To know is to be irrational. To know, you must converge what is true, right, and real, and shut out the rest of the world to eliminate all other possibility despite any evidence that may sway you otherwise. In this way, devotion takes strength. Faith is for the closed-minded and weak only when the path is narrow, short, and obvious, when someone tells you what it looks like instead of encouraging you to clear it away for yourself. And when the path involves chase, mystery, and a wild-eyed, bearded ex-marine who makes you meditate in a cold swimming pool in Los Feliz with a hundred other people at 3 AM every morning before hitting the sacred herb, it is the most far-out channel you could ever tune into.
The Source Family, which premiered at IFC Center in New York City last Friday and hits the rest of the country throughout the month of May, follows the story of one of the most outrageous documented cults. Formed in Los Angeles and active in the early and mid-1970s, the Source Family was stocked with humans of the most physically beautiful, mentally experimental, spaced-out, and open-hearted variety. Many of them were young artists, and most of them found their way into it through food.
Jim Baker, a former Marine and Judo champ who’d used his chops as an off-duty citizen to kill two people, turned into a successful restaurateur to the Hollywood elite after allegedly robbing banks to fund them. He’d dabbled with beatnik environmentalists and Vedantic monks, and after clearing out a cash register from one of his restaurants in the middle of the night, he found Yogi Bhajan, the guru who introduced Kundalini yoga to the United States. Spiritual initiation complete, in 1969 Baker opened a vegetarian place on Sunset Boulevard called the Source, featuring what was deemed health food at the time. He began spreading the word of God.
Smart move. Eating is how we nurture ourselves in the most basic way, transforming nutrition into cellular energy. Baker had since dropped both Yogi Bhajan and his birth name, and formed his own spiritual philosophy on principles of Western alchemy, re-introducing himself to the world as Father Yod. Feeding people your dogma and vibes on a plate truly gets them on board whether they like it or not. With a young, hot, friendly waitstaff all dressed in white robes, and a good hook—enlightenment—the Source was a smash hit. Goldie Hawn, Joni Mitchell, Steve McQueen, and John Lennon and Yoko Ono munched it up. The guys in Yes all rolled up one day in separate limousines. And then the special sauce kicked in.
Employees and miscellaneous devotees to Father Yod realized they’d birthed their own community, the Source Family, and they needed a place to truly call home. They scored a mansion in the hills, where they all lived communally to practice and enhance their spiritual union. Placing ads in newspapers, they claimed theirs was “a message from God to all the lost children.” Residents and part-time metaphysical groupies followed Father Yod as he led them in meditations and rituals of light, love, protection, and consciousness. Above all, he advised them to “do anything you want in life, as long as you’re kind.”
While the idea was to “become part of the guardian wall that protects humanity,” Father Yod says in the film, that message didn’t seem to include the very people he’d invited into his life to share romantic love. And in many cases, it seemed emotional safety inside the wall he’d erected around his own community was traded in favor of experimentation with magic ritual and faith. Father Yod started calling himself YaHoWa, a version of an ancient name for God, and wore pimp suits when driving around in public with his 13 wives in a Rolls Royce. Core Family members legally changed their last names to Aquarian. Some of them, mostly men—including Sky Saxon— started a somewhat improvisational, devotional psychedelic rock band called Ya Ho Wa 13 that released a ton of records. Though all members had renounced the material world, they had a good amount of money, thanks to the restaurant’s success, which the Source Family invested in a move to further drop out and set up shop in Hawaii. There, it seems their real lives mirrored the confusing, terrifying, violent, and supernatural narrative of Lost, 30 years before the TV show was even invented, and those events eventually culminated in the group’s disbanding.
And that’s as far as I’ll cut into the documentary’s storyline; it’s better to just watch The Source Family and go, “Wow.” Viewing after-effects include revulsion and yearning. You might find yourself saying, “I wish I could believe like that. Except not in that guy, because he’s a liar and a cheater, a killer, a megalomaniac, and by some accounts a thief too. But yes that guy, because of all those things—if anyone knows the dark side of being human, he sure as hell does.” There is safety in someone who understands wholeness not of some ethereal world but of this physical world. Most of us are human, not angel.
The point is, someone on this planet felt that he got it, and then he stood up with that message and shouted it as loud as he could, so sure of himself that he didn’t care if anyone thought he was a weirdo. And herein lies the heart of potential usefulness today of a cult that disbanded 38 years ago: the importance of knowing and believing. And it’s crucial to talk about, considering from a certain angle it could be inferred that the directors of The Source Family, Maria Demopoulos and Jodi Wille, are currently reviving, or at least revisiting, elements of the cult to some degree.
Besides screening the film, they’ve been appointing musicians in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and Chicago to form tribute bands to Ya Ho Wa 13; performances coincide with show times. Last week in Brooklyn, New York’s chapter of the band performed at a sacred temple in Harlem and at Spectacle Theater, the latter which also screened rare home movies captured by Isis Aquarian, the Source Family’s official Keeper of Records. And at Body Actualized, a center and collective dedicated to raising human consciousness, Electricity Aquarian led a traditional Source Family Star Exercise ritual—108 breaths of fire; afterward, chef Anne Apparu prepared a meal from Source restaurant recipes, and the band played once again.
David Nuss curated the group of folks in New York’s chapter of the Yah Ho Wa 13 tribute, the second band he’s helped form in paean to a disbanded cult. The first was—and still is—his work with the long-defunct Process Church, an obscure sect that formed in London in the 1960s and practiced a telepathic occult version of Jesus psychology with deep Scientologist undertones. Nuss found their hymnals and with them formed the Sabbath Assembly. Five years later, he’s now using the constructs of the Process Church to make his own music within the Sabbath Assembly. Over the phone, he explained why one might consider him a fringe religious music junkie.
“I was reflecting on the thing that’s underneath it,” he says. “I’m simply fascinated with the idea of devotion. What does it really take to be devoted to something? That sometimes leads me back toward religious groups, or really small religious groups, because there’s such an incredible amount of it. It’s always short-lived and burns out really fast.”
These days, what are any of us actually devoted to? What does anyone truly put above all else, in this age of over-stimulation and multi-tasking? “It’s hard to put everything into what you do,” says Nuss. “I think the Source Family is a great example of that, where you put everything aside and just go with what’s going on with the group. I’m intrigued. I don’t know if anyone has the guts to do it anymore.”
That very sense of devotion and willingness is a big part of what hooked Demopoulos into co-directing The Source Family. “I really appreciate the discipline and ritualistic social experimentation,” she says. “I also appreciate that there was no rulebook for this, they were just doing it, and doing it in a very public way. They had the restaurant, which was their interaction with the community, and then they had a secret mystery school in the Hollywood hills, which was very separate. They just went for it, and they didn’t soft pedal it.”
Father Yod may have been a total scoundrel, but he “laid out the basics for alchemical thought and Western occultism in a way that was extremely accessible for a more general audience,” says Wille. “That’s effective. Some people try to compare him to a guru, but I feel he was much more of a magus in the Western magical tradition, part trickster, part shaman, and also someone who has abilities that are greater than the others. Most people, when they think of a spiritual teacher, they go into a Judeo-/Christian idea where they have a saintly priest type figure or rabbi, someone who’s at least claiming to be a pure being. Or you have a guru from the East, who is not entirely that way but is close. Father Yod is something different. He’s a little more like Pythagoras or Socrates, leading the kids to question authority.”
Fundamentally, that’s what cults do—they oppose status quo, inventing methodology that reflects dissatisfaction with mainstream dominant culture. “There have always been groups of people who’ve banded together to form communities who are in defiance of the dominant paradigm,” says Wille. “They always get persecuted and there’s always trouble, and then there can also be problems from the inside if you have a charismatic leader who you decide to give all the control to.”
Most cult figureheads notoriously strip away individual identity, giving rise to a uniform voice of followers, a set of practices, a way of life. That’s why most people consider these leaders to be brainwashers. But once it’s all over, there may be scraps from the bone pile worth savoring, especially in the case of the Source Family, whose initiations sincerely aimed to activate an individual’s sense of place and purpose. In this way, says Wille, “immersion with the past gives us a safe way to explore without any emotional exploitation.”