My Odyssey Through the Underground Press
excerpt: pp. 454-455, 464-465, 466-468
News From HomeOne day during the early period in Palo Alto, while doing carpentry work for one of the Whole Earth Catalog operators, I got my first new information about the actual people of Fort Hill. On a break from my work, I sat down to browse through a stack of recent Rolling Stone magazines that caught my eye. Included among the feature articles and news updates were stories about the blossoming solo career of Maria Muldaur, former singer with Jim Kweskin's Jug Band. I felt a certain connection to Maria, even though I had only seen her once at Jim's house on Fort Hill and had never met her personally. The Rolling Stone dated October 11, 1973, had an article on the arrest for alleged cocaine dealing of AbbieHoffman that I wanted to read. But adjoining that article was a headline that captured my attention: "Ricky Nelson to Jimmy Dean." The article began, "Behind bars Mark Frechette is a curiously satisfied man. 'It was a good bank robbery,' he said. 'Maybe it wasn't a successful one, but it was real, ya know?"'
It seems Mark and two others from the community - Terry Bernhard, Mel's and Jim's piano-playing friend, who was the father of the two little girls given up for adoption because of their birth defects, and Chris Thein, or "Hercules," who had been recruited by Owen during his cross-country proselytizing trip and whom I had never met - had decided on the spur of the moment to rob a bank, in a personal act of revolution, or something like that. Mark and Herc had just returned from a summer working in the community's compound on Martha's Vineyard, and perhaps the pressure of the city was too much for them. Terry decided at the last minute to join them, and they had walked an easy half mile to the nearest bank, hadn't even taken a car to get away in, carrying unloaded guns. The bank they chose happened to be the one where all the community's money was deposited, but they didn't know that. A totally silly act, in other words. In the course of committing their act, they answered a question I had been considering for a long time: who would be the first to die for, or because of, Mel? Herc was shot and killed by police who responded to the alarm call. Mark and Terry were arrested.
In the article in Rolling Stone, the usual suspects from the Hill make several characteristically overconfident and ridiculous comments, willing to use anything at all to further their image of themselves. For example, Jessie is quoted as saying, "We're not political here. We don't have any ideas up here. But we're very aware. We're bound to the soul of the country. We are the soul of the country.... this was the most honest thing those three boys could do." Mark is quoted as saying, "I did what I did to stay awake. This society runs amok asleep. I was running amok but I was awake."
A few months later, Mark and Terry pleaded guilty and were sentenced to prison terms of six to fifteen years. But the story had an even unhappier outcome than that. Even though they were apparently well liked in the state prison and kept their senses of humor there - an article in the New York Times of March 23, 1975, describes Mark directing and Terry starring in a theater production, for inmates, staff, and visiting dignitaries, of "The White House Transcripts," about the antics of Richard Nixon that led to his downfall - Mark apparently became more and more depressed in prison. The November 6, 1975, issue of Rolling Stone contained the final chapter of his story, "The Sorry Life and Death of Mark Frechette." Early one morning in late September, Mark, who had lost a lot of weight and strength, was found alone in the recreation room of the prison, lying dead with a 150-pound barbell across his neck that he was apparently trying to bench press. Despite the unusual circumstances, it was deemed neither suicide nor murder but merely the fitting end to an unhappy and star-crossed life.
A Letter From The LordOur efforts with the Grapevine produced an additional surprising side effect during this period. One day, a stranger knocked on our door and introduced himself to Carol as David Lerner, an acquaintance of mine from Fort Hill, who lived in Palo Alto now and had been reading my articles in the Grapevine for nearly a year. He finally felt ready to make contact with me, presuming I was the person he thought I was. She strongly encouraged him to come back another time so we could visit. David had never been a close friend of mine. He had moved to Fort Hill during the period of intensive work on the building projects, when I was unhappy and lonely and always working. He was at the time an eighteen-year-old from New York who had become familiar with the community through our sales efforts there. He was perceived to be a disagreeable and difficult community member, and in fact had been the first person to spend time in the infamous "vault," but the net effect of this was that he developed a strong bond with Mel and with some of the others, which continued even though he now lived on his own and was an aspiring writer. He visited regularly at the community houses in Hollywood and San Francisco.
When he and I finally saw each other in early May, it happened to be on a day when he received a new letter from Mel that contained some sad and surprising news. A close protégé of Mel's in the community, David Lanier, known as David Libra, had recently become depressed and had blown his own brains out, ostensibly because of a broken heart from a love relationship. "Libes" had been a mainstay in Mel's close-in network for years and it's easy to imagine how his suicide would have shocked the community. He had been the person whose picture standing guard with a rifle in Mel's garden had been published in the American Avatar community issue, and he had been the person who with Mel's encouragement had guided Eric and me on our acid trips on the fateful night before we began demolishing House Number Four, and who had told me then that I had a murderer lurking inside me. But I suspected there were other issues at work besides love-life difficulties.
I had always believed he had a bisexual component that was active before he joined the community and that had been suppressed there; he had arrived shortly before I did in early 1968, in the company of an Australian writer, now openly gay, whom he had met in California and traveled cross-country with. His brief, unhappy relationship with Alison Peper had produced a lost little girl child, who was moved to the farm for foster parenting after their relationship ended. I could imagine a sensitive person terminally overloading on the usual everyday demands of the community.
I decided to write Mel a letter about this hypothesis, relating it to my experiences with him. My letter amounted to a declaration of independence, the most honest words I had ever written to him (see sidebar 6). Despite this thoroughgoing criticism of Mel and his community, however, I concluded with praise for his original music and his music anthology tapes, and asked whether copies were available. To my great surprise, I received a response from Mel barely a week later, sent from Martha's Vineyard. It's the only letter I ever received from him, and one of the most personal communications of any kind he had shared with me. It was full of shocking news, puzzles, and confessions, including some statements that appeared to be exaggerations and untruths (see sidebar 7).
Mel's quick response, with its confusing combination of humility, confession, and arrogance, took me completely by surprise. I didn't know how to react, or whether to respond; I went to David Lerner for help, but he wasn't able to offer me much. He still saw the community in a much more favorable and unequivocal light than I did. It seemed unlikely we would remain close friends, and in fact we did not, although we did continue visiting infrequently for some months.
As was so often the case when I reflected on Fort Hill, the mix of conflicting feelings gradually gave way to one overriding emotion: deep anger, to which everything else was an afterthought. Eventually, I wrote this anger down in a draft of a return letter to Mel, which I'm quite sure I never completed or sent, though later events made me wish I had. The draft is undated, but it was evidently written late in 1977 or early in 1978, shortly before the tenth anniversary of my arrival at Fort Hill, and the fifth anniversary of my departure.
In it, I go on for a number of pages, detailing specific complaints about life in the community and how it undermined individual creativity and spontaneity, how it encouraged hierarchical power struggles, how it reflected traditional values and enforced traditional gender role models, how it abused our willingly given contributions of time, money, and energy, and created a structure in which it was impossible to claim any of those gifts back, how it was all based on an assumption of personal loyalty to Mel even when that loyalty was not present (as in my case), how the rules were enforced by violence and public humiliations, how much of this system was brought about by the creation of false expectations (such as my hope of moving to Fort Hill to work on a functioning newspaper, which was already falling apart before I arrived), and was perpetuated by the steadily increasing control of our thoughts and our access to cultural information from the world at large. I conclude with a scathing criticism of Mel's statement that he is no longer producing music, because the world is not yet ready for it. I then criticize Mel's and the community's apparent inability to achieve commercial success with any of its efforts at media or creating public influence for itself (see sidebar 8).
Sidebar 6: From the Author's letter to Mel Lyman, May 22, 1977 To me, though, what is sadder than the loss of a few people is the wasting of the many who are here - the continual overloading and bloodletting and exploitation that was the daily diet of everyone in your community. Like you, I believe in difficult lessons, and would not protect people from the things they need to go through. But at Fort Hill, at least when I was there, that idea ran amok; the most outrageously painful and chaotic turns of fate became commonplace, while even the simplest concession to one's natural rhythms and instincts became suspect and dangerous. There was always someone willing to tear someone else's life apart in hopes of inspiring the changes that seemed necessary, but it was nearly impossible to speak to anyone about the experience of not living one's own life, or to find room within the prevailing conditions to begin living according to one's own impulses....
It looks to me now as though [my] long time at Fort Hill was a real setback, a lot of time spent ingraining old habits and patterns when I could just as easily have been developing new and healthier ones. I've seen much of value in the world that I lost touch with when I was with you. There are many people in the world who seem to know the truth, and seem to be here for the good of humanity. Everyone compromises some things in expressing such a purpose, but the compromises that prevailed in your community seem so extensive to me that I wonder whether anyone was helped to do their best.
My basic belief is that we all possess the wisdom to understand life and death and spirit, and to learn to live creatively, if we are not hampered in doing so. The job, then, is to remove the limitations that keep us from becoming what we are - not to create extra limitations and demands.
Fort Hill could have been an experiment in space, with everyone helping each other to discover the source of their own creativity and spontaneity. That's what I thought it was when I moved there in 1968, when I was very weak and needy. Instead it became a straitjacket of prejudices and social pressures and neverending responsibilities that drove everyone crazy; and the more you tried to expand its scope, the worse it became. You made yourself responsible for all of us, Mel, and made us all responsive to your every word. Why didn't you use your influence in the community to clear away the bullshit that separated us from each other and kept us from producing really good stuff, instead of always piling on more demands and distances and making the job harder and harder? Is it that one must compete with one's teacher for a chance to grasp at the truth? I would have preferred a teacher who simply made the truth accessible, along with the space to appreciate it - or, perhaps even better, no teacher at all, just a chance to see life on my own.
Sidebar 7: Mel Lyman's letter to Author, May 28, 1977 My son,
Your criticism was well taken. And how fascinating that you and brother David are in such close quarters. "He" certainly has a way of keeping kindred souls in proximity. I have become quite a "private" person in these ensuing years now upon us and therefore know little of what has been transpiring out there in the greater world. I see that you are well on your way to some manifestation of glory and fame, in contrast to my state of meditation.
I, too, have had to undergo the stress of overload, and some time back made the regrettable but unavoidable decision to withdraw from further contact and retire into the grace of my own mind to continue my efforts to root out the truth. No, there's no denying it, I'm not the man I used to be. Not that I'm giving up, mind you; only a brief respite to eventually prepare for even greater battle. I have received quite a numerous number of setbacks in my pursuits and have found, like many others in my station, that the quest is multifaceted. Consistency is a hobgoblin.
I am, basically, quite relieved that you finally saw fit to initiate contact with yours truly. How often I have questioned your fate and pondered upon your eventual outcome. Back in those days I never really knew which way the winds of fate would blow. I had my hopes, naturally, and my visions, (of which I never spoke) also. No, it was no mere whim I was following; though it may have seemed to some (yourself probably included), that my ways were strange, to say the least. And I can't now say, in all honesty, that I have learned anything or really changed radically, but I must admit that I have witnessed some unforeseen surprises and therefore can say that experience itself has been added unto me and, in a way, that may be said to be some kind of change. The people who followed me, willingly or the opposite, had, of course, to find their own way too, eventually and you might remember that, though I may have been labelled as some kind of guru or spiritual teacher, in my own secret recesses I never felt this way. Much like Charlie Manson, the interpreatation [sic] of my normal actions was in the hands of others. If I gave the unfortunate impression that I wished others to imitate my solitary acts it was involuntary. I only issued orders upon request. In my own way I was seeking, and still am, all alone. That hasn't changed, though the world has. The world (whatever that is) is fast approaching a reckoning, and my only hope is that I may be allowed to make myself ready for it. The overloading cannot continue indefinitely and examples must be set. I hope you are writing about this, for I remember your early AVATAR letters and recall you always had a way with the written word. Speaking of the early days, you remember Candy, the child you brought up to me. Well, she is still with us though I'm afraid she has grown a little withdrawn. She ought to get out on her own, like you did, but of course I will never tell her this. One must, as you say, find their own natural rhythms and instincts within the prevailing conditions and follow these impulses according to how one is individually programmed before one can really ever begin to develop their own spontaneity and creative abilities to express the holy "Self". No, it's good you got out when you did, before the continual stress and pressures built up to the inevitable overload that brought so many down. But, we bury our dead and look for a brighter day.
Jeremy, the one who held you up to the mirror to witness your squashed face, has gone off the deep end. Quite mad, as the English say. I believe he's in jail someplace for child-molesting. Now I hope you don't attribute these unfortunate events to my influence, soley (or is that "solely") but we all must shoulder our share of the blame; even you, as I'm sure you know. Sofie has gone back to her people of Mexican heritage and last I heard was drinking rather heavily. In a word, the Community is Kaput! But I'm sure you foresaw that it would turn out that way. After all, force and brutality cannot continue unimpinged forever as a normal mode of expressing life. But I do, at some future date, have plans of erecting a true space station where individuals who have only the good of humanity at heart may orbit freely. To this end I pledge myself, and only in this way do I find the courage to go on, stilted as that may sound. Not to be a teacher, not a guru, not even as a shining example but only as a free human being expressing my thanks to God and breathing the good, clean air with similar beings. If I have made mistakes, then that is a private matter and, as the I Ching says, there is "no blame", and if, yet, in treading my own private trail, I have, in some indistinct way or other, happened to be of some use to my fellow man, then, that is probably the most we can ever dare to hope for, for we tread alone AND together......
I almost forgot. About the music, I have given it up. Only when the compounded joy of ALL humanity is their [sic] to be born forth in song will I feel free to add my voice to the melee. My message awaits that consumation [sic].
...Life Goes On Now... I happened to run across a new album by Jim Kweskin, "Jim Kweskin Lives Again," a live concert album on a minor record label from the Midwest. It gave no indication of whether he was still with the community, and so, assuming that he was not, I sent off a brief fan letter to him, congratulating him on what I perceived to be his new independence and return to the music biz. I enclosed my extra copy of the passport picture taken for my license application, as a simple way of demonstrating that I too was living again. He sent back a brief note, using the return address of the record company, and mailed from Atlanta, Georgia, where he was evidently touring: "Dear Michael, Life is a ball. It's hard, but the harder it is the better I like it. If you are open to it, you shall receive it. With all sincerely [sic] Jim." He enclosed a fan-type picture of himself sitting naked on a lawn with his guitar covering the private parts, quite a departure for the formerly very traditional Jim Kweskin. Still no clear evidence of whether or not he was with the community.
By the time this arrived the date for my license exam had also arrived, and I spent the day in San Francisco being tested. When the exam ended early, I decided, okay, today is the day, and I went to knock on the door of the remaining Fort Hill house in San Francisco, near Buena Vista Park in the Upper Haight-Ashbury district, with a spectacular view of downtown from the living rooms. I was greeted by three women of the house: Kay Rose, who had once owned House Number Three on Fort Hill, and who then, after divorcing her husband, had returned to the community by way of the farm, where she was a resident during the time I was there, with her young daughter in tow; Peggy McGill, a young Taurus woman with whom I had had a brief infatuation when we both were living in New York; and Nell Turner, whom I had never met before but who was the younger sister of Bess Turner, one of my close friends from the early days of working on Avatar in the South End. Bess was the mother of a young girl who had been born around that time, who was forcibly separated from Bess during the days of sexual behavior modification on the Hill, and was later sent to live with us at the farm while Bess was in New York being a stockbroker. Meeting Nell was a peculiar kind of déja vu for me.
All three of the women were cordial but cryptic, giving me little information about what was going on with the community but letting me know the San Francisco house was about to be given up and its personnel transferred to Hollywood. They also told me they had heard about the note and picture I had sent to Jim, and found that amusing. So the gossip network was evidently in full operation, and Jim was evidently hooked into it. When I spoke about my current life, and tried to put my relationship with Carol in a perspective that included my earlier relationships with the Carol and Candy they knew, I remember Kay just saying in an aside to Nell, paraphrasing my words, "He says he keeps having to go through the same things over and over." It must have been a reference to lessons they were experiencing, but they did not explain. One of Mel's favorite aphorisms in earlier years had been that "recapitulation is the only real learning." After a while the conversation wound down, and the women were nervous about starting dinner, so I left, thanking them for their cordiality. So that was my one and only visit to Fort Hill turf in all the years since leaving in 1973. Not too satisfying.
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