Friday, May 22, 2009

Valley Guru

Meeting the Mystic

The mind-blowing saga of The Brotherhood of the Spirit is essential to anyone wishing to understand how and why the Pioneer Valley is what it is today.

Michael Rapunzel
1950 - 2003

"The answer is never the answer. I've never seen anybody really find the answer -- they think they have, so they stop thinking. But the job is to seek mystery, evoke mystery, plant a garden in which strange plants grow and mysteries bloom."

- Ken Kesey

I admit I had mixed emotions when I read in the paper that Michael Rapunzel had died at the age of 52. Rapunzel was the leader of a commune which was located at various Western Massachusetts locations throughout the 1970's and 80's, His demise interested me because I had known the guy in his heyday. Despite the fact that I had come to consider him an egomaniac, a shameless hypocrite and as mad as a hatter, I still found myself unexpectedly saddened by the news of his passing. Ironically he didn't die here in the Valley, where he had such an impact on thousands of lives over two decades, but in almost complete obscurity in upstate New York. The cause of death was listed as cancer, a surprisingly quiet and commonplace death for one who had lived his life so far out on the furthest edges of experience. Frankly I would have predicted his end as a drug overdose or suicide.

The first time I met Michael Metelica (his real name) was in a huge barnlike structure in Warwick Massachusetts. About 75 people were living there, where everyone slept in sleeping bags that were spread all over the structure every night and then rolled up and put away every morning. On the occasion of our first meeting Michael was dressed in a Civil War style military coat, which had special significance because he considered himself to be the reincarnation of, among others, the Confederate Civil War General Robert E. Lee.

Michael in his Robert E. Lee suit.

Rapunzel was well known in Springfield through his rock band Spirit in Flesh, whose posters were plastered everywhere around town in the 1970's. The band played frequently at the old Capitol Theatre and The Paramount. They even had a popular album now long out of print, but which I notice you can still buy at high prices from online rariety outlets. Rapunzel was the lead singer for the group, and their rock concerts were in part recruitment rallies for the commune, of which he was the spiritual head. Many people from throughout the Valley took the band up on their open invitation to visit the commune, and I and a few of my Pine Point friends were among them.

I'm sorry to say we were quickly disillusioned by what we experienced there. For one thing, for a commune headed by a rock and roll band the place was oddly puritanical. There was no drinking, drugs or sexual promiscuity allowed, which I found very disappointing. I mean why go and live in the woods with a bunch of hippies if you can't party? Also they had a farm out there that you had to work on every day if you expected to stay. I worked on the farm and after several days of toiling under the blazing sun in a cucumber field, stooped over plucking weeds like some old-world peasant, I resolved that I ain't gonna work on Michael's farm no more!

But what really helped to end my experiment with communal living was the food. Not only were the members puritans but they were vegetarians as well, so after breaking your back in the fields for ten hours all you had to come home to was a bunch of rabbit food in a big wooden bowl. For dessert all they had was peanut butter on homemade bread. What shocked me was how this meager meal was considered by the commune members to be the high point of the day! I couldn't figure out what was wrong with these people that they were voluntarily choosing this lifestyle, which if imposed on the convicts in a chain gang at a state prison would've resulted in a riot. At least in jail you get a hamburger now and then!

The truth is that after about a week of visiting this hippie hellhole I was only too ready to head gratefully back to Springfield, and it was then that I finally encountered Michael Rapunzel. I had not met him earlier in my stay because Rapunzel did not live with the rest of us in the big barn full of sleeping bags. He and his girlfriend, as well as other band members, lived in an old farmhouse on the property which was off limits to the regular commune members. I was also aware by this time that Rapunzel claimed to be the reincarnation of other historical figures besides Robert E. Lee, including the apostle of Jesus and the founder of the Catholic Church, Saint Peter.

My last afternoon at the commune Rapunzel suddenly appeared among us and began preaching. He immediately zeroed in on me as if I were the only person in the room (there were dozens of us present) and greeted me as if I were an old friend. I was surprised to realize just how old a friend he considered me to be! Rapunzel proceeded to explain to me that when he was living his past life as Saint Peter, he had known me in my past life as a shepard who tended a flock just outside of Jerusalem. Apparently I was a shepard with a philosphical bent, since Michael/St. Peter claimed to have spent many evenings discussing spiritual and intellectual matters with me under the stars as I tended my sheep.

I'd like to say I laughed in his face upon hearing this ridiculous story, but I didn't. Why not? I didn't in part because Rapunzel had an odd charisma about him that was hard to define but quite powerful. Somehow he had a way of making you want to believe him, no matter how nonsensical his comments were. I was somewhat immune to his charms because I didn't fall for his lies, but I didn't laugh at him either. I just said "Wow, that's cool," or something to that effect. Besides, why be rude to a friend you haven't seen in nearly two thousand years?

That night, as I was asleep in my bedroll ready to split from the commune the first thing in the morning, someone shook me awake. "Gather your things and come with me," the man said. "Rapunzel wants to see you." A few minutes later I was crossing the grassy field between the communal home and the farmhouse, the way shown by a swaying kerosene lantern held by my mysterious guide.

Soon we arrived at the mystic's dwelling.

Immediately upon stepping inside the farmhouse the guide vanished. The initial sensation I experienced was the strong smell of marijuana smoke. Sitting there before me in the living room, shirtless, barefoot and wearing only an old pair of jeans, sat my biblical companion Michael Rapunzel, also known as Saint Peter, the Viceroy of Christ, also known as General Robert E. Lee, the military genius of the old Confederacy, revered as the great guru of the commune known as The Brotherhood of the Spirit, admired as the lead singer and songwriter for the rock band Spirit in Flesh, the Pied Piper of Western Massachusetts and the Grand Wizard of Warwick - smoking a big fat joint with a half-empty bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken sitting in front of him. I stood before the prophet with my mouth hanging open in total awe, not of Rapunzel, but of the Kentucky Fried chicken. After a week of hard labor and vegetarian dining, I was ready to kill for a chicken wing!

Rapunzel offered me some chicken and a hit off the joint. As the evening went on we drank wine and later split a qualude as well. That might be why I can't recall in much detail what Rapunzel told me that night. I know he spoke a great deal, in fact he showed little interest in me except as a captive audience for his long rambling monologue. Perhaps he didn't care what I thought because he knew I would soon be leaving, or perhaps he didn't care what other people thought in general.

Yet I do recall that Rapunzel was interesting and persuasive, although it no doubt helped that I was too stoned to think twice about anything he was saying. I know that the gist of what he said was that he had been reborn to save the world, and that this fast growing commune was merely the modest beginnings of a global movement. I did not argue with him since I was so zonked out on pot, booze and pills that it was all I could do to keep from drooling.

I left the next morning just as I had planned, although much later than I originally intended, having slept late in my drugged state. Michael stayed in bed and did not get up to say good-by. I remember I stole a joint off the coffee table before I split, and departed with plenty to think about. What I mostly thought was what a two-faced bastard Rapunzel was. Here were his faithful followers living on lettuce, working like slaves and rejecting all sensual pleasures; and here was Rapunzel, their spiritual leader, living in the seclusion of the farmhouse and leading a life of complete hedonism!

What struck me as most weird about the people in that commune was the way they were so blind to what a con-man Rapunzel was. These were folks who had come to the commune to drop out of society and who regarded the modern world with such skepticism and distrust that they wanted to live like people in a pre-industrial age. Yet when fed a story by a guy claiming to be the reincarnation of St. Peter and Robert E. Lee, they would accept that shuck and jive without a hint of disbelief. The commune members imagined themselves in the vanguard of a new lifestyle, a movement that would sweep the world. But what it seemed to me they were really doing was indulging themselves in mass evasion, letting Rapunzel think for them so they could have the luxury of not thinking for themselves.

I also learned a little something from the way I'd reacted to the sight of that Kentucky Fried chicken. I realized that the limited and deprived way the people on that commune lived was part of what gave Rapunzel his power. Make people eat lettuce all the time and they'll go crazy with gratitude when you finally offer them a chicken wing. I've noticed since then that on some level the same kind of withold and grant game is at the root of every destructive power relationship I've ever seen.

I never revisited the Brotherhood of the Spirit again, but I continued to follow their exploits as best I could through the local media. They eventually left Warwick and settled in several other Western Mass communities, usually to the alarm of the citizens already living there. At one point Rapunzel had everyone in the commune apply for welfare, then made them all turn over their checks to him. The scam caused such an uproar that the legislature revised the welfare laws to prevent it from continuing.

Eventually Rapunzel was rejected by his own followers for his drug and alcohol abuse. For a while he was allowed to stay in the commune, but without his dictatorial powers. Finally he was thrown out for good, and by that time the name of the group had been changed to The Renaissance Community. It still exists today, but as a pale shadow of its former self. As for Rapunzel, he eventually cleaned up his act as far as dope and booze went, but it was too late. In a photograph of him that appeared in the Sunday Republican a few years back he was almost unrecognizable, a bloated ruin of the charismatic leader I had known.

So now he's dead. What was the meaning of his crazy existence? I guess we never got around to figuring out the meaning of life on those long nights he claimed we spent, he and I, on the fields outside the walls of Jerusalem. Or maybe he told me what the meaning of life was that night we spent on drugs in the farmhouse in Warwick, and in my stoned stupor I forgot. I don't know. I don't have any answers.

Good-by Michael Rapunzel, whoever you were.

Portrait of Rapunzel by Daniel A. Brown.

A Review of The Free Spirits Movie

I couldn't believe my eyes when I arrived at Northampton's Academy of Music for the premiere of UMass professor Bruce Geisler's new film about the Western Mass commune Brotherhood of the Spirit. There was a line at the box office that was so long it went all the way down the long sidewalk leading to the Academy, around the corner and stretching to the bus stop. I couldn't remember seeing a line like that for an Academy of Music show since the Ramones played there in the late 1970's! Later it said in the UMass Collegian that the premiere was the best selling opening for a film (as opposed to a concert) in the modern history of the Academy.

I'm sure I'm not the only one who thought as I viewed the crowd, "Rapunzel would have loved this!"

There was no way my friend and I were going to stand in the back of that line, despite the flute playing clown which entertained the line as they waited, because it looked likely that the line was long enough to have the show sell out before we could reach the ticket box. So I just made a quick video of the scene outside the Academy and resolved to return the next day. There was a line on Sunday too, but not nearly as long and I managed to get in.

I guess the huge turnout shows that even after all these years people are still fascinated by the question, "What the hell was going on at that commune up in the hill towns in the 70's and 80's?" In fact I would consider the story of the Brotherhood and its controversial leader, the drug-addled mystic Michael Metelica Rapunzel, to be the second most important largely untold story in Western Mass history, the only more important one being the destruction of Springfield at the hands of an evil political machine. Both are essential topics for understanding why our Valley is what it is today, and neither story has ever been even half told.

Yet perhaps I should have predicted the film's popularity. Shortly after the death of Rapunzel I wrote a brief memoir of my visit to the commune for my website. I was surprised afterward to receive a stream of grateful emails from people who had lived at the commune. This surprised me because my account was filled with sarcasm bordering on ridicule and was hardly flattering to Rapunzel or his followers. Yet a Google search showed me that my article and another by Stephanie Kraft of the Valley Advocate were practically the only things available on the web about the commune. That supporters of the commune felt compelled to write to me about their experiences, despite my article's unsympathetic tone, suggested to me that there was a real hunger out there to sort out what the commune meant, a task made difficult by the fact that there was nearly a complete lack of any accounts of what had actually happened at the commune.

Personally I was unqualified to offer anyone that historical perspective. My account of the Brotherhood was based solely upon one visit I made to the commune that lasted only four or five days. I spent most of that time working in a vegetable garden, which was a tremendous culture shock for a street kid from Springfield. The commune members were obviously on some sort of spiritual trip, but in those days my idea of a spiritual quest was making it to the teenage keg parties in the woods next to Saint Michael's Cemetery. I only spent one evening in the company of Rapunzel, although I left convinced that Rapunzel was a shameless hypocrite and an obvious charlatan.

Interestingly, none of the commune members who contacted me argued much with my appraisal of Rapunzel. In fact several insisted that he was much worse than I had described. But to my surprise what I also found was many former members saying that I had missed something in my brief stay, that there was actually much going on at the commune that was very positive, very high energy and which had nothing to do with the dark psycho-dramas surrounding Rapunzel and his inner circle. Over and over again I kept reading the same thing in their emails, which was some variation of the phrase "the best time of my life."

I took going to see the film Free Spirits more seriously than I normally would when seeing a movie. I generally read the Valley Advocate soon after it hits UMass/downtown Amherst late on Wednesday afternoons. But this week I refused to read it because of the front page article by Andrew Varnon, which I didn't want to prejudice me in any way about what I would see. I wanted to watch the film neutral, with no expectations or preconceptions. I also wanted to test my own memory against whatever I saw. Therefore I was afraid Varnon's Advocate article would contain opinions about the film that would feed my biases.

So what did I think of the film? At the end of the movie I gladly joined in with the thunderous applause it received. I was applauding not just because the film was good, which it was, but because it had been made at all. I felt that an important missing piece of Valley history had finally been filled in, at least partially, and that it was a film whose importance surpassed its entertainment value. I would go so far as to say it is the one essential film that every resident of Western Mass must see.

I was also pleased to discover that I saw little that clashed with my own recollections, in fact the film brought to mind numerous things that I had long forgotten. It was strangely nostalgic to see pictures of the inside of the giant dormitory in Warwick (which I more accurately called "a barn") and the dining area where we ate our dreadfully bland vegan meals.

One scene in particular struck me, the one where everyone is shown running across a field. At one point I spotted among the runners a person being pushed along in a wheelchair, a very disabled spastic person with no control of his body movements. It brought to mind a long forgotten incident involving that very person, who one morning was laid out on a table in the barn. We were instructed to form a line and file past this pathetic person and look directly into his eyes. It was typical of the kind of crazy things we would do that were designed to break down any hang-ups you might have about your body, such as the nude sauna they had outdoors or the arrangement of the toilets in a circle so that you had to pull down your pants and shit in front of your friends. (Many, myself included, preferred to go in the woods rather than use those toilets.) Anyway, I remember looking into the eyes of that spastic and being startled, because I saw such awareness in those eyes that it was clear that there was an intelligent mind trapped inside that body.

I'm sure I'm not alone in feeling that important things were left out of the film. Some of that is inevitable; as apparently the original director's cut was over three hours long, which would be commercial suicide for a documentary. But I do consider it unfortunate that so much was glossed over in the film about the commune's beliefs. The truth is there was no great philosophy guiding these people, just some vague altruistic impulses tied to generalizations based on the basic principles of most major religions, particularly Christianity, all mixed up with the cult of personality around Rapunzel. They were heavily into reincarnation, and one of the most bizarre aspects of Rapunzel was his insistence that he was the reincarnation of Saint Peter, the apostle of Christ, and the Confederate Civil War General Robert E. Lee. Astute observers will notice in the many posters shown in the film that Confederate icons are everywhere, an aspect of the commune that is politically incorrect these days when the Confederate flag is considered by many as a symbol of racism. Indeed modern lefties will find much to dislike about the commune, especially its insistence on the subservience of women and its unfriendly attitude towards gays.

Despite these omissions, the film is mostly honest about the dark side of the commune. Originally a kind of unstructured democracy, the commune became increasingly socialistic with all wealth eventually centralized in Rapunzel. In that sense the commune presented a microcosm of how socialism devolves into tyranny and of why socialism failed so consistently in the past century whenever it was tried. Once the commune members weren't allowed to keep the money they earned, and had to hand it over to a central authority, it was as much a road to ruin for the commune as it was for places like East Germany.

But fuzzy ideology and bad economics were not the most important reasons the commune failed. There was also the disastrous alliance between Rapunzel and a pair of crackpot mystics who insisted on "guiding" the commune with their magical powers. Once you're running your life in accordance with someone chanting in a trance about spirit guides, disaster must inevitably follow.

The film insists the commune's ban on drugs was sincere, and I saw no drug use when I was there except what was offered to me by Rapunzel. Yet I'm inclined to believe those who have told me that the no-drugs rule was just a necessary pose to keep the rest of society at bay. Had the commune ever been seen as a pro-drug environment, that would have been all the authorities would have needed to squash the commune like a bug. The film buys into the notion that the Brotherhood was a sober meditation society, but I've spent a lot of time with stoned people and even in the earliest photographs most of these folks look wasted to me.

Interestingly the film says little about the one area where Rapunzel may have been a true visionary - video. He was not the first to embrace the modern notion that everything one does should be filmed, photographed, recorded or written about (that would be the Grateful Dead and the Merry Pranksters) but Rapunzel was certainly one of the early pioneers of that concept, stating that events acquired special significance purely through the act of being recorded.

The saddest scenes of the film are the last interviews with Rapunzel, which show him in a shocking state of degradation, slurring his words, prematurely aged and cluelessly in denial about what has happened to him. If you want to scare kids away from drugs, just show side by side a picture of Rapunzel as he was at the beginning of the film and what he looked like at the end. Scared straight indeed.

The mind blowing saga of The Brotherhood of the Spirit is essential to anyone wishing to understand how and why the Pioneer Valley is what it is today. Free Spirits is an important film because it forms the basic foundation for intelligent discussion of the history of the commune and what it meant to our Valley. There is no doubt the Brotherhood of the Spirit had an influence far beyond its actual membership. It many ways it functioned almost like a counter-culture university, sending its members and visitors out into Western Mass where they profoundly influenced the communities in which they lived. A lot of what makes us "The Happy Valley" was forged in the crucible of The Brotherhood of the Spirit. And say what you will about Rapunzel's bad end, the commune at its best was still a living model of the notion that you can live your life the way you want, as opposed to what society expects of you, if you will only have the courage and sincerity to try, and that you can create the life of excitement, spirituality and high adventure we all crave. In that sense, it's not surprising that people later described their commune years as the best time of their life.

As I was leaving the theater a giant balloon was hovering over Northampton.

Here is a video I made of the scene outside the premiere. I'm sure I'm not the only one who thought as I viewed the crowd, "Rapunzel would have loved this!"

Remembering Michael

A collection of letters I have received from members of The Brotherhood of the Spirit:

Hi Tom:

Wow, it was fascinating to read your piece on Michael Metelica and the
Brotherhood of the Spirit. I have another one of those stories, which at the
time was totally bizarre for me.

I am originally from London, England but lived five years in Kathmandu in
the sixties, I returned to England with my Japanese husband and baby
daughter. It was the summer of 1971 and it was obvious that I could not stay
with my husband and was looking for a way out I had met another young
mother at a Women's Lib. meeting. She and her husband and baby, the same age
as mine, had met the band Spirit in Flesh when they visited London that
summer. They were really taken with what they had heard about the commune
and decided that they wanted to visit. I saw this as my way of getting away
from my marriage. I was still suffering from leaving Nepal and I have to say
coming to the U.S. for the first time and going to the commune was probably
one of the most shocking culture shocks I have experienced. After living an
exciting life of freedom in Kathmandu, it was a bit much.

Michael went crazy when we arrived and said he had had a dream the night
before that people were coming from overseas. So when we arrived with our
babies, instead of living with the others, he took us to stay in his house.
There was great resentment from the other commune inhabitants. We did,
however, have to work in the fields. The worst thing was that they took Anna
my 18 month old baby away and said we should be separated for my spiritual
training. Of course I had taken her away from her father, so I didn't think
she should be separated from me. I also had to cook and I had no experience
of cooking huge amounts. My friends also were shocked by what we found and
we didn't really know how to get away, as we were considered important
potential inmates by Michael

I turned out that after a few days the band went off to play at Carnegie
Hall and they disappeared. We gathered all our things and after dark we
stood on the road to try and hitch. Amazingly, a woman with a big car passed
and we managed to get three adults and two kids plus a lot of gear into her
car and she took us to the nearest town.

Reading your piece brought it back and yes I remember the communal toilets
and I also remember that they had some way of working with people who had
drug addictions and I seem to remember the entire commune chanting over some
poor guy who was experiencing withdrawal symptoms.

I will be writing a memoir I hope, about my travels -- I still travel quite a bit. I never considered writing about the commune but it may make a little essay sometime. I would love to see that film.

By the way I live on a little island in British Columbia now. Recently I
have been very involved with the Occupy Movement and sometimes when I went
to visit the site in Vancouver (disbanded now) I see the same kind of young
people who were at the commune. I am 71 now and a grandmother of four boys
-- it is strange looking back at that time. You sound interesting and I like your writing.

Bye for now,

Kami Kanetsuka
November 2011

From: Albert Fiel (
Sent: Fri 3/20/09 9:07 PM

Dear Mr. Tom Devine,

I take homage to your web site denouncing our Great Leader and defender of the South General Robert E. Lee...... Sorry I couldn't help myself. I found your site today when looking on youtube for old rock groups, deciding to see if I could find Spirt in the Flesh. I couldn't but I did find your site on the web. I read your entire encounter, all the responses posted along with the movie review.

My name is Al Faille, my relationship with Mike Metelica goes back to pre-commune days. The first time I met him was when a guy I worked with, at the local A+W Root Beer stand, asked me if I wanted to ride out to Leyden to drop something off to a friend. It ended up being Mike Metelica's house. My friend summoned Mike out to the car opened the trunk and revealed a full trunk of beer cases, bottles of booze and the like. I had no idea that my friend was a rum runner. Back then if you were over 18 you could go to New York state and make big purchases and make huge profits selling to kids back here.

Early on I had many encounters with Mike as we had a small circle of things that connected us. Mike's sister Jackie worked at the A+W as a car hop and many a time I gave her a ride home from work. My father and some friends worked at the hospital where Mike also worked as a dishwasher.

He had a rock group called Treehouse and the Mothers, which some friends and I hired for a party. Many of the members were people I knew from school and several, including Mike, tried to recruit me into joining them. I never did but my brother and sister both did, living there for years. This kept me around the commune many a time. My brother and sister both left but my brother still remains in contact with old members.

I would like to see the movie but I am disabled and it's hard for me to get out.

Anyway thanks for the site,

Al Faille

Hey Tommy,

I was of the same mind as you displayed in your oratory about meeting with Robert E. Lee and the Apostle Peter reincarnated, Michael (what a con) Rapunzel Metalica, burnt out biker, doper, panderer and thought Mike was a huge con. I would have liked to share a joint and a quaalude with him though, but that wouldn't have made up for the years I wasted up there. Ahh, such is life.

I suffered in silence, probably because I was just drying out and hadn't cleared up yet, until I found my way to California, Hawaii, NY, Maine, the Navy (submarine force), more surfing, married a Filipino debutant who was closely linked with Imelda Marcos, and now moving to the Philippines to my own private Island get-away. To surf, to live and to love people and life and it should be. Light and lively...

What a strange trip it's been.

At least all of Michael's subjects weren't completely duped by his bull.

Cheers and chill,

Rich Miller

Hello Tom...

Here was the ideal vision ...

The community ORIGINALLY drew people that wanted to just be together in some wholesome context. The members were artists and dreamers and very special people. Michael had other (self) agendas. We were young and idealistic and not everyone saw the twists and bends in the road that lay before us. It was a simple time of gardens and was the ideal.

We stood together though we did not know why.
We held hands to touch the sky
We left our homes to find a life
We thought held promise from all the strife
And when we let go we discovered friends
To help us heal and make amends
We shared our dreams
And held on fast
But this was not promised to last
We turned to till the beautiful earth
Watch the mothers that gave birth
Children that played among sunbeams crisp air
We had much love to care and share.
And so it began the bond of love
That comes from the one true God above
And a patch of heaven was created one day
A garden stretched far across the way
The very ground that once stood still
Beneath our feet taken against our will
And so it is this simple song
That shows us where we truly belong
Where a simple life among our friends
is better than all the worldly trends.
Life’s best and most cherished gift
Is the giving of hearts
Nothing else exists

By Pat Bunk

The reality is that the spiritual foundation misguided by the medium Elwood Babbit showered some people with false teachings from some "spirit" that really ended up creating chaos and destruction. Flattering so called spirit guides that told people they were queens and kings and very important people from "past" lifetimes. Inflated egos drew that simple and beautiful community to the rock star mentality that was hell on earth.

The "chosen" ones were Michaels close followers. The real story is behind the scenes where people can tell you what really happened when Michael was playing his personal tune of salvation. You are right about that change in character. We must all be accountable to love, cherish and respect each others dignity from the greatest to the least. I am writing a book about the life. All who wish to share their experiences for inclusion in my book can contact me here:

From : daniel a. brown
Sent : Saturday, August 27, 2005 10:46 PM
To :
Subject : Brotherhood of the Spirit

Dear Tom,

I was Googling the Brotherhood of the Spirit and got onto your column about Michael Rapunzel which was quite illuminating. I was a member of the Brotherhood/Renaissance from 1970-1984 and have been the unofficial "historian" of the group having saved the 10,000 image photo archival history as well as writing a historical timeline and anecdotes about the Community and doing several public slide show presentations to local historical societies.

I liked your piece especially the story of sharing pot and KFC with Michael. The first time we were together, we went to McDonald's (no pot).

There is an ocean of things to say about this but it's impossible to do so by email, But you are right in that Michael did have a charisma that made you take him seriously. As far as his downfall...well, imagine being 22 years old and having 300 people putting their lives in your hands....When Jesus was off in the desert for 40 days, he wasn't wrestling with the was that human voice telling him that with his powers and charisma, he could have all the worldly goodies available...and that's a strong voice.

Some facts you got a bit confused with. The commune became the Renaissance Community in 1974 and kept that name until the end. Beginning in 1980, long-term members began to leave until 1988 when Michael was given $20,000 as a bribe to leave and never return. The commune land still exists in Gill, MA but people there live family-style in their own homes and share some land in common.

A few months after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, Michael appeared at a gathering in his honor at Beth Hapgood's house in Greenfield. It was well attended and included many people who had some serious issues with him. Whether that puts everything to rest remains to be seen.

There's so much more but so little space.

Daniel A. Brown

P.S. Here is a picture of Michael taken about five years before his death:

From : Tom Dark
Sent : Friday, August 12, 2005 5:54 PM
To :
Subject : Hey it's me, Robert E. Lee

Hi Tom,

I'm Tom Dark. I had a dream about Michael Rapunzel last night and curiously popped his name into Google, found your essay, and was surprised to learn he died 2 years ago.

I guess he was a real St. Bernard of a personality. St. Bernards don't live long, you know.

I'd written up a longer tale of him than I meant to in a book I'm writing. I got the job as lead-guitar-and-leader-of-the-rock-band in October 1973 in the opera house at Turners' falls; he even gave me the Fiat Bertone. I lasted one week until my legs walked me out of there... I had to admit he couldn't sing worth a damn and no number of fine musicians could help that, and with a no-talent like that running the show he'd only be in the way, despite all that GREAT STUFF and the alleged big connections with hi-power show biz.

Rapunzel's Turners Falls headquarters in 1976
Note the Confederate flags in the window

Worried for a long while that I might be wrong, waited to hear them come out with a song on local radio (I lived in Saratoga Springs, a couple hours away), but now, 30 years later, I see I can stop worrying.

I'd never met anybody before who was so convinced of the idea of reincarnation, be it St. Peter, Robert E. Lee, or a soda jerk from Peoria. If I'm here writing a nil nisi bonam de mortui, I can say I owe good old Michael for my having first contemplated reincarnation seriously... albeit my first thought was, "If he was Saint Peter, then I'm Jesus Christ."

Okay, okay. My second thought was "If he's Robert E. Lee, then I've GOT to be Ulysses Grant."

I hitchhiked out of Turner's Falls, got home, later got a call "independently" (right) from one of his self-appointed underlings whose name I can't recall. I tried to explain as politely as I could that everyone there seemed to behave like a bunch of robots. When Michael called me back to scold and yell and holler for what I said, I got the uncanny feeling that he really liked me for it. Some years later he wrote me a little apology.

We never did achieve that Special Spiritual Brotherhood, tho'. Anyway it was pretty plain that he wasn't any Robert E. Lee... but I did go on to "remember" the Civil War from the perspective of a young man from Indiana who got whanged upside the head with a musket ball, incidentally.

Thanks for the news, tho' it took me two years to look it up...

The details of my 1-month powwow with him (1 week or so of which was actually taking the job) are still vivid in my mind because he was such a peculiar character and this whole thing was so strangely contradictory. To this day I wanna know "WHAT charisma?" How in the name of the Antlantean Revolution (remember that?) could people think of him that way? Nor could I call him "a con man." Y'know? He was just in over his head. He was only a kid. Maybe he let people -- children, really -- create something out of him they wanted to be themselves. But why would they?

Of what I've found in the few letters to you and a bit of stuff on the 'net, even the basics are missing. I can only surmise, for instance, that the experience that stuck him on the St. Peter/other famed characters thing was an acid trip and he didn't add that somewhat obvious fact. This doo-dah about "Aquarianism" was just the result of a book given to him as a gift by his mom -- which I found. Didn't anybody else? The book itself was just a rewrite of parts of the New Testament in Victorian-ese by a well-meaning Victorian-era charlatan. It was pretty mediocre. His mom was probably "the psychic" that he referred to without mentioning a name, who "advised" him about "seeing purple."

Okay, I see he left 6 kids behind. Cairo, New York. Prob'ly no money. Trying to make it as an EMT, it's claimed. "Played Carnegie Hall?" Give. Me. A. Break. Cancer of the what? Anybody know?

What was the deal about a neglected baby who crawled into an oven and died? Was that real? I heard it the moment I mentioned these people to a friend who'd heard of them back in '73.

And so forth. How come nobody knows the actual scoop? I was around only a month or so. Aren't his lifetime friends talking? Or really, Tom, is it that they're embarrassed, incurious or not real bright or what?

Tom Dark

From : sweiss820
Sent : Wednesday, July 6, 2005 3:51 AM
To :
Subject : Michael's passing...

I search the internet from time to time looking for my past and any links to The Brotherhood of the Spirit... and am always amazed how little is around about the commune and communes of New England.

It was 1969, Woodstock with the Hog Farm, Cool aid Acid Test, and the March on Washington... this Girl was ready for a change!!!

Discovering the commune in Feb. 1970... 30 folks held up in old summer camp... in a few weeks I was back to stay and the brotherhood had just moved to Warick. My first day I found myself in a pick up truck on my way to shovel cow manure with the most wonderful person.

Those were the days my friend, magical times... still dreaming of the fields of fire flies like the stars came down to earth, the wild woods, Johnson's Pasture, and the wonderful friends along the way...

It's sad to hear about Michael's passing... wasn't around for the negative stuff folks have been writing about... didn't pay much attention to him anyway.

How lucky of me to be alive at a time where I could hitch up the turnpike and live on a commune, wake and choose to spend my days at whatever was in front of me... what a joyous life it was... and for this I have to thank Michael and the early members. What a blessing it was!!!

Would love to hear from people who were at The Brotherhood of the Spirit (winter/summer of 1970) and would love to know what The Renaissance Community is up to today.

Susan from New York

From : Thomas J Mattera
Sent : Friday, August 27, 2004 7:30 PM
To :
Subject : Michael Metelica


I search the net from time to time to see what I can find out about old memories. Michael Metelica and Spirit in the Flesh is one of those memories. That is how I came upon your posting.

Sometime around 1971 I was hitch hiking through Mass from LI and stumbled upon Michael's community. I stayed with them for 3 days and had much the same experience as you. I foraged for edible plants with one of the girls there, toured the main house, ate with them and met Michael and sat with him in his residence across from the common dwelling. There was one guy who had built a home in the forest at the edge of the field that separated the common residence from the kitchen and bakery and Michael's residence. The guy I met showed me his home which he structured from old windows. The home had no opaque walls so that his life was open for all to see. He told me how there were satellite homes all around the area. How members worked in neighboring towns in businesses and farms earning money which would be given to the commune. I also went into town with them and listened to them perform in the town square. I thought the whole scene was freaky. I met people from newborn to their late 70's. They had signed over cars, homes and their life savings to Michael. They were skilled craftsmen, a degreed engineer, teachers, high school drop outs, you name it. It seemed they were all sorts.

I left amazed that people could follow so blindly and believed that Michael Metelica's charisma was dangerous.

I returned a year or three later to interview Michael. The interview was to be the basis for an assignment in an American Government class I was enrolled in at Nassau Community College on LI. The assigned topic was alternative government forms. Upon arriving at the location where the commune had been I found the buildings vacant. The place looked deserted and I didn't poke around too much. I went into Warwick where I remembered they had a house. At the house I was told that the community still existed but in a different form. They told me Michael could be found by going to the music store in town. At the store they said they did not know Michael Metelica. As I walked away wondering what to do next I heard someone call to me as I rounded the corner to the side of the building, "Hey Spirit." It was a guy sitting on a street bench. He and I spoke and he explained that Michael could be found by going to a basement door about 20 feet from where we were. This was the same building the music shop was in, but around the corner. It was in the downtown area of Warwick.

I knocked on the door and walked in. Michael was sitting behind an old desk in the dimly lit small room. I explained to him that I had come to interview him for a college paper about the community. He told me that the past was gone and he would not discuss it. I pressed him with a few questions but he stood his ground. He told me to leave if I wanted to talk about the past but that he would talk about the present. At that I agreed, feeling my only other alternative was to leave empty handed.

Michael sat back in his chair and put his feet on the desk. I remember that he either had two different colored socks on or had one sock on and the other foot was bare. He explained to me how video created relevance. How if he put a video camera in my hand, then where I went would become relevant. That the video created the relevance because if an event was captured on video everyone would see it. In retrospect he sounds like a pioneer. Video was in its infancy. After talking for a few minutes he stood up and opened a door several feet to his left and invited me in to see his studio. It was as though the old building had been gutted and remodeled. It was a studio with seats for an audience. He only gave me a glimpse but I remember it being a large room that looked as though it had been recently been built. Unpainted pine. I remember seeing a control room at the far end of the room.

He ushered me back to his 'office' and encouraged me become involved in his new venture. He explained to me that if I was interested in joining I was invited to pay $25, fill out an application and live in the house at the end of the block during a three day evaluation period. I thanked him and went on my way back home to Long Island feeling that I had just experienced a meeting with a charismatic and dangerous guy.

Do you have any information about this part of Michael Metelica's life? I would think that he may have been involved in the beginnings of the 'music video' industry. I thought I would share this with you and anyone else who is interested since you also crossed paths with Michael and his exploits.

Tom M
Oswego, IL

From : Tom Maguire
Sent : Friday, January 16, 2004 2:25 PM
To :
Subject : Michael Rapunzels visit to liverpool


Just happened to be surfing and came upon your article about Micheal Rapunzel. I met Michael back in 1975 when he and some followers were looking to branch out into England. I felt he was a bit strange, and I was a kid of fifteen at the time. He used to strut around in a long cape, top hat and bare feet. Always trying to explain to us inner city kids, how in a past life he was this person and that person. We would sit and listen to him for hours on end, not because we were interested, but because we would always get a few ciggerettes off him.

I am still very good friends with the guys who came to visit Liverpool back in 75, and have been to visit them many times in New England. At the time I really wanted to be a part of their dream commune, now when I look back, I am glad I didn't get that involved.

I would often phone the commune and spoke to a lot of nice people, it would be interesting to know what they are all doing now.

The good thing that came out of my meetings with Michael was that I met some of the nicest people on earth and especially my dearest friends Duck, Andy, Carolyn, Gary, Ronnie, Irene and Heidi.

If anyone out there remembers the "kid from liverpool", it would be great to hear from you after all these years.

Liverpool, England

From : David Galluccio
Sent : Thursday, December 18, 2003 4:29 AM
To :
Subject : Mike Metelica


I was thinking about Mike today and went to the web looking for ghosts. I am saddened by his physical death as much as I was saddened long ago by his spiritual and possibly mental demise. The experience you recount is an all too familiar observation made by folks who visited the commune during the Warwick and beyond time. I wish I could take you back in time to the dark and quiet nights in the tree house and the time before Warwick and the craziness. With your skill I think you would have an even better story to tell. Yes, Mike took all the wrong turns and did become someone worthy of all the contempt that people have felt for him. But that's not all I'm going to remember about Mike.


Tuatha (tuatha242) wrote,
@ 2003-08-13 20:52:00

I read your article about Michael Metalica aka:Rapunzel while cruising around the net tonight. When I moved to Massachusetts in the 70's, Rapunzel had a huge commune. He started it when he was about 17, but I never liked him. I thought he was a jerk. One reason is that my step kids lived in his commune, and I thought the whole thing was kind of weird.

Granted, I was young, but I would see all these guys screwing around with motorcycles, smokin dope and havin a good ole time, while all the women would be running around with babies or workin in the fields. I mean, what the hell - women's liberation??? Yea really, women wanted women's lib and some men said, "Sure, you can work in an office, but could you cook dinner when you get home? Clean the bathroom...." My motto was always "There ain't nothin free about free love" so I didn't get it. Workin like a third world labourer while guys sit around kinda pissed me off.

And he ran through everyone's money. People gave him all their worldly possessions, women had babies by him, eventually they tossed him out. Like I said from day one, "Rapunzel" or "Ra-pugnant" as I called him, and I didn't get along. I don't think Rapunzel liked me because I basically told him he was an opportunist and a sleaze and he would have to deal with me if he didn't stop harrassing my step kids. I was really happy when my step kids didn't live around him anymore. They're over 30 and still screwed up now.

Lot's of really nice people were involved with the Community. Lots of talented people who went on to do wonderful things. I guess alot of people were also lost and it seemed like a good place to be. Michael just wasn't my kinda spiritual guide, or anyone I'd want to hang out with. Last time I physically saw him I was eating seafood at the Sportsman Bar and grill in Brattleboro. I think he was drunk and someone was threatening to beat him up. I don't remember reading about Jesus, or Buddha or Gahndi getting into bar brawls.

So now he's dead, and it is kinda sad because I know he influenced alot of people, for better or worse. I liked alot of the folks that lived in that commune. Good times...sigh...

Bye Bye...

Party on dude....

From :
To :
Subject : to tom devine
Date : Mon, 21 Jul 2003 23:43:41 EDT

I lived at Michael's commune off and on for about a year and a half. Even as a 16 year old runaway I could see how transparent he was. The first time I saw him he had a top hat, cape and tights on.

It was a game with all of us who fled society. Hardly anyone worked hard and we smoked weed in the woods behind the lovely barn structure because we were scared of outsiders. Some people there were zombies like you describe and Michael manipulated them, but they were few.

He invited me one night to his other home and it was full of people at AM that I had never seen before. I was afraid and ran away from there and the commune. He was into making some girls pick his friends to live with. For example he took my friend Leann and she had to stay with Bear (I don't know his real name) as long as she lived on the commune.

Michael was a total freak. I never saw anyone apply or collect welfare. I did see him evict a lot of people, first the Jesus freaks, then the gay people and then a handicapped guy (but not his wife)!

I wouldn't trade my experiences there for anything, I had no where else to go. It was the greatest experiment of human nature you could ever imagine. I met a lot of great people/lost souls, etc., there but I was afraid of Michael and I'm sorry to say I won't miss him.

Ruby (Kerry)

To read a lengthy account someone sent me of their experiences among the Brotherhood click here.


tony said...

Wow!What A Post!Thank You Tommy.Regards from Tony.

kenyondarylking said...

Damn, what an emotional rollercoaster ride that time in my life was. An upper middle class black kid livin in a commune. Didnt know who I was or where I was goin but I met Mike on the way. Im still processing that 5 month experience. your post sent me right back to the garden crew and skinny dippin in New England rock quarries.Thanks

Anonymous said...

My Mom Lived there for a bit...till he wanted all of her money & some other thing not for publication, too!! I use to see him walking around Turners Falls as a kid...he scared me..This was the 80's though..He was mostly drunk or drugged out of his mind by then.

av8r49a said...

I became aware of The Renaissance Church through their radio broadcast business in 1977. They made at least one very high quality audio production. In early 1977 while driving home from work, I listened to a broadcast that ran on several late nights on WLRS FM in Louisville, Kentucky. The story had Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here album as a background track, and was of a British military man who was assigned to a weather recording station at one of the poles. One day while making his rounds to check on recording instruments, he saw that a very sudden and particularly violent snow storm was nearly upon him. He raced off to try to make it back to his shelter, but was overtaken by the storm, eventually falling to the ground where he began to dream or hallucinate. Perhaps he had actually died. In his dreamlike state, he believed he was being transported through a vortex of snow to another reality, a fantastic and beautiful place where peaceful people communicated non-verbally by thought. I do not remember how long he was there. At one point, he picked a beautiful flower and placed it in his jacket. He was fascinated with this other world and wanted to stay there forever, but was told by his new friends that he must return to his own world and try to help others. He did not want to go but the vortex reappeared and pulled him in, taking him back to his world. When he awoke, the storm was gone, and he found himself lying in the snow, with sun shining on his face. Afterwards, he tried to tell people in this world what he learned about the power of thought. But they said he was crazy, and even discharged him from his job. He continued his effort for some years but was never successful. Sometimes he even began to believe that maybe they were right and he was crazy, but he would look at his flower, that was still as beautiful as it was the day it was given to him in the other reality. End theme: "So, so you think you can tell, heaven from hell..." The narrator had a voice that was reminiscent of Helmut Bakaitis who played the Architect in the Matrix movies. I heard this piece again later that year when a friend, Sammy P, played it on the sound system in his St. Matthews foosball parlor. He made a cassette copy for me from the reel to reel version he received from the church. (At the end, the listener was told they could get a copy of the broadcast by sending a request to the Renaissance Church at Box 222, Turners Falls Mass.) Unfortunately my cassette copy was lost during a cross country move some years later, and I lost track of Sam. I would love to find a copy of this very inspirational piece again. If anyone knows how, drop me a note? Thanks! Bill in Fayetteville Arkansas. av8r49a at yahoo dot com.

Recruiting Animal said...

Great story and I haven't finished reading everything here yet.

It's amazing that intelligent people - who were independent enough to part with established ways - could turn over all of their money and work hard for a dictator.

This is aside from the fact that he was a hypocrite chose another lifestyle for himself.

You mentioned in your follow-up notes that your correspondents said that it was the best time of their lives and I'm curious to hear more about that.

DanielBrown said...

To paraphrase what Pete Seegar said at the end of "Seeing Red" a vital documentary about the American Communist Party in the 1930's,

"At least WE DID SOMETHING" we thought would make the world better. We didn't just sit on our asses and accept the go-along-with-the-corrupt system status quo."

Yes, Michael was flawed but he started out genuine. Power, spirituality and ego are a potent combination and he is far from alone with all the various religious and New Age quacks out there. He was young, overwhelmed and fighting against a system what wanted to stomp him and his group into the ground. Give the guy some slack. What would you would have done?

Anonymous said...

I was part of a commune in 69/70 called the Heath Commune and Mike met some of our people to join forces but everyone from our group saw him for what he was,,,a cult leader.We wanted nothing to do with him, thankfully, and we all had a hard time believing how stupid the folks were that choose to follow him.
We were also shocked by a couple of people we knew that chose to follow him.
Fools and all their worldly possessions are soon parted...

Anonymous said...

Eons back my former girlfriend and her sisters invited me up to the 'ole rambling roadhouse in Warwick. Probably WINTER OF 1974-1975. I Was debating coming out, which I trusted her. She never did divulge anything but informed me about her female intimacy with on of her friends. We dropped acid and drank a bit and met some me,bets of[or former] the Renaissance Community. Some of us discussed coming out, yet, the discussion quickly morphed into thoughts on the various communes in Western Mass. Quickly talk became painful regarding the cult of a psycho called Michael. It's years ago and Ilived in Boston and infrequently visited the Pioneer Valley or the hills of Franklin County.

Those were the days The Butterworth FARM and HEATH.


fourtwenty manhattan said...

I had an experience very similar to Tom Dark. Sometime in the early 70's I responded to an ad in the Village Voicr for a lead guitar player. It turned out to be for Michael's band in Turner Falls. They paid my bus fare so I went. I was there for four days, most spent with a kid whose name I forget. He was (annoyingly) a huge Yes fan and supposedly the "backup drummer" (!!) for the band. In reality he was just taking advantage of a free vacation since band members didn't do farm work and had a stipend at the food stores. The so-called audition was just weird.I plugged in, played half a song reading chords off a chart and that was it. On the third night I insisted on meeting with Michael. So I was taken to meet him in a trailer he had parked around the corner from the theater. I asked him "what's going on? Do you need a guitar player or not? I don't get it." He spoke without looking at me, offering me the chance to stay in some vague role with the band. He was half mumbling in his little speech and the whole scene was just absurd. I said something insulting and left.I grew up on the lower east side of Manhattan and a hustler like that wouldn't last five minutes in my old neighborhood.And Tom Dark was spot on about Michael's talent. It's quite simple. He had none. He couldn't sing or write. But he had some capable guys in the band. Yet they all seemed depressed.Everyone in that commune was depressed. I'd never seen a commune like that before. However as a child of the 60's I'd seen the depression of people who blindly follow guru-hustlers like Michael. Guys like that were exploiting the weakest personality types in society and incredibly, it didn't even make them happy! Sad, pathetic......weird. In the end it was all about nothing.