In 1978, the residents of Jonestown in Guyana committed mass suicide at the behest of their religious leader Jim Jones. The Jonestown Massacre was one of the largest mass suicides in history. Because there are very few Jonestown survivors, no one will ever really know what happened on November 18, 1978. There are voice recordings to give an idea of what may have occurred, but the rest is simple speculation.
The Jonestown tragedy has never been completely forgotten. Movies have been made to speculate what may have happened to the people living there. The mass suicide is even brought back to life in the form of a neo-psychedella band from San Francisco.
What Is the Brian Jonestown Massacre?
The Brian Jonestown Massacre was formed in 1990 by Antone Newcombe. The band falls into many genres, mainly what is better known as “shoegaze”, folk rock and psychedelic rock. Named after the Rolling Stone member, Brian Jones and the infamous, Jonestown Massacre, the band has produced several albums over the past 25 years. Although none have been mainstream, their unique lyrics and inability to maintain a constant lineup has made them a band worth watching.
Songs such as “That Girl Suicide” and “Straight Up and Down” are two of the most commonly known. Many critics consider the band and its members to resemble both namesakes due to the fact that drug addiction and irrational behavior seem to be what the band is best known for. The band has a large following in the “shoegaze” and alternative rock genres. Most are young enough that they were not even born when the Jonestown mass suicide actually happened, and probably do not even realize there is a connection.
The band’s style is not overly heavy and is often reminiscent of the Birds and the Rolling Stones. The majority of their music is played using a variety of instruments. Newcombe seems intent on being uniquely different, even though much of his music falls in line with other psychedelic themed bands from the 1960’s. Over the course of the band’s history, there have been over 60 members. This may contribute to the varying styles that are often associated with the band’s new music.
The Connection to the real Jonestown Massacre
While the band’s lyrics and some of their graphics allude to the Jonestown Massacre in Guyana, the real connection is based on the Anton Newcombe’s fixation on the Jonestown Tragedy. His song, Ballad of Jim Jones, was written about the tragedy itself and the Jonestown cult leader, Jim Jones. Newcombe’s obsession with both the mass suicide at Jonestown and the late Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones seems to be what he is intent on using for the foundation of the band.
Newcombe also embraces the “drink the Kool-Aid” phrase as well. While many don’t think of it as anything harmless, Newcombe attempts to capitalize on the horror of the massacre by linking the poisoned Kool-Aid to other aspects of society, as well as to his own music.
Jonestown Cult and the Jonestown Massacre Survivors
What makes Jim Jones and the mass suicide in Guyana so appealing to individuals like Newcombe is anyone’s guess. The “cult” mentality is extremely resilient when it comes to bands, the love of music and religion, so it stands to reason that like Jim Jones, Newcombe may be attempting to solidify his own group of followers.
The Jonestown tragedy began much earlier than 1978. Jim Jones founded the People’s Temple in 1955 in Indianapolis, Indiana. Later, in 1965, he moved his church to Southern California when he began to be pursued by the IRS and the state of Indiana for tax issues. Once in California, the community began to grow rapidly. After several run ins with the press, Jones began to look for areas away from the public eye where the small congregation could continue to live and work in the communal lifestyle they had chosen.
In 1974, Jones ventured to Guyana, Africa and eventually purchased enough property there to begin to build a compound. By 1977, the People’s Temple and its many followers were ready to leave the United States and begin to build their new community in Guyana. Shortly after, the church’s departure, friends and family members began to ask questions and express concerned for the members of the church.
From the very beginning, Jones began to exert his control over his followers, first through financial means and eventually through various forms of physical and verbal abuse. As time passed, the members of the church looked to Jones for almost every aspect of their lives. Once securely inside the boundaries of the compound in Africa, few members were allowed to leave without an escort for fear they would leave the church altogether.
Leo Ryan, a California Congressman went to Guyana in November of 1978 at the request of friends and family of the members of the People’s Temple. Ryan was allowed to tour the compound, but was later asked to leave when it became apparent to Jones that members of the church were looking for ways to escape. As Ryan and a select few church members were getting ready to board the small plane and leave for home, a group of bodyguards opened fire, killing Ryan and several others.
Jonestown massacre survivors are few, but those who did manage to escape claim that Jones went into a panic and called for all church members to immediately commit suicide by drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Aid. The drink was given to everyone including the children. Those who refused, were shot. In the end, over 900 people died within the boundaries of the compound. It was later discovered, that Jones shot himself.
For several years, the Jonestown cult and the Jonestown mass suicide were the main subject when individuals researched religious cults and the effects of cults on their members. The cult mentality was referred to as the emotional or spiritual hold a religious leader could use to control or manipulate the individuals who followed their beliefs. The fact that Jim Jones had the ability to control over 900 individuals and lead them from the United States to a jungle compound, deep in the heart of Africa and then convince them to take their own lives, was something many people could not fathom.
Anton Newcombe, the founder of the Brian Jonestown Massacre, was also caught up in the mentality that would allow one person to manipulate and control their followers. While the band has struggled to keep members for over 25 years, the music seems to be reminiscent of a time when fantasy and fiction were extremely popular.
Compared to everyone from the Birds to Bob Dylan, Newcombe and his many band mates seem to have captured the enigma and ethereal quality that both Brian Jones and the Jonestown massacre seem to have on everyone who researches them. While the lyrics from Newcombe’s music may allude to suicide and other similarities to the real Jonestown tragedy, there is no true cult following to be had.
Facts concerning the Jonestown mass suicide are limited except for the eyewitness testimony of a handful of survivors and the audio recording of the actual event. Although bands like the Brian Jonestown Massacre may attach themselves in some limited way to the event, it is in name only. Even with Newcombe’s fascination with Jim Jones and the cult he created, there is no direct link other than lines contained in his music.
The one effect the music of the band does have is that it creates a spark of interest that intrigues others to learn about what actually happened in Jonestown, Guyana on November 18, 1978. For many the event is a part of history, and for many, it is all but forgotten. The fact is, keeping the memory of the massacre alive in this manner, may actually prevent others from experiencing the same fate.