Visions of Glory
The Life of “Nature Boy” Eden Ahbez and The Scriptures of the Golden Age
By Brian Chidester
Reading time 36 Minutes
BRIAN CHIDESTER tells the story of Fifties visionary “Nature Boy” sensation EDEN AHBEZ, alongside a fabulous documentary clip!
When songwriter Eden Ahbez died on March 4, 1995
When songwriter Eden Ahbez died on March 4, 1995, of injuries sustained in a car accident, he was in the midst of his final creative project, known to the artist and his closest collaborators as The Scriptures of the Golden Age.
The Los Angeles Times, in its obit of Ahbez, referenced the project only in the vaguest of terms. “After the immediacy of his success with ‘Nature Boy,”” wrote Times staff writer Burt A. Folkart, “Ahbez retreated into relative obscurity, writing his mystical poems and songs and working on a book while living most recently in Palm Springs.”
Indeed, “Nature Boy”—with its universal benediction “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return”—was to be Ahbez’s only major chart hit. he was 40-years-old when it went to #1 in the spring of 1948 in a version by jazz crooner Nat “King” Cole. Yet Ahbez—a hirsute Hollywood nomad, dressed perennially in white robes—lived another forty-six years, during which time he continued writing and producing music at a regular pace. From the vantage of history, Ahbez appears to be no less than a harbinger of the sixties hippie movement and a father of psychedelic music.
Even before scoring his pop hit, Ahbez and a close-knit group of health gurus and spiritual seekers who called themselves the California Nature Boys lived outdoors together in the mountains above Palm Springs, singing and playing music together. As the Nature Boy Trio, Ahbez and his friends Gypsy Boots and Bob Wallace took their music into the cafes and eateries of Hollywood and Downtown Los Angeles. Ahbez's Nature Boy Suite, composed sometime between 1945-47, would be the artist's first long-playing song cycle; the Scriptures of the Golden Age was to be his last.
Ahbez -- who also worked under his nickname, Ahbe Casabe -- copyrighted and/or recorded over 200 unique titles in his lifetime, with the Scriptures project accounting for 15 to 20 of them. According to Los Angeles engineer Joe Romersa, who worked with Ahbez on the Scriptures project for the final eight years of the songwriter’s life, it was to be both magnum opus and summative personal statement—one whose boundaries and specifications only its creator knew exactly, and which he left incomplete.
Romersa continues to store the recordings he and Ahbez made together -- though the contents remain in legal limbo and are thus unavailable to the public at the time of this writing. In addition to those recordings, Ahbez stored his entire archive of music, personal items, photographs, contracts, and more with Romersa. This collection includes several hundred reels of tape dating back to the 1960s and early-‘70s, in which a number of the titles from the Scriptures project—including “As the Wind,” “Manifold Divine Blessings,” “Nature Girl,” “Siddhartha,” and “Jerusalem”—had apparently been worked on years prior to the Ahbez/Romersa collaboration. Rather than taking up merely the last eight years of the songwriter’s creative life, it’s clear the project had been closer to twenty-five years in the making.
So what happened? What exactly was the Scriptures of the Golden Age? And why did Ahbez never complete it? To answer these and other questions we need to go back to the year 1969: the year of the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair; the year of the hippie flowering; and the year in which Ahbez lost his son Zoma.
Born in October 1948, a few months after “Nature Boy” went to #1 on the Billboard and Cash Box charts, Tatha Om “Zoma” Ahbez became the first and only child of Eden and Anna Ahbez. Having lived outdoors together for many years, the couple decided to raise their child in the same fashion. The Ahbezes sometimes camped in sleeping bags in the backyard of John and Vera Richter, owners of the Eutropheon Raw Foods Cafe in Hollywood; at other times they slept in the foothills of Tujunga Canyon, or beneath the famed Hollywood sign on Mt. Lee, overlooking the city of Los Angeles.
One photograph of Zoma from the 1950s shows him seated in the lotus position, meditating with his father up in the California mountains; others picture him dancing in a meadow whilst Eden bangs away at a handmade drum. By the sixties Zoma had begun to fill out and to share many physical characteristics with his father, including his long, oval face and sloped nose, as well as his slender build. The likeness was enough for his Aunt Pearl (the sister of Anna) to remark on the back of a printed photo from 1969: “Eden and Zoma—they look alike in appearance, but the likeness ends there.” This was the year Zoma died.
By the late-‘60s Zoma Ahbez had gotten involved with hard drugs, hanging with a crowd of serious users and dealers. But the circumstances, even the cause, of his death remain a mystery, varying from source-to-source.
Joe Romersa, who’d discussed the matter with Ahbez personally, recalls that Zoma was found floating face down in a lake, and that foul play was suspected. Kathleen Liggett, a former schoolmate of Zoma’s from the mid-to-late-sixties, says that he died of a drug overdose and was found seated in a lotus position. Craig Chereek, a long-time friend of Ahbez’s in the Tujunga area, recalls that Eden himself said it was an overdose; yet David Janowiak, the official trustee of the Ahbez estate, maintained it was, without question, a suicide. No copy of the death certificate was discovered in Ahbez’s personal files and the official document remains sealed to all but family members at this time.
The death of his son would mark a dramatic downturn in Eden Ahbez’s creativity. Between 1948 and 1968, Ahbez copyrighted and/or recorded an average of six songs per year. Between 1969-70, he produced one new song; in 1971 he recorded just two, and in 1972 he recorded one. He copyrighted none.
The simplest explanation for the sudden silence is that the songwriter was depressed following the loss of his only child. (His wife Anna had already died tragically in 1963, of bone cancer, age 44.) In fact Ahbez told one of his friends at the time that he needed to withdraw into nature for answers. But in a video interview from 1992 he offered that: “When my son died I came to life.”
By the early-‘70s, Ahbez had resumed his recording career. Hollywood engineer/producer Dave De La Vega released an original Ahbez single in 1971— “Divine Melody” b/w “Richard Milhous”—on his own Elefunt Records imprint. The A-side is a minor-key ballad, over which Ahbez chants the chorus “I am in love/Love is in me.” It closes with the songwriter speaking the phrase: “Manifold divine blessings ever increasing be unto all.”
Ahbez would later record an entire nine-minute song around this mantra, replete with female vocalists and a children’s choir. It would be one of the centerpieces of the Scriptures of the Golden Age project, in both the seventies and nineties iterations of the album; thus the inclusion of this line in “Divine Melody” signals a possible genesis for the project. (The B-side, Ahbez’s personal letter to president Richard Nixon, also includes the line: “Richard—bring in the Golden Age.”)
De La Vega says the 45 received some local airplay in Los Angeles at the time, yet failed to pick up mainstream buzz as distributors were more interested in a full album from Ahbez. It’s worth noting that this was the period in which other hippie prototypes, most specifically the bearded fifties eccentric Moondog—who was blind, and dressed as an 11th century Viking—were finally getting looks from the major labels. (Columbia Records recorded Moondog and Moondog 2 in 1969 and ’71.)
Ahbez himself had become something of an outsider art celebrity as well. He was photographed in the recording studio with Beach Boy Brian Wilson in 1967, during the latter’s sessions for the Smile album. He was visited by U.K. singer/songwriter Donovan around the same time; and he even gave a young Tom Waits his first ride into Hollywood around 1968. A comic strip from 1972, titled “Hippie the First,” by the illustrator Jim Baker, shows a pair of greasy-haired forties teens gawking at Ahbez’s long mane and wild-man appearance. R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural character is also said to have been based on Ahbez and other California nature boy types.
Hippie-era versions of “Nature Boy” were recorded by artists as various as John Coltrane, Grace Slick (of the Jefferson Airplane), Gandalf, and British prog-band Accolade—all of whom recast it as a peace and love anthem during the azimuth moment of psychedelic music. “Nature Boy,” recorded by fewer than 50 artists between 1948 and 1970, would become an American standard in the decades following. By today’s count there are over 4,500 different recordings of it, including ones by Big Star, David Bowie, and most recently a Lady Gaga/Tony Bennett duet.
In 1972 Ahbez would receive his first huge financial windfall
In 1972 Ahbez would receive his first huge financial windfall from “Nature Boy.” Royalties had slowed to a trickle in the 24 years since its original Nat King Cole release, but a settlement for back-royalties paid to the songwriter permitted him a number of new freedoms, including a somewhat permanent residence at the Ananda Ashrama, in the foothills of La Crescenta (near Tujunga Canyon), as well as an ability to embark on several self-funded recording projects.
The first, according to guitarist and friend Craig Chereek, was a new version of “Nature Boy” recorded with Ahbez himself on lead vocals and bluesman Taj Majal at the production helm. No tape of this session has thus far surfaced, nor has a full re-recording of Ahbez’s 1960 Eden’s Island album, which Chereek says they cut during this period as well.
A spate of new recording sessions does seem to have begun in earnest around the year 1975—not with Chereek, but instead with a pair of musicians who would work with Ahbez through much of the rest of the decade. The first was a bassist named John Greek, previously of the Pacific Northwest instrumental rock band the Wailers. (They had a Top 40 hit with “Tall Cool One” in 1964.) By the late sixties Greek was eking out a living in Hollywood by producing schlocky, low-budget 45s like the epically-camp “Summer Girl,” by the Newport Beach Dune-Buggy Band (Dore Records). In 1971 Greek played bass and produced Ahbez's Elefunt single “Divine Melody.” According to Hank Waring, owner of Quad-Tech Studios in Hollywood (where Ahbez held many of his seventies sessions), Greek was also struggling through the early stages of alcoholism.
The other new musician that Ahbez took to in the middle seventies was a drummer named Steve “Cotton” Rumph—formerly of the MOR psych-pop band T.I.M.E. (Liberty Records). From about 1975 to 1978 Rumph, Greek, and Ahbez recorded much of what would become the latter's Scriptures project. Musically, the sound of the project was inspired by Ahbez’s use of a synthesizer—one he claimed to have purchased from the hitmaking seventies pop band ELO, aka the Electric Light Orchestra. It had, amongst other built-in features, a synthesized wind sound which Ahbez used extensively on his Scriptures recordings.
Ahbez’s Scriptures initially began as a book project. Youngbear Roth, a poet and yoga therapist whom Ahbez mentored in the early seventies, remembers it as a collection of Ahbez wisdom, assembled alongside a second book—an autobiography. Both were apparently lost in a fire at the Ananda Ashrama around 1975-76. Ahbez would start a new version of the Scriptures right away, and spoke of it obsessively until his death in 1995. (The autobiography was apparently never mentioned again.)
In addition to the book and album artifacts, the Scriptures project seems also to have been an attempt by Ahbez to create a new religion. As far back as the late-‘40s Ahbez was writing spiritual treatises. In a November 1948 issue of Indian guru Paramahansa Yogananda’s Self-Realization magazine Ahbez penned an article titled “Yoga: The Way to the Heart.” In the piece, he laid out his basic philosophy through a series of aphorisms (“Nature is the symphony of God; its theme is love”), diagrams (the words “law, love, silence, and ignorance” surround a square, within which a circle bears the word “life”), and concepts (“To the ignorant—There is no God/To the intelligent—God is Law/To the enlightened—God is Love/To the liberated—He is nameless”).
The idea of a nameless God seems a strongly Jewish, if not mystical, concept—one that would be in keeping with Ahbez’s own tradition as a Brooklyn-born Jew. Indeed, Glen Hanson, who knew both Eden and Zoma in the late sixties, remembers the songwriter as “essentially an esoteric Jew.” Ahbez himself preferred the sobriquet “the sound asleep wide awake man of zen.”
A 1949 single by Ahbez, titled “The Shepherd,” explores the artist's messianic complex; as do other pseudo-religious titles such as “The Poet and the Prophet” (1954) and The Singing Prophet (a full Ahbez-penned LP of 1956). He evokes traditional Western religious concepts in titles such as “In the Valley of the Shadows” (1955), “Pastoral Prayer” (1955), “Garden of Eden” (1960), “Fire of the Soul” (1962), “This Holy Place” (1964), “I Am a Pilgrim” (1970), “Jerusalem” (1978), “Blessed Reverie” (1980), “Song of Joy” (1980), and “The World Has Been Born Again” (1980), and more Eastern or occult ideas in titles like “Real Gone Yogi” (1948), “India” (1951), “The Song of the Fool” (1955), “Nature’s Symphony” (1956), “Zen” (1956), “The Vibration of Love” (1958), “Dharmaland” (1961), “Siddhartha” (1978), and “The Cosmic Call” (1982).
A narrated line at the beginning of the Singing Prophet LP declares: “This is the legend of a boy who wandered the earth, searching for God, only to find him in his own heart.” In another recording, from the Scriptures project, the artist himself sings: “Once I dreamed that I was Jesus/Walking by the Galilee/But I awoke and I was Ahbe/Walking by the Salton Sea”—a reference to the large body of water in the desert near Palm Springs.
While it seems obvious that Ahbez saw his own life in religious terms, the details of his spiritual credo seem to have evolved over time.
In 1978, he told an interviewer that he was visited in a dream by Copernicus, Galileo, and Einstein. He goes on to say that only Einstein ever understood the concept of time and that instead of it being divided “Before Christ and After Christ” the historical calendar should be changed to “Before Einstein/After Einstein.” Also, while Ahbez never fully abandoned his religious concepts in the metaphorical sense, he often decried their literal abuses, as in this statement from the 1990s: “The gods of the earth are many, but the God of the sky is one, if any. People all over the world believe in God and they hate each other and they kill each other, and they teach their children to hate each other. So we don’t need to be afraid to let those stupid old ideas go. We’re of a new age, a new mindset”—i.e. the Golden Age, one must assume.
In terms of album-length song cycles, or conceptual LPs, the Scriptures was to be this songwriter’s final attempt at one; yet by no means was it his first. Way ahead of landmark albums such as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Tommy, and Dark Side of the Moon, Ahbez had constructed such suites as far back as 1945. The aforementioned Nature Boy Suite, for example, was a five-part work—part autobiographical, part philosophical—written during the years before Ahbez was married, when he was still living in the mountains with his fellow Nature Boys. It was eventually recorded in 1956 under the aforementioned title The Singing Prophet.
In 1958 Ahbez recorded his “Rock & Rock Symphony”—with doo-wop singer Biggie McFadden—which remains unreleased to this day. Then in 1960 his lone solo album, Eden’s Island, conjured an entire imaginary island: one where “boys and girls fall in love,” “make fires on the shore,” and live exclusively for peace and love.
That the Scriptures project was recorded during the 1970s may suggest Ahbez was aware of the rock concept album as a popular trend. But the very notion that an album could double as a vehicle for a new religious scripture seems utterly unique to Ahbez.
An exact tracklist for the seventies iteration of the Scriptures is difficult to pin down. The nineties version, as recorded with Romersa, was notated in a number of handwritten sequences by Ahbez. No such list exists for the seventies recordings. We know only of this earlier attempt at the project by the number of titles that persist across both recording campaigns.
Alongside the aforementioned “As the Wind,” “Siddhartha,” “Jerusalem,” “Manifold Divine Blessings,” and “Nature Girl,” there was also a new recording of Ahbez’s signature song “Nature Boy,” which blends into a new title from 1976: “Blessed Be the World.” An intimate synthesizer jam, the medley tapers off around the eight-minute mark, as if into the deep recesses of outer space. It is suggestive of eighties new age music, though more melodically-focused and with a strong sense of counterpoint.
Other seventies Scriptures titles include “Bright Face,” which shares a melodic section with “Blessed Reverie,” a title from the later Romersa-era Scriptures; “I Am Love,” which recycles its melody from a 1963 Ahbez song titled “Overcomers of the World”; “Once I Dreamed,” which grew out of the 1971 title “Richard Milhous” (and was recorded numerous times during the Romersa sessions as well); “The Path,” a song originally copyrighted in 1959 as “Old Ahb”; “A Neat Song,” which was later retitled “Renaissance” during the Romersa sessions; and “The Clam Man,” which also grew out of “Once I Dreamed” and “Richard Milhous.”
By September 13, 1978, the composer had completed an early version
By September 13, 1978, the composer had completed an early version of Scriptures and compiled a cassette tape of his progress. He took it to his friend Sonya Sones’s apartment in Venice Beach for a first preview. Sones recorded the proceedings for posterity, allowing the elderly Ahbez to expostulate on his recordings, often singing over them, giving general commentary about their technical aspects, and interpretations. That he didn’t debut the recordings first to a record executive (or record label) may speak to the state of completion of the project; then again, according to Romersa, “He [Ahbez] recorded these same songs over and over, never totally satisfied with any of the results.”
There was also the matter of the composer’s penchant for secrecy. He expressed to both Sones and Romersa, on tape, a desire to release the recordings only when his book was completed. Youngbear Roth and Craig Chereek both recall Ahbez quoting excerpts from “the book,” though neither remembers ever seeing any actual pages.
Ultimately, Scriptures would fall victim to a farrago of conflicts and legal battles. Shortly after Ahbez passed in 1995 Roth was given a stack of poems and song lyrics by David Janowiak, the songwriter’s aforementioned estate trustee. Neither was 100% certain, however, that what they were looking at was the Scriptures itself. Romersa, having recently viewed the documents, is convinced they constitute at least partially the actual contents of the book, which in many cases correlate to the recordings he and Ahbez made together.
In 2008 Romersa received an email from a writer named Heidi Porter who claimed she was hired by Janowiak to edit a series of Ahbez’s handwritten papers. Porter apparently left the project “due to conflicts among the people involved in it,” insisting ultimately: “I didn't like the way David changed [Ahbez’s words].”
Janowiak died in 2011, but his wife Geraldine confirmed that he wanted Ahbez’s words to reflect his belief in Jesus Christ, something which Romersa says Ahbez himself was vehemently against. This difference of opinion regarding Ahbez’s spiritual beliefs eventually led to an impasse between the two parties—the result being a sequester of the final Scriptures recordings. (According to Ahbez’s will, Janowiak was to oversee the publishing side of his canon, while Romersa was bequeathed the sync rights, or actual recordings themselves. These constitute the dual contractual sides of any official release—and are the reason for the continuing stalemate).
At the beginning of the Sones interview Ahbez tells her that “The Scripture of the Golden Age is based upon a trilogy and that trilogy is a principle, a law, and a statement.” He never expounds on the specifics of his trilogy, instead moving on to the “salutation," which he claims was given to him in a dream “by a beautiful spiritual being from another dimension.”
Next he plays his recording of “The Path” for Sones and says he’s been carrying its score around in his head for years. When he gets to the line, “So I left my mother and father/Left my beloved sisters and brothers/Filled with dreams/And visions of glory,” he begins to cry.
He tells Sones that he knew his mother would miss him, then recounts for her several autobiographical details, including his having had only a few piano lessons as a child, no high school education, and decades of travel across the country by freight train. “I’ve never been a home guy,” Ahbez concludes. “Some people have a home but they never find what they’re looking for.”
Ahbez did in fact leave his birth mother and father, though not by choice. Born George A. Aberle in 1908 in Brooklyn, NY, he and his twin sister Editha (as well as two older siblings) were given up to the Hebrew Orphan Asylum in Crown Heights in 1916. A year later the twins were sent to Chanute, Kansas, as part of the Orphan Trains—delivered to foster parents William and Sadie McGrew, whose surnames the twins eventually took. Ahbez was, in fact, George McGrew until 1943, when his name was officially changed to “Eden Ahbe.” When the “z” was added is not known exactly.
Mrs. McGrew, in an interview from 1948, claimed she hadn’t spoken to him in over ten years. (It is not known whether Ahbez ever spoke to his adopted parents again.) In 1948 interviews with Life, Newsweek, and Time magazines the composer denies having ever lived in Kansas, calling himself a Brooklynite, transplanted to Southern California.
The process of reinvention was not unique to Ahbez, however; his entire band of brothers, in fact, known as the California Nature Boys during the 1940s and ‘50s, changed their names in accordance with their new anti-materialist lifestyle.
Ahbez’s “The Clam Man” was based on a bearded nature boy character named Cruz Guerrero whom the composer met during his travels to the border town of Baja. “Buddy Rose,” another Ahbez composition from the late seventies, was an ode to his fellow nature boy Isaac Rosenzweig, aka Buddy Rose. Besides the many spiritual concepts promoted within the Ahbez canon, the composer also populates his songs with enough detail about his family, friends and places he haunted, that it’s possible to retrace his steps (provided one can untangle fact from the fiction).
In the Sones interview, he calls the song “I Am Love” a “cosmic chant” and says he plans to give it to Donovan to record. Featuring the most prominent use of the synthesized wind sound (as well as a soaring bamboo flute solo and a spate of spacey keyboards), “I Am Love” is Ahbez at his most ethereal and psychedelic.
“Bright Face,” a song about the sun, features the chorus: “Bright Face hear my song/Hear my drum, my flute, my gong.” Ahbez tells Sones it is earmarked for Stevie Wonder.
Whether the songwriter ever actually knew Stevie Wonder is inconclusive. Because of “Nature Boy,” however, Ahbez was well-regarded throughout the industry. He was photographed around this time with jazz-pop hitmaker George Benson, who’d covered “Nature Boy” in 1977 and watched it go to #26 on the Billboard charts.
Next on the cassette mix is “As the Wind,” which the composer calls “a sequence of meditations.” The song modulates a number of times throughout, beginning as a moody synth ballad, replete with wind sounds and these heady lyrics: “As the wind/That comes and goes/You wonder why/But no one knows/The wind is wonderful/And I will fly the wind away/Far far away.”
During a minor key section lasting about three minutes Ahbez tells Sones that he could create an entire concert from this song—a notion confirmed by his many recorded versions (some of which last upwards of fifteen minutes). A dramatic fanfare of synthesized trumpets then sets the stage for the song’s finale, which has Ahbez wailing the words “Amen, amen” over and over for several minutes until it fades out. He then tells Sones that he wrote another song called “Jerusalem,” but concludes: “How will I ever get a song like that out?”—a likely reference to the political polarity in Israel then as now.
The tape closes with Ahbez making one final comment regarding the interview: “I’m glad we did that because I might never have tried. My life is so strange.” For reasons known only to him this body of work was put aside soon after.
In 1979 a new collaboration arose with a songwriter/pianist named Dale Ockerman. A single recording of 1980 resulted. Ahbez then began work with a young power-pop singer named Kyle Vincent; though again, nothing much came of it in terms of recorded output. Then, in 1987, the 80-year-old composer walked into the Salty Dog Studios in Van Nuys (near Hollywood), where he met 29-year-old Joe Romersa for the first time. Ahbez, carrying a reel-to-reel tape close to his chest, told Romersa he needed to make a quick edit to it. Romersa says the edit was simple to make. Thrilled with the results, Ahbez booked a second session with the young engineer.
The two soon embarked upon a musical collaboration that spanned the final eight years of Ahbez’s life. Romersa knew nothing of the pedigree of the songs they worked on together, nor of the plethora of work done previously on them. He knew only what Ahbez had told him—that it was to be an album titled The Scriptures of the Golden Age and that it was related to a book he was writing.
Ahbez believed it would be his magnum opus: a work that would void everything he’d done previously and might even supplant the world’s established religions. Perhaps someday, if the music is ever released, Ahbez’s strange, beautiful dream may be realized.
BONUS: As the Wind
As the Wind: The Enchanted Life of Eden Ahbez
This video extract comes from the documentary film As the Wind: The Enchanted Life of Eden Ahbez. Co-directed by Brian Chidester and John Winer, it is presented exclusively at byNWR for promotional purposes only. All archival footage included in this clip is as yet unlicensed. For more information on the feature-length version please visit www.edenahbez.com. (Full Moon Films, LLC, copyright 2018, all rights reserved).
Brian Chidester is a regular contributor to The Atlantic, The American Prospect, L.A. Weekly, The Surfer's Journal, and Village Voice. He is also the author of Pop Surf Culture: Music, Design, Film, and Fashion from the Bohemian Surf Era (Santa Monica Press) and has been a segment producer of documentaries for the BBC, PBS, and Showtime. He is currently working on a feature-length documentary and full biography about Eden Ahbez.