my music. It would have been like a church. Rather than go out into the world, I was going to bring the world to me. It would really have been super LSD; people would've gone in one door and come out eight hours later completely transformed!
"Then after Jim Kweskin started recording his last album, I realized there were existing channels that could do the job better than my personal theater."
Mel paused and stared ahead. I waited for him to go on, but he just kept staring. Finally he raised his eyebrows as if to say "next question." But surely there was more to this one. What about Bob McQuaid? I heard he had been mistreated or something.
Again Mel paused; he seemed to choose his words carefully. "Well, you know, there's the vault, you heard about that. And you heard the story about how Paul stole the car and they put him in the vault so he could see himself. Well, the same sort of thing happened to McQuaid. They put him in the vault, and then they got so involved in building the theater, they completely forgot about him and why he was there."
"I heard they neglected the human element or something."
"You mean, they mistreated him? Or..."
"He broke out. The people were so into the theater, he got out and they didn't even realize it. That's when I decided the theater had to be torn down. In a way, you see, Bob McQuaid served a great purpose."
So that's what Richie meant by neglecting "the people they lived with." But Mel had a further revelation.
"On that very same day," he recalled, "Jim called me from Los Angeles. See, Richie was in charge of the theater, but he also was supposed to be on Jim's album. Jim called up and said, 'I need Richie.' I told him, 'Richie can't come right now; he's got a theater to tear down.' So Jim said, 'Well, why don't you come, you be on the album?, You see how it all worked out? Me making the decision to tear down the Magic Theater left me free to work on Jim's album."
So that's what George meant by "organic development."
"In Los Angeles," said Mel, "I realized--shit, the whole world could be a Magic Theater. It's already set up--everybody has a TV set. Now the idea of the original Magic Theater seems so small." He sighed again. "But it served its purpose."
Just then George returned holding a wadded up towel which he unwadded on the table, revealing a shiny pink object, Mel's teeth. Mel put them in his mouth, then pulled them out as fast. "Yeckkkk!" he shuddered, "Didn't Eve rinse these off before she gave them to you? Did she just give them to you?"
"Yeah, uh, I guess so," answered George.
"Take 'em back and rinse 'em off. They've been soaking in that stuff all night. I hate the taste of that shit."
George picked up the teeth and flew inside the house. I asked Mel if persons joining the community didn't object to giving up their personal freedom.
"You give up what you might have thought was personal freedom," he said. "But there's more freedom here than most places, an internal freedom. People here don't have concepts. They live in the moment here more than anywhere I know."
"What role did acid play in this evolution?"
"We use acid on occasion, but not so much anymore. For one thing, acid ain't what it used to be. I mean, I can take people through changes of consciousness without acid. Those silences you mentioned. If you were to go through some of those, enough of those, it would probably have the same effect on you as if you took acid."
Mel smiled and shrugged. "I never gave it to people who didn't want it. People came to me and asked. And I don't think I ever gave acid to anyone who hadn't had it before.
"You know, people take acid for different reasons. Jimmie used to take a lot just to groove, just to enjoy himself. So one day I gave him a couple thousand mikes. He didn't groove. He just stared at himself, and he didn't like a lot of the things he saw. You see all the tricks you do, you see all the defenses, all the tricks you've worked up to avoid pain. In other words, he saw what I saw in him."
"I heard you filmed one of his trips where he actually changed his sign. Is that possible?"
"He became more of a Cancer, Jim's a Cancer with a Capricorn moon. In the Jug Band he was always more of a Capricorn, he lived more on the surface. He wasn't aware of that soft Cancer soul. In other words he became more true to himself."
George arrived with the freshly rinsed teeth. Mel took them, eyed them suspiciously, gingerly tasted them. "You're gonna see me lose 18 years right now," he said, inserting the solid pink plastic plate, adjusting it with his hand over his mouth, then withdrawing his hand.
I guess that's what happened. I guess he lost 18 years. That, or maybe he cast a spell, whammied me with his eyes, dropped acid in my bean curds or did some sleight-of-hand trick with a mask made of rubber unknown on this planet. I was looking at a brand new, entirely different face, one in its 20s, very similar to the photos I'd seen of Mel Lyman but fresh and friendly, more friendly, in fact, than even the pictures George was taking later portrayed.
Probably any dentist could explain this incredible transformation. But could he explain the way Mel's head snapped back or the laugh that boomed from that new magic mouth after I expressed my bewilderment? It was a hearty laugh that had no yukyuks.
It left me with a relaxed feeling I'm sure others have felt in his presence, the feeling of having one's doubts washed away. This was truly Mel Lyman.
He joked about his teeth, took them out, put them in upside down for a weird horse effect, and finally, as George finished shooting, took them out again. Mel complained they hurt his mouth; he said he only wore them during the increasingly rare occasions he was in public.
Which led us to the subject of Richard Herbruck. Mel brought it up. "I understand you don't believe there's a Richard Herbruck," he said. I nodded. "Well, there is. He's very much alive." Mel then explained the whole routine, unfortunately off the record. That was the deal. However, I can say that my original doubts, particularly those raised by Jessie Benton and the people at Pacific High Recorders, were confirmed. But there's a funnier and weirder twist to it all which Lyman promised to reveal soon, when Richard Herbruck presents... himself!
Not that any of it is very important, except that Herbruck's name did get kicked around a lot during the KPFK thing. Mel dismissed that episode rather good-naturedly, I thought. "It was all done in innocence, all done in anger," he said. What effect would the fear and bad publicity have on further efforts to infiltrate media? "All publicity is good publicity; I don't care what kind of publicity it is, it helps. After all, it doesn't hurt people to fear."
It's true, Mel does get you to think about things in a different way. "I understand you recently got a letter from Charles Manson," I said.
"Yeah, you want to see it?" He disappeared inside the house for a minute, then returned with a small piece of light blue stationery which he handed me, waiting for me to read it. In the letter, apparently dictated from jail to some of his women, Manson pledges servitude to Mel Lyman and asks his help in breaking out of prison. Mel's response was to send a copy of Mirror at the End of the Road, which he said was confiscated by the jailers, plus a letter.
"His letter made me very sad," said Mel, " 'cause he's so close and so far away. He came so close to the truth, he came so close to really being a compassionate man. I just wanted to get hold of him and kick him that one step further. I told him in my letter things like, 'I'd like to meet you someday,' 'you have to trust me,' that sort of thing."
Mel looked up from the letter, "You know, I don't think he was guilty. I don't think he was there at the murders."
"It makes no difference to the law whether he was actually there or not," I said.
"But I don't think he was guilty. He couldn't consciously tell his followers to do that and still know what he does. He was guilty of being a bad leader, that's all."
But didn't Mel once claim he was Christ and Manson was the anti-Christ?
"I might've said that," admitted Met, "but actually he's more like John the Baptist. I mean, I say a lot of things for the sake of communication, and the actual words aren't that important."
Mel shook his head sadly, referring to the letter. "He wants to go out in the desert; he's still fighting his personal battle. They're X-ing themselves out of the world, you know? I'm just the opposite. I'm X-ing myself into the world."
From around a corner of the mansion, one of Mel's women came bearing a huge bowl of multicolored ice cream. She placed it in front of him, gave him a spoon and left, saying nothing.
"I can't say that people who have money are bad," Mel continued. "I can't find the bad people. Everybody's scrubbing with the wrong soap all the time. Recently I rode on a plane with a gay banker; I couldn't find anything wrong with him. On my last trip to New York I met a Japanese banker, we talked for hours, talked about economics.
"I mean, I've lived all levels of life. I used to have a saying: Christ is where you find Him. I can love or hate anyone, ha ha, yuk yuk yuk yuk yuk yuk."
The soap remark was a bit mystifying, but the rest made sense. Still, it seemed at odds with what I'd heard about Mel's racism.
"I certainly don't pretend all races are the same," he explained. "Ever since I was a kid I've had trouble with Jews. But I also believe a man of any nationality can rise above that nationality, can put that nationality to use. Take Jimmie Kweskin, for example--Jimmie the Jew we sometimes call him. I use him in the way his Jewishness will be most effective; I use his business sense. That's why he's business manager. I acknowledge that characteristic and put it to work."
Mel beamed confidently at the thought of having harnessed a natural resource. "I like to talk in topical languages 'cause people can get into it. Like I might say something like, 'all niggers are stupid,' you know? Just to wake people up, get them involved."
I mentioned his writings about hippies. "With hippies I come on very strong," said Mel, " 'cause it takes that to reach them. I mean, hippies are very strong, most of 'em, and it takes strong language to reach them."
What sort of trouble had he had with Jews? Mel shook his head. "I've fought so many Jewish parents... the way they hold on to their kids, you know? It's rare that parents approve of me anyway. I almost never get along with parents. It's all the same battle. Kay Boyle--I wanted her kids and she wanted them. Eventually, I won.
"One of the few parents who has understood me is Thomas Hart Benton, and that's because he's an artist, a creator. He creates in the medium of art, and I create in the medium of people."
The medium of people. It seemed such an incongruous phrase to be coming from this mild, toothless fellow. Could he really pull it off Who was this man? Even though it was really just a matter of semantics, the Big Dumb Question, I felt, could no longer be avoided. Was he God?
Mel's face was blank. "No."
But you're not like the others, I said.
He smiled. "No. I mean, people have been saying Mel Lyman is God for a long time, and I don't know what they mean. I don't know what they mean by the word God. Some people's concept of God is so small, I'm much more than that. So I guess to them I would be God."
"But didn't you say you were God?"
"I doubt it. I might have said it, you know, metaphorically. I wrote a letter, a great letter, it's gonna be in my next book, which sort of explains all this. It's a letter to God; so, you know, how could I be God?" Mel's face brightened as he considered the riddle. "But I can tell you I know God better than anybody in the world."
"Are you more than human?"
"Man, there isn't anything more than human. Human is limitless."
"But you did say you were Jesus Christ."
"Jesus Christ is such a small word. I mean, I'm doing the same thing as he did. I'm the same instrument in a different time." He was getting evasive.
"But Christ said he was God, the son of God, God on earth."
Mel snickered. "So they said he said."
"But that's not what you are?"
Turning away, Mel surveyed the pool and beyond, the front lawn, the wall of trees, the entire Los Angeles basin. "It's a hard question," he said. "All I can tell you is I'm His best instrument on earth. And that kind of includes all those other things."
He looked down at his hands for a moment, then impishly raised his eyes and look at me from the corner of them. "I'm Superman. Maybe that's what I am. When I was a little kid I always dressed up as Superman; I was always dressing up as Superman and flying off somewhere, you know? Even when I was in my early 20s, up in Oregon, I got drunk one night and dressed up as Superman. I tried to attack a cop, I remember."
When we were talking about Manson, I had a question to ask, then lost it. Attacking a cop brought it back. The question of violence. Most people are raised pretty non-violently, I said, and things like the KPFK incident, therefore, are completely foreign to their thinking. Was this obstacle to accepting the Lyman Family really necessary?
"Most people who are non-violent don't even know what violence is," said Mel. "I think people cheat themselves out of a lot of wonderful experiences. And after all, the way you grow is through experience."
Yes, I argued, but you can't have a society with people hurting each other for the sake of their own experience.
"Sometimes you have to take that chance. I'm glad I tried to attack that cop."
Mel shrugged. "We haven't killed anyone."
OK, I said, but then you have Kweskin going around saying, "We haven't killed anyone--yet." What's that supposed to mean?
He turned back to the pool and started drumming his lips with his fingers. At first he spoke almost to himself. "Let me see if I've killed anybody yet... my mind must be getting tired... it's getting late." He rubbed his eyes.
"I know I've been mad enough to kill sometimes. I remember one time this cat made me so mad--and you know how much I love cats, right? I wanted to smash that cat, smash it on the floor, again and again. I picked it up like this, you know?" He raised an arm over his head and assumed a menacing stance. "Then suddenly all the energy just drained out of my arm and I laid the cat back down on the floor." His arm floated back down to his side.
"I found there is an internal break of some kind that prevented me from killing that cat," said Mel. "But I wouldn't have found it out if I hadn't tried it, see what I mean?"
The parable had a kicker. "I suppose you could say God prevented me from killing that cat. But if you want to know for sure, better get your own cat and try it yourself."
It was getting late, nearly II AM. Mel said he wanted to take a sauna bath and a swim before going to bed. Which prompted a final question. Considering the importance he placed on need, necessity, was it really necessary for him to live in such luxury?
"The question has never come up, really," he said. "But I do have to take care of my body. I need to swim every day, to take a sauna bath every day."
"But you are quite a materialist, according to your book. You value your possessions highly."
"Oh yes, yes," admitted Mel with a smile. "The world is full of things. Some of them are people and some of them are chairs."
I went inside and used the kitchen phone to reserve a plane back to San Francisco. Near the phone was a handmade chart, "Ye Olde Shower Roster," on which the time and date of every shower taken by members of the household were registered. It was good to know that life with the Lyman Family was proceeding in a clean and orderly fashion. A couple of women were performing odd chores about the kitchen, perhaps getting things ready for that evening's breakfast. In the basement darkroom, George was already developing the pictures he'd taken that morning.
While outside, alone in his shiny new pool, Mel Lyman, healthy and confident in this his 33rd year, was treading water.
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