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For Yod's Sake: The Source Family Reviewed
Sean Kitching , June 18th, 2013 11:23

Sean Kitching examines a new documentary about Father Yod and The Source Family, one of 60s California's most far out experiments in alternative living. Mildly NSFW photographs.

Following 2005's lengthy but uneven Re-Visiting Father by Evan Wells, directors Maria Demopoulos and Jodi Wille return to the story of Father Yod (pronounced Yode) and the Source Family with a more focused and dramatic distillation of this essential tale of sex, drugs, rock & roll, biblical facial hair, vegetarianism, martial-arts and misadventure by hang gliding. The film’s narrative is stitched together from photographs and hand-held footage taken by Isis Aquarian (aka Charlene Peters), and accompanied solely by music from Ya Ho Wa 13, the religious group’s in-house psychedelic rock band. The extent to which the entire social experiment was documented is in itself, astounding, and the first thing to note is how fantastic it all looks and sounds. Although the ubiquitous nature of the camera is today taken for granted, it certainly wasn’t the case in the mid 60s. For anyone at all interested in the era presented, it offers a motherlode of incredible images and music from a time long since past and a story that ticks a lot of countercultural boxes.

Although its an obvious point to make, it's still important to emphasise just how different the mid to late 60s were from our own, far more cynical era. Early on in the film, Magus Aquarian recounts his first meeting with Jim Baker (Yod), after driving to LA after leaving Harvard, where "Tim Leary and Dick Alpert were two of my professors." This was just prior to Leary’s expulsion from the University and still some years before he was tried in 1968 on a trumped-up marijuana charge. During the trial, in which he was described as "the most dangerous man in America," Leary’s books were held up in court and deemed to be far more damning evidence than the roaches allegedly planted by the arresting officer. Leary’s real crime, in the eyes of the American government, had been to suggest to the country’s youth that they should drop out of state directed education and should refuse all attempts by "whiskey drinking generals" to be sent off to Vietnam as fodder for the US war machine. After receiving sentence, Leary was given psychological tests to determine what kind of prison inmate he would be. Having designed one of these tests himself (the ‘Leary Interpersonal Behaviour Test’), Leary faked his results to suggest that he should be placed in a low security prison, from which he later escaped. Seeing himself at the time as a representative of a ‘higher evolutionary’ force on earth, Leary must have thought the authorities idiots. On this point, at least, it’s hard to fault his thinking. Meanwhile, Richard Alpert (who was soon to take the name Ram Dass) had begun a different kind of adventure, traveling to India in 1967 and ultimately settling under the guidance of his guru Neem Karoli Baba, who passed the test that Alpert had presented to him: the ingestion of 3 Owsley blue Batman acid tabs with no discernible effects.

Revolution, both of consciousness and of basic societal paradigms, was in the air and to the old establishment, it was to become nothing less than a battle for the hearts and minds of young America. By 1973, mass protests had resulted in the US pulling out of the Vietnam war. The sense of searching for different philosophies and different ways of life persisted for a time, with Funkadelic still singing in ’75, on ‘Better by the Pound:’ "There’s a tidal wave of mysticism/Surging through our jet-aged generation/It’s all designed to take us to the sky." Soon after, however, disillusion started set in and many of the beliefs people had explored in the previous decade began to seem foolish or naive.

In a sense, Jim Baker (born in Cincinnati in 1922) personally embodied the change taking place in America due both to the influence of psychedelic drugs and the influx of new Eastern ideas, having been a part of the military machine himself during his time as a US marine in World War II before his "spiritual illumination." A charismatic 6’ 4” Jujitsu expert, who later killed two men in self defence, Baker was influenced by the Nature Boys - an LA-based group of beats who espoused a natural, vegetarian lifestyle - and later by gurus such as the Sikh spiritual teacher Yogi Bhajan, from whom he learned Kundalini Yoga. Baker had considered himself an atheist until he and his second wife Elaine discovered The Secret Teachings of All Ages by occultist Manly P. Hall, which was to serve as the inspiration for a lifelong thirst for every mystical and philosophical thread that he could discover. By the time he encountered the soon-to-be-named Magus Aquarian at the Source restaurant, he had transformed into a long-haired, bearded "guru of gurus" in the eyes of the young Harvard student, who promptly fell at his feet and kissed his toes, only to elicit the reply: "Far fucking out."

Baker's previous business venture, the Aware Inn, had been popular for a time, even attracting the patronage of such Hollywood stars as Paul Newman, Steve McQueen and Marlon Brando, but it all began to slide when Baker met a young free thinking French woman named Dora who was to introduce him to the burgeoning psychedelic culture of the time. Early on in the documentary, Baker can be heard, in a midwestern tones inflected by a slight Eastern cadence, saying: "Can you imagine what happened to Jim Baker at 43 when he fell in love with that 19-year-old girl, that little hippy..." He had wanted to find out what the flower children were up to and what he discovered blew his mind. It was at this point that Baker began experimenting with drugs other than marijuana, such as amphetamines. His attention, as well as much of the financial proceeds from the Aware Inn being directed elsewhere, the restaurant folded. Here we are treated to one of the film’s less convincing recollections, that Baker robbed "between 2 and 11 banks" in order to finance his next venture. Whilst it’s not hard to imagine Baker robbing a bank, perhaps once or twice, more than that simply stretches credulity. Certainly the money came from somewhere, for the Source was soon up and running and back to attracting beautiful as well as famous people. John Lennon and Yoko came by, as did Goldie Hawn. Woody Allen even used the restaurant for a scene in Annie Hall, where his character Alvy orders the "alfalfa sprouts and a plate of mashed yeast", whilst wearing a disgusted look on his face.

The Source started running newspaper advertisements for morning meditation, with the opening words: "Seekers, become finders..." A lot of people began to stay afterwards to socialise and work at the Restaurant and the business prospered. Baker appeared to relish the role which he had found himself playing, realising that there were numerous young people out there seeking a proper father figure (unlike perhaps the one they had quarreled with at home) and deciding that this was something he could provide. It is worth noting here that Baker’s own father had not been around when he was growing up and that it was his own close friendship with health-food pioneer Paul Bragg that had inspired many of his own choices in life. Father Yod, as he now wished to be called, decided that it was time for the family to live together, so they rented the former home of the Chandler family of the LA Times and moved in en masse. A lot of musicians were showing up at the Source, so $30,000 worth of music and recording equipment was purchased and the garage was soundproofed and turning into a recording studio.

Every morning, after meditation, the band would meet and record spontaneously composed music, (over 65 albums-worth it is claimed). Although an attempt was made to take the music to established labels, they all politely declined. Although the music works incredibly well in the context of the documentary, it was not commercial music in any sense. It was celebratory, ritualistic music designed to enflame the senses of those who participated in it. Ranging from slightly too-saccharine sweet, very obviously West Coast, attempts at melodic ballads that still sound, due to their blissed-out lyrical content, somewhat sinister, to full on ritualistic freak-outs like 1974's unambiguously titled Penetration: An Aquarian Symphony, which anticipated a lot of the freeform hedonistic/occultist vibes later peddled by the likes of Sunburned Hand of the Man and No Neck Blues Band. It’s hardly surprising that Dave Nuss of the No Necks makes an appearance in the film to recount his bewilderment upon first hearing that particular album: "I thought, 'this sounds like a ritual in progress... but is it black magic.. or white magic?'" The albums were sold at a stall at the back of the Source and have since become rare collector’s items. Sky Saxon of The Seeds (a one time Family devotee) worked with the Japanese label Captain Trip to release a 13-CD boxset entitled God and Hair in 1998, which comes in a highly appropriate wooden box sealed with golden thread and a wax stamp. Whilst I wouldn’t go as far as to claim that all the music stands entirely on its own merits, a fair amount of it does and the rest is still oddly fascinating.

Despite the emphasis on hedonistic pleasure, daily practice with the Source Family was in many ways resembled "a spiritual boot camp." Rising at 4am for meditation, a dip in freezing cold water, followed by push-ups on fingertips and yogic exercise was the usual order of the day. Drug use was mainly limited to a single 6 second inhalation of marijuana each morning. Yod can be heard to say: "Some ascetics out there will not have our pleasure... but we will use it fearlessly." The sexual technique known as karezza, which involves lengthy periods of gentle sexual union without either partner reaching orgasm, was used to "raise consciousness to the heavens." Only raw food that had been cut within 15 minutes was deemed fit for consumption. Meditation sessions often saw Yod holding forth on a variety of topics, like "a cross between Lenny Bruce and Krishnamurti." Positive changes amongst family members are described, as well as the odd supposed miracle. The family’s first child was born without breath in its lungs, and we actually see footage of Yod unwrapping the umbilical cord from around its neck and administering mouth to mouth. That the child resumed breathing was presumably more a matter of lucky timing than miraculous intervention, but it’s not hard to see how it would have appeared to the young people present, who had most likely not seen the birth process before.

Although the photographs from the time paint an idyllic picture, and the number of visible pregnancies attest to the fact that karezza was not practiced at all times, outside pressure from the community, who still vividly recalled the nearby Manson family murders, eventually led to the Source Family having to move house. The Father House saw 140 people living together in a three-bedroom, three-bathroom house. Yod commented on the effects of the move by saying: "This is a very tight family man! You realise how alone I’d be in the world without you? I’d be in the loony bin." Yod decided that he was going to take more than one wife and changed his name again, this time to Yahowa, which he claimed was the actual name of God. Soon after, the perceived pressures from the outside world led to the family selling up and moving to Hawaii. Belief that the end of the world was just around the corner was not uncommon in those times, which is unsurprising considering that the nuclear bombing of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki was still very much within living memory. Hawaii, however, turned out not to be how the family had imagined it. Already wary of the influx of other such ‘spiritual communities,’ the islanders did not take kindly to another one moving in. There is a point in the film where it becomes apparent that the Source Family could have almost have become a precursor to the Branch Davidians and were anticipating armed police to turn up at any time. "Justice is always at the centre with a machine gun. What would you do if the Beast attacks your brother?" Yod can be heard to ask. Then an uneasy silence before: "...if someone gets killed then that’s just release."

Thankfully the crisis passed without bloodshed, but Yahowa appeared to be finally tiring. One morning, after a bowl of magic mushrooms for breakfast, he began to tell disbelieving family members: "I’m not God. I’m just a man... completely dependent on the God of all to take care of me." Then, on August 25th 1975, Yahowa decided that he was going to go hang gliding for the first time, having had no previous instruction. Despite the protests of his followers, Jim Baker was not a man to be talked out of something. The mood of the documentary changes here and it is strongly suggested that Baker may have, if not directly attempted suicide, then at least have made the decision to place his life in the hands of a higher power. As they were about to leave, Baker called out to a neighbour: "Ave imperator, morituri te salutant" (We who are about to die, salute you.) He also commented on Family member, Mother Makushla’s "appropriate" black dress, a colour not usually worn by Family members. Baker successfully took off from a 1300-foot cliff on the eastern shore of Oahu, but the ferocious wind that had been building suddenly stopped, forcing the kite to crash land. The photograph of Baker as he lay dying is quite incredible, his face contains no trace of pain and his smile is utterly beatific. "I thought I was going to fly the kite," he can be heard to say, "but I guess it was God’s last lesson." He asks his followers if perhaps he should seek medical attention but is told that if he did, it would be against his own beliefs. Nine hours later, Jim Baker, aka Father Yod, aka Yahowa, was dead.

Whilst Demopoulos and Wille’s film succeeds visually, due to skillful editing of the abundant and vibrant original Source material, it falls short of providing either adequate information concerning Jim Baker’s earlier life or any sort of context by which its events may be measured. However the decision to only use Ya Ho Wa 13 music was an obvious but inspired one and the way image and sound complement each other is often sublime. Too often documentaries which refer to such eras are forced to rely on overuse of talking heads style interviews in order to make up for the lack of original documentation - not this one. Photographs and film footage blend seamlessly together. Incidental footage of sunlight leaking through trees sits comfortably alongside moving images capturing the family’s first birth, or the band playing a high-school, Yod eerily intoning: "Do you believe in re-incarnation? You will come again won’t you? You have been here before..." To hear Baker’s voice inquiring about his state as he lies dying presents the viewer with a perspective that would otherwise have been limited to his followers. It is almost as if Baker had assigned Isis Aquarian to the task of such extensive documentation with a view to such future audiences. She recounts, a little tearfully: "Almost all of my adventures with the family, including his death, were done through the lens of a camera." I imagine that the directors wished to avoid evaluating the events chronicled in the film too much for fear of expressing bias, as a few scant comments from writer and social historian Erik Davis are about all we get by way of critical comment. However the film would have had a greater impact had some effort been made to contextualise the Source Family against other such movements.

As far as cult leaders go, Jim Baker was amongst the most benevolent. He didn’t espouse racist gibberish or covetous envy of the rich like the moronic Charles Manson, nor did he regard his followers as toys for psychological manipulation like former Scientologists and Process Church of the Final Judgement founders Mary Anne MacLean and Robert DeGrimston. His concern was how to make heaven on earth a reality for the here and now, not for a hypothetical future after life. The majority of ex-family members recall him fondly and with much respect, although the whole polygamous aspect of the experience clearly affected his ex-wife Robin very badly. Baker obviously was a ladies man, as is clear from his numerous marriages and affairs before he had even begun with the business of his extended family, but even Robin recalls him as being the greatest love of her life. About the worst foible one can identify in Baker’s behaviour is his disavowal of western medicine. This position proceeded from an incident not related in this documentary. When his second wife Elaine became pregnant with his first son, Baker asked her to have the child at home. Unconvinced at the safety of giving birth without adequate medical supervision, Elaine one day went to a doctor. After contracting German measles in the waiting room, the baby was born deaf. Baker spent many years attempting to heal the boy naturally, to no effect.

For those readers who have spent the course of this article mentally intoning the word "brainwashing," I would suggest that the above is a fine illustrative example of how a ‘program’ can take over an individual under the threshold of awareness to obviously detrimental effect. Conditioning is everywhere but unless an individual finds themselves at odds with their own cultural current, due to their sexuality being at odds with the culturally accepted norms, or perhaps due to the rejection of a parentally enforced religious dogma, it is hard to notice it as such. Conditioning happens every time we pick up the newspapers or watch a soap opera on television. If we are to believe all we see and read issuing forth from those two officially sanctioned cultural oracles, then our default conditioning becomes: belief in monotheism, love only one other, fear strangers and foreigners even more, fear the unconscious and make sure you have your death insurance in place, so you can afford the cost of legitimate burial. Personally, I find this position entirely dubious. This is why, despite many reservations and the fact that I doubt I would personally have liked to have lived such a life, I have such admiration for people like Jim Baker, who had the courage to strike out on their own and rewrite the script.