The author (front row on the left) at the 2007 reunion of some of those who had lived at Fortney Road.
To ensure the privacy and anonymity of those who lived at Fortney Road, their images have been blurred.
Jeff C. Stevenson lives and works in New York City, where he is writing his next book, a 2-volume project, HOPE I DIE BEFORE I GET OLD: Interviews With Rock Legends Of The 1960s. The first volume focuses on a wide variety of American bands popular in the 1960s (e.g. Blue Cheer, Sly & the Family Stone, Canned Heat, Vanilla Fudge, the Electric Prunes, Santana, Three Dog Night, The Seeds, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Love, etc.). Interviews with the musicians focus on them discussing their own discography and the favorite and least favorite albums they recorded, memorable or notorious concert experiences, recollections of that time period, their place in rock and roll history, thoughts on today’s music, and what projects they are currently involved in. The second volume deals with the British bands of the era.
For more than twenty-five years, Jeff C. Stevenson has been a Creative Director of Copy for various New York advertising agencies, including those operated by the Omnicom Group and Euro RSCG Worldwide. He is currently with the interactive marketing agency, Rosetta Inc. In addition to his experience as an advertising copywriter, he is a published freelance writer and photographer.
Jeff is the only journalist who has the complete trust of and access to the former members of the Church of the Risen Christ and the All Saved Freak Band, as well as their written and recorded materials. He has also been granted exclusive access to all materials written and published by Larry Hill.
I grew up in Southern California in the midst of the Jesus Movement. It must have been in 1976 when I saw a very odd advertisement in a music magazine for a Christian rock group called the All Saved Freak Band (ASFB) featuring guitarist Glenn Schwartz. The album was called My Poor Generation and while I had never heard of the band, I was well aware of Glenn Schwartz from when he had played with Pacific Gas & Electric and before that, as a founding member of the James Gang. I wondered how Glenn had ended up in this weird group whose album cover featured an old bearded preacher wearing an Amish hat and pointing menacingly at a crowd.
Curious, I ordered the record by mail and when it arrived, an enclosed note stated that the band had two more albums—Brainwashed, and the oddly titled For Christians, Elves and Lovers. I listened to My Poor Generation, and it was pretty good—especially Glenn’s playing. The music and lyrics were so eccentric that I wanted to hear the other albums, so I bought those, too.
And to this day, I’ve never heard any music like that recorded by the All Saved Freak Band. In 1980, I saw another ad, this time for the ASFB’s final album, Sower. I added that to my collection. I was repelled and fascinated by the extensive apocalyptic commentary on the back cover and inside sleeve. The Reverend Larry Hill claimed to have received a bizarre prophecy instructing him to breed two horses, resulting in a foal named War Again, supposedly a sign from God of a “Great War” coming to America. Strange, to say the least…
Most bands from the 1960s and `70s without major backing from a major label and no distribution would quickly fade from the scene and memory. That the ASFB—or any band—could manage to record and distribute four albums under those circumstances is almost unheard of. And far from being forgotten, over the years the demand for the band’s one-of-a-kind music has only grown.
Sealed copies of their almost-impossible-to-find LPs fetch anywhere from $200 to $500 on eBay, with out-of-print CDs going for upwards of $100. And the band’s name consistently turns up on many favorite band surveys and collectors’ “want lists.” Brainwashed, My Poor Generation and Sower can be found on “The Top 50 Collectible Jesus Music Albums of All Time.” Today’s independent radio stations are not immune to the ASFB. A playlist from New Jersey’s WFMU FM included the ASFB’s “Theme of the Fellowship of the Ring” and “The 100th Psalm” sandwiched between Manfred Mann and Pink Floyd. San Francisco’s KUSF FM included the ASFB’s “All Across The Nation” right alongside the Kinks, the Cramps and Todd Rundgren.
And the ASFB can be found all over the Internet. Shawn Porter’s notorious on-line “mix tape” titled “Wasted and Complacent” included “Theme of the Fellowship of the Ring” along with Radiohead’s “A Punch-up At A Wedding.” A popular and on-going “What are you listening to now?” chat room has fans posting what’s playing on their iPod at that moment. One list included songs by the Cure, others by Joy Division, and then the ASFB’s “Water Street” popped up, with the poster stating: “I’m listening to ‘Water Street;’ Glenn Schwartz on the guitar is heavenly.”
A Podcast music sampling site features Fairport Convention, Sinead O’Connor and For Christians, Elves and Lovers and states: “Cult classic currently being shared by Gojira69...an acquired taste but, if you’re so inclined, a delicious one...”
And higher education also collects the ASFB: The Jesuit run Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin has a J.R.R. Tolkien Collection which includes a copy of For Christians, Elves and Lovers.
In 2006, Harps On Willows, a best-of recording by the ASFB was released. Writers for the online music magazine Cross Rhythms voted on the 20 best albums of the year. They selected the music of Bob Dylan, Verra Cruz, Switchfoot, Ayiesha Woods, Becoming the Archetype, Jonny Lang…and the All Saved Freak Band’s Harps on Willows.
Although the band hasn’t recorded in decades, it’s clear that neither the music nor the message ever went away. When Joe Walsh toured with a re-formed James Gang in 2006, the question heard numerous times was whether or not his “guitar guru” Glenn Schwartz, the original guitarist for the band, was going to join them. I wondered whatever happened to Glenn Schwartz? David Byrne of Talking Heads hadn’t forgotten about him and wrote about Glenn in his blog:
I was tipped via an e-mail sent by a man named Tim Rossiter to my office. Tim wrote: “I’ve got to tell you about a special Cleveland treasure, Glenn Schwartz. Glenn started the James Gang in the ’60s, then moved to California and was in the Pacific Gas & Electric Co. He flipped out soon afterward and was in religious communities. He’s had a rough life and is tortured and crazy…Now Glenn is 67 years old and plays in a blues trio for free late every Thursday at a small bar called Major Hooples… “His playing is like electric bolts straight from his psyche. He jumps off his amp and plays guitar with his teeth. And he often preaches fire and brimstone between songs. It’s something very special and you won’t see anything like it except on Thursdays in Cleveland.” Well, Tim didn’t exaggerate. The place was a low-key little dive and at one end, not even on a stage, was Glenn, his brother and a drummer, all playing at full volume. Sure enough, between amazing and inventive Hendrix-like solos, he would admonish the audience and prophesize “blood on the moon and War in America.” He may have lost his mind but his fingers are firing on all cylinders.
I decided to write an article about Glenn Schwartz for the 2007 “Summer of Love” double issue of Rolling Stone, but a few pages turned to ten pages… then twenty… and then fifty. It was impossible to tell Glenn’s story without writing about the All Saved Freak Band, and it was impossible to write about them without delving into what they experienced at the Windsor, Ohio farm on Fortney Road where the band members had lived together in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I had heard rumors about the ASFB’s very dark history, a “behind-the-music story” like no other. There were horrific allegations about what went on in the Christian commune where they lived under the leadership of Reverend Larry Hill. What little I could find out about Hill and the band intrigued me and I wondered if peace, love, and rock-and-roll for Jesus had really turned into something sinister?
From New York, I began to research the story and word got out about my project, and that’s when reporters started to phone me and send e-mails. Dick Feagler of the Cleveland Plain Dealer told me, “I’ve written a lot of stories over the years but Larry Hill left me with a real impression of something; he was creepy, spooky…” John Griffith reported on the group who lived on Fortney Road for The News-Herald of Willoughby, Ohio, in 1978. He told me, “That was the first investigative story I did. The News-Herald was a tiny paper back then, and it was always looking for a good story. I had gotten to know some federal agents, and they were investigating Larry Hill and his Church of the Risen Christ group for child slavery. They told me that Larry had this saying that you beat children until they are silent… “The federal officers gave me ex-cult member Leon’s number, and I remember we met in a basement somewhere and he told me what he had been through at the farm, just awful stuff. He was simply terrified of Larry and those people coming after him…” Another reporter told me, “He’s a psychopath. Really. Be careful. Larry Hill is the devil incarnate.” With warnings like that, how could I not pursue the story of what really happened at Fortney Road? Reverend Larry Hill is an enigma. Did he really believe he had visions in 1965 and that they were God-authored, or was he just making it up to exert power? His writing is not a reliable source, journalistically, but it is either the truth he believed or the lie he was intent on propagating. Larry Hill preached a message of hellfire and brimstone, but lived a life that would be condemned under his own teaching. In public he demonstrated love and compassion to society’s downtrodden, but in private expressed and engaged in almost unbelievable rage and abuse of his followers. He proclaimed himself a prophet, but could not foresee his own demise. No one really knows the true Larry Hill. We realize he was charismatic, we can acknowledge he was a master communicator, but was he an earnest prophet of God or a power-hungry dictator—or some combination of both? That has been—and remains—his mystique. By the time I finished writing about Fortney Road, I had discovered that three members of the cult never made it out alive, another was horribly disfigured when 27,000 volts of electricity shot through his body, and for those who did survive, what was left of their lives and spirits was shattered almost beyond recognition. To fully comprehend what really happened at Fortney Road, you had to have been there, and FORTNEY ROAD takes you there and back again, leaving you shocked but also inspired by the resilience of the human spirit.