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?)
In spite of the sudden availability of this wealth of rare material, the Source remained pretty much an unknown quantity — though speculation was plentiful. Unbeknownst to the world at large, the remnants of the Source Family — which had officially dispersed within a couple of years of YaHoWha’s death — were coming to terms with its legacy. A couple of Hawaiian reunions occurred — first to finally scatter YaHoWha’s ashes on the 20th anniversary of his fatal flight, and then to observe the birth of the Aquarian age on September 17, 2001 (as predicted by the Great Pyramid). Family archivist Isis began organizing the enormous quantities of photographs and ephemera and writing a definitive history of Baker and the group. Initially published privately for Family members, The Source: The Untold Story of Father Yod, Ya Ho Wa 13 and the Source Family came to the attention of Jodi Wille and Adam Parfrey of the maverick publishing house Process. Wille helped edit and expand the history, which now includes a number of dissenting voices regarding the purity of YaHoWha’s motives (and a CD of previously unreleased recordings, including a live gig at Beverly Hills High!).
Not that Isis’ version of the story is all peaches and cream. As with most prophets, YaHoWha’s thoughts began turning to the coming apocalypse. At around the time he began to lose interest in the musical project, he became convinced that America was on the brink of a series of cataclysmic upheavals — nuclear war followed by earthquakes, tidal waves and volcanic eruptions. When one of the Family children became seriously ill with an untreated staph infection, emergency-room doctors alerted the authorities. Fearing a crackdown, YaHoWha realized it was time to sell the restaurant and head for the hills of Hawaii. No danger of military invasion, tsunamis or volcanoes there!
While the inside scoop on the high-functioning days of a utopian religious movement is a rare and fascinating thing in itself, it is the account of its unraveling that makes for the most compelling reading, throwing the accomplishments of the spiritual social experiment into high contrast. Without the income provided by the restaurant and the relatively tolerant and supportive environment of Los Angeles, the vision began to fray at the edges. The populace of the Family’s first Hawaiian destination, Kauai, was decidedly unwelcoming, and doubts and paranoia arose among the flock — and their shepherd. A contemporary article from the local paper The Garden Island quotes YaHoWha desperately offering the services of the Family to “police the airports” to drive the also-unpopular hippie “parasites” off the island, if only the authorities would “look the other way.”
That didn’t work. In 1975, YaHoWha bailed with a small entourage on a peripatetic world journey, searching for a new home in Thailand, India, Nepal, Egypt, Greece and a half-dozen other locales. The remaining Family members had to persuade the Hawaiian welfare authorities to buy them airplane tickets back to the mainland. After regrouping briefly in San Francisco (where they refurbished a haunted mansion and YaHoWha basically revoked the sexual privileges of his sons in a vain attempt to make them get jobs), they decided to try Hawaii again. It was around this time that Father got interested in hang-gliding.
Usually, accounts of communal spiritual movements are sensationalistic “exposés of brainwashing cults” or whitewashing “defenses against prejudicial conspiracies.” The Source: The Untold Story of Father Yod, Ya Ho Wa 13 and the Source Family is something else. The participants in this story seem uniformly intelligent, straightforward and better off for their brush with the infinite. Most cherish their time with YaHoWha as a central transformative period in their lives, even when they have gone on to make millions in the construction industry or found other fringe spiritual communities to shelter them. And the Source Family is just one of many such under-documented experiments from a period of recent American history that was quickly swept under the rug with unwarranted ridicule and fear mongering. I’m not convinced that the release of this book is a harbinger of the imminent transformation of our species’ consciousness and the basic structure of society. But it at least allows us to discuss the possibility again without snickering.