Born in Ohio in 1922, James Edward Baker led a colorful life as an adult. He shot down 13 Japanese fighter planes during World War II. He auditioned as Tarzan for a Hollywood movie. He killed a man using judo in 1955, then killed another man in 1963 and was convicted of manslaughter. He had his hands legally registered as lethal weapons. He robbed between 2 and 11 banks. He became a successful restaurateur and pioneer of vegetarian cuisine, with clients including John Lennon, Joni Mitchell and Marlon Brando. And in the early ’70s, he founded a utopian cult in the Hollywood Hills, reinventing himself as the supreme deity, Father Yod. Almost inevitably, in 1973 he began an extreme psychedelic rock band, Ya Ho Wha 13.
This month, the American label sacred bones releases a new compilation of highlights from the band’s archives alongside an intimate book, Family: The Source Family Scrapbook, in part to mark what would have been Father Yod’s 100th birthday. He died in 1975 in a hang-gliding accident after jumping from a 400-meter (1,300 ft) cliff in Hawaii, despite having no prior experience in air sports.
In the early ’70s, Father Yod was thriving amid hippie madness on the West Coast. Financially well-off through various exploits and investments, he had become a disciple of kundalini yoga in the late 1960s before deciding to become a spiritual leader himself. His philosophy – inspired by the teachings of his former mentor Yogi Bhajanand texts by Eugene Fersen and Jiddu Krishnamurti – mixed Eastern religion with Western esotericism. He modeled his image on Michelangelo’s depiction of God the Father, bought a purple Rolls-Royce and founded a commune based in a Georgian-style mansion in Los Feliz. There he lived as the leader of up to 140 followers, ritually smoked the “sacred weed” (marijuana) and engaged in tantric sex with young women, many of whom later became his wives. after the police were alerted. (Years later, one of his ex-wives, Robin, called him “dirty old man on a lust trip“.) This was the Source Family (AKA the Source Brotherhood), and as its members began to fall out, Father Yod began to see music as a vehicle for his teachings.
“It was music that gave him the light to embark on his spiritual journey,” says Isis Aquarian, Source Family archivist and documentarian, co-author of The Source Family Scrapbook and one of Father Yod’s 14 wives. She cites the Moody Blues and Jethro Tull as her main inspirations: music was an outlet to “connect with young people”, she says, the purpose “to help promote spirituality and the betterment of all humanity for the planet”.
After the family moved to Nichols Canyon in 1973, Father Yod received $30,000 from a Hungarian Holocaust survivor named Damascus — an alleged mobster often referred to as the Godfather, according to Aquarian. The money was intended to start a new business: a healthy ice cream parlour. But instead, Father Yod spent it on musical instruments and built a studio in the garage. (“Damascus was very upset,” says Aquarian.) There Father Yod and the Spirit of 76 (later renamed Ya Ho Wha 13, following the decision to make all subsequent music purely improvisational) recorded about 60 albums of material , mostly between three and six in the morning.
Sacred Bones’ new compilation captures the band’s untamed sound – at times it conjures up a crass mix of Captain Beefheart and Canned Heat. There are some really decent singer-songwriter numbers from the more traditional Spirit of 76 – the Dylan-esque honky tonk ballad A Lady – but Father Yod seems to be absent from those. When it’s audible, it’s in the wild jams of Ya Ho Wha 13 – built on ominous drumbeats (The Great Woe), made-up words and grunts (I’m Gonna Take You Home) and panics of 10 minutes in space-age distortion (Ya Ho Wha).
They were rejected by every major label they approached, but self-pressed nine LPs, which they sold out the back of Father Yod’s hugely popular Sunset Strip vegetarian restaurant, The Source. The band performed all over Los Angeles, from Venice Beach to Beverly Hills High School, but they struggled to secure a large following. “I don’t think he was exactly what you would call a musician or even a singer,” says Aquarian. Despite what an incredibly wild photo of him moaning on a double-necked guitar would suggest, Father Yod was content to strike a timpani or bang a meter-wide gong – and lead the chants alongside the band’s marathon performances. A newspaper review described them as looking “out of place” at the famous rock venue Whiskey a Go Go, and suggested they would be a better fit at Disneyland.
This music “wasn’t for that era,” says Aquarian. But today, original LPs trade for thousands of pounds online. The Source Family Scrapbook co-writer Jodi Wille – who also co-directed the 2012 feature-length documentary The Source Family – says a budding appreciation had been brewing since the ’80s; Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, actor-musician Vincent Gallo and superproducer Rick Rubin are fans. “Music is polarizing,” she says. “Some people consider it unlistenable. But there’s also a primal, punk quality to it.