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My Odyssey Through the Underground Press
excerpt: pp. 392-394

A Little Piece of History in the Front Yard

Michael Kindman

Fort Hill is named for the Roxbury High Fort that stood there during the American Revolution (the "first American revolution," as the current residents called it, anticipating, as they were, an imminent second one).
A significant battle had been fought there, a victory for the colonial army, with the colonists on Fort Hill and the British across a small valley that now contained several major thoroughfares, on Mission Hill in Jamaica Plain. In commemoration of this mostly forgotten event, there was now a tall and mysterious-looking memorial, a brick water storage tower with a roof that looked like a witch's hat, built during the Civil War era and itself now an ancient and unused relic. Around this tower was a small and little-maintained city park, and around that were rows of ramshackle houses and small apartment buildings, facing the tower from several adjoining streets.
The most ramshackle of the houses were on the closest adjoining street, an unpaved public way called Fort Avenue Terrace, with the tower practically in the front yards of places known as Number One, Number Two, and so on, up to Number Six Fort Avenue Terrace. There was even a Number Four and a Half, set back slightly and looking just a bit newer than Numbers One through Four. Numbers Five and Six were two halves of a "semi-attached" house that also was a bit newer than the others. These were the houses of the Fort Hill Community. Not all of them were Community property just yet, but they would be; you could feel it. Manifest destiny. There was also a row of three-story apartment buildings, Numbers 27, 29, and 31 Fort Avenue, around the corner - actually a short walk diagonally across the park - from these houses, in which members of the community rented additional space. Candy and I had stayed in a basement apartment in one of these buildings on our visit.
We quickly made the acquaintance of Number Four, which had been the first house occupied by Mel Lyman and his friends when they had made their way to the Hill in 1966. It was rented from a disagreeable elderly woman neighbor with whom there was a continuing rivalry, and it served as a sort of community center, with a big homemade table and benches in the dining room at which twenty or so people could be served. These large gatherings in fact happened often enough, as it was to Number Four that the many visitors drawn to the Hill by Avatar would be shown, to have their own experience of the strange magnetism of these latter-day pioneers. The house was the home of Eben Given, the prolific, otherworldly artist whose drawings, handmade headlines, and visionary writings graced every cover and many pages of every issue of Avatar, bringing to them some of the windswept quality of his Cape Cod upbringing, and his Mexican-American wife Sofie, who, we learned, had been Mel's teenage bride some ten years earlier. Sofie had seven children who lived there with them: four of Mel's (one by adoption, with a different birth father) and three of Eben's. A couple other adults lived in the house as well, including Wayne Hansen, the co-editor of Avatar who had invited us to move to the Hill.
The other houses then owned by the group were more private, but almost as busy. Number One was the home of Jim Kweskin, long-time leader of the nationally known folk music revival act, Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band, his wife Marilyn, their two children, Marilyn's sister Alison, her husband George Peper, and their son. The basement housed a darkroom in which George produced his work as photographer for the community. The living room was a party space big enough for the whole community, fitting Jim's long-time role as entertainer and showman. But these days something was changing. Once Jim had been Mel's boss, having hired him into the Jug Band at the height of its fame, to be its banjoist and harmonica player, at a time when Mel needed a steady job in order to meet terms of probation for dealing drugs. But the tables had turned. Mel's charismatic personality and uncompromising insistence on doing things his way had given him the upper hand in the power dynamic; the Jug Band, including such talented musicians as blues guitarist Geoff Muldaur and his wife, singer Maria D'Amato Muldaur, had run aground in this shifting momentum and had recently called it quits. Now Jim was working for Mel, handling business affairs for the growing community, running errands to help produce Avatar, and performing music with Mel and other community members only on those rare occasions when the mood was perfect and there were no obstacles or interferences. This was all more than mysterious to me, as a newcomer to the Hill and a long-time fan of the Jug Band's records. I was a bit starstruck by the presence close at hand of a famous musician, and confused by his willingness to give up his fame and career to follow this man Mel.
Number Two was the home of David Gude, who had come into the group by working as recording engineer for Vanguard Records, the label on which the Jug Band (and many other famous folk music acts of the day) had recorded most of its work, and on which the Newport Folk Festivals, those seminal events of the folk and folk-rock scene, had been memorialized. Mel had startled the closing concert of the 1965 festival by taking the stage after the famous Bob Dylan appearance in which Dylan let loose on the world the new phenomenon of electric folk-rock music, and attempting to calm the agitated crowd by playing an unannounced harmonica solo of "Rock of Ages. " David had memorialized this moment by including it in the Vanguard album of highlights from that festival. About a year later, David had been fired from Vanguard in a dispute with its owner over the proper way to mix and master the tapes of an album on which - who else? - Mel Lyman had appeared as a member of the backup band for a singer named Lisa Kindred. At Mel's urging, David had destroyed the original tapes, leaving only the version mixed the way Mel wanted - with Mel's harmonica and Lisa's voice given equal prominence. This unorthodox version was never released by Vanguard and Lisa Kindred had moved to the West Coast for a career as a blues singer in night clubs. Leaving his job at Vanguard had left David Gude free to move to the Hill and work for Mel, bringing with him his wife, Faith Franckenstein, daughter of the famous novelist, teacher, and political activist Kay Boyle, and their two children. Faith was also foster mothering a young daughter of Mel's by Rita W., an acid casualty friend from his days as a wandering musician and spiritual seeker. Also living with David and Faith in Number Two were Faith's brother Ian, an aspiring actor, and a dreamy, rather melancholy woman named Melinda Cohn, some of whose poetry and other writings on her experiences as a mental patient had appeared in Avatar. Melinda was pregnant with twin girls, children of community astrologer Joey Goldfarb, whose columns explaining astrological theory and its application in the understanding of current events appeared in nearly every issue of Avatar. Joey lived across the way in Number 27. Faith had the idea of turning her house into a private school for all the community children. Ads had appeared in Avatar seeking a teacher to take on the task.
Number Three was not yet in the family, and was still occupied by others. Within months of our arrival, however, it would be purchased for the community by a couple newly moved to the Hill from Cambridge, Kay and Charlie Rose. Kay was one of the office workers for Avatar. For now, we would just walk past Number Three, pretending it wasn't there.
Same with Numbers Five and Six. They were still owned and occupied by a family and tenants not involved with the community. But slow and careful negotiations were under way for them to be purchased. This effort would be successful in about a year, about the time the community would finally succeed in purchasing Number Four.
And there was Number Four and a Half, the little house with the magical-looking garden in front. This was home to Mel and his current wife Jessie Benton, daughter of world-famous painter Thomas Hart Benton, an important chronicler of American country life and a muralist well known for his representational works produced for Franklin Roosevelt's WPA. Jessie had once been David Gude's wife, in fact had a son by David a mere two months older than David and Faith's son; now she was First Lady of Mel's growing family, and dark-eyed Jessie with the dark curly hair and blue-eyed Faith with the long blonde hair were the best of friends. They wrote poems for Avatar about their glamorous but trying lives as keepers of the spirit and the babies of the community, they oversaw the activities of all the Hill's residents and visitors with a loving kind of disdain, sort of a noblesse oblige, and they were fiercely protective of the privacy and quiet that Mel needed to do his work. Number Four and a Half was his retreat, his sanctuary from the confusion of community life, where he wrote on a typewriter no one else touched, where he kept his musical instruments and his cameras and his recording equipment in special rooms, special places where the mood would not be broken, where he occasionally guided individual members of his flock on life-transforming high-dose acid trips. Here Mel made his plans to expand his influence on the world and appear fully as the "world saviour" he had already announced himself to be, in a small, self-published book, Autobiography of a World Saviour, that he now advertised regularly in Avatar, and quoted freely from in his responses to letters sent to him by readers and seekers of all types and published in large numbers in Avatar. This was the home of "The Lord, " as some on the Hill would have him be known.


3. Settling In pp. 394-399

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