By Don Jolly
“To keep a person on the Scientology path, feed him a mystery sandwich.”
- L. Ron Hubbard,
– Revised Declaration of Hana Whitfield
– Church of Scientology vs. Steven Fishman and Uwe Geertz
In 1974, L. Ron Hubbard cut a record.
It had rained that afternoon but by sundown the wind had risen, scattering the low, dark clouds. Night came on with stars and seabirds.
It was hot. May, 1974, just before the European Cup final which would see Atlético lose out, unexpectedly, to FC Bayern. We had hope, however, for a few more days — although we didn’t know it at the time. Talk of the game crackled in ever open-front cantina and every shady copse of palms. People were getting drunker than usual, staying out later. Business was good.
I had spent my day in the room, sitting against its broken heater, watching water carve diamond trails across the window and the bricks outside. I’d smoked a pack and a half of the new carton, made two pots of coffee on my little electric stove and moved, jerkily, most of the way through a French detective novel supposedly written by Orson Welles. When the rain stopped, and it grew too dark to read, I made one last search of the sixteen wallets which I’d draped like little tents along the rusted water-pipe along the eastern wall. Finding nothing, I took a leather-bound Belgian passport from one of the new acquisitions and filled my red “Coco-Cola” tin with cigarettes. The knife still bulged, cold and heavy, in the hidden pocket of my coat.
My shoes squeaked on the soaked boards as I walked along the water, looking out at the firefly clusters of passing ships. There was a new vessel at the seventh pier, a flat-bottomed ferry painted brilliant white and sparkling from the storm. “Apollo,” read the hull.
The voices of her crew were carried by the salt-breeze: loud, boisterous, American. I paused, lit a cigarette, and paced to the boardwalk’s railing. I spent a few minutes staring into the surf – with the Apollo in my peripheral. As I watched, a smiling crowd descended the gang-plank, as pretty and young as the cast of chewing gum advertisement. They were men and women, white and black. Their clothes, while variable, shared a similar sense of revolutionary chic then popular in the United States. A small cry came from the deck and the group froze, turning. An even younger girl, maybe fourteen, approached them with a slim, confidant stride. She was a wearing some variation of a white naval uniform, and spoke seriously to one of the men on the gangplank. My english was poor in those days, and the sea was heaving loudly. Still, I made out a few words in teen falsetto: “Fucking asshole.”
Wordlessly, the man followed the girl back to the ship, where they disappeared from view. The crowd continued on its way as if nothing had happened, heading along the boardwalk in the direction of the public bandstand. I kept them in sight as I finished my cigarette. It was then that I noticed the letters on the Apollo’s smokestack — “LRH.” Initials, I figured, although I couldn’t guess who they belonged to.
Lafayette Ronald Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, took to sea in 1967, at the age of fifty-six. He traveled in a fleet of three vessels, initially known as the Enchanter, the Avon River and the Royal Scotsman, hoping to escape what he saw as a multinational anti-Scientology conspiracy. In America, an I.R.S. audit was underway, reviewing the Church of Scientology’s claim to tax exempt status. In Australia, practicing the religion had been banned in certain regions, and similar proposals were working toward law in England, New Zealand and South Africa. In this environment, escape seemed the only logical solution.
Accompanied by his newly-formed ecclesiastical authority, which was called the Sea Organization or Sea Org, Hubbard hit the waves with an open-ended mission: find a home for Scientology, evade the maneuvers of enemy governments and strike back for the cause of global sanity using any necessary means. What followed was nearly a decade of intermittently documented weirdness, whose true nature is caught between the glowing rhetoric of the Church of Scientology and the salacious accusations of its aggrieved ex-members. The one point upon which both sides agree is that Hubbard’s time on the water completely failed as a means to escape governmental suspicion and public controversy.
Less than a year into their travels, the Scientologists were denied safe harbor by Gibraltar during a dangerous storm. Afterwards, in 1968, England formally barred them from entering the country and branded Hubbard himself an “undesirable alien.” Between this time and the early seventies, the Enchanter, Avon River, and Royal Scotsman were involved in many murkily reported adventures across Europe, Africa and the Middle East, including an attempt to discredit the World Federation of Mental Health in Switzerland and a mysterious presence during the attempted coup d’etat against King Hassan II of Morocco. By 1970, the fleet’s infamy had already inspired a change of name: Enchanter to Diana, Avon River to Athena, and Royal Scotsman to Apollo.
Despite these exterior difficulties, life in the Sea Org was informed by some sense of mutual commitment and fellow-feeling. Hubbard’s crews, overpoweringly young, counter-culture and American, reveled in living outside of traditional social roles even as Hubbard played disciplinarian, punishing any transgression of his complicated “ethics” through reportedly draconian means. The simplest punishment, claim some ex-Scientologists and one of the most common, was to throw the offender overboard — sometimes from a great height.
Still, they had their fun. Kate Bornstein, a former Sea Org member, recalled a particularly memorable incident aboard the Apollo on December 31, 1971. “It was a movable, drunken orgy,” she wrote, in her 2012 autobiography A Queer and Pleasant Danger. “Maybe a hundred Sea Org members were having sex everywhere from the topside boatdecks to the lowest holds of the ship.”
In sum, “one hell of a New Year’s Eve party.”
The young Americans were laughing, holding hands, touching their bodies moving in the usual patterns of casual possessiveness. I followed, unhurried, keeping to the shadow of the closed shops. A large crowd had gathered at the bandstand. Locals, mostly, although there was the usual fringe of ex-pats and business travelers out for a walk from the León Rojo. On the stage, instruments stood in gleaming, brass array, crowded by the dark diagonals of wires and mic stands. Colored flags were strung from the tall streetlight in the middle of the stage, flapping languidly as they fell above the crowd. It looked like the empty framework of a circus tent.
I kept back, in the darkness, and smoked another cigarette, playing as if I was waiting for someone. As I watched, the Apollo crew filtered to the front of the assembly, beside the stage. Some of them climbed up, testing and tuning their instruments. Drums sounded spasmodically in the summered air. Saxophones began to speak, and then were silenced. Guitars were plucked, adjusted, plucked again. A band assembled, one by one. Finally, a man with shoulder-length hair and a fashionable mustache took up a position behind the foremost microphone. In halting Spanish he introduced himself as Craig, and the group as the “Apollo Stars.”
“We’re gonna play some new stuff, for you,” he said. “But, see, here’s the thing. We don’t want you to just listen here… We want you to get involved, really feel it… Music isn’t just mechanics, as a great man once said. It’s sound and emotional message — and you can do anything you want with it.” He checked with the assembly behind him. Drums okay, bass okay, sax okay, flute okay. “This is some Gershwin,” he said. “One, two, three, four.”
The bass came first, creeping feline into a mist of horns. Then, all at once, the sound exploded — “Summertime” in brilliant, syncopated bursts. The crowd cheered and started dancing, jumping and sweating, stifling the south wind. It was a good show, as it turned out — jazz with flashes of Davis and Burrell. I half-listened to the music as I went to work.
Hubbard’s years at sea were pivotal ones for Scientology. It was this time which would cement the Sea Org as the guiding operational and ecclesiastical arm of Church, along with establishing its hierarchy and various subgroups. One such development was the founding of the Commodore’s Messenger Organization, or C.M.O. — initially, a small squad of young girls responsible for delivering Hubbard’s orders, complete with replicated diction and word choice, to the crew.
It was during this period that Hubbard fully delineated what he called “the wall of fire,” a set of teachings for advanced Scientologists which revealed the space-operatic past of the human race. This material concerned itself, primarily, with the vicissitudes of an intergalactic war. The result of this conflict had been the imprisonment of immortal, immaterial beings called “thetans” within human bodies — where they were later brainwashed into a doctrine of impotence.
Hubbard had recovered this data by organizing his “whole track” memories, or the experience of his thetan’s actions in past lives. Since its founding, Hubbard’s movement had based itself on a central ritual action, auditing, which allowed its practitioners to recover and release harmful memories. As Scientology evolved, these recovered experiences began to expand beyond what Hubbard termed each individual’s “time track,” the sequence of images, sensations and memories attached to any particular body or lifetime. Scientologists of sufficient skill commonly recalled the “whole track,” remembering actions undertaken by their thetan in other lifetimes, other bodies, arrayed within an infinite expanse of time.
“[This] system leaves plenty of space for the individual to experiment with whom he or she has been or wants to be in the future,” writes the religious scholar Dr. Dorthe Refslund Chistensen, in her 2009 essay Scientology and Self Narrativity. In the recall of whole track memories, she contends, a Scientologist has all the authorial license usually ascribed to an author of fiction. Hubbard, a prodigious and successful writer of pulp science-fiction and adventure stories, certainly had a tendency to recollect within those genres. In addition to formally revealing the intergalactic history of humanity during his years at sea, Hubbard commonly regaled his crew with tales of maritime derring-do undertaken by his previous incarnations. His “Mission Into Time,” chronicled in a book of the same name released in 1973, tracked the Apollo, Diana and Athena as they ferreted out the locations of buried ruins and treasure the author recalled from previous lifetimes. If it hadn’t worked in the real world, it would have surely landed in the pages of Argosy, a top-quality market for early twentieth century adventure yarns.
In certain ways, Hubbard believed, there was a broad, atavistic shift underway within the world as a whole. In January of 1974, he began an extensive study of contemporary music from his office aboard the Apollo, analyzing “several thousand recordings,” according to the Church-sanctioned biographical coffee-table book Ron: Music Maker Composer and Performer. “Studying the more popular groups,” Hubbard wrote, “it became fairly visible, at least to me, that the sophisticated world was rolling back into the past and reaching for its tribal roots. The savage breast was stirred by rhythms mostly because they had very little in the way of instruments. But it seems the savage breast is with us again…”
Shortly thereafter, he composed an appropriate response.
The Apollo Stars wound on, binding the dark with great red rivers of horn, propelled by quick percussion. There were some standards, sure — but a few originals, too. “We’re Moving In” was the best, a product of the collaboration between Craig Ferreira, the guitarist at the microphone, and Mr. L. Ron Hubbard, who he introduced as a “scientist, a philosopher and a dear, dear friend.” It was a sound of strange color, driven by apocalyptic percussion and the sonorous repetition of “we’re moving in, we’re moving in, we’re moving in.”
As a trumpet pierced the air, high and shrill, I retreated from the bounding throng. My tie was loose, my shirt soaking. I’d run out of room, and figured it was time to go. On the way out I backed into a solid wall of flesh, a severe, blonde-haired German of military bearing. He snarled at me like a black-gummed dog and I smiled, slipping away. In the darkness around the crowd I lit a third cigarette, pacing where the air was cooler.
The German was still watching me, discretely, so I tested him. When I receded, he advanced. When I moved East he did too, although he remained within the body of the crowd. Exhaling a ribbon of smoke, I considered the face in the lime-white light of the bandstand. It might have been familiar — but not overly so. It suggested no names.
Mine is a fine profession, I thought, but it makes its share of enemies. I hadn’t seen him earlier that day — I was sure of that. He wasn’t another squatter in the building, or one of the Thompson ring. He must’ve been a mark. It was the kind of coincidence which seemed bound to happen, once in a while, although I’d never heard of it happening precisely this way. On a whim I took the passport out of my coat-pocket, just to check. I saw the face in the crowd stare back at me from the laminated paper — thinner, maybe, but with the same unmistakable sneer. My stomach flashed cold. The man, the Belgian, had moved a few steps beyond the dancers, standing with his back straight and his eyes on the sea. His right hand was jammed into the pocket of his coat. He was holding something there —something angular, something hard.
My cigarette was out. It had only burned halfway.
Drawn from the body of professional and amateur musicians among the Sea Org members crewing the Apollo, “The Apollo Stars” were first assembled in 1973 for an impromptu performance at a Portuguese winter festival on the island of Maderia. Hubbard, their “musical director,” ran the group through a series of intense drills and daily practice routines, many of which were designed to increase the musician’s ability to capture various emotional tones. Following his research into contemporary music in 1974, Hubbard brought the Stars to a style of “savage” performance he dubbed “Star Sound.” The technique was “gregarious, heavily syncopated [and had] a strong reliance on percussion” according to Music Maker, which devotes a lavishly illustrated chapter to the topic.
From 1973 to 1975, as the Apollo moved from port to port, the Stars came with it, giving goodwill performances in Spain and Portugal and winning some degree of local radio play. Their only record, “Power of Source,” was issued in 1974 by Source Music, a Scientologist-run label operating out of Los Angeles. Despite its awkward cover of L. Ron and the Stars poking at underutilized recording equipment, it remains an effective and bizarre example of electric jazz. On the back of its sleeve, a few effusive paragraphs declare that “Radio, TV, and stage people have uniformly decreed that the Apollo Stars ARE a new and exciting sound in music. It is often repeated that the STARS are playing the music of the future.”
L. Ron Hubbard, the copy adds, “is an acknowledged professional in many fields.”
In October of 1974, around the time of the album’s release, the Apollo returned to the same port where the Stars had debuted, Maderia. As it pulled into dock, a crowd of locals began pelting the ship with stones. The Scientologists turned firehoses on the assembled Portuguese, who, in retaliation, cut the ship’s moorings and sent Hubbard back to sea. The Apollo, according to a then-persistent rumor, was a ship of spies — a front for the CIA. It was expelled, under the same suspicion from Jamaica, Curacao and Barbados the following year. In 1976, his charm wound up, Hubbard returned to land for good.
The Apollo Stars came to be at a time when Scientology was, literally and figuratively, out to sea. “Power of Source,” their surviving musical statement, reveals a group whose incantatory vocals and psychedelic bass mingle with conservative rearrangements of George Gershwin and a cover of “Johnny Comes Marching Home.” It participates well in no wider discourse, either traditional or avant-garde. Instead, it chooses to operate primarily as an adolescent exercise in trying things on. “Music of the future” indeed.
Dr. Chistensen is right to point out that Scientology offers its adherents a chance to radically reinvent the narrative of their lives — past and future. In the early 1970s, this impulse revealed itself in various port cities, scattered from the Middle East to the Caribbean. It was a time of music and madness, violence and espionage — when everything was tried, nothing discarded, and the narrative of Scientology as a both a movement and a cosmography was tantalizingly fluid. “Power of Source,” in its dark, wax grooves, captures some measure of that chaos.
It breeds stories of its own.
There was no point in running.The boardwalk was clear all the way to the apartment house on the avendia, and the moon was full enough that no matter which way I broke he’d be able to track me. The beach was similarly hopeless. Even if I made it to the water, I’d never make it out, and the expression on the big man’s face assured me he’d have no problem ruining a suit, if it meant getting even with me. Still, I had a little bit of time.
The Apollo Stars were winding up, blazing through the Hubbard-Marple-Ferreira composition “Meu Querido Portugal.” The crowd, long since exhausted, took the sound in stride, weaving like seaweed in the emerald dark. If I ran, he’d fire. If I didn’t, he’d wait — probably for the people to disperse, for the young Americans to return to their ship. He was angry, but not stupid. He didn’t want to go to prison anymore than I wanted to get shot.
With the drums wagging in the air, I moved back in, strafing the assembly. The bongo player, Rodriguez, was leading the crowd in a steady, rhythmic chant. As I moved through that forest of grinning, sweat-slick faces, I was tracked by the steady eyes of the Belgian, like twin moons between the trees.
I ran into someone. Another American — portly, with red hair, deep jowls and half-moon eyes. Around his neck hung a few hundred dollars of fat camera. “Sorry,” I said.
“Quite alright,” he replied. On stage, the last note sounded brightly. The assembly clapped and whistled.
“Thank you! Thanks!” The musicians panted. A small queue formed for autographs.
“Are you… with the band?” I stammered, as the assembly began to dissolve.
“In a manner of speaking,” smiled the red headed man, in perfect spanish. “What did you think?”
“Good,” I said, sliding another cigarette from my Coco-Cola tin. My hands shook too much for matches.
“Here,” offered the stranger, striking a silver serviceman’s lighter. We stood beside each other for a moment, silently. “What, precisely, did you enjoy?” he demanded, blowing smoke from his wide, flaring nostrils.
I thought. “It was from another world,” I answered. This seemed to please him.
“Well said,” he smiled. One of the musicians called something from the stage, and my friend called back that he would be right there.
“Are you coming back?” I asked, hoping to delay him. “Are you coming back to play again?”
He grinned wider and caught my hand in a ursine grip. “It’s what we do,” he said. “Come back!” Then he laughed, and bounded for the bandstand
I took a breath, checking to make sure the Belgian was still behind me. I had half an hour, maybe, before the boardwalk would be clear. The only control I had left, I realized, was in the schedule of the thing.
I looked out at the water, where the moonlight made a rippling bridge. I lit my last cigarette and, in the process, moved the knife to the palm of my left hand. I’d try to catch him in the alley by the carnicería. Without looking back I left the light around the stage, and made for the darkness.
In twelve years, I would be born.
In thirty-nine, I’d buy the record.
The illustrations above are by Max McDermott, an accomplished painter currently attending the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Special thanks are due to Donald Westbrook, who led me to sources and Shannon Taggart, who led me to “Power of Source” in the first place.
Don Jolly is a Texan visual artist, writer, and academic. He is currently pursuing his master’s degree in religion at NYU, with a focus on esotericism, fringe movements, and the occult. His comic strip, The Weird Observer, runs weekly in the Ampersand Review. He is also a staff writer for Obscure Sound, where he reviews pop records. Don lives alone with the Great Fear, in New York City.