Notes on Lost Temple

Published 30 Nov 2021, last modified 9 Dec 2021

I have released my new album Lost Temple on Bandcamp (best place to buy it; name your own price) and on the Internet Archive (best place to download it for free). It is also on Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube Music, Amazon, and Tidal.

I started releasing albums as an amateur musician just this year (2021) when I finally discovered an instrument (modular synthesizers, or really, a software simulation of them called VCV Rack) on which I felt competent enough to record myself. Lost Temple is my third album and is a little different from the first two, which were for the most part instrumental, ambient music. It’s a concept album where every track features recorded speech sampled from the tapes the Federal Bureau of Investigation collected in its investigation of the agricultural commune of Jonestown, Guyana, following the mass death centered there—starting with the assassination of Congressman Leo Ryan of California, which was the focus of their investigation, and the murder of four other people who were traveling with him (three members of the press and a Jonestown defector). This attack precipitated the murders and suicides of 909 people in Jonestown and four people in the Guyanese capital, Georgetown, all on the day of 18 November 1978.

To explain the motivation for making the album and indicate context for its source material, here are some notes on the album, broken down by track.

Pound the Walls

The album started with a track I was working on, “Pound the Walls”, for which I was building a drumbeat and randomized melodic sounds in a blues scale, and I wanted to bring some speech into it to give it a sort of emotional anchor. So I brought in the spoken phrase “scream, yell, pound the walls” and ran it through a vocoder, giving it a robotic sound that is in tune with the rest of the music. This is now the only vocal sample on the album that doesn’t have anything to do with Peoples Temple.

And as I meditated on that phrase, I thought about things that would make me want to scream, yell, and pound the walls, and that led to a memory of a time when I was in high school ca. 2007, and somehow came across the Jonestown “Death Tape”, cataloged by the FBI investigation as Q042, which had been digitized and uploaded to the Internet Archive. I had never been able to listen to that tape all the way through, and I still haven’t, but I had listened to portions of it and browsed the transcripts that the Jonestown Institute had on its web site. I felt (and still feel) the need to confront some of the social implications of what occurred in Jonestown: how so much authority could become concentrated in one man that he could orchestrate such a horrible thing, and how people came to live in a community that would end in this awful self-destruction. I was particularly disturbed by how it seemed that people were cajoled or coerced into ignoring the protests and obvious suffering of their own children. The immediate physical horror of the scene is obvious, but what really stayed with me was the social horror. Sometimes the line between healthy leadership and a destructive autocracy isn’t immediately obvious. Sometimes genuine love for and dedication to a community can be bent toward perverse ends.

So I brought in Jim Jones’s opening words on the “Death Tape,” a declaration of love for the Jonestown community that, for an outside observer, is contradicted by everything that follows. This gave a new meaning to the other vocal sample I had used, too: “scream, yell, pound the walls” became an expression of the frustration of being powerless to edit history, a frustration that is only productive when sublimated into the will to author a better present. And from there this whole project clicked into place, because I felt that i couldn’t leave it there. I knew that listeners unfamiliar with the context would not associate Jim Jones’s words with the same complicated questions and feelings they brought up for me, and I discovered that the Jonestown Institute had published, amongst a great wealth of material, many other Peoples Temple tapes. So I decided to work on music that would guide a listener through a sampling of some of that context—not because it can answer any of the important questions about Jonestown and Peoples Temple, but because it might lead someone to start asking them in the first place.

A Private Phone

When I first listened to Q618, a recording of a phone call between then Peoples Temple member Garry Lambrev and former member Liz Forman, I was struck by a moment at the beginning of the conversation, when Forman explicitly raises the possibility that she’s being recorded and Lambrev insists that she isn’t. I feel this serves as a good introduction to some central thematic tensions in the album. This phone call is supposed to be private, but now the world is listening in. Forman can sense she’s been lied to, but she continues the conversation on friendly terms. Lambrev describes Peoples Temple as “a place of protection and love,” and yet if someone has heard of Peoples Temple today, the one thing they’re most likely to know about it is that its Jonestown project came to a violent end.

Pentecostal Socialism

For this track i posed myself the challenge of building case for joining Peoples Temple, directed at myself. It’s important to understand that many people had sensible reasons for joining this community. So worked with excerpts of a Jim Jones sermon I found especially compelling, one delivered in Philadelphia in spring 1977 and recorded on tape Q987. At the most vulnerable point of my life, when I needed community direction, and guarantees of stable food and housing, this message might have drawn me in.

When We Do It There’s a Revolution

It was important to me to bring the voices of children into the album as a way of acknowledging their presence in Jonestown. This scholastic debate about the competing socioeconomic philosophies of capitalism and socialism from tape Q668 is also an example of people other than Jim Jones digesting and articulating their understanding of Peoples Temple’s mission and ideology. It is a moment of levity, as the children manage to crack endearingly puerile jokes even as they engage with serious issues. At times they express the simplest and most optimistic utopian vision of what Jonestown can accomplish: a self-sustaining, truly egalitarian community. In order to understand how things went wrong, it is necessary to understand what things were supposed to look like if they went right. I think this recording offers a glimpse of it.

The title comes from a mishearing of the line “what we’d do if there’s a revolution,” but I felt it captured the utopian impulse of the track.

Integrated

The supernatural element of Jim Jones’s message—whether it be dramatic faith healings, “discernments” gleaned from covert Peoples Temple surveillance of potential members, or occasional demonstrations of mediumship and necromancy–was a significant draw for some Peoples Temple members in the United States, though not a core element of the Jonestown project’s mission. To present an especially dramatic example, I sampled clips from Q928, in which Jim Jones conducts a supposedly unplanned séance, having detected a lost spirit in the room.

Jonestown Chorus

This is something different from the rest of the album, a sound collage that attempts to surround the listener with overlapping recordings that represent different dimensions of thought that were active in Jonestown life: artistic (Q172, a musical performance of the Jonestown Express), practical (Q039, Judy and Patty Houston describing daily life as children in Jonestown in a probably rehearsed message to their grandfather in the United States on the day they died), political (interlude from Q668, paraphrased readings from George Jackson’s prison letters published as Soledad Brother; and Q331, reading of the Constitution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics), and personal (Q274, Jose Simon delivering an autobiographical sketch). The impression I hope people get from this track is that they are encountering a massive and complicated community of human beings; that’s what Jonestown was.

Violent Revolutionaries

This track features Q659 and a short clip from Q714, recordings of Peoples Temple members starting their names and declaring themselves “violent revolutionaries.” These recordings have a complicated context: they were the audiotape version of the known Peoples Temple practice of directing members to sign elaborate confessions to fictitious crimes, or to sign blank paper to be used for the same purpose, a practice intended to disincentivize defection and the leaking of information about the organization’s inner workings. But even without this context, it is obvious that something strange is going on that is not being said; the exact words of many of these statements vary very little from one another, some people struggle to say them and instead offer halting and unconvincing constructions like “I’m a violent revolution… I want to overthrow the country.” And this is to say nothing about how foolhardy it would be for people who truly were trying to instigate “violent revolution” to produce documents that serve no discernable purpose except to incriminate their authors should they ever be discovered. At times the effect is almost funny; some even seem to giggle a little as they speak. But overall it’s an unsettling listening experience, repetitive and conspicuously disingenuous, that hints at the layers of deception and coercion that occurred in this community.

When Is Going to Be the Time

The audio here comes from Q775, in which Marceline Jones and Linda Sharon Amos, both figures in the inner circle of Peoples Temple leadership, surreptitiously record a visit to former members Linda and Clara Swaney in which they attempt to convince Linda Swaney to return. However, the Swaney sisters raise a number of serious concerns about Peoples Temple: that members work to the point of exhaustion toward unproductive ends, that the real “cause” around which everything is organized is a man (Jim Jones) prone to constant manipulation, and that Jim Jones relies on his godlike image within the organization to empower him to “use” his followers sexually in a way that threatens their mental and emotional health.

Not That I’m Afraid

Just after putting together “Pound the Walls,” I wanted to balance out Jim Jones’s voice with another voice from the “Death Tape,” that of Christine Miller, who made an admirable attempt to talk Jones down from what he was about to commence. As a parent of two young children myself I was particularly moved by this simple line: “I look at our babies and I think they deserve to live, you know?” I think so too.

The high-pitched, theremin-like melody at the end of the track was something I improvised at the the time of recording, just an expression of the raw feeling I felt when I heard Christine Miller say those words, knowing that ultimately they were not heeded.

Mr. Fraser

This track samples two tapes. One is Q1290, a recording from the office of United States consul Doug Ellice in Georgetown, Guyana, as he and his wife attempt to determine what has delayed Congressman Leo Ryan’s departure from Guyana and how to interpret the coded radio transmissions between Peoples Temple radio operators in Jonestown and Georgetown at a time when we now know the deaths in Jonestown had begun.

The other tape is Q875, a recording of news broadcasts and some ambient noise from 19 November, 1978, the day after the deaths in Jonestown. This tape has inspired a number of conspiracy theories because the FBI catalogued it as one of the tapes they collected in Jonestown, suggesting that someone was alive and recording these news broadcasts in Jonestown at a time when everyone still in Jonestown who might have plausibly made the tape there is believed to have died. I happen to subscribe to the mundane theory that Q875 was recorded outside Jonestown, perhaps by members of the Guyana Defence Force, and was miscategorized by the FBI when they were collecting evidence.

But the purpose of using both these recordings here isn’t to advance one or another theory about the origin of Q875. Rather, here I wanted to close the album with a coda that captures a moment where the world was only on the cusp of learning what it had already lost. We now know, thanks to an outdated radio codebook recovered from Jonestown, that the messages about “Mr. Fraser” that Doug Ellice repeats on Q1290 mean that many people have died or are dying there; it’s chilling to think that people heard this on their shortwave radios and didn’t know what it meant. Also present in the track are much-analyzed ambient percussive noises from Q875, the voice of a Guyanese news broadcaster delivering the news about the murders in Port Kaituma that set the whole calamity in motion, and Mrs. Ellice’s “Oh no!” when she receives word about the shooting on the airstrip there.

Much more to learn

I really hope that no one who listens to Lost Temple is left with the impression that they’ve been gifted an adequate understanding of Peoples Temple or of Jonestown; instead I hope that listeners are left with an aesthetic impression of the scale and complexity of the community that lived there.

I also want to guide people who may have only a dim notion about what Jonestown was, filtered through pop culture one-liners over intervening decades, to be open to a more nuanced and sympathetic understanding.

In the public consciousness, Jonestown has become a synecdoche for the concept of “brainwashing,” but what brainwashing actually entails at a specific level is not something most of us can enumerate. Given the right inflection, the word can conjure fantastic images of secret hypnotic techniques and labyrinthine torture chambers. But the picture of the road to Jonestown’s demise that one gleans from the rich historical record provided by survivors, relatives, and recovered primary source materials—most of which I haven’t even touched yet!—is often both less exotic and more alarming than these fantasies. In accounts of abuse and deception directed by Jim Jones and enabled by the organizational structure he put in place, the general form of behavior is sadly familiar, though the details are astonishing in their own way. When we understand that the organizational culture of abuse that ruined Jonestown exists on a continuum with more commonplace abuses, and not in a distinct category of behavior entirely foreign to the experience of most people, we recognize the need to confront these patterns before they cause irreparable harm. This may not be a new idea for those who have personal connections to Peoples Temple, but it is a message the greater public still really needs to hear. Recently I have found Gus Breslauer’s article “Cults of our Hegemony: An Inventory of Left-Wing Cults” to be a useful starting point for thinking about this problem in the Marxian and anti-capitalist contexts that are of particular interest to me.

But the people of Jonestown didn’t exist to deliver us this message. They were about a thousand fully realized human beings, as complex and contradictory and not fully knowable as any of us, and I hope Lost Temple can lead people to an aesthetic encounter with that reality, more than anything.

Acknowledgments

I thank my friends J. D. Huffman and DonutShoes for letting me bounce musical ideas off them. Though this wasn’t my first introduction to the topic of Peoples Temple and Jonestown, the You’re Wrong About podcast episode on it brought it back to mind and piqued my interest in Peoples Temple activities before Jonestown. Once I’d started this project, the Transmissions From Jonestown podcast helped me understand the Peoples Temple tapes from a broad perspective on the group’s history, and its host provided some encouraging correspondence that kept me going early on. Jonestown Institute Editor and Research Director Fielding M. McGehee III also graciously corresponded with me when I reached out to explain what I was doing. And of course, the Jonestown Institute generally made this project possible, as without their work to obtain, archive, and publish records of Peoples Temple (including the tapes), I would not have had any of this source material to work from—and would probably have a much poorer understanding of Peoples Temple overall.


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