Jul 5, 2006


If you are really digging all this underground, experimental psychedelic free folk and drone rock (such as No-Neck Blues Band, Sunburned Hand of the Man, and all their myriad followers), but you don't know this strange, little LP from 1971 titled Richard D. Herbruck presents Jim Kweskin's America co-starring Mel Lyman and the Lyman Family* then you are missing an esoteric yet key piece to the puzzle. First off, Mel Lyman is an utterly fascinating bohemian character from them ye olde New England coffee house folkie days. A masterful harmonica player born and raised on the West Coast, Lyman joined the Jim Kweskin Jug Band in the mid-'60s and subsequently -- with a solo harmonica performance -- "soothed" the riled up audiences at Newport immediately after Dylan fucked 'em with his electric "betrayal" back in '65. What's more, Lyman (who participated in Dr. Leary's LSD experiments at Harvard in the early-'60s) was supposedly the acid-spiked guru-leader of the "Lyman Family," a fairly powerful and productive commune of mainly white folks based in Roxbury (a predominantly African-American 'hood in Boston), which published the legendary underground newspaper Avatar. However, the Family was also allegedly involved in all kinds of controversial and questionable deals, techniques, and events; stuff that "cult experts" on television like to talk about: mind control, coercion, group intimidation, brain washing, etc. The family even included at one time Kweskin, actor Mark Frechette (star of the movie Zabriskie Point), and writer Paul Williams.

Now Lyman died in 1978, and much of what has been written about his life and his family (including the details of his death) is highly disputed. And I'm no one to be commenting on any of it whatsoever. But if your interest has been piqued then I totally recommend reading all the literature (for and against) on Steve Trussel's amazing site dedicated to Lyman.

In terms of music, after reading a good chunk of the articles out there on the Lyman Family and its music (including Lyman's liner notes), it seems to me that Lyman influenced (directly? indirectly?) NNCK and SBHOTM. You see, the Jug Band started off like all jug bands: goofy and playful. But as Kweskin's outfit and Lyman's family began to merge, another sound and image slowly started to develop. That upbeat, good time playfulness gave way to a lonely, trance-state folk sound that bordered on menacing. Kweskin's version of "I Ain't Never Been Satisfied" off his 1966 solo effort (with Lyman, of course) titled Relax Your Mind is a slow burning drone, as Kweskin and his wife Marilyn chant in eerily hollow, zombie-like voices, "satisfied, satisfied, satisfied, satisfied, satisfied..." It's obvious the group is invoking what Lyman called "group soul," which is definitely a concept I see NNCK employing during its best performances. What's more, Lyman started writing liner notes for Kweskin's records that laid out his philosophy of music --cultish ramblings that mixed dark humor and cryptic gnostic rhetoric predating NNCK's wonderfully impenetrable writings.** (For more of this kind of stuff read some of Lyman's "columns" for Avatar, which really look forward to the willfully esoteric approach of so many modern free folkies.) For the American Avatar LP, which was credited to the Lyman Family with Lisa Kindred, Lyman writes:

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 be 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. We played this music but we didn t make it, it passed through us like light through the darkness. And like all great works of art this music had to await its time, it even took awhile for us to appreciate it. 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.


This is CONTEMPORARY music. In this new age whose keynote is the destruction of old forms and the birth of new spirit our ears are still constantly insulted with the musical establishment's attempts to "hold on" to the old traditions whatever the cost. Music is neat and clean and void of real life. We say fuck those people, we just want to blow. Folk music is dead, it got too fond of itself. Jazz is dead, it got too lost in itself. Rock is screaming its brains out trying to make up for the loss. But there is a new sound known only to a few, a sound of death and conflict and reconciliation and fresh air. It fits no categories, it just IS. And that is what we are presenting you with, a whole sound. Not clever parts, not individual achievement, this is the sound of a GROUP SOUL being born...

Many of the ideas that modern free folkies experiment with are totally embedded within these writings: mediumship, light/darkness, pure being, magic, peeling back the ego and revealing true self, etc. And this isn't just talk. American Avatar is an atmospheric, ceremonial -- almost religious -- take on acoustic folk blues, which apparently was unleashed in full force during the Family's live performances. According to "Chapter 16: 1968: James Taylor and The Lyman Family" of the "The History of Boston Rock 'n' Roll" (a series of articles originally appearing in The Beat Magazine, 1985 to '86), "Frequent [Lyman Family] gigs at the Orleans Coffee House (13 Charles St., later called the Sword & Stone) gradually developed into a religious service, where Lyman gained his following and his disciples. By the winter of 1965-66, Lyman's commune settled on Fort Hill, which rose from the middle of the black ghettos of Roxbury. It was the 'Holy Land' for Melvin's chosen people." Kweskin also touches on the religious aspect of the Family's Boston gigs in David Felton's two-part Lyman feature for Rolling Stone (1971 to '72) titled "The Lyman's Holy Seige on America", "Right now the performances that I've been doing in the clubs have been higher than any church that anybody's been in. God has come into the room. Several times. And those people may have thought I was demanding, and maybe I was demanding, but it happened and there were a lot of people who felt it. And there are a lot of people who come up to me afterwards with nothing but love in their faces." Kweskin then goes on to to answer Felton's question about what's next for the Family, "...we're going to tie you up in the chair and beat you till you understand..."

Of course, I don't want to push the Lyman-NNCK/SBHOTM relationship too far. These unique collectives stand worlds apart from one another. And I believe that the question of influence applies more to NNCK and SBHOTM in their respective beginnings, as they've grown into totally different beasts over the past couple years; they are no longer mysterious, shadowy entities but successful indie bands (which is not an insult). However, both outfits, like the Lyman Family, have over the years reeked of something that was about mysticism, spiritual love, and silent anonymity while also exuding a definite sense of danger, distance, and threat, as both groups have embodied a kind of radically severe New England puritan hippie vibe.*** In fact, I'd say many older underground freaks from New England emit a similar, almost stand-offish vibe. It's the legacy of Lyman: shocking oneself out of his/her role and gettin' real, man. But now I'm straying...just read Felton's intense article (which the Family dismissed).

Now American Avatar (the making of which is mired in controversy) is the Family's most realized stab at "group soul," but it's this America album that contains the most intense manifestations of it. Unlike American Avatar, this record is a mixed bag. Some jams hearken back to Kweskin's kooky jug band antics, but a smattering of extended arrangements of old standards ("Rambling Round Your City", "Amelia Earhart's Last Flight", "Old Rugged Cross", "Dark as a Dungeon", and "Old Black Joe") feel like melting ghosts at a pre-dawn religious service moaning 'n' mouth harping in utter despair, and that's not suppose to be a silly metaphor. The vibrations flowing from this music are heavy taking my head to places it's only traveled when coming down from acid at 6am, as I was sitting by myself on the beach in South Boston and watching the sand consume itself like a sea of warring ant colonies. These tunes simply creep along at a snail's pace eventually mutating into a near-abstract eerie gospel. In fact, they lie somewhere beyond the Beach Boys' Smiley Smile (not Smile), Gene Autry's cowboy schtick, and the Holy Modal Rounders' first two records. But they're much darker, more severe than anything found of those other jams. These are sad, spiritual laments with a heart of darkness -- total death.

Now you can say what you will about Mel Lyman and the Lyman Family as a commune and as an utopian experiment. But as music makers, they produced a handful of recordings that are some of the most foreboding, challenging, out there, and otherworldly of the hippie era. This is some serious fuckin' music.

*This review is based upon the Collectables imprint reissue, which is a twofer also containing the Jim Kweskin Jug Band's Garden of Joy LP from 1967. By the way, Richard D. Herbruck is Mel Lyman.
**When I wrote a piece on NNCK for the SF Weekly, one member of the group asked me if I could attribute all quotes to the entire group -- something I declined to do.
***NNCK is based in New York, and New York is not a New England state.

Posted by Justin F. Farrar at 1:41 PM 2 comments

Mel Lyman