Sunday, September 02, 2012

How Not to Reincarnate

From my book, which ain't yet for sale.

In October 1974 I hitchhiked down to New York City looking for music work. I signed up with a referral service. Here was an ad that said “Lead guitarist wanted for funk/rock band. Touring. Expenses, rehearsal, paid.”

I called the number. A young man answered the phone. “I’m just the guy you’re looking for,” I announced cheerfully. Impressed with the confidence, he scheduled an audition for the following night.

The name of the band, so I misunderstood, was “Spirit of the Renaissance Church.” It held its rehearsals in Turners’ Falls, Massachusetts, not especially far from Saratoga Springs. I could hitchhike the 150 miles back to Saratoga and hitchhike sixty or seventy miles to Turner's Falls the next day.

I was twenty two years old, wearing the exaggerated long hair then popular for young men and a suede loggers’ jacket and bellbottom jeans. I walked out of Manhattan, through Harlem and across the George Washington Bridge as usual and found my way to a hitchhiking spot as the sun sank. Long lines of commuters in their autos were caterpillaring slowly homeward.

A friendly man coming home from his plumbing job dropped me off at a less dangerous spot. I stood at a rest area on the Taconic Parkway with my thumb pointed north for drivers to see in their headlights.

After a few minutes an orange late model Volkswagen stopped. The driver silently pushed open the passenger door. He looked to be about mid-thirties, dressed casually, nothing stylish about his short hair. I got in and closed the door. Wordlessly, he got us back on the highway.

Then, “You going north?” Yes, I answered. In the ensuing silence and hum of the Volkswagen motor, I wished he’d offer me a cigarette. This was unusual for me. I'd quit smoking almost two years ago.

Within 8 seconds of that wish, the man reached into his brown suede flyer’s jacket, pulled out a pack of Camels and shook a cigarette up from the pack for me. Thanks, I said. He pulled out the electric lighter, lit his smoke, then handed it to me. Thanks, I said. I thought I’d better show some gratitude by being sociable; I should talk a bit.

“So, what do you do for a living?”

“I’m a (muffled).”


“I’m a psychic,” he uttered, louder and a little irritably. He was probably used to getting sneered at.

“No kidding,” I replied, smoothing a dozen quips out of the way. “What kind of accuracy rate do you have?”

“About eighty five percent,” he replied.

“Wow,” I said, "that’s really great. How do you develop that?”

We talked about it for the rest of the ride. He dealt with clients who wanted to know this or that, and he would tell them this or that with an eighty-five percent accuracy rate. They wanted mostly to know about their businesses and the stock market, in which he specialized. Occasionally he did readings about clients' love lives.

“Do you have something called a spirit guide?” I asked, racking my mind for latter-day psychic things I’d heard of on TV.

“What, Terence?” he replied, as though acknowledging a horse that had been standing behind us all the while, listening. “Terence usually shows up when there’s something I can’t find out for myself. Everybody has a guide."

He told me that psychic doors "open outward;" one must listen for psychic information, not force it. He said that you have to be ready for anything. “Anything,” he repeated.

“Did you read my mind when you offered me a cigarette?”

“No, no. That would be unethical. Once you start learning how to read people's thoughts, the most important thing is to learn how to turn it off. Otherwise you’ll have your nose stuck in people’s dirty underwear all the time.”

Finally, we got closer to the exits that would take me either to Saratoga Springs on the one, or Turner's Falls on the other. I told him I couldn't decide whether to hitchhike on to Turner’s Falls and find a place to spend the night, or return to Saratoga, to my wife-to-be, then hitchhike to this promising music thing from there the next day.

“That one,” he said, nodding toward the exit for Turners’ Falls. “Is this...” I queried, unfinished. Yes, he nodded. He was being psychic, no charge.

He slowed down, stopped and let me off. I walked up the exit ramp for Turner’s Falls, Massachusetts. Almost immediately a little white truck rolled into view from the opposite direction. Hitchhikers know to hitchhike where the traffic is. I stuck out my thumb at it, thinking I may as well head for Turner's Falls.

The little white truck stopped. The two men in the cab weren’t headed for Turner’s Falls. They were going to Saratoga Springs, had taken a wrong turn, and were now turning around. I squeezed into the seat, the passenger's knees now crowding the gearshift on the floor. The driver's name, he told me, was Chuck Fiore.

Another coincidence. I'd heard about Chuck Fiore from friends during high school. Chuck had a mysterious reputation for possessing strange psychic powers -- so said a friend of mine, coincidentally named Chuck.

We settled in for the drive back to Saratoga. They’d been on a construction job in Massachusetts, coming home late. The passenger with the gearshift squeezed between his legs talked about classical music. “I went to the Performing Arts Center and when I heard the New York Philharmonic play Beethoven’s Fifth, I came,” he said.

“Came?” I wondered reluctantly. He continued. Classical music was so exciting that it would prompt him into an orgasm. He listed the various symphonies he’d attended that made him ejaculate in his jeans and then squirm around to hide the wet spots from concertgoers seated nearby.

Chuck Fiore told a story about a Catholic priest named Father Treuniet. I’d heard of him, too... another local legend whispered about among my Catholic pals. He taught at St. Peter’s Catholic high school in Saratoga. Father Treuniet was very clever and taught teenage boys memorable lessons. One, for example, was this: holding both hands out, he’d wiggle one, shaping the fingers into a snake’s head. “See the cobra? See the cobra?” Father Treuniet would taunt, wiggling his pursed fingers. When the “cobra” had fixed his teenage victim’s attention, Father Treuniet would cuff the unsuspecting boy's head with his other hand. This is a good lesson for anyone who reads the news.

Father Treuniet once taught Chuck to put up a white sheet on his wall in his bedroom. Every night before he went to sleep, he should try to imagine images appearing on that sheet, as though it were a movie screen.

Chuck practiced this every night. After a while, the scenes on the sheet became vivid, and he had begun to make things move around his room by telekinesis; other things he'd imagined began coming true. This scared him so much that he stopped doing it. I was sorry he hadn’t pursued it. I wanted to hear all about it.

I told them that I had an audition in Turners Falls the next day. “Turners Falls,” they chimed in recognition. Was that with that weird Michael guy? Michael was a cult leader who was known for “making his face change shapes;” his cult was known for having neglected a baby which crawled into an oven and died.

Ah well, I thought. I guess I needed to hear about this (Some years later, however, a former cult member I’d interviewed denied the dead baby story. He had no reason not to).

Chuck and his musical ejaculator partner dropped me off right at Delia's apartment. There was certainly something to taking a psychic's advice. I told her the prospective news, slept with her, and hitchhiked for Turners Falls the next morning.

Turners Falls is on a northern Massachusetts river that, when water turned wheels that powered textile mills, made the town boom. Its denizens meant to make it a major New England city. It was charmed with classic simple New England houses, white church steeples proudly beaming to the skies through venerable old trees and a downtown which seemed to have frozen some time during the Great Depression.

I saw no building newer than that when I walked over the river bridge early that autumn afternoon, liking the vista, but thinking that its optimistic heart must have stopped at some point. It was no ghost town, but it felt shadowy.

While its heart was beating full blast earlier in the century, a large brick opera house had been built on the main street. This was where I was to audition that evening. It was now occupied by The Spirit of the Renaissance Church, founded and led by one "Michael Rapunzel."

The building contained apartments and a music store. In the parking lot were several expensive-looking recreational vehicles -- buses -- and a hot new fire-engine red Fiat Bertone sports car. I noticed a confederate flag sticker on one of the buses. Just hippie stuff, I supposed.

Incongruously, the entranceway was an elf-size service door in the side of the building. I had to lower my head to enter. Inside was a busy office, several people at desks, phones ringing, everybody busy.

Hitchhiking didn't allow for precision appointment-keeping. I was several hours early. I introduced myself to the young woman stationed at the main desk. I told her why I'd come.

She was friendly and bright and pretty; I asked her a few curious questions about the operation. She said that they meant to spread the message “about our neat way of life” to the whole world through their music. She said that every day was so exciting that she hated to sleep, ever. She was as jazzed about her purpose in this plan as were the equally sleepless Moonies I'd met who trolled Grand Central Station for converts in New York City. The Spirit of the Renaissance Church, she said, wasn't a religion, just a neat way of life.

She called Michael for me, even though the audition was hours away. In he came. He just happened to be in the opera house. He lived there.

Michael Rapunzel (aka Michael Metelica and "Michael What's-his-name" in Hunter Thompson's FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS) was a lanky, pleasant-looking young blonde man just 24 years old. We shook hands smiling; his grip was strong but loose, like a carpenter’s, thumb muscles stretched from handling hammers and saws.

He was cheerful and confident, but not extraordinary; more like a small-town potentate who was doing small-town well, a little swollen with confidence, pulsing with pride. He could have been a local contractor or business owner. He spoke with a common upstate Massachusetts accent, not particularily thick; he used enough hippie jargon of the times to sound like an ignoramus, but not stupid. “Hey, man, how’s it goin’?”

But something, I'd gathered from my hitchhiking the night before, had instead turned him into a local demigod who could make his face change before your eyes. I couldn't discern a thing by looking at him.

He invited me deeper into the opera house. He showed me the stage where the band would be rehearsing as soon as the new lead guitarist was hired. Up in the balcony, he gestured, would be an expensive, top of the line multi-track recording studio. An engineer would be on duty at all times to record every note the band would play, just in case some new ideas came up spontaneously in rehearsals. Michael was taking voice lessons from the most famous voice teacher in New York City.

Every penny the Spirit of the Renaissance Church made was being poured into the rehearsal space for this new band, its musical equipment, its touring dates and salarying the musicians. The music store in the building, he said, was for the musicians to take anything they wanted to use with the band.

I learned later that every penny came from the 600 members of the church. They were largely twenty-somethings who took whatever jobs they could find - including with a construction company Michael had started -- and sacrificed all but their living expenses for this project. It really was a matter of pennies, each one hard-earned. There were,also, donations from wealthy kids.

Musicians were arriving from all over the country for this project. Show-business bigwigs were standing by to hear the first fruits of this project. The Superstar singer Joe Cocker liked to visit often, he said. The Superstar Rolling Stones' manager was waiting to manage the group Michael would form. Somebody or other who had something or other to do with the Superstar Beatles and the Superstar Who was also interested.

I wonder if it’s necessary to stop and qualify these names for posterity. A “Superstar,” in the 1960s and 70s, was a performer who appeared very suddenly on the entertainment scene, attracted attention and sales in unprecedented numbers (perhaps due in part to the increasing population), and some years later, usually required an explanation as to who he or she once was. Joe Cocker had been, in his day, a Superstar. At this point he was a recovering alcoholic. At this writing about forty years later, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles and the Who are still widely heard on radio stations.

Michael invited me into his lair backstage. The large space had been converted into his personal crash pad. It was covered with green shag rugs from bottom to the top of the 25-foot ceiling. The decor included a large confederate stars-and-bars flag… noted again. It all looked very adolescent and very expensive.

He turned on a tape recorder and played me a tape made from previous rehearsals. The only thing impressive about them was the expensive quality of the tape recorder and the natural reverberating acoustics from the rehearsal space -- it was an opera house, after all. It made the rather run-of-the-mill rockin' sound much larger than it was. It wasn't especially musical.

Michael’s singing voice shrieked in strenuous ad-libbing atop the din of the guitars and drums. As we sat in his phantasmagorical hippie den, I read the lyrics he passed to me, which someone had transcribed onto neatly typed paper. Nothing much there, either: "ALL MY LIFE... I HAVE TRIED... TO GET YOU TO SEE..." something something something, there'll be some kind of disaster if you don't listen to me... Still, maybe… I decided to concentrate on the sound of his voice for my remarks.

“You’re very human,” I began.

“Yeah?” He responded, a little eager already.

“And in that humanity is like a longing, or a yearning… it’s very deep. It’s powerful. It shows in your voice.”

“Yeah,” he reflected. I went on trying to tell him every potentially positive thing I could about what I was hearing, as honestly as I could without admitting it was forgettable trash. Soon enough I learned that for this, I was incredible. Just incredible. Really incredible.

“I mean, people have told me things like this before, but no one has ever said it all at once. You’re incredible.” He was huffing with enthusiasm now. I was hired. I got the job minus the little formality of auditioning to find out whether I could actually play music.

Michael began telling me what his life's purpose was and how this opera house enterprise had got here. He'd quit high school at age 15 and lived in a tree house. He made his living by bartering - a little wood here in return for a little work there, some food in return for work done and so on.

He was happy doing things that way. He didn’t need anybody or anything but his neat way of living. Soon, friends began to join him, adding in their carpentry or unskilled labor. Eventually there were 600 people paying his way and living this neat way of living -- as the young lady at the front desk had put it. I learned that she was a sort of appointed wife.

Some locals found them a nuisance, others alarming, and others, tolerable. This was just a bunch of idealistic kids. Michael found himself “personally running the lives of 600 people.” He was glad that this phase of it was over now and that everybody took care of themselves instead of looking to him for constant guidance. They mostly put their money into the rock and roll project.

While Michael was relating all this, a middle-aged man in work jeans was ushered into the green-shag den. “SAMMY!” he shouted exuberantly. “Sammeeeee! Good ta see ya! C’mon in, man, siddown! How’s it goin’? This is Tom!” I shook hands with Sammy and learned that he was Michael’s father.

Sammy was a small dark man with big calloused hard-work paws for hands. Father and son chatted long enough for me to muse that Sammy couldn’t understand what had happened to his son. He seemed pleased but chary that Michael had become a success. Then Sammy said he had to leave because he had to work for a living; he nodded a wink at me.

Michael continued his story: this freewheeling, livin'-off-the-land activity had attracted some young patrons who’d inherited quite a bit of money, which they turned over to him. He used it to buy property, houses as well as the opera house and all the vehicles. The buses, he said, would show up with free food and medical care wherever there was a disaster, like a flood or fire.

The smell of money had attracted the attention of the famous national Sunday news program, 60 Minutes. We left the green-shag den to look at the film. He had someone it set up for us on the opera house floor in front of the stage. All ears perked toward Michael whenever he appeared.

Sure enough, there was the familiar “Tick tick tick tick” signature sound of 60 Minutes and its stopwatch logo, and there was the famous newscaster Mike Wallace, intoning about hippies and these particular ones here in Turners Falls, Massachusetts. There was Michael, stuttering his way unimpressively before the camera about all the good they meant to do.

The broadcast was a few years old. I had never seen it. In those days of Superstars and youth culture, quite a few “here-come-the-hippies” features, as writer Ed Sanders called them, were made.

Program over, film reel flapping, Michael was pleased and relaxed enough to get to the real goods: he was the reincarnation of Saint Peter. “Yeah?” I said, unskeptical.

“Yeah. I’m also the reincarnation of Robert E. Lee.”

“No kidding,” I grunted enthusiastically, offering no contradiction. I wanted to hear this. I hadn't yet met anyone who had anything like a definite reincarnational memory to report. I’d never given it as much thought as now. “So how’d you get to be Saint Peter?” I asked, hoping my slight irony wouldn't put him off.

"Every day for a couple weeks, I was seeing this purple light in front of me," he enthused. "It was like round and it moved, like a pool of purple light, right in the center of my vision, everywhere I looked. I thought I was going crazy. I went to a psychic and she told me to concentrate on that light and it would take me to the Akashic records. So I stared into the light and I found myself in Atlantis," he stressed, growing emphatic, but not describing much. "Then I remembered. I was one of the Atlantean rebels! After that I remembered being Saint Peter. Everything! It was incredible."

"Huh!" No questions.

(The following is a bit more approximation than memory) "And then one day I got strong feelings about the Civil War, so I went to the library to look it up. I read about Robert E. Lee. Then I remembered everything. Everything! I remembered all about it, the war, the defeat, the whole thing."

"How'd you feel about the war?"

"I hated it," he answered, "hated it," shaking his head.

“I'll be darned.” Michael emphatically believed what he was telling me. That's what the Confederate flags scattered around the place were for. I did wonder why someone who used to be Saint Peter would move on to being a Confederate General.

I thought to myself, "if this guy was once Saint Peter, then I must have been Jesus Christ." And "if this guy was Robert E. Lee, I surely was General Ulysses S. Grant," because somehow, this guy was a loser, 600 devoted "slaves" (as he characterized them and expected me to be) or not.

I was now lead guitarist and leader of a rock band with a lot of money. I drove the Fiat Bertone home to consider the whole deal awhile. The Bertone could take hairpin turns around the mountain roads at 90 miles an hour. I showed it off to my friends. Certain of them had also heard of this guy and had nothing positive to say about The Spirit of the Renaissance Church.

I took my friend Kevin for a drive in the fancy sports car and told him to drive awhile. "Get the feeling of this," I said, "and see if it feels like there's a success here or not."

In a little while, Kevin said "No. I see one tiny little 'yes', but a lot of big 'nos'." Drat. I hoped to shoot for the tiny little "yes."

I returned the following week and began a fast downward spiral with Michael Rapunzel. The most expensive vocal lessons in the world hadn't taught him how to interpret a song or keep in time, nor had all-night rehearsals. Our "spiritual" conversations went the same way.

At that time I was still under the influence of that tremendous explosion of my own consciousness, which had happened a few days earlier (Part II). I'd told no one about the constant "hiss" going blissfully through my mind, or the constant "white fog" underlying my waking eyesight. I finally told Michael about it. Maybe he'd know.

"Yeah, I have that all the time," he snorted. "I just ignore it." That couldn't be right, I thought. This couldn't be something to ignore that blithely.

He didn't seem aware that all he'd had to say that week added up to a "no-go," either for forming a successful band or a real friendship. One morning my own feet seemed to pick me up and take me out of Turners Falls. I hitchhiked back to Saratoga Springs. Something was not right, despite the great amounts of money devoted to it, despite the 12 hour nightly rehearsals, the truly splendid rock musicians filtering in hoping for a place in the band, despite all the confidence and certainty. I hitchhiked back to Saratoga and Delia.

Back with Delia at her apartment, the evening after I returned, the phone rang. It was Dave, Michael's devoted go-fer. Why'd I leave, he wanted to know -- stipulating stiffly this was of his own free curiosity. “Uh-huh,” I replied. My mind hustled for some diplomatic explanation but failed. As politely as I could, I told Dave that what was going on over there had nothing to do with music. The people weren't doing what they independently wanted to do. They reminded me of robots, I blurted.

Dave declared that he didn't feel like a robot and he was doing what he wanted to do. Fine, I said, but I simply couldn't shake the feeling and thought it best to leave. "Well, okay," he replied, dubious and stiff. Sure enough, Michael called a few moments later. "Heeey, man," I said, imitating his own hippie affectations.

"Hey man," he said angrily, "I didn't like what you told Dave. We gave you EVERY consideration. Every consideration! Send the book back, too!" Slam went the phone.

He was referring to a book he'd given me that first night, called THE AQUARIAN GOSPEL OF JESUS the CHRIST. It was an odd re-write of the New Testament by a woman who lived in the 19th Century. I'd spent some time reading it. I'd noticed by the inscription that Michael's mother had given it to him some years before he became a local demigod. "This is our bible," Michael had proclaimed.

I worried. Had I just thrown away the big success of my life? With all those entertainment-business connections and money pouring in, did I just blow it bad? I wrote him a note. He answered it on a piece of scrap paper in childish scrawl: "I didn't read your letter because of your awesome self-doubt and inconsideration. You really blew it, man. Michael."

That hurt more than I wanted to admit. I answered it immediately on a postcard card so it wouldn't be tossed away without some eyes seeing it: "Unlike you, I listen to my doubts. I haven't had time to consider your spiritual aspects until now. You're not the reincarnation of anybody, man."

That was the last I heard from him -- except when, years later, curiosity had me write him a note; he replied "I'm sorry about the past." Rock and roll fame and fortune had yet to materialize for him and the commune. It never did. At least he admitted I wasn't lying about having caught a case of crab lice from that hippie cave.

Fiat Bertone, unsuccessful band logo added not long after I gave it back:

Just a Couple of Diploids

Q: So whatever happened to this guy?

A: Oh, you're still here? I thought I was telling this story to my imaginary audience and me.

Q: You are. I'm one of you, too.

A: Who in the world would want to incarnate as me?

Q: You did, didn't you? I think there's actually a big line.

A: Well you must be the me who never heard what happened to this guy.

Q: That's right.

A: In that case, it's convenient you should ask!

Q: Why?

A: Because I had a dream about him last summer. I guess you weren't in it.

Q: Guess not. So whatever happened to him?

A: In the dream, or in reality?

Q: What difference would that make to me? I'm a figment of your imagination.

A: Oh yeah, right. In my dream Michael Rapunzel was stepping on my gas pedal trying to get me to hurry to some big doings in California having to do with the movies. That in fact happened, but it turned out to be a dashed hope, like he was.

Q: Huh. Too bad.

A: Yeah. The dream made me curious, so I looked his name up on the internet. I found out he'd been dead for two years.

Q: You dream about dead people a lot.

A: Not as far as they're concerned. Anyway I contacted some old followers of his and learned some interesting things.

Q: Like what?

A: All the time he was running these 600 people's lives he was a coke-head and an alcoholic and a diddler of cute female followers. They never saw it. When they finally woke up to his true behavior, his Atlantean Revolutionary-Saint Peter-Famous-Rebel-General days were over. They kicked him out of the commune. He got a job as an ambulance driver in Hudson, New York, and died of a heart attack at age 53, said one report; the other said colon cancer. He wasn't the reincarnation of anybody, man.

Q: I'll be darned.

A: You know, you do sound pretty familiar. Anyway, maybe Michael will get to be Ambrose Bierce some day too. I kinda doubt he'd want to, having met me. There are plenty of other people to be.

Q: Yeah, what about that now?

A: As I said, this unusual specimen of small-town religious hysteria really got me to thinking about reincarnation.

Q: Does this mean you're going to tell another story?

A: Yes it does. Why don't you go get a soda or something? I'm going to break this Part into several parts, like Ambrose Bierce used to do.

Q: You know, if you keep writing flippantly like this, nobody's going to believe you. This subject is taken seriously in this world, you know.

A: Are you trying to tell me fun isn't real?

Q: I... I've never thought of that...

A: That's why I'm writing this book and you're not. Go get a soda. By the way, who are you, anyhow?

Q: (Lots of reverb on the voice, as though shouting from Mount Olympus) I am an old one from Antares, a star system far, far away, populated by an advanced species of superhuman consciousness! This includes having a sense of humor. It is I who am in fact writing this story through you.

A: I'll be darned. Anyway, go get a soda.

Q: We are too advanced to drink soda pop on Antares. We absorb a certain natural-goodness planetary essence called Xyxzemonium07-3.

A: Go get one of those. I need to change costumes.