Mel Lyman

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. [1/15/06]

Mel Lyman (born March 24, 1938, Eureka, California — died 1978, exact date and location unknown) was an American cult leader and musician.



Lyman grew up in California and Oregon. Following some itinerant traveling he joined Jim Kweskin's Boston-based jug band in 1963 as a banjo and harmonica player.

Lyman, a skilled harmonica player, is remembered in folk music circles for playing a long solo at the end of the 1965 Newport Folk Festival to the riled crown streaming out after Bob Dylan's famous appearance with an electric band. Some felt that Lyman, an acoustic music purist, was delivering a wordless counterargument to Dylan's new-found rock direction.

The Mel Lyman Family

After moving to Boston, Lyman became involved with Timothy Leary's group of LSD enthusiasts and ingested large quantities of the drug. At some point, Lyman began to think of himself as destined for a role as a spiritual force and leader.

Lyman was by all accounts very charismatic, and he soon began to gather acolytes, including Kweskin. Lyman founded and headed the Mel Lyman Family, centered in a few houses in the Fort Hill section of Roxbury, a poor neighborhood of Boston. The Family combined some of the outward forms of an urban hippie commune with a religio-political structure centered on Lyman

In 1967, the Family gained control (apparently using strong-arm tactics) of the Avatar, which was Boston's version of the underground newspapers of the day, such as the L.A. Free Press and the East Village Other. Later they founded their own short-lived paper, American Avatar. Lyman's writings in these publications brought him his first significant public notoriety, particularly as Lyman claimed at various times to be the living embodiment of Truth, to be the greatest man in the world, to be Christ, and to be an alien entity sent to Earth in human form by extraterrestrials, such pronouncements delivered with extreme fervor and liberal use of the caps lock key.

Lyman and the Family were associated in the public mind with the Boston hippie community, which burgeoned in 1968, and the Family gained recruits from among young people engaged in the then-popular pursuit of seeking alternatives to the dominant cultural paradigms of the day.

But although Lyman and the Family shared some attributes with the hippies — use of LSD, fairly unconventional sexual mores, and Lyman's cosmic millennialism — they were not hippies in appearance or beliefs. Rather than the gentle and collectivist hippie ethic, Lyman espoused a philosophy that, among other elements, contained strong currents of megalomania and nihilism.

Decline of the Family, and Lyman's death

In 1971, Rolling Stone magazine published an extensive and philippic cover exposé of the Family. The Rolling Stone report described an authoritarian and dysfunctional environment, including an elite "Karma Squad" of ultra-loyalists to enforce Lyman's discipline, and isolation rooms for disobedient Family members. Family members disputed these reports.

The Rolling Stone article and the earlier trial of Charles Manson, who seemed to share some traits in common with Lyman, raised the Family's profile and — whether fairly or not — established Lyman in the public mind as a bizarre and possibly dangerous person.

But although Lyman admired Charles Manson and corresponded with him, and was followed as a Messiah-like figure by the Family, it would be inaccurate to overstate the similarities between the Manson Family and the Mel Lyman Family. Lyman's group was larger and more stable and productive than Manson's. Unlike Manson's group, Lyman's included many persons of accomplishment and note, such as Kweskin, the actor Mark Frechette, and the writer Paul Williams. And although the Family was often accused of strong-arm tactics in dealing with neighbors and alternative-community groups, and although some members (including Frechette) staged a bank robbery, they never killed anyone. Most importantly, Lyman himself never manifested homicidal intent.

Thus, unlike Manson's Family, Lyman's did not explode in a dramatic denouement. Rather, the Family took a lower profile and carried on, but ceased recruiting. Lyman died in 1978, at only 39 or 40 years of age, under unknown (but presumably natural) circumstances.

After Lyman's death, the Family evolved into a conventional commune — small, low-profile, and prosperous. The skills and work ethic honed in refurbishing the structures of the Family compound led to the founding of the profitable Fort Hill Construction Company, and The Family acquired property in Kansas and other places. Many Family members went on to successful careers, and all or almost all current members still revere Lyman, as do many former members. (Other former Family members have disowned and attacked Lyman.)


Love is something you BECOME after there is no more YOU ... through complete sacrifice of the personality ... — Mel Lyman[1]

No turning water to wine and raising the dead this trip, just gonna tell it like it is. —- Mel Lyman[2]

I am going to burn down the world / I am going to tear down everything that cannot stand alone / I am going to shove hope up your ass / I am going to turn ideals to shit / I am going to reduce everything that stands to rubble / and then I am going to burn the rubble / and then I am going to scatter the ashes / and then maybe someone will be able to see something as it really is / Watch Out — Mel Lyman[2]

The only difference between us and the Manson Family is that we don't go around preaching peace and love and we haven't killed anyone, yet. — Jim Kweskin (perhaps in jest)[3]

[The Family] was a highly intolerant, manipulative, and frightening place to grow up... we were taught to believe that we were being protected from the World. — Guinevere Turner[4]

"I am singing America to you and it is Mel Lyman. He is the new soul of the world." — Jim Kweskin[5]

Mel Lyman played harmonica like no one under the sun / Mel Lyman didn't just play harmonica, he was one. -- Landis MacKellar[6]



  • Jim Kweskin's America, (Reprise Records, 1971), producer (as Richard D. Herbruck) and performer. This is only recording on which Lyman had creative control.


1.   TO ALL WHO WOULD KNOW, Avatar #2 (periodical, Boston, 1967)

2.   [Message to Humanity] American Avatar #3 (periodical, Boston, 1967)

3.   Felton, David, editor. Mindfuckers: A Source Book on the Rise of Acid Fascism in America (San Francisco, Straight Arrow Books, 1972) ISBN 0-87932-038-9

4.   Daly, Meg. Surface Tension: Love, Sex and Politics Between Lesbians and Straight Women ISBN 068480221X

5.   Liner notes, Jim Kweskin’s America (see Discography)

6.   Song Mel Lyman, from album Bath, Michigan (Landis MacKellar, 1999)


  Mel Lyman