The Source Family
June 21, Real Art Ways, 56 Arbor St., Hartford, realartways.org
If naked hippies are your thing, you probably want to see The Source Family, a documentary about a southern California cult from the early '70s. It's full of them, naked hippies that is. Be warned, though, there's also detailed footage of a birth, complete with umbilical cord wrapped around a newborn's neck. (The documentary premieres at Real Art Ways in Hartford this week). The Source Family was a utopian cult that took sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll and basically turned them into a religion. The cult — and its charismatic leader, Jim Baker, also known as Father Yod, or, later YaHoWha — was instrumental in popularizing ideas about health food and vegetarianism. They had a rock band. There was polygamy. They smoked weed as a sacrament.
The Source Family took root around a successful vegetarian and health food restaurant, the first of its kind, in Los Angeles in the late '60s. Jim Baker, the restaurant's owner and founder, had been a protege of Paul C. Bragg, a health food pioneer. Baker was also a man of mystery, a judo champion, a stunt man, and a guy who had allegedly killed people with his bare hands. Baker claimed to have robbed a number of banks in order to get the money to start his restaurants. "He knew violence, he knew the dark side of humanity," says one of his followers, many of whom appear in the film by their "Source Family" names, Aquarian, faux-ancient and spacey monikers like Harvest Moon, Octavius, Djin and Orbit.
The American family is often described as dysfunctional. And since the desire for a whole and healthy family is central to mental well-being, as much as the idea sounds like dime-store psychology, it makes sense that many cults and germinal religious movements have succeeded by creating an alternate family for those seekers who long for a sense of belonging and parental approval they may have never gotten. The Manson Family, the Moonies and Jonestown all seemed to provide a family for people, psychotic though that family may have been. Family was what made Father Yod and the Source Family.
"I realized I had to do it on my own," says Father Yod in one of the many recordings we hear of him throughout the film. "I had to get my own children."
As one of his followers puts it, "he began to become the earthly spiritual father." He began to be called Father Yod. If authority figures and even many counter-culture mystics saw the pursuit of pleasure as frivolous, misguided or possibly evil, Father Yod embraced a kind of glorified hedonism.
One of Yod's followers, a seeker who had studied with Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert at Harvard, and who eventually adopted the name Magus, tells of heading to the West Coast and meeting Yod. "He said 'You are my son and I am your father,' and I said 'Yes.'" At which point Magus kissed Yod's feet, and the leader exclaimed "Far-fucking-out."
Baker, as Father Yod, was something like a cross between Grizzly Adams, Moses and Sun Ra, often seen leading groups of followers in improvised meditations and exercises, or crackpot practices like staring at the sun for extended periods, usually in front of a giant gong. But however crazy some of it might seem to non-stoned viewers today, clearly many of his followers thought Father Yod was wielding serious power. Sunflower, one of the band members and devotees, describes several experiences that he clearly views as miracles performed by Father Yod, one involving a surge of energy and a vanishing landscape upon being touched by the leader. "All I saw was clouds and angels and music of the spheres," says Sunflower. Another involving that possibly stillborn baby.
Father Yod and the Source Family emerged at a time of profound upheaval in American culture and spirituality. The sexual revolution, LSD, the war in Vietnam, Civil Rights, women's rights, the popularization of eastern religion and mysticism, the "death" of god, and the beginnings of what would eventually come to be called the New Age movement, all of these transformed traditional systems of belief in America. The film portrays Father Yod as an enterprising and charismatic leader, someone who would pick and choose from a buffet of new and old spiritual practices to craft his own religion. He watched swamis and Indian gurus assemble followers and wealth, with rock stars and movie stars as acolytes, and, as one friend tells it, Father Yod simply got the idea to make himself a godhead-type. "We decided to pick the best out of every religion, philosophy, theology and turn it into the foundation of our spiritual family," says one of his early followers.
Father Yod had the flowing beard, the strange medallions and billowy robes to fit the part. His vegetarian restaurant served as an ideal recruiting ground for wayward youths and spiritual seekers. Washing dishes at The Source restaurant was now part of a religious journey, not just a part-time job.
Once the family began renting a mansion in the Hollywood Hills, being seen with throngs of beautiful young people in cascading hair and Biblical garb, word spread and more seekers flocked to the restaurant and to the family's compound. Musicians like Joni Mitchell and the band Yes and John Lennon all ate at the restaurant. The place showed up in movies, like in Woody Allen's Annie Hall. Soon city officials — health inspectors, the department of children and families, the police — also started paying visits to the compound. Concerns about statutory rape were raised. But lingering fears about cults and communes and freaks — some of the Manson killings had happened nearby — eventually made it difficult for the Source Family to carry on. They were evicted, forced to relocate and cram 140 people into a three-bedroom house where sleeping accommodations resembled shoebox cubbies.
But that didn't cramp the style of Father Yod, who started sleeping with about a dozen of the young women in the cult, infuriating his young wife, who told him she thought he was a "dirty old man on a lust trip."
Procreation wasn't the only way Father Yod sought to gain more children. He was actively recruiting for the family using his trance-rock band, members of which included former members of the psychedelic garage band the Seeds. One of the film's most outrageous sequences involves performances that the robe-clad psych-rock Source Family band, Yahowha 13, gave at area high schools (!) and colleges, during which Father Yod pitched to the young people to join them. "We're looking around for 4000 just like you," Father Yod tells one group of bewildered teenagers. (The principal who arranged for that gig would probably be thrown in jail today.) The band's limited-release records, of what one musician says sound like "rituals in progress," have become collectors' items. (The Chicago label Drag City, which is helping distribute this film, has also rereleased some of the dozens of recordings made by Yahowha 13.)
The sexual practices of their leader began to upset some of the Source Family members. Another cause of strain was the family's refusal of medicine. Magus tells of his young son having a very high fever and an ear infection, but Magus didn't feel he could seek medical help. "I was scared shitless that my kid was gonna die," says Magus. In addition to shunning medicine, the cult also subscribed to a largely raw-food diet, striving to eat vegetables within 45 minutes of their being harvested. It was, as one follower called it, "spiritual boot camp," complete with early morning soaks in frigid water and other extreme regimens. And Father Yod continued to explore new practices, investigating what he called "sex magic" and trying to emulate sacred rituals from ancient Egypt, Native Americans, Knights Templars and other groups. "It was getting very, very strange there," says Magus."I had the feeling that he was really starting to go crazy."
Eventually, in late 1974, the Source Family sold their restaurant and moved to the Hawaiian island of Kauai, convinced that Armageddon was coming soon. The story plays out in interesting and surprising ways, with reverberations and ripples that continue into the present day.
A hundred years from now American historians may look back on the period from the 1950s to the 1980s as another Great Awakening, a time of religious and spiritual growth, yearning and upheaval to rival the previous landmark tumultuous eras in our country's history, periods that pushed subjects like Abolitionism, temperance and women's rights to the center of political discourse. The emergence of consciousness movements, Scientology, the "don't-worry-be-happy" teachings of Meher Baba, Krishnas, and newly hatched fringe religions may be seen to mirror the ways that society had become unmoored. Or those practices and concerns that today seem extremely unorthodox might emerge and be embraced by a significant segment of the population. One of the things that makes this documentary so rich and astonishing is that the cult had its own official documentarian and archivist, or Temple Keeper, a woman now known as Isis Aquarian who was a professional photographer and who went on to record and take pictures of much of the Source Family's rituals and significant events.
Isis and many of the other Source Family members appear to still either have fond memories of their time in the cult or to continue to practice its rituals and philosophy in some ways. Several of the former members went on to develop software.
"I don't regret any of it," says a woman named Galaxy, one of Father Yod's former lovers.
Another follower says this: "One of the things that Father often said is Heaven is here and now, it's up to you to create it in your life."
Eventually the cult members started calling Father Yod a god, which he encouraged.
"He did think he was god," says Isis. "We thought he was god. And he was god."
Yahowa 13 on Rolls with Boots.
Father Starman Pose.