During his 86 years on this planet, Eden Ahbez encountered many artists, musicians, free-thinkers and spiritual individuals. Youngbear Roth—yoga instructor, therapist and writer—knew Ahbez intimately for nearly two decades, and was, for all intents and purposes, one of Ahbez’s students. Like a lot of Ahbez’s friends, Youngbear called him “ahbe,” as the elderly nature boy prefered.
I sat down recently for a chat with Mr. Roth. Below are the results.
Brian Chidester (01/03/2015)
Brian Chidester: So I guess we should start at the beginning. How did you come to first meet Eden Ahbez?
Youngbear Roth: It was 1971 or ’72; I was working at Western Surplus in North Hollywood, currently the NoHo Arts District. The store was 5 minutes from the film, television and record industries that keep studios and offices in the Valley. I became very jaded to my daily associations and eventual friendships with all kinds of people, from Hell’s Angels and Satan’s Slaves, to wealthy entertainment personalities and execs who’d kept offices over at TBS, Warners and NBC.
BC: Sounds kind of Hollywood Babylon…
YR: Michael Keaton was working stock and manning the shoe department, while he ran up the street in a VW bug that looked like it had been through the wars, to check on possible acting jobs; and a friend of mine, an ex-member of the notorious Los Angeles White Fence gang, who knew every authentic Mexican eatery in the city, was selling men’s ready-to-wear, while the Angels were buying guns and knives at the weapons counter, and discussing motorcycles with late actor/cycle enthusiast Michael Ansara. In the midst of all of this, a rather short gentleman, in his late sixties or early seventies, waist-length hair, full beard, came in carrying a hand-carved bamboo flute tucked into a web strap used as his belt.
BC: Ahbez, obviously.
YR: He walked with a youthful bounce to his step through our doors. He was dressed in white, and his large eyes quickly took in everything… gave the impression that he was aware of his surroundings, but passing through, not subject to the same laws of existence as everyone else. This impression was so strong that everyone moved away from his path, not out of fear, but out of wonder, while I felt myself attracted to him like metal to a magnet. I asked him how I could be of service to him, and he told me he was looking for an outdoor stove, and other supplies to use where he lived.
BC: Did he say where he was living at the time?
YR: I asked where, and he answered without missing a beat, “I live on the moon blanket, and at night I take my flute, hold it up to my ear, and let the wind play the music, and, man, it’s beautiful.” Those were ahbe’s first words to me, and I was hooked. Ahbe was immediately different from everyone else in that store because he was absolutely sincere and real.
BC: You told me before that you’d already known who Ahbez was from your father. Is that correct?
YR: I first heard of ahbe when I was 17 and overseas. My father wrote me a letter about his experience when he was a young man working for the Department of Parks and Recreation in Los Angeles. He was ordered out to Griffith Park to clear out a bee hive. Before he had a chance to begin the project another young man happened along who had very long hair and a beard. That was ahbe.
BC: I wonder if he was living near the HOLLYWOOD sign at this time? It’s not far from Griffith Park.
YR: Well, he asked my dad if he could take some of the honey before dad applied the poison. He then began tapping on a tin can, which put the bees to sleep, and reached in to get the honey. My dad and ahbe became friends, and my dad met Gypsy Boots, and sold fruit along with Gypsy on the street for some time. Eventually, they all went their own ways and my dad lost touch with them. However, he closed the letter with a lyric from “Nature Boy” that he wanted me to contemplate.
BC: But you didn’t put it together when you saw him that first time at the Western Surplus?
YR: We really did not know each other. But within a minute of our meeting I just realized his independent spiritual position, which he reflected through that unified sense of himself that he carried in the universe. I had no idea that we had begun a 17-year friendship that would encompass my learnings from ahbe, crystalizing the philosophy, religion, science, art, music, health, culture, and spiritual pursuits that had been my personal search for many years preceding our meeting.
BC: What did you talk about at the first meeting? Do you remember?
YR: We discussed his life and work, past and present, and his hopes for current projects he was working on. Finally, ahbe sat quietly in lotus position in the middle of the store’s main aisle, pulled out his flute and played “Nature Boy.” As he replaced the flute in his belt he recited the final stanza of the song. He stood straight up from lotus position without using his hands or arms.
BC: Amazing.YR: I remember the advice he gave me at that meeting. When I told him that I wanted to experience the peace and tranquility that I saw in his eyes, and noticed in the way he appeared to move through the world, he ran his hand through my energy field saying, “Listen, man, if you want your life to change, give the best of yourself freely.” I was experiencing a lot of anger and bitterness towards humanity, and an equal amount of fear, and ahbe gave me a positive first step to actually apply in my daily living.
BC: Did you guys meet often after that? Or how did it work?
YR: We met once or twice a month. This is where it gets rather odd. I would come back from lunch and hear from a crew member that ahbe had been in asking for me. Or I would be distressed over issues, or without enough money to pay rent or buy food, or, frankly, my past was still dogging me, and I would find myself in legal trouble again with the police or the feds. I would be frustrated, and ready to give up the ideas of sharing the best of myself, and being honest in daily activities. I’d literally stare into space for 20 or 30 minutes at a time and fantasize about drinking and doping. Then I would turn around and ahbe would be coming through the door.
BC: What would you guys talk about?
YR: We’d talk about any number of subjects until the urge to have a drink passed. I never asked him how he knew the time and the place to show up. He’d show up at the store to buy supplies, but he never bought anything; he’d also show up at the other end of town, where I lived, in coffee shops or stores where I shopped. I mean, he would just be there when I turned around, or looked up, standing there in a crowded room. Again, he never ordered anything to eat or drink, never bought anything in any store. These places were certainly not in his lifestyle agenda.
BC: What was his relationship to money?
YR: I was very conscious and careful never to ask him for money for any reason. Yet, before leaving he would take a wad of green out of his wallet, and count out the “precise number” of dollars that I needed for whatever my circumstances were at that time, and hand me the money. I always opened my mouth, about to say that I would pay him back, but he gave me the same speech every time: “Man, I have so much money, it’s coming out of my eyes and ears, and I don’t know what to do with all of it. You need this right now, and you need it more than I do.”
BC: That’s beautiful.
YR: Ahbe never failed to show up not one minute before I needed him, and not one minute late, and I was always stunned because he found me no matter where I was, or what time of day or night it was, or what I was doing. And for the years that it took me to grow up, die to my old life, find love, get married, and secure a new life, ahbe was always just standing there when I needed him.
BC: What was the nature of the friendship? You both being writers, did you guys discuss your craft?
YR: The nature of our relationship was friendship. He was a teacher, and, most likely, the father I’d never had. If I have to express the nature of our relationship, I would say, “Common ground.” We both experienced a void in our early lives in parental love and guidance. We both left home penniless at a young age. We both saw the best and worst in humanity. We both had to make a decision whether to allow the impossible odds of survival in our respective circumstances to take us over in the guise of bitterness, anger and fear, or to search and successfully find meaning in existence.
BC: How did you do it?
YR: We both found that such a search required knowledge and hopefully the wisdom that can only come through the practice of living. Ahbe was further along in his journey than I ever dreamed I would get. Ahbe, I felt, was here to offer me teachings that would sustain me in a transition time that I knew I had to make, but didn’t yet understand how to make.
BC: Almost like a Bodhisatva. What did you offer him in return?
YR: What did I offer ahbe? Brian, this is theory, but it’s my gut feeling. Due to my lifestyle, my age, and the depth and complexity of my battle between positive and negative in my nature, I feel that I offered ahbe a second chance to help reconcile, and perhaps, lay to rest his parental feelings of responsibility in his son’s death.
BC: Zoma [ed. Ahbez’s son] was found dead just a few years before you met Ahbez. I always wondered if he felt responsible in some way?
YR: Of course he was not responsible. But you can’t tell a parent that has experienced the death of a child that they are not in some way responsible.
BC: I know. I think it’s a valid assertion on your part. Even after Zoma’s death, Ahbez maintained a lot of hope for young people, and never entirely stopped mentoring them. Switching gears a bit, did you and Ahbez ever collaborate musically?
YR: Ahbe’s music, or my writing, rarely came up in conversation, although ahbe knew at that time that I was writing poetry for about 15-20 hours a week—mostly a cathartic, self-serving activity—and that my interest in Eastern philosophy and yoga was growing. So he always had memorized long portions of a philosophical nature, drawn from whatever he was working on at the time, and he would recite these with great rhythm and careful elocution.
BC: Do you remember the sources?
YR: He’d teach from the Upanishads and Vedic literary sources that he had already studied long ago, and add his take on the meanings and applications of these Eastern literary sources for evolving a yogic lifestyle, and the importance of his ideas in regards to creating a better world community. He would often repeat stories—usually changing a detail or two to suit his mood—and tell me that he was repeating these stories because he didn’t want to forget them.
BC: Why was he memorizing this stuff?
YR: If memory serves, he was working on two main projects most of the years that I knew him: “Scriptures of a Golden Age” and his autobiography. Using only his memory, he quoted liberally from both projects, and very often. To my surprise, he would always ask my opinions and advice after reciting; I never felt qualified to give my opinions in these matters, but ahbe was resolute in his silence, waiting for me to offer my views on his work.
BC: What made him show you such patience?
YR: He knew that I was battling substance abuse, and I think he wanted to help me feel self-worth, which is why most of our discussions were philosophical, spiritual or literary in nature. We also talked a lot about health—both personal and universal. The conversations were always geared towards teaching life lessons in a mostly Eastern philosophical mode.
BC: So he was literally the impetus for you to move fully in that direction?
YR: With ahbe’s help, I eventually evolved a yoga lifestyle based on a melding of his interpretations of Eastern scriptures and philosophy, and my own interpretations of the same. From that position, I became a yoga teacher, and from there a yoga therapist and East-West journalist and writer.
BC: As far as you know, did Ahbez ever commit any of his philosophy to paper?
YR: After he died, I contacted David Janowiak [ed. Ahbez’s long-time accountant and friend], and he had been holding copies of the “Scriptures of a Golden Age” text, and said that he felt strongly that ahbe would have wanted me to have that work, and also a photograph of ahbe holding his flute to his ear on the windy beach in Santa Monica. He had no negs for it, so he sent me the original, and told me I could keep it.
BC: What about the autobiography?
YR: I asked Joe [Romersa] [ed. Ahbez’s friend and last musical collaborator] if he had the autobiography. He said he didn’t know about that work and didn’t have it. I have never seen it, although ahbe recited it from memory often after he had added to it, or re-wrote parts of it. The prose was very poetic and rambling in style.
BC: I’d love to know if it still exists.
YR: It was amazing, Brian! He began the manuscript with a description of the universe, in both scientific and mystical terms, and worked from that point to his birth as a cosmic being. He recited this to me when I was about 19 and he blew my fucking mind. Back to the “Scripture”—I read it a few times and felt that it was very uneven in quality. I am sorry that the autobiography was lost; I feel it would have been his greatest work to leave to the world.
BC: What would you say are the most important life lessons that Ahbez taught you?
YR: He taught both consciously and directly, and also taught and influenced me by simply being who he was. Ahbe encouraged health and the natural lifestyle. As a result of his direct teachings in health, and my further conversations with Gypsy Boots, I began a diet and lifestyle of 90% raw, unprocessed foods, and 10% cooked, lean protein. I was a raw food vegetarian for seven years. However, my general health did not hold up well on this diet, so I later added the protein.
BC: What about the philosophical lessons?
YR: Ahbe very directly and consciously taught me his take on Eastern philosophy, and world religion, and his take on leading a spiritual life. This was a long and difficult path, as I grew up with these Eastern elements; however, ahbe had taken these concepts so much further. His teachings here were profound and inspiring. He got me interested in hatha yoga, and we put that together with philosophical sadhana yoga (self study), and under ahbe’s influential brand of mysticism, sadhana became a study of the entire universe as self.
BC: You rarely find anyone that knew this side of him. He’s mostly spoken of as a musician, or a sort of Zelig-like character, making these random appearances around Hollywood. Everyone has a sighting story.
YR: Ahbe was very much like a swami in his approach; he used Eastern scripture only in so far as it was valuable in teaching him to transcend that same scripture to realize himself as more than scriptural teaching. At that point he looked at scripture as a bottom step, much as one looks down from the top step of a ladder to judge how far one has advanced, or as we say in Zen Buddhism, “Burn the Buddha!”
BC: How religious was he?
YR: Essentially, ahbe saw himself as beyond religion. But he used religious scripture in order to transcend it. In the West, religion and scripture are an end, and the goal. For ahbe, and myself, religious scripture was only the bare beginning. A finger is needed to point to the moon, but ahbe never mistook scripture for the moon. All of this was important in transcending my then-current state of mental and emotional actions, and reactions, and later these became my teachings as a therapist to help others.
BC: Was there a central tenant to his philosophy of life?
YR: Through his personal stories, and discussions on our interpretations of life events, ahbe taught universal love, harmony and tolerance for a world in the throws of war, disharmony, and intolerance, and individuals who were so warped by misused technology that they have forgotten who they are, or why they are given the human condition, and how to learn from its experience. “Give the best of yourself freely,” was the cornerstone of his teachings. This is not a new teaching, but I had never seen a living example of its application to such an extent as he applied in his own life. I found it inspiring.
BC: That’s quite a recommendation.
YR: You know I aligned myself for some time with Ram Dass. His spiritual teacher took him from his position as drug dealer, user and criminal—Dr. Richard Alpert—to becoming Ram Dass, teaching him repeatedly to “Feed them. Feed the people.” This is essentially the same lesson: a time honored lesson among Eastern spiritual masters. Ahbe could move in all circles by expounding abstract theoretical scientific truths, or simply saying, “Stop teaching your children to hate. Teach them to love.”
BC: Did you stay in touch with him right to the end?
YR: I was extremely ill, and in bed for a long time, and ahbe had not shown up for at least that length of time. I wondered why; I must say that I was worried about him. I didn’t have a telephone number, or a car that would make it to Desert Hot Springs, so all I could do was wait it out.
BC: So you guys did lose touch?
YB: Ahbe gave me David’s name about a year earlier, but I couldn’t remember it. Soon enough, my wife came home from her Saturday estate sale rounds, a hobby she enjoys, and told me to get out of bed and get dressed. She wanted to take me to the estate of a UPI photojournalist who had passed away, and left a treasure trove of photographs of many famous people from the world news, and from the entertainment industry. When we got to the sale she led me inside to a small back room where a very large photograph was hanging on the wall. “Is that ahbe? Is that the man you introduced me to at the cafeteria behind Sears?” It was.
YR: I stood there staring at it. “That’s him,” I said. “I know now why he hasn’t been by to visit or run into me anywhere. He’s not with us. I just feel when I look at this that he is not with us, and he wants me to have this, but I don’t have any money.” I had $7 to my name. “I know he wants me to have this,” I told my wife. She suggested I ask them how much it is. I did, and they told me $7, because they didn’t know who he was, and they didn’t have the neg for it. I purchased it. It hangs on my wall, and you’ve seen it, and used it for your recent record album [ed. The Exotic World of Eden Ahbez (Hills of Hollywood Records)].
BC: I assume you were correct about his passing.
YR: Well, when I returned home, I immediately called the musician’s union, and they told me he had passed away a couple of months ago, and the name of his estate contact was David Janowiak. They gave me his email and telephone number. When I got in contact with David he told me that he was holding onto some things that ahbe would want me to have. I was extremely sad about having missed the funeral, so David sent me a funeral invitation, and another photo of ahbe, along with a copy of “Scriptures of the Golden Age,” and some miscellaneous news clippings.
BC: The thought that comes to my mind now, because Ahbez touched so many lives, is: Did or do Ahbez’s friends keep in touch anymore these days?
YR: Okay, so, very close on the heals of purchasing the large photograph, I began receiving emails from all over the world from people who knew ahbe, or knew of his teachings, or his musical works. I gathered that he had traveled a lot more than he talked about. Eventually, I visited Joe Romersa’s website devoted to ahbe, and got in touch with him. Later still, I will just say that I became active in an ashram in the Angeles National Forest, where a great many people knew ahbe personally because he had lived there in a house with his son for quite some time. Apparently it burned down in a fire. I met friends of ahbe’s and friends of his son’s.
BC: Did it start adding up?
YR: Well, I came to realize that ahbe’s friendships were very purposeful. That is… each friend added something different and important to his life. He kept his friends separate from one another, for the most part, I think, unless they were involved in his professional life in music.
BC: What kind of ashram was it?
YR: It was a vedanta ashram, and he apparently wrote a great many private poems for the Mother Superior; they were close friends. At the time that I became involved with them, she was no longer there, but he left a great many friends behind.
To read more of Youngbear Roth’s work, check out this link for an in-depth two-part interview for Elephant Journal: http://www.elephantjournal.com/2013/03/i-had-to-talk-life-directly-this-was-the-understanding-an-interview-with-youngbear-roth-sidney-bennet/
Also, here is a link to an article Roth wrote, in the form of an open letter to our president, and congress, during President Obama’s address to congress about the weapons situation in America: http://www.elephantjournal.com/2013/04/the-2-most-powerful-voluntary-acts-on-earth-an-open-letter-to-my-president-my-congress-youngbear-roth/