About Yahowa 13
In all of rock history, there can be few stranger stories than that of Yahowa 13, the mystical quasi-cult psychedelic rock band that recorded prolifically in the mid-'70s. Psychedelic collectors are aware of Yahowa via their connection to Sky Saxon of the Seeds, who occasionally sang with members of the group. In fact, however, Yahowa 13's discography mined far deeper and more mysterious lodes than the relatively few tracks that a spin-off band did with Saxon.
Based around the group of disciples of the enigmatic Father Yod, Yahowa 13 (and the related outfits Father Yod & the Spirit of '76, Yodship, and Fire, Water, Air) made almost a dozen limited-circulation LPs, most within the course of just a couple of years (1973-1975). These LPs toed the musical lines between professionalism and amateurism, cosmic profundity and tomfoolery, and inspired and half-assed psychedelicisms. Their legacy is all the more difficult to succinctly summarize given that the albums often differed vastly from each other, to the point where it was impossible to tell that they had been recorded by the same loose ensemble of Father Yod followers. It is easy, and sometimes justified, to snipe at these cult rarities as the work of psychedelic charlatans. If only from a purely historical viewpoint, though, they're worthy of attention as peculiar artifacts, and as relics of a group of idiosyncratic musicians who were dedicated to expressing themselves in a manner absolutely uncompromised by notions of commercial viability and societal approval.
The Yahowa story begins in the late '60s. Jim Baker, a follower of yoga master Yogi Bhajan, became a guru of sorts himself for a group called the Source Family. He ran a health food restaurant on Sunset Strip in Los Angeles and assumed the name Father Yod. The exact nature of the Source Family's activities and philosophies remains mysterious, but they advocated vegetarianism and a white cotton wardrobe. One of the guys hanging around the Source crowd was Seeds singer Sky Saxon.
Among Father Yod's disciples were a number of musicians, who comprised the loose, floating group that began to make LPs in 1973. It was eventually revealed that more than 65 albums were actually recorded, though only nine of those were released; most of the unreleased albums have been destroyed. Most of the LPs were small-press runs of 500 or 1,000 copies, with few of these getting out to the general public, though some were sold in the record store attached to the restaurant that served as the Source Family's means of income. All were recorded in a soundproofed garage in the approximately 250-strong family's communal residence that served as the musicians' studio. All of the records with Father Yod's participation took as long to record as they take to listen to.
The first four of the albums were billed to Father Yod & the Spirit of '76, and are must-hears for aficionados of the genre known as "incredibly strange music." On the first three of these LPs, Father Yod chants/speaks inscrutable, and screwball-ish, pseudo-mystical thought against scrappy, just-about-professional psychedelic noodling. It's very much as if a middle-aged guy (which Baker/Yod was) has suddenly succumbed to cosmic revelations after a hit of acid and feels compelled to tell the world, without a hint of embarrassment about either the sophomoric nature of his thoughts or his obvious vocal limitations. Like a combination Captain Beefheart-Tim Buckley without any of the vocal ability or nuance, Yod plows, and often screams, his way to some unknowable destination. Largely in isolation from 1973's musical trends, the band complements him with later-period-psychedelicisms, particularly in the distorted and screeching guitars and organs, with jams that offer little in the way of conventional melodies or songwriting. The albums were divided into side-long tracks, merely labeled "Side A" and "Side B," befitting their apparent off-the-cuff origins.
For all their weirdness, Father Yod & the Spirit of '76 weren't totally devoted to spontaneous madness. Their fourth album, All or Nothing at All, was almost entirely comprised of tepid singer/songwriter soft rock that sounded like Amateur Hour at the local coffeehouse, albeit with some off-kilter lyrics; Father Yod did not even appear on the LP. Around this time, Father Yod changed his name to Yahowa, with the next batch of Yod-Yahowa-related recordings appearing under the name Yahowa 13. (To add to the confusion, Yahowa was sometimes spelled as Yahowha, Ya Ho Wa, or Yahoweh.)
The five albums released by Yahowa 13 circa 1974-1975 found them taking themselves somewhat more seriously as a rock band, with more attention paid to crafting expressive and accomplished riffs and rhythms. Yahowa/Father Yod was still often present on his idiot-savant vocals. It must be said that the group only truly came into their own -- as something that might be taken seriously by adventurous music fans, rather than treated as a cosmic novelty -- on those occasions when Yod was mostly or totally absent from the proceedings. For instance, the second Yahowa 13 LP, Savage Sons of Ya Ho Wa, not only lacked any contributions from Yod/Yahowa, but sounded almost totally unlike anything Yahowa 13/Father Yod & the Spirit of '76 had previously done. More than any other Yahowa 13 record, these were real songs, for the most part, often exhibiting a Neil Young fascination that made them sound like a rawer, zanier version of early-'70s Crazy Horse.
Yahowa 13's most successful artistic statement, however, was their next album, 1974's Penetration: An Aquarian Symphony. By this time the group had more or less settled down to a few core musicians, all of whom had the last name Aquarian. The most creative of these was guitarist Djin Aquarian (sometimes spelled Djinn), probably the only player (aside from Sky Saxon) associated with the Yahowa/Father Yod crowd whose talents were such that they could have made their mark on the world of secular popular music, beyond the Father Yod clan. Djin crafted a commendable variety of heavily amped and warped hard rock-psychedelic riffs from his axe, featured prominently throughout the Yahowa 13 catalog, and especially on Penetration. Father Yod's presence on this primarily instrumental album is minimal. It is ominous, throbbing space rock, the tension building and decelerating with the interaction between Djin and tribal rhythms and gongs. This album is recommended to those looking for psychedelic rock (or art rock, as it could be termed) that is comparable to little else from that or other eras.
Yahowa 13 drifted back into formless psychedelic jams, fronted by Yod/Yahowa's frankly annoying vocals, on their final two albums. Their musicianship had definitely improved over the course of their rapid-fire series of mid-'70s albums, yet there is no substitute, ultimately, for quality songs or compositions, which were not key elements in their frontman's vision. The Yahowa 13 saga ended in 1975, before the disparity between the musicians' abilities and the vocalist's shortcomings could be resolved.
At the end of 1974, the Source Family had sold their restaurant and moved to Hawaii. Yod/Yahowa, by this time married to 13 wives, never established himself and the family there. On August 25, 1975, Yahowa went hang-gliding for the first time and was mortally injured upon landing, dying after about nine hours. His disciples scattered within two years after his passing.
However, musicians that had been in Yahowa 13, including Djin Aquarian, continued to play together. In 1977, as Fire, Water, Air, they released an eight-track tape, Golden Sunrise, which sounded similar to Yahowa 13, but somewhat more focused and less weird. This is the album that includes some vocals by Sky Saxon, although it wasn't a high point in either party's careers. Still later in the 1970s, an album of which little is known, Yodship, was privately pressed. There was no information about the musicians on the cover (in fact there had never been much information on Father Yod-affiliated releases), which simply bore the title Yodship. It is apparent from the lyrics, however, that this may well have been the work of Yahowa followers, although it followed a more low-volume, folky vibe than most of the clan's previous albums had.
Yahowa's legacy is celebrated in the improbable 13-CD box set God and Hair: Yahowha Collection, released by Captain Trip in Japan in 1998. This includes all four of the albums by Father Yod & the Spirit of '76; all five of the albums by Yahowa 13; the album by Fire, Water, Air; the album by Yodship; two non-LP singles by Father Yod & the Spirit of '76; and one non-LP single by Yahowa 13. It also has a disc of 1970s recordings (not overseen by the Yod/Yahowa administration) featuring Sky Saxon, and a disc of previously unreleased material, most of which is by Fire, Water, Air. As of 2002, the Yahowa 13 musicians Djin, Sunflower, Octavius, and Pythias were planning to resume making music as Ya Ho Wa 13. These musicians were extensively interviewed around this time for a feature that appeared in the Perfect Sound Forever webzine, and revealed much of the history of the band, which had remained shrouded in history for so long. This feature/interview can be read at www.furious.com/perfect/yahowa13.html. ~ Richie Unterberger, Rovi