I was 13 years old in 1978 when I saw news reports on Jonestown and couldn’t understand why so many people committed suicide. However, while doing research for my concept album, Welcome to Forever, I came to understand that not everybody willingly partook in the cyanide-laced communion. The album’s concept is an exploration of Heaven and Hell. I wanted to touch on the darkness and evil within the world such as Jonestown, the genocide of the Jews, serial killers, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and the Kennedys. The list goes on and on. You see it everywhere. All you have to do is watch the evening news.
In the 2005 documentary Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, Ronnie James Dio was asked what part religion played in his music. “For me the whole world is Heaven and Hell,” he replied. “That song [‘Heaven and Hell’] is about that. The fact that we, in my mind, we live in Heaven, we live in Hell. God and the Devil are inherent in each of us, and it’s our choice to make. You can take the road to good or the road to bad.”
Tom Araya of Slayer expressed similar beliefs in the same documentary. “Evil is everywhere, man. Everybody’s got it. It sits really deep in everybody. Some people can’t control it as much as others, but I think it is there. Regardless of what religion you believe in, whatever it is you feel is right, everybody knows what’s wrong, everybody knows that there’s ‘wrong things.’ There are things you do not do, and the people that don’t understand that or don’t believe that, then they are not really connected with themselves spiritually. It doesn’t matter what they believe.”
I was reminded of these statements when I saw various Jonestown documentaries which – taken as a whole – inspired the ideas for my concept album.
“We were all wanting to belong.” That’s how Jim Jones’ son Stephen explained the Temple’s drawing power in the documentary Jonestown: Paradise Lost. Laura Johnston Kohl, who joined the Temple in 1970, offered a slightly different take in another documentary, Witness to Jonestown, when she said “A lot of people came because they wanted to make either a dramatic change in their lives or a dramatic change in the world.” As I continued to hear more stories from the survivors I began feeling even more empathy towards these people and their humanity. I realized that, given the right circumstances anyone could fall into the same situation.
However, after hours of reading transcriptions and listening to audiotapes of Jones, I still have difficulty understanding how he could sway so many people. When I learned about church beatings, Jones’ use of profanity, his pronouncement that he was the “I Am” (God), and his followers’ references to him as ”Dad,” I couldn’t grasp how people could continue to believe in him. I think this may be like the boiling frog syndrome: if a frog is placed in boiling water, it will jump out, but if it is placed in cold water which is then slowly heated to a boil, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death.
As Hue Fortson Jr., who joined in 1973, said in the documentary Witness to Jonestown, Jones would tell his congregation, “If you see me as your father, I’ll be your father. If you see me as your brother, I’ll be your brother. If you see me as your Savior, I’ll be your Savior. I can go even further than that. If you see me as your God, I can be your God.” After reflecting on this, I thought about the leaders of other cults – like Heaven’s Gate, Branch Davidians and the Manson family – and how they all exalted themselves to be God. They also all ended in suicide or murder.
I also thought about how people in cults were looking for something; it reminded me of an article I read entitled “Fooled by Fleecing.” When doing my cover of Soundgarden’s “Like Suicide,” I thought why do a song about just one cult leader when I can do one based on many cult leaders. That idea led me to write a song called “Fooled by Fleecing.”
Welcome to Forever was also inspired in part by the events of 9/11. I couldn’t comprehend the taking of innocent life and killing in the name of God over differences. Each side thinks it is right. You could be sitting at your desk having a cup of coffee and the next minute you’re gone. Did you have your house in order? These thoughts led to two new songs called “Ephemeral World” and “Nefarious Deeds.”
In my project, however, I wanted to focus not just on the evil in the world but also on a message of hope. The Book of John states that God sent his Son not to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him. In my song “The Verdict,” “Light has come into the world, but men love darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he does has been done through God.” As Albert Einstein said, “God did not create evil. Just as darkness is the absence of light, evil is the absence of God.”
This album began as a solo venture but soon developed into a larger project called The Pluralistic Society. My idea was to bring together the best musicians and draw off of each other’s strengths. We currently have upwards of 30 different musicians representing a variety of musical genres. I wanted to make it a musical collage so there would be something for everyone but it leans towards progressive metal with an acoustic edge.
You can visit the Pluralistic Society site to hear some clips of the songs on my current project. They are not in their final form yet, but will give you an idea of what I am creating.
A recent incident reminds me of the importance of learning from history. When I stopped into a sandwich shop to grab lunch, the “Sandwich Girls” asked me about my project. I told them I was almost done with my song about Jim Jones. They replied, “Who is Jim Jones?” They didn’t know about Jonestown; they weren’t even born yet. My hope is that we can not only remember but also use our knowledge of past events like Jonestown to help us think about our choices and show greater compassion towards each other.
(Elgin Foster may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)