He looks neither like an old journalist nor new comic. He is bone-thin and bearded and has his graying hair in a ponytail. He wears a brown herringbone coat-a relic from college, he says-and a skinny pink tie and pistol-legged jeans. But the shoes look expensive and European. His smile is fidgety.
He and his girlfriend partner have driven down from New York in her mother's Chevy. In a few hours they will open their revue of stand-up comedy and eccentric song at the Cellar Door, their first performance ever in Washington. They aren't the headliners, just warm-ups for the betterknown Michael Franks (who has a label.)
It's only a one-night gig and the money will probably not even cover expenses. Still, it's work and it's a notice in the paper. It's better than last fall when the rent was due and they were down to nickels between the cushions of the sofa and had to take jobs demonstrating frying pans at Gimbels.
"Actually, lots of performers do it," says Michael Lydon, 36. "At least we're not on food stamps anymore," says Ellen Mandel, 31.
Once, before Altamont and acid, Michael Lydon piled the waters of the conventional world. Honor student from Roxbury Latin in Boston, cum laude graduate of Yale-where he wrote a column for the Yale Daily in his senior year-he went to work immediately upon graduation in 1965 for Newsweek magazine. He was a bonus baby, one of the best and brightest. They sent him to London, where he covered the British Open and the Henley races and Harold Wilson's campaign. Eventually, Newsweek reassigned him to San Francisco.
here the story takes a swerve, Michael Lydon dropped out. Though he won't say it this way, he became a kind of a casualty of the 60's. Not the 60's of grant park and chicago so much-though that is part of it-as the 60's of Haight-Ashbury and Janis Joplin and that whole psychadelic magical mystery tour. Michael Lydon got stoned on rock and went to find out why.
"I think. . . as Ilook at it now. . . I was just following the story," he says slowly.
"They called him Captain Trips," says Mandel.
There was pot and later there was acid, though he flinches some at remembering it. At work, they wanted him to get his hair cut. The flood walls were crumbling.
"I don't think I ever became an out-and-out radical," he says, not trying to rewrite how it was, just get it right. "Maybe I felt I had gone to work too fast after college, had missed out on something. I never had a chance to you know-fool around. I wanted to be a kid, not be responsible."
Whatever was happening inside him, Michael Lydon says he wanted more of it. They were alive, those feelings, the music and the drugs, all of it mixed inextricably. "There was light in people's brains." He quit Newsweek. He moved to LK, Calif., a quasihippie community north of San Francisco. He rented a cabin for $60 a week.
His eyes are a sheen of memory."There were times when I was sure the revolution was at hand. The Apocalypse was now," he leans very close-a looming a lot of LSD? huh?"
He eases back. "I'm sure glad it all happened."
Before he left Newsweek in 1968, Lydon had net an "extremely ambitious" young man in San Francisco named Jann Wenner, who was going around talking up his idea for a literate rock journal. He was thinking of calling it Rolling Stone.
Wenner tried to get Lydon to quit Newsweek and join him full time. Instead of that Lydon took long lunch hours and would cut out early in the afternoons. "I was using the Newsweek lines to make Rolling Stone calls," he says, not exactly guilty at the memory. In all, he served as Wenner's managing editor for the first four issues: "I was really moral support."
If this sounds like a bad rap on Newsweek, "I never really had enemies there," he says. "I'm still in touch with some of those gusy."
After Newsweek, Lydon wrote two books about music-"Rock Folk" and "Boogie Lightning." By then he had met a pretty Radcliffe pianist hanging out at Berkeley. Ellen Mandel had shed some of the same snakeskins Lydon had. She wanted to perform. Suddenly, an idea: Why not team up and form an act? She got him playing guitar and chromatic harmonica, writing topical comedy segues. Their first tentative tries were at a hoot-and-groan joint in Berkeley called the Seventh Seal.
"After a while our Peugot broke down and we had to walk the guitar ther," says Mandel.
"We put miles on that damn guitar," says Lydon.
That was six years ago. Now they live in the East village and Xerox their own press release and reviews, which they send out ahead. They play college campuses small clubs, anything. They still don't have a record contract. But the notices are better.
The Cellar Door is packed, but not for Mandel and Lydon. The management has said keep it short, half-hour max. Dressed-up and nervous, they do seven songs, edging in some jokes. The audience is not ecstatic; not hostile, either. They close with "Empty Arms," their greatest hit. "It's No. 202 on Billboard's Hot 100," says Lydon. This gets a titter-and a heckle. Afterward, in dressing room B. Mandel says: "Before we went on, they brought up some hors d'oeuvres. They told us to keep away, we were only the opening act. . ."
Michael Lydon is thinking about something. A fork drums lightly before him. He speaks very softly. "this whole idea of dropping out-it just. . .dissappeared, ceased to be relevant. I don't know why. All I know is how hard I'm working. It's one world and you've got to make your daily bread."
And comedy-cum-song is their accommodation with the system?
"Sort of," says Mandel.
"Just say we're Bohemian," says Lyon. La Vie Boheme. That's what are."