Sunday, October 27, 2013

The "resurrected" pioneers of shock rock: Coven, featuring Jinx Dawson

I've paid tribute before on this blog to Alice Cooper and the pre-Alice trio of performers who actually began the “shock rock” concept. But I left one act out and will now rectify that error by talking about the very first “Satanic” rock band, their incredible stage show, their hard rock/psych/pop-rock trio of albums, and their talented and devilishly sexy lead singer.

The name Coven is known by all folk of a certain age for the massive early Seventies hit “One Tin Soldier,” from the one really great Billy Jack film. That song wasn't a Coven recording at all, but was instead the selfsame talented and sexy lead singer, Jinx Dawson, performing with an orchestra for the movie's soundtrack.

Coven was a Chicago group formed in the late Sixties that truly was a seminal act, one that influenced a number of other rock performers of the time, but which suffered from mismanagement, record companies that signed them and then worked against them, and the simple fact that they were just too ahead of their time.

To give you an idea of just how radical the group was for its time, listen to this radio ad (yes, this was intended to be played on good ol' American rock 'n' roll radio) promoting their first LP in 1969:

A few years later parents still would've been outraged, but the band would've been headlining arena shows like the Alice Cooper group and Black Sabbath. Coven came early on the scene, laid the groundwork, and in fact got in trouble several times (from promoters, police, and record labels) while the aforementioned acts were still honing their craft. The three albums they made indicate they were talented and very eclectic in their approach, but their showmanship is lost to the ages, as there appears to be no live footage of the band.

And what exactly are we missing? Well, Coven performed throughout 1968 and '69, doing the songs that wound up on their first album, with a little something extra – a stage show that included excerpts from the Satanic mass, the first known appearance in a rock show of “the sign of the horns,” and a finale that included a Jesus-looking roadie who had been upon a crucifix for the entire show coming down off the cross to turn it upside down as lead singer Jinx hailed Satan.

Yes, not exactly your average “peace-and-love era” performance, but it did predate all of the shock rock spectacles that were to come. In the one informal and friendly group interview that can be found on the Internet – in which Coven members Jinx, drummer Steve Ross, and keyboardist Rick Durrett spoke with deejay “Baron Saturday” on WNYU – Coven's live act was discussed fleetingly, but enough to intrigue. One wishes there was video or film footage of one of these shows so we could see how truly bizarre and blasphemous the band got in its late Sixties heyday.

In the WNYU interview, Dawson and her bandmates describe how their act had such a reputation that, when the band played Detroit, they had to do an afternoon run-through for the mayor (!), who deemed that they could perform their songs but could say nothing in English. That sounds insane – and is – but the band did speak in Latin onstage during their black mass segment; one assumes the mayor didn’t get that the dialogue in Latin was far more “dangerous” than whatever the band might’ve said in English….

To contextualize this, I should note that Coven played on the same bill with major acts of the time, the acts that were themselves deemed subversive at one time or another. Among them were Pink Floyd, the Yardbirds, Deep Purple, Small Faces, the MC5, Iggy and the Stooges, and a group from Detroit called “Alice Cooper” (Jinx declares that the gents in the Cooper group “were “scared” of Coven).

So here we have the stuff of rock legend. While there is apparently no footage of Coven onstage (but there are a few photos), there are various places online where you can read the vivid memories of the fans who saw their act and were amazed by it (or offended, which really is just as good). 

One YouTube poster has taken it upon him/herself to share the group's music and has included among the stash a few rare glimpses at Jinx Dawson in different incarnations. The first and most important (since it seems to stand as Coven's only TV appearance that has survived) is this clip of them doing a spirited lip-synch on an unidentified TV show to their single “Wicked Woman” (which was written by the band).

Although that seems to be about it in terms of footage of the band in their prime (hopefully someone will come up with something else) there is one jarring artifact of Coven at their most extreme, namely their first LP, Witchcraft Destroys Minds and Reaps Souls. The album is a hard rock celebration of all things Satanic, with some tunes that are catchy pop-rock, others pre-metal (which hadn't yet officially begun when the record came out). They have also been hailed as forerunners of “prog.”

My favorite hook-driven number is “The White Witch of Rose Hall,” which was one of several songs written for the album by Jim Donlinger, later a member of the band Lovecraft (who much later became a born-again Christian and who summarized his work with Coven thusly: “It was dark, and it contributed nothing to the world”):

Providing further evidence that some weird and fascinating decisions were made by corporate moguls in the late Sixties and early Seventies, one should consider the fact that this record was released by Mercury Records with a trifold which depicts a Satanic mass, with a naked blonde (who many websites claim is Jinx, but others say is not) lying on an altar as the members of the band conduct a Satanic ritual.

The band are also depicted on the back cover giving “the sign of the horns,” and the album's final track is a mini-black mass (written by producer Bill Traut), performed as if in a creepy radio play (think “Lights Out” or “Inner Sanctum”).

Thus all of the Seventies and Eighties bands that claimed adherence to the church of Satan were preceded by Coven, and their records continued to be sold in stores and through the mail – the Witchcraft... LP was pulled by Mercury after it was mentioned in an article in the March 1970 issue of Esquire about the Manson murders and the new “craze” for Satanism called “Evil Lurks in California.”

The album was never officially issued on CD, but is available from Jinx's own label, Nevoc, on eBay (strike that – reverse it...), and the original LP now goes for hefty prices (even in crappy condition). You can hear the album on all the usual platforms before rendering unto Nevoc what is Nevoc's.

Then there's the matter of the band from Birmingham that usually gets credit for bringing the Horned One into rock 'n' roll. This gets debated endlessly on the Internet, with Black Sabbath fans claiming that they took nothing from Coven, while others with a sense of chronology argue that they did.

Suffice it to say that Coven was doing a black mass as part of their live shows for months before the band Earth became Black Sabbath. The two bands later toured together, and it is noted in various places online that in Memphis in 1970 the members of Coven painted inverted crosses in blood on Sabbath's dressing room door (that's one way of dealing with someone who stole your image).

Did I forget to mention that, bizarrely enough, one of the founding members of Coven is a bass player named Oz Osborne? In Rolling Stone, Lester Bangs noted that Sabbath was “something like England's answer to Coven” (adding, with his usual acid sarcasm, “well, they're not that bad, but that's all the credit you can give them”). Here is Sabbath stalwart Tommy Iommi on MTV denying any knowledge of Coven.

And, just to make the coincidences even stronger, the first song on the Witchcraft... album (released when Ozzy and company were still called Earth) is called “Black Sabbath.” (Maybe everyone involved were just gigantic fans of Karloff and Mario Bava?) Here is a fan-made music-video using images from Benjamin Christensen's still-startling 1922 film Haxan.

Now, the question of course is whether Coven really was into Satanism, or had they just discovered a good way to shock the public. In the interview on WNYU, the band maintains that “we lived the whole thing. It wasn’t shtick — we were a practicing coven.” When asked to clarify, it’s noted by Rick Durrett that the band wasn’t Satanic per se, but they were performing magic(k) rituals at the time that they lived together in Chicago and L.A. (they were “definitely” into sex magick, he adds). 

In an earlier solo interview, Dawson told WNYU’S Baron Saturday that she currently has “no religious affiliations.” She is “neither Wiccan nor Satanist,” but is “a ceremonial magician of the left-hand path,” who was initially exposed to this kind of magic from her great-aunt and great-grandfather. She confirmed that the band actively practiced magic all during the recording of the albums, and that the other key members “still practice magic, except for one.”


If Coven were just a gimmick band I wouldn't be writing about them at any length. What's most interesting about them is not only that they staked out new territory that effectively got them banned and drubbed at every turn, but that they made two great albums and one good one. Sure, the black mass included on the Witchcraft... album sounds like a radio play (or, to put it in a more contemporary vein, “performance art”), but the songs written by the band and Jim Donlinger are memorable, and the vocals by Jinx are terrific.

Dawson is a mysterious figure in show business. She was in and out of it for something like three decades (see below), and has reappeared in the last few years as a cult figure, described by many fans on the Net as “the goth metal goddess.” Her cred as a rock vocalist is unquestionable – one or two of the songs on Witchcraft find her sounding a bit like Grace Slick, but by the second album she has her own style and a voice that works beautifully in a number of genres, from hard rock to pop to new wave and syntho-pop, and even country. Ann Wilson has never claimed her as a heroine, but Jinx's rock vocals surely laid the groundwork for what Heart did in the Seventies and Eighties.

She also happens to have remained a stunning looking woman. If the recent pictures posted of her are of a woman who should be 62 or so in human years (and who survived a major heart attack a few years ago), she truly must have a portrait melting somewhere in the attic.

The greatest curiosity about her career, besides the fact that Coven never became an arena-sized act, is that she never became well known as an actress or a model. The “goth” part of her goddess label in fact relates to her glamorous “witchy” look – not many blondes are “goth chicks,” but Dawson seemed to have the look down several decades ago (despite sporting L.A.-ready long blonde hair).
As I noted at the outset of this piece, the reason most of us know her voice is from a track she did as a stray assignment outside of Coven, the Billy Jack theme song “One Tin Soldier.” She got the job because of her connection to Bizarre Productions, a company run by Frank Zappa's manager Herb Cohen (the cousin of Funhouse guest and former Mother of Invention Howard Kaylan!).

The song was written and first recorded by a Canadian band called the Original Caste (snappy!) in 1969. Someone associated with Billy Jack (1971), perhaps Tom Laughlin himself, chose the song and wound up with a theme tune that was a top 10 hit in two separate years ('71 and '73) thanks to the catchiness of the melody and Jinx's powerful vocals.

“One Tin Soldier” was a gigantic fucking hit, and it should've made Jinx Dawson a household name. Instead it spawned a second Coven album that is good, but isn't as powerful as Witchcraft or as earworm-ish as the following LP, Blood on the Snow. The album found them backing away from the Satanic image – although there still is a not-too-hidden “sign of the horns” on the cover.

Whatever transpired, the band did their best to craft a mainstream pop-rock album (with, again, terrific vocals from Jinx). But the people who produced and released the record – who may or may not have included Tom Laughlin himself, since the album is co-produced by someone named “Frank Laughlin,” and that was Tom's onscreen pseudonym as the director of The Trial of Billy Jack – decided to totally “erase” the band from their own record's packaging.

They are not identified by name anywhere on the cover, and their faces were “whited out” on the cover. A commenter who claims to have known one of the band's guitarists insists they were indeed contracted to Laughlin and had to break the contract in order to keep performing here.

For her part, Jinx noted here that the band had a “financial arrangement” with the renegade indie filmmaker (whose recent spate of YouTube videos must be seen to be believed). And the last item I discovered online were pics of the band performing outside a movie theater showing Billy Jack in Milwaukee – if Laughlin was indeed managing their career at this point, he certainly got them some great gigs....

That said, there still are some catchy tracks on the record. Here is one of them, “Lonely Lover."

At this juncture, when talking about Dawson as a performer and person rather than as “the goddess,” I should note that there is one very interesting, touching interview with her that appears on the website for the Indianapolis alternative paper Nuvo. Since so many of the sources on the Internet repeat the same information (or mythology) about Jinx and Coven, this article is enlightening, in that it paints a picture of the real woman behind the “goth metal” image. She reveals that she studied opera at age 9, joined her brother's band (called "Him, Her and Them") at 13, and worked on the Coven stage show as a way to use her opera background in a rock context.

Her family was quite well-known in Indianapolis in the early to mid-20th century, and she in fact moved back to Indy in the late Seventies to work on a “private event and concert venue” situated on “the Dawson Lake and Lodge property” in town.

She then worked with her father on the creation of a gated suburban community, but the centerpiece of the article is surprisingly not her landmark work with Coven, but the experience she had as a caregiver for her father when he got sick with cancer. She lost hundreds of thousands of dollars while caring for him, and the house she lived in (located on Dawson Lake) was lost in a sheriff's auction.

This sobering aspect of her life makes the prospect of a memoir (which she has talked about writing for the last few years) even more interesting. She's spoken in other interviews about her affairs with different rockers, from Jim Morrison to Roger Taylor of Queen, and has even mentioned a fling with Charlie Chaplin (now that really should be chronicled, since “Le petit Charlot” would've been pretty damned old when he met Jinx).

Another article (actually a chapter from what looks to be an independently published book) that paints a very human portrait of the “metal goddess” is this item from the website of Franklin College in Indiana. She talks about the ups and downs of show business, discussing the different moments where she and the band were on the precipice of major fame – including the moment that they turned down producer Neil Bogart's offer to become a made-up, costumed band (an ensemble of “four Alice Coopers” named KISS took up that offer).

She talks about her work as a studio singer (her vocal range is indeed incredible) and how she became a designer of clothing and jewelry for such disparate acts as Led Zeppelin and Barbra Streisand (not forgetting Liza with a Z and Motely Crue); it should be noted that she currently sells magic- and Satanic-related jewelry on eBay. Reflecting on her fortunes and that of the band she declares "I've made some major-league mistakes in my career at least three of 'em... It seems we were always a little bit early on everything, or a little bit late." 

As with all of the interviews she's done, the Franklin College article not only sketches a fascinating life, but one that intersected with a bunch of different pop-culture movements from the rock-festival world of the late Sixties to the glam Seventies and the “new wave” Eighties. Hopefully Jinx will make good on her promise to write a memoir soon.

In the meantime two clips from other Dawson incarnations. Here is a rare clip of Coven in its reincarnation as a “new wave” band called the Equalizers. With her trademark blonde locks hidden away, she looks like a sorta glam biker chick (and the voice, as ever, is terrific); the band is still an incredible amount of fun:

And, updating this piece since it was initially written (ten years later!), I should note that the barely released horror film “Heaven Can Help” (1989) is now available in its entirety on YouTube. Jinx looks terrific in this film, but it's got a pretty mundane script. It most resembles entries in the Witchcraft franchise (naturally!) that was released straight-to-video in the Nineties:

I want to close out with the best evidence that Coven was a talented band and could've overcome their Satanic image. Their third and final LP, Blood on the Snow (1974), is a terrific concoction produced by the legendary Shel Talmy (who worked with the Kinks, the Who, and the Creation in the Sixties). 

The record includes the band playing in a number of different genres, from gentle pop-rock and country-rock to all-out Satanic harder sounds. Listening to it today one wonders what went wrong – did the record label just not promote it, was it dwarfed by other bigger releases of the time, or was the band just being too eclectic to score with any particular audience?

Whatever the case may be, the record is terrific (though it seems to be out of print entirely on CD as I write this) and definitely qualifies for numerous re-listens (and yes, it arrived on the scene two years before Heart released their first LP).

My favorite song from it isn't “hard” or Satanic at all, it's “This Song's For All Your Children,” a sweet, peace-and-love (gasp!) type of tune. It's a catchy recording that sounds a lot like the AM hits that Todd Rundgren had in the early Seventies, and it definitely demonstrates that Coven could've, and should've, had Top 40 hit singles.

The third track on the album is another light, MOR tune that sounds positively country-fied. “Lady O” (not to be confused with the Judee Sill song recorded by the Turtles) offers another example of Jinx's vocal versatility.

“I Need a Hundred of You” is another great pop song that foreshadows the kind of thing that was done by Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie in the “Buckingham Nicks” iteration of Fleetwood Mac – which began a year after “Blood on the Snow” was released. Here is the song accompanied by yet another great fan-made photo montage:

It has been lamented by the present-day music critics who revisit the three Coven albums that the band was just shuffled too much from label to label (four labels in a half-dozen years, since the “One Tin Soldier” single was on a label, Warner, that never released a Coven album). They had a following at the time they were making records, as is evidenced by the folks online who fondly remember their live Satanic “rock opera” shows (Jinx's phrase), but aside from the Billy Jack single, massive fame eluded them.

The upside of the cult that has arisen around the band online is that, according to Jinx's Facebook posts, the group is recording their first album in close to four decades. God knows (oops, Lucifer is aware) that Jinx still looks terrific and sounded wonderful in the one release that saw the light of day since Blood on the Sun, a CD (again, seemingly waaaay out of print) called Metal Goth Queen – Out of the Vault, which contained later Dawson tracks (including a synth dance number!).

I will say I'm looking forward to the reappearance of Coven, whether they put on a blasphemous stage show or not. Here is track from that “Metal Goth Queen” collection, another earworm-ish item, called “Come Out of the Rain.” Since I write this on the week before Halloween, I embed this video not just because the song is catchy rock, but because the fan-made video is made up of images from the b&w “haunted nanny” years of Dark Shadows!

The video I must close out his “survey” post with is the publicity film made for “Blood on the Snow.” Coven definitely loved “transgressing,” and so, even while they were releasing an album with several extremely radio-friendly tracks, they created a little film for the album's closing song that is purely Satanic.

The band has spoken about how the film was funded somehow by Disney, and this early “music video” was, naturally enough, shelved and never seen on American TV – for the reasons why, just take a look (and try to place yourself back in 1974). Now we can rejoice in it 365 days a year, but it seems particularly appropriate on Halloween.

UPDATE: My review of the new Coven album, Jinx, is here.


Joe McGinty said...

Great job as always! One thing: "One Tin Soldier" was co-written by Dennis Lambert, who also co-wrote tons of hits (google him), from "Do The Freddie" to "We Built This City". Dennis Lambert is the subject of the documentary "Of All The Things", sort of a pre "Searching For Sugarman" about his tour of the Phillipines where his obscure 70s LP of the same name is a huge hit. We backed him up at Joe's Pub for the NYC premiere of the film.

Luis Ángel said...

Well, Black Sabbath was actually the name of a movie, before any band. That´s in first place.

Second, Ozzy´s second name is Osbourne, that´s a fact. He didn´t choose it.

Coven is a great band, and was underrated.

But Black Sabbath is a very very great band, can´t be compared to any other in 70´s. Because it´s the music in what I´m really interested on, I recognize Sabbath was further far away.

I enjoy Coven very much but don´t like that shit about the stetic, the horns, the names, that has nothing, really nothing to do with the music.

paul limo said...

The group played around small Toronto-area clubs for a few years before eventually signing with BMG Canada and Arista Records for the rest of the world, and releasing their debut album See The Light in 1988, which featured the top charting hits "Angel Eyes" and "See The Light".