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.)

My First Trip on LSD

It wasn’t long after Hayes brought Carp into the Knight Riders that he began plotting how to get rid of him. Meanwhile, Tim Anderson, the original bass player for the Finchley Boy’s, convinced his dad to let him re-join a band. You might remember Tim was the first member of the Finchleys to unleash himself at a rehearsal and help guide the Finchleys into the realms of real rock’n’roll—what Dave Aguilar of the Chocolate Watchband describes as: “An overloaded lumber truck coming down the mountain, riding two wheels on all the curves” (see “True Origins of the Finchley Boys”). Hayes (left) held a secret tryout with Tim and we were all very impressed with his passion. “Wow, we finally got a showman in the band,” said Hayes afterwards. Tim left thinking he’d just joined a band.

“What about Carp?” I wondered. There’s an age-old technique for getting rid of band members without any uncomfortable confrontations, and Hayes was naturally going to employ this technique by disbanding the Knight Riders and then re-forming a new band a few days later with Tim as the lead singer. Of course, this new band would require a new name and Hayes asked me to start thinking up possible new names immediately. I decided to split rather than stick around to see what was going to happen when Carp showed up for a band meeting and heard the bad news about his band disbanding.

I hitch-hiked over to the Union Tavern, in the basement of the Illini Union, one of my three favorite hangouts at the time, the other two being Turk’s Head and House of Chin. (This was before the Red Herring Coffeeshop opened in the basement of the Unitarian Church.) Bugsy was sitting at a table wearing a huge Cheshire grin. An older beatnik dude was with him. I started talking to Bugsy, but the older dude interrupted right away. “Bugsy’s tripping right now,” he said. Holy Cow! This was the first I’d heard of any LSD in my hometown!! That’s when I noticed Bugsy’s eyes were big as saucers. A buddy of Bugsy’s had just flown to San Francisco for the weekend (the round-trip ticket was under $300), purchased several hundred blue capsules of LSD (still legal at the time—150 mics each we were told). The caps cost $1 on the street in the Haight, but could be sold for almost anything in Urbana, so desperate were people for a taste of this new infamous drug. On an initial investment of less than $1,000 this dude was planning to make at least $10,000 in profit. I could see the calculator going off in his head. I was fronted four capsules for the special price of $10 each.

I headed over to Doug Blair’s new crib. After the baseball-bat incident with Frank Sowers (see “King of the Greasers”) Doug had left high school and gone straight into the University of Illinois. He was a straight-A student running his own radio station at the time, so it hadn’t been too difficult. Instead of moving into a dorm like most incoming freshmen, Doug had located approved-student-housing on Third Street. It was a giant old house and had two or three beds in most of the rooms, but somehow Doug (left) had scored a small private room on the very top floor all by himself. The first time I’d gone up there, Doug had been getting high by sniffing lab-grade toluene. I tried it and almost instantly had a frightening panic attack and couldn’t remember my name for about 30 seconds. It freaked me so bad, I never wanted to sniff glue again. The only earlier experience I’d had with glue was when a bunch of us decided to hold our own version of the Finchley Boy’s famous glue party (see “True Origins: Stairway to Heaven”). We were at Jim K’s house and after we got high, I ran out to his backyard, which fronted a local golf course, took off all my clothes and started running around naked. Of course, this greatly concerned my friends, who desperately tried the herd me back inside while trying get me re-dressed. They finally got me back into the house with my underwear on, when Jim K started chasing me around the house brandishing a huge kitchen knife. He wanted to stab me because he’d only hosted this party on condition that I behaved myself, which I obviously hadn’t.

Fresh Cream by Cream had just come out and Doug was listening to the song “I Feel Free” when I arrived. I showed him the blue capsules and we decided to take half right away. Twenty minutes later we both took the other half. Twenty minutes after that we decided to go to the Union Tavern. Bugsy was no where in sight. We started coming on just as we sat down at a booth and when the waiter came, we realized we had to split as we were getting claustrophobic. In a daze, we walked out on the terrace on the Union’s south side, where Doug bumped into a girl he knew named Spacey. She started flirting with Doug. I couldn’t communicate, so I pulled Doug aside and said I needed to return to his crib where I felt safe. I just wanted to curl up in a blanket and listen to records. Doug guided me back to his place but wanted to go back outside. “Don’t leave me!” I pleaded. Doug came up with the idea of me calling someone to babysit me via the telephone. I thought that was a great idea, and, of course, I called Carole. “Well, you can’t have kids now,” she said when I told her I was tripping. They were spreading a lie at this time that LSD caused birth defects. Funny how it took so long to reveal this connection with alcohol, but they prematurely jumped all over it when it came to LSD. Carole secretly tape-recorded my rantings while I described all my hallucinations and wild revelations. (She’d discover the tape many years later and tell me it all sounded so innocent.) Eventually, Doug returned, by which time we both had huge psychedelic auras around our heads. We stayed up all night listening to music. Doug always had the best record collection and stereo of anyone I ever knew.

Around 8 am, I left for school and arrived at the pavilion at Carle Park across from Urbana High (the same place where a snowball fight changed my life, see “From Violent Streetgangs to Merry Pranksters’). The pavilion  is where all the longhairs smoked cigarettes before going to class. I unexpectedly bumped into the Knight Riders. Carp had thrown them down the basement stairs and threatened to beat the shit out of them if they tried to disband. So the Knight Riders still existed. I wasn’t surprised. Then I pulled a piece of tin foil out of my pocket, opened it and revealed two capsules of LSD. The Knight Riders seemed really dismayed and started acting like I was a heroin junkie or something. No way were they interested in anything as powerful as LSD! A few hours later, Hayes informed me I’d been kicked out of the band for being a drug addict.