Mindfuckers pp 155-167
Rolling Stone pp 42-43 [#98]
Wife Sophie Lyman, banjoist Obray Ramsey
& future deity Mel in 1961
The career of artist Bruce Conner is as unpredictable as his pioneer assemblages and films. For 15 years he has dabbled among the great and weird, the straight and near-straight around the country. He has produced light shows, played the harmonica and run for supervisor of San Francisco. Lately he has earned his living in that city as a minor box office attraction, collecting $2 a film buff at the Interplayers Cinema near Aquatic Park. Thin and scholarly in a grey business suit, Conner sorted out change during a Von Stroheim twin-bill not long ago and recalled the man who taught him to play the harp.
"I met him about 1963, '64, in Massachusetts," said Conner, handing some of his change to the popcorn lady. "I was staying at Leary's Newton Center, and Mel was one of those people who just came in and out. He was living with a bunch near Brandeis, all students and dopers. This guy in Anthropological Review had just written about morning glory seeds and how they got you stoned, and Mel was there three or four nights a week at the coffee grinder, grinding up seeds from this 500-pound bag we had in the kitchen.
"And everybody was getting fucked up. Mel just had them swallow the seeds, not soak them and everything the way it said in Anthropological Review, and all these people were falling down on their faces and hemorrhaging and falling down in the bathroom and talking about how great it was afterwards."
Conner snickered over a neatly trimmed goatee.
"I remember once, Mel called up and said, 'I got 12 people, I want to bring 'em over, we've all taken the seeds.' I said no, but he came anyway. All these people showed up and he said, 'I want to see your movies.' And I ran A Movie. And in the middle of it, somebody just exploded all over the place, threw up all over the place. And Mel thought that was great. 'It was so much for him he just had to throw it all out,' was the way he saw it." The recollection of it reduced Conner to giggles. "Of course, the ladies upstairs saw it as a bunch of vomit all over the floor."
The box office phone momentarily returned Conner to the present. "Interplayers. Right. Fury is running right now. It's on again at 10:30. Greed starts at 9:00. OK?" He hung up and continued.
"We'd talk about things. One time Mel was talking about morning glory seeds and how they put people to sleep sometimes, and I thought that was a real drag, you know. That must not really be enlightenment. And the conversation went into talk about rituals and exercise, and all of a sudden it started hinging around what is God, what is Cosmic Consciousness and everything.
"And I told Mel one of my private theories. I said that mostly what people do when they talk about God is a projection of what they think God is, and it always comes down to a projection from a person. So the best way to find out what God is is to say you're God yourself. And maybe the first way to do this was if somebody was on the phone and they said, 'Oh my God!' and then you say, 'Yes? What is it?' And you could just go on from there."
A soiled, bearded student in tattered jeans peeled off two dollars from a large roll and exchanged them for a ticket and brochure of coming attractions.
"I didn't think about it after that," said Conner. "It was just an idea - I wasn't gonna use it myself. But in retrospect, I figure Mel must have used it. This was in '63, '64."
* * *
Many of the people interviewed for this tale asked not to be identified. Therefore I have changed their names, and in some cases, their appearances and even sexual persuasions. There's a little bit of the Big Molder in each of us, isn't there? Let's call the next fellow Harry Bikes, an overstuffed man with swollen tits who now lives in Cambridge and writes for a major organ of the Establishment. He belonged to one of Mel Lyman's earliest communities - the hearty band of experimenting dealers and dopers that hung out near Brandeis College in Waltham, Massachusetts.
"I guess it was in the spring of 1963 that Mel showed up on campus," Bikes remembered. "He was living with a girl, a student named Judy Silver. At that time I assumed he was, like, from North Carolina, which he said he was, that he was a simple kind of person. This is how he was coming on - kind of Appalachian, very casual, you know. All he carried around was a simple army jacket with a lot of pockets for his harps. And he had his banjo.
"Later it turned out he wasn't from North Carolina at all. He was from Oregon or someplace and he'd been to Junior College, and he was a lot more sophisticated than he was letting on."
Bikes sat back expansively in his basement apartment. As he spoke he had a habit of fondling himself, scratching his T-shirted belly or tugging at a tiny black goatee-within-a-goatee that hung from his lower lip.
"We were all living in this house on Hartwell Street, called Hartwell House, and we were all very tripped out. I mean really, really wasted, totally stoned. Three teaspoons of morning glory seeds is roughly equivalent to 500 micrograms of LSD, a very strong trip. I remember I painted the living room with a nine-foot-high Yin/Yang, and the thing would roll out at me like a ball of fire, then turn around and recede until it was a pinpoint and I thought it was going to disappear in the wall. That's how tripped out we were.
"We got caught up in Leary's thing and got very spaced out, and something very weird happened to Mel. Like he would say to people, he'd give them acid or morning glory seeds, and he'd say, 'Get stoned, wait five hours, then come talk to me,' that kind of thing. There were a lot of subtle little power relationships."
"He had a kind of insidious way of getting into people. He had a tremendous understanding of character, and he knew how to extract pain. Mel was very big on pain and suffering and loyalty.
"Like I was bucking Mel's authority so he painted over all my murals one night. I mean, that really hurt me when he did that. And the next day I asked him why he did it and he said he wanted me to experience pain."
Also there was this crafty, stubborn quality about him, said Bikes. "We had this landlord who was going to evict us. Somebody had bought the house, some developer. Everybody split, but Mel stayed there for months. Months. Like the guy went to court with him, took the plumbing out, took the gas out, took the electricity out, and Mel just wouldn't leave. They were sawing the roof off of him and had the house boarded up, and Mel would come home at night and rip the boards off - just purely out of resistance. If you excited his interest in that sense, or if you tried to resist him or overwhelm him, he could be devilish, just absolutely devilish.
"He had a willingness to cope, you know, that made a lot of people feel important. Very strange kinds of people. Let's say someone that I would consider a nerd, he would take interest in - if they came to him in a suppliant manner. And I guess that's what the appeal was. He had a way of elevating the humble and humbling the elevated."
The more deeply his story developed, the more Bikes appeared to enjoy telling it, embellishing it with smug grins, high-pitched laughs, scratches, goatee tugs and pregnant pauses, as if he had told it many times before. Though he called himself one of Mel's antagonists, he seemed curiously enthralled by these memories.
"Signals were going out," continued Bikes, his eyes wide and gleaming. "When Mel left North Carolina he sent Sophie, his first wife, back to the West Coast. And later he sent his best friend, Eben Given, out to Sophie, and they lived together a number of years. And Mel would be sitting at the kitchen table writing 15-page letters to Sophie and to different people in North Carolina. He had a weird network of people all over the country that he had these very deep personal exchanges with.
"Then Judy got all fucked up - this is his second old lady - I mean like she got really twisted. I don't know if it was the acid or the scene or whatever, but she split. She went back to Kansas. She was totally out of the picture by the summer of 1963.
"Judy is probably the most important thing in Mel's life. He worshipped Judy, really loved her. Then she split, you know? She couldn't help it, she was totally freaked out. They took her away."
* * *"Late May, 1963, 43 Charles Street, Waltham, Mass. Hard times. I am lower than I've ever been in my life... Judy and I were so happy and wanted a baby and so I gave her one for us and she was afraid and I tried to comfort her and she wanted an abortion and I begged her to see the natural cycle through and she had an abortion and I cried and went away and traveled and was very unhappy and then I got busted and Judy bailed me out and now we are back together and Judy is flunking out of school for good and is such a frightened little girl and has never had hardships and is weak and afraid and frantically searching for something valid and good in the world to cling to and forget herself through and so she runs in and out of our home, takes long drives alone, sits around almost dead and I sit alone doing my time ahead of time and I can't reach her as she's almost catatonic..."
-Mel Lyman in his new book, 'Mirror at the End of the Road,' published by American Avatar and dedicated "To Judy, who made me live with a broken heart."
* * *
By this time Boston, particularly the Club 47 in Cambridge, had become the center of the American folkie movement. Located at 47 Mt. Auburn Street - Harvard's main drag - the modest storefront coffee house attracted national attention in the late Fifties with the debut of a cantankerous dropout from Boston University named Joan Baez.
Soon students from Harvard, Radcliffe, Brandeis, Tufts, Boston College and Boston University were crowding in to boost local singers like Jackie Washington, Tom Rush, the Charles River Valley Boys, Geoff Muldaur and Jim Kweskin. In 1963 the Club 47 moved four blocks away to 47 Palmer Street, a slightly swankier, brick and glass basement, and started importing talent - Dave Van Ronk from New York, Muddy Waters and Paul Butterfield from Chicago and Doc Watson from Deep Gap, North Carolina.
Locally, however, Jim Kweskin, having formed his Jug Band with Geoff Muldaur, Fritz Richmond, Bruno Wolf and Bob Siggins, had become the biggest draw.
It was a time of candles jammed into wine bottles," recalled one veteran. The music had an academic, even snob appeal, with fanatic traditionalists jamming into Harvard Square to compare notes. It was a period of revival. The Charles River Valley Boys were popularizing bluegrass. Jim Kweskin was bringing back jug band music, whatever that was.
Later the revival abruptly ended, rather rudely for some enthusiasts, at the Newport Folk Festival of 1965. A sense of betrayal was in the air after Bob Dylan, who had, after all, helped start the whole thing, got up and sang music that was clearly more rock than folk.
After Judy Silver went back to Kansas in 1963, Mel Lyman, who had been taught the mysteries of the banjo by Obray Ramsey in North Carolina, was hired by Jim Kweskin to play rhythm banjo. The choice was not entirely Mel's. He had been sentenced to either a job or jail after he was busted on dope in Tallahassee.
One fan of the period remembers Melvin as a short, thin man who wore suspenders, played the harp and was extremely confident and poised. That's what he remembers - how poised he was, as if he had been playing with the band for years.
"He became very much the spiritual focus of the band," recalled Harry Bikes. "And Kweskin totally fell under Mel's cloud. It made for a lot of conflicts in the band, needless to say. Mel would get like very moody. Sometimes he'd play and sometimes he wouldn't - very weird. He had a way of dramatizing his presence or his feeling. He'd be up on the stand at the Club 47, and he would just say, 'Well, I'm not into it.' And that would be pregnant with meaning, you know? And we would like grope to understand the significance of why he's not into it."
In the next year or so, Mel continued to write letters and gradually began drawing his "weird network of people" closer to him.
"Mel brought his family in from the West Coast and they settled on River Street in Cambridge. Sophie and Eben and Mel began, like, gathering people. Signals were going out.
"And Kweskin was dealing. Kweskin was a pretty heavy dealer - top quality 'A' reefer, strictly grass. Then Jim had a really bad experience. He went to New York to pick up some grass, and some people ripped him off. They bashed him over the head with a brick - he was almost killed. It was a very traumatic experience for him, really turned his head around about a lot of things. This was in '65. I don't think he ever dealt after that again. It seemed to be a turning point in his life and, I would say from a distance, the Jug Band's life."
* * *
Longtime friends of Jim Kweskin must surely be puzzled by his latest album, released just this month by Warner/Reprise. Not only is it the first new Kweskin music recorded in several years, it represents a final reversal of authority begun in 1963 when Jim and Mel first appeared at the Club 47 (a pattern of "spiritual infiltration" that is repeated in nearly every Lyman Family enterprise).
The title hints at it: "Richard D. Herbruck Presents Jim Kweskin's America - co-starring Mel Lyman and the Lyman Family." Giving co-star billing to someone who, by conventional definition, plays a back role is unusually charitable, to say the least.
But it goes further than that. Here's what Kweskin writes in his section of the liner notes:
"The soul that is born in Cancer must always find its completion in Aries, when God and man become one. You can read the story of it in Mirror at the End of the Road by Mel Lyman. It is the story of life from the moment it doubts itself and receives its first intimations of immortality to the time it becomes God ... as it grows from Cancer to Aries. You can hear that story in this album if you will step aside and let your soul listen.
"I am singing America to you and it is Mel Lyman. He is the new soul of the world."
That's right, Jim's a Cancer, Mel's an Aries.
It is clear, from the notes, from the music inside, from the album cover, that Jim Kweskin's America is actually Mel Lyman's America. Particularly from the cover. This grotesquely crude collage, prepared by a member of the Lyman Family, includes many of Mel's fondest American heroes - Abraham Lincoln, James Dean, Matt Dillon as played by Jim Arness, John Kennedy, Jimmie Rogers, Vince Lombardi, Henry Miller, Marlon Brando, Woody Guthrie, Gene Autry, Henry Fonda, Louis Armstrong and Superman, men often chosen for their astrological signs as much as anything else. For instance, Kweskin writes in his notes, "At every turning point in the life of America a Cancer has stood up to sing a new soul as it flowed into the old and transformed it. Stephen Foster, George M. Cohan, Louis Armstrong, Woody Guthrie, Jessie Benton..."
Jessie Benton? She's one of Mel's earlier old ladies and the daughter of painter Thomas Hart Benton, whose aging beady-eyed face can be seen at the very top of the album cover. He's very important to the Lyman Family, sort of the benefactor. Not only did he give them Jessie, but many of his original works and two summer retreat houses at Martha's Vineyard, where Mel takes certain followers to train as leaders.
The cover also includes one picture of Jim and two of Mel. And, perhaps most revealing, a photograph of the Royal Inn Hotel in San Francisco where a room was reserved during the recording of the album. That room, on the top floor, is circled in black. Mel Lyman slept there.
The album raises some other questions. Like, will an audience partial to the lively, carefree "fun music of the old Jug Band readily adapt to an eight-minute version of "Old Rugged Cross" or a seven-minute version of "Old Black Joe"?
And who is Richard Herbruck, the mysterious "Great Producer" who presented, in addition to the album, a program on KPFK-FM in Los Angeles last spring that ended in a violent confrontation with crowbars and police? His identity will be discussed later; for now it's interesting enough to know that Warner Brothers hasn't the foggiest idea of who he is.
* * *
Mel Lyman, Marilyn & Jim Kweskin
recreate Holy Moment a year on: Newport '66
"At one point I needed a banjo player in the band. So this friend of mine said he knew this guy who was playing banjo out at Brandeis University. He brought him in, and it was Mel. And that was the beginning of..." Jim Kweskin giggles at the thought of it all. "... the beginning of the change of my entire life."
Kweskin's dark moustache is shorter than it used to be, trimmed almost to Hitlerian proportions; but otherwise Kweskin, during a recent interview, looked about the same as he always has - gaunt and handsome with curly black hair and intense eyes of still, deep water. His manner was polite but cold, almost antiseptic.
"I knew immediately that he was a whole different kind of person than I had ever met," he continued, "the things he said and the things he did and the way he played. And his timing. Things would happen to him that could never happen to anybody else. I began to realize he never made a telephone call when the line was busy, he never called anybody and they weren't home. Or he would wake up in the morning and talk about somebody he hadn't seen in two years, and he'd walk out down the street and run into them. Things like that happening, you know? And you'd say it was a coincidence - maybe once or twice - but it happened every day. It was like some kind of miracle every day."
Finally Kweskin realized that without Mel the band didn't mean a damn thing to him. "I'll tell you how it happened. I did a TV show with the Jug Band, the Jonathan Winters Show; this was in '68. And it was really corny. We put on costumes, we were trying to make it big in the music business. I saw that show, and I mean we really stunk. It was everything that I ever didn't want to be.
"And very close to that time, a few weeks later, I saw a little show on Channel 2, the educational channel in Boston, called What's Happening Mr. Silver?, the David Silver show. And all it was was an interview with Mel. The technique was poor, the camera work wasn't good, nothing was. And this little show moved me so deeply, just Mel's presence on TV was so strong and so alive, that I realized everything I was doing was a waste of time. What I really ought to be doing was helping to get Mel more opportunities to be on TV and to have his writing and his music and whatever he created out to the public.
"I'd been fighting with him inside of myself for almost a year, but it was that show that was the turning point. All of a sudden I knew that nothing else was important except that the whole world had to see Mel Lyman."
To join the service of Mel, Jim said he had to give up his career, his possessions and his music. "I had to start right down at the very basis and bottom of hard work. I had no authority. I had no position. I wasn't anything except one of the guys who worked on the construction of the houses. That's where it starts, just like boot camp.
"You get constantly stripped of everything that's a lie in your life, of every illusion you have about yourself. It gets constantly stripped away till finally you're left with absolutely nothing but the real, barest you. And that's what happened to me over the last three years. I was in like, musically, what you'd call retirement for three years.
"And now, just about six months ago, I decided to go out in the world again and build up a new career as a solo entertainer. I was born to go out into the public. I knew that before I met Mel Lyman, I just didn't know why. And it was living with and having Mel inside me that showed me why."
"Yeah, the music that comes from me now comes from much deeper, deeper inside me. And therefore it affects people in a much deeper way. The things that happen in the room, you know? If it gets to the point where I want it to get to, the whole room comes together. I mean, the audience and myself and everybody is doing the same thing at the same time, and you can just feel the spirit in the room. And that's something that I could never do if I didn't have Mel Lyman inside me."
I asked Jim what his new act was like. Did he sermonize or what?
"We don't sermonize; I don't know, we don't preach," he said, barely smiling. "But we don't always do what they think they want. I mean, we demand that the audience get personally involved in what's happening, and a lot of times, they just don't want to. Sometimes it's a simple thing like having them sing along. Or other times it's having some sort of personal input, get them to talk a bit, or say something or do something."
"And if they don't?"
"Well, we demand it."
"Do you quit playing, or...
"Sometimes. We've been known to sit up on stage for hours and not do a thing. And maybe we'd get everybody to hate us." Kweskin started to laugh, as if specific incidents were in mind. "It's awful. But out of that thing sometimes very great music comes. Sometimes you have to create an embarrassing or painful or angry situation just so that everybody's in the same place at the same time."
Wasn't this the sort of intimidation, I asked him, that people often associated with the Jesus freaks? Maybe he didn't understand the question.
"Peace and love!" he said scornfully. "It's just so limiting, it's ridiculous. It's denying 75 percent of human nature. I mean, I walk down the street and I talk to some of the Jesus freaks or some of the peace and love people, you know? And they're dead. They're sound asleep. They feel absolutely nothing. All they do is spout out words. I mean, it's obvious we're not spouting out a bunch of words that somebody taught us how to say."
Kweskin started to shout in fervent, rhythmic patterns, as if he had a running jump and was sliding in with each phrase. "That's what we're on this planet for, to make people realize that it isn't all the same. That's why we make films and make music, to educate these people. Of course, there are millions of non-believers, there are millions of uneducated people, there's millions of people who don't know the difference. And our whole purpose in life is to show them the difference, to make them feel the difference.
"Here, just listen to this." Kweskin withdrew a manuscript from his briefcase and, with a slight missionary tremble to his voice, started reading it word for word. It was Mel Lyman's "Plea for Courage," an essay the community apparently feels is one of his most important.
"'We should be entering the new world,'" Kweskin began, "'all the preparations have been made, it has all been written about and everybody wants it, it is so easy to imagine.'"
But, of course, we're not entering the new world, says Mel, because all you hippies out there are sitting around in a drugged Utopian stupor instead of getting off your asses and organized.
"'... you're all too full of dope and pride and ideas and yourselves to know what's even good for you anymore... I really hate you bastards cause you're killing me, you're stinking up the whole world with your filthy hair and dirty clothes and empty slogans... why don't you kill yourself?'"
Basically the 1200-word essay, which has been reprinted free in several underground publications, is an attack on the kind of weekend hippies that hung out in the Haight in 1966, about the time Mel started cutting his hair.
"'The few who know our deepest needs are still unfulfilled are regarded with great suspicion and contempt for not allowing people to "do their own thing." I don't want you to do your own thing, I want you to do my thing, wake up! ...
"'The same dollar that we set out to stamp out has stamped us out and we never even realized it....'"
And Mel's solution? "'Get together with your friends, pool your resources, make some money, buy a house, take on some responsibilities... we must get together and fight this creeping decay!'"
Jim took a breath and replaced the manuscript. "That's why we moved to the West Coast," he said, "the need to expand, the fact that Los Angeles in one sense is the film and communications capital. We want to, slowly, as much as we can, get involved with the media.
"There's a whole community of, well, what used to be called hippies - I don't know what they are now - but there's thousands of them out here who are, you know, just waiting for Mel Lyman. He's like the rock that's dropped into the pond, he's going to have more communities. He's going to have hundreds of communities. Before you know it, the whole world's going to be his community."
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