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Part 3: Jim Kweskin & Mel Lyman's Cult

July 25th, 1965 was a defining moment for rock music. Bob Dylan took the stage at Newport Folk Festival and his group played “Maggie’s Farm” with electric guitars. The guitars screeched loudly as the band jammed. It was heresy to play an electric guitar at a folk festival, however. The two genres were in staunchly different camps. “Almost immediately, the jeering and yelling from the audience grew loud enough nearly to drown out the sound of Dylan and his band,” it was said. Next was his new song “Like a Rolling Stone,” recorded just six weeks prior. The boos were worse. To the folk purists Dylan had musically betrayed them.

Appearing on stage at the same festival was Mel Lyman who played with the Jim Kweskin Jug band, a folk-bluegrass group. Awaiting to perform backstage, Lyman said he received a special request from God to play “Rock of All Ages” on his harmonica. “Like what Christ had to do before mounting the cross,” he said. Lyman came out and played a moving ten minute rendition of the track that left some in awe. The feat helped him achieved cult-icon status with some labeling him the greatest living blues harmonica player.

Mel Lyman performs "Rock of Ages" / 1965 Newport Folk Festival

“The ‘blues’ harmonica moves in an underground world most of the time, not in the glare of publicity. It has celebrities [like] Mel Lyman,” wrote John Bowers in 1965.

Lyman published his first book shortly after his iconic performance at the Newport Festival. It was called Autobiography of a World Savior.

"THI IS OUR TRAVELING SOUND system," Jim Kweskin said to reporter Gary Moore. “One of the main things we do is play music.” They were in a white Lincoln limousine headed towards the Lyman Family compound. The license plate read URALL1. Kweskin put in a tape and the music blared. “Listen for the harmonica,” he said. The sound “welled up like a baby crying, almost like a human voice,” Moore reported.

Moore and Kweskin arrived at the Family mansion and Moore described seeing tall shrubs that surrounded the house, a perfectly manicured lawn, and a bird cage filled with doves that was as tall as the house. Inside were red velvet chairs, roses and a fire.

The first question Moore asked was about the origins of the group.

"It started long before this earth was made," a woman said. "We are a race.”

"A race, like a race of people . . . We've always been together. We're gathered here on earth. And we were somehow - in one way or another - drawn to the same place at the same time. That was in Boston - years and years ago."

A few minutes later the group thought it best to let Moore talk to Lyman, but not in person.

A woman brought in a ouija board, placed it on a white table and began to channel their leader.

“Melvin is here,” she said.

Moore asked why Lyman had gone into hiding.

“I have found that I can actually have a greater effect on this planet from an anonymous position.”

He next asked about the group’s use of violence.

"I have never advocated violence,” Lyman said through the woman. “It has never been used as a mechanism."

Moore concludes the article by saying the “very reason why Mel Lyman was not addressing me in person was that his physical presence had been detained somewhere else . . . in a space ship.”

THE ROCK HISTORIAN ED WARD once listed the most important bands of the early 1960s as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Byrds, and the Jim Kweskin Jug Band. “I’m perfecly serious,'' he reiterated.

The Jim Kweskin Jug Band directly inspired Grateful Dead, The Lovin' Spoonful, and Country Joe & The Fish among others. Janis Joplin opened for them in 1967 during the Summer of Love. They also co-headlined a show with The Doors.

Kweskin was one of the “kingpins” of the folk music revival scene in New England in the 1960s. It was here at Club 47 that he first played with Mel Lyman in 1963. The venue was in the famous Harvard Square and Bob Dylan played on stage at Club 47 and Joan Baez got her start there playing weekly.

Watch a rare video of Mel Lyman and the Jim Kweskin band at the Newport Folk Festival


He founded the Jim Kweskin Jug Band with Geoff Muldar and then Lyman joined, as well as Maria Muldar and Fritz Ritchmond. Maria created the hit “Midnight at the Oasis.” Geoff says Lyman was “our spiritual leader and Jim was our show business leader.”

After several albums on Vanguard and success as a performer, Kweskin dropped out in 1968 to follow Lyman, whom he had recruited to play banjo and harmonica years before.

Following Lyman meant that Kweskin had to turn over all possessions, and money to him and take a back seat to his leadership. He soon moved into the cult’s Fort Hill compound in Boston that originally consisted of eight dilapidated buildings with no power, heat or plumbing. It was in the inner city and conflicts soon arose.

Lyman had a spiritual awakening in 1966, perhaps due to LSD and proclaimed himself a savior. “I’m Christ, I swear to God in person, and I'm about to turn this foolish world upside down,” he said. One image on his publication showed him sitting in lotus position with a halo over his head. Lyman soon gathered over 100 followers adhering to his rules, which embraced a conservative philosophy rejecting much of the “lazy” hippie lifestyle. “Women should be women,” he said, rejecting the shifting gender roles.

"I knew immediately that he was a whole different kind of person than I had ever met," Kweskin said. After watching Lyman be interviewed in a TV program he knew he had to devote himself to Lyman. “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…All of a sudden I knew that nothing else was important except that the whole world had to see Mel Lyman."

Kweskin predicted big things for 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."  On the liner notes of his 1971 solo record Kweskin called him the “new soul of the world.”

Lou, the school teacher who taught the kids in the Lyman Family was interviewed by a reporter and asked if she believed Lyman was god. "Yeah, in the sense that Jesus Christ came down on earth,” she said. “But he's dead, so Mel's the son of God now…When I first met Mel, it was really weird, 'cause he was the most down-to-earth easygoing guy I'd ever met. Until he looked at you, and then, oh God, his force just filled the room.” She continued. "Now I love him intensely, I'm his forever. I want to conquer the world for Mel. I get so mad at that world out there I want to kill, I want to shove Mel in their hearts. He's the only one who knows how to deal with feeling, the feelings you have at the time, whether they're love or hate or fear."

Folk legend Jim Kweskin wasn’t the only notable follower of Lyman. Journalist Paul Williams, who created Crawdaddy! in 1966 was a follower for a brief period. The publication was the first rock music criticism magazine. He would write dozens of books about music in his career. However, he alleges he was “dosed with LSD, locked in a closet, and had his eyeglasses taken away.” He soon escaped the cult and went into hiding for several weeks.

Film stars Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin of the movie Zabriske Point were also followers. Halprin is the daughter of famous dancer Anna Halprin and they co-founded the Tamalpa dance institute together. An awkward interview can be seen with Frechette and Daria on the Dick Cavett show where they distant and aloof. “The community is for one purpose,” Frechette says as he stares intensely at Cavett. “To serve Mel Lyman. He is the leader of the community.”

Frechette would later be involved in a bungled bank robbery with two other Lyman followers in which one was killed. Frechette died in a weight lifting accident in prison.

Two of the earliest members were David Gude and his partner Faith Franckenstein. Gude was a guitar player, singer, songwriter and engineer who was involved in the folk scene in Greenwich Village and Martha’s Vineyard. Joan Baez recorded his song “Fare Thee Well” on her debut album. He also played with the bluegrass band the Greenbriar Boys, who recorded several albums. Gude would engineer albums for various projects associated with the Lyman Family.

Gude allegedly stole the master recording tapes of the album American Avatar from Vanguard that featured Lisa Kindred, Kweskin, Lyman and others. Years later Kweskin brought them to Mo Austin, head of Warner Brothers and was able to get it released as an LP.  It featured a silhouette image of Lyman in on the cover.

Jim Kweskin went from top of the food chain to the bottom. The band went from Jim Kweskin Jug Band to the Lyman Family Band. And Kweskin had to submit just like the other followers. The 100 devotees worked in construction, or restaurants, or other jobs and they had to turn over all of their income. Even Mark Frechette had to turn over the $60,000 paycheck he received from Zabriskie Point.

"WE SAT IN THE LIVING ROOM all night, listening for the hum of the U.F.O.s,” writes Guinivere Turner in her memoir When the World Didn’t End. Mel Lyman had told everyone that the world would end on January 5th, 1974 and that spaceships were coming. “He told us we would be taken away to Venus. As the day approached, we children were told to put on our favorite clothes and pick one toy to bring on the journey.”

When the ships didn’t arrive Lyman blamed his followers telling them their souls weren’t ready. “We hadn’t done the work on ourselves that we needed to, and we had ruined things for Mel, whose soul was exactly where it needed to be. The year was set to 00, he decided we would no longer observe daylight-saving time (there would now be World Time and Our Time), and we kids weren’t allowed to speak for the foreseeable future. We passed notes; we whispered to one another when we were sure no adult was within earshot. Meals were silent. It was a dark and uncertain time.”

Turner would later go on to write the screenplay for the film American Psycho.

She describes the environment of the cult where punishments included being locked in a closet for a day, a month of silence, having a bowl of cereal dumped on your head, or being paddled in public. “We were slapped, spanked or just given endless angry talks of impossible questions to answer like ‘Where is your soul?’” She said punishments were daily and she was once punished for looking at someone with that “Scorpio soul in your eyes.”

“I had no contact with anybody outside the Family; my whole world was inhabited by people I had always known,” she writes. “I was homeschooled and never saw a doctor. I was also raised to believe that we were eventually going to live on Venus.”

As the group received more attention they began to attack critics and become more insular. A journalist for Fusion magazine had his car window smashed after writing something mildly critical. And Jim Kweskin apparently called his parents, faked being an old friend and got his home address. Fusion editor Robert Somma was held hostage by the Lyman Family in his office and was forced to come back to their Fort Hill compound. Other news papers were also harassed and radio station KPFK Hollywood had to call the police over an incident.

“The Manson Family preached peace and love and went around killing people. We don't preach peace and love,” Kweskin said. He smiled and said, “we haven’t killed anybody - yet.”

Lyman wrote about his ideals in a beat poet -style.

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

Turner’s mother joined at 19 and like many of the kids, Guinivere didn’t live with her. Rather she was raised by the commune. “Children and their biological parents tended to be separated early on in the Family, and I was no exception,” she writes. “My mother and I were rarely on the same compound, and I didn’t know her very well.”

At one point she was bought by Mel and his wife Jesse to befriend one of their kids.

She said Lyman fed LSD to his followers who were then subjected to group beratings to break them down. “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,” one writer said.

“At this time they were all going through acid therapy,” said Harry Bikes. “He was taking them one by one in his private audience and hitting them with 1500 mikes of pure acid. And studying them – filming and recording them ... And then when they were absolutely out of their minds, he would plug them into this Lyman Family group sing – love, togetherness, you know. He was playing with these people, programming them.”

Turner said Lyman had a 13-yr old girl who stayed with him. Other men had 12-13yr old girls also sleep in their rooms. She didn’t see first hand sexual abuse but was suspicious. Lyman had at least six kids with different women in the group.

There was lots of music and singing as a group and mystical things. The “Ouija board…was a regular part of our lives,” she writes. “Shelves were lined with notebooks containing transcriptions of the conversations adults had had with various spirits. We kids were allowed to talk to only one spirit, Faedra, and sometimes after dinner we’d gather around the board to summon her. The Ouija board was hand carved, the woodgrain beautifully polished, the pointer covered in purple velvet. Only the older kids were allowed to ask questions, and our eyes would be glued to the pointer as it slid over the smooth surface, gaining momentum, the low swish of felt on wood the only sound as we held our breath for answers. One night, one of the questions was ‘What does Guinevere need to learn?’ The answer came back that I was a lazy little girl. After that, I cleaned every ashtray in the compound for weeks, ashamed but also secretly thrilled that Faedra even knew who I was.”

Lyman died in 1978 of a long-term illness. No one knows exactly what happened to him. But the community still owns properties in L.A., Martha’s Vineyard, Kansas and elsewhere. In L.A. the group runs Fort Hill construction which has built for celebrities like Lady Gaga. Kweskin still lives in the group's original commune in Boston with over 80 people. ''We share a life, we care for one another.''


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