There Exists a Fine Line...
Michael Metelica and the Renaissance Community
©2006 Daniel A. Brown
I laughed when I heard about the Heavensgate mass suicide as it came over the car radio that night. It was an instinctive response as I visualized a bunch of wonks dressed in Nikes and purple shrouds zapping themselves in order to join E.T. beyond the Comet. "I bet they had one hell of a hangover when they got into Spirit," I thought to myself...especially after eating their boarding pass of Jell-O, vodka, and sleeping pills.
It was a far different reaction from watching the Branch Davidians go up in smoke five years earlier on that strange, sunny, April morning while watching the tube on my tag-sale sofa. Channel surfing between the Red Sox, the Boston Marathon, and eighty people being immolated live on CNN. A tank crashes into the compound; Greenwell strikes out on three pitches; some long-limbed Kenyan ascends Heartbreak Hill, and then back to a holocaust of flame. While the visuals were remote and other-worldly, the emotions were not. Rage and fury, not at the ATF or at Koresh but at Michael, who at one time took us right up to the brink. Through reasons that still remain inexplicable, we backed off from the same abyss that was currently consuming the Waco compound. Had Michael given the word, we too might have gone sailing over the edge like lemmings...with tears of gratitude brimming from our eyes.
Michael Metelica and David Koresh. On that fatal and mundane morning, they were one and the same. I even began screaming irrationally at the TV screen at one point, "Damn you, Michael, damn you!!" Koresh and the Branch Davidians, of course, were nationally known oddities. Michael Metelica and the Renaissance Community were the local variety here in western Massachusetts. During that frightful period of 1973-74, we weren't too far removed from Heavensgate, the Davidians, or the People's Temple. True, we were more sophisticated than they were, but if Michael's coke habit had been more extreme or had the local reaction to us been more threatening, he might have turned us loose to burn and kill. Others or ourselves. And how many of us would have obeyed?
I have no trouble writing this. Nor do I care if people gasp accusingly, "You could have done that!?" I can look anyone in the eye and reply, "Yes, and so could you under the proper circumstances."
Over dinner one evening, my friends and I got into a laugh-riot over Heavensgate. We were putting napkins over our faces and $5 dollar bills up our sleeves, collapsing in waves of giggles. My host is an ordained Methodist minister (the blue-jeaned and earring-wearing variety), so I think we share an understanding of how faith, passion, and belief can get a bit skewed at times. We've been there in our own convoluted ways so we feel free to belly-laugh. Insiders humor, like Holocaust survivors cracking Auschwitz jokes.
"Nikes", I chuckled, "Shit, all we ever got were Rapunzel Shoes". After the move to Turners Falls, Michael had us all go down to Railroad Salvage, a sagging, whitewashed, former mill overlooking the Canal and buy this psychedelic footwear that we soon dubbed " Rapunzel Shoes". Railroad Salvage was several levels below Wal-Mart, selling items purchased wholesale from derailed freight cars or capsized semis. Rapunzel Shoes were right at home there - patches of green, orange, and purple leather stitched together over a moderate platform heel - pure Carnaby Street retro. What made these shoes so terrifying was that they were always two sizes smaller than your feet. Michael had bought the lot (along with the cheap whore-house furniture) as proof that he could "Shoe the Lame", an apt metaphor because after you crammed your feet into these things, you would hobble around like some poor foot-bound Chinese woman Rapunzel Shoes were especially murder for those women who held down waitressing jobs for 60 hours a week. A small, but premier act of rebellion against Michael's influence was quietly throwing the damn things in the trash.
But, initially, we all loved Michael - that was the root of our fanatical devotion to him. We were not hypnotized or transfixed by him. There was no diabolical scheme on his part to win our faith. He earned it by his love, his utter fearlessness, and the unerring ability to grasp the truth in any situation. He embodied values none of us had ever seen before in a human being (at least anyone who hadn't been murdered by 1970) and it was a bond that was as equally created from us to him as the reverse. When he started to careen off course, none of us were sharp enough to notice and if we did, we thought he would eventually re-orient himself. He didn't.
As we ate and laughed, Diane Sawyer was interviewing a former Heavensgate member on TV. At one point, she smugly commented, "How could you believe such stupid things?" My response, leaping immediately into my mind was, "What sort of 'stupid things' do you believe, Diane? " representing as you do a media that has turned group mind-control into an art form. In the cosa nostra of the Renaissance Community, our catalogue of “such stupid things” made complete sense to us. 25 years later, living as an individual, home-owning American taxpayer, this belief system still makes sense. But I keep it to myself and only relate it to the like-minded in certain surroundings. It's a matter of knowing which members of the faculty you can discuss The God Within, Reincarnation, and Thought-Force with in the teacher's lounge. Otherwise the conversation stays on curriculum design and math strategies. My sister, Jenny, who left the Renaissance in 1973, wrote a 500 page novel about her experiences there. She completed her book a few months before the Waco assault and is convinced that had the ATF read it, they would not have hounded Koresh and his people into self-destruction. "You had to get inside their heads", she observed, "and perceive reality the way they did." The way we did.
I arrived at the Warwick property of the Brotherhood of the Spirit, the forerunner of the Renaissance Community, in October 1970.
I was so bottled up inside that simple communication, much less expressing my deepest thoughts, was like breathing through asthma. Suddenly, here I was, surrounded by 150 impassioned, ecstatic, determined devotees with all the qualities of self-confidence I wanted but which I deemed impossible to obtain. When they unabashedly proclaimed that they were out to save the world, I believed it; I had never met such a frightfully intense group before. Everyone looked as if they were having the time of their lives. The air itself seemed charged with some exquisite psychic force that pushed me up against my limits and glued me there.
But I knew in my heart that I wanted to stay. I had just been to a slew of communes in New Mexico, all either lethargic or squalid, but I sensed that this particular community with its overwhelming energy was the next step in my personal evolution as a person. This belief was so deeply embe dded that I was paralyzed trying to express it. Thus, all that the Brotherhooders saw was this frightened zombie with a forced smile and darting eyes.
After a two week trial, I came up for membership. Standing before the assembled group, no one spoke as my advocate, not even myself. Because of my seeming lack of enthusiasm, I was denied access to the Brotherhood and told to wait indefinitely as a "perspective member".
I decided to leave the next morning. Sitting in the kitchen of the Warwick house next to the huge wooden table with assorted pots and pans dangling above my head, I felt an overwhelming sense of doom. I had nowhere to go, no plans, a few friends scattered across the country. Winter was coming on. Leaving the Brotherhood at that juncture would have dumped me into the loony excess of the 1970's, a naive waif. Most likely, I would have been absorbed in a similar scenario but with a much harsher format. Real cults like the Moonies were always on the prowl for people like myself.
Up to this point, I hadn't seen a glimpse of Michael. I knew he existed only because the others talked about him often in hearty, easygoing terms as though he was their best buddy. He was always working with his band in the shed-like recording studio. But this morning as I was gloomily contemplating my future, he roared into the kitchen, marched right up to me, pushed his blond, shaggy, leonine face into mine and announced, "I can tell by your aura that you really want to be here. You're now a member...C'mon let's go!"
No Deus Ex Machina could have been more compelling! I got off my chair and followed him as if swept by a small hurricane.
We piled into his little beat-up, psychedelically-painted MG and off we went to Greenfield. Compared to the furrowed Calvinistic brows of the Brotherhood Faithful, Michael came on very low-keyed and sympathetic. He made some small talk about his band, Spirit in Flesh, enroute to McDonalds where we ate burgers and drank shakes, a treat after the never-ending swill of communal brown rice.
On the way back to the commune, he parked the little car by the side of the road, peered into my eyes and said in a slow deliberate way, "Remember, Dan, standing up for the truth is more important than friendship”. He gave an example of Jesus admonishing Peter the Apostle. Then back to Warwick we went.
I was allowed to take the day off and float. Running into Michael again in that same fateful kitchen, our eyes met and his gave off genuine appreciation. It was a look of pure, loving respect, something I had never seen from a man before, much less from an authority figure. All of them, starting with my father, had cast upon me nothing but disapproving glares. By now, I was so used to them that a warm smile, meant only for me, was like receiving radiance from God.
And somehow, he had known that I wanted - no, needed, to be at the Brotherhood. From that moment on, I would have followed Michael anywhere.
Michael Metelica was born in July, 1950 in Leyden, Massachusetts, one of the most rural of towns nestled in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains. While western Massachusetts now enjoys a reputation for progressive, too-hip-for-words ambiance; in the Eisenhower era the hill-towns population either lived a tough existence on hardscrabble farms or labored in the machine-tool factories the Pioneer Valley was noted for. Michael's dad worked his entire life at the now defunct Greenfield Tap and Die plant. Alcoholism and child abuse were as part of the landscape as the lovely maple-lined roads.
As the apocryphal story goes, Michael dropped out of school when he was 16 (his high school photo for that year reveals a boy in deep mental anguish) after reading an article about the Hell’s Angels. Attracted to their tight-knit clan, he traveled out to California, decided that they were too violent for his tastes and returned home in 1967. The following year, he persuaded a Leyden farmer to allow him to build a treehouse on the man's sprawling blueberry-covered hill. Michael decided that he would live according to the purest of Christian beliefs, working for local farmers but asking for nothing in return. Naturally, he became somewhat of a local attraction, especially among his immediate friends who flocked up the mountain to join him.
Michael had no intention of starting a commune until one of his friends introduced his girlfriend who was hooked on speed. She joined the little group, kicked the habit and became one of the Founding Mothers. Michael also attracted the attention of a nearby farmer named Elwood Babbitt who had been at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and went on to fight his way across the Pacific with the Marines. Babbitt was not your average gyrene, however. He was a trance-medium in the Edgar Cayce mold who had a small circle of followers of his own. What Elwood and Michael both had in common was a belief that the Earth was about to undergo cataclysmic changes in anticipation of the Aquarian Age. Michael had a vision when he was six where he stood above the Earth and saw "land rising and land falling". Elwood was getting the same information through his spirit guides who warned that this destruction would be the result of "Man's Negativity upon this planet" and "The need for Nature to reassert itself". After which, the chastised survivors would be more open to the spiritual wisdom of the oncoming Aquarian Age, the next step in humanity's evolution.
All this sounded mighty laughable back in 1968. forty-one years later, with global warming, the loss of the ozone layer, rainforest destruction, and the imminent California Big One all making the cover of TIME, no one seems to be laughing anymore.
These "Earth Changes" as a harbinger for the spiritual age to come became the foundation of the community Michael began to create, reluctantly at first and then with a single-minded purpose. After the treehouse was burned down by angry locals, the group wandered and took up residence in various neighboring towns. When not working odd jobs, they tried to purge themselves of their imperfections through meditation and in-your-face encounter-group confrontation tactics. Drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, and sexual promiscuity were all forbidden (in theory, anyway). In 1970, the now- named Brotherhood of the Spirit landed on a 40 acre property in Warwick, one of more remote towns in the state. Over the next few years, the numbers skyrocketed from 50 to 200 as visitors arrived from all over the country, many to stay and make a "lifetime commitment" to the Community and to Spirit.
Decades later, veterans of the Brotherhood would consider Warwick the defining moment, the one place where they had it all together. Despite Michael's authority, members of the group were distinct men and women who talked about the commune's mission as if it were truly their own, the apotheosis of their personal life's yearning. They hadn't come to the Brotherhood for Michael, nor were they consciously looking for a leader.
It was also in Warwick where Michael's Achilles’ heel first appeared, his need to make it as a rock and roll star. This small-town-boy obsession to make it big began innocently enough. In the 60's, rock and roll was the tribal heartbeat and it was common for rock singers to mirror the political and spiritual ideals of their listeners. The idea of a religious commune expressing its values through a rock band was hardly farfetched. Spirit in Flesh began playing local gigs where the whole commune would come along "to raise the energy". Michael began to spend more time with the band and less with the community. Near the end of 1970, he managed to wangle a small company, Metromedia Records, into recording his first album.
Elwood Babbitt, now the group's spiritual advisor, promised Michael that Spirit in Flesh was the vehicle by which he could get the Aquarian message across to the multitudes and that he would become bigger than the Beatles once the album was released.
Oddly, the executives at Metromedia didn't share Elwood's vision of their client's astronomical success and soon found that Michael himself was too overwhelming for their tastes. For one, they weren't used to some youthful hippie hick telling them what to do (after all, they had Bobby Sherman headlining their label) and secondly, the evangelical fervor and impatient arrogance Michael brought along with him didn't jive with record company savior-faire. They began dragging their feet and giving the impending album little, if any, advanced notice.
Michael responded by unleashing some guerilla promotional tactics of his own. The Brotherhood went into high gear silk-screening and then pasting several zillion hand printed Spirit in Flesh posters on every vertical surface in North America and Europe. Select teams then journeyed to New York City in July 1971 to infiltrate the audiences of prime-time TV talk-shows. There, they would stand up and broadcast our own announcement of Spirit in Flesh, courtesy the vehicle of live television.
Eight of us landed on 110th Street and Broadway without a cent to our name. We were a rather sorry lot which we demonstrated by arguing with each other constantly. Heading downtown, we all jumped the subway turnstiles, except for one guilt-ridden soul who stopped to explain to the token seller that we were gypping the Transit Authority their 50¢ in order to save the world. He weren't impressed.
Getting off at Lincoln Center, we decided to try ABC-TV first. Walking into the lobby of the studio, the receptionist looked us over and said, "Go on in, they're expecting you at Studio 3." It was obvious she had us confused with someone else. But this was the magic opening sent by Spirit to Clear the Way and, sure enough, we botched it. Mumbling incoherently, we all but ran out onto the street where, realizing the golden opportunity that was missed, we proceeded to savage each other mercilessly. There were, indeed, people in the Brotherhood who had the chops and the audacity to march right into Studio 3 and pretend to be whoever was expected. By the time the management got hip, the message of Spirit and Flesh would have beamed across the national airwaves.
Despite our ineptitude, by the second day, we had disrupted both the Dick Cavett and the Today Show. The latter was done in style. In the middle of the broadcast before a studio audience, Sammy from our squad walked right up in front of the cameras, blocking Tony Bennett who was, coincidentally, talking about love, peace and brotherhood (hip topics among celebrities in the early 70's). With his short skinny frame, goatee, and purple beret, Sammy looked like some maniacal French peasant on the verge of jamming his sabot into the works. He gave a short sermon about the band before being sent back to his seat by the startled host. Afterwards, we were invited backstage where we spent an hour illuminating Mr. Bennett. Then it was back on the street, as penniless and aimless as before. To add to the general bizarreness of the situation, two of us broke out with inexplicable cases of poison ivy right there on 54th Street.
The main target was, of course, the Tonight Show. Thirty more Brotherhooders arrived for the final assault, all of us meeting at a friend's house in the Village. In order to prepare ourselves for this seminal moment, our little tribe climbed up to the roof for an evening meditation led by Dale, one of the more unique members of the Brotherhood, if not anywhere. Dale was initially beyond our comprehension, a huge Viking-Indian with long red hair down to his waist, who strode around Warwick dressed only in cut-offs, even in January. It was Dale who had shown us timid, urban intellectuals that we had bodies beneath our brains and that it was hardier than Mama ever taught. With Dale as our inspiration, we meditated in snowfields under full-moon winter skies; logged all day in 10° weather, and leapt off 50 ft quarries into the waters below. While Michael was ensconced with the band, Dale was the de facto leader of the pack, a daily presence, sauntering loosely with his two canine companions, Barney and Huey, singing snatches of obscure Brotherhood songs ("Everyday you ask me, WHAT AM I GONNA DO??!! I can show you the way, I say, I CAN'T DO IT FOR YOU!!), and punching people playfully on the shoulder. When the pressure got too much for Dale, he would sequester himself in the deep forest around Warwick and scream among the trees.
On that hot summer evening, the sky above New York City was a fiery red and the air seemed charged with aural chaos. Dale bowed his head and began to chant the OM, an overwhelming yet sublime frequency which mingled harmoniously with the jetliners roaring overhead. We all joined in and slowly became encircled with a growing sense of purity, as if we were sitting with John the Baptist in ancient Rome, manifesting Godliness in the heart of the Beast.
Johnny Carson wasn't present that night, the host being former Rat-Packer, Joey Bishop. Our commando situated itself on the balcony and waited for the right moment. The main guest was 50's heartthrob, Troy Donahue, who like others from his era, looked dazed and confused after surviving the 60's. Joey and Troy (who was wearing an all-white guru suit) made small talk chatter for awhile and then, just as it had on the other two shows, the topic of conversation curiously turned to love, peace and brotherhood. This was obvious the cue but nobody in our ranks did a thing; we all knew that someone would be picked by the forces beyond. I assumed that it would be Dale, who among all present had the personal intensity to stand up unafraid and spread the Word.
To my immediate horror, I realized that Dale was destined to be merely another spectator to the proceedings this night. For the person who was about to stand up in the middle of the most prestigious television show in the world and rave about some rock band no one had ever heard of.... was none other than me, the same me who six months ago would have been too shy to whimper. The Energy, that damnable, divine spark that even Jonah couldn't outrun, started at the base of my stomach and began to rise with internal grandeur. I knew immediately what was happening and where it would lead. It was also the last thing in the world I wanted to happen. But putting the clamp on this force rushing up my spine would be as easy as corking a volcano. There was also the undeniable realization that denying it would court insanity and that my mind would go kablooey! - right there in my seat.
And so, with the Aquarian equivalent of a Hail Mary on my lips, I jumped up and screamed my piece. I have no idea what I shouted but that wasn't important. I had finally let go.
Everyone arose after that and followed my lead. Joey looked confused, Troy was amused and, sure enough, several security guards arrived on the scene. They ordered us to leave but we calmly refused. They said, "OK" and left. In 1971, one never knew if a bunch of kooks was the latest aberration or the Next Big Thing. After the show, we wandered backstage and chatted with Troy (who was extremely cordial) but also had to withstand an angry suit who looked about ready to punch all of us in the kisser. After leaving the studio, the forty of us swept into the 57th Street subway station, one of New York's busiest, snuck through the turnstiles and boarded the train. No one noticed. The next day, we were back in Warwick.
The album was finally released in July, 1971. It sold less than 1000 copies.
Michael and Spirit in Flesh turned their attention to Greenfield, the county seat and largest town in Franklin County where a series of concerts in the summer of '72 are still talked about. Staged at the Greenfield High School parking lot, a huge percentage of the town showed up to see this local enfant-terrible, whose commune by now had been written about in the Wall Street Journal, Family Circle, New Yorker, Mademoiselle, and Look magazines.
From the beginning, Michael and Greenfield had conducted a curious love-hate relationship. The Greenfield Recorder newspaper at first had lauded Michael when he was the harmless but noble eccentric living his saintly ethic in the hills of Leyden. But they became uneasy when it looked like he was not only here to stay, but gaining some considerable power as well. By 1970, the editorials had turned nasty, the tone like that of Ichabod Crane scolding a classroom full of naughty schoolchildren. The most notorious was titled, "Should Students Visit a Brothel?” in reference to a high-school class that was planning to visit the group. During 1972, the Brotherhood was in the paper on an almost daily basis, the subjects changing in a swirl between welfare benefits, zoning laws, and septic systems. One photograph captioned the Warwick garbage shed as a "living center". However, while the paper vilified Michael, they also allowed him to express his radical postulates in full-page testimonials complete with admissions of his past lifetimes as Robert E. Lee and Peter the Apostle. Conversely, for all his expressed chest-beating outrage, Michael loved the attention and gloried in the role of the controversial martyr.
To begin the last Greenfield performance, Michael was carried up on stage in a plain wooden coffin. This was mild compared to previous Spirit in Flesh concerts where one of the leaner Brotherhood men would begin the gig hanging from a full-size crucifix planted on the back of the stage. On this night, Michael leapt out of the crypt, wearing his usual leather vest and armbands, grabbed the microphone and started to wail. The band roared along with him and as the energy started to percolate, peculiar things began to happen. One commune member had invited his elderly mother, a stooped little lady with white frosted hair, to the concert and the two of them began dancing together arm in arm with looks of sheer bliss on both their faces. A few feet away, a young couple was clinging to each other in mortal terror, staring up at Michael with gaping mouths as if he were the anti-Christ.
The immense crowd began to sway either to the rhythm or to a tangible surging, pulsating unease. Michael could care less either way and alternated between haranguing the band to stay with him and snarling his message out to the audience, accompanied by a perky rockabilly beat.
There exists a fine line, Oh yes, a fine line
Between a man called crazy, and a man that's sane
And we're walking right on down that line!
The Brotherhooders, meanwhile, were working themselves up into an ecstatic frenzy; bodies, arms, and hair merrily a-flailing. In the lead were the Brotherhood Schoolkids, teens and preteens whose hippie parents had dragged them here after their birth. In true adolescent fashion, they thought most of us were full of shit but adored Michael whose primal rebelliousness was right up their alley. They glued their admiring eyes on him as he continued to howl.
People put us down!
They don't know that we're just trying...
To show a new di-men-sion!
It was a dimension few in the crowd wanted to have demonstrated at the moment, but still, no one left. Michael must have sensed this contradiction, because halfway through the set, he abruptly slowed the pace down to a crawl. Breathing heavily and rapping some spontaneous verse over the PA, he surveyed this crowd of several thousand skeptical onlookers. When he was sure he had their undivided attention, he began to croon,
If I'm so crazy....
If I'm so crazy, baby.....
If I'm so crazy...,
Then why are you all here?
Looking back, it was a question he could easily have asked us.
The next summer, Michael called a meeting in the Warwick dormitory and announced that because the Brotherhood was in serious financial trouble, he was offering people a choice. Either he would take over the full time running of the Community - or - he would leave and let us take care of the problem ourselves. This was a clever, calculated move, a form of manipulative democracy. Everyone knew, including Michael, that no one was going to say, Gee thanks, Mike, we'll take it from here. Go take a stroll." When he called for a vote, the hands raised were unanimously in his favor.
As with everything Michael did, things began to happen very fast. He immediately abolished the Brotherhood of the Spirit and formed a "media corporation" called the "Metelica Aquarian Concept" (MAC). Everyone in the former Brotherhood had to "apply" for membership by filling out a 20-page application. He shut down those businesses that weren't turning a profit and sent every member out into the street to find a job. Each cent was turned over to him and kept in what became known as "The Money Room", where piles of one dollar bills literally reached up to your chest. Michael now held court in a subterranean office in Turners Falls, a nearby decaying mill town that became the new community headquarters. On paydays, his followers would shuffle by like courtiers in Louis XIV's Versailles and hand over their paychecks only to receive a pittance in return for their weekly needs. With this acquired loot, Michael went on a shopping spree (unheard of during the austere Warwick days) where video cameras, cars, motorcycles, and furniture seemingly dropped out of the sky. Spirit in Flesh - the harbinger of the impending worldwide spiritual renaissance - ceased to exist.
Insidiously, the focus began to shift away from the Community and onto him. Suddenly, Michael was the be-all and end-all of our aspirations, "The spark that would ignite the gasoline, and thus illuminate the world as he liked to put it. The pronoun among the faithful became "He", not "We". By the time the process was completed, we didn't quite realize what we had been transformed into.
Michael began conducting almost nightly meetings during this time, every word of which was typed up into a book of several hundred pages. His control was such that he might speak for several hours without a pause, send everyone home, then regroup the entire multitude back into the theater to hear some ten minute addenda he had overlooked. Photographs taken during these lectures show Michael sitting in a plush padded chair, cross-haired by an array of high-intensity video lights. The Community sitting on the rug facing him is, by contrast, an expressionless blob, as amorphous as a Moonie mass wedding. They look like people who have had their individuality literally sucked out of them. Reading the transcripts, one is struck by the millions of words issuing out of Michael's mouth countered by the sporadic monosyllabic response of his listeners
At one of these meetings, Michael announced that we would henceforth become color-coded by sweaters, classified according to our "spiritual awareness". Those whom he considered his hard-core loyalists were awarded white turtlenecks which they wore at every opportunity, strutting around like anemic peacocks. They were the envied elite, the crown of the new hierarchy. The mass herd of MAC personnel was given maroon sweaters to don. But the outcasts, the Untouchables of the new regime, wore brown. For a Michaelite with his shiny white sweater to share company (much less converse amiably) with a brown-sweatered former companion was as improbable as Donald Trump and Mother Teresa holding hands. Afterwards, each sweatered clan was awarded their own house with orders not to commingle with the others. Friendships as well as the whole cooperative tone of the former Brotherhood were destroyed but few complained. Those with misgivings quietly slipped away. Dale, who had joined Michael back at the treehouse, was one of them.
So why did the rest of us stay?
Since the beginning of the community, Michael had come through for us and if, like some Aquarian Magellan, he was leading us in some strange uncharted direction, we were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. In retrospect, strange uncharted directions were the norm even in the other America of the early 70's. After the chaos of the 60's, nobody really knew which way was up anymore. Michael enveloped us with an overall sense of expectation that we were heading somewhere new and exciting, even if it did feel like being shot through a wind-tunnel. Added to this was the unspoken fear that if we left, we might miss out on the Next Big Thing and become the new age equivalent of Pete Best.
Consciously, we still believed that we would change the world for the better, the only difference being the packaging and the strategic game plan. We had been the simple ascetic hippies in Warwick and people had despised us. Now we were going to compete on the level playing field of power, influence and material possessions. We would have all the goodies Americans ogled, and thus, get their attention. And as they were looking up at us with admiration born of envy, we would strip away the video cameras, the cars, the motorcycles, the airplane, the properties, the White Sweaters, and the Money Room to reveal ourselves as the same illuminated teachers we always had been. It would be no different than Jesus turning water into wine to turn a few heads in His direction.
It didn't work, of course. Folks hated us more because an underclass had beaten them at their own greed game. Michael summed up this mentality be observing, "People come up to me now and say, 'Michael, you've lost your purity. You're going commercial now'. Where were all these people that believed in my purity when I lived in it?"
The Metelica Marches began in November, always one of the dreariest months in New England. The landscape is naked and cold and it feels as if all color has disappeared along with the October foliage. In the towns, the wind howls around the building corners and down your neck, promising another never-ending winter. With the first Oil Crisis sending the price of gasoline skyrocketing and the Watergate hearings leading America God-knows-where, this particular autumn of 1973 was expressly dismal for everyone, not just John Lennon, Richard Nixon, and every returning Vietnam vet. Working at the “Ponderosa Steak House” that month, I surveyed a restaurant full of families chewing their steak dinners one night and realized that everyone was silent and depressed. There was no chatter, no small talk, no conversation of any kind. It was as if the whole country was in shock.
Into this energy of despair and uncertainty, Michael decided that we should publicly declare our devotion to him with a series of outdoor demonstrations. This, he was convinced, would impress the general population and win us their respect. He presented this scheme at a meeting one afternoon and elicited people's opinions. By now, Michael had made it quite clear that what he wanted to hear was unanimous agreement, not alternative viewpoints. Those who were unwise enough to think otherwise got a rude awakening that day. When Bruce Geisler, one of his core-group advisors, offered his misgivings about the parades, Michael tongue-lashed him within an inch of his life, accusing him of betraying their comradeship and ending with the ominous phrase, "If I were violent, I would KILL YOU!!" Bruce had to endure this surrounded by a mass of people he thought were his brothers and sisters, now a hostile mob glaring at his solar plexus. The next day, he was told to move to Warwick, now the official gulag, and forced to wear the Brown Sweater.
And so the demonstrations began; 200 acolytes standing in the freezing wind on the Sunday streets of Turners Falls, where the only souls to be seen were a few solitary drunks staggering home from the Rendezvous Cafe. We were dressed in what we considered our best clothing and carrying placards that testified "I Found Metelica, a New Religion"; "Know God, Know Metelica"; "I Gladly Give My Money to Metelica", and more threateningly, "Save Your Slander, It May Be All You've Got. I've Got Metelica. After two weekends with no response in Turners, Michael decided to crank up the tension a bit by transforming this tableau to downtown Greenfield.
The symbiotic chemistry between Michael and Greenfield was wearing thin by this point and it was not helped by an army of Michaelites parading up and down Main Street with their grim faces and taunting signs. The last demonstration took place on the town common at night while one of our new GMC motor homes, painted a glossy black, slithered around in quiet circles, videotaping the eerie scene with the aid of a high-intensity spotlight. To the average citizen, this spectacle, far from commanding "respect", most likely scared them half out of their wits, as if the Manson Family had finally arrived in town.
They needn't have worried. For all the real and imagined threats directed at us during these hair-trigger times, and for all his apocalyptic rhetoric, Michael never advocated violence and the rumors of our stockpiled weaponry were just that. Instead, Michael coined a phrase he called "militant pacifism", a fantastic concept that conjures up an image of Gandhi with teeth. He urged us to project an attitude that, no matter how peaceful our philosophy and intentions, we were not people to be trifled with. In practice, we trained like martial-arts masters who, by summoning up their inner force, create an aura of strength before they even strike a pose.
And life within the Community was not all paranoia and power-plays. Even as Watergate was unfolding, Michael recognized the potency of the media and how access to the creative establishment was how one influenced society in the late 20th century. As the tug of war with the outside world was progressing, Michael also looked at his own and laid the foundation for an outpouring of creative energy that was lying dormant within us. By mid-1974, the Renaissance had a recording studio, video equipment (still a novelty at the time), a darkroom full of cameras, a 16mm Beaulieu camera and a fully operational theater. There was nothing to prevent anyone from utilizing these resources, except their own fear.
My career as a free-lance photographer started here. As I was crossing the street one day, Michael approached me and proclaimed, "Take one of the cameras and photograph all the property we own. I want to see the pictures by next week." He then strode off in his usual regal way. There was no question of answering, "Uh, Mike, I can't. I've never used a camera before." I knew he wouldn't even respond, but gaze at me with a contemptible look as if to say, "Don't limit yourself - LEARN!" That was Michael's style; you learned to swim by diving head-first into the ocean. So what if you drowned; it was a better fate than standing on the cliff for the rest of your life wondering. I grabbed a camera and without so much as reading the manual, traipsed around Renaissance, photographing our now ample supply of possessions. I gave him a stack of photos a week later as planned. Half the shots were out of focus but I found that I liked holding the camera. I haven't let go of one since.
This transitional time were wrapped in contradictions. Michael harped on cooperation after creating a brittle hierarchy. He urged us to be creative human beings while we worked 50 hours a week at various low-paying jobs. He challenged us to project our individuality to the world after turning us into a faceless mass. Whether this was the result of his own mercurial personality or the jitterbug influence of a cocaine habit that had quietly begun two years back, was beyond our contemplation. We didn't care. We were too busy.
In 1974, MAC became the Renaissance Community and a legal church. Within a year, we had no less than 12 businesses and restaurants operating in Turners Falls and managed entirely by individuals who chose the task. For all the patriarchy at the top, there were never any restrictions placed on what men or women chose to accomplish. Men worked in day-care with the growing kiddie population; women managed businesses, swung hammers on construction crews, and drove cross-country for our tour-bus company. A women's choir was formed, music, photography, and art flourished. Slowly but subtly, the pronouns "I" and "we" began to reappear in our vocabulary.
In 1976, The Community bought an 80 acres property in the town of Gill. In another complete about-face that was a Michael trademark, he announced plans to terminate the projects in Turners Falls and build a self-sufficient community (nicknamed the 2001 Center) with solar houses, windmills, gardens, and orchards. Work began immediately. Getting back on the land helped restore some of the earlier Warwick
From 1977 through the early 1980's, however, small groups began to challenge Michael whose increased drug and alcohol use was making him a visible detriment to his very creation. Some concessions were won. Members could keep their paychecks and make a nominal weekly "donation" to the Community. But Michael's not-so-subtle hand in the till and his stubborn autocracy forced one showdown after another. Unable to force a majority, however, each rebellious group fled. I stood by him throughout the first of these upheavals because I figured I owed him and secondly I considered the goals of the Community incidental to Michael's erratic influence. I was wrong.
Michael's decision in 1983 to build a rifle range on the land was the final alarm going off in my head. I heard about his plan on a lovely morning while working on one of the new solar houses. It was the last thing I wanted to hear because I knew I couldn't run away from this one. My personal level of tolerance could bear the cocaine, the fancy cars, his loud, crude behavior, and the murky finances, and still hold on to my vision of community. The guns, for me, was an insurmountable barrier; the one thing that whatever integrity the Renaissance had left, it could not survive. As I walked down to his office to confront him, pushed almost seemingly against my conscious will, my subconscious knew that it wasn't guns that was the issue, it was Michael and guns. Weapons in the hands of someone who was visibly unstable. To turn a blind eye to this would make me no different than a German citizen who had stumbled into Dachau and then pretended later that he had no idea such horrible things were happening.
Part of me was amazed that I was about to initiate a cataclysmic exchange with someone to whom I had never even raised my voice to, much less challenged. I knew that my life would be cut in half by this soon-to-be watershed moment, but I couldn't stop. It was like diving off that cliff again.
Michael spun around in surprise when I demanded an explanation about the guns, looking as if a cinderblock had begun to speak to him. We had a lively swirling fight that roared back and forth through the bus garage where he lived, neither of us giving ground. When I shouted, "What the hell do we need guns for anyway?", his answer destroyed the foundation of the Brotherhood of the Spirit mission statement which had sustained me for almost a generation.
"Elwood said when the refugees come after Earth Changes, we'll have to shoot them to defend ourselves, asshole!! " he shrieked, "that's what we'll need the fucking guns for!!"
"I thought we were supposed to help them, not shoot them," I retorted, absolutely stunned that Michael had now become a paranoid survivalist.
I went to see Elwood the next day. Although he still gave an occasional trance reading at the Community, Elwood had laid low after the MAC era, which he had clearly disliked.
"So what's the deal here," I asked Elwood without preamble. "Do we help the refugees or shoot them?" I knew there was an unsettled dynamic between him and Michael but I wasn't prepared for his reaction. Elwood went into the most violent diatribe against Michael, condemning him as someone who had deliberately chosen a negative path and shunned the Light. As Elwood spoke, he visibly shook with loathing. It was like watching Obi-wan Kenobi strike Luke Skywalker with his light saber.
Years later, Elwood would declare publicly that the stress of maintaining a foothold on the pure energy of spirit had been too scary for Michael, that he had decided to "alleviate the psychic pain" by plunging into drugs and alcohol abuse instead. The fact that his decision affected several hundred other people apparently never occurred to either of them.
Michael eventually tried to humiliate me over the gun issue in front of an assembled Community meeting, a repetition of Bruce Geisler’ s agony a decade ago. This time, it was a smaller crowd and most had their own doubts about Michael by this point. Even his cronies were looking not at me, but at the ground. As Michael rambled on, I stood up and did a curious thing. I walked right up to him and stood facing him nose to nose. I figured that if he was going to play to an audience, I would shut him off from it and force him into a more personal encounter.
"Michael," I calmly whispered to him, "why are you doing this?"
Cut off from the battery of his followers, Michael himself faltered. He looked bewildered and couldn't meet my eyes. This was not how the script went. He mumbled something and walked out of the room.
I felt no sense of triumph. Whatever Michael's weaknesses, staying power wasn't one of them. He could always come back another day and wear you out. As my personal struggle was wrapped up with those of others, the last great migration out of the Renaissance Community - the one that ended it as a cooperative, thriving entity - carried me along with it. It was June, 1984. I had been there 14 years.
The last time I spoke to Michael was the day I left. My car was packed with all my earthly belongings but I felt no regret. I had cried all the tears and suffered all the pain over leaving the Nest. I was ready. A few friends arrived to say goodbye to me, most of them in Michael's camp, but still looking sick at heart. Michael eventually came by too, surrounded by an entourage of washed-out teenage girls from Turners Falls. Seeing me, he launched into a tirade about how I was giving up my spiritual purpose by leaving the group. I looked him right in the eye and told him that was bullshit and that he knew it. He lowered his eyes, looked away and recanted. I got in my car and drove off. In 1988, the twelve survivors of the Renaissance Community paid Michael $10,000 to leave and never return.
At the biannual Renaissance Community reunions (which usually draw 150-250 people from around the country), the inevitable question arises at the bull-sessions that last way into the wee hours: Was Michael a true teacher that got swayed by absolute power or just a charismatic con-artist from the beginning? Most of us lean towards the former. At 20 years of age, Michael was essentially a kid, essentially alone, and surrounded by a society that would have liked nothing better than to stomp him into the ground. 20! My own son is 31. I can't imagine him or any of his peers leading 200 others into the Unknown. One of our wiser brethren once noted that our experience might have "inoculated" us against the Authority Figure syndrome endemic in all aspects of American culture. This is true . I now follow no one but my own inner voice.
And most of us still dream about him. I do, usually in two modes. In one, I am standing up for the truth despite our friendship by publicly defying him for straying down the wrong path ("Remember, Dan, standing up for the truth is more important than friendship"). In the other, Michael and I are conversing together in an atmosphere of warm affection. But there is equality present, as if we were two familiar brothers-in-arms. This is the real Michael, the kid who started out in the treehouse, living from his purity without personal goals or pretensions. Our camaraderie is easygoing and without strings. It is the Michael I will choose to remember.
Over Chinese food one night, Jenny and I are having another one of our endless discussions about the Community. Although our perceptions are quite similar, we can always find something to fight about.
"So what's the point of this article you're writing," challenges Jenny, “Not that it matters, no one's going to get it anyway. All they'll want is sensationalist, Oprah, 'Brainwashed Cult' bullshit."
"The point is," I counter, "Is that we could have been another Jonestown or Heavensgate but we didn't go over the edge".
"We got damned close," Jenny snorts.
"But we didn't."
"We almost did."
"But we didn't."
"Well, we could have."
"BUT WE DIDN'T!!!," I explode, "THAT'S ALL THAT MATTERS! WE DIDN'T. "If we had, we wouldn't be here talking about it, we'd be DEAD!"
Jenny ponders this between bites of Two-Flavor Shrimp.
"You're right,” she admits, "we didn't,"
No, we didn't.