Manson Without the Madness

'The Source Family'

by Bill Gibron

28 June 2013

Unlike similar stories, there are no deep, dark, disturbing secrets unearthed. There was no Jim Jones style suicide pact, no rapes or unwanted sexual advances.
cover art

The Source Family

Director: Maria Demopoulos, Jodi Wille
Cast: Ahom Aquarian, Isis Aquarian, Father Yod

(Drag City)
US theatrical: 1 May 2013 (Limited release)

The label may be wholly unfair, but there are a lot of similarities between the Source Family and a certain insane hippie ‘messiah’ and his group of sex, drugs, and drop-out disciples. No, Manson and his brood didn’t have the benefit of a prosperous business model. No, they didn’t live within the orbit of La-La Land’s rich and famous. They didn’t cater to the media or pretend they were the answer to many of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s pressing concerns. Instead, Charlie and his crazed company believed in an ultimate race war, attempted to jumpstart it with a series of grisly murders, and single-handedly put an end to the Peace Generation. The Sources, on the other hand, just wanted to spread a message of vegetarianism, unity, and human commonality.
So call them a cult, the collective passivity of people wanting out of the pre-Me Decade madness, but the group that gathered around ‘Father Yod’ (aka philanthropist and restaurateur James Edward Baker) weren’t interested in creating chaos. Instead, they believed in their tantric philosophies, lifting elements from both East and West to forge a fascinating study in off the grid gains. As part of the fascinating history of the clan, best illustrated by the new documentary The Source Family, we see how one man, under the influence of chemicals and his own crowing charisma, persuaded dozens more to take up his cause. While the end result was something that couldn’t last, Baker and his brood made a true impact on the lifestyle choices of many a lost anti-Establishment soul.

This intriguing film, directed by Maria Demopoulos and Jodi Wille, acts as both an oral history of The Source, a document of Baker’s ever-changing teachings, and a trip down memory lane for those still around to discuss their participation in his sect. From the early scenes, we understand the draw. It’s free love mutated into a kind of collective consciousness where sex becomes secondary. Everyone is tan, healthy, appealing, and liberated. Men wore beards, but not in a failed fundamentalist way. It was an expression of primal participation. The women, all sun baked and buxom, became Earth mothers and man warriors. The defend the clan and keep outsiders at bay. Together, they took Baker’s initial ideas (a health food store/diner) and turned it into a mini-SoCal empire and way of life.

The eventual Source Restaurant would become a fixture on the Sunset Strip, featured in films like Annie Hall (where Alvy meets Annie for one last attempted reconciliation - and some mashed yeast) and frequented by names like Marlon Brando, John Lennon, and Warren Beatty. It would also be the precursor to the eventual Source Commune, located in a mansion in the Hollywood Hills. Oblivious to the reputation earned thanks to Manson and his mania, Baker, now known as Father Yod, would preach his own special brand of harmony and health, borrowing liberally from the yogis and maharishis he studied. This attracted a group that, to this day, believe that what they learned led then down a path of positivity and spiritual enlightenment.

Unlike similar stories, there are no deep, dark, disturbing secrets unearthed. There was no Jim Jones style suicide pact, no rapes or unwanted sexual advances. Baker believed in giving and sharing, and that’s what everyone in the Source Family did. Sure, there are hints of under-aged girls being initiated into the ways of womanhood under the Yod’s unbridled lust, but no one is claiming force or felony. The film also offers a very telling expose of his life pre-priest. Throughout, subjects with names like Ahom Aquarian and Isis, make a clear case for noble origins and troubled ends. Thanks to a wealth of actual Family footage (Baker assigned someone to be the group’s constant archivist, historian, and preservationist) and the availability of willing interviewees, the portrait that is painted is deep, is a little incomplete.

Indeed, The Source Family often feels like a speaker who has fallen in love with the sound of their own voice. There is no objective outside commentary, no one to step in and burst the flower power bubble some of these folks still live in. Sure, a few will occasionally complain about the lack of individuality, monogamy, or any number of rational social realities, but for the most part, they pine for a Utopia that never really came into being. The business aspect - the overwhelming success of The Source eatery - is pushed aside pretty quickly to get to more discussions of partners and musicianship. Indeed, one of the oddest moments in the documentary occurs when we learn of Father Yod’s band, Ya Ho Wah 13. While one family member sites 60-plus albums of recorded material, only nine received a legitimate commercial release, apparently.

But the best bits are saved for the second half, when Baker moves the group to Hawaii and starts facing some significant blowback from the locals. Then, we come to that fateful day when he decided to try hang gliding, though he’d never done it before. As with many things in The Source Family, this event is captured in a matter of fact, no BS explanation (as with a supposed stillbirth that Baker “resurrects” during labor) that removes a bit of the drama, if not the tragedy itself. With his passing, the group quickly dissolves, lasting a couple of years longer before becoming part of the cultural history. Ask someone today about Source, and you’ll probably get a blank stare. Ask them about another famous family who amplified their antisocial behavior with gruesome, grotesque killings and you’ll get numerous nods of recognition.

Again, it’s not fair to place Manson and Baker together, just like it’s unfair to use the word “cult” when commune serves a more salient function. Sure, while watching The Source Family one gets the distinct impressive of individuals ‘brainwashed’ into believing the ravings of a regressed Renaissance man who could have been L. Ron Hubbard were he not so fixated on peace, love, and life. The notion of people cooperating under a common ideal and doing it without resorting to some manner of lawless retaliation or abject disregard for civilized behavior may seem like a pipe dream. Luckily, someone in Source documented it so we could share the vision, if only for a little while. 

The Source Family


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