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9. The Commune Years

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The hippies were no longer living at “the horse farm” when I got back. Someone told me they’d moved to a valley in the Green Mountains of southern Vermont. It was technically in the town of Guilford, but off the grid; no electricity or telephone service, no plumbing, a mile down a dirt road. It took a while, but I managed to find them. And just like that, I was member #13.

We lived in a two-story pine lean-to; it had only three sides, with the open side facing south, onto a lovely valley called Johnson’s Pasture. The cold, clear Green River flowed through. In it we swam and bathed and washed our clothes and occasionally speared a fish, as Vermont summer dreamily drifted into Fall. For food, we had a garden: tomatoes, squash, potatoes, corn, beans, peas, peppers, melons. There was a chicken coop—I loved to wake up early and gather eggs, me the city boy; the last time I’d seen a live chicken had been when Grandpa took me to the kosher slaughterhouse, in 1953. Some of the women qualified for welfare: they got flour, sugar, cooking oil, Spam. We cooked using an old cast-iron wood stove.

When I arrived, at the height of summer, corn was king. By August, green corn shoots were growing from our shit in the outhouse. By first frost, which happens in October in the Green Mountains, the potatoes were ready to be harvested. Roasted, boiled, mashed, fried, croquettes—so many ways to make potatoes, and how welcome they were after all that corn. Those were lazy, happy days. I grew to love my new friends: beautiful, sane, serene young people who didn’t do drugs or drink alcohol, idealistic men and women who had abandoned their previous lives to devote themselves to the search for God and community. We meditated together, were kind to each other, listened to endless sermons from Michael, the undisputed leader, who had a pipeline to the Source—or so he claimed. Bad news—but I was not to understand that for years.

When I’d lived in Worcester, I’d bought myself a $20 acoustic guitar, and picked out simple bass lines to songs like Cream’s Swlabr and blues by B.B. King and Albert King. Now, in the commune, we had a member, Tater, an older guy who’d been in a professional rock band. We’d hang out in the lean-to and sing along as Tater played Beatles songs on his guitar. Someone might bang on some bongos, or blow on a harmonica. I picked up a spare guitar and played bass. These sing-alongs became our self-entertainment; they were the forerunner of what was perhaps the commune’s signature achievement: our rock and roll band, Spirit in Flesh, in which I played bass and, later, keyboards. Its high point was a sparsely-attended gig in Madison Square Garden.

That August, we met some hippies who were tramping through the valley, headed for who knows where. They told us they’d been at a huge music festival, in a place called Woodstock. We hadn’t heard. Autumn came; nights grew chilly, presaging the first blasts of winter. It was clear we could not survive in a three-sided unheated structure in the Vermont mountains. Michael called a meeting and informed us: We would be moving the next day.

He’d rented a summer camp in the mountains above the little Massachusetts town of Heath. It was a pretty spartan affair, essentially a one-story cabin on a heavily-wooded slope, with a kitchen and two long rooms containing about 30 bunk beds each. No heat besides wood stoves, but at least it had electricity and working bathrooms. It was on a dirt road the county didn’t plow during the winter. And that winter of 1969-1970 was fierce. There were blizzards; the December ’69 nor’easter remains in the history books for snowdrifts up to thirty feet. Worcester—“in the heart of the snow belt”—was a desert by comparison. After every storm, a hundred of us had to pound the snow down with our boots for a half-mile so vehicles could get in and out. It got so cold at night, we’d wake up in the morning to find our sox frozen solid.

Yet we were young and healthy. This was a period when our little commune began to grow. We had some publicity—the odd magazine or newspaper article here and there—but mostly it was word of mouth. The “back to the land” movement was at its peak: alternative-lifestyle folks were abandoning cities in droves to move to the countryside, where they learned to farm, raise livestock, put up preserves, make cheese, slaughter hogs, pick edible mushrooms, make apple cider. People heard about us and made the long, difficult trek up the mountain, at first by the dozens, then by the hundreds.

There’d been a time, when we were still living in the lean-to in Guilford, when Michael told us we were going to be “discovered” by the outside world. This would pose a grave danger. We had two choices, he said: to reject the outside world’s overtures and continue to live in our pleasant cocoon of love and peace. Or we could let the outside world in, and teach them our spiritual principles. That was a good thing, he said—in fact, it was our duty. The problem was that with the outside world would come its negativity: jealousy, resentment, materiality, violence, greed, fear. So what did we want to do?

Another choice. The decision, by a show of hands, was unanimous (and we all knew Michael’s preference). Let the outside world in! We shall be the messengers, the evangelists of this new order. We will teach the masses, as Michael teaches us. Let the outside world in—we’ll neutralize its negativity with our love.

Therefore, when Heath began exploding in population, no one was really surprised. Every day, but especially on weekends, cars and vans arrived; invariably, a few visitors stayed behind to live with us. We became articulate little explainers of what was fundamentally Theosophist philosophy, with a bit of rock and roll and acid idealism thrown in. When it was clear that Heath could no longer house us—and besides, come summer, the owner would re-open his camp–Michael bought (with the help of our parents, whom we solicited for donations) a couple acres of land in the tiny town of Warwick, Massachusetts, just south of the Vermont line. It had an 18th century farmhouse; we’d need far more space than that. Several of us (not me!) were skilled carpenters. In the summer of 1970, they built a vast, sprawling “dormitory,” said to be the largest wooden structure in New England, for our burgeoning population.

Michael’s dire warning about the outside world proved true. The visitors came, and brought with them their viruses, emotional and spiritual. As our population swelled, the commune’s center of gravity dissipated; factions and cliques splintered our once unity. One sensed a certain abandonment of spiritual values among members. Egos flared; food began to be stolen from the kitchen; venereal disease popped up. People found their tribe and took refuge. The irony was that Michael was the main victim of this rift. Blinded by his increasingly absolute power, increasingly intolerant of criticism, Michael began his long, steep descent into madness. Should we have known? Charlie Manson had already done his wicked thing, introducing America to the idea of the deranged cult leader who corrupts his followers.

Michael was aware of these external developments. In yet another group meeting, he referenced Manson; clearly, he identified on some level with him. “If I was to go into Greenfield,” he said, referring to the nearest city, “and I mowed down people with a machine gun, would you still follow me, or would you desert me?” I thought of Peter denying Jesus. So, I imagine, did others. That was how Michael cemented our loyalty, through guilt and peer pressure. I suppose, had I known then what I knew later, I would have left the next morning: this was getting weird, with talk of mass slaughter. But I didn’t know then what I knew later.

Between 1974 and December, 1978, when I finally left, Michael’s behavior became more and more corrupt. He slept with dozens of the women (and some of the men), including girls barely out of puberty, fathering many children—even though his own rule for the rest of us was to abstain from sex outside marriage. We were forbidden to smoke cigarettes, but one night he invited me to stay with him in his private quarters—a great honor–and offered me a Camel, after plugging up the bottom of the doorway with a towel so no one would smell the smoke. When I asked him to explain the discrepancy, he grinned. “That rule is for less evolved people.” Alcohol was a huge no-no for us; not for Michael, who began to bloat with beer. Later, he turned to drugs, cocaine especially; and when, after 1975, he ordered all of us to get real paying jobs, we had to sign over our paychecks to him—$30,000 every week, to spend as he pleased. Soon he had a Rolls Royce, a Lamborghini, motorcycles (which he tended to wreck), leather clothes, even a small airplane—while the rest of us dressed in rags, hitchhiked to and from work in rain and snow, and mothers couldn’t afford healthcare for their babies.

The end for me came just before Christmas, 1978. Things had really deteriorated. I did my best to avoid Michael’s mass meetings, when 400 or 500 would gather at his order, to listen in glazed-eye silence to his hours-long tirades. We had been dubbed, for several years, The Brotherhood of the Spirit, one of the largest communes in America. Now we had become The Renaissance Community, a registered, tax-exempt church; Michael was officially a Reverend. We owned many businesses—a pizza parlor, a silkscreen company (which I’d co-founded), a music store, an excavating firm, a restaurant that pioneered what we now call the farm-to-table movement. I was a waiter in the restaurant. People came to The Noble Feast from all over—professors from Amherst and Smith, professionals from Worcester, even gourmets from far-off Boston.

One night Michael showed up with his “core group,” those commune members he liked the best and bestowed special favors upon. He was drunk and obnoxious, screaming, ranting, singing, upsetting the paying customers. Overcoming my fear, I asked him to leave. He’d formed a rock band, in which he was lead singer, patterning himself after John Kay, from Steppenwolf. They had a gig that night, down in West Springfield, about 40 miles south. Michael asked if I wanted to go to the gig with him. During the drive, he said, I could elaborate on my complaints.

We drove down, and true to his promise, he let me vent. I poured it all out: the money and luxury goods, the poverty the rest of us lived in, his drugs and promiscuity, the favoritism he showed, his intolerance of dissent and stifling of free speech. He took it all in. We’d ridden down in one of those old Honda 600 cars, tiny little things; Michael and I were wedged into the back seat, while one of his acolyte women drove. When we got to the venue—a funky little country bar on a two-lane blacktop on the edge of town—Michael told the woman to get out.

Now, it was just him and me. He groped my crotch. “Stevie, Stevie, let’s have sex.” It blew my mind. Even had I been physically attracted to Michael—which I wasn’t, despite him being a handsome man–I don’t think I would have done it, I was so shocked. No thanks, I said, letting myself out of the car and escaping into the bar.

The band did their thing. Michael was drinking beer like there was no tomorrow. Sometime around midnight, after his second set, he sat next to me in a booth with high-backed seats. It was next to a window shelf on which the band had piled their amplifiers. Michael’s breath stank of beer; his blue eyes were strangely lit, insane. He shoved in close to me. I moved over. He shoved closer. Soon he was wedging me in, and then he pulled his arm back over his shoulder—it was like slow motion—made a big, beefy fist, and rammed it into my face.

Michael was a big man; he’d developed huge muscles lifting weights. I was 5’5”, 125 pounds. I tried to escape by crawling up on the table. He caught me by the arm. The amplifiers came tumbling down on top of us. In the mayhem I managed to break free and run out the front door to the parking lot, into the 18-degree night, clad only in a T-shirt. Michael came after me. He caught me, lifted me up over his head like a sack of potatoes, and threw me against the bar’s outside wall. Then he went back inside.

I hitchhiked home in the middle of the night on remote Highway 116, freezing my ass off. The next morning, the dreadful truth was inescapable: after nearly ten years, I had to get out.

  1. Andrew Crystal says:

    Can’t wait for the next episode!

  2. Tomorrow morning. Plus, a surprise…

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