If, as the old saying goes, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” maybe a song is worth more. Being in the music business for more than 25 years, my familiarity with audio engineering is what first brought me to the Jonestown saga. I stumbled onto the mysterious Q875 tape from Jonestown, and decided to take a crack at decoding it with a forensic audio breakdown. But in the process, the whole story of Jonestown began to unfold before me, and I began to learn the names of the people who lived and died there.
My work with the Q875 tape culminated with an article in the jonestown report, but the allure of the story continued, which I pursued through my other passion. As well as being a musician, I am an avid scuba diving instructor. I had been so moved with the history of Jonestown, that I created an underwater memorial, and sank it at a local scuba diving quarry. I had integrated what I had learned into part of my life.
A year later, I reformed with the Youngstown-Ohio based, hard rock band Typhoid Mary, which was popular through the 80’s and 90’s. While compiling ideas and songs for a new CD, we decided to write and record a song dealing with Jonestown. Once again, I wanted to incorporate part of what I had learned about Jonestown into yet another aspect of my life. The band debated what approach it should take, as far as setting the mood and perspective of the song. We figured a ballad type “tribute” song would fall upon deaf ears. It would be heartfelt to some of the survivors and families, but it would be meaningless to the general public who have never heard of the story. We could write a nice folk acoustic ballad entitled “Cry for the Children” as an homage to the children of Jonestown, but the response would have been, “Children of who?”
Besides, that’s not who we were. Being more of a raunchier hard rock band, once again Typhoid Mary went for the throat. We used the horror/scare/shock approach. Being dramatic in this way would make its listeners curious. In deciphering the meaning of the song’s lyrics, they would come to understand the story.
It worked. Fans started to ask questions about “Who’s giving the sermon in the middle of the song?”, and “Who is this prophet that you are talking about?”, and “What do these lyrics mean?” It let us open the door to the Jonestown discussion. Typhoid Mary has been known to write about capitivating moments of history, and of course, Jonestown is one of them. Now the story of Jonestown is being brought to a brand new audience.
Nevertheless, choosing the focus and direction of the song was harder than we anticipated. We didn’t want it to be interpreted as if the band was being unsympathetic or chastising, nor ridicule any of the people who had perished there in Guyana. It was quite a touchy controversy. We decided to let the song just tell the story, and expose Jim Jones for the evil person that he was. The overtone of the message is a dramatic example of what can happen when you give away your mind to the wrong person.
To personalize the song, we used excerpts from a Jim Jones sermon and clips from Q 042, the so-called Death Tape. The dichotomy of these two segments played back to back shows the contradiction of Jim Jones’ preachings. Little did he predict that he would be the person who would decide “Who and when a person is going to die.” After our producer played us the final edit, the screaming child was almost ghastly beyond description. But we chose to leave it in to show the true horror of what happened there that day.
It still amazes us how many people have no idea about this tragic event. I guess it’s our twisted way of trying to educate people, and raise up a different wave of interest. Using small clips from these sources has led many of our fans to go research the entire Death Tape themselves, which only leads them right back to the story of how and why all of this happened.
Our main concern is for the victims and their surviving family members. We would feel terrible if anyone was offended or hurt by our work. In no way is this meant to be a joking or laughing matter. It’s just our way of trying to keep the story alive. When I told my friends and acquaintances about my work on the Q875 tape and my sunken memorial, I generally received no more than an uninterested “Oh, that’s nice.” But when the message was delivered through a song, things became more serious.
The song is soon to be released officially on our forthcoming album entitled “Infected”, and has also been posted on YouTube.
I feel glad for my involvement with this story – which is very little – because I have gotten something positive out of it for myself. Typhoid Mary as a band feel glad to be able to give our fans a Jonestown history lesson, and in a way that they will listen. Like it or not, they are going to hear about it.
(Joel X. Thomas has been a life long musician, performer, and recording artist. He is both a composer, sound technician, and audio engineer, as well as a certified scuba instructor. His knowledge of the equipment used in both studio and live performances has found a particular niche in understanding some of the nuances that are inherent in the tapes of Jonestown. His collected writings for this site may be found here. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)