MacBird!: little-known masterpiece of counterculture literature

After JFK was assassinated, the country went into deep shock. Very few people wanted to dwell on the event, or even consider evidence of CIA involvement. In fact, the mood of the country was similar to the post 9/11 environment, which left many people unable and unwilling to consider alternative conspiracy theories other than Osama bin Laden did it.

In any major crime, however, the key is to examine who benefited, and nobody benefited more from the JFK assassination than Lyndon Baines Johnson, an intensely corrupt politician who knew about the event in advance, although he certainly lacked sufficient power to pull it off on his own. In fact, had JFK not been assassinated, Johnson would likely have been jailed due to an ongoing investigation into bribes he’d accepted, a story that wouldn’t fully surface until after his death.

Barbara Garson was a leader in the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. In August of 1965, she was speaking at an anti-war rally in Berkeley, when she called the new First Lady: “Lady MacBird Johnson.” This slip-of-the-tongue inspired Garson to write a Shakespearean parody based around the Kennedy assassination and the first staged reading of this masterpiece of counterculture literature actually occurred at the Channing-Murray Foundation run by the Unitarian Church in Urbana, Illinois, an event that cemented that church as the beachhead for the blossoming anti-war movement in central Illinois.

The lead character of MacBird was played by none other than my cohort at the time, Brian Ravlin, who I’d first met when he appeared in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Urbana Junior High with my brother, Paul.  Brian had dropped out of high school and gone to San Francisco in search of Bugsy’s brother Don. When he reappeared in Urbana a year later, he seemed an entirely new person.

A few days before the show opened, Brian dropped by the high school to visit me and a cheerleader playfully squirted him in the face with a squirt gun as a joke. Brian had a huge Afro-like haircut and immense, shaggy sideburns at the time (see picture above). In fact, he was probably the most wildly-flamboyant counterculture character in Champaign-Urbana at the time, although Carl Ellis (Old Carlo) would soon surpass Brian in that regard.

Anyway, Brian laughed and gave that girl a little spank on her rear with a spiral notebook he was holding, either his latest poetry or notes for his script. Smitty’s son might have been the girl’s boyfriend, they certainly ran with the same crowd, for when he saw Brian slap her butt, he just reared back and blindsided Brian with a sucker punch to the face that knocked Brian off his feet and landed him flat on his back. The teacher quickly rushed Smitty’s son into the classroom and started class as if nothing had happened. I don’t remember much of what followed, other than I went into a slow-boiling rage because nothing was being done since Smitty (the football coach) was the most powerful figure in school. Brian went home and his mom took him to the hospital to get him checked out.

Like most people at the time, I was also having trouble thinking about CIA involvement in the Kennedy assassination. A few others around me were already deep into the citizen research movement (which is the real reason we know the truth today; the government has done nothing but cover-up the trails). But I was stunned by this staged reading, and immediately accepted the transparent truth that life is a giant wheel and the same stories go round and round. Suddenly it was clear the Macbeth tragedy was obviously being played out with new characters in our own time. After watching the show, it became difficult not to become a citizen researcher and I started reading everything I could find on the assassination.

And who do you think played the character of Ken O’Dunc? Why, none other than Eric Swenson, founder of the Finchley Boys, who helped spark the local garage rock movement and then had drifted into acting. In fact, Eric was probably the best actor in the production and was playing the Kennedy role because he could do a perfect JFK imitation, Boston accent and all. Eric had always worshiped Kennedy and no one was more depressed about the assassination than he. Eric even had a portrait of JFK on the wall in his house. I’d already started my own underground newspaper after getting kicked out of the Knight Riders for taking LSD (only a few months later, my former band members turned into huge pot-heads and acid freaks…they even offered to let me back into the band, but I’d already moved on).

“The performance was directed by Iva Martirano,” recalls Judith Lewis, who played one of the witches. “She founded the Roundhouse Players and staged a number of other avant-gardish productions using Urbana High and U of I students. She was the wife of Salvatore Martirano who was a composer of electronic music on the faculty with John Cage.”

I recently went back to take a look at MacBird and rediscovered its brilliance. I think it’d be a popular play today if not for the ending: Bobby Kennedy avenges his brother’s death. In the script, Ted Kennedy appears with a cast on his arm and Garson makes it clear the Kennedy’s believe Johnson is trying to have them killed as well. Little did we know Bobby would go down within a few years.

For the most part, the script is written in Shakespearean couplets and many of the longer speeches are modern adaptations of Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquies. The characters dress in modern suits, except for a colorful plume in their fedoras and tiny toy swords affixed to their waists. Eventually, MacBird became a huge hit on Broadway, launching the career of Stacy Keach.

I kinda wish Garson would revisit this project and update the script with the latest revelations. Certainly the trio of James Angleton, Bill Harvey and Johnny Roselli would make a wonderful addition as primary instigators and eventual assassins. The trio should be forced to keep killing more and more people, and eventually even Roselli, to keep a lid on the conspiracy.

Allen Dulles and J Edgar Hoover would be the masters of the coverup. Kennedy’s conflict with the Texas oil cowboys as well as the Eastern Federal Reserve need to be spelled out. And, of course, Johnson must voluntarily give up the throne (and then watch Bobby Kennedy get killed by a Dulles-Angleton goon anyway). In the end, MacBird goes back to the ranch in a deep depression and dies relatively young while tremendously unhappy.

Our local production of MacBird was a transforming event in central Illinois and one I still think about. We already had John Cage producing his greatest happenings in our town, I was running the biggest counterculture publication in downstate Illinois at the age of 17, and the Finchley Boys were rapidly becoming one of the most famous garage bands in the State.

But we also had some leaders on the other side of the fence, including the mysterious Professor Revilo P. Oliver, whose name spells the same both ways, and who was the leading pundit of the John Birch Society at the time, the first person to announce a conspiracy coverup in the JFK assassination within days of the event, and a person who probably should have been fired from the University for anti-Jewish rantings, but never was. In Revilo’s world view, the Jews were behind the Communists, who were behind everything else, including the shadow government. Today, I view the John Birch Society as an intelligence operation, not a legitimate citizen’s group, just based on their controversial history and heavy involvement in obvious disinfo. Revilo would eventually split from the Birch Society and join the violent White Power movement, undoubtedly another intelligence op.

In another weird twist, Johnny Roselli, one of JFK’s assassins, was passing through town frequently at the time to visit his lover, owner of the Champaign-Urbana News Gazette, a newspaper I worked for on week-ends to make pocket money.

I just wish Garson (or someone else) would come up with a play like MacBird only about 9/11 because we sure need something to break down the walls of resistance to truth that have been erected to protect the guilty.

Coda: At our Class of ’69 50th reunion, I’d finally meet “the cheerleader” Brian had spanked after she squirted him. Betsy helped get me a copy of the class yearbook and during our conversation at the event, she brought up the spanking. Turns out she thought Brian grabbed her with his hand. I explained it was a notebook slap. She had been dating Smitty’s son at the time, who was just defending her honor, and after he got suspended the next day, he was upset and humiliated for being forced to stay home for a day.

10 Replies to “MacBird!: little-known masterpiece of counterculture literature”

  1. Eric Swenson was so obsessed with Kennedy that he obtained a reproduction of Kennedy’s famous rocking chair and used to have his hair styled like Kennedy’s and even smoked Kennedy’s favorite H Uppman cigars. Once, I was riding in a taxi cab with Eric and he was wearing a Kennedy type sharkskin suit and smoking an H Uppman. As we passed the crowds coming out of the Assembly Hall, I told Eric to “waive at the people, Mr. President.” He looked at me to see if I was joking, and, as I had my straight face on, Eric rolled down the taxi window and started waving at the crowd.

  2. And speaking of the Old Carlo. The Old Carlo was a suspect in the theft of a number of volumes from the rare book department at the U of I library. Rumor had it that Carlo had sequestered them away in one of his hiding places in the vast network of steam tunnels that ran beneath the University. The FBI showed up at the Illini Union to detain the Old Carlo for questioning but the Old Carlo was in the midst of his weekly chess match. Carlo imperiously told the FBI that he was going nowhere until he had made his move on the chess board. After half an hour of deliberating, the Old Carlo finally moved his chess piece and declared: “Checkmate.”

    1. It would be nice to find some pictures of Carl. I have none. Early on, long before he was Old Carlo, I bumped into him on 2nd St. right after last call at the campus bars. He brightened up immensely upon seeing me and requested my assistance, promising me a free beer if I lent my help for just a mere minute…and I didn’t have to actually do anything at all, so he steered me into the high-rise apartment building across the street and parked me in front of a door (as bait) while he slithered around to the side of the door frame and rang the bell. When the door opened, it was Stanley, this brilliant gay dude who was always rocking in his seat and lecturing in the Union cafeteria on all sorts of conspiratorial subjects, Tesla and Reich being among his favorites. Anyway after the door was opened, Carl jetted into the room, threw open the fridge, grabbed a cold six pack and then bolted out and down the stairs, me following somewhat meekly behind.
      But I always enjoyed drinking with Carlo because he loved conversing on matters of spirituality. I guess he was working out his zeitgeist, which eventually got used to manufacture a cult of LSD dealers. God knows how much money Carlo was making before he eventually got busted in a large house on the outskirts of town, but he never gave up his love for hard liquor, far as I know.

      1. Lest we not forget.. The Old Carlo wrote a manuscript on harpsichord technique on brown paper bags as a guest of the Champaign County Jail.

        1. This must be the same Carlo I heard playing “Puff the Magic Dragon” in the manner of Bach in the War Room at the Red Herring late one night in 1976 or 1977. He’d recently gotten out of jail, was wearing orange robes and had his “followers” with him. One of them told me they got up at 5 am to bake bread to sell to help support him. I couldn’t believe these guys would drop out of school to do this. There was also a story about him reassembling an antique harpsichord in one of steam tunnels and playing it. Being young and pregnant, I was a little nervous when he started asking me about myself, my name, where I lived, but my husband and other friends were there at the time.

  3. I was 14 in 1963 when JFK was killed. It never felt right and the news felt empty, without truth in it, after that. I could tell I was being treated like a mushroom (fed sh*t and kept in the dark), but could not put my finger on it. Then a few years later, MacBird came out and I saw it in NYC in Greenwich Village, and it woke me up for the rest of my life. Apocalypse is not a scary 4 horse trip. Apocalypse is the uncovering of the truth. So welcome all to the time of the uncovering of the truth. MacBird was a predawn ray of light shooting across a dark sky that was just beginning to lighten.

    1. whowas the young female hippie who sang white rabbit at the red herring 1968 ……………adrian,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

      what happened to eric swenson

      1. Athan Holland was the singer. Eric was hit and killed by a car while trying to cross the highway in San Francisco after being unceremoniously booted from the vehicle by Athan’s high school boyfriend, Norman “Brian” Ravlin.

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