For a time in 1947, songwriter Eden Ahbez was living in a sleeping bag under the Hollywood sign.
But his life changed dramatically after he was able to slip the sheet music for a song he'd written to Nat “King” Cole at the Lincoln Theater downtown. The song, “Nature Boy,” became an overnight smash, and is best remembered for its universal benediction, “The greatest thing you'll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.”
It has since been covered by literally thousands of artists, including Miles Davis, Grace Slick, and David Bowie. Congressman Bill Aswad recited the lyrics before the Vermont House of Representatives at the passing of his state's same-sex marriage bill in '09.
Back in 1948, Ahbez hung mainly with a pious group of non-comformists who called themselves “California Nature Boys.” They lived in caves around Taquitz Canyon and lush gardens in Topanga, and pre-dated the hippie movement by two decades. Gypsy Boots, a fellow Nature Boy, remembered Ahbez predicting that one day there would be a million beards.
So what if that number turned out to be way too low?
Joe Romersa is an engineer who worked with Ahbez during his final years, when he made a bevy of strangely hermetic and deeply life-affirming recordings. Cut from 1987 until his death in 1995, the massive body of unreleased music is based loosely around a book Ahbez was trying to complete – Scriptures of the Golden Age.
Romersa was bequeathed most of the songwriter's recordings in his will, which he houses today in his Encino home. The publishing, however, was left to Ahbez's long-time accountant, David Janowiak, who released a handful of the final Ahbez tracks on a posthumous CD, Echoes from Nature Boy, though Romersa insists it is not what Ahbez wished for the project. “He had a specific tracklist in mind,” remembers Romersa of the sessions. “He wanted it arranged for concert hall.”
Romersa first encountered Ahbez at Salty Dog Studios in Van Nuys. The elderly songwriter bound in muttering on about a small edit he needed to make to a 1/4″ tape, which was gripped tightly at the chest. Romersa, then 30, took an immediate liking to the 79-year-old nature boy and made the simple edit. From that day, Ahbez trusted no one but Romersa to fulfill his creative wishes.
Born George Alexander Aberle in Brooklyn in 1908, George and his twin sister Editha at age 9 were taken to the Hebrew Orphan Asylum and sent to Chanute, Kansas, to be adopted. By the early 1930s, George grew restless of Midwestern life and started hopping freight trains with hobos and migrant workers during the Great Depression. He settled in L.A. in the early 1940s, where he discovered a small band of fringe thinkers and health gurus. As for his past, Ahbez would tell people: “I am a being of heaven and earth, of thunder and lightening, of rain and wind, of the galaxies.”
After Cole's version of “Nature Boy” topped the charts in 1948, Ahbez continued peddling songs for two decades. Some were haunted ballads, though most were pop/novelty numbers filled with Ahbez's off-beat brand of spiritualism. When public sentiment caught up to him by the mid-'60s, he hung out with Beach Boy Brian Wilson at the latter's 1967 Smile sessions and with UK folk singer Donovan out in Palm Springs. He may have even been the inspiration for R. Crumb's Mr. Natural comic book character.
A 1960 concept album – Eden's Island – was re-discovered during the '90s lounge music revival; alternative acts like Victoria Williams and the Wondermints covered songs from it, though Ahbez himself was unaware of the album's cult following. He was busy recording his final statement to the world.
Many of the sessions with Romersa found Ahbez reciting poetry from his book-in-progress, or simply noodling at the piano. “He was playing a song called 'The Clam Man',” says Romersa, “just himself at the keyboard. Right in the middle, he had me stop the 24-track. He said he just needed to play this other song called 'The Sun Has Set'… I pressed record without Ahbez knowing.”
The eight-minute pocket symphony ebbs from somber Yiddish balladry into mystical new-age crescendo, dipping fluidly from sequence to sequence with a beautiful symmetry. “I knew then,” Romersa says, “that I was in the presence of great genius. I played it back for him and he cried.”
“We were going to cut an orchestral version of one song, 'Renaissance',” Romersa continues. “The basic rhythm track had Vinny Coliuta on drums. As I recall, Ahbez really wanted Jerry Vinci to play violin.” At the last minute, however, the elderly nature boy cancelled the session.
“It was already paid,” Romersa laments. “I tried to explain that to him, but he said, 'Yeah, Joe, I just need to go and concentrate on my book.'” Romersa says it was the turning point when Janowiak, Ahbez's full business partner by then, put the kibosh on the project.
I spoke in 2004 with Janowiak, who justified his decision to halt work on the sessions, pointing to lawsuits in 1972, '83 and '92 that yielded massive payouts on royalties owed Ahbez from “Nature Boy.” The accountant saw little reason to fritter their nest-egg away on an uncommercial pet project.
Several years after Ahbez's passing, Janowiak hired a ghost writer to help edit the Scriptures book. She asked her name not be printed for this article, claiming Janowiak had her change a number of the deceased songwriter's passages, concerning the obsolescence of God. As she grew more familiar with the material, she felt uncomfortable with these alterations and ultimately walked away from the project. She is unsure what condition Scriptures is in today. Janowiak passed away in 2012 and when L.A. Weekly reached out to his widow, Geraldine, she declined to comment for this story.
“David expected something like the Bible,” says Romersa. “What Ahbez wanted, instead, was to educate the human race on the idea of belief. He once said to me, 'The gods of the earth are many, but the god of the sky is one, if any. We don't need to be afraid to let those stupid old ideas go.'”
Of utmost importance, says Romersa, was Ahbez's insistence that the lyrics to “Nature Boy” be changed for the final album. “He said to me, 'Joe, that lyric, 'To love and be loved in return'… it's too much of a deal. There's no deal in love.'”
“He wanted it to say,” continues Romersa, “'The greatest thing you'll ever learn is to love and be loved, just love and be loved.'”
Romersa says the final recording would've also altered the melody slightly, with “Nature Boy” rising up in a grand Ben Hur-like cadence that reflects love's ultimate triumph. For now, however, Romersa insists the recorded side of Scriptures remains safe in his care. He awaits the day when someone can emerge with the financial muscle needed to set the work free.