By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
On August 25, 1975, former Sunset Strip restaurateur Jim Baker launched himself off a 1,300-foot-high cliff on the easternmost shore of Oahu. Although he had never hang-glided before — or even trained for it — he was confident his instincts would kick in and allow him to negotiate the notoriously tempestuous thermal trade winds off the mountainous coastline. And they may well have, except for a sudden calm that caused him to immediately plummet downward hundreds of feet. He recovered control and managed to glide out over the Pacific for 10 minutes before navigating back to crash-land on the beachfront Waimalano campground. Although he appeared to have no serious injuries, Baker was unable to move and was taken home, where he died some nine hours later. He was survived by his 13 wives and 140 or so sons and daughters.
For the most part, these were his “spiritual” sons and daughters, as Baker had been going by the names Father Yod (rhymes with load) and YaHoWha for five years as the leader of the Source Family, a quintessential sex, drugs and rock & roll New Age hippie commune that lived in the Chandler mansion in Los Feliz and operated a highly successful health-food restaurant — also called the Source — at Sunset and Sweetzer. “Father,” as Baker was most consistently referred to, was a Cincinnati-born Medal of Honor Marine and jujitsu expert who came to L.A. after WWII to audition for a role as Tarzan and fell under the sway of Philosophical Research Society founder Manly P. Hall’s eclectic mysticism and the proto-hippie lifestyle of barefoot granola-munching Nature Boys like eden ahbez and Gypsy Boots. Baker opened a Topanga Canyon sandal shop, followed by two successful health-food restaurants favored by the Hollywood elite.
Things started getting freaky early in 1969, when Baker opened his third restaurant — the Source — and became a devotee of Sikh kundalini master Yogi Bhajan. Baker began speaking and directing meditation sessions in the restaurant, and — though still a follower of the yogi — channeling a new synthesis of traditional and original esoteric teachings. Attendance soared, and soon Baker and his growing group of followers were dressing in white cotton robes and turbans, living communally in the Chandler mansion (a.k.a. the Mother House) and following a rigorous program of spiritual practices involving elaborate breathing techniques (beginning with a single six-second hit of sacred herb at 3 a.m.), cold showers, radical shifts in gender roles, yoga, chanting the Tetragrammaton, natural home birth, magickal visualizations, Aleister Crowleyian ego-suppressing rituals and tantric sex.
During this period, the Source Family was one of the most high-profile and unusual of the many new religious movements proliferating in Los Angeles, not least because of their uncommonly high standards of grooming and cleanliness, their economic self-sufficiency and work ethic, and the fact that they didn’t openly proselytize. Potential members, in fact, were obliged to undergo a period of sexual abstinence and cross-examination as well as surrender all their material possessions to the group, washing dishes (or other chores) at the restaurant and taking a vow of confidentiality in order to partake of the spiritual teachings.
It was this commitment to secrecy and the modest recruitment schedule (along with the fact that the story ends with a hang-gliding accident instead of a mass suicide in Guyana) that kept the Source Family a vague rumor for 30 years. In fact, they probably would have remained in limbo had it not been for the efforts of an on-again, off-again member of the group called Arlick — known in the mundane world of maya as Sky “Sunlight” Saxon. Saxon had been the driving force behind the seminal L.A. garage band the Seeds, whose “Pushin’ Too Hard” was a national hit and was later recognized as one of the essential precursors of punk. By the punk era, Saxon had pretty much fallen off the cultural map except for occasional where-are-the-acid-casualties-now appearances marked by cryptic utterances concerning God being a dog. Then, sometime in the ’80s, rumors began circulating among record geeks about Saxon’s involvement with an obscure psychedelic tribal musical collective called Ya Ho Wa 13 — whose flurry of self-released recordings quickly became one of the most sought-after (not to mention strangest) of vinyl rarities.
Ya Ho Wa 13 was, it turned out, the musical wing of the Source Family. Between 1973 and 1975, various incarnations of this loose subcult (Father Yod and the Spirit of ’76, the Savage Sons of YaHoWha, Fire Water Air, etc.) recorded approximately 65 albums’ worth of mostly improvised material — nine of which were released on their own Higher Key label and sold through the restaurant. The earliest recordings featured actual songs written and performed by newly renamed members of the Family — primarily Djin, Pythias, Sunflower and Octavius. It wasn’t until Baker — now known as YaHoWha — mandated improvisation and began contributing freestyle vocalizations that something extraordinary occurred. Just how extraordinary would remain pretty much a secret until 1998, when Saxon — who turns out to have been only peripherally involved with some of the later recordings — negotiated the release of a now-legendary 13-CD box set by the Japanese specialty label Captain Trip.
Over surging psych-rock jams, YaHoWha sang, howled and chanted extemporaneous sermons (as well as playing gong, kettle drums and a whistle that sounds almost like a theremin) that summarized much of his philosophy in catchy slogans like “Die to live again” or “I can be you and you can be me — ultimate orgasm we will see!” The originality of the best of these albums ranks them with the greatest outsider musical artifacts of the era, on par with An Evening With Wildman Fischer or lounge-singer-turned-acidhead Johnny Arcesia, whose vocals are often remarkably similar to YaHoWha’s. Most strikingly, YaHoWha’s obvious humor about himself and his situation dissolves the prejudices that most of us have regarding “cults” and their often difficult cultural byproducts. (Battlefield Earth, anyone?)