Avatar Issue #25

By Charles Giuliano

December 26, 2007

"Do any copies of Issue Number 25 of the Avatar, the "lost" issue, still exist?" The answer is, yes, a couple. Included in the stack of copies of Avatar from the period when I put out the newspaper in collaboration with Dave Wilson, then the publisher/ editor of the music publication, Broadside, which later merged with Free Press, and his associate, Sandy Manderville. At that time I had little experience in the mechanics of putting out a newspaper, so the merger with a Board Member of Avatar proved to be what was needed to continue the paper after the split with Mel Lyman and the Fort Hill community.

I had met Mel Lyman several years earlier while I was a student at Brandeis University. My friend Judy Silver had been dating Mel and they were living in her off campus apartment in Waltham. She was neglecting her studies, including a course in art history, and I offered to tutor her prior to an exam. When I arrived at the apartment Mel made fudge and rolled a couple of joints of his maple syrup cured home grown. There wasn’t a lot of art history that night. Judy later suffered a breakdown and split from Lyman, which resulted in her return home to Kansas. He later visited her there, but the circumstances of their affair had caused a devastating impact on her family.

During Spring break Mel was planning to sow his seeds back in North Carolina and to hitchhike on to Florida. Since I had a car I offered to drive us, as it would be the chance to see Harlan County and Appalachia with someone who knew the area well. I was traveling with John Kostik, who later dropped out of Brandeis. He and Fernando Alonso, my closet friend at the time, formed Omniversal Design while he was living on Cedar Street on Fort Hill. Kostik later became a part of the Fort Hill community. During that period the Hill group formed United Illuminating which was largely an outlet for the graphic designs of Eben Given who created most of the covers for Avatar.

Also in the car were Little Ray and another friend of Mel’s [Michael Harvest] whom I have forgotten. Taking turns we more or less drove straight through to North Carolina ending at the farm of the banjo player Obray Ramsey. The other guys just fell out on the grass and went to sleep while Mel and I enjoyed a hearty country breakfast with Obray and his wife, who then left to teach school. We hung out that day, and then Mel announced that he would be moving on the Florida with Little Ray. With little or no money, John and I just managed to get back to Waltham, snoozing in parking lots here and there.

Mel hitched to Florida where he got busted for pot possession. It seems he had incriminating photos of him standing proudly next to his crop. Also his travel companion confessed and implicated him. Back in Boston Mel awaited trial and was later freed of the charges. When Mel left for the trial, through which he was ultimately released, I was entrusted with the care of his cat Theodore. Later that year I relocated to New York to pursue a career in the arts. From time to time members of the Fort Hill community crashed at my Lower East Side pad.

At some point I ran into Mel at Max’s Kansas City, a watering hole for artists near Union Square. He told me about Avatar and asked if I would like to be the New York correspondent. At the time I was writing reviews for Arts Magazine, so I welcomed the chance to write for the newspaper. Eventually I met Brian Keating, who was the editor of New York Avatar.

During the Spring of 1968 an old girlfriend, Arden Harrison, looked me up in New York, and we decided to head to Mexico via Florida and on to New Orleans. In Florida we stayed with Phil and Karinna Bleeth. She was then pregnant with Yasmine who was later an actress on Bay Watch. In New Orleans we attended Mardi Gras, but ran out of money and headed home, not back to New York, but to Fort Hill where we found an apartment on Alpine Street.

The only source of income was selling copies of Avatar in Harvard Square, and keeping the quarters. But there was ever greater conflict in the Avatar offices on Rutland Street in the South End. Eventually there was a complete breakdown, and the Lyman Family withdrew from putting out the paper. From the outside, and some meetings I attended, it appeared that there was a lot of division within the Lyman community. I attended one Lyman performance when Mel was largely comatose at The Loft on Beacon Hill, and Jerry Jeff Walker, who was present, performed while Mel was slumped over a table either meditating or dozing.

When Dwayne Hansen, Brian Keating and the regular Avatar editors withdrew, there was a real vacuum. But there were a number of us committed to carrying on. There were a lot of different ideas of where to go, and on a daily basis there were arguments and fights, particularly with Ed “Beardsley” Jordan, the designer, and his friend Bud Burns, as well as from Pebbles, an African-American street poet. It was chaotic, but also a number of people were drawn in and became focused on the goal of sustaining the newspaper.

I met with Mel in his house on the Hill where we were served refreshments by Jessie Benton and other attendants. There was an agreement that I could put out a paper, but not use the name Avatar. We would create a new identity. I was more interested in keeping a community newspaper afloat than the legacy of its logo. But, in spirit, we would be sustaining and revitalizing Avatar.

Through a complex process the community in the South End pooled resources and agreed to put out the paper. It became quite spiritual as a quest regarding how to unite to sustain something that everyone viewed as important above and beyond Mel Lyman and Fort Hill. There was an architect named Joos who was a great mediator. It was his idea for the centerfold, and I came up with the cover. I suggested that we consult the oracle and let that be our guide for the future. As a group we threw the hexagram of the I Ching, and the centerfold became the interpretation of the oracle.

In my discussion with Ed Beardsley I insisted that there would be no logo or text on the cover, just the graphic design of the I Ching, using my original drawings for the lines designating yin and yang. This would be a breakthrough issue and establish a new level of spirituality and hope for the future. The issue would be an expression of the resolution of conflict and struggle and a strong signifier and turning point.

While I prevailed in my concept, there were constant dissident elements to contend with. Jordan was the only one capable of laying out the paper, but his loyalties were wavering. He was never a part of the Mel Lyman community, but he was clearly influenced by them. Also he saw himself as a player. He designed a reversed logo of Avatar on page two and persuaded me that it was a benign gesture. But if you held the cover up to the light the Avatar logo was visible. The Lyman group interpreted that as a violation of our agreement.

When the paper was delivered to the South End offices I grabbed a bundle and took them home. The next morning Brian Kelly knocked on our door and informed us that Mel and his gang had broken into the office that night and stolen the entire issue which they locked up in the Fort Hill water tower, the symbol of the Hill community. Kelly had actually made a film of the gang looting the office. But made no attempt to stop them. He had nothing to do with producing the publication and was just functioning as an ersatz provocateur.

That morning I went up to the Hill to negotiate for the return of the paper, stating that I had followed through on the spirit and intent of the agreement. Arguing that the action of Jordan was an independent gesture of sabotage. Which indeed it was. Jordan would later betray us a second time. There was an agreement that there would be a meeting attended by Hill people as well as our group. The meeting was difficult but ended abruptly when Kelly, without consulting anyone, attempted to screen his film of the theft. The Hill group was offended and walked out. I later learned that Issue #25, arguably the rarest and most remarkable in its history, had been sold for scrap. While a loss, I felt that I had accomplished what I had set out to do and, as such, would live in infamy in the history of the Avatar.

Shortly after that Dave Wilson and Sandy Manderville approached me about putting out Avatar with me as managing editor. He had been an original board member in the mixed group of Lyman and non-Lyman elements which had founded the publication. There had been a process where the non-Lyman element was forced out and was now returning to reclaim the publication. We had access to the Liberation News Service and its stories which were syndicated to a network of Underground Newspapers. For a time the underground press was sustained by ads from major record labels. There was the famous Columbia ad with the text that “The Man Can’t Bust Our Music.” But as the radical left grew more active in protesting the war in Vietnam, the record companies pulled their ads, and most of the underground papers quickly folded.

It was the summer of 1968, a period of great social and political dissent, including the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and its riots. It was the time of Kent State, and we wanted Avatar to move forward into this zeitgeist. I became more involved in the design and layout as well as writing and editing.

Coming to the office, just as we were about to take an issue to press with my centerfold about K.K.K. – the assassination of Robert Kennedy as well as the connection to Jack Kennedy and Martin Luther King, hence K.K.K. – as a signifier of a right wing conspiracy, I was met and diverted by Dave Wilson. He explained to me that in the middle of the night Ed Jordan had torn up the boards to prevent us from publishing the issue. He was sitting on the steps sobbing with remorse for his actions. Dave restrained me from an altercation. Instead, we took the torn up boards, carefully pasted them together, and went to press. That was the last I ever laid eyes on Ed Jordan, who later moved to Newburyport and put out a publication called Spirit.

By the end of the summer Dave told me that it was time to call it quits. We had proven our point and had put out a number of issues of Avatar. He was returning to focus on Broadside, which would merge with Free Press to sustain some of what he had done with Avatar. I was broke and needed a job. That September I joined Boston After Dark (now known as the Boston Phoenix) as the design director. That didn’t last long, but I stayed on as the art critic. Later I was a staff reporter for the daily Herald Traveler covering jazz and rock. When the Herald merged with the Hearst publication the Record American, most of our staff was laid off. After writing for a number of other publications as a free lancer I got a graduate degree in art history and have recently retired from Suffolk University.

During that embattled summer of 1968, putting out issues of Avatar proved to be a turning point in my life. It was when I found myself as an artist, writer and editor. This is an activity which I continue today as publisher/editor of two on-line magazines. The older one is Maverick Arts and later Berkshire Fine Arts. They are thriving in offering a lively mix of coverage of the arts and culture. You can log on at www.berkshirefinearts.com

Over the years I have occasionally been approached by individuals researching Mel Lyman and the Fort Hill community, or delving into the history of Avatar. Mostly what has resulted is muddled. More often than not I find myself cast in the role of a non-believer. Perhaps this is true. I was never a joiner and while Lyman was interesting there was my own life to live. Given how hard it was to survive at the time, joining the group with its expanding assets was an attractive option.

Looking back at that turbulent moment in time, both personally, and for the nation as a whole, putting out Issue #25 of Avatar, on every level, was a great achievement. All the more so perhaps because it was so powerful a threat that ultimately it was destroyed. Arguably that was its greatest tribute and legacy. Having made its point, it did not need to survive. It lives as a moment and memory. That is more than enough.