March 24, 1938|
Eureka, California, United States
exact location unknown
Leader, The Lyman Family
Melvin James Lyman (March 24, 1938 – March 1978) was an American musician, film maker, writer and founder of the Fort Hill Community.
|“||Mel Lyman played harmonica like no one under the sun / Mel Lyman didn't just play harmonica, he was one. – Landis MacKellar||”|
Lyman grew up in California and Oregon. As a young man, he spent a number of years traveling the country and learning harmonica and banjo from such musicians as the legendary Woody Guthrie, Brother Percy Randolph, and Obray Ramsey. In 1963 he joined Jim Kweskin’s Boston-based jug band as a banjo and harmonica player
Lyman, once called “the Grand Old Man of the ‘blues’ harmonica in his mid-twenties”, is remembered in folk music circles for playing a 20 minute improvisation on the traditional hymn ”Rock of Ages” at the end of the 1965 Newport Folk Festival to the riled crowd streaming out after Bob Dylan’s famous appearance with an electric band. Some felt that Lyman, primarily an acoustic musician, was delivering a wordless counterargument to Dylan’s new-found rock direction. Irwin Silber, editor of Sing Out Magazine, wrote that Lyman’s “mournful and lonesome harmonica” provided “the most optimistic note of the evening.”
In the early 1960s, Lyman had been drawn to New York. The music and fellow musicians that he found there led in turn to a larger circle of writers, artists and filmmakers. He became friends with underground filmmaker Jonas Mekas, which led to the studios of Andy Warhol, and Bruce Conner all of whom he counted as both teachers and inspirations for his later film work. Several of Lyman’s films have recently been digitally restored and were personally presented to Jonas Mekas to be included in the permanent collection of the Anthology Film Archives.
In 1966, supported and funded by Jonas Mekas, Lyman published his first book, Autobiography of a World Savior, which set out to reformulate spiritual truths and occult history in a new way. In 1971, Lyman published Mirror at the End of the Road, derived from letters he wrote during his formative years, starting in 1958 from his initial attempts to learn and become a musician, through the early 1960s as his life widened and deepened musically and personally. The last entries are from 1966 which simply express the profound joys and deepest losses which defined and gave his life direction and meaning in the years ahead. The key to the book and the life he lived afterwards are stated simply in the dedication at the beginning "To Judy, who made me live with a broken heart".
The Lyman Family, The Fort Hill Community and the Avatar
It was his relationship with Judy which brought him to Boston in 1963. Again, Lyman became acquainted with many artists and musicians in the vibrant Boston scene, including Timothy Leary's group of LSD enthusiasts, IFIF. Lyman was involved for a very short time and, against his wishes, so was Judy. Knowing LSD’s power, he felt she was not ready but, “the bastards at IFIF gave her acid… I told her not to take it. I knew her head couldn’t take it.” Lyman’s fears turned out to be justified and she left college and returned to her parents in Kansas. Lyman was by all accounts very charismatic and later, after Judy had left, a community or family naturally tended to grow up around him. At some point thereafter Lyman began to realize himself as destined for a role as a spiritual force and leader.
In 1966, Lyman founded and headed The Lyman Family, also known as The Fort Hill Community, centered in a few houses in the Fort Hill section of Roxbury, then a poor neighborhood of Boston. The Fort Hill Community, to observers in the mid-to-late Sixties, combined some of the outward forms of an urban hippie commune with a neo-transcendentalist socio-spiritual structure centered on Lyman, the friends he had attracted and the large body of his music and writings.
Although Lyman and the Family shared some attributes with the hippies — prior experimenting with LSD and marijuana and Lyman’s cosmic millennialism — they were not actually hippies either in appearance (female members dressed conservatively and male members wore their hair relatively short by the standards of the era) or beliefs (while Lyman and other Family members had fathered children by different women, polyamory was eschewed in favor of serial monogamy).
By the Spring of 1967 the Fort Hill Community had become an established presence in Boston and it, along with members of the wider community in greater Boston and Cambridge, came together to create and publish the Avatar. It contained local news, political and cultural essays, commentary and more personal contributions, writing and photography, from various members of the Fort Hill Community including Lyman. The paper and magazine set new standards in content and design later adopted by more mainstream publications. Throughout the first year of its existence it created what became a national audience and many more people visited Fort Hill at that time, some eventually staying and becoming part of the community.
Rather than the gentle and collectivist hippie ethic in other publications of the time, Lyman’s writing in Avatar espoused a philosophy that contained, to some readers of the time, strong currents of megalomania and nihilism and to others a powerful alternative voice to the prevailing ethos.
|“||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 / WATCHOUT||”|
—Mel Lyman, Declaration of Creation 
After working very intensely on each issue, in the Spring of 1968 the Family gained complete editorial control (some say adversarially) of Avatar for the final issue of the paper. Later they founded their own magazine, American Avatar which continued the editorial directions of the newspaper. Lyman’s writings in these publications brought increased visibility and public reaction both pro and con. His writings, along with others in the publications, could be poetic, philosophical, humorous and confrontational, sometimes simultaneously, as Lyman at various times claimed to be: the living embodiment of Truth, the greatest man in the world, Jesus Christ, and an alien entity sent to Earth in human form by extraterrestrials. Such pronouncements were typically delivered with extreme fervor and liberal use of ALL CAPS.
|“||Love isn't something you find, something you do, something you study. Love is something you BECOME after there is no more YOU. – Mel Lyman||”|
Later developments, and Lyman’s death
||This section has been nominated to be checked for its neutrality. (July 2013)|
In 1971, Rolling Stone magazine published a cover exposé, an extensive philippic on the Family by associate editor David Felton. The Rolling Stone report described an authoritarian and dysfunctional environment, including an elite “Karma Squad” of ultra-loyalists to enforce Lyman’s discipline, the Family's predilection for astrology, and isolation rooms for disobedient Family members. Family members disputed these reports.
|“||The only difference between us and the Manson Family is that we don't go around preaching peace and love and we haven't killed anyone, yet. – Jim Kweskin (perhaps in jest)||”|
The Rolling Stone article and the earlier trial of Charles Manson, who seemed to share some traits in common with Lyman, raised the Family’s profile and – whether fairly or not – established Lyman in the sensationalist part of the public mind as a bizarre and possibly dangerous person.
But although Lyman deeply understood Charles Manson and even corresponded with him once, and was sometimes revered as a Messiah-like figure by the Family, it would be inaccurate to overstate the similarities between the Manson Family and the Lyman Family. The Lyman Family was larger and more stable and productive than Manson’s. Unlike Manson’s group, Lyman’s included many persons of accomplishment and note, such as Kweskin, therapist and actress Daria Halprin, actor Mark Frechette, and pioneering rock critic Paul Williams. And although the Family was often accused of strong-arm tactics in dealing with neighbors and alternative-community groups, they certainly never killed anyone or even manifested serious homicidal intent.
However, in 1973, members of the Family, including Frechette, staged a bank robbery. One member of the Family was killed by police, and Frechette, sentenced to prison, died in a weightlifting accident in jail in 1975.
Frechette said the place was not a commune: “It‘s a ‘community,’ but the purpose of the community is not communal living. ... The community is for one purpose, and that's to serve Mel Lyman, who is the leader and the founder of that community.”
Thus it has been said that, unlike the Manson Family, Lyman’s did not explode in a dramatic denouement. Rather, the Family took a lower profile and carried on, quietly building on the relationships formed in the turbulent early years. Lyman died in 1978, age 40, under unknown (but presumably natural) circumstances.
After Lyman’s death, the Family evolved into a more conventional extended family- small, low-profile, and prosperous. The skills and work ethic honed in refurbishing the structures of the Family compound led to the founding of the profitable Fort Hill Construction Company. The Family acquired property in Kansas and other places. Many Family members[who?] went on to successful careers. Although some former Family members have rejected him and perhaps that part of their own past, all current members still revere Lyman, as do many former members.
- Lyman, Mel. Autobiography of a World Savior (New York, Jonas Press, 1966)
- Lyman, Mel. Mirror at the End of the Road (American Avatar, 1971) (Distributed by Ballantine Books)
- Avatar writings: see Articles & Columns by Mel Lyman, Avatar 1967-68, American Avatar 1968-69
- Other writings: see Indexes to columns, articles, etc.
- Celebrated essayist Bruce Chatwin wrote about the Fort Hill Community in “The Lyman Family – A Story” in What Am I Doing Here? (Picador, 1989).
- American Avatar: Love Comes Rolling Down, (Warner Bros./Reprise 6353, 1970)
- Jim Kweskin’s America, (Warner Bros.Reprise Records 6464, 1971), producer (as Richard D. Herbruck) and performer.
- Lyman appeared as an instrumentalist on various tracks of other albums. See Mel Lyman: Recorded Music for complete list.
- Landis MacKellar (1999). "Mel Lyman". Bath, Michigan (album). Retrieved July 10, 2011.
- Notes on Mel Lyman. Broadside, Sept. 18, 1963 http://www.trussel.com/lyman/broadside63.htm
- Harmonica by John Bowers. Coronet, May 1965, pp 138-143.http://www.trussel.com/lyman/coronet65.htm
- On the Scene by Robert J. Lurtsema. Broadside, Aug. 18, 1965 http://www.trussel.com/lyman/broadside65.htm
- Lyman, Mel. Mirror at the End of the Road
- Felton, David "The Lyman Family's Holy Siege of America", Rolling Stone http://www.trussel.com/lyman/melmind1.htm
- Avatar # 1
- Avatar #16 http://www.trussel.com/lyman/kindlet.htm
- "TO ALL WHO WOULD KNOW", American Avatar #2 (periodical, Boston, 1967
- Felton, David The Lyman Family's Holy Siege of America, Rolling Stone http://www.trussel.com/lyman/melmind1.htm
- Discussed by Halprin and Frechette with Dick Cavett, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-jyzFfrtLRk retrieved 26 Feb. 2010
- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-jyzFfrtLRk Dick Cavett interview
- Mel Lyman Revisted, April 2011, WFMU
- Extensive collection of writings by and about Mel Lyman
- Illustrated Lisa Kindred discography (American Avatar)
- Illustrated Jim Kweskin discography (Jim Kweskin's America and other Mel Lyman contributions)
- “Battle of Four-Letter Words” March 1968 TIME Magazine article about Boston police campaign to arrest any street-salesmen caught selling Avatar.
- Mel Lyman & The Lyman Family 2005 essay for Ugly Things magazine by Patrick Lundborg