People's Temple Choir
Reviewed by Joe Lockard
Monday, August 14 2000, 7:06 PM
In 1978, when the People's Temple folk swilled cynanide-flavor Kool-Aide --- or had it poured down their throats --- I was living in San Francisco. The lack of demonstrable public reaction in San Francisco or horrified reaction over the death of more than nine hundred once-local citizens made me sympathetic towards their decision to leave the city.
Calculating that film coverage of the Jonestown death scene would be arriving from Guyana on a Monday, fellow Bad editor Mike Mosher, my brother and I agreed to meet and watch the coverage in a neighborhood bar. None of us had a television. When we met and strolled into the bar, Monday Night football was on. The bartender assured us that we would be able to watch the local evening news and asked what we wanted to drink in the meanwhile. When time for the news came and we asked for a channel change, several football-engrossed patrons made very disturbed noises and the barkeep shrugged sheepishly.
We cursed quietly and rushed out to find another bar with a television. Discovery came fast. Every bar in town was tuned into Monday Night Football, and Jonestown video footage be damned. We headed into one gay bar with the comment that gays would be more socially conscious. Monday Night Football too.
After eight or ten bars, we were ready to give up before we got the idea of hiking up to the studios of a local network affiliate where we explained our predicament and asked to see their footage. A sympathetic guard at the front door told us that he was watching a rerun of the news program on an in-house monitor, and invited us to sit and join him. So we did see the atrocious images of Jonestown, those sickening but utterly necessary images. At the same time we learned how utterly unimportant those images and the lives of so many ex-neighbors were in San Francisco.
A sense of meaningless death, of death wasted because so little meaningful public thought and attention was given, has continued to hang over the Jonestown suicide-murders. Mass death at Jonestown was written off as a suicide pact enforced by an hysterical petty tyrant, Jim Jones, who saw his life vision collapsing after the murder of congressman Leo Ryan and company. There was a mystery to the episode that pushed it beyond rational analysis, and so the comforts of Monday Night Football were preferable.
This album only exploits the pain and death at Jonestown, and shows as little empathy as the glued-to-football faces. When Grey Matter Records reprinted a long out-of-print LP featuring the People's Temple Choir, they didn't give a damn about the music. They knew that buyers weren't interested in the mostly hokey choir renditions of "Walk a Mile in My Shoes" or "Walking with You, Father". The People's Temple Choir produced slightly hip gospel music with an overlay of social concern and some amateur early 70s rock riffs. Their songs tended towards the plaintive, invoking a coming salvation in the face of racism and poverty. A lot of church choirs do a lot better than did the People's Temple Choir, and this LP was as local as a high school choir cassette tape.
No, the first twelve original music tracks of this album weren't going to sell anything for Grey Matter, only the added interminable thirteenth track of preaching, shouting and sounds from the mass death. This was taken from a recording left on a TEAC tape machine beneath Jones' throne at Jonestown. We listen to Jim Jones rant in anger and then advocate the "revolutionary act" of self-destruction in front of a Revolutionary Suicide Council. We listen to inane public discussions of imaginary planes that never arrived from Russia in a rescue airlift for these communist-Christian-utopianists. "Don't be afraid to die, they'll torture us" Jones tells his followers. Applause breaks out as followers swallow "medication" and die. Some people give speeches before their suicide. Babies scream their last screams. "It's hard," Jones calls out as dying people convulse, "but it's easier than living." Gradually the mass cheering and noise die down. Finally only the public address system music continues to play.
The last track has sound images every bit as horrific as that visual record of scattered and still bodies, suppurating and rotting in the tropical heat. Their pain has gone and we are left with the effort of understanding the origins of that pain. Even worse than ignoring it, however, is a cynical effort to exploit such suffering. If they could get a recording of the agonies of the Auschwitz gas chambers, Grey Matter would give us an album at a good price.
For over-ebullient listeners needing a good therapeutic dose of depression, the final track alone will suffice. There was no need for the rest of the album. This album joins Grey Matter's list of Charlie Manson CDs for murder and death aficionados. The producers surely have a great 'Scream for Death' album from Argentinean and Chilean torture chambers of the 70s out there waiting for them. Yeah, it's bottom-feeding, but it's a business...
He's Able is available from Grey Matters Records