Chasing after Aquarius with the Source Family
"The body, and its pleasures and powers, is rarely far from the spirit in California," Erik Davis writes in his introduction to Isis Aquarian's firsthand account The Source: The Untold Story of Father Yod, Ya Ho Wa 13, and the Source Family (Process). Many generations of Californians have enjoyed a mix of healthy eating, nature appreciation, and magical thinking, but few have done so with as much colorful exuberance as the Source Family, a group of angelic longhairs that thrived in the Hollywood hills in the late '60s and early '70s under the guidance of Father Yod (a.k.a. YaHoWa, Shin Wha, and Jim Baker), a fast-talking rascal with the hair, beard, and robes of a latter-day Zeus.
What began as a small commune of hippie restaurateurs (the group ran the Source, the veggie restaurant where Woody Allen has his Los Angeles lunch with Diane Keaton in Annie Hall) soon swelled into the hundred-plus-member Source Family. As Baker grew more assured in his Father role, so too did his leadership become more outlandish, both in terms of teachings (which dabbled in many incoherent mystical strands) and practices (which infamously incorporated tantric sex rituals and polygamy). The family's experiment in living had stops in Hawaii and San Francisco (the Guardian's classified section is mentioned twice in The Source) before Father Yod died in a hang-gliding accident in 1975, a notably quiet way to go in a decade that also saw the Manson Family's carnage and Jonestown's horror.
Three events this week an audiovisual-enhanced discussion at Artists' Television Access, a signing at Aquarius Records, and a live performance at Cafe du Nord commemorate the publication of Isis "Keeper of the Record" Aquarian's Source Family primer, a stitching together of testimonies and primary documents. As is often the case with informal accounts, the book is wracked with cliché, most frustratingly in the form of new age truisms used to elide meaningful experiences. There are, though, more than enough weird and wonderful details to make it an enjoyable read (for example, the rainbow diet of avocado, eggplant, red onion, banana, filberts, tomatoes, and alfalfa sprouts), and something like pathos emerges when family members reflect on their experiences ("Probably 60 percent of my memories come from one single year of my life").
Still, it's their glamour that holds our attention. There were dozens of similar-minded spiritual groups at the time, but nothing quite like the Source. Comparing the group with the earthier Love Israel Family, Aquarian writes, "[We] had a house in Hollywood and served organic cuisine to rock stars; our women wore custom-designed jewelry.... They had trucks, and Father had a Rolls Royce." The Source Family cut a path defined more by aestheticism than asceticism, and one of the chief pleasures of Aquarian's book lies in the ephemera commandments, names, menus, costumes that, even in their most disposable forms, explode forth with the group's high hippie style. Davis makes the crucial point that for the Source Family, "spirituality was a creative act of avant-garde exploration. In this regard, cults can be like art collectives."
This is certainly the case with the music, most of which came under the aegis of Ya Ho Wa 13, a core group capable of the thundering Dionysian grooves necessary to underwrite Father Yod's commanding vocal presence. Besides being incorporated into Source Family meditations, the band played in town (a supplementary CD to Aquarian's book includes a surreal performance at Beverly Hills High School) and cut numerous one-take albums (she estimates 65 in a two-year period, though many have been lost). The band's changing permutations and relentless output anticipated the working methods of collective groups such as Acid Mothers Temple and Sunburned Hand of Man.
Can one enjoy the art without being a kind of spiritual tourist? It's a difficult question, but one worth asking in light of the Source Family's reemergence amid major excavations of the Age of Aquarius (see: freak folk, hippie chic). It goes without saying, but the various sponsors of this week's Source events are impeccably hip: Other Cinema, Aquarius Records, and the locus of much of the current Aquarian fever, Arthur magazine.
What distinguishes today's backtracking from the brief vogue for peace signs and psychedelic guitar washes in the early '90s is the depth of the fascination. Seekers aren't contenting themselves with the usual icons; they're hungrier than that. How else to explain reissues of everything from Terry Riley to Karen Dalton, the popularity of Arthur, and the crowds when Alejandro Jodorowsky's fantasias (El Topo, The Holy Mountain) played at the Castro Theatre some months ago? A week before the Source Family gathering at ATA, the same venue hosted another convergence of '60s esoterica: Ira Cohen (the publisher and filmmaker behind the mirror- and mind-warping Invasion of the Thunderbolt Pagoda) introducing Julian Beck's documentary Paradise Now: The Living Theatre in Amerika.
As the cultivation of influences matures, younger artists and musicians begin to reshape the past in more interesting, nuanced ways. One such avatar is the LA-by-way-of-Baltimore blues banshee Entrance (né Guy Blakeslee). Booking him as the opener for the Ya Ho Wa 13 reunion is a brilliant stroke, since it properly asserts the bill as a cross-generational dialogue. Did Devendra Banhart consult the Source Family group shots before convening his own family portrait for the cover of Cripple Crow (XL Recordings)? Might there be something of Father Yod's TEN (the eternal now) teachings locked in White Rainbow's recent bliss-minimalism opus, The Prism of the Eternal Now (Kranky/Marriage)? I'm inclined to think so, especially after having learned that certain taste-making record producers love to gab about the Source Family. It would seem that the sons of Father Yod have become elders in their own right.
Elements of Aquarian culture will always be at best ridiculous and at worst morally vacuous. As Father Yod could pass megalomania off as free-spiritedness, so too is the current crop of (mostly white) aficionados sometimes guilty of confusing creativity with fetish: for surface, ornament, texture, and, inevitably, Native American signifiers. And yet, now as it was then, much of the work being produced is vividly realized and buoyantly energetic. Flipping through The Source, one does indeed experience a kind of timelessness quite apart from the star gates, comets, and prophecies. Forty years later, the book's disarming photographs do not seem to represent individuals so much as an ideal, a vision of beauty that endures. *
ERIK DAVIS AND ISIS AQUARIAN ON FATHER YOD AND THE SOURCE FAMILY
Sat/17, 8:30 p.m., $7.77
Artists' Television Access
992 Valencia, SF
BOOK SIGNING AND LISTENING PARTY
Sun/18, 1 p.m., free
1055 Valencia, SF
YA HO WA 13
With Sky Saxon and the Seeds, Entrance, and Ascended Master
Sun/18, 8 p.m., $12
Cafe du Nord
2174 Market, SF