You might not remember Source Family, a cult that attempted to meld hippie open-mindedness, free love, and reinterpreted spirituality into a liveable ethos without totally rejecting mainstream society. But you should, because their music is amazing.
How lucky we should be to spend all our free time on Twitter, using the Internet as an exigent teacher informing us how to interpret any and all of the day’s events, whether it’s the Daft Punk leak or the Benghazi hearings. Unsure of how to feel about anything? Strap on some web goggles, stand in front of the wind turbine of general consensus, and let it buoy you to whatever conclusion you need to reach. It’s a microcosm of history in general, which necessarily streamlines along politically-guided narratives to give us reference so that we’re not all stuck bumbling through our individual perceptions of what actually happened. But some wonderfully weird shit slips through every now and then, lacking the meticulous packaging and immediate contextual understanding of bigger events. They force you to do some of the legwork, and imagine for yourself what it must’ve been like at the time.
Take the Source Family, a California hippie cult launched out of a health food restaurant and led by a messianic figure named Father Yod who literally looked like the biblical depiction of God. They’re the subject of an eponymous documentary that came out earlier this month that travails the life and death of the group, meticulously pieced together through archival footage provided by Family historian Isis the Aquarian (not her given name) and featuring interviews with amateur Family scholars and former Family members. It’s a fascinating exploration of an organization that made an honest attempt to meld the hippie tenets of open-mindedness, free love, and reinterpreted spirituality into a liveable ethos without totally rejecting mainstream society, becoming a cultural phenomenon quoted in Annie Hall and Saturday Night Live as the weed dream of the ‘60s became the coke reality of the ‘70s. (Or so I’m told, since I’m 24 years old and haven’t lived through shit.)
Most intriguingly, the documentary has prompted a mini-revival of acts like Ya Ho Wha 13, Children of the Sixth Root Race, Father Yod and the Spirit of 76, among others, bands formed out of the Family’s 100+ members that recorded somewhere around 65 albums, only some of which were released at the time—and even then, no more than a few dozen copies. Running the gamut from free-floating space age psychedelic to scuzzed-out stoner skronk to hippie-dippie folk hymns and beyond, it’s a stunning find considering the bubble the Family was living in, genuinely obscure music to experience without any context of how it fits into a greater musical timeline. According to the documentary, several of the Family members were musicians before they joined the group, and were given the cash by Father Yod (earned through the restaurant) to purchase high end recording equipment so that music could become a natural extension of their spiritual exploration. Yod himself would take the mic from time to time, leading free form jam sessions with his shamanic bellow.
Pretty soon, everyone joined in. (In the movie, there’s a shot of a woman recording a vocal in a studio booth while holding a suckling baby at her breast with a free hand.) “Whether you were a musician or not, everybody carried a guitar, everybody sang, everybody was a free spirit, and music was the universal language,” Isis the Aquarian explained when we talked over the phone. “It connected everything. It was just the mindset of that time, music-wise. It was like acid, it was a chariot that people rode to cross over. It was like a portal opened and music was the chariot that people rode from their minds and hearts over that crossover.” (I should mention that smoking prodigal amounts of marijuana, or “the sacred herb” as they called it, was part of the Family’s group doctrine, as was polyamory and something called “sex magic” that’s mentioned once or twice.)
Most of that music was languishing in the Family’s vaults for years, but Drag City began remastering and reissuing some of the choicer cuts a few years back. Some of the songs have been repackaged into the movie’s official soundtrack, and there’s plenty to dig through. Start off with the catalog of Ya Ho Wha 13, the Family’s house band led by Electron, Djin, Sunflower, Octavius and basically anyone who wanted to sit in on a session, some of which is found on Spotify. There’s “Treat You Right,” which starts off sounding like minute nine of a half hour rendition of the Grateful Dead’s “Lovelight” before morphing into a Stooges jam session; “Sunshine,” a whistle-driven cop show theme; “Father Whistling,” which is literally just Father Yod whistling; “Fertility Dance,” a song I’m pretty sure was made for boning.
“Edge of a Dream” off the Savage Sons of Ya Ho Wha album is a slice of CCR-influenced swamp rock caked in Captain Beefheart boogie woogie. “Catastrophy” by Children of the Sixth Root Race features a spoken word vocal prophesizing “a nuclear war between three mighty nations” above a squalling feedback freakout before leading to the feel good “Go With The Flow,” one of the many songs that sounds like a drum circle led by Janis Joplin and a few tabs of acid. They also cut “Godmen,” which appears on the official soundtrack and inspires with its climaxing chorus of “We are God men!” intertwined with group chanting. “Expansion (excerpt)” is built around a great Shaft lick, while “I’m Gonna Take You Home” is a searing blast of instrumental catharsis that expands and contracts with intuitive emotion. The lyrics act as a delivery system for Yod’s philosophy, more or less. Here’s a typically representative excerpt from “How Long in Time”: “How long in time will you persist/ In ways that hurt you/ And think that they must exist/ You know you don’t have to worry/ You know you don’t have to fear/ Put bad habits down and begin to live.” Hippie shit, yeah. But bundled within music that at its best can be reliably described as “bitching,” it’s hard not to feel the love.
I could go on. Plainly put, there’s a lot of music—so much that the intended Drag City remasters will take years to roll out as all of the tracks are excavated from the vault. “We have a wellspring, an infinite amount of music that can be released for the next five years and not even tap into it,” says Isis, who estimates hundreds of hours of material and notes that there are even 500 tapes of Father Yod’s morning meditation tapes to be remastered. (Only for the true diehards, I presume, but it’ll be there.) Not all of it sounds amazing, obviously. There’s a series of diminishing returns with so much material, as anyone who’s ever spent serious time with the catalogues of Guided by Voices or Lil B can tell you, and I already mentioned the song that’s called “Father Whistling.” I suspect it unequivocally sounds better if you get completely fried on pot with a loving partner, and enact in an amateur recreation of any of Yod’s sex magic rituals he loved so much.
Not that this is an explicit endorsement of any of those things, because pot and sex will kill you. But if you take the time to comb through the material and open your heart and mind to think about what it might’ve been like to live in such a hippie utopia, you might hear Father Yod’s voice coming from beyond the track. “He knew that music was gonna be a way to reach the generation,” says Isis. “He also said that the music we created would long be vibrating and teaching and resonating and sharing long after him and all of us were gone.” It’s history begging to be discovered.
Jeremy Gordon is a noted Chrono Cross enthusiast. He's on Twitter - @jeremypgordon