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Music: God and Hair (Ya Ho Wha 13)

In the liner notes to Nurse With Wound’s first album Chance Meeting..., there is what has come to be called The List. The List is a long, shapeless, possibly apocryphal roster of musicians and bands that Steven Stapleton admired, took influence from or only heard tantalizing whispers about. My own first encounter with the List was upon unpacking the boxed set of the first three NWW records—a rare enough item all by itself, and the presence of the List only made it all the more intimidating. The underground music universe was a lot bigger than I had previously imagined; the List was proof of that.

It’s become something of an ongoing game to find and catalog as many of the List items as possible. To my astonishment a great many of them have turned up as CD reissues in one form or another. The most jaw-dropping of the bunch has to be this monster here, a boxed set from Captain Trip Records in Japan that contains just about the entire surviving recorded output of the so-far-underground-it’s-not-funny acid / psych / trance / noise / cult outfit Yahowha 13. The fact that they have proven influential enough in their own silent way to merit such a massive (literally: 6 pounds) piece of musical archaeology is heartening. This set is a labor of love dedicated to one of the strangest bands of all time—part cult, part commune, part acid rock experiment, something like an American hippie version of Amon Düül, but with even more alt-weirdness appeal.

Yahowha 13 was the creation of Jim Baker, a former Marine and (Korean?) war veteran who moved to California in the Sixties and studied under yoga master Yogi Bhajan. He set up his own health-food restaurant in L.A. on the Strip—apparently the first of its kind, and also the most successful. Out of all this evolved a family-cum-cult that he named The Source, which emphasized purity, clean (and communal) living, vegetarianism, wearing white robes, and doing God’s good works on earth. Baker re-christened himself Father Yod (rhymes with “toad”), and because of the messianic overtones, The Source was later compared, unfairly and rather slanderously, to the Manson Family. The differences were apparently pretty broad: no one was ever forced to stay in the family, and people came, went and contributed as they pleased (although staying within the family required adhering to certain ascetic rules).

The Source was also host to a loose collective of musicians, including Sky Saxon of the now-legendary cult-folk / punk band The Seeds. (Saxon himself appears on at least one of these records.) Out of this aggregate of players, recorded sessions started to emerge, each taking as long to listen to as they did to record. All their works centered around long, modal, improvised jams with Father Yod wailing, murmuring, shrieking, moaning, commanding, and intoning ominously atop it all. One would think that his lyrics would be the least interesting thing about the music, but curiously it works a lot better than I would have believed: Yod’s lyrics are so engagingly out-there that they constitute a delirious solo instrument of their own. Imagine Jim Morrison with a better sense of humor and you’ve sort of got the idea. Yahowha 13 weren’t more accomplished musically—much of the music is frankly amateurish—but they were definitely more fun in their own kooky way than the Doors any day of the week. In interviews, the bandmembers make it clear that Father Yod wanted to have fun with his teachings, and that sense of fun does come through on a lot of the recordings, especially Contraction. This is not slick, professional, faceless studio product, but the creation of a tightly-knit group of comrades who wanted to leave behind something that showed the nature of their togetherness. In that, they succeeded.

Finding out about Yahowha 13 has proven to be every bit as difficult as getting the band’s records themselves, all of which were issued privately by the group on their own Higher Key label in the early Seventies. Some sixty records worth of material were taped by the band; only this material survives. Anywhere from 500 to 5,000 copies of each record was produced. Each of the albums that were publicly released have been repackaged in God and Hair, with minimal notations on each record (not labeled for individual sale) but with a booklet that compiled all the notes and lyrics plus detailed information on the group. The downside: it’s all in Japanese, but a good deal of the information within has been reprised to the Internet in many forms.

In 1973 the first album attributed to the group “Father Yod and the Spirit of ‘76” appeared: Kohoutek. So named for the comet that inspited it, it set the pattern that was to follow for most of the succeeding albums, matching a side of turbulent improvisation and stentorian proclamations to a much quieter, more meditative side.

Contraction, my personal favorite, is like a mad collusion of Westbound-era Funkadelic, spoken-word rants and acid jams. Yod turns in one of his best performances on this one—he’s funny when he wants to be (he has a hilarious rant at about 5:20 on Side Two) and even a bit genuinely profound. Most of the record is about taking in energy and releasing it, something that a great many current New Agers would probably eat up. “You are Jesus,” the singers intone towards the end, underscoring the group’s basic tenet: God in all, all in God. Expansion is as intimidating and wild as Contraction is endearing, with the same basic premises—the titles for the two records should be a tipoff. (The two albums were in fact recorded back-to-back in two days.) All Or Nothing At All, despite having my favorite title and second-favorite cover art, is actually the least interesting of the albums—it’s song-oriented, with the band singing about Yod and the Source.

What makes God and Hair work (and Yahowha 13, by extension) is the fact that it consists of all this material compiled into one place. The truly outrageous extremes of modern music are occupied by people who somehow stick it out for album after album and turn what would ostensibly be one record’s worth of disposable and stupid material into a whole oeuvre of twisted genius. Think of Jandek or the Sun City Girls, two other artists who are every bit as commercially unappealing as Yahowa 13, but because of the sheer size of their recorded output, they can’t just be written off as goofs. Clearly they take themselves seriously on some level, by dint of their total dedication. In the same way, Yahowa 13 are something to be reckoned with.

In the latter half of the Seventies, Father Yod and his merrie men closed up shop in California and moved to Hawaii, where they were received with distaste. The Manson murders were still too fresh in everyone’s minds. Worse, the cult’s core appeal was becoming dated. People were losing interest in transcendent self-discovery and were more interested in straightforward hedonism: sex, drugs (especially the once-again-popular cocaine) and disco. The sun was not down on the Sixties yet; the final nail in that coffin would probably be either the explosion of punk or the death of John Lennon, depending on which cultural history you subscribe to. But it was getting awfully dark out, and Yahowha 13 were one of the first to go. On August 25, 1975 (27 years ago to the day of the original draft of this article), Father Yod went hang-gliding for the first time off the Makapuu cliffs. His glider dove unexpectedly and crashed into the ground. Yod died several hours later of multiple internal injuries. After holding vigil over his body for three days, Yod was cremated and his ashes scattered over the water.

The Source fell into disarray over the next few years, but members have periodically gotten back together for reunions, and family member Damian now runs Source Natural Foods in Kailua, Hawaii. There is word of reuniting the core members of Yahowha 13 to record new material, with the box set (and an American reissue of the Yahowha 13 material) as the first step. Where they go from here is bound to be at the very least worth looking into, given where they’ve been. And the List continues to beckon with dozens of other artists, about whom we often know nothing more than their names: Cro-Magnon Orgasm, Moving Gelatine Plates ...

[Note: Most of the information about the Source and Father Yod reproduced here, I culled from an article published in Perfect Sound Forever that traces the history of the band.]

Tags: psychedelia

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This page contains a single entry by Serdar Yegulalp in the category Music, published on 2002/09/08 14:32.

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