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My Odyssey Through the Underground Press
excerpt: pp. 409-412

on American Avatar N° 1

Michael Kindman

The Whole World Is Weeping

That summer, while I had been learning to be a blue-collar worker for the first time, and while I was getting used to living on my own, without my lady and in a rather harsh psychic environment, the nation as a whole was also going through some rather severe trauma. Robert Kennedy, by some accounts the front-runner and by any account the most exciting candidate to replace the retiring Lyndon Johnson as president, had been assassinated in June, in the moment of winning the primary election in California.
The resulting leadership vacuum had given the Democrats virtually no choice but to nominate their lackluster vice president, Hubert Humphrey, as their standard-bearer. At the same time, the Neanderthal response of the civil authorities in Chicago to the presence of thousands of antiwar and countercultural demonstrators (Abbie Hoffman's YIPpies) outside the Democratic convention there had focused the world's attention on the convention and the accompanying riots. The now-familiar phrase, "The whole world is watching," was born, and the whole world was saddened and disillusioned by what it saw. At the same time, the Republicans chose to resurrect their most morally questionable, but somehow inevitable, candidate, the eminently hatable Richard Nixon, to oppose Humphrey.
At Fort Hill, the writers and editors among the inner circle, and some of their friends, but not me, were busily at work planning the newly conceived American Avatar, a magazine-format reinvention of the magazine section of the earlier Avatar newspapers. The first issue appeared in October, in a tabloid-sized form on slightly better than newsprint paper. On the
cover was a cow-eyed picture of a beautiful teenaged woman, Paula Press, who had gravitated toward the community and been wooed by Mel to be one of his many part-time "wives," but who had somehow found it in herself to resist his overtures and was attempting to be just a normal person in the community. She was living in my household on Beech Glen. Most of the issue was devoted to the community's response to the political events of the summer, mixed with a declaration of intent for this new form of the publication, under the headline "When Was There Greatness in History?":
We, the old staff of the original AVATAR, are back once again. We are here under the Name, AMERICAN AVATAR. Before AVATAR fell into the hands of vermin we had a purpose, we are back with that purpose. Before AMERICA fell into the hands of vermin it had a purpose, we are back to fulfill that purpose. We are sick to our stomachs of counterfeit AVATARS and counterfeit AMERICAS, we are here to do something about them both, to DWARF them with a REAL standard, leadership.
The AMERICAN AVATAR does not cater to any specific sociological group, do not confuse us with "hippies" or "liberals" or any of the other current titles designating qualities of understanding and areas of congruity. We belong to no group, party, race, religion, or fervent hope. We are on the side of what is right and that, my friend, changes every moment. We will represent the right side on every side even if we are wrong. ... When was there greatness in history? When a man lived up to his ideals in face of the strongest opposition, there is greatness only when there is courage and courage relies on no security other than its faith in God. All great men had that courage and had that faith. It makes no friends, it transforms the world. We are here to transform the world and we begin with ourselves. We are a group of very courageous individuals. We will gladly face anyone who dares to challenge our devotion, and if they are men they will join us, and if they are boys they will follow us unwillingly.

<There are a few minor typographical differences between this and the American Avatar version, as well as the elided section. ST>

This is clearly Mel's writing style, although the piece is unsigned. The next page features Eben's hand-drawn version of the phrase, "The whole world's watching," followed by a photo of Mel looking stern, under another unsigned piece that asserts that the "Democratic system" is outdated because the people operating under its banner no longer carry the vision represented by the idea. "Democracy" can now survive only through force, but "real men" can reawaken the spirit of democracy by the force of their conviction. This is followed by several articles of commentary on the events of the convention and the summer by some of the community regulars and a few of their intellectual friends. My personal favorite is by Skip Ascheim, a Cambridge intellectual who had relocated to the newly acquired house, Number Three Fort Avenue Terrace, just in time to watch the convention on the television there, in the company of most of the enthralled and horrified community. His article, "All Kinds of Stuff Passing through Your Body All the Time," was written shortly after the convention in July:
Tonight Friday there's a silence from Chicago. What's happening there, are the kids in the streets, are the spades still lying low, is anyone dead? The distance wasn't there while the convention was going on television. For four days we were in the future. The country grew even more in those four days than it did during the assassinations. It was an unbearable amount of self-revelation to take; it had to blow.
No one but the muse of history could have orchestrated the week, the event grew and shaped like an organism that knew its job. Theatre putting on life, with a script from the deepest channels of blood in the race. A very few of those delegates really knew where they were; probably not many of the demonstrators either. Certainly not the cops. Yet it was all there, the right emphasis to each gesture, everyone coming in on cue. And always in the wings, the unmentioned threat of the black uprising, a constant suspense.
...We have finally begun to use television, or rather television is beginning to understand its own use in this period of the nation, to connect us all to the same place and time, to coalesce our separate wills into energy with which to act upon the event. To focus us sharply enough to inspire the action. One of the very last gasps of the old order will be the shock of losing the myth of objectivity in television reporting. It is going fast.
He goes on to discuss the interaction between live television coverage and the unfolding of the Vietnam War and the public's reaction to it, then continues:
The old ideology will give way when there is new life to replace it; that's what's happening in television. The cameras follow where there is life, and life, in revolutionary times, favors what is being born. Sometimes, as in Chicago, there is so much birth going on that the proud life spirit rides mercilessly over what is dying.

THE MEDIA PEOPLE ARE THE MESSAGE

Skip's article offers a succinct statement of Fort Hill's view on the interplay between media and history, which was really the subject at hand on Fort Hill. Mel saw himself as creating a company of diversely talented people in a variety of media, and he saw that company as playing a key role in the phase of history that was then unfolding, in which a return to basic moral values and idealistic reinvention of the society would dominate the public awareness. As a low-life observer of all these trends from my newly acquired status as a worker and hanger-on to Mel's scene, I found what was happening here all very stimulating and heady. Some of what was published in the new magazine was familiar to me from my earlier days under the influence of Marshall McLuhan's ideas, and some was so new I hardly knew how to begin thinking about it. But there could be no doubt Mel was thinking about it. He made it explicit in an article entitled "Some Enlightening News":

There is a great illusion going on in this country and that is the illusion that the government is supposed to provide leadership, supposed to set the example to the people of how to live. That was only true when government was new, when it was great, when the greatest people in the country were the statesmen. Today the great people are the musicians, the actors, the filmmakers, the COMMUNICATORS! The spirit that begat this country is playing a new instrument.
All things begin as inspiration, on the highest level, and must necessarily descend to the needs of the lower levels. A truly successful song is born of the heights and is only fully realized when it has reached the dullest ears of man. This is organic development....There are thousands of men today who are MUCH too great to be the president of the United States, that office can only be properly filled by much lesser men. Our new leaders will not be statesmen, we don't need a great new government to be great, we've already DONE that. We need a great new direction but not in the area of politics, we need it in the area of communications. That is where the new leaders are gathering. Let the Nixons and Humphreys and Wallaces keep house for us, we have a lot of work to do.
On Fort Hill, we undoubtedly had a lot of work to do. Mel took seriously what he was saying in this article, and he wanted to waste no time in getting ready to be there to transform the world when it was ready to be transformed, or maybe sooner. While most of us were on the street again selling the new magazine, Mel was making plans to accelerate the rate of change on the Hill, to intensify the internal struggle each of us was going through, and to undertake an ambitious building program to help manifest his vision. The word went out that fall that "the rocket ship is taking off," and one fact is clear about a rocket ship: if you're not on it when it takes off, you missed it. We found clues everywhere.
During that season, we received a large number of advance copies of the Beatles' mind-blowing new "white album," filled with four sides of songs on every conceivable subject they hadn't addressed earlier, but lacking any central vision or theme. This was, of course, a harbinger of their own impending breakup, but we didn't see it that way; these guys were the future speaking to us. Of course, like Charles Manson who later said the song "Helter Skelter" on that album gave him the inspiration to pursue the mass murders he masterminded, we heard in the background babbling in John Lennon's psychedelic patchwork song, "Revolution No. 9," a message: "Here's to Mel, king of the world." I haven't any idea what the words really were, but they probably were not an homage to Mel, any more than Mel was really "the fool on the hill" the Beatles had sung about earlier. By this time, as weird as all this was, I was feeling distant enough from my former life and concerns that I certainly didn't have any plans other than to be on Mel's rocket ship, but I wasn't too sure I knew how to be on it either.

One Man's Family

One person who was only too glad to help me know what to do was Jon M., a brash, young newcomer to the community who moved into my house during that time. A Sagittarian by sun-sign, like many of Mel's favorite players, and direct and unsophisticated in a way that lets you know he couldn't possibly be lying to you because he's too simple and ingenuous, Jon quickly became a favorite among the long-timers. In their eyes, he was the person in charge of our household, even though he was new and ill-informed. On Fort Hill, emotional directness was the currency of exchange, not age or experience or information. A competitiveness developed between Jon and me that quickly dominated affairs in our little family.
Into this environment, one evening in November, came a little surprise. A taxi pulled up in front of the house and out stepped Carol Schneider, my former girlfriend from New York and Michigan, to whom I had been proselytizing about Fort Hill the previous summer. She had given me no indication then that she was ready to drop out of school and begin a new life. Now here she was, bags in hand. It seemed I wasn't single anymore, but I was disoriented.
Carol quickly adapted to life in the community and, as she had done in Michigan several years earlier, found a job and settled into the scene effortlessly. I was still having a harder time, and feeling very vulnerable. Jon instinctively knew how to take advantage of this state of mind. First, he started complaining that the living room of our apartment, which Candy and I months earlier had painted in a very traditional mode, with Victorian-style dark green walls and white trim, was too drab and boring to reflect our Fort Hill creativity. Attempting to please, Carol and I, who had decorated a bunch of rooms and houses together in the past, worked evenings with him and the other housemates painting each bit of wall and trim in the room a different pastel color, probably twenty or thirty shades in all. It certainly wasn't drab and Victorian anymore. I boasted of it to other people on the Hill, hoping to make them curious enough to come visit.
Then one day, shortly after it was done, Jon came home and started complaining about the room again, saying we had been self-indulgent and had been stealing energy that belonged to Mel and the community in order to make the room a monument to our own egos. Since the paint job had been his idea in the first place, I felt betrayed and confused. We spent the evening trying to puzzle it out, to no avail, and shortly before midnight one of us, perhaps Jon, suggested we take the problem to Mel, who we knew would still be awake. It made sense to me; if the question was whether to use all our energy directly for Mel's purposes or to somehow create a lifestyle influenced by his values, why not ask him what he wanted from us? So the whole household group, five or six of us, walked up the hill and knocked on Mel's door.
We found him and a few others sitting around his kitchen table, and they allowed us to tell them the conflicting sides of our family problem. Basically, they told us to go home and work it out among ourselves. The rest of us left, but Jon stayed behind. What they hadn't told us was that Mel was suffering from a toothache that night, and the last thing he wanted was to have to resolve interpersonal difficulties among his disciples. That became clear the next day.
That day, I went to work at my job, helping to repair electric motors at a small shop in Cambridge. As I worked, I tried to figure out what had happened the night before. I trudged home after dark, hoping to gain some clarity from the folks in the household, but when I walked in I found the living room filled not only with the entire household but with a dozen or more of the Fort Hill heavies, men and women. At first, I was pleased by the visit, although confused, but I soon realized they were not happy to see me. This was my first encounter with the "karma squad," which had recently emerged as Fort Hill's method of inner discipline for those who were having trouble getting with the program.
The phrase came from William S. Burroughs' spaced-out writings on the drug-crazed fringes of the counterculture, but the methodology was much more basic, physical and mental intimidation with no room for ambiguities or doubts. I sat down and attempted to respond to the barrage of questions and accusations, but I couldn't figure out how to be "real" in the way that was being demanded. I really had thought we were doing a good job of establishing a new household in the Fort Hill mode; these charges of ego-tripping left me again feeling confused and betrayed. Suddenly, in my confusion and paralysis, I found myself being attacked by Jon, who came flying across the room to punch me out and scream at me, while everyone else looked on. I had never before been in a physical fight with anyone and I didn't know how to react. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Carol freaking out, too, being comforted by one of the women.
When the mood finally settled down a bit, the heavies told us what was now expected of our household: We were to find a way to purchase for the Hill a good, sturdy work truck. Maybe having a simple purpose in common would give us the means to unify ourselves, and anyway the construction projects on the Hill needed such a vehicle. This seemed a large demand, but at least they didn't ask us to leave or kill ourselves. I started looking around for possessions I could sell, unable in my guilt to imagine raising new money any other way, and feeling ashamed for wanting possessions at all. I gathered up and sold much of what remained of my book and record collections. We all resolved to work more hours. When Ian Franckenstein, one of the few people on the Hill who expressed any sympathy for our plight, offered to help me search for a truck, I felt less isolated. He and I tracked down a used Jeep pickup, and somehow we arranged a loan so we could get the truck before raising the cash. Ian became the official truck driver for the Hill, and the rest of us started making payments.


8. on American Avatar No. 2 pp. 412-415

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