David Wilson Four

Avatar and Mel Lyman

By: - Nov 20, 2010

Avatar Avatar Avatar Avatar Avatar Avatar Avatar Wilson

Charles Giuliano The 1960s are recalled as a decade of social activism and student protests. In addition to resistance to the war in Vietnam there was the Civil Rights and Black Power movement. The decade saw the rise of feminism and the publication of  “Our Bodies Ourselves.”  As well as the “Whole Earth Catalog.” There were the Christopher Street/ Stonewall riots in Manhattan, a man walking on the Moon and the burning of Watts (LA), Detroit and Washington, D.C. Of course, the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King took place. We smoked pot and dropped acid. A half million sat in the mud at Woodstock.

How did that change you and the mandate for Broadside as a folk and blues publication? Why did you become involved as a Board Member and editor of Avatar? Describe the vision that brought people together to publish an underground newspaper. Discuss dropping out of Avatar when it was taken over by the Fort Hill Mel Lyman cult. David Silver Interview with Mel Lyman.

David Wilson I am not sure I could ever answer as comprehensive or complex a question as that. I remember four major trends developing in that time frame which contributed to the dynamics you describe. The Space Program, The civil rights movement, The Vietnam War and the experimentation with consciousness enhancing chemicals.

All of those had influences on the music including the fueling of the singer/songwriter movement which started as an aspect of topical folksongs and swept over pop and rock like a tidal wave… Now singing your own material is the rule rather than the exception…

For Broadside it created a dilemma. We were unable to find a firm line of demarcation in our content and in trying to cover the whole scope we lost a lot of our most committed audience and failed to attract enough of a more general readership. The requirements of a second class mailing permit at that time also restricted us in our street vendor sales. When big money came in to fund several new alternate press newspapers, they gave their papers free to the vendors. We could not do that, and we lost our vendors to the rather bitter war that was going on between Boston After Dark, Boston Commons, The Real Paper and the Boston Phoenix.

I had agreed to an arrangement with George Papadopoulos, owner of the Unicorn to edit a rock paper he was putting out called Weekly Beat while I continued publishing Broadside. As part of the deal I got to use a lot of his typesetting and photographic equipment. It was at that point that George brought Ed Beardsley, aka Ed Jordan in as staff artist. At the same time we were working together on a music festival jointly with the Boston Herald Traveler that we staged at the Commonwealth Armory in Boston. George put Weekly Beat on hold for the festival but never reactivated it.

Meanwhile, after the festival, a delegation from several communities came by the office and pitched the idea of an underground paper for Boston, and after hashing over a number of ideas, we put out a mimeoed issue or two of something called the One Eyed Man calling for interested parties to join us. We had several meetings at a think-tank on Mt. Auburn St and a committee of seven of us formed a non-profit corporation. Besides myself if I can remember correctly there was Brian Faunce, Sandi Mandeville, Ed Jordan, Lew Crampton, Ed Fox and Wayne Hansen. What we did not understand at that point and did not comprehend for quite some time was that the last three were followers of Mel Lyman and always voted as Mel told them to. The first two or three issues were published out of the Broadside offices on Columbia St. in Cambridge, but then moved to the South End and the former offices of the Mid-Town Journal, which was an Alternate Newspaper of an earlier generation. With that move, I reduced my hands-on participation, but continued to write for the paper.

Shortly after the move I went to the Broadside office one morning and was met outside by a young man. He told me he had been arrested by the Watertown police while selling Avatars and charged with possession and distribution of subversive literature. I took him into the office, got on the phone to Brian Faunce and told him the story. Then I sent the kid over to the Avatar office to answer their questions. Next thing I heard, the kid had Joe Oteri and Harvey Silverglade handling his case and they became the Avatar’s legal backstops for all the repression that was about to come down on us. 

The story is partly covered in great detail and pretty much as I recall it in the article Incident in Harvard Square published in Boston Magazine.

News dealers in Harvard Square were threatened with municipal inspections, license suspensions and all the regular bureaucratic reprisals if they continued to sell Avatar. We responded by putting more vendors on the street and vendors got busted left and right, mostly for selling without a license.

One day better than a hundred vendors including ministers, college professors and lawyers showed up in Harvard Sq. Many were arrested and were then represented by Oteri’s office. Oteri demanded separate jury trials for each and every one. Faced with the expense, the city backed down and saved face by claiming that so many vendors at any given time constituted a traffic hazard or some such. Avatar negotiated a deal as to how many vendors could be in the Harvard Sq. and the city’s concession to the constitutional rights of unlicensed news-vendors.

This concession opened the floodgates for all the other papers that wanted to put vendors on the street.

CG When Arden Harrison and I moved to Roxbury, near Fort Hill, we went to work for Avatar. Rent was cheap and we made a lot of brown rice. For cash we were given copies of Avatar to sell in Harvard Square. As contributors we got to keep the quarters. But sometimes Wayne or some other Hill zealot would come and kick us out because Mel needed a new lens for his movie camera. Or some other project. Also publication was becoming ever more erratic as his interests were less involved with the publication. So there started to be a split between the Fort Hill zealots and the non hill scoffers. That all came to a head with a break down in the summer of 1968. A group of us decided to continue with Avatar. The meetings were chaotic with everyone having their own idea of what the paper should be like.

Because I wanted it more than anyone else at that time I kind of emerged as the leader. That entailed a meeting on the Hill with Mel. Arden was concerned that I might get abducted or brain washed into the cult. I knew Mel from when he was hanging around Brandeis with my friend Judy Silver. It was my car when Mel, John Kostick, and another guy whose name I can’t recall drove south to North Carolina. Mel and I had breakfast with banjo player Obray Ramsey. Mel planted his pot seeds and said that he was headed on to Florida while John and I with zero cash managed to drive back to Waltham.

Since I knew Mel from before he became a World Savior I felt confident in meeting with him. I was ushered into his presence in a house where he was maintained by followers. We sat at a table which was probably miked and he took pictures of me from time to time. It went well and he agreed that we could put out a paper but just not use the name Avatar as he claimed that it was his paper.

That was fine by me. I decided to put no logo on the cover. I designed it as an I Ching hexagram which we threw as a group. There was an architect, Richard Joos, who created a very beautiful and spiritual centerfold that spelled out the text of the hexagram and what it portended for our launch of a new venture. It all felt very holistic and pure.

But Ed Jordan/ Beardsley, the graphic designer for the paper, subverted our effort. On the second page at the top of a spread of news items he put a small Avatar logo reversed. He has some kind of deceptive explanation. I was too exhausted to grasp his full intent. But it was immediately obvious to the Fort Hill crowd. If you held the paper up to the light the logo bled through the front page and became an issue of Avatar.

That was never my intent. But inadvertently that became the infamous Issue #25 of Avatar. In the middle of the night the Fort Hill Gang raided the office. They confiscated the entire press run and locked it up in the tower on Fort Hill. I had grabbed a bundle before leaving the office. So I have a couple of copies and a few others (1,000 of the press run of 45,000) were circulated. It is now all visible on line. I called the police about the theft but they basically just laughed at me.

It seemed that was it. But shortly later you got in touch with me and said that indeed we would resume publishing Avatar which we did that summer. That’s when we first met. Prior to then I had heard you bad mouthed so I didn’t quite know what to expect.

You stated that you would be the editor and I would be the managing editor. Also Sandi came on board and did all the setting which back then was a big job. You had to type out copy twice in order to justify the margins. I knew nothing about laying out a paper and production. Ed Jordan/ Bearsdsley, who I never liked or trusted, would be the graphic designer. Of course he would betray us again. What a worm.

What were your thoughts and agendas when you took over Avatar that summer?

DW In late spring and as a result of the “hijacked” issue, Brian Faunce and Ed Jordan came to Sandi and I and wanted us as board members to join in revitalizing the paper. We had a meeting at the Broadside office and discussed a number of issues among ourselves and with a few other community representatives. Finally we concluded that only by taking control of the paper, away from Fort Hill, and replacing the editorial staff, could we create a publication that would serve a diverse community. The only dissenting voice was Jordan’s female partner, Susan, who pleaded negotiation with Fort Hill. I certainly had no sense that they would be willing to bargain in good faith and suggested that once we had control we might then consider concessions.

I contacted Marcel Kisten, a lawyer with whom I had worked while administering the Folk Song Society of Greater Boston, and someone who I was pretty sure was sympathetic to Avatar. After examining the articles of incorporation, and upon my request as president of said corporation, he sent out official notice of a board meeting at his down town offices. Every one showed up, I proposed that the editorial staff be replaced, a vote was taken and the motion carried 4 to 3. We voted the three fort hill reps out of all official positions, replaced them with ourselves, and took over the offices. In a gesture of good will we allowed them to remain on the board. Go figure.

Then I had to convince Avatar staffers that we really did have control of the paper and that we could put out one that would serve the wider community, you included, and you were pretty resistant as I remember. Together, however, I think the issues we put out that summer were among the most thoughtful, forward thinking, and respectful of the disenfranchised community that we sought to serve, of any that had appeared before. The working relationship I developed with you during that time was, for me, one of the best things that came out of our joint enterprise.

Of course disaster befell us when in the middle of laying out an issue, Jordan was notified that the film director, Franco Zefferelli had decided to use Mark Frechette as the lead in the film Zabriskie Point. I don’t know that any of us had known that Ed was in competition for the role. He freaked at the news and in a fury tore up all the layouts for that issue. We managed to salvage it without him, but whether in fear of reprisal, or bitterness or some other unknown reason, he jumped back onto the Fort Hill bandwagon and we were ousted.

CG Not really. We continued with more issues after that through the summer.

DW I had hoped that in helping to create Avatar that it would address the social political arena and Broadside could concentrate on the music. It did not work out that way.

Meanwhile, a splinter group from “The Old Mole,” an SDS paper, had set up offices across the street from Broadside and started publishing a daily report on the trial of Benjamin Spock which was going on in Boston.

Spock along with four others, Marcus Raskin, Mitchell Goodman, Michael Ferber, and Rev. William Sloane Coffin were put on trial for initiating A Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority, an anti-war document.

When the trial was over, the staff of the Free Press invited us to take over their banner and we decided to experiment with a joint publication. We had switched from magazine to tabloid format and we began that integration by printing Broadside from the front cover to the centerfold and The Free Press upside down from the Back cover to the centerfold. After a few issues, the Post Office caught on to what we were doing and threatened to cancel our second class mailing permit. At that point, we incorporated the free press into the contents, changed our name to Broadside and the Free Press, and added a sub title “A Journal of Alternate Lifestyles”

Several of the staffers at the Free Press continued to write for us, not the least of which was Keith Maillard, who Canada now claims as one of their premier novelists.

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