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.)

Not Like Everybody Else

Jim Cole stopped by Eric Swenson’s house and discovered this clean-cut kid (Mark Warwick) with a red guitar playing Beatles, Stones and Animals songs with Eric accompanying on drums. Since Cole already had experience singing along to some of these records in his bedroom, using a hairbrush for a mic, he convinced the two to start a band with him as the lead singer. Mark soon enlisted another guitar player (Steve Dyson) and a bass player (Tim Anderson) both of whom went to high school in Champaign.

According to legend as I know it, Tim was singing “Hey, Joe,” during a very early rehearsal when he started channeling some deep force inside. It’s a song about a murder, and Tim lost himself completely while rampaging through the house, standing on furniture and jumping around. It may have been the first inclination that these young kids actually had the power to become a real rock’n’roll force. Once Tim stepped up to the plate, others would quickly follow. Eric was at the end of a tortured love affair, having just been dumped, and he wrote a weepy ballad begging this girl to come back. Cole played drums on that one.

Right away, people who were dropping by began to take notice. Among the first were George Faber and Larry Tabling, who offered to build speakers for a PA system. They volunteered to be roadies on the spot. George had already tried to start a band with his friend Bob Carpenter, but Eric’s outfit was clearly on another level. Eventually, a student at the University named Bob Nutt came by to hear the band, and volunteered to be their manager after hearing one song. He booked their first gig in front of the Co-Ed movie theater on Green Street. I don’t know if they got paid, they were set-up on the sidewalk, and everyone was really nervous, but it was a huge success. Cole had tremendous sexual charisma, even at the age of 16 and clearly had the makings of a rock star. Eric, however, did not like the gig, and was not up for the rigors and realities of being in a band. He just didn’t have the personality, and his moods could be a big stumbling block, so Nutt quickly located the best high school drummer in town to replace him, Michael Powers.

Unfortunately, Tim was the next to go. I guess his grades weren’t that good so his dad made him quit as soon as it became obvious the Finchley Boys were going to take off. I’m sure that must have crushed Tim. But that opened the door for Larry Tabling to step in on bass.

The name of the band was lifted off the back of a Kinks album. (The original Finchley Boys were a street-gang in England who got into fights with the early Kinks.) That’s Jim Cole (above) in 1967, at one of the early gigs. His version of the Kinks’ “I’m Not Like Everybody Else” became the signature song of the group, and Cole sang it with a lot of passion. The lyrics spoke directly to all of us on the front lines of a Generation War that was already in full effect.

True Origins of the Finchley Boys

I might never have met Eric Swenson if my big brother Paul hadn’t decided to learn to play the cello. My mom wanted Paul to have the best teacher possible, so pretty soon he was going over to the Swenson’s house for lessons, where he discovered his teacher (a member of the famous Walden Quartet) had a son his age also attending Urbana Junior High.

Eric and Paul joined the Dramatics Club that year and got speaking roles in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The star of that production, however, was Brian Ravlin, who at age 13 was already an elfin creature from another dimension perfectly cast as Puck.

But talent-wise Eric towered over everyone; he matured faster and developed his immense artistic energies in multiple directions at once. Unfortunately, Eric’s mom was bipolar (long before any of us knew what that word meant—we just called ’em “crazy” back then.) She also had a serious drinking problem. She’d stay up all night several nights in a row, then go bonkers eventually and start banging pots and pans at 3 AM just to annoy Eric’s dad.

Eric told me he and his dad got so pissed they urinated on her while she was passed out on the couch after one of these all-night sessions. Eric laughed when he told the story.

She disappeared one day, and you thought things would get better, but Eric quickly inherited the illness from his mom, going into rages, smashing everything in sight.

He wasn’t like this often, just an hour or two every three months or so. His father padlocked his bedroom and let the rest of the house turn to total shit. The sink was filled with the same dirty dishes for months on end. Most of the other interior doors were broken off their hinges. You understood the depth of Eric’s demons when you realized he could tear a door out of its frame. Eric stopped going to school and started eating all his meals at the local diner, Mel Roots, where his father covered the tab.

Eric had a life we all envied, following his every fantasy wherever it led, staying up as late as he wanted, doing whatever he pleased all the time. The nearby University of Illinois provided a lot of stimulus for him to explore. He was a rising star in the local community theater at 15, playing roles twice his age with ease.

He developed a comic alter-ego named Swafford, named after a detested math teacher at Urbana Junior High. (Many years later, I’d stumble onto Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry, the pioneering work of absurdist theater and realize Ubu Roi was an exact replica of Swafford–right down to being based on a middle-school teacher of Jarry’s).

Eric invented incredibly complex Swafford routines and acted them out in Swafford’s inimitable voice, elements of which were influenced by The Three Stooges. Some of these were so popular we made Eric perform them over and over, and they got more complex and more hilarious the more he worked on them. One of the grand episodes concerned a foreign-exchange student coming over to Swafford’s house for Thanksgiving, but when the turkey came out of the oven, Swafford’s immense greed was instantly activated and he quickly turns on the student in a rage rather than share his food. I remember snot flying out Swafford’s nose after he removed the imaginary turkey from the imaginary oven, smelled the aroma, and then flipped into a paranoid frenzy.

Swafford was the sort of character who’d stare you in the eye and say “the sun is shining” when it was pouring outside. You couldn’t trust a word he spoke and Swafford was always hustling some con-job.

When the Beatles arrived, Eric had become an instant fan. He liked Ringo the best, so he got a set of drums long before any of the rest of us had real rock instruments. One night in 1966 at the Tiger’s Den, Eric was watching a local band with Mark Warwick, when they both discovered they were practicing to Beatles’ records at home on their own. They decided to get together the next day at Eric’s. They were both 15. It was the beginning of the Finchley Boys, who would eventually become the most famous garage band of central Illinois, although Eric’s participation would end after just one gig.