The Life and Death and Rebirth of Boston’s Counterculture
How the city lost its underground cool—and might just get it back.
Meanwhile, the Family continued to push the bounds of acceptable behavior. In 1971, a Rolling Stone exposé peeled back the curtain on the disturbing cult of personality enveloping the Family’s hermetic leader. Damaging Manson family comparisons were inevitable. A couple of years later, two members—including Mark Frechette, star of Michelangelo Antonioni’s counterculture classic Zabriskie Point—wound up in prison following a botched bank robbery, and the community went underground. After Lyman reportedly died in 1978, Fort Hill members occasionally acquiesced to interviews, but kept the status of their commune closely guarded. So I went to Roxbury and decided to see for myself.
The Boston property holdings of the Fort Hill Community are clustered around Cochituate Standpipe, a defunct water tower that looks like it belongs somewhere in medieval Bavaria. I ring the doorbell by the front gate of an impressive Victorian and a dark-haired woman greets me on the porch, white wine in hand. She is Jessie Benton, a former Lyman spouse now in her mid-seventies, who happens to be in town for a few days (she lives primarily in Martha’s Vineyard and Mexico, where she operates a hotel). Jessie is by all appearances the unofficial matriarch of the Family, and, feeling spontaneous, decides to let me in. “We’re the most interesting people in the world,” she would explain. “But we don’t ever let journalists in. This is just for you. And me.”
Somebody turns off a Packers game that’s on TV, and Jessie ushers me into a den. We’re joined by a Family member, Randy Foote, who seems to be chaperoning the conversation. I sit on an armchair, Jessie on a couch across from me. To my left is a portrait of Jessie as a child, painted by her father, the major social realist painter Thomas Hart Benton. About a dozen more elderly Family members are clustered around the kitchen on the opposite side of the house, preparing to eat a cut of venison from a deer slaughtered on a Family-owned farm in Kansas. “I used to sit up in the window of this house when the Black Panthers were going to burn us out,” Jessie says, reliving glory days. “And I would make sure they could see the glint off the rifle on the window.”
Despite the occasional flirtation with firearms, she says, the Family hewed to a peace-and-love program. Lyman himself, she assured me, didn’t truly consider himself a god, and neither did his followers. “Imagine Donald Trump, but as a spiritual person who you loved,” she told me. “That same power, but imagine it as a beautiful one that’s soft. Scary. Scary but soft. Not like it’s going to ruin the country or ruin your own soul.” A comforting thought.
In the years after Lyman’s reported-but-never-confirmed death, the Fort Hill Community established itself as a prominent homebuilding company based primarily out of Los Angeles. What, besides constructing mansions for Hollywood actors, was the Family about these days? “Money and soul,” Jessie says, as if the two went together. “A lot of money. But we love each other, so our souls are still alive. We still believe in everything. We fight against everything. We are an environmental group that is very, very powerful. We will stop pipelines, we will do all kinds of things. But underneath, nobody knows we’re there. But we’re really good at it. We’re really good. Politically, we’re fantastic.”
In one sense, the Family’s progression from hippie commune to boutique construction firm suggests it sold out, like so many bourgeois bohemians. In another way, though, its entrée into polite society says something about the subtle radicalization of Boston’s mainstream. Today, the Fort Hill Community is far from the pariah it once was. I have no idea what to make of Jessie’s political boasts, but it’s true that her daughter Daria currently directs a restorative justice program at UMass Boston. Randy Foote teaches in the social science department at Roxbury Community College. In 2013, charter Family member and folksinger Jim Kweskin reunited his famous Jug Band for a 50th-anniversary show at the Club 47’s successor, Club Passim. The Globe ran a feature celebrating the occasion.
A lot of other Lyman-era countercultural types ended up graduating from the fringe, too. “Boston,” says Sean Maloney, whose book on the Modern Lovers is out this month, “was one of the early cities to really get a handle on commodifying the counterculture.” The Tea Party’s manager, Don Law, wound up running virtually every music venue in the city. Dreese turned Newbury Comics into a mall-oriented chain store. Harvard Square’s Coffee Connection—progenitor of the new American idea that coffee could taste good—invented the Frappuccino and sold out to Starbucks.
So the counterculture learned how to make a buck. But then, mainstream consumers developed good taste in music and coffee. Gradually, a lot of the old political fights were won, too. In 2004, Massachusetts legalized gay marriage. More than a decade later, pot is legal, the state’s attorney general is a lesbian, and the mayor of Boston employs as his chief of policy a former indie-rock promoter who once let Courtney Love crash in her living room. The counterculture, in a way, became a victim of its own success.
Which brings us to today. The blurring of the mainstream and the underground, the demise of the alternative press, the cosmopolitan dulling of the city’s local flavors. All of it wound up scorching the existing cultural landscape. But it also allowed new iterations of alt-culture to flower in random and unexpected ways. The old counterculture is extinct, but something entirely new has taken its place.
On a Friday in mid-December, I went to see a young black comic, Lamont Price, perform an uncomfortably funny set at a Polish social club in Dorchester. I found out about it only because I ran into him the night before, at the House of Blues, where he was hosting the Boston Music Awards in front of an entirely different audience. Earlier that night, I checked out some poetry at Haley House in Dudley Square, where the house team won the 2015 slam national championship, which, unless you’re Facebook friends with someone who is Facebook friends with one of those poets, you probably didn’t know.
Pre-web, the countercultural linchpins were businesses: newspapers, radio stations, and clubs. Once those businesses started dying off, though, consumers lost their conduits to local alternative culture. Alternative culture, in turn, retreated underground, taking on a fractured and almost pre-commercial identity. Staid clubs were supplanted by raucous house shows. Events were publicized by word of mouth and among Facebook friends. Instead of a standardized, citywide counterculture, Boston is left with a ton of scrappy, fledgling microcultures.
Singer-songwriter Amanda Palmer, for instance, credits the formation of her band, the Dresden Dolls, to her experience living in the Cloud Club, a twee communal artists’ residence in the South End. Boston’s quality garage fuzz rock acts came of age in the early 2010s at the Whitehaus, a group house and DIY space in Jamaica Plain. When Sam Potrykus has to text individual concertgoers the address of his space in Allston—publicizing it might mean cops, and cops might mean no more shows—it reduces the reach of the Hassle. But it also stokes the intensity of its fans. “A generation of kids are rejecting the notion of clubs and are doing it their own way and away from the public eye,” says Michael Marotta, a former Phoenix music editor who started the local rock website Vanyaland. “They don’t care about the Phoenix article and they don’t care about being written about. When things are inhospitable [to artists], it pushes things out of the mainstream eye. You play by your own rules.”
Alternative culture, in other words, has become radically decentralized. The disappearance of curators and tastemakers has made it nearly impossible for individual bands, artists, or authors to garner wide local appeal. But it’s also allowed creative life to flourish without the imprimatur of corporate gatekeepers. “I sort of equate it to Store 24 or 7-Eleven,” says Oedipus, the storied former WBCN DJ. “In the ’70s and ’80s there’d be Pepsi and Mountain Dew. Water and milk. Now you go in there and there’s 50 types of energy drinks, 20 different waters. They all have a following, but none of them dominate.”
After watching the standup show and the poetry and taking a Lyft ride with a not-all-there driver who took a pain-in-the-ass detour to fill up on gas, I almost didn’t make my last stop of the night: a concert at MassArt by Guerilla Toss, an art-punk band with a loyal following. By the time I got there, I had an idea of how to incorporate the scene into the story: great local band plays riveting show. The twist: They moved to New York two years ago.
Then something unexpected happened. As the show ended, after the moshing college kids calmed down and I started making my way for the door, I ran into an art student I had met at the Hassle. A second later, we walked outside and bumped into Sam Potrykus, who used to be Guerilla Toss’s tour manager. He introduced me to the girl he was dating, who turned out to be in a band with an old friend of mine. The next thing I knew, I was in the back of Sam’s blue van again, being handed a lit joint, and hurtling toward a house party in Cambridge. And in that moment it dawned on me that the thing I thought was long gone—that pulsing, alternative scene that unified so much of the city for so long—would live to see another day.