“Jonestown”: The Birth of A Song

(Ken Risling’s song “Jonestown” appears here and here. His complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here. He can be reached at rise@sonic.net.)

Annie Moore (left)
Annie Moore (left)

Annie Moore was my friend. I met her the last part of high school – I can’t remember exactly when – and we shared a lot of interests. Being from activist families, we found ourselves involved in some of the same endeavors, such as counseling at a summer camp for troubled foster children. Equally important, we played music together. She was a fan of the blues, and knew a bunch of stuff about the old-time masters, which impressed me no end. We were never sweethearts, but I always loved her. She was someone you just had to admire: she charmed and disarmed you with her sense of humor, so some of her strongest qualities – earnestness, integrity, compassion, dedication – came almost as a surprise, unblemished by any kind of pretense or moral one-upmanship. She was so smart, nothing seemed to escape her. Despite our preoccupation with our separate futures, I felt connected. When together, we talked and joked about everything. And did we ever love that music.

Annie was somebody special, I knew. Away at college, I looked forward to her letters. It seemed like she was bound to do something great, something unique that would make us all say, “Of course…who else but Annie?” When the letters stopped, I just figured it was my lapse, not hers. (I was never a faithful correspondent.) So at first I didn’t make much of the news that she was living with a Christian community group. But I began to hear about her conversations with a friend of ours. She seemed different. And she wouldn’t write back. I kept waiting for her to unhook from this snag and move on in her path to greatness. I still expected us to be life-long friends.

The way the news from Jonestown reached me that November day was almost as unsettling as the news itself. Someone I didn’t know well, a friend of my girlfriend marveled in almost a catty way about this crazy bunch in Guyana who had all killed themselves. ” Oh my God! Can you believe that?” No, I couldn’t. I couldn’t believe Annie would do that, and I couldn’t believe how the words of a stranger, uttered in complete innocence, had pierced my heart. Yet, even as my denial wrestled me to the floor, somewhere inside was the awareness that I had just heard Annie’s legacy. Annie the mindless follower. Annie the killer. Annie the kook. I could not stomach the picture that this unwitting mouthpiece for world opinion had delivered.

So a song began to grow in my head. In part it was a fantasy, a rock-and-roll song that would play all over the world, setting the record straight, finally, about my dear friend. It was also an indictment of charismatic leaders and the process by which they rob others of their power. And certainly, it was the setting to record of questions which were emerging, layer upon layer, from my anguished disappointment. It had a sort of tune, and some lyrics – more of a tone, actually: “Ah, that guy you hooked up with, you know he was nuts, Annie…” And then it stopped.

Years later, as I struggled with grief again – this time for my daughter’s murdered friend – I found the raw wound of Annie’s death still festering under the bandages of “recovery.” I was stuck. It appeared that I had no choice but to dive back into the painful quest I had abandoned so long ago. So I let the questions come, went back and read letters, interviews, and news accounts, and contacted our mutual friends and Annie’s family. And suddenly, 17 years after it was started, the song finished itself.

The song, “Jonestown,” is subtitled “The Unanswered Question,” a name that grew from the realization that sometimes the most important questions are exactly the ones that cannot be answered. It turns out to be not so much a song about Annie Moore as it is about my own struggle. Like any classic hero (and despite her unassuming character), Annie was someone held up as a model to be emulated. So how was it that she could do such awful things? How could someone so bright be blind to such lies? What made her betray her own morals? If she – Annie – could succumb, what does that mean about me? What is my bottom line, really?

Time eventually revealed more about Annie, though the hardest questions remained. I learned that, even as she prepared to end her own life, as her ears overflowed with the wrenching moans of death, she stopped to write a note attempting to explain. Even then, she knew some of us would wonder. Even as her heart welcomed the blackness that would irreversibly separate her from the living, she had to give something to those left behind. But what? What could possibly mollify the unquenchable god of our bewilderment? Was there anything? Yes, one thing: Understanding. And, in such a moment, who would stop to place this offering on the altar? Of course…who else but Annie?

(Ed. note: In August 2005, “Jonestown: The Unanswered Question” was chosen as one of the three annual “Best Songs” from the open mic competition of the West Coast Songwriters Association. Together with his partner Kate Sholl, their daughter Oona, and their friend Regan Hemphill, Ken Risling will perform the song before an audience of songwriters and music industry professionals at the annual WCS conference. They will share the bill at the evening concert with the two other winners and numerous guest artists. Risling describes the honor as “an opportunity to keep awareness of Jonestown alive.”)