I had previously known that seemingly every minute of life in Jonestown had been recorded on audiotape, and I had even heard a few of the tapes and studied the topic quite a bit both in books and on video. But nothing could have ever prepared me for the mind-blowing editorial depth of a project I undertook this last year.
I am currently editing about sixty audio cassettes for release in early 2007 in two CD packages of all the tapes of attorney Mark Lane and screenwriter/author Donald Freed talking at Jonestown about the murder of Martin Luther King and the decline of freedom in the United States, and Jim Jones mentioning – approximately fifty times with almost Gertrude Stein-like repetition – the imminent arrival of Lane and Freed.
The Transparency label will release both a four-CD set of Lane, Freed and Jones, and a separate single CD of Donald Freed with accidental accompaniment by “The Jonestown Express” house band and singers.
When one attempts to record something new over an existing reel-to-reel tape recording, if the tape heads are not cleaned/properly aligned, the result is known as “print-through.” That is what happened here. I’m sure never in a million years would Donald Freed have had any idea of what surrounds him on the recording of his powerful talk to the Jonestown faithful. The result is an accidental surrealist masterpiece, an “old school” soul music unplanned “rave” event. For example, Donald Freed will be talking about agents provocateur killing people, and behind his intense words and delivery are a vocalist singing “That’s the time I feel like makin’ love” or “Stand by me” with people screaming and applauding. At one point, even Jim Jones is criss-crossing his own voice on the two separate recordings, talking to himself in an almost haunted way. This is the wildest audio recording I have happened to stumble upon in years, and everyone who has heard it so far agrees. About half of the 61 minutes of this tape will be on the four-CD set (the portion where Freed’s voice is the loudest and clearest) and the entire recording will be on the separate CD to focus on the piece itself, above and beyond the content of Donald Freed’s talk.
There are also two recordings of Donald Freed on “Jonestown Radio.” If only Jim Jones had realized what an eloquent and loyal spokesperson he had in Donald Freed, the credibility of the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project would have been much stronger both then and in history. Had Jones not double-crossed Freed by attempting to blackmail him, his endeavors probably would have been successful both in the short and long term, rather than the disaster that followed.
Mark Lane’s 93-minute talk about the MLK murder and his subsequent legal representation of both James Earl Ray and Grace Walden (the one person who saw the actual gunman immediately after the shooting and who was put into a mental institution for ten years when she would not “sign off” on James Earl Ray) is beyond textbook definitive. Being his collaborator, Donald Freed says many of the exact same words as Mark Lane, but with the overview of a Greek tragedist looking for human archetypes in situations that span thousands of years. Jim Jones’ comments on the Black Panthers, political assassinations, LSD experiments – you name it – are very ahead of their time and insightful, yet also have an idiotic Gomer Pyle humor to them. (His mispronunciation of “hegemony” compared to how Noam Chomsky says the same word speaks volumes.) His endless incorrect allusions to Donald Freed being the screenwriter of The Parallax View (rather than the actual Executive Action) are amusing/confusing/strange. Jones’ double-faced praise and damning of Mark Lane are indicative of the insanity that was to come. Lane is either a saint brought by God to save them or a provocateur/government mole sent to bring their failure and demise.
What I have learned most from working with these tapes is how the Martin Luther King case is the pivot for the eventual murder of Congressman Leo Ryan and the infamous Kool-Aid event of November 18, 1978. Ryan delayed his trip to investigate reports of strange goings-on at Jonestown to help Lane and Freed with their cases in the U.S. regarding James Earl Ray and Grace Walden. By the time Ryan finally arrived at Jonestown, Jones had completely snapped and had Ryan shot, and hence the need for the (apparently much rehearsed to break down people’s wills) mass suicide. As the Rev. John Moore – father of Carolyn Layton and Annie Moore, who died at Jonestown, and Rebecca Moore, co-manager of this website – so perfectly said, all it would have taken was one brave individual to walk up and tip over the vat of poisoned drink, and hundreds of lives would have been spared. Since Jones’ gunmen were among the first to die, all it would have taken was one or two brave people to escape the compound and run to get help from the Guyana authorities, and hundreds of lives would have been spared that way. But Jones had broken most of the people’s wills over a long period of time.
I didn’t like Jim Jones before, and after studying these tapes I like him a lot less.
(Michael Sheppard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)