A REAL Cult Band

I just watched an amazing documentary on Netflix: The Source Family, the story the early-’70s cult led by James “Father Yod” Baker. Baker’s Sunset Strip restaurant, the Source, was a fixture of my LA youth — a popular hang for both hippies and music-industry types. (You’ve probably seen it as the backdrop for the breakup scene in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall.)


The hell with cowbell! We need more tympani!
James “Father Yod” Baker (with mallets towards none) fronting Ya Ho Wa 13.

One of Baker’s less eccentric notions was to blow a fortune on music gear and a pro studio, where his self-styled “band,” Ya Ho Wa 13, reportedly recorded 65 albums’ worth of improvised music, much of which has been reissued in recent years. Prolific, chaotic, and fueled by a philosophy comprehensible only to its creator, the body of work is a bit reminiscent of Sun Ra’s, minus the talent.

Perhaps the best thing you can say about Baker is that he was no Manson. I don’t know that anyone died on his watch other than Baker himself (in an idiotic stunt I’ll refrain from sharing so as not to spoil the film’s stupefying denouement, though you can devour the details here if you like).

But he was a serial psycho-sexual abuser who acquired 14 very young wives while liberating hundreds of starry-eyed acolytes from their worldly possessions and cruising LA in a white Rolls Royce. Among the film’s most remarkable scenes are Ya Ho Wa 13’s recruiting concerts held at well-to-do West Side high schools and colleges, including my alma mater. Just … wow.

(Buttloads more audio/video here.)

To its credit, though, the film isn’t moralistic in the slightest — directors Maria Demopoulos and Jodi Wille tell the story via the words of its witnesses, supplemented by film and photos of the cult’s own Isis Aquarian, Baker’s anointed archivist. (They report — you gawp in astonishment.) Many surviving members appear onscreen, as do such rock admirers as Billy Corgan and Don Bolles of the Germs.

The film is a companion to Isis Aquarian’s 2007 book (co-written with fellow Source family member Electricity Aquarian), The Source: The Untold Story of Father Yod, Ya Ho Wa 13, and the Source Family. The book includes a CD of Ya Ho Wa 13’s music. I haven’t read it — but will now!

August 8, 1969: Connie McCormack, Shep Shepheard, Nancy Bacar and cult leader Ken Kerman arrested.

Fictional mugshots of our fictional band’s fictional 1969 arrest, along with their fictional cult leader.

I knew the general outlines of the Source story, but not the hundreds of bizarre details that make it so compelling. Elise Malmberg and I drew from it a decade ago while creating Clubbo Records, our “music fiction” project. We concocted the Fold, a fictional hippie cult band, using bits pilfered from various spiritual scams of the era, including the Source and the equally fascinating Process Church. (A fictionalized Process Church also figures in Last Days, a darn good horror novel by Adam Nevill, though not quite as awesome as Nevill’s The Ritual, with its Scandinavian black metal underpinnings. It’s as scary/funny as actual black metal.)

Naturally, our fake story isn’t one-tenth as interesting as the shit that actually happened. But it did produce “Into the Fold,” one of our best bits of counterfeit music, featuring the brilliant Chuck Prophet singing the Morrison-esque role of Gary “Shep” Shepheard, who fronted the Fold’s rock band under the direction of cult leader Maestro Ludgang. (Elise wrote the song, and I played the music, except the drums, which are by Patrick Campbell. Other friends served as photo models.)

Meanwhile, I’ve been working on a new piece that has some sounds and phrases I like, but has steadfastly refused to take shape. I tried recording it the other night, but every soloistic element I added sounded stupid. When live-looping, I’m so self-conscious about excessive repetition that I use every trick I can muster to vary the sound and move things  along. This time, though — under the spiritual influence of The Source Family, perhaps? — I just let the loops roll, visualized my ego dissolving into a pool of pearlescent light, and dug on the trance. Man.

It’s called “Unfolded,” after the Fold, of course.

But please, folks — if I start calling myself Maestro Ludgang Aquarian, do me a favor and stage an intervention.


Actor Steven Seagal, who belongs to the homophobic (yet oddly homoerotic) Vladamir Putin cult, plays a reverse Firebird like the one that Ya Ho Wa 13 used. Coincidence?

UPDATE [06.16.14]: Okay, this is too great: I just shared this post with my pal/fellow Premier Guitar editor Charlie Saufely, who told me he played for a Ya Ho Wa 13 tribute band that performed in front of original band members when this film premiered at San Francisco’s Roxy Theater. Afterwards he got to jam with Djin, the guitarist. “It was a thrill,” Charlie says. “He was way more into skronking than blues jamming. We kinda went off on a Thurston-and-Lee, hail of sonic scree barrage. He had the Firebird … it was surreal. He reached over at one point and started scraping my strings with his fingernails. That was pretty sweet!”

27 comments to A REAL Cult Band

  • Oinkus

    So much info , this is hurting my brain? Of course we all know that the truth is stranger then fiction, don’t we ?

  • The thing about that documentary is that, even though it was made by Source Family members, it still comes off as creepy as all get out.

    • joe

      Absolutely! There’s a rhetorical lesson there, I think, for writers and editors: Sometimes objectivity is the strongest voice. But while the film focuses on the POVs of Source members, its stance is a little more complex. One of the producers, for example, is Adam Parfrey, founder of Feral House, a publisher that for decades has focused on the extremes of human belief and behavior: serial killers, cultists, pseudo-scientific crackpots, outsider artists, and the like. Small world! Adam was my freshman-year college roommate.

  • mwseniff

    Unfolded sounds cool tho’ for my money a bit more repetition would enhance the trance (but then I play in The Dits and we is about as tranceful as you can get). If you get stuck try a different hat maybe a fez or turban or even wear you hat upside down (or even some medical MJ) :-). Seriously tho’ it would probably work live pretty well.

    If you read the 33 1/3 book about the making of Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica they came as close to a cult as possible without someone using the term. Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart) kept the band sequestered in a house on the edge of the Mojave desert controlling their practice, food, sleep patterns and music listening. He even went as far as having tree surgeons come work on a couple of trees that were ailing (and sending the bill to the record company). The players when ever interviewed seem to all agree that it was a very controlled existence. When they went to the studio to record (under the hand of Frank Zappa) the band played straight thru all the songs in the studio live. After Van Vliet and Frank listened to the recording Van Vliet said that’s it were all done and it’s ready for mastering. Even Frank was dumbfounded. Cult or not it worked and Trout Mask Replica was born. IMHO Trout Mask Replica is one of the greatest works ever to grace vinyl. cd or mp3s. I think Don Van Vliet was a unique individual in regards to producing his vision in such a manner and he certainly behaved like a cult leader. It was a good thing he turned to music rather than mayhem.

    • joe

      I got to interview Bill “Zoot Horn Rollo” Harkleroad in 1998 for Guitar Player [reprinted here with many added typos]. A bit later I got to hang out with him and our mutual pal Tom Wheeler when one of my bands played in Eugene, OR. Bill’s memories of the Beefheart years are mixed, at best. He said this: “The side of the music that most people don’t want to hear about is how manipulative this older guy was with these 19-year-old kids. It was only ten yards short of a Manson situation. We would play 12 to 16 hours a day, fall on the floor, and then wake up and do it again. Our hero was a brilliant person with half his energy running on extreme paranoia. He’d talk to us for 36 hours straight, telling us that our hand position in the air wasn’t artistic enough.”

      • mwseniff

        I would love to meet Bill Harkleroad he is one of my guitar heroes. I saw Beefheart in Washington DC in a small club circa 1978 Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) album. At break time Bruce Fowler the trombonist walked up to our table in the balcony (if the sound system sucks the balcony maximizes the stage sound which is usually better) and asked if he could sit down with us. We had a couple of drinks with him and talked. He alluded to Beefheart being a taskmaster but thought he had mellowed in his old age . We had a nice discussion about everything you could imagine with Bruce he was helluva nice guy.

        • joe

          Bill was super-cool, and very serious-minded, in a good way. Not at all a “freaky dude!” He seemed to put a great deal of care and thought into his playing and his teaching practice. I liked him a lot.

          • joe

            Oh, reminds me of a funny story: Polly Harvey, of course, is a massive Beefheart fan — he’s always been her favorite musician after Dylan. Finally Eric Drew Feldman, who played with both Beefheart and Polly, arranged a phone chat for the two. They talked about painting, Van Vliet’s greatest passion.

            “Do you like Van Gogh?” he rumbled.

            “I love Van Gogh,” she said. “He’s my favorite artist.”

            “Do you like bacon?” he asked.

            “I’m a vegetarian,” she said.

            “I meant Francis Bacon,” he replied.

            Polly went to art school, and of course she knew who Bacon was. I just love the story because “Van Gogh/lower-case bacon” is the sort of surreal non-sequitur that the Beefheart of your imagination would utter. 🙂

  • Peter

    And I’ve recorded on the Ecstatic Yod label (Byron Coley’s Father Yod and Thurston Moore’s Ecstatic Peace had a baby) performing ritualistic loop based music.

    I was wondering who had done the Jim Morrisonesque vocals. Is there an authentic credits list somewhere for Clubbo?

  • If you'd like to up the ante of your counterfeit cult song (like you'd need to), feel free to include that the drummer became a Mormon Bishop.

  • Thanx for posting the music of the metal liquid faeries…..just what I needed.

  • smgear

    interesting. Just background-watched it while doing some other work. The ability of the charismatic to prey on the disillusioned never ceases to amaze me. Just the mere fact that so many of the interviewees pointed out their relatively early misgivings, but stayed to the end anyways is baffling.

    I was a bit pleasantly surprised by the music (though I’m sure we only heard the best-of in the soundtrack). The early LA stuff definitely had a contemporary sensibility to it – and quite a few unexpected hooks. It’s not great by any means, but was a lot less trippy than I had anticipated. The performances were a bit rough, but the structure of the tunes was pretty solid. Although, as far as cult music goes, I guess the strict regimen compensates for the herbal supplements in instilling the music with an inherent underlying structure.

    I’ve always wanted to write a long-form riff-driven album, but anytime I play with tune ideas, they just end up sounding like a knockoff of Modest Mouse. 🙂

  • Shizmab Abaye

    This dude musta watched “The World’s Greatest Sinner”!


  • Jimmy Havok

    The Source ended up in my home town in Hawaii, Kailua, where they were a very visible presence in their restored classic cars and slightly out of fashion hippie garb. They had a big house in one of the most expensive parts of town. The end of the story is familiar to me, since it made the papers.

  • Joel

    Cool video Joe, just watched it cranked up on a big smart tv. Now I need to read the rest of your post.

  • howlin30

    I checked out Baker’s Wiki page and saw reference to the Nature Boys. I’m sure you know the song but so you know the story behind it? Here are a couple of links if you’re interested:



    BTW, do you know anything about this? https://www.google.ch/search?q=jejune+institute&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&gws_rd=cr&ei=8-mBVZO1JYT5yQPMlYLADg


    • joe

      Thanks for the awesome links! Eden A. is a fascinating figure! (BTW, if you’re interested in other freakishly proto-hippie stuff, check out Robert Graves’s novel Watch the North Wind Rise (sometimes known as Seven Days in New Crete). It’s like the 1960s, 20 years ahead of time.

      The Jejune Institute project unfolded almost in my backyard here in SF. I missed it entirely, since I never leave the frickin’ house. 🙁

  • […] Como prueba de esta increíble historia sólo queda una increíble grabación en directo. Ante este post-punk de 1969, que parecería cantado por Iggy Pop en un cabaré de Berlín, sólo podemos concluir que, o es un montaje, o Bach ha estado involucrado. Y parece que es lo primero. […]

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