My Odyssey Through the Underground Press
excerpt: pp. 418-423
A Test of FaithNeedless to say, the "Christ" issue was not an easy one to sell on the street. I had managed to stay with all the changes up to now, but this one was really hard for me. Having grown up in a home that was both Jewish and agnostic, and having found my own reasons as an adult to hold the church and Christianity in high disdain, it was confrontational for me to find my hero presenting himself as Christ, whatever one perceived that to be. It was even harder to find enthusiasm to purvey this version of Mel Lyman and Fort Hill to strangers, although I did dutifully work at it. Now I really felt like a weirdo from some cult. I knew that the idea of "Christ" was not the same as the historical person Jesus. One of the popular astrology books on the Hill at that time was Meditations on the Signs of the Zodiac by John Jocelyn, a dense and thoughtful consideration on how a person born under each of the twelve signs could consciously evolve himself to his highest potential, which in the book is called the Christ essence. This idea was okay with me, but to aggressively say to the world "I'm it, ain't no doubt about it" was sort of another thing. And, that, of course, was exactly how Mel wanted it. You're either with us, he seemed to be saying, or you're agin us.
By this time, early summer 1969, I seemed to be spending all my time trying to keep pace with the shifting and changing priorities of the Hill. My mind simply couldn't keep up with it all or make sense of it, and my heart was more and more saddened and confused, but I couldn't admit that. I tried to make sense of it somehow by keeping track of information, such as who was living in which house and why, who was in relationship with whom, which baby had been parented by which parents. (In the "serial monogamy" mode of Fort Hill, in an atmosphere in which people's spontaneous urges toward private experiences were considered suspect and risky, liable to deflect them from carrying out their responsibilities or, worse, from their devotion to the pursuit of pure spirit, lovers often got separated from each other and parents from their offspring, and couplings were constantly realigning; keeping it all straight was not easy.)
I tried to learn more about astrology and become more fluent in using it as a language of interpersonal communication, even managed gradually to acquire a set of astrology books of my own, but I was not encouraged by the others to pursue the study. I was required by peer pressure and expectations to spend more and more of my "free" time working on the building projects, and, along with most of the other men and a small number of the women, was picking up more and more skills as I did so. (The women took responsibility only for a limited range of tasks, such as removing old wallpaper or resurfacing and painting the walls.) I was trying to maintain something like a normal relationship with Carol, with whom I was still living. And both of us, and virtually everyone else who didn't have some specific defined role and responsibilities on the Hill. were going off the Hill every weekday to jobs in Boston or Cambridge to earn as much money as we could to help fund the building projects and Mel's other creative works.
The pace was quickening. There were more houses now to take care of. Number Three Fort Avenue Terrace was bought back from Kay and Charlie Rose, who had bought it the year before to make it part of the community's holdings. Now they were leaving, and Mel directed the community to buy the house from them. Faith Gude devised a scheme to connect Number Three to her house, Number Two, so the two of them together could serve as a special house and school for the growing number of children; Richie designed it and the rest of us started building. Numbers Five and Six, the duplex at the end of the row, had been bought; at first they were used as apartments for members of the community, but soon it became clear that their interiors had to be gutted and rearranged in order to fit into a grand scheme to combine them with Mel's house next door, Number Four and a Half, and have the resulting complex serve as a media center and multi-purpose living and entertainment space in which Mel could produce and display his various creations. On Fort Avenue, the set of apartment buildings - Numbers 27, 29, and 31 - were being purchased and turned into full-on Hill houses, which meant still more gutting and rehabilitating, but this work had lower priority than the Fort Avenue Terrace houses; it was done in people's "spare" time.
No one, in fact, had any spare time. When we weren't off the Hill working to bring home money or selling the magazine, an endless array of tasks had to be done. Every weekend day and most evenings almost everyone worked on the construction projects, except for those women who were taking care of the houses and children, or cooking to feed the crew. We had work meetings each morning to assign tasks and plan the shopping and salvaging trips to collect materials. Visitors were enlisted into the work as quickly as possible so no time would be wasted. We were encouraged to put our personal feelings aside in order to participate more efficiently in the work. Everyone was encouraged (or badgered or driven or forced, as necessary) to learn basic skills and tricks of teamwork and group effort. We all became efficient at moving furniture and appliances. We learned to pace ourselves through heavy work, such as digging or demolition. Large tasks would be set up in lines, when possible: a truckload of lumber or bricks or sacks of cement or whatever could be unloaded and moved onto a building site in a matter of minutes by ten or twenty people in a line, passing the load from one hand to the next. We learned to watch out for each other's safety, and for the quality of each other's work. We learned to notice when too much material was being used, and to encourage frugality. We centralized collections of all materials to minimize redundancy; often one or two people would be responsible for keeping a particular collection in order and doling it out to the others.
We were all expected to maintain a set of our own tools, and to continue learning new skills. Like most aspects of life, this was used as a parable to teach a moral lesson. In this case, it was that one started with the tools that were basic and readily available to do a job, and then, as one developed more skill and took on more responsibility, one could get in a position to have more subtle and refined to work with. My hammer and saw might eventually become recording equipment, for example, as Mel's had. How one could learn to work with the more refined tools before one had access to them remained a mystery to me. But when it came to construction tools, access became less and less of a problem. The Hill was well equipped, and new tools were always being added. One of the garages was turned into a well-equipped woodworking shop; increasingly ambitious cabinet and furniture projects were undertaken by ever-increasing numbers of skilled workers. But lots and lots of basic grunt work also had to be done. Each of the Terrace houses needed its sewer lines dug up and rebuilt. Several of the houses needed major foundation repairs. Since the backyards of the Terrace houses were a hillside that overlooked the garages behind and below, retaining walls and fences and staircases had to be built. And every house had rooms that needed repair and remodeling, sometimes more than once as the plans changed and grew. The work never seemed to end.
Hello, Central, Give Me JesusIncreasingly, all aspects of our lives were becoming centralized. A first-floor room in Number 27 Fort Avenue became an office for the entire community. Mail delivery was coordinated from here. Finances especially became more and more centrally controlled. Everyone who worked "off the Hill" would turn in his or her paychecks to a bookkeeper who monitored all contributions and doled out money for construction purchases and other necessary expenses. Those of us still living in households outside of Hill property would handle our expenses first, then turn the balance over. Our income tax returns would get filed for us at the beginning of each year, and our refunds would simply be deposited in the Hill accounts when they arrived. A switchboard was installed in the office to connect all the houses and to receive and send all calls to the outside world. As the men rotated guard duty shifts through the 24 hours, the women took turns on the switchboard. Thus, someone always was on duty to receive visitors or handle emergencies, and also to monitor how much time anyone spent talking to people off the Hill.
There was a fantasy going around of all the houses being interconnected with sound and even video systems, the idea being that when something particularly "real" was occurring anywhere it could be broadcast as it was happening so everyone else could share in it. This simulcasting never happened, but everything short of it did. The details of everyone's private lives were increasingly the subject for community interest, concern, and control. As Les Daniels had anticipated in his metaphor in the "Christ" issue, members of the community were nailing not only ourselves but also each other to the ground repeatedly, holding ourselves and each other to impossible standards of perfection and guarded morality, ever-vigilant for any infractions, which were perceived as opportunities to help each other live up to the standards it was assumed we all wanted to maintain.
Even our recreation became more and more directed as time went on. Mel or one of the other central figures would discover something, and suddenly it would be all the rage for everyone, or it would be a mandated necessity. We tended to read books in fads, usually biographies or memoirs of the kinds of people who embodied spirit as Mel understood it, such as Instant Replay by football coach Vince Lombardi, or The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me by actress Lillian Gish. We all read The Godfather when it first appeared. Mel spent a lot of time watching old movies on TV, and the ones he especially liked became required viewing for anyone who could break free to spend time watching. Over time, we all filled our minds and our conversation with images from these classic movies and became knowledgeable about the stars and directors who made them. When Mel discovered professional football, everyone began watching the games on TV and learning the horoscopes of the players. For a while all the men played frequent touch football around the tower on the hilltop, whether we wanted to or not. (I was never one for team sports of any kind, and particularly loathed football, but I was given no choice; I have a slightly gimped finger from my required participation in one of the Hill's games, from an unfortunate encounter with a forward pass.)
Holidays and other special events were usually celebrated in large groups, often with big dinners or dance parties in Jim's house, Number One. Thanksgiving dinners would be giant potlucks where the women would pull out all the stops to make us feel well taken care of. But despite these efforts, there remained a hierarchical and manipulative aspect to it all, to which I was very sensitive, since I never did find the way to feel like an equal participant in the Hill's social circles, despite wanting that very badly. On one memorable occasion, during a summer season when a lot of random and frustrated sexual energy was floating around on the Hill, Jim and a few others put out the word that there would be an "orgy" in Number One that night, and we were all invited. Well, that would certainly be a first, and I don't think I really believed it was true, but I thought at least there would be some attempt in some form to confront and defuse the sexual frustration. At the appointed time, the more curious among us showed up at Number One and found Jim and a few of the others walking around wearing giant oversized genitals and breasts made out of balloons; apparently the whole purpose of calling the "orgy" was to tease us, and maybe themselves, for wishing to relieve our sexual energies.
Mel's role in all this was paradoxical and confusing. On the one hand, he always said, both in person and in his writings, that what he wanted most was to be surrounded by people who, like himself, could take responsibility for themselves and help create an atmosphere of creative spontaneity and inventiveness. On the other hand, he seemed to find it necessary to guide that process closely, to intervene with lessons and instructions and demands that, I felt then and am convinced now, interfered with the process. The mythology of the Hill held that Mel was in effect the source of all the riches and opportunities we enjoyed. This was understood quite literally, as though, for example, the old movies we watched on television would never have come to our attention if Mel hadn't pointed them out to us, or as though we would never have had the imagination to experiment with living in groups and alternative families if it hadn't been Mel's idea, and we certainly wouldn't have had any success in doing so if he hadn't told us what to do. I found this all contrary to the obvious truth - every one of us had arrived in the community specifically because we were actively looking for alternatives in our lives, and many of us had identified ourselves as creative, innovative people before we arrived there - and also contradictory to Mel's stated intention to have us outgrow his leadership and eventually become his equal in spiritual stature. How could we do that if we were constantly urged to follow his example and instructions rather than our own impulses?
Mel had little patience for our differing personal needs, particularly our needs to learn different lessons at our individual paces. When problems made themselves known to him, often he would use them as opportunities to issue directives or to teach particular lessons to the entire community. He might write a letter that everyone had to read. Or he might call a meeting, or direct someone else to call a meeting, to explain some need that the Hill had now, or some behavior that would no longer be tolerated, or that would now be required. Or he might throw a tantrum in private, and then insist that whatever it was that set him off never occur again. One time Mel got angry because one of the women had become unexpectedly pregnant, when he had decided without warning that there were too many children on the Hill. He ordered an abortion for her and six months of sexual abstinence for the entire community. Incredibly, people did their best to obey. For me, this entire process of being told to take care of ourselves and then being told how to do that made it more and more difficult to know who I was, or where I ended and the community at large began. But trying to fit in gradually became all that seemed to matter.
In retrospect, it seems so superficial and futile, trying to adapt our behavior to some notion of how certain other people were living, pretending to be something we weren't in order to gain acceptance - especially when the standard of comparison kept shifting and changing. It was a hopeless, sisyphian task. Whatever behavior standard one attained, by the time one attained it the role models had moved on, sometimes for no reason other than to keep the race going, or so it seemed.
I was one of a sizable and ever-shifting population of hangers-on and hopefuls around the Hill, people who for one reason or another wanted to attach ourselves to Mel Lyman's energy and that of the glittery, resplendent people he had gathered around himself. My two lady friends, Candy and Carol, both moved easily into the inner circle and remained there (to this day, as far as I know), but I never could find the secret. One could watch certain people show up on the Hill, win the attention of the long-timers, and suddenly be part of the gang, while others, such as myself, could hang around for years struggling to be respected and appreciated, to no avail. In one particularly poignant case, a man who had been hanging around Avatar and Fort Hill for a couple of years simply couldn't make it, got sick and had injuries all the time, couldn't get anyone to care for him, and then his younger brother showed up and was instantly ushered into the inner sanctum, literally into Mel's presence, and figuratively into the circle of people whose energy somehow matched that of the Hill regulars. He made as many mistakes as anyone, but he was tolerated and encouraged.
Sometimes someone who had struggled for months or years to fit in would reach a limit one day and just leave. Leaving, however, sometimes involved advanced planning. For instance, a person who felt the need to have some money when leaving the Hill might go off to a job on a payday and simply never return. Or, someone who was feeling pressured to perform beyond his or her limits might decide that the only way to get out was to run away in the middle of the night. Or there might be an argument, or a fight, and the person would be allowed to leave in disgrace. Others would leave surreptitiously, and then somehow let the community know where they were, and people would go out into the world to retrieve them. It was very erratic and unpredictable, but the overall effect was to make all of us know that our presence was noticed and valued, especially if we were productive workers, even if we had to put up with intolerable demands and pressures as the price of being appreciated. The operative principle was a kind of survival of the fittest. You could almost see the pyramid of hierarchical authority around the people who got to determine what happened on the Hill, and you could equally well see it shift and change from day to day. I saw all this clearly, but could not find the way to succeed at the game.
SuperstarsAfter returning to Fort Hill with the sales crew for the "Community" issue, I was again given the responsibility of finding a decent job off the Hill, as a source of money and, therefore, respect. After a series of short-term jobs, I answered an ad for a delivery driver for a major architecture firm in Cambridge, The Architects Collaborative (TAC), professional home during his last years of the world-famous Bauhaus architect, Walter Gropius - another great man in whose shadow I could hang out for a while, delivering blueprints to major construction sites all over the Boston area. After a few months in that capacity, I moved to a different role in the same firm, doing odd jobs in its maintenance department. This is the role I was in when "Grope" finally passed on that summer, at the age of 86; the firm hosted an afternoon celebration of his life instead of a funeral, fulfilling a clearly stated wish of the late genius.
TAC was also where I was working when, one evening that summer while I was doing a guard duty shift, I attempted to enter a conversation that was going on near the Fort Hill tower between David and Faith Gude. In my imagination, they were just sitting on the Hill appreciating the weather and the view of Boston, and I wanted to share that, too. It turned out they were negotiating the end of their long common-law marriage and felt invaded by my arrival. But instead of simply saying so, they waited until I left on my own to return to the guard shack and then continued their conversation. After a while, David joined me at the guard shack and, without ever saying what had been wrong with my behavior (I figured it out myself long afterward), told me in cold anger that I was not making it on the Hill, was clearly missing the point, and should probably move off the Hill, try the "real world" again, fall in love, fight for causes, do something real. I took this to heart, and within a day or two had arranged housing in Cambridge, first with one of my co-workers and then in a small apartment in a working class part of town. I took one of the cats from the Beech Glen Street house with me for companionship but after a while he disappeared.
After six weeks of living and working in Cambridge, trying to reframe my life on that small and individual scale, I couldn't resist visiting Fort Hill one Sunday afternoon. Inevitably, the first person I encountered was David Gude, who asked me if I was ready to return yet and if I felt badly about how he had treated me. How and why these things happen continues to seem a mystery to me, but I said yes, I was ready to return, and of course I harbored no ill feelings toward him. (What a missed opportunity!) I immediately made arrangements to rent a studio apartment of my own facing the hilltop, in Number 23 Fort Avenue, one of several apartment buildings adjoining those owned by the community. About a third of the units in Numbers 21, 23, and 25 Fort Avenue were rented by community members. I liked the apartment a lot and enjoyed having my own vantage for observing the tower and the activities of the community houses, but I think I only lived there for a month, maybe two. The household on Beech Glen Street where Carol and several others were still living was ready to break up, and Carol and I and Eric Peterson wound up inheriting a third-floor attic apartment around the corner on Highland Avenue, probably as a way to house more of us for less rent expenditure. The apartment had previously been the home of Mark Frechette, a peripheral member of the community and an avid reader and admirer of Mel's writings in Avatar, whose life had taken a dramatic turn, and who no longer needed a small apartment on the back side of the Hill.
Mark, young and rugged-looking in a sensitive sort of way, with a quick temper and little use for fancy language, had found himself in a shouting match at a bus stop in Boston, intervening in a quarrel between two lovers. Miraculously (this is a true story), he had been observed in his anger by a talent scout for Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni, who had exclaimed something like "He's twenty and he hates!" and had immediately whisked Mark off for a screen test for the lead role in Antonioni's upcoming made-in-America film, Zabriskie Point, a fictional story of the revolutionary career of a Berkeley activist who runs off to Death Valley to escape the law and winds up confronting his destiny in the desert. Mark had indeed been given the role and had immediately pledged his devotion and the bulk of his earnings to Mel Lyman, who for his part immediately welcomed Mark into his inner circle. Mark's co-star, aspiring actress Daria Halprin, daughter of two famous creative parents from California's Marin County, landscape architect Lawrence Halprin and choreographer Anna Halprin, during the course of the filming had also become his lover, and before long they were living uneasily together in one of the Hill houses. Mark loved being one of the Hill workers, when he wasn't planning future filmmaking endeavors with Mel or going off to act in a couple of Grade-B movies; Daria had a harder time fitting in, and was really out of her element. Mel and Jessie named their baby after her, but that didn't help.
The summer afforded those of us on the work crew, the "dummies" of the Hill, two opportunities to travel out of town, feeling like emissaries from Mel's universe. For some reason, Mel and Jim Kweskin decided to try showing up one last time at the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island, a couple hours' drive from the Hill, with the entire performing "Lyman Family" and a gang of fans and helpers in tow. I remember that the musicians of the group were scheduled to appear at the end of one of the afternoon concerts. They started doing their make-the-audience-prove-they-really-want-it number from the stage, while Mel waited in the wings, unwilling to appear until and unless he sensed the perfect moment. The audience didn't go for this and started loudly demanding entertainment, especially some of the familiar Kweskin Jug Band songs. As the mood got worse and worse, into the breach unexpectedly came Joan Baez, no fan of Mel Lyman, suddenly assuming the role of peacemaker by singing an a capella version of "Amazing Grace" to calm the audience down and give them some of what they wanted. Jim and the others were furious and walked offstage, cursing Joan and recalling how much bitchier she could be than her more pleasant sister, Mimi Fariña, an old friend of theirs. For my part, I thought it was a delightful, subtle allusion to Mel's spontaneous "Rock of Ages" performance in a similar moment a few years earlier, when Bob Dylan had pissed off an audience that expected him to do one thing when he was in the mood to do another. In any case, we piled in our cars and headed back to Fort Hill.
Not too many weeks later, we were off again, this time several carloads of us heading for the Catskill Mountains region of New York, to represent Mel and Fort Hill at the Woodstock Festival. I haven't any idea how or why this trip got organized. I think we must have been wanting to sell copies of American Avatar and otherwise proselytize to the assembled masses. I remember that in preparation for the trip I bought myself a new pair of used bell-bottom jeans, white with light blue stripes, and a pale red shirt; I fancied myself looking like a sort of off-beat Uncle Sam to go with our "second American revolution" mythology. We arrived at the festival site - nowhere near Woodstock, as everyone knows, but farther into the Catskills, on Max Yasgur's dairy farm near a town called White Lake; it happened to be just a few miles from a poultry farm where some cousins of mine had lived for many years, so it was a weird kind of homecoming for me - after the huge crowd had already gathered and established its impromptu villages and campsites, and as the now-famous rainstorm began. Our official position was that the music happening on stage was of no interest to us, and we were there to sell magazines or whatever. But with the rain coming down in buckets, Richie Guerin, who was field-marshalling the operation, decided the best thing we could do was position ourselves on the roadways and help direct traffic, because he could see mass confusion in the making. That is what we did, and it's all we did for the two or three days we were there, twenty or so of us getting muddier and muddier, directing traffic in the rain while one of the great cultural events of our generation went on all around us. Needless to say, no magazines got sold and no music was heard by any of us, except dimly in the distance.
Also during that summer, Mel started what became a long campaign of physical expansion of his community, one that went on for some years. He accepted an invitation for himself and several of his closest associates to spend the summer on Martha's Vineyard Island, off the southern coast of Massachusetts, where Jessie's father, the artist Tom Benton, and his wife had a summer home and studio. Mel needed a rest from his world saviouring, and it seemed to be time for Mel and Tom to become better acquainted. In fact, they began making a little film of Tom working in his studio and developed a friendship and mutual respect that inspired Tom to, in effect, give a portion of his summer home to Mel and the community. (I don't know the details, since I was never invited to visit the Vineyard; were there separate houses on one large property? separate quarters in one large house? adjoining properties?) The effect was to give the Hill insiders a permanent second home, to which they would retreat from time to time during appropriate seasons, inviting along those who needed a break, or with whom Mel wanted to spend more time, or, occasionally, those who needed the discipline of living in close proximity with The Lord for a while.
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