In the general landscape of ’60s and ’70s communes, cults, and utopian communities, the Source Family was probably the most happening game in town. The Family was organized around Father Yod, formerly known as Jim Baker (who, under that name, robbed several banks and was once dubbed the strongest boy in America), and his wildly successful Source Restaurant. It drew in an eclectic bunch of spiritual seekers and swung between celebrity culture and alchemical mystery school. The Source Family, an excellent documentary about the group that draws heavily from footage shot by the family members themselves, was recently released on DVD. I’ve written about the movie here.
To mark its release I spoke with Jodi Wille (co-director of the film with Maria Demoulous) about what drew her to the Source Family, how they fit in the broader story of utopian communities in America, and if we’ll ever see the full footage of one of the all time greatest scenes of rock cinema (when Ya Ho Wah 13, the band that grew out of the family, takes to playing heavy psych at California high schools to spread their teachings. The scene in question comes from a concert at Beverly Hills High School where Father Yod addresses students with, “I’m the father you all wanted, but never thought you had, but you do have.”).
Michael Schapira: You said in an interview that “Father Yod, to me, has a lot less in common with Charles Manson than he does with Pythagoras.” You seem to take a very studied approach to the Source Family when you talk about them — making connections with ancient history and religion, or movements in art and cultural history. Have you found that it’s been easy to study these groups with this kind of rigor and seriousness, or do you think there is resistance to giving them this kind of treatment?
Jodi Wille: Nobody has told me that the Source Family doesn’t deserve that kind of treatment, though they might be thinking it. I wouldn’t call myself a scholar. I’m just an enthusiast who is interested in different periods of history. As a book publisher and book editor it’s been a passion of mine for many years, and has allowed me to draw on connections after studying these different eras. But it’s also something other scholars do. You can read Timothy Miller, Robert Elwood, or even Camille Paglia. She has a really good essay about cults and consciousness from the ’60s and ’70s that I highly recommend. It draws all of these connections much more eloquently than I can. My references may be a little loose, but you can certainly find the broader ideas that I’m expressing backed up by scholars.
What led you to pursue this particular area?
As an independent researcher I’ve been fascinated by group psychology, radical social experiments, and transformative subcultures for many years. That’s really what the Source Family was a part of. They were a part of the transformational experiments and subcultures that were proliferating in the ’60s and ’70s, just like they were in the 1890s and 1840s. I feel like there is a lot of power in making connections between those periods because then you see the Source Family story in a broader light. We don’t really get into that in the telling of the story because we wanted to create a more personal document, just because of the incredible footage that we had. We touched on the larger context a tiny bit with Eric Davis and we could have gone further with it, but we decided to keep it personal and hopefully engage people and inspire conversations where people could head in that direction.
I got that sense watching the movie – that you really wanted to tell the story from within the family, and that seemed mostly to be a consequence of the amazing footage that you had.
There were definitely reasons for making the choices that we made. To take one example, we had to decide whether to use talking heads verses trying to capture the family members verité style. Because I knew the stories would sound so outlandish upon hearing them the first time, it was important that we shot the family members as centered and lucid as possible, in a focused way so that their memories would have credibility and would sound as eloquent as they are.
I have a friend who grew up on The Farm in Tennessee. It was similar to the Source Family in its commitments to healthy eating and sustainable living, but was also very different: it didn’t have the kind of public face that the Source Family had in The Source Restaurant, it wasn’t part of celebrity culture, wasn’t making psychedelic music, etc. In your research on communes and cults, have you noticed big regional differences?
Oh, yeah, if you look at the communities in the ’60s and ’70s in Maine you had weavers, you had craft communities, and other people who were adapting to the climate there in ways that allowed them to live off their communes. On the west coast there is just a different flavor to the groups. You have the Love Israel Family up in Seattle. The whole Pacific Northwest was a hotbed of utopian groups in the early part of the 20th century too. The Love Israel Family were farming and living off the land and were more, how can I describe it? They were like the Source Family’s country cousins. They knew each other; they were friends with each other.
I put out a book on the Source Family that Isis Aquarian and Electricity Aquarian wrote, and there was this fascinating chapter in it about the time when Love Israel, the leader of that group, found out that members of his family were defecting to the Source Family in Los Angeles. He actually took his bus down with an entourage and had a head to head meeting with Father Yod in front of his entourage. Father Yod was like, “Hello son,” and Love Israel said, “I’m not your son, I’m your brother.” And Father Yod said, “Well, you’re not really my brother. [There was an age difference of about 20 years.] But if you’re not my brother maybe we can be cousins.” They eventually found this kind of uneasy truce, then started a correspondence with each other and ultimately talked about merging the families, which they never followed through on because I think neither Love Israel nor Father Yod could really give up any of their autocratic ways. Not only that, but the Love Israel family was based on a slightly mystical version of Old Testament teachings, whereas the Source Family was like an alchemical mystery school – they were occultists. So the Love Israel teachings were almost primitive, in some ways, compared to what the Source Family was doing with all their white magic techniques; really going to a mystical core of all the teachings they were exploring, and being so freeform. And of course the Source Family women were in many ways either young and beautiful or sophisticated women who were wearing gorgeous revealing clothing. In comparison, the Love Israel women were wearing no make-up and prairie outfits.
That’s what I love so much about these groups. They were all so unique and have so much personality on their own. A few years back I put a book together called The Modern Utopian. It’s an anthology of essays that were originally published in this magazine called The Modern Utopian that came out in the late ’60s and early ’70s by a man named Richard Fairfield. He was fascinated by the proliferation of communal groups that was going on back then. He interviewed many of these groups, but also solicited articles from people who were living on the communes as well as underground journalists. He pulled things from the Underground Press Syndicate. Do you know about them?
No, who were they?
Oh man, there is so much of our history that is so empowering that just isn’t explored by mainstream or even indie culture. There was this radical underground press syndicate that was letting a lot of hippies share articles for their own newspapers across the country. There have been a couple books that have come out about them in the past 10 years, some really good coffee table books. But anyways, what The Modern Utopian book has is various writings and interviews with people who were actually living on these different communes around the country and you can see this huge variety of groups that existed back then. I realized that when you meet the people who were actually living it during these times, their personal experience is very different from what the average person might think looking at them from the outside, from a brief glimpse. One thing that was really important to me about working with the Source Family was that I wanted to show that it was much deeper, richer, and more transformative than outsiders might think or that I could have ever imagined.
The Source Family had a very eclectic belief structure. Did you take a lot of time to understand exactly what was involved in the group’s cosmology, principles for living, practices, etc.?
Yeah, but we didn’t spend a lot of time on that in the film. We just tried to give a very brief overview, which has left some people saying that the Source Family wasn’t deeply spiritual and Yod was just tapping into these ideas in a shallow way. But that just wasn’t the case. If you read the book you can learn more about it, but yes, I was very interested in all those things that you mentioned. Father Yod as Jim Baker had been interested in Eastern and Western mysticism since the ’50s, when he was briefly a Vedantic monk. He was immersed in the teachings of Manly P. Hall, who wrote The Secret Teachings of All Ages. I don’t know if you know that book, but it’s a really important work that breaks down esoteric traditions across a variety of cultures — from Qabbalah to Tarot to Astrology.
So Father Yod was wildly experimental in that he had a background of knowledge after reading and practicing these things himself. To some degree what he was doing was dipping into them when he saw it appropriate. Some people told me that he began to channel, though they didn’t call it channeling back then. Of course it’s possible that he was just channeling these books that he read decades ago, who knows what the heck he was channeling. But there was a lot of wisdom coming through him that was striking a cord with these people.
What I find seems to be the case with the Source Family and with a lot of groups is that some people on the outside look at it and say, “Father Yod was a fraud who became a spiritual leader in six months after being with Yogi Bhajan under a year. There is no strong lineage of him studying.” What I would argue is that in pretty much any religion, or with any human being, if there is a strong desire for awareness and transformation it really doesn’t take much. Just having a guide for a little while or even a book, if you have the desire and you really want to grow and transform yourself you’ll do it, and I feel like Father Yod provided that for the family. And he did it with a certain level of integrity. When I say integrity, I mean that he stayed honest and true to them to the very end. Some people don’t get that from watching the film, and some people do.
The film has really turned out to be an interesting Rorschach test, where some reviewers, like Jeanette Catsoulis from the New York Times, look at it and say “this disturbing film is a textbook lesson in brainwashing and manipulation . . .” Then there are other people who are already of the mindset that brainwashing happens everywhere. Cultural brainwashing happens when you turn on the TV and watch commercials, or it happens when you go to elementary school. What Father Yod and these groups were trying to do was to break down this cultural conditioning so people could understand themselves and their position in the universe in a different way. I really respect that. Of course it can lead to a manipulative dynamic in any kind of group. Definitely, the Source Family was a high-risk situation, like any radical group or any radical experiment. It’s like being in an avant-guard art collective where you have a number of really creative and brilliant and charismatic people all together. It was never a promise that they were going on a safe journey together anywhere.
I have to say, it seems like a high-risk endeavor for you and Maria [Demopoulos, the co-director] as well because the status of these groups has really suffered in the past 30-40 years, and people might approach the movie with a lot of skepticism. There has been Jonestown, Waco, the Manson Family; people tend to focus on psychological manipulation, or make it a thing that just had to do with drug use and sex.
Well, we knew that would happen. That was one reason why I did the book in 2007 through my publishing company with Isis and Electricity. Getting to know people in these groups over the years — not just the Source Family, but groups like the Process Church of the Final Judgment, the Love Israel Family, the Farm — I came to believe that our contemporary cultural understanding of them is very primitive. It’s limited and heavily colored by the anti-cult hysteria that was perpetrated by the corporate media back in the ’70s after Manson and Jonestown. Not a lot of these groups, but a few high profile ones turned out to be psychotic and malevolent, and for decades after most people believed that all groups were like that and that people were malevolent or harmful at their core. I found from meeting these people over the years that it just wasn’t the case. They were messy, for sure, but many of these groups that you never hear of were providing cultural incubators for people, helping them to profoundly transform themselves on a personal level. Then a number of those people went out and transformed the culture, like Steve Jobs or Stewart Brand. Brand, who was one of the publishers of the Whole Earth Catalogue, went on to be one of the founders of the internet. Steve Jobs, of course, was living on a commune and had his own guru, then he created his own technological religion and is arguably one of the people who have shaped our reality more than any other man on the planet. These, and countless others, were immersed in this kind of subculture.
That was one of the reasons I first got involved in the project and helped publish the book made by the family members themselves. That book got a lot of attention when it came out. I think a lot of writers really got it. We got written about in the New York Times, the L.A. Times wrote three full pages on the book and the family members, and NPR did a three part series. This was all before the documentary. The film was edgier than the book because it’s not just Isis’ point of view. We knew that people would see it in very different ways, and that’s what’s happening. So, again, you have some reviewers, like Jeanette Catsoulis, who see it one way, but then you have the reviewer from the Boston Globe who loved it and saw Father Yod as a Gatsby figure — this great American archetype of the transcendent charlatan, not of riches but of the soul. In general I find that fashion, style, and more forward thinking culture magazines like Bomb or Blackbook totally get it from our point of view. They see it as this exciting, slightly dangerous, but transformative period, and the Source Family were the most stylish and visible group.
Music fans also seem be people that get it the most intuitively. How did the relationship with Drag City come about, and why do think it’s been so easy to bridge the gap between the film and indie audiences?
It’s so easy to bridge it just for the fact that The Source Family put out so many influential records that have been coveted by devoted and discriminating psych collectors since the late ’80s, when Byron Coley and the Forced Exposure people got into the Yaweh 13 records not even knowing who the Source Family was. There were just wild rumors running around for years, and then Byron was able to piece something together from what was available. It was more than anybody had ever written, but was wildly inaccurate. When the book by Isis and Electricity came out, five indie labels rereleased Source Family music within one year. We got the band back together and had events in Los Angeles in 2007, their first show in 30 years. They had this big show at the Echoplex with Sky Saxon from the Seeds, and bands like The Entrance Band and Hecuba. That was kind of a pivotal show, which some people have written about as bridging the new and old psych in this kind of multi-generational thing. It was really exciting. Electricity was leading audience members in the star exercise. So you had all these jaded hipsters standing up and participating in this ancient magic ritual with huge smiles on their faces, really enjoying it. Not just ironically enjoying it, but actually getting into it. It was beautiful.
The reason that we went with Drag City was partially because I knew Dan Koretzky, who has been a friend of mine for a number of years. He was a fan of my book and I’m such a huge fan of the records he’s put out, so we really just appreciated the work we were both doing through our companies. He’s put out Harmony Korine’s film Trash Humpers and he put out Dragonslayer, so I knew that he had a track record, even if it was small. The offers that we were getting from other distributors were just underwhelming. For me and Maria, we worked really hard to be able to creatively control our film fully. Nobody ever told us what to do when we were making the film and that’s why it turned out the way it did. We really wanted to control not just the creative aspects of the film, but the sales and marketing and distribution aspects. With Drag City we were able to work with them collaboratively on every aspect from the poster design all the way down. Dan has a great relationship with this booker name Toby Leonard, who runs the Belcourt Theatre in Nashville, and he’s friends with a lot of the people who run the best art houses in the country. So even though we had a very small distributor, we had this network of like-minded people who are all doing independent culture in our own way.
One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when the band is playing to a group of high schoolers in Beverly Hills. Was there more concert footage from high schools that didn’t make it into the film?
I have to tell you: first off, there is more footage of the Beverly Hills high school concert. We just haven’t had the chance to put it together yet, but it exists. There is more footage of Father Yod playing these other schools too, but the audio has been lost. But the footage itself is insane. Just the thought of this thing happening is so bizarre, I can barely fit it in my brain. But if you see the full Beverly Hills concert it’s a whole different deal. In the film the point we were making was that the Source Family was playing out at a lot of schools and Father Yod was not only sharing his teachings, but he was recruiting, in a loose way. In the movie it seems like he was recruiting more hardcore than he really was, but the Source Family was not ever about hardcore recruiting. They were ultimately a lot pickier about who they would let in. But anyway, there is more footage and I hope that one day we can hire someone to put together the whole Beverly Hills concert — because it is so great.