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.

Jock is Beautiful

The first issue of The Tin Whistle could not have been more explosive and the first two articles in that first issue actually set the stage for a lot of what would happen for the rest of the year. “Jock is Beautiful,” was written by Charlie Geron, and made reference to a beating inflicted on a prominent member of the U-Club.

The blacks, it seems, had finally taken sides in the jock-longhair conflict Smitty had been fomenting, and decided to side against Smitty and with the longhairs. Charlie also took a swipe at the U-Club Parent’s Association, run by Smitty and the fathers of his white stars.

The other (unsigned) letter to the editor was titled “Racism and Discontent” and mostly concerned the systemic racism in the athletic department, and the fact black parents were never invited to the meetings, most of which were held at Smitty’s house.

“An impending crisis hangs over Urbana High School and no one really realizes the seriousness of the matter,” wrote the anonymous author. “The White racism and Black discontent that are so prevalent in our nation and community is manifested in the actions and attitudes which make Urbana High a potential area for racial disturbances.” These words would soon prove very prophetic.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but those two articles were extremely offensive to Smitty and he immediately called a meeting of the entire U-Club. After they were all assembled, he entered the room and exploded: “I put more niggers through college than any coach in this state!!” was just one of many inflammatory comments made during his emotional tirade. It’s only recently that I’ve come to realize these meltdowns were likely the result of PTSD from his years as a tail-gunner.

Coach Warren “Smitty” Smith.

During most of the speech, Smitty was staring straight at Jim Wilson, who was the starting end at the time, and Harvey Treat’s favorite receiver. In fact, Harvey’s favorite play was a bomb he threw to Jim. So far they’d run the play three times and it had scored a touchdown on all three tries.

It was clear Smitty felt sure Jim had written that letter as he had taken on a rather erudite style recently, likely a result of his being influenced by the oratory of Fred Hampton.

“And if you see some kid with his shirttail hanging out, smoking a cigarette on school property, you have my permission to punch them out,” concluded Smitty.

Although Smitty didn’t actually say “longhair,” I think those final comments were aimed at me and my cigarette-smoking crew. Smitty had watched me grow up because we went to the same Lutheran Church for many years, until I defected, something that would have certainly not gone unnoticed by him. The U-Club meeting was Smitty’s way of declaring war on the counterculture and especially on me and The Tin Whistle; and the first casualty was Jim Wilson, who’d continue suiting up for games for the rest of the year, but would never play football again in his life. Such was the punishment for writing a letter to The Tin Whistle that Jim actually didn’t write! Many years later, John Reinhardt (who was white) confessed that the prophetic letter was his and he left it unsigned because he suspected what Smitty’s reaction to any sort of criticism might be.

Jim Wilson (wearing beret).

The tragedy was that Jim was talented enough to get a football scholarship. He placed third in the State in the high-jump that year and could basically out-jump just about anybody, a great asset for an end. He was around 6′ 4″ and had blazing speed. His dad, a track coach at the University, had been grooming Jim for a possible professional career, but then Jim’s dad died unexpectedly, and then Smitty silently blacklisted Jim off the football team for a crime he didn’t commit. Jim could have folded his cards and given up on life. Instead, he decided to run for senior class president. And you know what? Not a single member of the U-Club ran against him. I think it was an amazing display of their respect and affection for Jim. As well as their realization that maybe Smitty was wrong. But Smitty had been right about one thing: Jim was the alpha male on the civil rights movement in our class. And if he could get a chance, he intended to confront the racism so prevalent in our school at the time.

Carp Joins the Knight Riders

John Hayes was one of the tallest kids in my class. In fact, I think he and Harvey Treat were the tallest dudes their age for a brief time, having gotten their growth spurts early, although Harvey was built like a rock and John had chicken legs like me. It was debatable who was more handsome, Harvey’s young John Wayne or Hayes’ young Kirk Douglas.

Hayes was blonde and had this amazing chin dimple. He lived on Delaware Street, right down the block from me, so I guess it was inevitable we’d hang out at some point. But after he formed the Knight Riders and I saw their debut at the Urbana Junior High sock hop, I made it a point to start dropping by. They had opened their three-song performance with “Get Off My Cloud,” and since Knight played organ, and was dominating the sound, I didn’t even recognize the song. I just knew these 15-year-old kids were blasting real rock energy as pure as anything I’d ever heard. In fact, I think if the Stones had been there, they would have put an organ in their version as well, because it really fit the dynamics of the song.

Hayes was highly entertaining and always had brand new records to listen to. (He appears as a composite character in my book from the front-lines of the Generation War, 1966, written when the battles were still fresh.)

One day Hayes played “Talk, Talk” by the Music Machine. We both loved the song and the black leather look of the band. Almost from day one, Hayes was encouraging me to get a bass guitar and amp, indicating I might be able to slide into the Knight Riders, as he liked my style better than his founding bass player, Donnie Perrino.

I was so eager to get into a band I did exactly that, thanks to mom, who attended the auction at C.V. Loyd’s (one of the oldest music stores in the state), where we purchased a brand-new 1966 Gibson SG bass and amplifier for the staggering sum of $500. (Today that bass would be worth a hell of lot more, but I insanely sold it off for $100 while in Sweden, desperate for money.)  I removed the black-finger grip they put on all the SG bases back then, as I intended to play with a pick, and not a thumb and fingers like a lot of players were doing. The SG had come out recently, and it was a big departure from those huge Fender bases that had dominated the live-music scene for years. Light and super easy to play, anyone with moderate skills could sound like Jack Bruce!

Now why John had it in for Donnie Perrino, I had no idea, as Donnie was clearly the best musician in the Knight Riders and could probably play any of the instruments better than anyone else in the band. But John had some deep insecurities because, while he was fun, he could also be cruel and vicious, and he often made fun of Donnie behind his back, which is a big no-no if you want to have any decent chemistry in your band. At the time, the Knight Riders were even rehearsing at Donnie’s house and Donnie’s dad was a super-cool dude and a big force in Summer Youth Music, a highly-respected program a lot of us attended. In fact, Donnie’s dad Dan eventually created a hot jazz band called the Medicare 7,8 or 9, and they became a local legend.

Here’s Donnie in 1968, after he started his own group, Blues Weed. Tom Thady was the lead guitar and Donnie played a Hammond organ. Those two were awesome musicians.

But the last time we left this particular thread, Carp was on his way to give Frank Sowers a beating, and a bunch of us were following right behind. Carp knocked on the Sower’s front door and Frank answered. Carp asked him to come out on the sidewalk as they had something to discuss.

Recalls Jim Cole: “Frank reluctantly came out of the house. Carp and I were facing him on his front lawn. The others that had come along were more of an audience than they were participants. There was a lot of tough guy woofing going on mainly between Sowers and myself. Suddenly Carp, who’d hardly said a word, sucker punched him with a right hook to the jaw. Frank flew back, knocked out, but still on his feet, barely. He ran/stumbled back to the front door and got back inside his house. Carp, myself and the rest on the entourage that were standing on the sidewalk got back into Carp’s car and one other car that was there and left the scene. Carp was a powder keg looking for a place to go off. We all knew that. Everyone in the car was grateful they were not on the receiving end of that punch.”

Carp sent a message to every jock in school: if they were going to pick on longhairs, like Smitty was obviously encouraging them to, then they’d have to deal with him. And not even Frank wanted to deal with Carp. Carp wasn’t like a normal person. When Carp got into a fight, it was like a click went off in his head, and he transformed into a creature from another dimension capable of monstrous violence. Once you saw that side of Carp in action, nobody, but nobody wanted to fuck with Carp.

John Knight.

Here’s the rest of the original Knight Riders, John Knight in 1964, before he grew long hair, and John Wilson in 1967, after he grew long hair.

To give you an idea of what “long hair” looked like in the fall of 1967, when we got back from summer vacation, (because that’s when all the longhairs really sprouted), Wilson’s blonde locks (left) were like really long at that time. Anything that went over the top of your ears was considered radical.

John Wilson.

Hayes had a real strict father, a lawyer, and devoted member of the John Birch Society (a real power in town since their leading propagandist was a professor at the University of Illinois), and Hayes had to grease his hair every morning and comb it straight back for breakfast with his dad. After he arrived at school, however, he’d wash the grease out in the boy’s room and put on his regular hair-do. Since three of the Knight Riders were named “John,” we usually addressed them by their last names. At some point, Hayes decided to get a lead singer, and he offered that position to Carp, and Carp gratefully accepted. But it wouldn’t take long for Hayes to realize he’d just lost control over his own band.

Smitty and The Blaster

Warren Smith was the most famous high school football coach in central Illinois by 1958, an innovator of the Single Wing Offense originally created by Pittsburg’s Pop Warner. (Single Wing was the precursor of today’s shot-gun formation.)

In the early ’60s, Smith invented an ingenious training device known as “The Blaster,” used to teach running backs to slip-off tackles. John Cage incorporated a Blaster into a “Happening” at the Stock Pavilion in 1968 (See “The Importance of John Cage”). I don’t think the device is still in use at Urbana High, although they are available online for around $2,000.

Smitty ran his entire team through the Blaster and if somebody got stuck in the device, he got hit by the next guy running full speed, punching him through to the other side. This could be a somewhat painful experience. And it should be noted, the primary point of the Blaster was training backs to go low, avoiding the top row. (Today, however, emphasis is placed on spin moves over powering through every opponent.)

Coach Warren “Smitty” Smith.

Everyone called him “Smitty,” except his players who just called him “coach.”

Roger Ebert was a sports reporter for the News-Gazette in 1958, (which was then-owned by Johnny Roselli’s lover—see “Smartest Kids in Town”), when Ebert wrote: “…the royal coach turned into a pumpkin, and the Cinderella Urbana Tigers stumbled and fell…”: as the opening line for a story covering a game they unexpectedly lost.

Smitty blew his top and immediately confronted Ebert: “From this day forward, you are banned from all Urbana sports under my jurisdiction. You can’t buy a ticket to the games.” The ban didn’t stick forever, but it gave Ebert a schooling on Smitty’s explosive temper and somewhat fragile ego. Very few people had any clue of the combat missions he flew as a tail-gunner, and PTSD wasn’t even on the radar yet.

When I entered Urbana High after winter break in January, 1967, I was on top-of the-world. I had a cherry-red Gibson SG bass guitar and amplifier and was taking lessons with Jim Brewer. On our annual shopping trip to Chicago, I’d been allowed to select my own wardrobe for the first time. I was wearing blue stovepipe corduroys, only the welts ran horizontal. (I’ve never seen another pair of pants like ’em since.) They were severely-tapered to the knee, which was great, ’cause I had super skinny rock’n’roll chicken legs. The stove-pipe from the knee down made them look like bell-bottoms, which had not yet become popular. I was wearing blue-suede boots with Cuban heels and side zippers. My shirt was long-sleeved, white and navy stripes with a half turtleneck. Most important, however, was the black leather jacket, double-breasted but cut shorter than a sport coat. Bugsy had found this coat first, at Kuhn’s in downtown Champaign, and it cost around $100. Very soft lamb’s leather. But when I stepped into school on the first day in this outfit (expecting oohs and aahs from the multitudes), some chucklehead from a lower class pointed at me and yelled, “He’s wearing girlie pants!” This did not phase me, as I knew I was cool.

Larry Green and Doug Blair backstage at the UHS auditorium.

One day, however, I was walking past the library when I heard a loud voice and some commotion and saw Doug Blair backing up fast, running into the library and being chased by some huge jock from the upper classes. Nobody was helping Doug as he danced around the stacks and ran underneath tables, trying to stay out-of-reach. Finally Doug bolted out the door and out of school. What was that about? Well, I soon learned Doug had written a paper for English class called “Smitty,” and had poked fun at our school icon, who was already a commander in the Generation War—on the opposing side. For example: when Faber had showed up with long hair that year, Smitty had thrown him against the lockers and said, “What happened to you, boy?!”

“Maybe I found out there’s more to life than running around a track,” replied Faber calmly. But most people didn’t dare talk to Smitty like that, and George was probably written-off as a lost-cause from that day forth, even though he was one of the stars on the cross-country team. But Doug had really crossed the line with his English paper. And it was just a matter of time before one of Smitty’s devoted players would take revenge.

Larry and the Cross

I was sitting in the locker room putting on my street clothes when the new kid in school pointed at my Blues Magoos t-shirt and let me know how hip he thought it was. Their just-released album “Psychedelic Lollypop” included a psychedelic stencil that I’d ironed on the front of a plain white t-shirt. Psychedelic t-shirts didn’t exist at this time, at least not in central Illinois, and buying that album was the only way to get one. (I still have that t-shirt today, believe it or not, as well as the leather jacket I wore through most of the ’60s, although the stencil has all but disappeared and the shirt is now yellow.) I noticed something significant right away. Around his neck hung the secret sign from my Leal School gang days (see “From Violent Steetgangs to Merry Pranksters”).

We got to talking, and I discovered his name was Larry Green and he’d just arrived from Baltimore, which I could relate to having come a few years earlier from Boston, via England and Germany. Very few kids in the school were hip to psychedelic garage rock. In fact, I thought I was the only one. Larry introduced me to Doug Blair, who soon became famous for having the longest hair in high school. Much more important, Doug had started his own legal radio station from his bedroom and was broadcasting garage rock to a significant portion of the town of Urbana. The signal was easily reached from my house as well as Larry’s.

Larry Green and Doug Blair backstage at the UHS auditorium.

That’s them in the above photo, Larry on the left and Doug on the right. At the time, both Larry and I wanted long hair, but long bangs was as far as we’d gotten. It would take a huge confrontation for me to get control over my hair (see 1966). Larry soon became the first hang-out-everyday sidekick I’d had since first grade, when Bobby Davidson and I became best friends in Arlington, Massachusetts. Larry was a devout Catholic at the time, which I understood, since I was still going to Lutheran Sunday school and Saturday school. One day, however, I got to talking to my older brother and discovered he and his friends at Uni High (the smartest kids in town) had all come to the conclusion religion was a fairy tale. I remember I got so mad at my brother because he hadn’t told me immediately, and allowed me to continue wallowing in the darkness.

Pretty soon, I told my parents I wasn’t interested in going to church anymore, something that was greatly reinforced when the Pastor showed up at our house one night after dinner, attempting to arm-twist my Dad into making bigger contributions to the church. He wanted 10% of my Dad’s salary, and I remember how proud I was when Dad laughed that suggestion off saying, “No, I’m not giving you that much.”

I made a deal with my parents. Since my confirmation was only a month or two away, once I got confirmed, I’d never have to go to church again. And I didn’t. I didn’t know it at the time, but the Urbana High football coach, Smitty, was a member of that Lutheran congregation, and his only son was in my confirmation class, although we seldom spoke. Much, much later in life, Larry came to visit me and handed over the cross he’d worn in the ’60s, an icon both of us had invested magical powers into at one time. Larry felt it belonged with me for some reason.