California’s First Hippie
August 9, 2012
Have you seen our latest “Plunges Into U.S. States” release, Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Plunges Into California? It’s got great weird historical bits, many we’d never heard before—like this story. (It’s on page 130 if you have the book already.)
CALIFORNIA’S FIRST HIPPIE
He had long hair, wore sandals and a white robe, ate a raw vegetarian diet, and lived under the first L of the Hollywood sign. Not all that unusual in California, right? Except this was the 1940s, and it was considered very, very strange.
HEAVEN AND L
Consider the case of eden ahbez (no capital letters—ahbez believed that caps should be reserved for “God,” “Life,” “Love,” “Peace,” and other divine words). He lived an eccentric’s life and probably would’ve continued doing so undisturbed except that he wrote a hit song and brought the world to his door…or what would’ve been his door, if he’d actually had a front door.
Born George Alexander Aberle in Brooklyn, New York, in 1908, he traveled across the country, eventually settling in Southern California. He had always been musical, had played piano, and even led a dance band in the 1930s. So when he arrived in Los Angeles, he offered to play piano at Eutropheon, a small health-food store and restaurant on Laurel Canyon Boulevard in exchange for food. Its owners, John and Vera Richter, were from Germany and were followers of a movement called lebensreform (“life reform”) that encouraged healthy food, nudity, sexual liberation, alternative medicine, Eastern religion, and living close to nature. Aberle came to agree with the lifestyle and joined a small group of followers who lived in the desert and called themselves “Nature Boys.” They lived wild, didn’t shave or cut their hair, and ate a diet made up mostly of raw vegetables.
It was about that time that Aberle also changed his name to eden ahbez and began sleeping under the first L of the famous Hollywood sign. He met a woman named Anna Jacobsen, who appreciated him and his philosophies, and they married and continued to live outdoors even after they had a son.
A SONG IS BORN
During this time, ahbez was still playing at the food store/ restaurant and also began writing songs. One of them was called “Nature Boy” and had a haunting melody and lyrics about a “strange enchanted boy” who learned this important lesson after he had “traveled very far”: the most profound thing in the world “is just to love and be loved in return.” (No one is sure if ahbez was writing about himself or someone else.) The message was simple, and a disc jockey named “Cowboy” Jack Patton, who happened to hear ahbez perform it, thought the tune would be perfect for Nat King Cole’s voice. During one of Cole’s concerts in Los Angeles, Patton urged ahbez to go backstage and give the music to the singer’s manager, Mort Ruby.
The only copy of the song ahbez had was rumpled and soiled from use and outdoor living, but he went backstage that night anyway and insisted that Ruby give it to Cole. Ruby did, and Cole liked the song well enough to try it out in a few live shows to see how the audience reacted. Quite positively, it turned out. So Cole added it to his repertoire and on August 22, 1947, he recorded “Nature Boy.”
There was only one problem: Neither Cole nor Ruby had any idea how to get in touch with ahbez to get his permission to release it. In fact, nobody in the music business seemed to know who the guy was, and he wasn’t listed in the phone book. Eventually, they tracked ahbez down under the Hollywood sign, and he granted permission. But Cole had started second-guessing the song. It wasn’t like anything else on the radio at the time, and he was thinking that recording such an unusual tune might not be wise.
A STAR IS TORN
So Nat King Cole put away the recording for a while, not quite knowing what to do with it. Despite those doubts, his live audiences still seemed to enjoy it, and he started to get asked when he was going to record it. Finally, Capitol Records, Cole’s record company, came up with a solution—in 1948, they put “Nature Boy” on the B-side of what they thought would be Cole’s next big hit, “Lost April.” In most cases, that’s the well-deserved ending for a mediocre song, but not this time. A radio deejay in New York played the B-side instead of the A-side, and the phones lit up. People wanted to hear it again. When word got out to other radio stations, “Nature Boy” quickly became Capitol Records’ #1 single. Other music stars rushed out to record their own versions of it.
Luckily, ahbez didn’t need much money to be happy, because “not much” is reportedly about what he made from the song. Some of it was his own fault: he’d signed overlapping agreements with several music publishers, and each claimed their share. Worse, the melody that he said came to him in the “mist of the California mountains” turned out to be very similar to a Yiddish song called “Schwieg Mein Hertz,” and ahbez had to pay a substantial settlement to its publisher. None of this made much difference in ahbez’s lifestyle, though. He and his family continued camping outside and lecturing on street corners about the benefits of vegetarianism and Eastern philosophy.
BACK TO NATURE
After “Nature Boy,” ahbez did a little more work in the music business, but he also became part of a media whirlwind as magazines and newspapers covered his strange lifestyle. He gave many mystical-sounding quotes like this one reported by a writer from Life: “I am the wind, the sea, the evening star. I am everyone, anyone, no one.” He also wrote a few more songs, including “Land of Love” and “Lonely Island,” that Nat King Cole and some others recorded, but only “Lonely Island” made it into the Top 40. Later, he recorded a couple of albums himself in which he recited his poetry over a lush “cocktail-lounge-meets-nature-sounds” music track. That didn’t do very well, either.
In the end, ahbez became less of a curiosity and more of an elder as younger hippies adopted the lifestyle he had pioneered. The modern world eventually overtook him, however. In 1995, at the age of 86, ahbez died after being struck by a car. But “Nature Boy” lived on. It’s been recorded by dozens of artists over the years and appeared in movies like The Talented Mr. Ripley and Moulin Rouge.
Once again, that’s from the fantabulous Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Plunges Into California. You might want one today…
• eden ahbez – and his 1960 album:
• And Nat King Cole, with “Nature Boy”:
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