Ugly Things
N° 22, 2004
pp 114-117

Woody Guthrie on Acid

The extraordinary tale of the Mel Lyman Family

By Patrick 'The Llama' Lundborg

 
The psychedelic revolution of the mid-1960s wasn't all about groovy gurus, cosmic laughter and non-game ecstasy. Some of it was about mind control, hatred and fear. In fact, some of the LSD-inspired thinking going round back then was so nihilistic and destructive it would have made philosophers of the late 70s punk and hardcore movements shit their pants and run in the other direction.
 

I am going to burn down the world
I am going to tear down everything
that cannot stand alone
I am going to shove hope up your ass
I am going to turn ideals to shit

I am going to reduce everything
that stands to rubble
and then I am going to burn the rubble
and then I am going to scatter the ashes
and then maybe someone will be able
to see something as it really is
Watch Out

That's Melvin Lyman speaking, in one of many diatribes designed to cheer his people up. At one time, his congregation counted hundreds of faithful devotees, among them folk legend Jim Kweskin, actor Mark Frechette of Zabriskie Point, and rock journalist Paul Williams of Crawdaddy. They all came together in Boston, near ground zero for the revived US folk boom, and the saga of the Mel Lyman Family illustrates how the early 1960s folk music crowd were the first outside receivers of LSD culture, years before the pop stars and movie-makers.

Apart from being one of the folk boom's key spots, Club 47 was situated right within the sprawling Harvard University district in Cambridge. In 1963 interesting developments were going on in this neighborhood; East Coast folk singers pouring in to Club 47 as part of a musical revival that just kept growing and growing, while over at Harvard three highly respected academics were abandoning their square careers for something they felt more important. Mel Lyman, presenting himself as a simple banjo player from the Appalachians, had recently joined the Jim Kweskin Jug Band who rapidly were gaining popularity. Lyman had also found time to hook up with the nascent LSD culture developing locally around the Harvard circle of Tim Leary, Dick Alpert and Ralph Metzner. Non-research Lysergic Acid was a scarce resource at the time and Lyman would often settle for morning glory seeds (Ipomoea Violacea), which had been found to contain powerful psychoactive properties close to LSD.

Mel Lyman wasn't just another head, though. To begin with, he wasn't really from the Appalachians, and while he looked perfect for the part as illiterate backwoods banjo musician, he was well-read and sophisticated, with a few years of college behind him. More remarkable was his personality, which according to almost everyone who met him was charismatic and powerful. Even in the role as supporting musician, Lyman gradually took hold of the Jug Band, and Jim Kweskin became one of his earliest followers. Undeterred by his girlfriend freaking out and being hospitalized after some Harvard-related acid trips in 1963, Lyman consciously and methodically began using drug sessions to develop his game. Not just was he affecting people around him with his subtle and skillful psychedelic power games, but under the influence of massive doses – he advocated superstrong trips of 1500 micrograms of LSD – Lyman himself began to change and, perhaps, envision a true calling.

Newport Folk Festival, 1965. It's the last hour of the last day, a half-hearted "We Shall Overcome" closing the proceedings. The folkies are confused and angry, uncertain what to make of the "rock'n'roll" performance given by their Messiah, Bob Dylan and his electric backup band. As the crowd is leaving some notice a thin, ragged-looking jug band musician who unannounced enters the stage, and for 10 minutes proceeds to play a heartfelt mouth harp rendition of "Rock Of Ages". As told by Eric von Schmidt and Jim Rooney, "...Mel Lyman made an attempt to heal the wound of the evening with his own powerful brand of folk mysticism. He had seen the split coming even before Dylan went on and talked to him, trying to get him to see that he had a responsibility to the folk movement, that he could help it with his music, if only he would accept that responsibility. When Mel saw the chaos and confusion and rage which followed Dylan's performance, he was moved to do something to bring everyone back together as a family."

It could – and should – have been a great symbolic event, as important as Bob Dylan's "Judas" concert. Mel Lyman recounted the feelings for his impromptu performance in the following manner: "...like what Christ had to do before mounting the cross; he said, not my will but thine be done and then there was no cross, no death." Lyman's musical gesture of disgust with the new and soon-to-be-hippiefied America was to be followed by many similar, and shortly after he again tried to talk to Dylan about his abandonment of the folk tradition. But of course Dylan was beyond salvation, and Lyman himself left the Jim Kweskin Jug Band after Newport.

While the traditional, acoustic folk movement was given the kiss of death by Dylan in 1965, the Jug Band's star was still rising. Undisturbed by the developments within the band, where an acid-fried Kweskin viewed his former banjo/harmonica player as nothing less than a Savior, they climbed great heights until at a certain point they could be considered a household word across turned-on America, with successful west coast tours and TV appearances. Despite Lyman's misgivings, Kweskin's men were branded "hip" by the mid-1960s underground much like the Holy Modal Rounders and the Fugs and thus managed the transition into folk-rock and emerging psychedelia. Avantgarde rock bands such as the 13th Floor Elevators mentioned the Jug Band as an influence, and they even got to play the San Francisco ballrooms alongside Janis Joplin, the Doors, and others.

An updated sound in 1967 would probably have carried the Jim Kweskin Jug Band through the expanding rock music scene of the late 1960s, but Mel Lyman' s messianic grip on the leader sent them in another direction. Their shows took on a bizarre, sermonizing nature, with Kweskin reciting the teachings of his ex-banjo player before hostile audiences. While Lyman undoubtedly had plenty of sardonic explanations for the crowd response, the non-musical evolvement led to the Jug Band falling apart. Lyman is unlikely to have cared much about losing his most famous channel, given as he was to abandon ideas at the drop of a hat, even such that had taken years to develop. In fact, willful destruction of carefully built structures for seemingly no reason at all was one of Lyman' s trademarks. This would teach whoever was the victim to experience pain, which was an important step towards understanding the truth.

People from all-over the Northeast gravitated towards the Mel Lyman Family, who had settled in a ghetto, slum of Boston where they had repaired and refurnished a few abandoned houses in the shadow of the tall, ominous silhouette of the 18th Century Fort Hill tower. New arrivals that were deemed worthy to enter the Family were given an introduction via a massive dose of LSD and a talk with Lyman. The number of people who fell under his spell is as surprising as their background, some of them of the lost seeker kind typical of the era, but many well educated and from a wealthy background. A number were skilled builders, craftsmen and architects, something that came in handy for the various projects that Lyman thought up, such as "The Vault," a windowless isolation room where wayward family members were occasionally put in order to learn how to truly Feel. As was reported by a visiting journalist, there were many young women in the Family and both the men and women were handsome and strangely charismatic.

Some hipsters may have recognized Mel Lyman as one of Jim Kweskin's old sidemen, but in 1967-68 thousands of people were introduced to him via the Avatar, an independent Boston magazine a la the LA Free Press, and in fact one of the more successful papers of the underground, reaching a circulation of 35,000 at its peak. Founded in July 1967 as a joint effort between various progressive forces in Beantown, the Mel Lyman Family soon arm-wrestled themselves into control of the paper and began filling it with Lyman ramblings, Lyman columns and Lyman photos. At one point, the magazine consisted of two parts, the regular Avatar and the "Lyman" inlay, which was a whole section of nothing but Mel. Even the regular Avatar wasn't all it seemed – the name "Avatar" itself had been invented by Lyman' s crew and referred directly to his person. Maybe the non-Family hippies behind the magazine should have seen the writing on the wall, considering Lymans first introduction of himself in the Avatar:

"To those of you who are unfamiliar with me let me introduce myself by saying that I am not a man, not a personality, not a tormented struggling individual. I am all those things but much more. I am the truth and I speak the truth.... In all humility I tell you that I am the greatest man in the world and it doesn't trouble me in the least."
After a power struggle with both amusing and eerie aspects, Lyman and his crew from Fort Hill launched a new magazine called American Avatar, which needless to say was 100% what they wanted. In the third issue Lyman went all-out and declared himself to be Christ, and "about to turn this foolish world upside down." This new project didn't include magazines, however, and after the "Christ Issue" there was only one more.

Instead Lyman turned his focus towards television and the cinema, and envisioned a massive spiritual revolution within that field. As part of the revolution some of the manually skilled disciples were instructed to build a sort of multimedia chamber in the Fort Hill house where Lyman lived; a huge undertaking which when almost finished he ordered to be destroyed. The lesson, as always, was the value of pain and loss.

One of the most important things to understand about the Mel Lyman Family is that they weren't hippies. On the contrary, they despised the hippies and the vague "flower power" philosophy of the late 1960s. The male family members had their hair cut short and an old-fashioned work ethic reigned among the Fort Hill houses. Tradition was considered important, as was patriotism – the Woody Guthrie kind – and the whole valuebase of old rural America. The maintenance of the revived folk boom extended further than just music, although the music was always there. The two things the Lymans imported from the psychedelic culture was the drugs – hallucinogens, in huge doses – and the communal lifestyle that was emerging across America; of course these communes simply extended a tradition of various religious splinter groups of earlier centuries. The Lyman Family wasn't much different, although one might remark that the esoteric teachings emanated solely from the guru-leader to an even larger extent than what was common, and that the half-expressed hierarchy within the Family resembled a military school more than a spiritual congregation. Jim Kweskin – two years earlier a folk music star seen on national TV – was just one of several lieutenants in the corps.

After a period of internal and inward work during the late 1960s, the Family reemerged with a broad effort to spread its message via modern media such as radio, TV and movies. Various connections were brought to use, various contacts were established. Among the journalists and broadcasters who faced the Family – which from the outside seemed typical of the times – many were impressed with them and their hallowed, reclusive leader. Some hung around Fort Hill for a period before cutting loose or getting thrown out; others stayed on indefinitely. The Family did manage to get media space and favorable coverage, but it was hardly on the world-changing level they desired. Perhaps it was this frustration that led to some ugly scenes, including an encounter at an LA radio station whose poor broadcast quality ruined the Lyman message, or so the Family felt. Given the actual facts, the subsequent reports of their "attack" on KPFK seem a bit overstated, as is often the case when media is the victim rather than the assailant. In any event, hostile incidents like this did not help the Mel Lyman cause, even as the Family's size and wealth was growing across America.

A more useful angle presented itself via Mark Frechette, the handsome young man discovered by Antonioni (Blow-Up, La Notte; etc) on a New York street and handpicked as the male lead in the great director's newest project, Zabriskie Point. Frechette was a typical lost kid of the hippie generation, and scoring a major motion picture part didn't deter him from going up to Boston and hook up with the people behind Avatar magazine, as he had planned. After hearing about his movie industry involvement, Frechette was given a warm welcome and did get to hang out directly with the increasingly reclusive Lyman, smoking weed and listening to Jimmie Rodgers records, not to mention Lyman' s own recent recordings. Frechette was perceived as very useful for breaking into the movie industry, and the Family lifestyle appealed to him, so it was a perfect match.

After leaving for Hollywood as shooting began, Frechette soon realized that whatever Antonioni had in mind, it was nothing along the lines of any Lymanesque spiritual revolution. The project seemed "European," a confused left-wing political vision that had little to do with the actual reality of young America. In a series of amusing incidents Frechette tried to hip the Italian director on the way of Mel; instructing him on the Lyman teachings, leaving copies of the Avatar on the set, etc. Although impressed with the radiance of his young star, Antonioni may have had other matters on his mind than the meaning of Woody Guthrie 78s, and the resulting movie showed little or none Mel Lyman influence – and he didn't make it onto the movie soundtrack either, which was all detestable rock music. The one thing the Lymans did get out of Zabriskie Point was yet another recruit: the female lead Daria Halprin. She was a reluctant disciple and after some back-and-forths escaped the Family's bosom. Mark Frechette was as willing a recruit as ever, and stayed with the Lymans after the movie was completed. Soon he would get involved in a chain of events outside the scope of this article that led to him being sent to prison, where he was killed under unclear circumstances. Zabriskie Point was the only Hollywood movie he ever made.

It's difficult to write a neutral, adjective-free recount of the Lyman story, because the eerie vibe that rises from Fort Hill is so powerful it sucks you down like a big cold octopus arm. This also seems to be a trait of many who crossed path with the Family, briefly or for long. No matter how awkward the experience, and what their feelings are, they have to talk about it. Although the story is strangely forgotten today there is no lack of source material. The most famous account of the Mel Lyman Family appeared in Rolling Stone magazine in 1971, by feature editor David Felton. Although well-written and thoroughly researched it shows just the type of "new journalism" bias and cheap populist shots one can expect from mainstream media; an interview with Lyman himself at the end is the only part that seems reasonably objective. With unfortunate (or deliberate) timing, Mel Lyman's Mirror at the End of the Road was published shortly after. A collection of diary notes from a 10-year period, this book remains his key work and moves freely within his trademark triangle of Self-improvement, Olde America and LSD. Lyman isn't a very good writer and the texts have an overpowering, slightly suffocating nature, but the book is worth checking out for those interested in esoterica. In 1972 the Lymans tried softening their image but in the wake of the Manson murder trial interest in alternate lifestyles was on the decline, and the rest of the 1970s were spent on low-profile projects and quiet perseverance.

Many of the Family members are still around, wealthy from shrewd real estate purchases and respected as craftsmen and top-level architects. They never sold Melvin Lyman out, and he never sold them out. It could be argued that the Family represents clear values and spiritual purity, which are rare things today. Yet beyond all the slander and bourgeois hysteria, the fact remains that the teachings and actions of Lyman and his disciples seem unpleasantly geared towards the darkest parts of the human soul. If this path of negativity is a preparation for some sort of spiritual liberation, the next step unfortunately remains obscure among all the nihilism.

And where is Mel Lyman himself? Well, according to the Family he passed away in 1978, after giving hints of serious illness years before. However, there are suggestions that the only thing he left was the spotlight; that he in fact is still out there, living a secret life somewhere.

 

THE LYMAN FAMILY WITH LISA KINDRED:
American Avatar (Reprise 6353, 1970)

For a good chunk of Lymanesque strangeness you needn't look further than this major label LP. In the normal world, this was an unreleased mid-60s album by folk/blues vocalist Lisa Kindred titled Love Comes Rolling Down. In the bizarro world of Fort Hill, it became a 1970 Lyman Family project called American Avatar – and due to the shrewdness and perseverance of the Lyman gang that's how it reached the market, complete with a huge pic of Melvin's messianic silhouette on the front and a bunch of Family members on the back. Lisa Kindred – who never was part of the Fort Hill crowd – is only a featured performer, even though it is for all practical purposes her album.

Other unusual aspects are detailed below, but first a couple of comments on the music, which is generally excellent. This is not a rural folk LP in the retro-rootsy style that Mel Lyman favored, but rather an atmospheric, urban after-hours scene complete with Miss Kindred's husky, bluesy vocals and a weary, introspective last-cigarette type mood. Side 1 is great, with top-notch playing from heavyweights that include Bruce Langhorne and Geoff Muldaur, a two-fisted punch of the swampy "James Alley Blues" and a flowing "Good Shepherd" being as good as anything within the contemporary folk-blues style. Side 2 drives the same mood even further down into empty bourbon glasses and desolate NYC back alleys, but doesn't really add anything to the already established vision. Even without the Lyman angle this album has gained a reputation among admirers of femme-vocal folk/ blues, and rightly so. In view of the early recording date it has an impressively modern feel, and its unrelenting darkness may appeal to fans of Laura Nyro and Nico.

The LP was recorded for Vanguard around 1965, with early Mel Lyman disciple David Gude engineering. Lyman is on it (as is Jim Kweskin), invited by Lisa Kindred to provide harmonica, which he does on several songs in a remarkable, heartfelt style more reminiscent of Chet Baker than Ramblin' Jack Elliott. Undoubtedly one of the album's assets, the Lyman harp caused troubles with Vanguard head Maynard Solomon who thought it was too loud in the mix, as did Lisa Kindred herself. David Gude and Lyman thought the harp was just right, naturally, and the disagreements over the mixing led to the album being shelved – after which Gude STOLE the stereo master tapes from Vanguard, leaving only a mono mixdown behind, which meant that the levels of the vocals and harmonica couldn't be changed. Several years later, Jim Kweskin brought the "Lyman mix" to Warner Bros head Mo Ostin, and based on his good standing with the label to get the thing released exactly as the Lyman Family wanted it, with Fort Hill artwork and Melvin harmonica up the wazoo. In all fairness, I think this bias is only really noticeable on the gospel song that closes Side 1, where Kindred is barely audible while Mel is everywhere. On the other tracks the balance is perhaps unusual but arguably successful, simply because both Kindred and Lyman were such excellent performers.

The original album is somewhat difficult to find (it sold less than 2,000 copies), but fans of esoterica in Japan have given it a limited repress on CD. (PL)

JIM KWESKIN & MEL LYMAN: America
(Reprise 6464, 1971)

This was Jim Kweskin's first release of new studio material in four years, a career hiatus he spent as a loyal member in the Mel Lyman Family where his assignments included intimidating potential enemies via house calls from the "Karma Squad". Quite a long way away from doing the Steve Allen Show in 1964, and as this highly interesting album shows, his musical ideals had changed during the interim. Gone are the jug-band kazoos and whistles, and in their place we find dark, haunting songs from America's rural past. The musical talent and skill is unchanged, and unlike some crass commentators I can't see anything odd about Reprise's decision to let one of their veterans have another stab at the market. On the surface it's another pro-sounding folk LP, well in line with the "roots music" fad of the time.

Beneath the surface however, it's as eerie as everything else in the Lyman universe. Unlike the Lisa Kindred LP, which was a unusual case of artistic hi-jacking, America was created consciously and singularly as a vehicle for the Mel Lyman gospel. If you want to know what their trip was about, this album is probably a better bet than Lyman s books or any article. Lyman s image appears twice in the front cover collage, his name is mentioned many times in the back cover liner notes (which include an unbelievably reverential tribute from Kweskin), and his alias "Richard Herbruck" is given credit as a producer. Fortunately Jim Kweskin was such a good performer that the actual vinyl manages to balance the worshipping, the outcome being equal shares Jim and Mel.

The album is deliberately structured to draw the listener into Lyman's world. Mel is hardly present on the first tracks, which present upbeat country & folk numbers such as Gene Autry's "Back in the Saddle" and Merle Haggard's recent "Okie from Muskogee," the latter's lines about "we don't take our trips on LSD" coming as phony as a 3-dollar bill from Kweskin's acid-fried lips. Then, as the album progresses, the mood gets darker, and Mel starts eating his way into the soundscape, first with his superb, voice-like harmonica, then with his voice humming, rambling and chuckling. It is not like any voice you've heard before, androgynous and ageless, sounding like a 70 year old woman as much as a 33 year old cult leader. Olde Weird America seeps from your speakers when Mel sings, projecting visions of depression-era moonshine parties and Sunday congregations in Southern churches hiding terrifying secrets. Most of the music comes from within a Woody-Hank-Jimmie triangle, but on a track such as 'Amelia's Earhart's Last Flight" (written in 1937) a nostalgic urban 1920s mood is introduced in an equally effective way.

Side 2 is pretty heavy. "Old Rugged Cross," "Dark As A Dungeon," "Old Black Joe" – and those are just the titles! Clocking in at seven minutes each, the Family draws the max from these traditional songs and hymns, which no longer seem to be just about miners, preachers and plain country folk, but take on themes like religious guilt, messianic suffering, and, most of all, death. Kweskin, Lyman, and their excellent backup reach into the guts of these tunes and pull out a timeless darkness that just won't go away. It's spooky, it's skillfully done and, well, pretty psychedelic.

Unlike the Lisa Kindred album, America is reasonably easy to find. The obscurity of the Mel Lyman connection and the time-warp nature of the music has placed it in the "60s burnout" bargain bins, where it certainly doesn't belong. A priceless Kweskin quote sums it up best: "I was a dope smokin', beer drinkin' sex fiend until I met Mel Lyman! Now I'm a record collector." (PL)

 
Mel Lyman