Los Angeles Free Press
Vol. 8, No. 32, Issue No. 368
Aug 13, 1971
Mel Lyman Is God
Avatar: Who did what at KPFK?Art Kunkin
The Avatar community did more real damage to themselves than to radio station KPFK when their spokesman, Richard Herbruck, boasted in the Free Press of June 11, 1971, about beating up the staff at KPFK.
Since most readers will not remember the details of this article, we will reprint here, in part, what Herbruck said then.
(Later, by detailing what really happened at KPFK, we shall be able to appreciate how much Herbruck indulges in literary fantasy to get his "point" across and why he is more interested in communicating raw feeling than "accurate" information.)"The other day I made some tapes of old Rhythm and Blues records to play over the air on KPFK in Los Angeles, and they were pretty good. I really put a lot into them. I wanted people to hear some real music. Well it didn't work out. All those empty faggots at KPFK have been listening to dead Danish composers for so long they don't know real music when it's right in front of them. They thought my music was 'hostile,' so I beat them all up. They even called the cops on me, the stinking hypocrites, and THEY'RE the ones who got famous by call the cops "pigs." Anyhow the cops took my side and even beat up a couple of them for me and gave me a full scale escort all the way home. It was a delightful evening. Me and the cops spent the rest of the night drinking beer and listening to my Rhythm and Blues tapes. At least SOMEONE still appreciates good music.One immediate effect of this Herbruck article was that the Free Press staff made a decision not to run any more material written by Avatar. There was a dislike of the violence expressed in the article and a resentment that KPFK was the chosen target of the violence. The Avatar family was dismayed by this response and began a campaign to change the Freep attitude.
"You know what I'm gonna do, I'm gonna get up an army of all the people in the world who still have enough balls to fight this creeping decay and we're gonna go around raiding all you creeps, and there ain't nothing you can do about it, just sit on your beards and wait for us to come. It will probably take me a long time, but there's nothing else to do. I don't give a damn about my life anymore because I'm a living, feeling, dedicated human being all alone on a big dead planet. I just want to do God's Will. God is angry at you. I know, he tells me so... He's coming back and not like you thought he would, he's coming back MAD. HE IS THE GREAT DESTROYER..."
But by this time even Free Press staff members who liked the Avatar members as individuals began to object to what they described as subtle intimidation and Manson-like characteristics of the individuals taken as a commune.
It was at this point that Avatar member Jim Kweskin of jug band fame asked to see me. I met with him, his ex-wife Melinda and another Avatar lady named Candy late one night at the Troubadour bar. Then I visited the commune houses in Los Angeles and spoke to KPFK staff members about the raid.
A different picture began to emerge of what had happened at KPFK. Richard Herbruck had obviously exaggerated - but why? The staff at KPFK were mostly bewildered by what had happened but David Cloud, on the other hand, was in fear for his very life. There were rumors from the East Coast that Avatar had a history of violence. I, on the other hand, was evidently the only person either from KPFK of the Free Press who had actually visited the Avatar commune in Los Angeles and I, frankly, was impressed with how well the community worked. It was like the film Rashomon: Everyone who had experienced contact with the Avatar family had felt a different reality with each one seemingly touching as much truth as possible for them.
In the first part of this article (FP, July 30, 1971) I unfortunately never got into the heart of this complexity. I had so little space at my disposal that there was a disconcerting halt in the very middle of a thought, combined with a sudden decision to print the article in two parts. I was only able to hint that the real problem in communicating with the Avatar family is that they have lived together for six years now in Boston and have developed a way of life, and a way of solving problems, which is quite different from the life style of those of us who have only known the "normal" isolated family unit.
I suggested that "why and how (Avatar) provokes fear says much not only about them but about the people in whom the fear is induced." But all that I actually demonstrated in the space available was: Avatar had developed over the last six years as a commune of artists which put out an underground newspaper in Boston and New York and is now aggressively spreading all over the country. They are into film and music and publishing books and painting pictures and fixing houses to live in and astrology and fighting City Hall over their right to creatively function. There are many creative people in the community, which now numbers some 200 persons, but the most dominant is Mel Lyman, who says he is Christ returned to the world.
The first article also suggested but did not get around to emphasize, as it should have, that the key to understanding the community is that they are Artists and Perfectionists and concerned with "the practice of insulting people for the sake of waking them up" and terribly hard on themselves as a means of solving problems between commune members and more applauding of sincere belief (even of cops or Lyndon Johnsons) than with what they condemn as the unacted upon cliches of hippies and left revolutionaries and the "painless way to joy" of Zen, Scientology and Yoga.
Mel Lyman summed up the internal life of the community and his personal evolution as the leader of the Avatar family in an autobiographical article he wrote for the magazine American Avatar."I was born lonely... Then I had to leave my mother and go to school... I made friends, we did things together, I was part of a community. When I was 17 years old I left home and friends and set out into the wilderness again. I was alone in the world. I reached out and found a wife. We made children. We made friends. We had a community.It is this behavior which makes the Avatar commune and individuals so fear inducing, so threatening, so bewildering when the open criticism spills over, as it does time and time again, into the relationships between Avatar and others. Instead of facing one angry individual acting on his own, the non-Avatar person or organization, perhaps for the first time in his life, faces a disciplined angry commune acting as one person, or an angry individual acting in the name of the commune. And there is no artificial politeness because, as artists and persons critical of the mere accumulation of knowledge, the Avatar member insists on his or her right to express the emotion of the moment.
"After six years I set out into the wilderness again. I didn't know what I wanted but I DID know that what I had wasn't enough. I sought new friends and new places. I yearned to communicate with vast numbers of people... I became a musician. I now spoke a language that allowed me to feel close to perfect strangers. My community was growing.
"I travelled around playing music for people for several years. Thousands of people enjoyed my music, hundreds felt very close to me, and a handful wanted to be near me all the time. They loved me and I loved their loving me. Soon we were all living together in the same house. ... But you can't play music all the time. We had to learn to share other things. Some had to earn money, others had to cook... We all had to give things up and that was a struggle. We began to see each other clearer and clearer and we saw some things we didn't like. It is always hard to tell your friend he has bad breath but if you keep it to yourself you will begin to hate him and wish he would go away. We began to criticize each other. I found that often people were afraid to tell each other what was bothering them and would instead come to me with their problem and I encouraged them to work it out with the people involved. This brought us closer together. Soon a policy of open criticism developed and this created a wonderful understanding amongst us. We improved each other. Now we all know each other so well that we have become as one person. We have a block of houses [the Fort Hill community in Boston] and we all work together on whatever needs to be done at the time. We do not need a set of rules to guarantee that everyone does his part because we trust each other and we are able to trust each other because we have come to know each other... It requires a great discipline to do your best. We discipline each other. We drive each other nuts!..."
* * *
The twenty Avatar family members now in Los Angeles live in two houses they are buying in Hollywood. One is a modest building; the other is a huge and luxurious hill mansion built upon a considerable plot of isolated land. The mansion cost in the neighborhood of $160,000 and the Avatar family had to put up $16,000 cash to take possession. I mention this not to give away any family secrets confided in me (They obviously didn't want the house locations revealed and I respect their desire for privacy) but to impress on the reader that when a group of people work hard and share the fruits of their labors a lot of money becomes available.
Members of the community work at various jobs: secretaries, salesmen, etc. Also the Los Angeles Avatar family includes such personalities as musician Jim Kweskin and actor Mark Frechette of Zabriskie Point fame. The L.A. family all lived together in Boston before coming out here and there is evidently constant movement between the various Avatar houses throughout the country.
On the days that I visited the mansion there was constant activity until the small hours of the morning. Men digging up the yard to prepare for a swimming pool, two women taking care of babies, construction work on a recording studio in the attic, a worn hardwood floor being replaced with superb workmanship, a darkroom being built, drapes and furniture slipcovers being sewn.
On one visit I participated in a birthday party for Jim Kweskin, just returned from making a new album with Mel Lyman. There were gifts, mostly fancy clothing, from Avatar family members all over the country. Throughout everything I experienced with the Avatar community, there was a most warm family feeling, closer than the great majority of blood related families.
The people in Avatar drive each other to perfection; they are evidently very hard on each other. For example, letters to Richard Herbruck's columns in the Free Press and Berkeley Barb are answered by different family members. The answers are discussed and sometimes a person will have to write ten different drafts before the family will approve one.
One answer included the following:"One thing I've learned, is that you can't do anything alone. For six years I've lived in the Fort Hill Community, which also includes all ages and all religions. I've shared my life with a huge family, a family that is spreading across the country, a giant army of thirsty fish, forever seeking more life, more to create, more to hate and more to love. And our thirst is unquenchable. As long as you share your life with others, there is no peace and no contentment. There is a constant need to break down barriers and let people inside you and face reality and just keep each other alive - it's exciting and agonizing and confusing and sometimes boring and sometimes fun. But it's not peaceful. We don't mediate. We just live and build houses and write articles, and publish books and magazines and make records and hope to serve the Lord in his many wondrous ways, if we can..."
* * *
Owen DeLong, an Avatar family member with a degree in political science from Harvard, was hired as program director at KPFK some months ago. Another Avatar member was hired as janitor. No one at KPFK seemed to know their communal affiliations at the time of their joining the KPFK staff.
Owen seemed like a superb candidate for the job in the opinion of then station manager Marvin Segelman. The janitor turned out to be the most conscientious person in that capacity that KPFK staff members had ever experienced.
The Avatar family in Los Angeles undertook a project to help Owen: they volunteered to produce an hour-long Rhythm and Blues tape for KPFK each week. And when Owen discovered that tapes at KPFK were being "filed" on the floor because of a lack of shelves, some of the Avatar carpenters built and painted storage shelves for the station. KPFK agreed to reimburse Avatar for the materials but this was never done.
According to Owen two Avatar-produced tapes were aired over KPFK but at wrong sound levels. When a third tape was aired in what Owen considered a sloppy manner for a radio station, Owen pulled it off the air and made a statement to the listeners that those who disagreed with engineering sloppiness at KPFK should express themselves to the station management. (The engineer on duty that night at KPFK says, however, that when the third Avatar tape was broadcast it was precisely keyed to a tone signal imprinted on the tape by the Avatar family itself.)
Calls immediately began to be received at the station switchboard protesting station sloppiness. The board operator began to suspect that the calls were staged because of the similarity of language used and David Cloud picked up the phone to check the situation out. From his retelling of the situation to me I suspect that David became very sarcastic to the caller. (I later found out that it really was an Avatar member on the other end of the line, Mark Frechette). Owen evidently became upset at David's curtness and pulled David away from the phone because he, as program director, considered himself to be David's superior. Owen claimed to me that he used very little physical force and did little but crumple David's shirt. David, however, claims he was thrown against a wall with great force. Free Press editors have testified that many hours after the event David showed them substantial bruises on his back and arms.
In any case, the station manager was reached and Owen was immediately fired for his unauthorized use of the broadcast facilities and whatever force he exerted at the switchboard.
Owen then appeared at a staff meeting to protest his dismissal. According to KPFK staff members he gave a rambling discourse on how the spirit had visited KPFK but was now being withdrawn.
The next day a number of Avatar members descended on KPFK in three cars. They stationed guards at both front and back entrances with instructions not to let anyone in or out while their "mission" was being accomplished. The rest of the Avatar people began to disassemble the shelves they had constructed for KPFK.
The police were called and the Avatar people agreed they would not block access to the building. However, they explained that KPFK had not paid for the shelves. Since this was quite true, the police and KPFK permitted Avatar to continue with their shelf disassembly, knocking each nail out of each board with their usual unhurried meticulous care before the boards were carried out to their cars.
Now this is all that happened. I have told the story in such great detail to contrast it with Richard Herbruck's fanciful account of many people at KPFK being beaten, cops joining the beating, etc. In short, the only way to accept Herbruck, if one accepts him at all, is not as a reporter but as an artist producing a literary manifesto which starts with a minimum of fact and ends with a maximum of imaginative statement.
I observed to Jim Kweskin that Herbruck had done Avatar a disservice by his exaggerations. Kweskin did not see that at all and restated Avatar's position on the importance of emotional response. To Kweskin, KPFK had been given a shock, a shock which had effectively destroyed the station, and sooner or later some individuals would become aware of this and become more friendly to Avatar.
* * *
In the course of preparing this article I heard a lot of rumors about the relation of the Avatar family to violence but in every case except one I found them to be just rumors and not worth mentioning. As I have shown above, the emotional way that the Avatar people speak about themselves and their intensity of behavior breeds a fear response even if there is little fire behind the smoke.
After the first part of this article had appeared, I bumped into Dave Felton of Rolling Stone. It turned out that he also was doing a story about the Avatar family and had been traveling around the country visiting the family. He told me that someone in Boston had told him a strange story about some Avatar member in Los Angeles who had stolen a community car and had been pursued back East back an internal Avatar police force called the Karma Squad. The squad caught up with the thief and took him to the Boston Fort Hill community where the person was imprisoned for eight days in a brick-lined basement room called "The Vault."
The next time I met with the Los Angeles Avatar family I told them I had heard this story and there was a sudden quietness in the room because, as was quickly admitted, the story was fundamentally true but only three people in the Boston community were supposed to know about it. I was asked not to print anything about the story but told them that it was going to come out anyway and they might as well explain the situation now instead of at some future time.
The first correction they made in the story, and I have no reason to disbelieve them on these relatively minor points, is that the community did have an institution known as the Karma Squad some three years ago, but it was designed primarily to see new prospective members of the commune and help them come to a decision. When the car was stolen from Los Angeles, two men were sent to find the person and the car so that he could be helped back into the community.
"The Vault" in Boston was not built as a prison but as a film vault. It was only a day before the person was apprehended and brought to Boston that a toilet was installed in the film vault so it could be used for detention.
Lastly, but not least in the minds of the Avatar members discussing the situation with me, is that the disaffected person had left the commune even after his eight days detention but had since rejoined. Even as we spoke, he was driving cross country to come back to the Los Angeles family. and this outcome seemed to justify for Avatar the measures that had been taken.
I learned from this discussion that it is perhaps impossible to write the "complete" study of the Avatar community and be fully in their confidence on all levels unless one is a member of the community. But if one is a full member of the community and willingly abides by its discipline it would also be impossible to write the "complete" story. The community obviously would want to suppress its mistakes and easily misinterpreted material. Because any article about Avatar is thereby bound to be incomplete, and because the Avatar story is hardly finished when the community has entered a very expansionist stage, there will almost certainly be many pieces about Avatar in the next year or two. Good luck, Dave Felton!
* * *
Paul Mills of Fusion Magazine had great trouble in understanding the Avatar community and its relation to Mel Lyman in an article he published in Fusion on April 16, 1971. Mills obviously did not have either the intellectual background or spiritual development to even begin to cope with Mel Lyman's claim that he is God and could only reject the idea as meaningless arrogance.
In my own times there have been such obviously important spiritual leaders as Meher Baba and Sai Baba who have claimed that they are the Avatar reborn, God come down to Earth again. It is an important philosophic-religious idea which is connected with a sense of unity of the cosmos and an appeal to all men to develop their own God-Consciousness. In the hands of a truly humble spiritual leader (and no man can truly face the idea of cosmos without being humble) the idea of being God does not place one man above another.
Sometimes I think Mel Lyman understands this and sometimes I wonder. In his first book, Autobiography of a World Savior, (1966) Lyman writes that "mankind is, as a whole, truly a God in the making." And his second book, Mirror at the End of the Road (1971) is a very human, directly and beautifully written humble account of his attempt to find meaning in his life and various experiments he conducted to develop his being.
But it is less than a thin line between the fullness of the idea that any many can have God-Consciousness and the deterioration of the concept into the biggest ego trip of all. And when I hear that Lyman forcibly imprisons a follower to bring him back into a commune, even when that person may be terribly misguided and desperately in need of help, I am not at all sure whether Lyman really comprehends what he is saying. And perhaps I will not know until I meet Lyman face to face. And perhaps I will not know for sure even then whether it makes any real difference to me whether Mel Lyman is really God or not.
It is simply interesting to note that on April 30, 1971, in the issue of Fusion immediately following Paul Mills article the editor of Fusion admitted some inaccuracies in Mills account of Avatar and simply said of Avatar, "... They are a well organized group of people, resourceful and rather hard working. They quite openly have a simple relationship with Mel Lyman: They consent to his wishes and they derive a sense of purpose from that consent."
And perhaps the rest of us can derive a sense of our own purpose in life by taking an objective look at what they are doing with their lives.