Saturday, 25 June 2011

The Lyman Family: Building a Messiah's Complex

Born in Eureka, California in 1938 Mel Lyman is probably best known for following Bob Dylan at the legendary Newport Folk Festival in 1965.
Dylan had made his name as an acoustic folk singer and had played at previous Festivals in Newport and been very popular.
However at this point Dylan had recorded some songs featuring electric instruments and was determined to introduce amplified electric performance to the usually exclusively acoustic Festival.
Dylan played three songs backed with an electric band to the disgust of the partisan crowd. Boos began to be heard around the audience and even two acoustic songs to round out the set were not enough to calm the horde of furious spectators.
Rumour has it that Pete Seeger was wandering around backstage with an axe to try and cut the cables to the amps...
Mel Lyman came onstage faced with a furious crowd that appeared on the verge of a riot.
Armed only with a harmonica he played a 30 minute improvisation around the traditional hymn 'Rock of Ages' that calmed the audience and brought a spirit of unity back to the previously agitated mob.
Talking about the experience afterwards Lyman said that what he did was:

' 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...'

This was not Lyman's first flirtation with Messianic comparisons...
Lyman had moved to Boston in the early Sixties and had been experimenting with various hallucinogens. Soon after he began to believe that he was destined to become a massively important spiritual leader and began to make preparations to lead humanity into a new world under his guidance.
He founded a 'Family' and established a commune in the Fort Hill area of Boston.
Ostensibly operating along the same lines as many other urban communes at the time Lyman's group was actually far from the 'hippie' stereotype.
The social dynamics within the group were far more conventional than most communes that were founded around the same time.
Although Lyman and a few other members of the Family fathered children by different women most people within the group lived monogamously, people tended to dress relatively conservatively and the men within the Family generally wore their hair shorter than most men of the time.
Another key element that differentiated them from hippie communities was an almost nihilistic attitude to culture and society that promised violent change at the hands of Lyman and his followers.
Lyman wrote a song promising:

'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!'

Lyman also established a 'Karma Squad' within the Family to ensure loyalty and ordered the building of a 'Vault' in the Fort Hill development. This was an isolation chamber that dissident Family members would be placed in to think about their mistakes...
These actions and this attitude would seem to place Lyman closer to Charles Manson, who also boasted a 'Family' of followers, but in truth the Lyman Family were never the threat that they talked of being.
Instead of using violence as a tool of revolution they attempted to harness the media to tell their story.
Articles appeared in newspapers and magazines and interviews were recorded on television and radio.
It seemed a major coup when two members of the Lyman Family, Mark Frechette and Daria Halpin, were cast in a new film called 'Zabriskie Point' to be directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. Frechette hoped to use his access to Antonioni to recruit the director into the Family but Antonioni showed no interest whatsoever.
Frechette refused to give up though and took to leaving Family related literature in the director's trailer...
But nothing seemed to give the Family the momentum they need to become the social and political force that Lyman desired. Family members donated substantial amounts of money allowing for the publication of magazines and newsletters that spread the word of Lyman's imminent emergence as a spiritual leader but no one seemed to want to listen. One of the major contributers to the Family was Frechette himself.
He donated all of his $60,000 earnings from 'Zabriskie Point' to the Family and was determined to keep the income stream of the Family liquid.
When the acting jobs dried up Frechette led a team of Family members on an attempted robbery of the Brgham Circle bank in 1973. During the robbery one Family member was shot and killed by police and Frechette was arrested and eventually sentenced to five years in Norfolk State Prison where he died in a bizarre weightlifting accident in 1975.
But this brief flirtation with violent action was about as active as the Family got in terms of pushing their message out to the people.
Lyman himself was a very reclusive Messiah, preferring to send others out to spread his words while he oversaw the development of the Fort Hill commune.
As the years went on there was less and less heard from the Family while the Fort Hill development grew beyond recognition. Money that had previously been earmarked for media projects to promote the teachings of Lyman began to be used to buy land and property in places such as Boston and Kansas.
Mel Lyman died in 1978 but the Family didn't disband.
Instead its members used the skills acquired in developing the Fort Hill commune and the property portfolio that had been invested in and took their collective wealth and experience to found the Fort Hill Construction Company.
A group that had long advocated the spiritual rebirth of America instead turned its energies toward the redevelopment of the country one construction project at a time and this most conservative of communes took the logical step of evolving into a prosperous business.
It's just ironic that a group that was brought together by one man's nihilistic vision of the destruction of society found their true purpose to be that of building...

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