David Felton Wrote for Rolling Stone
Covered Manson and Fort Hill Lyman Cults
By: Charles Giuliano - Jun 04, 2020
When David Felton came to cover the Lyman Family, he knocked on my door in the Harvard Square Murder Building. He introduced himself as sent by my friend Bill “Dr. Gonzo” Cardoso. In his Rolling Stone piece, I was caricatured as a political thug, Harry Bikes.
He covered Lyman and Charlie Manson both of whom he interviewed. I asked for a compare and contrast of the gurus.
Recently, we connected by phone and discussed cults, gonzo journalism, drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll.
It was a lively dialogue and I learned that he has been 38 years sober. He dropped out of journalism to pursue comedy writing in Hollywood. That let to MTV where he rose to senior vice president.
His business card reads “Pulitzer Prize Winner and Spiritual Advisor to Beavis and Butthead.”
He spoke from his home near Albany that entails four acres, a pond, and barn with music studio and office.
Charles Giuliano You came to Boston in 1971 to research a story on Mel Lyman and the Fort Hill community for Rolling Stone. How did that assignment come about?
David Felton At first, I didn’t want to do the story. I had worked with David Dalton on the Manson story. We won some awards for it but I didn’t want to be a cult reporter. Tim Crouse (former rock reporter for the Boston Herald Traveler who went to Rolling Stone) told me some of the details of the story and mentioned you as well. It was so fascinating that I couldn’t turn it down.
When I talked to you, I was just starting out on the story.
(He interviewed me in my cavernous University Road, Cambridge basement apartment in The Murder Building.)
You might have been one of my first sources and a really good one. You told me about Avatar and Mel. I went to Fort Hill and spent some time there. Then ended up on Martha’s Vineyard later that week talking to the higher ups in the Lyman Organization (United Illuminating).
CG When you knocked on my door your introduction was “I’m a friend of Bill Cardoso (1937-2006).”
DF Ok, maybe it was Bill who turned me onto you. I later became roommates with Bill. We shared a flat in the Mission District of San Francisco. Maybe he was the source to you.
CG I thought at that time you were roommates.
DF I’m trying to think of the timing. That was 1971 and after that story I was still living with my first family in San Francisco. I think it was later and even before I moved in and left my family, I took an internship at University of Chicago. It was a five-month sabbatical with a fellowship in journalism. That was 1973. So, I don’t think I moved in with him until 1973 or 1974.
CG I want to talk with you about Bill. He was one of the great innovative journalists of our generation as well as a liar and thief. A back stabbing friend and all of the above. He was a complicated individual.
DF That includes a lot of journalists that I know. (laughing)
CG We recently connected through a young podcaster in the U.K. We spoke through Skype a couple of times. I asked how old he was and was shocked when he said 22.
DF When he called me it seemed like he had just discovered the 1960s. There was a lot he didn’t know. But he’s done a lot of research and you have to give him that. I thought he was pretty good.
CG I’ve been impressed by him particularly the ability to track down people. Those are skills that I don’t have. For his generation that’s intuitive.
The project astonishes me on several levels. To begin with, someone that young is interested in our generation. As you are aware there is now an interest in Boston, the Lyman family, and the 1960s. Much of that is attributed to Ryan Walsh and his book Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968.
DF I love that book.
CG I was a source and am quoted several times. The hook is Van Morrison which may have sold it to Viking. That fan base is considerable and his time in Cambridge in that year is set against the spectrum of the counterculture. My book Counterculture in Boston: 1968 to 1980s is an oral history with primary sources in media, rock, and youth marketing. There is also the Bill Lichtenstein documentary film “WBCN and the American Revolution.”
Regarding the Lyman family story my background was unique. I was one of the few who knew Mel prior to when he became a World Savior. That entailed skepticism regarding his deity. That’s what I was hoping to convey to you.
Of course, you went to the Hill and interacted with them. Did you ever get to see the World Savior?
DF Yes, almost at the end, a year later. When I went to Martha’s Vineyard that’s where he was supposed to be. He was flying in and that’s where the top leadership hung out. It was Thomas Hart Benton’s property there. I went with that purpose.
I did interviews and stayed overnight. That’s when they told me I wasn’t ready to see Mel. It was the only time I was genuinely scared. I was cut off from any of my people. I felt like I was being set up. I didn’t know what was going to happen. They didn’t harm me and I did leave.
Then there was a series of things. They were trying to gauge whether or not I would be a believer before I got to see him.
I didn’t mind that they believed in him but I didn’t think they should be berating the press, radio, and causing a lot of mischief with those who didn’t share their beliefs. That’s what I was interested in exposing.
Finally, I think they were so desperate to get into Rolling Stone, that they didn’t care if I was a believer or not. They allowed me permission to see him in LA. Which I did for half a day. I had dinner with him in the morning. That was it.
By that time the story was ready to write.
CG What were your impressions of that experience?
DF What interested me compared to other cults was that members of the Lyman family were from such prominent families. Jim Kweskin was a big star before he became a grunt for Lyman. I was wondering what the pull was. They had a lot of money and prestige. I don’t know what I was expecting.
The trick he pulled on me was that I first met him without any teeth. His face was sunken and he looked like a pathetic person. He didn’t look at all powerful. But he was very friendly and showed me all of his photographs of chairs. I don’t know what that was all about. He took me to his office.
When I met him with no teeth, he looked entirely different from any photograph I had seen of him. I didn’t know what was going on. Then we had dinner at the breakfast table. It was dinner at 7 AM because they were living on his time.
As we sat down, he asked someone to bring him his teeth. He put them in and it was a total transformation. It was just a visual one and I thought, that’s a pretty good trick. That’s really good. As far as saying anything that profound during the interview, there was one comment that kind of disturbed me.
I asked why he had so many images of furniture, bus stops and things like that.
He said “The world is full of things, some of them are people and some of them are chairs.” I thought ‘Does God think that way?’ I don’t know.
That’s super detachment as far as I’m concerned. I felt he was concerned about the lives of his followers. He may have felt that he really was doing them good. He may have done some good for people. I didn’t find him overly charismatic. I don’t think his followers would describe him that way either. He could read them, gave them good advice, and whatever. The needs they had he seemed to fill.
I understand that people have gurus and that’s all part of human history. It’s understandable so it’s more like on that level. But, boy, did he have an operation. He had all these talented people doing his bidding. That’s like a Hollywood director. There are people like that allover but this was deeper.
CG You did stories on both. How would you compare Lyman and Manson?
DF I thought Manson was a real performer. Lyman was a performer as far as he was a musician. I don’t know if you saw the recent TV series Mindhunter?
(Mindhunter is an American crime thriller web television series created by Joe Penhall, based on the true-crime book Mindhunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit written by John E. Douglas and Mark Olshaker. It debuted worldwide on Netflix on October 13, 2017.)
It’s about the FBI doing research on serial killers. They go visit these horrible criminals. It’s a scary show and very well done. During the second season they met Manson. The actor who portrayed him was exactly as I remember meeting him. They couldn’t get any information out of him because he just kept preaching and performing.
In the series he doesn’t even sit in a chair. He sits on top of the chair. He does a performance. Which is what we saw visiting him, David Dalton and I, in jail. He had lines he had spoken many times before. He had great body motion. He was kind of like a wizard. I wouldn’t say it was charisma. It was sort of like an act.
CG So you actually met Manson.
DF Yes, before the trial.
CG How long did you spend with him?
DF About two hours. We weren’t allowed to ask about the murders so we asked about (The Beatles) “White Album.” He talked about how the judge was trying to make people hate him. That was a giveaway to me that he was very self-serving in what references he did make. However, my impression was, I felt he was a con artist. He was a performer. But a good one.
He had long fingernails and he clicked them across the Formica table to make a point. He was full of energy. I could see how he had followers.
CG I have his album Lie.
DF I do too. Do you have the vinyl?
CG Yes. What is your opinion of the Quentin Tarantino film?
DF Once Upon a Time in Hollywood?
DF I love that film. It’s the only Manson film with a happy ending.
CG Going back to Lyman and teeth. That recalls my first encounter with him.
He was living in Waltham with my friend Judy Silver. She was missing classes and it was getting close to finals. I offered to tutor her for an art history class. We started to study and that’s when I met him. He was in the kitchen making fudge.
Mel was dealing his home grown, maple syrup cured pot. It was very potent as I found out that night. When we smoked that was pretty much the end of art history and her time as a Brandeis student.
His mantra was about indulging in bad habits like cigarettes and sugar. I watched him put tons of sugar in his coffee. It was all a part of his notion of being real. Giving in to primal instincts however self-destructive. He had no sense of a balanced diet and craved sweets. That may have been a factor in losing teeth and related health issues. You met Mel when that had caught up with him.
(Ryan Walsh attempted to find the details of his demise and place of burial. He told me that there is no death certificate and for a long time the family denied his passing.)
DF They may have even told me that he loved sweets and that’s how he lost his teeth.
CG Everything was about self-indulgence. The mantra was being real and showing your emotions. It was about his promiscuity and droit de seigneur regarding the women and girls in the community.
DF By the time I met him the indulgence was pretty much limited to one person. He asked the others to give up almost everything for him. There were a lot of family beliefs that had nothing to do with indulgence. There were ideas of servitude. The women should serve the men. They were anti homosexuality. They hated hippies. It was a reactionary form of indulgence that permitted him to eat the sweets.
CG You visited Martha’s Vineyard. How did servitude extend to women at the upper end of the hierarchy? As you say, a number of them were from wealthy and socially prominent families including Jessie, the daughter of the renowned artist Thomas Hart Benton.
DF In several cults I covered or knew about it seemed that they were run by one man; surrounded by women who were next in charge over everybody else. The work was done by women directly under his control. They had control over the rest of the men under them.
The hierarchy tended to be women except for the head who was male. I don’t know why that is but it seemed to be a formula.
CG Were those hierarchical women waiting on him hand and foot?
DF No. The idea was that the women took care of the children. There were traditional female roles. The women served the men. Did you see the film “Charlie Says,” by Guinevere Turner, which is about the Manson women in prison? It’s a believable version of Manson and his followers. In that film the men were always served first before the women. That’s a traditional religious format.
CG I had concerns for you going solo up river to see Kurtz. How could you defend yourself?
DF I might not have thought about it that much. This is true for Manson as well. None of us got murdered. I was with Rolling Stone and it was a great goal for both of those gurus to get into that magazine. We even forgot to mention the Manson album. That’s how I got the interview with him because they wanted me to promote the record. I felt the magazine had my back and that being with Rolling Stone protected me. We mentioned the album but didn’t review it. Not in the interview either.
I don’t think it’s a very good album. In the film “Charlie Says” they convey being angry that the record company turned their back on him.
(Manson's recording was made on September 11, 1967 and released as an LP in 1970 while the Tate/La Bianca murders and subsequent Manson Family trials were still headline news. The album cover is an altered version of Manson as he appeared on the cover of Life Magazine on December 19, 1969. On the record jacket the "F" has been removed, transforming "LIFE" into "LIE.)
Dennis Wilson betrayed him. David Dalton had hung out with Dennis which was another reason how we got in to see Manson. That’s why Dalton worked on the story because he had that part of it. Later, when I met Dennis, he refused to talk about Manson in any way which I can’t blame him for. That was a very traumatic episode for the Beach Boys.
David Dalton is a really good music writer and we worked on the Manson piece. I had just joined Rolling Stone and it was my first assignment. I came from the LA Times and the straight world. David knew the culture much better than I did.
After we saw Manson and went back to the car, we had our first fight. He thought he was innocent. I said “Are you nuts? I totally disagree.” Fortunately, we got over that argument. The next day we went to the DA and they showed us pictures and evidence.
CG Can you describe what it was like to see graphic images of the carnage? Did you see a mutilated Sharon Tate?
DF I didn’t see Sharon Tate images. But I did see carving on the stomach of La Bianca.
(Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary were victims. Leno was a grocery store owner, and Rosemary was also a successful business woman. Seven people were killed by Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, and Patricia Krenwinkel under the direction of Manson.)
The DA at the time (Deputy District Attorney Aaron Stovitz) showed us the evidence and we scooped the other media. We disguised his name in the story but it resulted in him being taken off of the case. The prosecutor became Vincent Bugliosi. Bugliosi, who was his assistant, became the star.
The DA told us all kinds of things and was a great story teller. We told him, any time you want us to shut off the tape recorder that’s ok. He never went off the record. He probably thought we were just some underground rag. Perhaps he thought he was doing me a favor because I used to be at the LA Times.
I googled him recently and believe that he’s dead. He wasn’t specifically taken off the case for what he told us. He was warned by the judge to stop talking to the press. He made a remark about one of the female defendants being like Sarah Bernhardt and he was taken off the case soon after that.
(He died at 85 in 2010. A 1970 LA Times story speculated that Stovitz got into trouble for an off-hand remark he made after defendant Susan Atkins testified that she was too ill to continue with the trial. “She’s putting on an act worthy of Sarah Bernhardt,” United Press International quoted Stovitz as saying. The LA Times story also noted an interview Stovitz gave to Rolling Stone magazine before the trial in which he talked about details of the murder case. Stovitz said he thought the interview was for background and not for publication in violation of a gag order. After that, Judge Younger ordered both Stovitz and his fellow prosecutor, Vincent Bugliosi, not to make public statements about the case.)
CG We talked about the young U.K. blogger. A new generation is discovering a complex era we lived through. They are back ending it through sensationalism. I don’t see my memories of that era filtered through Manson and Lyman.
DF It’s too bad as sensationalism has always given the 1960s bad press. If you look at what happened artistically and experimentally, it was as you just said, a complex time. The consciousness of the country was changed during that time. Anyone who lived through it, my heart goes out to them, because they had so much on their heads. There was terrible tragedy and great division because of the Vietnam war.
I had forgotten that after Kent State the majority of the country approved what the National Guard did. The reason that Rolling Stone, Avatar, and the underground press started was because the straight press wasn’t accurately covering what was happening.
There was a change of consciousness and the country lost its way. People jumped in to fill that vacuum. A lot of positive things happened. Particularly in the latter part of the 1960s with music, sex, drugs and new freedoms. In many ways, families are raised better today with more knowledge. There’s still racism, of course.
I think the change started in the 1950s with beatniks and Kerouac. There were changes and many of them were positive. They have been assimilated into society. The music alone was a tremendous adventure. At a moment when academia was destroying classical music rock and roll emerged as the new serious music.
CG In a recent e mail you described being in quarantine with your wife and 24-year-old daughter. How did what we have just discussed impact parenting her?
DF It’s more personal than that. I had my first family, a son and daughter both in their fifties, when I was with the LA Times. Actually, I had two daughters. My first daughter had two daughters one of whom took her own life. I was working for a paper and they allowed me to write very experimental things about life in Haight-Ashbury.
I loved the whole thing about sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll but the thing I loved the most was the drugs. That got me in trouble. The major thing in my life is that I stopped doing that. I’ve been sober for 38 years. So, my new family and new life were not part of that.
While no longer part of that I still feel that I’m a Flower Senior.
CG I’ve never heard that term before. Have you published it?
DF It never happened but I was thinking of writing a column “Flashbacks of a Flower Senior.” You probably are too.
CG The term has legs. What was the blowback of those stories? You said that the publication had your back. But people could come after you individually.
DF As far as I know there were no repercussions after the Manson story. One of the people I ran into recently was Guinevere Turner. I introduced her to Ryan Walsh after his book came out. She was working on a movie about Manson which is how she got ahold of me. Recently, she wrote a New Yorker piece about being a child in the Lyman Family. She’s a very astute observer of cult life. That brought a lot of understanding to her Manson film even though it’s not pro Manson. She really understood how Manson appealed to women. It’s a really good film and one of the best things I’ve seen on Manson. It has quite a bloody ending.
(Guinevere Turner, was born 1968 in Boston. She is an actress and writer, known for American Psycho (2000), The Notorious Bettie Page (2005), and Go Fish (1994).
I loved Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. I was there at that time and recognized all the billboards. The depiction of the Spahn Ranch was exactly as I remembered it.
CG You visited.
DF David and I had dinner at the ranch one night. I had a great title for that chapter where we go to the Spahn Ranch. “In the Land of the Mindless the Blind Man is King” but Rolling Stone fucked it up.
Squeaky Fromme came up to the office, a few years later, just before she took a shot at Gerald Ford. I’m not sure why she came by. Maybe she wanted a copy of The Mindfuckers book. She saw a poster for a massage book that showed a black woman massaging a white man. She got furious and said something like ‘Charlie says you can’t mate horses and donkeys.’
After the Lyman piece Kweskin and Owen DeLong showed up at the office demanding to see Jann (Wenner). They wouldn’t leave and Jann slipped out the back way.
A year or two later I ran into Kweskin backstage. He was opening for Maria Muldaur in San Francisco. He was passing by and I said hi. He went by, came back, and said “If you ever say hi to me again, I’ll kill you.”
I just smiled at him and he hit me in the face. It thought ‘great, this will be great for my review.’
CG Anything to help the story.
DF He slapped me. Fairly recently, I was exploring doing something further with the Lyman family. Perhaps a movie. I thought maybe I could bury the hatchet and work with Kweskin. I knew Kweskin hated me. I called a friend, Bobby Neuwirth, and asked if he could set up a peace luncheon between me and Kweskin. He’s a good friend but said “I won’t do it. Those guys are really mean bastards.” He knows Geoff Muldaur and performed with Kweskin.
Ryan (Walsh) has stories about talking with Kweskin. He’s a temperamental, confused kind of guy.
CG Truth is David, not just Kweskin, I wanted to take a swipe at you.
DF (laughing) I have that picture of us and Elton John (and Al Kooper). I don’t remember you being hostile but you have every right to be.
CG There was an event, I believe it was the Elton John party at Universal Studios. You were surprised to see me. I was at the Herald Traveler and Elton invited me through Norm Winter. I was just this guy from Boston who you had interviewed. You probably felt, I’m never going to run into that guy again, and then there I was and really pissed off. You had fucked me over in the piece as this thug Harry Bikes. I said something like you’re a snake-eyed weasel and I’m going to throw you out the window.
DF If you did, I took it as a compliment.
CG Well screw you. You really are an ass hole just as I thought.
DF I confess to all of that. Actually, I was very surprised when Ed (British podcaster) mentioned that you were upset. I saw a poem a couple of years ago in which you referred to me as a snake.
I was surprised that you were upset. I didn’t get it, then went back and read how I described you, and I really do apologize. I just wouldn’t do that today. I wouldn’t write about anybody that way.
CG To backtrack a bit. I felt taken advantage of. You came to me with an introduction from a friend. I viewed myself as a journalist assisting a colleague. I had unique information to share. I was one of the few at the time who knew Lyman from when he arrived at Brandeis. From before he morphed into a world savior and cult leader. I felt that I was doing a good turn.
When Dave Wilson, Sandi Mandeville and I took over Avatar, in the summer of 1968, we were deeply committed to journalism. From there we went on to significant careers. That fall I was hired by the daily Herald Traveler as a jazz and rock critic.
Dave’s expertise is folk music and I have degrees in art history. Compared to the spiritualism of Lyman’s Avatar you smeared us, and me in particular, as political thugs. You called me Harry Bikes but I was anything but a biker. I prefer to think of myself, then and now, as an arts activist. Our Avatar was not at all an underground rag. I had hoped you would present our side of the story but that didn’t happen.
I was never a political radical and in hindsight that’s much to my regret. There was an opportunity that I could be more involved. I missed the boat on activism. There I was in Rolling Stone depicted by you as a mindless thug.
DF Despite the physical description (biker) I don’t remember you as a mindless thug. You were the whole source for the chapter on the Avatar and that they stole the issue (#25). Reading it now, and my memory of it, you were a valuable source. If I thought you were full of shit it wouldn’t have been useful for the story.
I apologize for taking liberties in the description, and not as a defense, because I wasn’t using your name, I thought I could create more of a fictional character. That’s not defensible in any way. I my mind, reading the story, I don’t think you come off as a fool at all. You seem to have perceptions of the early days of Lyman and certainly how the cult took over Avatar.
CG It’s been decades since I read that story although, clearly, it’s etched into my skin. Correct me if I’m wrong but you seemed to be endorsing Avatar as a spiritual, cult paper and a laudable phenomenon. You surmised that we were desecrators and vulgarians.
DF That was not my intention. It was a disgrace and violation of the First Amendment to destroy every copy (of issue #25).
This is not related to what we are discussing but I learned from Guinevere, that after the Rolling Stone story came out, all the Lyman family children were withdrawn from public school and home schooled. They did not want the children to be exposed to what the media was saying about them.
What they did to your paper (issue #25) was a disgrace and indication that they had no respect for any institution and opinion other than their own. I did think of myself as a serious journalist who got carried away. This is a shock to me because I remember you as a very valuable source.
When you confronted me at the Elton John event, I didn’t take it seriously as a threat. I didn’t know that you were upset and I’m sorry. You have every reason to be and I apologize for my behavior.
CG Apology accepted. But if we went deeply into mea culpas no doubt my list is longer than yours. Today, with hindsight, looking back at an era when we were covering drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll, a lot of bad moves went down all around. As counterculture journalists we pursued a lifestyle that very few ever experience, then or now. I strongly identified with the young rock critic in the film Almost Famous. I saw a lot of my own experience in that young reporter.
DF They made a musical of it and I’m a character in it for about thirty seconds.
CG As a legacy project I published a book Counterculture in Boston; 1968-1980s. It’s an oral history with those who were there. When you do interviews, like this one, it takes you through the dense, dark, ominous tangle of memory. We are bringing back to life long forgotten feelings and events. There is a mirage we have passed through now made vivid. A mantra in all this has been “up the river with Kurtz.” There’s a huge part of me about the heart of darkness. Vulnerability is an important aspect of telling the story. It’s false to be the hero of our narratives and better if we are observers and participants.
DF Politico asked me to do an obituary for Manson which I did. He died, that and the movie Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, represents a renewed interest. Manson quickly put an end to hopes of the Summer of Love. But I feel that there were many good things that came out of that period.
We would no longer pick up a hitchhiker and share our weed with him which we would do then. You had an inclination to give a ride to a person your age which was a great human tool. It’s a real strength that we have to trust people. There was an openness in the late 1960s of which Woodstock was the best example. What brought all those people together for three days? There was a sense of hope that shouldn’t be snuffed out and lost forever.
CG Can we talk about Bill Cardoso a talented but tragic figure. He was in San Francisco trying to connect with Rolling Stone. But they already had Hunter Thompson and weren’t in the market for another gonzo journalist.
He wrote some stories for then flush San Francisco Magazine. At one point, he was in Boston on assignment (and expense account) covering a Red Sox pennant race. He had convinced the editor that Boston and San Francisco were in some sense sister cities. He and George Kimball of the Boston Phoenix got thrown out of the press box. They reconnoitered to the Eliot Lounge where Bill bought rounds and held court. It was classic Cardoso on a roll.
Bill was a brilliant and innovative journalist. All that survives of that legacy is a compilation of his stories The Maltese Sangweech and Other Heroes (Atheneum Books, 1984).
DF We lived together for two years. I don’t recall his talking about wanting to do stuff for Rolling Stone. Like many freelance writers he was barely making it. It’s no way to make a living. There was talk about people holding back a check. That kind of thing.
Bill was wonderful to be with. The flat was kind of nice and he wanted to turn it into a salon. Many of his friends came by.
This guy came by looking for Hunter. Later he published a story, with a cartoon illustration by somebody else, about coming by looking for Hunter. It shows him talking to Bill with me in the background with a tank of nitrous oxide. A story came out about me at a party with a tank of nitrous oxide in a baby carriage. It didn’t hurt me but, wow, there are stories of how I used to live like that.
We got along but had a fight about some weed I had left out. When I looked for it, Cardoso has smoked it all.
CG That’s Bill.
DF I said, “Cardoso, you’re a bad man.” He said “You know I’m an addict and you left it out.”
A few years later, when I was sober, I met him and he said that he was going to meetings in Sausalito. I went there to support him. We went to an AA meeting together. I was glad to see that. I stayed with him and the next day I got up and he was drinking a glass of wine. I said “What’s this Bill” and he said, “Well, I don’t think this is alcohol.”
I sort of got mad at him. Why had I come to be with him? But in my heart I felt, well, he’s not going to make it. He had a real problem, as did I, but eventually I got sober. I never met his wife (Susie) that was before me.
CG Did you know his girlfriend Line Drive? He described her as a beautiful straight woman who did PR I believe for politicians.
DF No, I didn’t know her.
CG When Bill died, I got a note from her. I knew Bill’s daughter Linda but we have lost touch. Susie was my friend from Brandeis days. She wasn’t a student but lived off campus with one. Bill met her through me. When she broke up with her boyfriend it was Easter weekend. Bill learned of it and came to my pad in the North End insisting that I take him to Cambridge for a proper intro. I told him that I had to drive to Gloucester to be with my family for Easter dinner. He forced me into it so I was late and my father was furious. As far as I know, Bill never went home and not long after they were married.
Bill also insisted that Susie learn how to drink. That ended in her having a drinking problem that took years to get sober. She was a lovely woman and dear friend who died far too young.
You talked about Bill wanting a salon. That was typical of Bill who held open house in a basement pad on Comm. Ave when he was a Globe editor. That expanded to the suburbs with a pool. Bill liked to collect hipsters who got by as boosters and dealers. I was bourgeois and educated. I enjoyed the access that Bill provided to the hipster scene. Before Susan he lived in a crash pad aptly located on Speedway Avenue. There was 24/7 action and it was a great place to fall by and hang. Some of the memorable dudes included a meth head, Doc Martin, the artisan musician, Al the Arab, Bunky, a jazz bass player, and others. A working girl, Sugar, used to bring tricks by to score some weed. Those were colorful times and Bill loved to hold court.
It was in that ambiance that I was telling an outrageous story and said “It was gonzo man, total gonzo.” Bill said “Gonzo Charles! What does that mean?” I replied “Home run, off the wall, over the fence, out of here.”
Bill stole the word and famously passed it to Hunter Thompson. He later claimed to either have invented or found it. He morphed it into the term gonzo journalism which he ascribed to Hunter.
Knowing that Bill was a thief I rushed gonzo into print in a review of Ten Years After for the Herald Traveler. I challenge anyone to produce a published use of gonzo prior to that. Bill talked Globe cartoonist, Paul Szep, to use it hilariously as a caption. That came after my Herald piece.
DF He told me that he coined it and that Hunter stole it from him. I think he took your story and adopted it. I’m sure you are telling the truth. One of the terms that Bill used about himself was that he was an “underworld figurine.”
CG That’s absolutely accurate though Bill was middle class. His father was a fire chief from Somerville. Bill graduated from Boston University School of Journalism. He was brought up as a straight kid but had a fascination with the fringe. For me, Bill was a friend, role model and mentor. He was a legitimate journalist in a field for which I had no training. I learned on the job. Bill was authentic, recognized, and had interesting ideas about journalism.
As gonzo journalism he was trying to talk Hunter into including an inventory of the drugs and alcohol consumed during writing a story. It’s a wonder that they ever finished a piece with that approach. Bill didn’t leave much of an inventory.
In Maltese Sangweech there is masterful, truly gonzo coverage of The Rumble in the Jungle.
(The Rumble in the Jungle occurred in Kinshasa, Zaire on October 30, 1974. Held at the 20th of May Stadium, it pitted the undefeated world heavyweight champion George Foreman against challenger Muhammad Ali, the former heavyweight champion. The event had an attendance of 60,000 people. Ali won by a knockout, putting Foreman down just before the end of the eighth round. It has been called "arguably the greatest sporting event of the 20th century". It was a major upset victory.)
DF Nobody could write about it. Hunter was supposed to cover it. He never did. Bill called me from over there and said they had this really strong weed. He felt he was under a spell. There was a building he showed up at every day and then it was gone. When he tried to write about it a tooth fell out of his head. There were all these strange things happening. I don’t think anyone wrote about it except for straight journalists. Mailer was there (and George Kimball).
It thought that Zaire was the death of gonzo and I was going to write about that. My story was “Gonzo Must Die.” There was a spell that killed gonzo after that. That was mostly in my head. People really had a hard time covering that story because of strange mystical forces.
CG I’m sorry you never wrote that story. Bill told me about how Zaire put the whammy on him. Who do the voodoo and don’t mess with Bill. Gonzo is about getting the story and being a part of the story is the story. It’s good to be gonzo but what Hunter and Bill found was that there are some things you just don’t mess with. As Screaming Jay Hawkins put it “I put a spell on you.” Like The Emperor Jones in the jungle on the run shooting at shadows. Fuck with the devil and it come back and bite you ass.
DF I thought you would be interested.
CG With Bill there were a lot of stories and projects that just got away. He spoke with me about twin doctors with a lucrative celebrity practice in Palm Springs. There was a crime involved most likely murder. He wanted to get embedded with the story in proper gonzo manner. Which meant bankrolling on site research. He wanted to hang with the scene which entailed megabucks to play sources from the inside. It was a bridge too far.
The best way to go gonzo is on other people’s money. That happened, for example, covering the Newport Jazz Festival, which was total gonzo, on someone else’s dime. Some real shit went down for me, Bill, and Nobby (Larry Novak). In the middle of the night hopped up, half-naked, state heat came up the fire escape of our mansion and streaked through our room. Nobby shouted “Fuck off or I’ll call the cops.” They yelled back “We are the cops.”
Some years ago, I called Bill in Frisco. He was undergoing treatments for throat cancer.
DF I didn’t know that.
CG When we talked his gig was running the concession on a ferry. He liked that as he was on the water every day. He was with Line Drive and it seemed that good things were happening for him.
DF I was deep into nitrous and had a huge tank in the living room next to a dentist’s chair and spit bowl. What I liked about it was that you could control the level of highness. The danger was that you could collapse.
I met Babara Downey and we found a place. Bill had an open invitation to move in with us in Haight Ashbury. We had a going away party that was completely bonkers. There was acid in the punch, nitrous oxide, liquor, everything. Staff from Rolling Stone came. There was a scientist from Stanford who brought a generator that shot sparks out everywhere.
We were all wasted and at some point, Cardoso went out on the street and came back with a couple of gay guys. They were total strangers. I got real mad at him for doing that. I was high and said “You can’t move with us. You can’t move with us.”
I regretted that and I did occasionally see him after that.
CG You’ve now been 38 years sober. What’s that like?
DF It’s great and saved my life. I had lost most of my friends and hit bottom in 1981. Off and on I had been going to meetings for three years. I gave up everything, did what I was told, and got straight.
I gave up journalism and went into comedy writing and got a few gigs. Then I joined MTV. I did promos and eventually became senior vice president there.
My first daughter, who went to School of Visual Arts in New York, came to MTV and became a producer. She produced stuff I wrote. I helped developing Beavis and Butthead. On my busines card it says “Pulitzer Prize Winner and Spiritual Advisor to Beavis and Butthead.” I’ve had a steady salary for 20 years.
CG How did you win a Pulitzer?
DF I was on the staff of the LA Times which won for coverage of the first Watts Rebellion in 1965. It wasn’t for me alone it was for being on that staff.
CG So now you live in upstate New York.
DF I have an apartment in Manhattan which I visited this week for an hour. I’ve been hiding out up here pretty close to Albany. I know North Adams and we go to MASS MoCA occasionally. I have four acres and a pond with a barn. The hayloft has been converted into a music studio with all my keyboards. With my wife and daughter, we’re doing well.
CG When we get the all clear let’s get together.