Heavy Living: Father Yod and the Source Family
“Man is out of balance now. That is the problem.” Yahowa aka Father Yod aka Jim Baker
The previous century is sometimes referred to as the “short twentieth century,” a historical bookend term beginning in 1914 and ending in 1991. Modernist critics after World War One looked backwards in time to find islands of modernity lurking beneath the surface of enlightenment rationalism and idealist romanticism. De Sade, Baudelaire, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, choose your own – many could be seen as precursors to the unprecedented shitstorm about to hit mankind. Taking this well-funded tradition to heart, it may be possible to locate some nuggets of wisdom beyond the pale of the 20th century which speak to our present circumstances (although, if current conditions project themselves into the future, it may be a very short 21st century indeed).
This is the project of the documentary Re-visiting “Father” and the Source Family, a movie that’s part college thesis (it was made by a Carleton senior) and part a brief (at 2 hours and 20 minutes) roll call of the post-1968 Aquarian lifestyle adopted in the smellier parts of the United States of America. Until now, the best movie I had seen about communal living was Robert Kramer’s Milestones from 1975, a 3-hour color wheel which includes a live birth among its main cinematic achievements. I think that Re-visiting “Father” is the topper, though, due to its sheer effort to catalogue almost every millenarian notion imbibed by this Hollywood commune. Astrology, occultism, EST, nudism, Kundalini, the Essenes, Atlantis, free love, tantrism, raw foods vegetarianism, freemasonry, cold showers, the Qabbala, holy robes, staring at the sun – the Source Family had their fingers in a lot of pies. It was all thanks to one man: Father Yod (let’s just get this out of the way – it’s pronounced “yode,” a la road).
It would be wise to recall the Los Angeles of Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye: flowery white robes and coke parties, a landscape saturated with television hues, cults and movie star governors. The rich had usurped the countercultural modes of the day, and status symbols overlapped with occultist symbols. Here, on the Strip, at Sunset and Sweetzer Ave, the Source Restaurant was open for business, a vegetarian establishment with a book and record store attached. While the bronzed and gorgeous waiters floated to tables donned in white robes, the business took in up to $10,000 a day at its peak thanks to its reputation as the place to be-in. Father Yod, originally christened Jim Baker, had gone from a LA beatnik to a quasi-deity, and the 150 people that the Source Restaurant supported were his followers. Why does any of this matter? Because this golden man and his family recorded some of the rawest psychedelic music of the 1970s and few ever heard about it.
Between 1973 and 1975, Father Yod and the Spirit of ’76, later to be known as Yahowa 13, released 9 albums to be sold out of the Source Restaurant, on the Higher Key Records imprint. These were recorded between 3 and 5 am, in the garage of the Father house, a mansion in the Hollywood hills. Here, various musicians banged their gongs while Father Yod preached his impenetrable wisdom onto a Teac 1/2” 4-track. The results are bewildering, and each album is a world unto itself. Some albums, such as All or Nothing At All and Savage Sons of Yahowa, are definite acid casualties, sounding like a San Fransisco knockoff. It’s never really clear who’s doing the songwriting here, and the musicians are whoever decided to show up that morning before meditation. Other albums, though, such as Contraction, Penetration: An Aquarian Symphony, and I’m Gonna Take You Home, are downright mind-bending. All this was culled from supposedly up to 65 albums of music, and currently one can either purchase the 13-CD God and Hair Yahowa box set on Captain Trip records, or check out the few albums that have been so far released individually. The whole set-up reminds me of how Faust recorded their first two albums, holed up in a mansion just recording everything that was humanly possible. In 1975, Father Yod, known by then as Yahowa (the first Earthly spiritual Father for the Aquarian age), sailed too close to the sun in a hang-gliding accident in Hawaii, fatally injuring himself. According to the documentary, he was somewhat aware of his fate that day - he told a passerby before the sojourn “morituri te salutamus” (We, who are about to die, salute you).
It is because of these accomplishments, rather than a vegetable garden or a brand of incense, that most musicians remember Father Yod today. Sky “Sunlight” Saxon, formerly of The Seeds, put out a post-Yod album with the Source Family in 1977, but the mystic ties that held the Family together had been mostly cut by then. Until the box set, organized by Saxon, various bootlegs of the albums (most had been pressed in runs of 1000) floated to ears in Japan and the US. Byron Coley, the Boredoms, Acid Mothers Temple, to name some, drop the Yod now and then. So we have to take some of this seriously. In fact, the internal politics of the Source Family reveal much about the post-1968 wave and its place in history.
The Source Family members in the documentary speak in hushed tones about Father Yod: they place him up there with Jesus, Buddha, and other “famous” gurus, as well as the obligatory Star Wars comparison to Obi-Wan Kenobi. Much is mentioned of how Father Yod looked and acted, and the devotion can get a little creepy (a la Manson), but little is said of what exactly is the Yahowa philosophy. Furthermore, the sexual “liberation” delivered upon the Family by Father Yod has its seamy underside. Contrary to Source members’ claims of uniqueness, several rather common occurrences from close-knit communal life pop up in the film. Benjamin Zablocki, who studied over 120 communes from the 1960s and 1970s, finds that the regulation of sex usually turned away from group or “free” association. Sexual activities actually declined for both men and women after joining a commune, and even if intense emotional relationships developed without sex, strains of jealousy still pulled apart many groups. Father Yod’s rules of engagement are a prime example. Women were allowed to choose their partners, while men should be passive and accept whichever woman came calling. Still, women could not be independent – the sixth commandment of the Age of Aquarius which Father Yod channeled in his 1970 book aptly titled Liberation was “The man and his women are one – let nothing separate them.” Women had to seek relationships through men to reach a higher spiritual plane, even while Father Yod preached such pedestal platitudes as “Woman is God.” With over 90 people living in the Father House, each member’s living space was about the size of a Japanese hotel pod. People were kicked out for not respecting these guidelines, including not allowing women to contact those outside of the Source Family due to their “purity.” And while these sexual regulations were not as strict as some communes (many enforced celibacy or strict monogamy), the results were similar – most of the fuss revolved around the leader of the commune, almost always a charismatic individual who laid down the moral rules in the first place. In this case, most “liberated” women chose Father Yod, who ended up with 13 wives in his harem. All of this was somehow supposed to be representative of the lifestyle of the “future” (although it sounds pretty damned retrograde and Victorian).
As the sociologist Randall Collins points out, the social structure of communal life basically guarantees conflict of this type. The group is intentionally self-enclosed and isolated, constantly focusing everyone’s attention on one another in a “high ritual density.” The leader is most likely to be at the center of the group’s emotions, sex included. Thus Father Yod joins the ranks of the many wise men who simultaneously were “sexual magnets” and spiritual or political leaders. As one of the male members of the Source Family described life in the mansion, “I wouldn’t have wanted to be a woman.” Contrast this to what Sunflower (one of the longest members of the Source Family) said about the commune in another interview: “Ours worked because we were not followers of someone that held a position of power over their followers.”
Along with all this titillation one gets the standard millenarian elitism that any cult (or left-wing group or college radio station, for that matter) engenders. Outsiders were Piscean while the Family was Aquarian (as well as Atlantian and Essene). The rest of the world was described as “unconscious,” and members gave up their “flesh family” in favor of the Source Family. The move to Hawaii away from L.A. in 1975 was to avoid the oncoming catastrophes about the beset the United States. As usual, all this chaos and confusion discussed rather nebulously in the film is extremely self-centered. It’s not like the early 1970s were the golden age for the rest of the planet, just in a few select American cities where the bandannas had been tied just a little too tight. Props should be given, though, to Father Yod’s purchase of a Rolls Royce brand new for $34,000 - he certainly enjoyed many moments of la dolce vita.
Father Yod was obsessed with the founders of the United States – his birthday was on July 4th, and the first name of the band was The Spirit of ’76. Since most of the founders were freemasons, the Source Family interpreted this as paganism, and used the eerie United States pyramid-eye seal as one of its symbols. But, more importantly, Father Yod recognized the fount of anti-authoritarianism abundant in the American creation myth. The Source Family, with all its pranks and posturing, were an embodiment of the worldwide ideological explosions of 1968 – and therein lies the nugget of truth relevant to our own 21st century conundrums.
While the spectrum of movements around 1968 is hugely disparate, they all were anti-bureaucratic in nature (hence the oft-lambasted phrase “Don’t trust anyone over 30.”). They were a wholesale rejection of the line of intellectual development from the Enlightenment onwards. Our political terms “left” and “right” come from the French Revolution, owing to where members were seated in Les Estates-General (the royalist Feuillants sat on the right side of the chamber, while the radical Montagnards sat on the left). There was a basic assumption of liberalism, the principles of the Enlightenment regarding the operation of society, by almost all politicians in the late 19th century. This included Marxists and socialists of many stripes, as well as conservatives such as Bismarck, who famously used the welfare state in Prussia to head off revolutionary pressures from the unwashed masses. By the 1950s, the tenets of liberalism, with the science of economics ensconced as the modern world’s new astrology, ran through all strains of discourse. It was trusted by every side – the Soviet Union providing the best example of an official state ideology devoted to science, technology, and acute government oversight. The cultural and political revolutions of 1968 imploded all of this. What was preached as good for everyone turned out to be only concerned with keeping the status quo. What was supposed to lead a country to economic prosperity and allow it to “catch up” with the West turned out to be the permanence of poverty and dependence. The so-called socialist nations crushed dissent and social change more easily than Western nations did. The missives from the top of Mount Olympus disregarded most women and anybody who wasn’t white. Lastly, a large segment of the population began to regard the planet as something other than a dumpster. With large swaths of populations recognizant of the emperor’s sudden nudity, well, Kundalini seems not such a bad idea anymore.
The crux is this – the rejection of both the mainstream and the old Left (hence the 40-year old term “New Left”) by the 1970s ushered in a wide-open space for experimentation and possible change. Much of this is looked back with derision now, but some of it was an honest attempt to grapple with a world where the answers long supplied turned out to be false. The results are not always benevolent, though. Yes, now we have PETA, but we also have extreme Protestant and Islamic fundamentalism (last time I checked, PETA does not have any nukes). We have increasing democratization of almost all social structures (rock and roll being a prime example) but coupled with a huge jump in concentration of ownership and inequality. Former baby-boomer leftists who called for “smashing the state” are now nostalgic about the Nixon administration. The arrogance of science regarding both culture and society has been questioned, but now we have to fight to keep evolution in high school curriculum. In effect, 1968 ended the old myths, but was accompanied by waves of turbulence and chaos. The decision by Father Yod to simply “opt out,” heading off to the mansion and then to Hawaii, has a long tradition that includes John Noyes and his famous Oneida community in 1848 (another place where tantric sex and harems sprung up, and a year not too dissimilar from 1968), and early socialists such as Robert Owen. Obviously the spiritual equivalent of “phoning it in” will not lead to a mass shift in consciousness, or ultimate liberation of mind and body. But, the recognition of change is the fundamental first step for those who wish to take advantage. In fact, whether it’s the Arthur columnist Daniel Pinchbeck writing on the Mayan calendar, or the chemist Ilya Prigogine discussing the role of time and irreversibility in the natural sciences (overturning the Newtonian paradigm for good), a sea change is at hand. There’s just no guarantee that when the dust settles, we’ll like what we see. The main error of 1968, of course, was to throw out the political baby with the bathwater. What liberalism understood, although sometimes it is elided, is that social consciousness, relations between individuals, and, yes, liberation, is a political project, however one wants to define it. The abrogation of politics by the left, running scared into cultural studies, new age shamanism, or rebel consumerism, led to the conservative counter-revolution of the 1980s that culminates today. Where this heads in the future is completely an open question – both a scary prospect and a hopeful one. So, take a deep breath and chant with the Father, “Yahowa yahowaho,” because one way or another, brother, liberation is at hand.
P.S. I have to include Father Yod’s commandments, since it’s basically a ten-point platform for combining all religions, although I have no idea how. Every Source Family member had this memorized:
1. Obey and live by the teachings of your earthly spiritual father.
P.P.S. Regarding the tantric cover shown above of I’m Gonna Take You Home, Source member and musician Djin (who probably had a lot to do with the great Yahowa albums) provides his take on both the album art and the English language: “I could write a book on the cover. It is an absolute masterpiece of design, and probably the greatest cover in music history. Suffice it to say if you were to fully grok the meaning and symbology of it, you would have the keys to magically transform your person and environment into your hearts desire and ride the chariot of god into the future of your own will, one with god.” Grok indeed. For a great written interview with some of the musicians, check out Perfect Sound Forever’s 3-part series on Yahowa 13.
By Kevan Harris