“We’ve grown up believing that art is pain, that creativity comes out of conflict and struggle. But what if you could write songs out of joy, out of pleasure, if the need for struggle was an illusion? What if you could tap into a child’s spirit of play and harness it into your music or your writing and just release it into the world without a filter, without judgement or the fear of being judged? Can you imagine? Come on, what would you rather hear, “I Feel Fine” or “I’m So Tired?”
I was with Robin Williamson of The Incredible String Band in London. The String Band were a psychedelic folk group, a duo really, Robin Williamson & Mike Heron, though various girlfriends and neighbors appeared on their album covers and in the backgrounds of their records, adding harmonies and bits of homemade percussion. For a while, in the late 60’s and early 70’s, they were massively popular, their songs nearly everywhere except on the radio, and their sound found its way into the work of The Beatles (“Mother Nature’s Son”), Donovan, Tyrannosaurus Rex (before they became T Rex), among others.
Robin’s enthusiasm for Scientology was contagious, especially because he was so articulate about its effect on his creative process, and it seemed to have opened the floodgates, with new music just pouring out of him at an alarming rate.
I was jealous. And curious. I’d been writing songs for a few years, but hadn’t found my own voice yet and was dutifully trying to mimic the work of Tim Hardin, Nick Drake or Neil Young. I’d noticed that they posed questions in their songs, but instead of answering them, they often changed the question or turned it into a zen koan:
What is the color
when black is burned?
(Neil Young, “I Am A Child”)
“Ahhh, answers are cheap. And it’s always the wrong people who have the answers. It’s the questions that get us where we want to go. In Agatha Christie, the answer is just a few lines. It’s the man in the big red cap. It’s the woman in the window. But we’ll read hundreds of pages that are nothing but questions. The who and the what and the why. We don’t really want the answers, we just want more questions, better questions.
“And songs are mostly questions we’ve had buzzing around us like flies; we can’t ignore them, but we don’t always ask them out loud. Where are we going? Why are we here?”
He was getting ahead of himself. Or behind himself. He took a sip of tea and shrugged.
“And of course…what’s for lunch?”
He didn’t need to say more.
How many roads must a man walk down….?
What’s your name?
Is it Mary or Sue?
Why am I treated so bad?
Will you still love me
I could manage a fair imitation of a Neil Young song, though it might be the sort of tune he’d throw out with the bathwater. But it never occurred to me to imitate Robin’s songs; they followed an internal logic that made perfect sense after the fact, but in the moment seemed incomprehensible. A typical song of his might walk around the corner to get the paper, but would stop along the way to feed the ducks, learn archery or buy a new shirt. His conversations would take similar turns.
“You know, the Ethiopians adored circles. Still do. Not simply because they seem a perfect reflection of infinity, time chasing its own tail, but because it’s the perfect form. The belly of a woman ripe and round with child…oh, what could be more perfect, more beautiful? A round and lovely breast or a full moon or an apple on a tree? The circle of life!”
The beginnings of this might have been a simple question on buses to Crouch End. No matter. The bus, after all, would go full circle, never actually arrive at a destination. The journey was everything.
“And those pictures we see of the harp of David, the lyre, those all seem to show a strange box-y instrument with tuning pegs sticking out like quills from a porcupine. That or a lopsided triangle with strings. When the geometry of logic dictates that it would have to be a circle. So the harp might have looked far more like a banjo. You know? Don’t you like the idea of Uncle Dave Macon (aka The Dixie Dewdrop, an old-timey banjo player from Tennessee) sitting by old King David’s bedside, playing banjo for him? It just opens the bible up in the most wonderful ways!”
I could listen to him for hours. But I might never find the bus to Crouch End.
“Scientology’s not the future,” he said. “It’s the past made whole. It’s time come full circle. It really is.”
He set up a meeting for me at the so-called Celebrity Center, where I was welcomed with open arms.
“Robin’s told us so much about you. We’re so pleased you’ve come to join us!”
The entrance to the center was brazenly elegant, like a fancy restaurant at a mall, but the inner offices were cramped and not quite clean. They smelled of air freshener and leftover chewing gum.
The walls were a grubby yellow, and there were no decorations apart from blurry pictures of L Ron Hubbard on his boat wearing a sailing cap or at a lectern. He was a stocky man, burly and puffed up, and even through the photographs you could smell sweat and aftershave.
The sense of pleasure and joy that Robin had talked about was nowhere to be seen.
I was put through a battery of tests and interviews involving e-meters and such, all of which felt confusing and somewhat makeshift, and I was shuttled from one examiner to another. They all wore clean white shirts and tan khaki pants. And all of them seemed to have Scottish accents.
I asked one where he was from, and he smiled. “Same as you, of course. The garden of Eden.”
I was asked dozens of questions about my family, my home, my plans, my fears, but they didn’t seem particularly interested in my answers, just in getting me off balance. The questions were designed to point out my insecurities and fears : fear of girls, fear of sex, fear of failure and success, fear of life, fear of authority and on and on. Somehow they seemed unaware of my real fears : fear of driving, fear of mediocrity, fear of what happens when you sleep and what’s on the other side of dreams.
None of those seemed to matter to them.
When they explained their methods, which they did grudgingly, they made sense. Getting “clear” meant getting free of some of the protective tissue that formed a thin candy shell around most of us, keeping us from being in the moment and living our lives fully and freely. It was a concept that Wilhelm Reich had explored, proposing the embrace of sexuality as the door to freedom, and, in one way or another, it was at the heart of most therapy and analysis, peeling away the layers of the self’s onion to finally arrive at an inner truth.
But there was something cheap and second-rate, secondhand about their methods, and I resented the idea that I was being shoehorned into someone else’s notion of free and clear.
The changes in the air, with the promise of free love and infinite possibility nearby but just out of reach, created a reaction that you could feel but that was rarely spoken of, the need to give yourself over to someone else’s rules, to make sure there were proper guard rails in place. Christianity. Islam. Astrology. Tarot. EST. Trump. NXVM.
I was willing to allow the possibility that surrender does help with creativity. Giving up free will, half-illusory, anyway, that fraying cord of thought and effort and agency we develop to fight and survive our childhoods, school, and work, and….It’s all the same, whatever is going. When it’s all too much, the idea that there’s a master plan somewhere, that we're tied together by more than geography and happenstance, that a grand design binds our destiny to the stars and the moon and the gods if we only knew where to look, if we could only see through the veil.
At the time - the early 1970’s - there was a cult in London called The Process, you’d see them on street corners and in parks, same as you’d see Hare Krishnas, though this was the dark side of that brightly colored coin; these were bearded men in dark hoods, their faces hidden, who preached freedom through service. They were advocates of giving yourself over to someone else’s needs.
But whose needs? Who got to be the master, who the servant? And if there was a vague undertow of S&M about this, that only added to the glamor.
Do you want to know a secret?
Do you promise not to tell?
When in doubt, always go to The Beatles. Maybe they wouldn’t take you with them to Pepperland. But they’d never lie to you.
I was led into a darkened room and left alone there. I studied the only picture on the walls, a grainy black & white portrait of L. Ron Hubbard on his yacht. And I thought….he sure sweats a lot for a guru.
A stubby little man walked into the room holding what appeared to be the file of my inadequacies. He was wearing a brown suit that was too large for him, and the pants cuffs dragged on the floor. He shook his head sadly, but then tried to look encouraging.
“I’m Gym,” he told me, holding out his hand. “With a G. Gym. Here to guide you through the exercise you need. Exercise for your spirit and your mind as well as your body. You have a lot to unlearn. And we can help you with that. Help you find what you’ve been looking for….even if you don’t know that you’ve been looking. But….I can see you have. That’s what brought you here!"
Despite my hesitation, my sense of being played for cheap, I was curious. I was determined not to look behind the curtain.
“I’m only in London for another month or six weeks,” I told him. “I’m still in college in the States. But I’m ready to start.”
“College?” He waved the notion away like a bad smell.
But I loved college. After years at boarding school, it was liberating, my days were literally filled with wonder, and I was finding my feet, finding my way. His dismissal wasn’t registering with me at all.
“Everything you need,” Gym continued, “is right here.” He waved his arm around the dreary room. “And right here!” He pointed to my heart.
“I’m only here till September,” I explained. “But I can start now. What do I need to do? What sort of fees are involved?”
“Oh, money? Money won’t be a problem,” he laughed.
The hairs on the back of my neck stood up.
“We can get to that later,” he explained. “That’s just a detail.”
But I wasn’t comfortable with that. I could feel my father looking over my shoulder.
“Just give me a sense of the tuition,” I told him. “A rough idea is fine.”
“That’s not my department,” he sniffed, as if I’d offended him deeply. “You’ll need to talk to the people in business affairs.”
“I can do that,” I nodded.
“Ahhh, I can see you’re not ready yet. You have trust issues. We’ll need to work on those.” He made a series of notes in my file, and these were in red and writ large.
All I could think of was telling my father that I wanted to join the Columbia Record Club. They were offering 12 record albums for 99 cents.
“But then you’ll have to buy 12 more records over the next year at full price. $4.99. Plus shipping and handling. And who knows what that is.”
“That sounds reasonable,” I shrugged. "12 albums for 99 cents! And I get them now!”
“Let me see that,” and he began studying the ad. “Hmmmm….looks like there are no records by The Beatles.”
That was true.
“And nothing by The Rolling Stones…”
My parents had both come through the depression. They were used to kicking the tires of any deal that looked too good to be true, of looking under the hood to see the flaws.
“And nothing by The Animals or The Who. Nothing by Jefferson Airline.”
“Airplane,” I corrected. But I was starting to see his point.
“I don’t see anything by The Lovin’ Spoonful, The Kinks or Jimi Hendrix.” He was naming my current playlist.
“But that’s alright, I guess.” He handed the ad back to me. “You can always complete your Barbra Streisand collection.”
That did it. No record club for me.
That had been six or seven years before, but it still felt like I’d dodged a bullet.
Gym looked at me and shook his head. I had let him down.
“Sometimes the darkness is stronger than the light. It’s hard not to fall back on old ways. It’s not your fault,” he sighed. “You’ve been programmed. Old ways. Old information. Someone else’s memories masquerading as your own. And the program is stronger than I expected. You’re hungry for what we have here, so hungry. I can feel it. But the fear of breaking free may just be too strong. You’re not ready. Maybe you won’t get there in this lifetime. But you’ll get there. I’m sure of it.”
He waited for me to protest. When I didn’t, he looked at his watch and then looked at it again; and he changed his approach.
“You know we have a center in New York,” he confided, as if it was a secret. “Give me your address there. I’m sure we can still help you.”
When I returned to the States, there was a letter waiting for me.
It was from The Scientology Center of New York, somewhere on Times Square….but what was surprising was just how personal it was.
Dear Brian, it began, we know that you’re a seeker and are looking for answers. We know that you’re looking for answers in books such as “Masters of Wisdom” by J.G. Bennett, “The Sin Eater” by Fiona MacLeod, “Worlds In Collision” by Immanuel Vellikovsky and “A Vision” by W.B. Yeats. But the answers you’re looking for won’t be found in books, no matter how hard you study. They are roadmaps, but we have the treasure you’re seeking. Please contact us at the address below….
I was a spiritual dilettante and was skimming these books, not studying them, though I planned to go back later and pay close attention to all but the Yeats, which - even to my untrained eye - appeared batshit crazy.
But reading their note a second time, I realized….they’d been here in my bedroom. Those four books were there next to each other, together in a row on the shelf in my room. Someone … a window washer, a cleaning lady, a deliveryman, someone from the phone company had gone into my room and made notes.
A week later, there was another letter. And this one had no stamp. It had been left with the rest of the post in our entryway.
Dear Brian, we know that you’re a seeker and are looking for answers. And we know that people you care about, friends like Laurel G___ , Tina J____ and Jay G____ are also on a similar journey and are looking for answers. At least one of them has reached out to us and has begun to do the work that will put them on the path to higher consciousness. Won’t you join them? Please contact us at the address below ….
They had access to my address book. They had access to my home.
What next? Messages in fortune cookies? Notes under my pillow.
Nothing they’d written was threatening. But there was an implied threat. We know you. We see you. We’ll find you. We are already here.
I thought about my friend Morgan. He’d left college after sophomore year and been drafted. He had a low number in the lottery, lower than mine, and had no family connections to get him out. But he studied his draft card carefully and noticed a seemingly innocuous sentence on the back :
It is your responsibility to notify us of any change of address or changes in your health and physical condition.
He’d seen that as an opportunity.
If you’re looking for me on Thursday afternoon, I’ll be at Sally’s house. Not the Sally who lives uptown, the one who lives near Washington Square. I don’t know her last name, but everyone knows her.
Sorry, I didn’t see Sally on Thursday. I went to the new Clint Eastwood movie. It’s not very good.
I have a headache today. I didn’t drink all that much, but I have a headache anyway. That doesn’t seem fair.
I’m feeling much better. Thanks. Headaches are no fun.
Sorry if this package isn’t very well wrapped. I only had so much string. I’m enclosing a Westchester telephone directory. I’ll bet a lot of the people listed here are turning 18 soon and should be on your radar. You’re welcome.
He mailed letters and packages every day for three months. Soon after, he was disqualified from serving in the military and discouraged from taking any government jobs.
I tried the same approach.
I wrote to the people at Scientology.
That Yeats’ book made no sense to me. Did you like it?
I’ve lost touch with Jay G___. Is he in the program? Could you send me his contact info?
I sent them copies of The Village Voice with SEE PAGE 79 scrawled on the cover. Then sent the same copy again a few days later with OOPS, I MEANT PAGE 67 !
It didn’t work.
The Church of Scientology had more time on their hands than the U.S. Army. Their replies were formal and courteous, as if they’d been vetted by a battery of lawyers, and they didn’t mention books in my room, movies I’d seen, records I loved or friends in my rolodex. They invited me to lectures and concerts and meetings. They invited me to talks and get togethers with celebrities I’d never heard of. They sent me copies of Hubbard’s “Dianetics.”
I stopped opening the letters.
William S. Burroughs was an editor at Crawdaddy then, same as I was, and he wrote about his fascination with Scientology and how much he'd learned from them about how to manipulate people, how to control situations and how to reduce everything in your life to a process that you could take charge of. It was total mind control, he said, and it was amazingly effective. It was a way of ordering the world around your own needs and your own wishes. But there was a price. There’s always a price.
“At a certain point,” he said, “you have to go into the center of the room and fuck the sacred crocodile.”
That’s when he left the room.
Brian Cullman is Journal of the Plague Year's West Village Editor. And many other things.
The Great Disappointment
First Girl I Loved ::: The Incredible String Band
Painting Box ::: The Incredible String Band
You Get Brighter ::: The Incredible String Band
Air ::: The Incredible String Band
Within The Forest ::: Tahiti/The Gauguin Years (Roots of the ISB)
A Very Cellular Song ::: The Incredible String Band
I Bid You Goodnight ::: Joseph Spence & The Pindar Family (Roots of the ISB)
Witch’s Hat ::: The Incredible String Band
Maya ::: The Incredible String Band