May 14th, 2013 | Interviews

alice rutherford

Gods were in abundant supply in the 60s and 70s, but only one of that era’s self-alleged seers was a reformed bank robber and repentant judo-chopping killer who fronted a legendary cult psych band, played restaurateur to the stars, led gorgeous white-garbed acolytes through magic rituals in the Hollywood Hills, and finally launched himself off a Hawaiian cliff, taking his kundalini and going home. He was Father Yod, né Jim Baker, head of a radical and utterly Californian community called the Source Family. The Family, an experiment in communal living and the esoteric marriage of occultist and yogi, East and West, has long been known largely for the rare weirdo vinyl released by its band, Ya Ho Wa 13. They began receiving renewed attention with a 2007 book, The Source: The Untold Story of Father Yod, Ya Ho Wa 13, and The Source Family, written by two Family members and edited by Jodi Wille. Now Wille and co-director Maria Demopoulos have completed a documentary—called The Source Family and packed full of sacred herb and sister wives—that tells the story from the group’s beginnings at Baker’s pioneering Sunset Strip natural restaurant, the Source, to its dissolution following Yod’s hang glide to forever. This interview by Rin Kelly.

How did Father Yod become Father Yod and how many people had he killed by the time he did?
Jodi Wille: That’s a question that can never be answered because he was a war hero in World War II and no one knows exactly how many men he killed in combat. But we know that he shot down … I think it was thirteen Japanese Zeros in World War II, so at least thirteen men there. He’d killed two men in self-defense with his bare hands before the Source Family, and one was in the 50s I believe. It was the late 50s in Topanga Canyon, and it was a neighbor he had a dispute with. He was never in jail for that. He killed him with a judo chop. He got out for self-defense. The second killing was a little more tricky. It was after he was was having an affair with this television actress, and her obsessive husband threatened Jim Baker and said that he didn’t know when it would happen, but one day he was going to come and kill him. According to Jim Baker and the court transcripts, he came up to the Aware Inn one day at ten in the morning and had a gun. And Jim Baker disarmed him, I guess, with his judo, and ended up attacking him, giving him two chops to the neck and a bullet to the head. With that killing, he ended up spending a little time in jail before he was ultimately released. I should mention that one of the conditions upon his release was that his hands were to be registered as lethal weapons.
So how did he go from being this Jim Baker to becoming Father Yod? What was the awakening that ended up with him growing this great big long guru beard?
JW: Well, we had to piece together a lot of information because he told the Family all about himself and about the hard times in his life as well as his awakening with Yogi Bhajan, so what we’re telling you is what we’ve pieced together from various interviews with Family members—and also from listening to audio tapes, because there are a number of audio tapes in Isis Aquarian’s archives where we could hear Jim Baker telling the story himself and talking. What we pieced together was that he was a very successful restaurateur. He was making a lot of money. He was an alcoholic, he was really unhappy, and he was restless. This was a pattern that he had in his life often: succeeding at something and then becoming restless and moving on. What happened around 1967 was he went to trial for the second killing—this was after he started the Old World restaurant, which was a very popular casual restaurant on Sunset Boulevard that all the rock stars went to. It had a younger crowd than the Aware Inn, which was like the established Hollywood producers and actors and things like that; the Old World was a little more rock ‘n’ roll. What was happening was Jim Baker, who wore a suit and looked like a middle-aged man, was seeing all these kids on Sunset Boulevard just freaking out and flooding the streets. He ultimately fell in love with this French hippie girl named Dora. He fell head over heels in love with her and ended up dropping acid—and things got kind of out of hand. He had this…what I call this Alice B. Toklas moment. I don’t know if you’ve seen that movie with Peter Sellers where the middle-aged man becomes immersed in the hippie culture, drops acid, and just totally doesn’t quite know what to do? He had this moment, and he lost control. He started stealing more than most people do out of the register. He bought a purple Rolls Royce with the money from the restaurant. One of the investors got really upset and they ended up kicking him out of his own restaurant. From there he kind of lost all of his money and had to get a job working in a mental hospital for a little while. He was living at this crash pad with a bunch of other hippies that were like twenty years younger than him, and he hit rock bottom. Then he started the Source—and we’re not sure exactly how he got the money to start the Source. Some people say that he robbed a bank. He says that he got it from an investor when he was walking through the woods. But he started the Source. Then Dora, his hippie girlfriend, left him, and when she left him that was when he really bottomed out—and bottomed out bad—and just started searching spiritually, more ardently than ever. He had always been a spiritual searcher. He was into Manly P. Hall’s Secret Teachings for many years, and he read avidly all esoteric literature, Western and Eastern. But after the hippie girl left him, he thought about committing suicide. That was when he found Yogi Bhajan, and when he found Yogi Bhajan, that was when he had this huge spiritual awakening. He went to Yogi Bhajan’s class. The first class he went to he had this … what some people call an enlightenment moment, when he was doing this breathing exercise and held his breath and passed out and all of a sudden felt all this remorse for all of his killings and all the bad things he’d done to all of these other people. That was what started him on his path.
Did you determine he really was a bank robber? You do say in the movie that he’s a bank robber.
Maria Demopoulos: We can only go by what people say, because there are no newspaper articles. He was never caught. We can only go by what he said or by what the Family members say, and he did tell the Family members that he robbed some banks.
JW: Multiple Family members told us that, and I also have to say that I discovered some audio tape where Jim Baker was talking to the Family members and he said, ‘If only Dora had stopped Jim Baker that day when he was walking out the door, he wouldn’t have robbed that bank.’ So Dora was only around right before the Source. That’s what we were made to believe; that the Source was founded by bank robbery money and he did actually at least rob that bank, in his own words.
Describe an average day in the Family?
MD: Well, they’d wake up at three in the morning and then they’d go in and would oftentimes take a cold dip in a pool and get ready for morning meditation. They’d take a cold shower, like a ten-second, freezing-cold shower, and then they’d go into a meditation room. In the Father House and the Mother House they had these big rooms, and they’d all convene early in the morning. They would take a six-second hit of the sacred herb as well. So they would take a cold shower, they’d take a six-second hit of the sacred herb, and they would walk into a big beautiful meditation room, usually lit with candles. And Father would start talking—that was part of the meditation. He would do a guided meditation. He would just be inspired and say whatever would come through him. This was a very intense time. They were all together, and a lot of the Family members talked about how they were all completely unified, at those moments they were just on the edge of his words, just completely absorbing them and experiencing them. At six o’clock they would finish and have breakfast. Because they owned a restaurant, they had all this wonderful organic food and fresh local food brought to them. They would have this exquisite breakfast. The band would go into the band room in the later years and they would record music at six in the morning.
JW: And that was how most of their records were recorded, by the way. Not all of them, but almost all of their recordings were made after hours of meditation, a hit of the sacred herb, and intense breathing exercises at six in the morning.
Was the music actually considered ritualistic? Why didn’t everybody participate in making it?
MD: Well, there were certain people who were especially talented and gifted, and in the Source Family they believed that the music was a two-way street. You benefited from giving it and receiving it. Believe me, a lot of people did participate. There was always music in the Source Family. In the Mother House, which was the first mansion, it was more casual, and people would always be jamming, hanging out in each other’s rooms. There were people like Lotus Weinstock, who was engaged to Lenny Bruce. There was Alicia Previn, the daughter of Andre Previn, Sky Saxon, there were the main guys in the band—Octavius, Sunflower, and Djin—but really there were probably about thirty musicians in the Family who could play. Ultimately, when the Source Family moved to the Mother House, that was when things really got interesting because that was when Father Yod gave Octavius $30,000—Octavius was the most experienced professional musician in the Family—and said, ‘I want you to go out and buy the very best gear and instruments that you can, and then I want you and Sunflower [who was the bass player in Ya Ho Wa 13] to go rent a band room with a rehearsal space and a recording studio.’ So Octavius went out and came back with a sine-wave baby grand piano, the same Yamaha electric organ used on the Star Trek soundtrack. He got Djin a Gibson Firebird, which is now worth about $9,000, and he got a white Rickenbacker twelve-string guitar and tons of crazy keyboards and pedals and amps and a giant kettledrum and this 42-inch gong, which had been used in the soundtrack for Dr. Zhivago. That was the kind of stuff they were playing with.
How long did it take them to record those spontaneous 65 albums? What do you think makes them so unique amidst all the other lost psychedelic discoveries?
JW: Everything was recorded within an eleven-month span, which is crazy but true. There was just this radical period of wild creativity in the Family after they built the recording studio, and they recorded everything. They went into the band room almost every day after rehearsal. They didn’t keep it all. Octavius supervised the recording, and then he’d listen to the tracks for their viability for record albums or whatever else. He kept about 60 of those recordings. The spontaneous recording only took the length of how long it took to lay it down the first time—and then it was done. They did not do retakes in the Source Family. That’s what’s extraordinary when you listen to their spontaneous records, because there were no edits; there were no overdubs, there was nothing. It was purely spontaneous music and that includes ‘Penetration,’ ‘Contraction,’ ‘Expansion,’ ‘I’m Gonna Take You Home.’ Those were the big ones.
MD: One of the things that makes them truly unique is what the intention was while they were playing the music: it was a form of ritual and spiritual expression. It was a form of prayer. Music wasn’t made that way back then. That makes it truly special. It was made with a completely different intention in mind.
JW: You asked earlier what did the Source Family believe, and to me it’s not so much a matter of beliefs. I mean, they did believe that they could change the world. They believed that what they were doing would impact the world in a benevolent way on a large level, but as far as their spiritual beliefs, the difference between an occult group, an esoteric group like the Source Family, and the typical religion—even the typical cult—is that a lot of religions involve belief. You have to believe in certain tenets. In the Source Family it was more about practice. In esoteric paths, in occult paths, it’s about practice. You’re not just doing what you do in regular church services, where you say the Lord’s Prayer and ‘I believe this’ or ‘I believe that’… you’re actually participating in magical rituals where you have an action. You’re taking the sacred herb, you’re doing breathing techniques, you’re chanting, you’re doing things that are heightening your vibration, and by doing this you’re finding a path to what is sacred—but it’s more of a direct path. So that’s what the Source Family was into. They were into a direct path of finding consciousness and experiencing god.
How was Sky Saxon involved, and did his talk of God being a dog have anything to do with Source Family thinking, or was he off on his own separate plane?
JW: Well, it is related because he had a bunch of dogs and he wasn’t allowed to live at Chandler mansion. He had to live offsite because he wasn’t allowed to bring all his animals.
Was he actually in the family? How long?
MD: Yeah, he was. He kind of had a different situation, sort of like the actor Bud Cort when he was briefly in the family. Sky never lived with the Family because he was unwilling to give up his dogs, which Father demanded if he were to live in the Family. He was nearby. He would come for morning meditation frequently, and I believe he came in during the early Father House days. He ended up going to Hawaii and was very close to the Family until they disbursed at the end. He was very dedicated and he remained dedicated to Father Yod as his spiritual father until the day he died.
Was it because of his involvement that people started getting interested in the vinyl, or was it sort of big when they were selling it out of the restaurant originally?
JW: It was not big at all when they sold it out of the restaurant originally. The way the vinyl first got attention was in the late 80s through people like Byron Coley and this group of psych collectors in the Northeast around the Boston area. That was where the first rumblings were sort of heard. These records were turning up in these collectors’ stashes, and nobody knew anything about who the Source Family was. It was very mysterious. It wasn’t until 1999 when Captain Trip, this Japanese psych label, released this box set called God and Hair: The Ya Ho Wha Collection, that a broader number of people heard about the Family. And that was still a limited-edition release, so there may only be, like, a thousand of those around. I have one. That was how I found out about the Source Family originally, in 1999, and when I saw it, I completely could not believe what I was looking at—and that I didn’t know anything about the group, even though I’d studied cults and communes for twenty years and thought that I knew every interesting group in Southern California. I’d never heard anything about them. There was nothing online. There was nothing anywhere for years after that.
Was Don Bolles from the Germs involved in the Source?
JW: Yeah, Don went to the restaurant a lot but he was not a member of the Source Family … Though he told us a very funny story about David Jove, who was known as the acid king of Los Angeles, the musician Lili Haydn’s father. David Jove was trying to break Lili and her mother, Lotus Weinstock—who I mentioned earlier, she’d been engaged to Lenny Bruce—he was trying to break them out of the Source Family and according to Don Bolles and others, there was a moment that David Jove would brag about when he was talking to people where he and Father Yod engaged in a psychic battle in the middle of the Source parking lot. They were shooting energy balls back and forth between each other, but that’s just a legend. Just picture Vincent Price shooting these giant balls back and forth.
You’ve said elsewhere that there is almost a lost history, and definitely a misunderstood one, of these sorts of movements in that period. What makes the Source Family different from the predictably derided hippie cult of the American imagination?
MD: For one thing, when people talk about the 60s, it’s always about sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. It’s never about the spiritual transformation that was happening in that period. One of the things that makes this story special is that it really focuses upon people that were looking inward at that time while the world was in chaos and falling apart. They were doing this right in the middle of Hollywood, on their own terms, in a radical new way, basically participating in a radical social experiment. Outwardly they had this restaurant in this very public place, while secretly they had this secret school in the Hollywood hills that was more private. They were just really contemplating their inner lives, and that’s something that’s no often talked about in that period.
JW: Even though the Source Family were more privileged, they had more refined sensibilities—they were really beautiful compared to a lot of other groups at the time—that’s really not what separates them. What I would say makes them different is our perception, because the truth is that there were literally thousands of groups that were participating in radical social and spiritual experimentation back then, in ways that were transforming the lives of everybody involved. The true shame is that my generation, your generation, people even to this point in our culture, when we look at groups like the Source Family, because of what we’ve been fed and how we’ve been brainwashed by mass media, we’re led to believe that these groups were all necessarily bad—that they’re failures, that it’s all about the victim, the victimization, and the evil leader. My own personal experience, and I think Maria’s too, with other groups as well is that this history of this period, when you hear it from the participants themselves rather than from the so- called experts, it’s a very different history. I’m not saying that it wasn’t messy or high-risk or dangerous, but the rewards of these people taking a stand against an increasingly consumer-driven society, of trying to forge new ways of living meaningfully, of understanding themselves and the cosmos on a deeper level—this gave the participants huge rewards, which they still carry with them.
I want to know what they were doing that made people see vampires coming down the oak staircases.
MD: They were actually heavily into ritual magic. They were white magicians, and Father Yod was interested in kabbalah, he was interested in the Order of the Golden Dawn and sex magick techniques, he was doing radical breathing techniques. He was interested in the Western magical tradition as laid out in The Secret Teachings of All Ages and all of those esoteric traditions in different Western cultures, so they were doing ritual magic dedicated to the elementals or to the angels. They really tried all kinds of magic, but they were focused on white magic, and when you do ritual magic, from what I understand and know, you often experience unexplained phenomena and you can’t always control it.
Robin, the wife and Family mother Yod eventually dumped in favor of having a whole coterie of wives, seems very unhappy in your film with the whole of her experience in the family. Was that uncommon in your views? Are most of the people positive about those years?
JW: Most of the people are very positive about it.
MD: That’s not to say that it wasn’t extremely difficult for some people in the Family. We didn’t have time to talk about what happened after Father Yod died and the Family ran out of money—people weren’t eating enough food and it just got really bad for a lot of people. It was also very hard for people to immerse themselves back into the ‘Maya’ after the Family broke up. People had five year gaps in their resumes and their names were now Orbit and Aquarian and things like that. A number of the sons and daughters ended up selling the herb, selling what they called the sacred snow. Some of the women became prostitutes briefly. Some people were homeless. It was definitely not an experience that allowed everyone to re-enter the ‘normal’ world easily, although some people did. But not everybody. And for a number of the Family members, it took them literally decades to process the experience because it was so complex and there was so much going on. But nowadays, especially for the interviews for the film, many of them seem to recognize it as the most profound experience of their lives and nothing else has come close to matching it.
There was darkness in the film and in the Family history. What was some of that darkness that started to show up, especially toward the later years and when they went to Hawaii?
MD: They bought a big plot of land and they bought an airplane; the restaurant enabled them to be very sustainable and was extremely profitable, so they had this income coming in and were living this really great lifestyle. When they moved to Hawaii, they didn’t have a way to sustain their income, so they ran out of money. They had a lot of trouble from the locals in Hawaii because they weren’t native there—and they were harassed by the police and the locals. It just slowly became a downhill decline, and it became more and more stressful. So those external factors definitely played into it, but I think there’s also a point where Father Yod just said, you know, it’s time for you guys to leave the nest. It was sort of winding down to a conclusion and it was just a slow downhill decline until he took himself out of the picture.
JW: To be sure there were always dark aspects of this family and there were always times where maybe what was happening was seen by some people as being inappropriate or hurtful. There was competition among all the women—whether or not Father Yod wanted to admit that—and there were underage girls in the Family. And even though all of them except one who we interviewed seem to not have any regrets about that, a lot of people were sexualized early back in the 70s. There was definitely a shadow aspect to the Family. That’s another part of the teachings of the Source Family, because in most religions and Judeo-Christian beliefs, you’re either good or you’re evil, there’s black and white. But with the occult path, the esoteric path, and with a lot of the Eastern religions, it’s not about this dualistic mindset. It goes beyond dualism. What you recognize is that everyone has a shadow and everyone is made of light. The shadow, the yin and yang balance … it’s just a different situation, and he was never trying to deny any of that stuff. There was certainly a lot of stuff that for me, even spending seven years with the material, I look at it and I’m just like, ‘Oh, whoa, what was going on there?’ It’s complex. Very complex material.
When he did take himself out of the picture he did it by launching himself off of a cliff, though with no visible sign of physical injuries. Was there every any determination of what killed him? Do you guys have any theories?
MD: The Family members believe he released his kundalini from his body and willed himself to die, which is what a lot of Eastern yogis are known to be able to do—kind of release their essence, you know? That’s what Isis and a number of Family members would swear by. The autopsy report said that there were no broken bones, but apparently he had very heavy bruising on his posterior. It’s hard to say if he had internal bleeding or not, even though he didn’t have any broken bones. Nobody will really ever know how he died.
You guys have that amazing audio of him at the moment he decided he was going to go do this. Did you go hunting for all of this material or did Isis Aquarian have it ready and waiting, hoping someone would come along?
MD: She had hung on to all of this material for thirty years. It wasn’t organized and digitized. We had to go through and really organize it. It was an exhaustive process but she had it all. She hung onto it. Our job was just to go sorting through it. It was fairly difficult because there was so much amazing, amazing material, and a lot of it’s not in the film. We could only make a 98-minute film. We could have made a three-hour film.
JW: We can’t understate the importance of Isis Aquarian fulfilling this role that really is the reason that this film exists. It’s the reason that we were able to take a really intimate look at this period and this kind of a group during this period. Because Isis was so committed, through hell and high water, to hold onto this material over the last 40 years. And it was not easy for her. She was a single mother living in Hawaii and Los Angeles, and she traveled around a lot. We’re just extremely grateful that she had the foresight, first of all, to record so much audio—and for the number of photographers and Super-8 filmers in the Family. She had the obsessive pull to hold onto it and preserve it. It’s one reason we don’t know a lot about this period. It’s one reason why you take a look at this group and think they look like the Mansons instead of, like, the Stephen Gaskin Family, which was another benevolent group with a truly spiritual leader in a communal situation that existed during this time. It’s a great gift to our culture that she held on to this stuff.
MD: When people look at the Source Family in a shallow way, they just look at the imagery or they just hear the basic points of the story, and it’s very easy to dismiss this as silly experimentation and crazy freakish hijinks. If it weren’t for the fact that so much of the things that they were doing … you know, promoting organic food, seasonal food, holistic healing and eating, natural birth, meditation…all of these things. If these hadn’t become so universally popular and accepted…and that’s another thing that people don’t realize about this period of experimentation in the youth culture between 1969 and 1975 is that so many of the ideas … these groups were like cultural incubators. Even though you can say, oh, these communes were failures because they didn’t last, I would argue that maybe they weren’t meant to last communally but the seeds that were planted and the transformation that occurred definitely helped lead to the mind-body-spirit movement, the slow foods movement, the organic movement—all of these movements that are helping to transform our culture now.