The Who, Baba O’Riley, and La Crescenta
In May I wrote “The Utopia at the Top of La Crescenta Avenue” about a spiritual center that was established on the old Bissell High-Up Ranch, the neighborhood above Markridge Avenue we now know as Pinecrest. I wrote that followers of the Indian spiritual leader Meher Baba had purchased the property in 1944, and planned a religious retreat called the “New Life Center.” However after their initial plans, I found nothing further and asked readers to fill us in on what happened.
I was contacted by two of his followers. They told me that in 1945 after the establishment of the La Crescenta retreat, Meher Baba, perhaps sensing that the area was destined to grow quickly, asked his New Life Center followers to find another site further from L.A. They sold the La Crescenta property and purchased a 173-acre site in Ojai. Ojai’s Meher Mount is still thriving today.
Sam Ervin, the director of Meher Mount, and others at the spiritual retreat are putting together a history of Meher Mount and were thrilled to get more info on its first incarnation in La Crescenta. Sam and his wife visited me, and my wife and I gave them a tour of what could have been a great religious retreat for followers of Meher Baba.
We drove through Pinecrest while they took photos and info for their history files, stopping next door at the Ananda Ashrama at the top of Pennsylvania Avenue. This religious retreat, founded by Swami Paramananda in 1923, is probably a good approximation, on a smaller scale, of what the New Life Center would have become had they stayed. La Crescenta would have been host to two side-by-side spiritual centers of Indian mystics, Swami Paramananda at the top of Pennsylvania and Meher Baba at the top of La Crescenta Avenue.
But what of Meher Baba and my reference to The Who? Meher Baba has a fascinating story. He took a vow of silence in 1925, and communicated with his followers using an alphabet board and hand gestures. He required nothing of his followers – no money, no rites or rituals, only a focus on God and His love. He traveled extensively and attracted followers world-wide. He found fertile ground in L.A. in the ’30s, and was a big sensation with the Hollywood crowd including Charles Laughton, Tallulah Bankhead, Boris Karloff, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. In the ’60s he attracted a rock following, as several rock stars looked to the east for inspiration.
The Who’s Pete Townsend studied Meher Baba’s teachings and incorporated him and his message into many of his works. The album “Tommy” is dedicated to Meher Baba, and of course at the end of the famous rock opera, Tommy is a spiritual leader who doesn’t speak, like Meher Baba. Townsend’s most famous reference to Meher is the rock anthem “Baba O’Riley,” sometimes known as “Teenage Wasteland.”
Meher Baba had a strong anti-drug message in his teachings, and Pete Townsend was moved by those teachings during The Who’s performance at Woodstock. Townsend looked out at a crowd wasted on drugs (“It’s only teenage wasteland”), and seemingly proud of their intoxication (“We’re all wasted!”). The violin solo is based on Indian classical music, again a tribute to Meher, and “O’Riley” refers to composer Terry Riley who inspired the synthesizer track on the song.
Another follower of Meher Baba was ’70’s songstress Melanie whose biggest hit “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)” included the lyrics “Meher Baba lives again, Candles in the rain.” However, my favorite Meher song reference comes from the ’80s. Followers of Meher used to hand out cards featuring a photo of Meher Baba grinning happily, and a small two line quote that summed up his message. One of these cards fell into the hands of an unknown vocalist, who incorporated the quote into a song, and in 1988 Bobby McFerrin hit it big with Meher’s message “Don’t worry – Be happy.”
And so I’m left imagining what could have been – a benefit concert in the ’70’s by The Who at the New Life Center in La Crescenta!