Jesus was a Capricorn / by Jeff Hunt

Hollywood Fog.jpg

Who was the first hippie, exactly? An argument can be made that the whole peace-and-love vibe traces back to the nineteenth century and Romanticism. Faced with the tumult of the Industrial Revolution (the inevitable end result of the Age of Enlightenment), artists, musicians, and authors began dreaming of pastoral landscapes and personal idylls, in which individual heroics became transformative gestures. Getting back to nature and dropping out of society wasn’t some abrupt worldwide Zeitgeist that erupted in 1967: Lord Byron could easily be categorized as a hippie. For that matter, one could add to the list Percy Shelly, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Walt Whitman was a complete hippie, for sure. But why stop there? There’s certainly one obvious candidate for Original Hippie. Maybe some of you indie-rockers have heard of the New Testament. You know, it’s in a book, called the Bible. It’s quite the bestseller. As Kris Kristofferson so eloquently wrote:

    Jesus was a Capricorn
    He ate organic food
    He believed in love and peace
    And never wore no shoes

    Long hair, beard and sandals
    And a funky bunch of friends
    Reckon we’d just nail him up
    If he came down again

However, if we want to limit the candidates to the twentieth century, we don’t need to go to Victorian England or ancient Judea or Walden Pond: California, here we come. And if we want our proto-hippie, Eden Ahbez is a suitable nominee. Eden (he always spelled it in lowercase, because “only God should be capitalized”) was born George Alexander Aberle in Brooklyn, in 1908; he was adopted and raised in Kansas as George McGrew. Still, he was meant to be Eden Ahbez ("Ahbe" to his friends), and he was meant for Los Angeles. In 1908, LA was still a pastoral village on the wrong side of the continent. The Sunset Strip was covered in orange groves and the Los Angeles River gurgled clear and crisp over rounded pebbles and along grassy banks. One of the only structures in the Hollywood Hills was the Krotona Colony, headquarters of a branch of the Theosophical Society, a quasi religious order that sought to blend spirituality and the natural sciences. California has always been an instinctive home for Seekers.

The Theosophistic movement had its roots in late-century Germany, and the general notion that nature was the physical manifestation of the divine essence. In this regard, it shared similarities with Rudolph Steiner’s Anthroposophical Society (an offshoot of Theosophy), and the Wandervogel (German: “wandering bird” or “migratory bird”) movement, the latter being a back-to-nature trend that was a precursor to various international scouting societies. German immigrants who adhered to these philosophies and lifestyles found the robust climate and natural splendor of Los Angeles to be a perfect fit; some of the earliest health-food restaurants were in Southern California. When Eden Ahbez arrived, he fit right in, and soon was part of a group known as "Naturmensch,” i.e., Natural Men, or Nature Boys. He wore his blond hair past his shoulders, had a full beard, dressed in white robes, ate only raw fruits, nuts and vegetables, and lived outdoors. He also worked as a musician, and wrote poems and songs.

For whatever reason, in 1947, Ahbez went backstage to a Nat King Cole performance. He handed a sheet of music containing one of his songs to Cole’s manager, then left. Cole played it, liked it, and added it to his set. The song became popular with his fans, so popular that Cole decided to record it. There was only one problem: No could find Ahbez, in order to secure the rights. It took some searching, but they eventually located him: For years, Eden Ahbez lived beneath the first “L” in the Hollywood Sign. The song was called “Nature Boy,” and upon release it went straight to #1, and squatted there for an incredible eight weeks. Savvy record executives leaked word of its strange author to the press, and Eden Ahbez became an overnight celebrity, the subject of features in Time, Life, and Newsweek magazines. “Nature Boy” would become a staple of Frank Sinatra’s act; it’s since been covered by an array of artists, including John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Marvin Gaye, Grace Slick, James Brown, and Celine Dion. It featured prominently in the 2001 film, Moulin Rouge; that version was performed by David Bowie with Massive Attack.

Ahbez continued to write hits, including “Land of Love (Come My Love and Live with Me),” which first charted for Nat King Cole, then for the Ink Spots and Doris Day; Sam Cooke’s hit “Lonely Island” was also an Ahbez song. In the 1960s, Grace Slick and the Great Society recorded their version of “Nature Boy,” and Brian Wilson invited him to participate in the sessions for the Beach Boys’ legendary Smile LP. Ahbez only recorded one album on his own,  Eden’s Island (1960, Del-Fi Records); on it he recites his poetry over instrumental Exotica. Ahbez undoubtedly made a fortune on songwriting royalties, but he lived out his days in bare feet and white robes, camping out in the Hollywood Hills, eating raw fruit and nuts, as Los Angeles swelled and sprawled around him. The lyrics to “Nature Boy” sum it up nicely:

There was a boy
A very strange enchanted boy
They say he wandered very far, very far
Over land and sea
A little shy
And sad of eye
But very wise
Was he

And then one day
A magic day he passed my way
And while we spoke of many things, fools and kings
This he said to me
"The greatest thing
You'll ever learn
Is just to love
And be loved
In return"

Whether in the 21st century or the first, these seem like reasonable words to live by — even in Hollywood.


Atlanta, Georgia
February 2010