American Avatar

PERSONNEL: Lisa Kindred ~ vocal; Mel Lyman ~ harmonica; Jim Kweskin ~ guitar; Terry Bernhard ~ piano; Geoff Muldaur ~ guitar; Reed Wasson ~ string bass; Bruce Langhorne ~ guitar. SELECTIONS: California Water ~ Take-1 (4:19); James Alley Blues (4:41); Good Shepherd (4:59); Jesus Met The Woman At The Well (5:24); It Takes A Lot to Laugh , It Takes A Man To Cry (4:29); My Love Comes Rolling Down (6:56); California Water ~ Take-2 (9:19)

This LP is pretty accurately described by the back liner notes:
"This is CONTEMPORARY music. In this new age whose keynote is the destruction of old forms & the birth of new spirit our ears are still constantly insulted with the musical establishment's attempts to "hold on" to the old traditions whatever the cost. Music is neat & clean & void of real life. We say **** those people, we just want to blow. Folk music is dead, it got too fond of itself. Jazz is dead, it got too lost in itself. Rock is screaming its brains out trying to make up for the loss. But there is a new sound known only to a few, a sound of death & conflict & reconciliation & fresh air. It fits no categories, it just IS. And that is what we are presenting you with, a whole sound. Not clever parts, not individual achievement, this is the sound of a GROUP SOUL being born"

For a good chunk of Lymanesque strangeness you needn't look further than this major label LP. 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 impressive modern feel, and its unrelenting darkness may appeal to fans of Laura Nyro & Nico. This is actually an unreleased 1965 album by folk-blues vocalist Lisa Kindred titled "Love Comes Rolling Down", and considered at the time of its recording, a companion piece to the Jim Kweskin "America" LP. But after it went unreleased by Vanguard Records the session tapes were hijacked by the Mel Lyman Family acid-cult in Boston, and presented as a 1970 Lyman vehicle, "American Avatar", even though for all practical purposes it's a Lisa Kindred's album. The LP 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, without detracting from the already established vision.

Lisa Kindred, who never was part of the Fort Hill crowd, is only credited as a featured performer. It became a 1970 Lyman Family project called 'American Avatar' due to the shrewdness and perseverance of the Lyman Family, & 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. The music is generally excellent, with early Mel Lyman disciple David Gude engineering on the original 1965 session. 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 when Vanguard head Maynard Solomon 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. Leaving the mono mixes meant that the levels of the vocals and harmonica couldn't be changed later by Vanguard. Several years later, Jim Kweskin brought the "Lyman mix" to Warner Bros head Mo Ostin, and based on his good standing with the label, he got the recording released exactly as the Lyman wanted it, with Fort Hill artwork and harmonica up the wazoo. In all fairness though, 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 quite difficult to find, and reputedly had sold less than 2,000 copies.

The psychedelic revolution of the mid-1960s wasn't always about groovy gurus, cosmic laughter and non-game ecstasy. Some of it was about mind control, hatred and fear. At one time the Mel Lyman Family counted hundreds of faithful devotees, among them folk legend Jim Kweskin, actor Mark Frechette of the cult film "Zabriskie Point", and rock journalist Paul Williams of Crawdaddy Magazine. They all came together in Boston, near the center of 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 big pop stars and movie-makers took part.

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 poured into 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, and 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 super strong trips of 1500 micrograms of LSD.

Lyman himself began to change and, perhaps, envision a true calling. At The Newport Folk Festival, 1965, during the last hour of the last day, a half-hearted "We Shall Overcome" was closing the proceedings. The folkies were 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".

Lyman's musical gesture with the new and soon-to-be-hippiefied America was to be followed by Lyman himself leaving the Jim Kweskin Jug Band after Newport. But, undisturbed by the developments within the band, Kweskin climbed to greater heights 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. Avant-garde 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 increasingly 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.

Meanwhile, people from all-over the Northeast gravitated towards the Mel Lyman Family, who had settled in the Fort Hill slum area of Boston where they had repaired and refurbished 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. 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 alá the LA Free Press. The Avatar was one of the more successful papers of the greater Boston 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 Lyman Family soon manuvered themselves into control of the paper and began filling it with Mel ramblings, Mel columns and Mel 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 name "Avatar" itself had been invented by the Family, 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. One of the most important things to understand about the Mel Lyman Family is that they weren't hippies. 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 hallucinogens in huge doses and the communal lifestyle that was emerging across America. 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, and 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 with LA radio station KPFK where the Family felt the poor broadcast quality ruined their message. 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 the great film director Antonioni (Blow-Up, La Notte; etc) on a New York street, and handpicked as the male lead in the 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 to hook up with the people behind Avatar magazine, as he had already 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 when 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 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. The resulting movie showed little or none Mel Lyman influence and he didn't make it onto the movie soundtrack either, which was all 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 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.

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, the interview with Lyman himself at the end is the only part that seems reasonably objective. 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.