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 girl 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.

(Excerpted from Magic, Religion and Cannabis.)

Reflections on Older Brothers

Here’s my best buddy Larry Green in 1966 before he had long hair. Since I’ve already outlined my teenage iconography involving the goddess side of life (see “Origins of Stairway to Heaven” and “Goddess with the Dark Hair”), it might be useful to chart two major influences on the Yang side of life. My two best friends, Larry and Bugsy, both had extremely influential older brothers, both one-year older than us. While my brother was attending an Ivy League prep school (see “Smartest Kids in Town), Larry’s and Bugsy’s brothers were living in San Francisco, the coolest place in the universe in 1967. Having a super-cool older brother gave them both a leg up on me. But those two dudes, they were as different as night and day, and really represented the twin paths that confronted me. And I couldn’t decide which path I wanted to take and kept swerving from one to another.

Larry’s brother, Richard, had gone South during the Civil Right’s Movement and put his life on the line to help those less fortunate than himself. Somewhere along the line, Richard became a full-fledged Bodhisattva, devoting himself to helping people and spreading positive vibrations. Richard came through town periodically, and instead of Champaign County ditch weed, he carried real marijuana that actually got you high. Richard turned Larry on for the first time that summer and then started driving back to Frisco. He broke down around Carbondale, and a stranger helped him fix his flat. Richard gave that stranger a joint as a present for helping him and the stranger called the cops. Richard spent a few months in jail.

But then there was Bugsy’s brother, Don, who’d broken all the rules and walked the wild side since he was 14. His parents had shipped him off to Florida for a special program (probably a CIA mind control experiment—at least that’s what Don and I believe today). At the very beginnings of the ’60s there was already this dichotomy between the peace-love hippie vibe, and the punks who were living in the real world of pimps, prostitutes, pawn shops and pool halls. Don was a master of that world.

Brian Ravlin soon followed Don to San Francisco. Both these brothers, Richard and Don, would soon return to Urbana, however, and I would finally meet both legends in the flesh.