Friday, June 21, 2013

YOD & HAIR: The High & Holy Days of the Source Family

The Source Family might be America's most successful and well-adjusted cult. Headed by Ohioan Jim Baker, an ex-Marine bodybuilder and self-admitted bank robber from who came to Hollywood for a casting call for Tarzan movies, they were an early-70's social experiment in psychedelic West Coast Utopianism that remarkably did not end in mass suicide.

Baker, who reinvented himself as the white-robed, white-bearded "Father Yod," and his 100-plus followers (whom he all rechristened with the surname "Aquarian") pioneered our current holistic/New Age industry with then-illegal pursuits as natural birth, natural death and home-schooling. They lived communally—at one point in the former Los Feliz manse of Los Angeles Times publisher Otis Chandler—meditating, exercising, smoking marijuana, playing tribal music, and practicing lots of tantric sex. Their most famous creation, however, was The Source, one of L.A.'s first vegetarian eateries. The celebrity-haunted restaurant at Sunset and Sweetzer became the setting Woody Allen chose for the pivotal "alfalfa sprouts and a plate of mashed yeast" scene in Annie Hall.

Maria Demopoulos and Jodi Wille tell this uncommonly strange tale in The Source Family, a beatifying but sober-eyed documentary released this week on DVD from Drag City (with an attendant soundtrack of Source Family's original music). Baker died in a hang-gliding accident in Hawaii in 1975, but not before he had cemented L.A.’s reputation for psychedelic West Coast utopianism. The Beast recently sat down to interview both filmmakers on this fascinating and largely forgotten chapter from the cultural and spiritual landscape of Vietnam-era Los Angeles.

THE BEAST: Why a film about the Source Family -- and why now?
JODI WILLE: When I did the book, I was spending a lot of time interviewing [Source Family archivist] Isis Aquarian and a bunch of the other former members. I remember every single day my jaw would drop multiple times at some of the revelations of what the family was doing and what was really going on behind closed doors. Before that, I was really into cult psychology but for twenty years I never heard of the Source Family. I discovered them from that box set [God & Hair] that came out in 1999 and I was really into the music they made. The more I found out about them the more astounded I was. What stood out to me was that I was very humbled by the sincerity and depth of the family members in what they were truly going for. I learned that the experience of the participants was very different from what we've heard from the quote-on-quote cult experts all these years. For a lot of these people, the higher elements of the experience stayed with them for years and years afterwards and inspired and invigorated them. For them, it was more like being in a cultural incubator. I was greatly inspired by the actions they took to build a better world and know themselves on a deeper level. They were trying to find a better, healthier way to live, and they also had a lot of style while they did it. They were very creative and inventive and they took action to live a more interesting life more directly and intensely and doing it from this very idealistic standpoint.

How is this a quintessentially Los Angeles story?
MARIA DEMOPOULOS: When most people think of Los Angeles they think "shallow" or "spiritually bankrupt" or something dark and nourish out of a James Ellroy novel. But when you explore all these untold stories of L.A., you realize it's always been a wild place with all sorts of spiritual exploration that was idealistic and mystical and intuitive...Yes, the Kardashians are what were are to a certain extent, but they are not the essence of what I see when I see the Los Angeles underneath all of that other crap. The Source Family was much in this tradition. From the outside they looked like this wild, deeply bizarre and decadent brand of hedonists, but in reality they were engaging in a lot of healthy and productive behavior...They were a very disciplined group of white magicians and esotericists. They had more in common with the Oneidas or the Shakers than the Manson family.

JW: Not only that, they gave so much to the community of Los Angeles. In the early 1970s we had some of the greatest culture on the planet being produced here: great films, great music, great art and literature, and many of the people responsible for it hung out at the Source Family restaurant -- I mean, Frank Zappa and Joni Mitchell and all of those Laurel Canyon musicians who lived close by and came into the restaurant all the time. To me, the Source Family represents a time in Los Angeles when the city was at its very coolest. Not since the 1910s and the 1920s had spiritualism and esotericism been so prevalent in this city, I think.

Despite the success of their restaurant, Baker and the family had a complicated relationship with the local press. They were viewed as weird outsiders, and there seemed to be a level of harassment and mistrust that got worse when the Family relocated to San Francisco and Hilo.
MD: Yeah, the press reflected the outside perception of the Family. The neighbors were giving them a hard time because of the Manson murders -- I mean, they mean they lived within a couple miles of the LaBianca house! They'd get a lot of harassment from Child Services and the Health Department because in the beginning there were 140 people living in a two-bedroom house. The press just jumped on that story and it became much more sensationalistic as well. This also happened when they moved to Hawaii in 1974, which was a really hard time for them partly because they were non-natives. The locals in Hilo gave them a hard time and the local press just had a field day with them at that point.

JW: Everybody had different ideas about the Source Family. For the film we talked to many people who came into the restaurant and said they got nothing but an exciting experience; others said they were creeped out by Jim Baker, especially by how he wouldn't let any of the male customers talk to the female employees...Some really thought Baker was kind of a dark guy. I mean, it wasn't like Father Yod wasn't a strange and complicated and flawed character; there was plenty of inappropriate stuff going on and mistakes that were made that some people are still healing from today. It was a high-risk venture. Yod never pretended to be a saint; he was more like a wizard. And famous people liked going to the restaurant because the Source family members were indifferent to fame; Baker would hang out with people like Warren Beatty or Don Johnson, but they would never kowtow to their celebrity clientele. They didn't really care. They were sort of beautifully isolated in their own world and they thought what they were doing was more important.

Yet it seemed like Baker/Yod was kind of a realist in a way. He was always reminding his followers that the real world -- what he called the "earth trip" -- was still out there and couldn't, or shouldn't be avoided. Yet, why did his vision turn so dark at the end?
JW: It was a time when a lot of people were engaging in apocalyptic thinking. There was Manson, there was Altamont, Vietnam, Watergate, the ecological crisis, Watergate, assassinations. The entire counterculture was beginning to realize that their big dreams were not panning out. It seems like a lot these spiritual leaders who were tapping into this ethos were getting apocalyptic visions; you get that combined with the press and the city coming down on you, and it's sort of easy for those ideas to build into a dangerous brew. But the thing about Jim Baker was that even when they came close to a very scary situation like the one they encountered in Hawaii, he didn't lead his followers into destruction. He never wanted his family members to come to harm. Compare that to someone like Jim Jones, who was such an egomaniac and a narcissist who wanted to take everyone down with him. Father Yod was not like that. He really did care about the family until the very end.

Baker was a weird kind of capitalist. He was a spiritual free love-and-drugs guru, but he also ran successful business enterprises because he kept an eye towards the bottom line. He even said, "I love America but I love the dollar as well." Some might see that as a bit contradictory.
JW: He was never greedy, and that's what separated him from a lot of business-minded capitalists. He called money "green energy" and he was able to incorporate the idea of making a lot of money into his cosmology. He used to say "money is an energy like anything else" and if you used it consciously it could be a path towards transformation; if you misused it, it could enslave you, like magic or sex or drugs.

MD: He was very good at making money for a long time. I think the biggest he mistake made was to sell the Source restaurant. He never recovered from that. Then he flew 140 people over to Hawaii, bought a plane and a boat....They simply ran out of money. They had a business plan and the plan didn't work.

In their heyday, they had some bling, like a fleet of Rolls Royces and nice clothes. Yet they were able to keep that consumerist bent in check.
JW: Yeah. He knew that if you had money in Hollywood you had power, and he knew that would buy them a lot of freedom to be who they wanted to be. But he never coveted money or success. He didn't care about any of that stuff. Same with their band; they made something like 65 albums but their music was coming from a different place than "making it." They weren't commercially driven in any way. The money was a by-product of his having a very unique and strong vision and not something that was copied from what already existed. In that, Jim Baker was really a pioneer and his "casual healthy" restaurants were very influential within the California landscape. We see it all over the world nowadays.

What's your view of the attitudes towards the role of women in the Family?
MD: It's complex and paradoxical. On the one hand, the women chose the men and yet the men had multiple partners and the women had multiple partners. The women would stay home and take care of most of the domestic duties, so they were a little bit more traditional in that respect, yet in some ways the women had more power. It wasn't necessarily something that I personally agree with, but that was just the way it was.

JW: Maria's right. Father Yod always taught the family that everyone is born through a woman and he taught the members to honor what he called "the sacred feminine." When you talk to family members it really just depends on who they were as individuals and how they processed it. Overall, what we gathered from the women was that from the outside it looked like they were being somewhat subservient to the men -- serving them coffee in the morning, brushing their hair, giving them massages at the end of the day -- but what Father Yod was teaching them was that women were subconscious beings, they have to be totally free, they get to stay home during the day and do whatever they want, and pursue their intuitive interests. He always said that the nature of man was to be creative but it's the nature of woman to create on the astral and spiritual realms. He was really going back to this ancient matriarchal ideal when women led the tribes. He experimented with different kinds of councils -- sometimes all men, sometimes all women -- before finally forming a council of twelve women that pretty much ran the family. So it became this matriarchal family with a sort of passive patriarch at the middle of it all. The women we talked to, including those who were under eighteen at the time, claimed that being in the family was very empowering for them or that they recognized their true value as women. So it was a very complex situation and it went both ways.

MD: What I found interesting was that there was a lot of infighting between the women and internal strife between the council and other members of the group, so to have this powerful leader with this buffer zone of women around him kind of made things a bit more difficult. It's not like that having women run things was the ultimate solution for the family; some we interviewed thought that was the beginning of the end. Father Yod was not into power trips. He would engage his family in things that were whimsical and experimental that from an outsider's perspective might have seemed to be a bit manipulative, but I see him as more of a Peter Pan-type figure who was always attempting to change things up.

Do you think if you had been in L.A. back then and encountered the family at its apex that you would be drawn to it -- maybe even have joined it?
JW: For me, I totally drank the Kool-Aid when I met these people. [laughter] I think about what I was doing in my 20s, the same age that a lot of these people were, I was making a lot of money directing music videos and taking photos of very famous rock musicians and was living what a lot of people might consider a privileged life, but when I look back on that now, I can't help but admire what the Source Family was doing and I can't help thinking that my existence in L.A. was a little bit shallow. I think they were very fortunate to be living in a time and a place when they could explore the outer limits of who they were as individuals. I think I would have been very compelled by them and would have jumped right in!

MD: For me, it's incredibly seductive. Here was a fascinating and eclectic group of hand-picked members; as Magus, one of our subjects, said: "It was the most interesting game in town." I think anyone with a innate sense of curiosity would be drawn to it, but for me I think it would have been a hedonistic vacation for me. I would have dropped in, dabbled a bit and then pulled out because there were aspects of it that I just could not get down with in my heart and soul.

Such as?
MD: Well, I'm really close with my family so I'm would not disown my family or completely separate from them. I have too much of a feminist streak in me to completely give myself over to this person or that group. Even though I would have immersed myself in it for a time, I'm just one of those people who doesn't like to be told what to do. I think I'd be more like Magus in that he was interested in the sociological aspects of it, but I think it might get pretty old to me after awhile.

Was this a social experiment that succeeded or failed?
JW: People say that a lot of these communes from the sixties and seventies failed because they didn't last. But even if it doesn't last, it changes you forever. The people we interviewed were permanently altered by the experience and they think -- and I think -- for the better. They have a much broader things of the possibilities of different ways to live and their place in the universe and I know they feel that they are richer people for it.

MD: Yeah, I'd agree that evaluating the success of these groups by the length of time they existed is a total fallacy. Life is not permanent and things are constantly changing. All that matters is that they got something out of it at that moment. It doesn't matter that it didn't sustain itself, and at least they were able to carry that into their lives now. For a lot of the family members it was the most remarkable experiences of their lives and unlike anything they've ever encountered before or since. That's really all that matters.

What lessons -- if any -- did take away from the story of the Source Family?
JW: Oh, where to start! [laughter] The most important lesson for me personally is that any experience that you get to participate in in your lifetime, anything that happens to you in your life, you can see it as good or bad, something that empowers you or something that victimizes you. It's really up to you and how you process it and what meaning you want to glean from it. There are people in the Source family who stayed until the very bitter end, when things got really bad, and after interviewing 44 family members, they all had extremely different takes on what happened to them and what it meant to them. For me, the message from the film I hope people take away from it is that life is simply what you make it, and it can be many different things. but it's really what about you do with what your given.

MD: I would strongly agree with that. Another lesson is to just live life on your own terms. Life is short, and what they did was bold and public and controversial, and they just did it. It was are pure and sustained creative expression and living in the present moment and going on this wild rollercoaster ride and living life to the fullest extent possible and doing it the way they wanted to do it. Again, there's something very admirable about that.

JW: Another important message I got out of doing the book and the film was that the relationship between teacher and student can be a very enriching one for both, but at some point the student has to become their own master. There's a line in the film about realizing that a relationship like that is a vital one, but should only be temporary.

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