Taking the Needle Off He’s Able

My essay about the Peoples Temple record album He’s Able was published this summer by Colorado Review, an excellent literary journal put out by Colorado State University. About four-and-a-half years had passed from the day that I first heard songs from the record (at a Minneapolis production of Leigh Fondakowski’s play The People’s Temple) to the day the article appeared on newsstands. During that time, I quit a good magazine job to become a full-time freelancer. I moved across the country. I got married, got divorced, got a graduate degree, and started planning for yet another cross-country move. Life moves in quick, shorts bursts, like a squid propelling itself through the water, and the spates are separated by indefinite periods of drifting.

I worked on a number of other projects over those years, but the essay that I called “Songs Primarily in the Key of Life” was a sort of constant companion. I returned to it periodically between assignments — a bit of research here, a quick revision there. Of course, He’s Able became one of my favorite records, and not a month goes by that I don’t give it a spin. (Among other things, it’s a great record to crank up during house cleaning.)

In addition to discovering some great music, my research for “Songs Primarily…” allowed me to meet and correspond with some kind and fascinating people. I am indebted to interviews and other exchanges with former Temple members like Don Beck, Laura Johnston Kohl, Jack and Cindy Beam, and others. The research introduced me to several other intriguing characters, to whom I owe my gratitude: An abrasive former record mogul living out his golden years in relative obscurity. A talented engineer on whom People Temple left an indelible mark. An enigmatic, polygendered British performance artist. An underground-renowned punk novelist and prankster. Most recently, the editors and fact-checkers at Colorado Review have been gathered into the story, and they receive my thanks as well.

Soon, I’ll be moving on from “Songs Primarily…,” and I will miss it. Next month, I’m participating in a residency near San Francisco. It’ll be my first visit there since early 2007, when I hunkered down for days with the helpful curators at the California Historical Society (they also have my thanks and admiration). I plan to stop by Portals of the Past in Golden Gate Park, the Ionic monument in front of which the Temple choir is posed on the He’s Able record cover. Three-and-a-half years ago, the area was undergoing renovation. I had to duck under yellow construction tape in order to read a plaque explaining that the columns are a “…relic of the conflagration of April 18, 1906,” the great San Francisco earthquake. While fires destroyed all of the Nob Hill manor standing behind it, it seems this stately entryway managed to remain whole. The archway looks elegant at its lakeside location, and I like it because it reminds me that occasionally, out of tragedy, beautiful things can emerge.

(Brian Kevin’s article “Songs Primarily in the Key of Life” appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of Colorado Review. The article was also mentioned that year in an article about literary journals in The Huffington Post. Brian Kevin’s collection of articles for this site appears here. He can be reached at brikevin@gmail.com.)