Maria Demopoulos and Jodi Wille have pulled an uncommonly strange tale from the dusty vaults of L.A. lore in The Source Family, a documentary released last week on DVD. The beatifying but sober-eyed film tells the story of one James Edward Baker, an ex-Marine bodybuilder and self-admitted bank robber from Ohio who came to Hollywood for a casting call for Tarzan movies and wound up presiding over an early-’70s 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 (all of whom he rechristened with the surname “Aquarian”) pioneered our current holistic/New Age industry with then-illegal pursuits like natural birth and home-schooling while immersing themselves in music, marijuana, and tantric sex. Their most famous creation was the vegetarian eatery The Source, which became a hotspot for the Hollywood granola set in Vietnam-era Los Angeles.
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. Every single day my jaw would drop at 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 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. I was humbled by the sincerity and depth of the family members. I learned that the experience of the participants was very different from what we’ve heard from the “cult experts” all these years. For a lot of these people, the higher elements of the experience stayed with them for years 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 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 noirish 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. The Source Family was in this tradition. From the outside they looked like this wild, deeply bizarre and decadent brand of hedonists, but in reality 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: films, music, art, and literature. And many of the people responsible for it hung out at the Source Family restaurant. Frank Zappa and all of those Laurel Canyon musicians who lived close by 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.
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: 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 jumped on that story and it became much more sensationalistic. This also happened when they moved to Hawaii in 1974, which was really hard for them partly because they were non-natives. The locals in Hilo gave them a hard time and the local press had a field day with them.
JW: Everybody had different ideas about the Source Family. 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 male customers talk to female employees. Some thought Baker was a dark guy. 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. 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. 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. 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, Altamont, Vietnam, Watergate, the ecological crisis, assassinations. The entire counterculture was beginning to realize that their big dreams were not panning out. A lot of these spiritual leaders who were tapping into this ethos were getting apocalyptic visions; with the press and the city coming down on you, it’s easy for those ideas to build into a dangerous brew. 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 he 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 on the bottom line. He even said, “I love America but I love the dollar as well.” Some might see that as 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.” 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.
In their heyday, the Family had some bling–a fleet of Rolls Royces and nice clothes. Yet they were able to keep that consumerist bent in check.
JW: He knew that if you had money in Hollywood, you had power. 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 unique, 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.
For the complete interview, go to StompBeast