By Matthew Edgley
First published by Clash magazine 03.04.13
The ‘hippie’ countercultural movement is commonly traced back to San Francisco in the 1960s. But it was in Los Angeles that a man called Jim Baker – later known as Father Yod and then Ya Ho Wha (“The Name Of God”) – created one of the ultimately enduring legacies of the movement, with his band YaHoWha 13 making some of the most mind bending psychedelic rock music ever heard, from 1973 up until Yod’s untimely death in Hawaii in 1975.
Some history: Baker was a decorated World War II veteran and jujitsu expert who moved to California in the mid 1960s to become a stuntman. Baker was influenced from the Los Angeles beat scene and embraced a vegetarian diet, a ‘natural’ lifestyle and the study of philosophy, spirituality and yoga.
This wide philosophical study and lifestyle change led to Baker founding an organic vegetarian restaurant called The Source on Sunset Strip in 1969, serving the rich, famous and hipsters of LA. Supported by the earnings of the successful Source restaurant, Baker transformed from beatnik to Western spiritual leader, changing his name to Father Yod and establishing a 150-strong commune in the Hollywood hills based around his own wide ranging philosophical beliefs.
While the beliefs of The Source Family were largely kept secret, they were based upon utopian ideals, communal living and healthy ‘natural’ eating. With Father Yod the charismatic, Rolls Royce driving, white suit wearing patriarch of the commune, the Family embraced the liberating influences of the era of ‘Free Love’ (Yod had thirteen wives from within the group) and spiritual exploration.
Then there was the music: with Father Yod the lead singer of his own bands The Spirit of ’76 and later YaHoWha 13 – made up of a revolving cast of young musicians from within the Source Family commune – they recorded nine albums of fascinating, epic, wildly improvisational epic space rock, with sessions usually beginning with a 3 a.m smoke of ‘sacred herb’ and their performance being part of a grander musical meditation ritual.
First album Kahoutek (1973) by Father Yod and The Spirit of ’76 can be firmly filed under ‘Far Out’ music, with cosmic minimalist noodlings underpinning the band leader’s improvised religio-spiritual evocations- a modern descendant can be found in the chanting mantras and distorted low end of God Is Good or Advaitic Songs by Om.
The emergence of successor outfit YaHoWha 13 in 1974 sees the sound of a serious and controlled rock n’roll band developing, with more structured garage band riffs and ritual drum patterns on I’m Gonna Take You Home and Lovers and The Chariot. Father Yod’s trademark chants make way for more distorted guitars and jazzy, occasionally funky rhythms across the spacey psych-noise of Penetration: An Aquarian Symphony.
YaHoWha 13’s distinctly trippy DNA can be found today in the hazy guitar fuzz and languid melodies of Tame Impala’s Innerspeaker and Wolf People’s proto-prog and folk whimsy. Psych and freak folk scene acts such as Bonnie Prince Billy, Joanna Newsom and the self confessed Father Yod devotee Devendra Banhart all share a freedom of expression through their collaborative efforts and studied position just outside the mainstream. These folk musicians also share label territory with the re-released recordings of YaHoWha 13 on Drag City Records.
While Drag City has just dropped another ‘lost’ collection of YaHoWha 13’s recordings, the excellent cosmic explorations comprising The Thought Adjusters, this resurgence of The Source Family in the public eye has been largely driven by the efforts of Father Yod’s widow and his appointed historian Isis Aquarian.
Isis Aquarian documented the life of the secretive Source Family through an exhaustive range of photographs, writings and audio recordings in the 1970s. She has now acted in the past few years as an increasingly public emissary of the almost forgotten hippie community, even releasing Echoes of a Crone, her own spoken word CD of the ‘Father’s’ spiritual teachings set to a typically New Age ambient soundtrack.
Isis’ quest to spread the Source Family’s message began in 2007 with publication of The Source: The Untold Story of Father Yod, Ya Ho Wha 13 and The Source Family. The publisher Jodi Wille has co-directed and released The Source Family documentary in 2012, currently screening at several film and music festivals in the U.S such as SXSW in Austin, also home to its own annual Psych Fest. YaHoWha 13 has even reformed after over thirty years with exotically named surviving members Octavius, Sunflower and Djin.
With psychedelic music enjoying this popular resurgence today with the likes of the aforementioned Tame Impala, the lysergic-tinged Roky Erickson-esque Black Angels and even the dreamy psych-pop of Unknown Mortal Orchestra, what do they offer to the increasingly fragmented and commercialised music and festival scene of today?
Woodstock in 1969 and the many early years of Glastonbury festivals are still hugely significant touchstones in popular music and cultural history, remembered for their positive attempts to generate a sense of community and unifying love before the increasingly individualistic and commercial forces of our modern late 20th and 21st Century took hold of these events for the middle class masses.
With the gentrification of large festivals – the corporate VIP spaces, ‘glamping’ and slavishly sponsored amenities and services – even the ‘hippie dream’ has been bought, sold and commodified. We are now offered temporary escapes for the weekend with the odd organic falafel wrap, reiki head massage and an exotic body piercing to complete the hippie shopping list along the way.
With new psychedelic bands helping signpost the way to that lost dream of the 1960s, with new ‘old’ sounds – maybe some of that spirit of Father Yod can be awakened at their festival appearances in us for more than a weekend. Yod’s primary philosophy was ‘Be Kind’. Why can’t we all be damn hippies?