A Celebration of Women in Metal: Coven – Witchcraft Destroys Minds and Reaps Souls

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Artist: Coven

Album: Witchcraft Destroys Minds and Reaps Souls

Label: Mercury Records

Released: Summer 1969

Country: USA

Oftentimes Metal artists mystify themselves, sometimes through a literal cloak and dagger routine. There are varying reasons, both given and assumed, as to why certain acts choose to do this, some do it to boost their mystique, while others do it for reasons unknown. Somtimes the end result, rarely achieved despite however much hoped for, is an increased interest that borders on obsession, with some more die hard fans turned nigh zealots in their fervor to garner any and all information leaked out in small pocket interviews over the course of a career. But what if you were one of the first to shroud yourself in this mystification? Not with any intent or creation of far reaching aspirations to be a sometime cult-status figure, but because it is simply in your very nature to be both mystical and mystifying. Unfortunately, such was the case and curse of Jinx Dawson and her Proto-Metal band Coven, who was arguably a founding matron of the contemporary Metal scene; proffering many of the genre and its myriad of offshoots foundational concepts and themes still largely used today, such as the merging of the cult themes with Rock, and the ever ubiquitous horns. This mystification would be the downfall of a rapidly rising success story, and would only be added to in the most negative of terms, to the point of keeping the entire band and its seminal work, Witchcraft Destroys Minds and Reaps Souls, relegated to a place in the shadow of a larger act that was influenced by them.

ORIGINS:

The Matron of wom I speak, Esther Jinx Dwason was born of a tragedy derived of a complex delivery, wherein her twin sister perished in 1950 in the city of Indianapolis. From the onset, Jinx’s upbringing would be steeped in mysticism, occult teachings and multicultural religious exposure. Her parents, who, like their forebears dating back to the Mayflower compact, followed The Left Hand Path and were involved in a number of secret societies including The Ancient Order of the Druid, and as such exposed and imparted upon their daughter the knowledge cultivated throughout the family’s illustrious lineage. Jinx would also be exposed to the art of Hoodoo and Obeah from her Creole nanny who taught her, among other things, the sign of the horns (of which she would be fiercely protective of it remaining a symbol for all when GenSimmons of Kiss attempted to trademark it). Dark, and ominous though it may seem, Jinx’s childhood did not consist solely of the macabre, as it was also steeped in the Bourgeois of her family status, least of which afforded her an opportunity to learn baroque-esque artistry including ballet, piano and opera, the latter of which she awarded a scholarship in her teens.

A COVEN FORMED:

Utilizing her unique upbringing and cultivated inborn talent, Jinx formed Coven in 1967 with drummer Steve Ross, keyboardist Rick Durrett, guitarist Chris Neilson, and bassist Greg “Oz” Osborne. Opening for acts such Alice Cooper, the Yardbirds and Vanilla Fudge, the band quickly gained attention with their musicality in conjunction with their then bizarre stage show that featured elements of rituals and even “crucifying” a roadie at the beginning of the show, to only have the cross inverted by the end of the set. Soon enough, their onstage dramatics were enough to land them with fame Mercury Records, wherein they are reputed to have signed the contract with their own blood as a sign of commitment to their crafts-occultism and music in an act way beyond any theatrics of the time lending an air of authenticity. By the time 1969 had fully unfurled itself, Coven had recorded and released unto the world the first Rock album with a heavy occult/satanic influence, and one that would act as a swan song of sorts for the age of Flower Power-Witchcraft Destroys Minds and Reaps Souls. Following the release, Coven would enjoy a mounting success in the form of rapidly increasing record sales, and piqued interest in the performance, only added to the fact that they were more often than not heavily scrutinized by police and/or local officials before hand, as the record’s Satanic Mass, featuring an actual satanic mass would serve as the opening for the act. The rise in record sales could also be attributed to the band’s openly satanic leanings especially when considering the majority of the music at the time was quite literally about sunshine and rainbows, Coven offered a tripped out ominous alternative that was wrapped up in esotericism.

However, the timing, to no fault of the bands, was less than desirable, as in August of that year the nation would be shocked and appalled by the atrocities carried out by the Manson family, only added to by their charismatic leader’s own warped brand of Satanism. Following a March 1970 Esquire release, that not only featured the Manson family’s crimes under the title “Evil Lurks in California” but also, in a different piece shows a man holding aloft a copy of Witchcraft while purporting the records “Black Mass stuff”, helped see a slump in record sales for the promising young band. Never helping the issue, in the following months there would be a photograph of Charles Manson that surfaces which features him holding Witchcraft aloft, causing a merger of the quote of a different person to be attributed to Manson. In the resulting confusion, Mercury Records quickly pulled all the records from distribution in a preemptive face-saving tactic, that would ultimately cause Coven to disband until late ‘71-early 72’ when Jinx was tapped to sing One Tin Soldier for the soundtrack of the film Billy Jack , wherein she would forego all personal credit in the place of Coven who would go onto to rerecord it as a band reunited. While the Coven would go on to achieve other small victories, like creating a music video for Blood on the Snow before it was en-vouge to have such a thing, the band would never achieve their original trajectory of the late 60’s, as a result of having their rightful place usurped by a more male dominated Metal scene.

A THRONE USURPED

Not one to intentionally undermine the greatness that is the band Black Sabbath, especially considering its many meaningful contributions to Metal, there does however, need to a clearing of the air so to speak in terms of statement of facts and originality, at least in the beginning phases of the band. Quite simply, Coven’s release of Witchcraft Destroys Minds and Reaps Souls outpaced Black Sabbath’s titular debut by a year and the renaming of the british band from Earth by several months, not to mention that Black Sabbath just so happened to be the title of the opening track to Witchcraft. Normally this in and of itself would not be such a big deal, bands riff on each other all the time right? Not so much in this case, while Black Sabbath didn’t have any obligation to laud Coven as the forebears of contemporary Metal, members of the band didn’t also need to specifically shirk the band at a given opportunity when it arose, which only helped them to remain in obscurity.

Particularly, there was an instance where original guitarist and founding member of the Black Sabbath, Tony Iommi, was being interviewed by an MTV correspondent in 1986, quite literally confronting him with the Witchcraft LP while asking if he had ever seen it before . After an initial “no”, the correspondent begins to point out the similarities of Coven’s bassist “Oz” Osborne and the name of the opening track. The famed guitarist maintained his position throughout the interview; this in spite of the facts that Sabbath had both done a show with them in 1970 and were adjacent affiliated label mates-Fontana/Vertigo and Mercury Records. Iommi finished the brief interview with a non committal laugh and a, “we were there first”, even after being told how the album was released in 1969 and a final counter of “…’68 we went to Black Sabbath” to the correspondent’s recalling of Sabbath’s former name. This in and of itself could seem partially innocuous, chocked up to a fumbling of one caught unawares from a “gotcha” moment in conjunction with a momentary lapse of remembrance. It could also quite simply be a matter of coincidence in timing; that Black Sabbath had never truly known of Coven beforehand. However, lapse of remembrance aside, it’s difficult to believe that Sabbath had no knowledge of Coven after their debut, especially when one considers Lester Bangs’ 1970 coverage of Sabbath’s titular debut in the music powerhouse publication that is Rolling Stone, wherein he called Black Sabbath, “England’s answer to Coven”. This would be at a time when Sabbath would be trying to break into an American market, so it is hardly inconceivable that this comparison went unnoticed by the band, a supposition only strengthened by Iommi’s seemingly casual downplay of their predecessor, given everything laid out thus far. This creates a shadow of doubt around the need for dismissal of credit and need for asserting first claim, especially when one considers that Coven had been performing their occult laden set with notable acts since 1967, two years before the now known Black Sabbath interjected their own style with an eerily similar trope, stepping into a convienant void created in the market when Coven was displaced by Mercury Records pulling Witchcraft from shelves, despite its positive sales.

WITCHCRAFT DESTROYS MINDS AND REAPS SOULS:

With some account given of this essential but too often overlooked Proto-Metal band, it is finally time to briefly look into the masterwork they created, Witchcraft Destroys Minds and Reaps Souls.

Thirteen cultists

Held a secret meeting

Bringing powers of a darkness

Upon those who opposed them

Though maybe not as long as one would expect, given the weighty history/myths surrounding it, especially when considering a decent portion of the record’s fourth-five-minute runtime is devoted entirely to a Black Mass, Witchcraft is still an incredibly dynamic piece. A shining example of this in microcosm can be found with the opening track, Black Sabbath, which starts out with an ominous overshadowing of Psychedelia infused rock delivered by Chris Neilson’s trilling guitar work. Jinx is soon introduced, wasting no time delivering both the first hint of occultism through a stylized poetry recalling ancient epics and a signature vibrato voice getting put on full display by the ending of the first verse through a lengthily held note that acts as a dramatic bridge. From the ending of the following verse, which describes a Baphomet-like effigy. The tenor and tempo alter, slowing down to accentuate Jinx’s ghastly lyrics as if creeping along before another injection of acid-laced Psychedelia overtakes the track with faux-operatic wailings before a juxtaposition of a near rock-bopping with the earliest spasms of Metal breakdown is set to Jinx’s haunting delivery of one of the record’s more brilliant lyrical compositions, further cementing her place as Metal’s Morose Matron if ever there was any doubt.

If witchcraft all the fools condemn

It turns around and crushes them

When good has been twisted

When good has been killed

Then love is resisted and blood will be spilled

Accursed ye’ll be!

From toes to eyes!

Accursed ye’ll be!

Until ye dies!

One of the biggest reasons why Witchcraft has endured, albeit not in its rightful place, is because it is also not a singular piece- meaning that it is extraordinarily well-rounded for a genre effort. We have seen what that looks like even within a track with Black Sabbath, however, it’s more of a secondary thematic element throughout the rest of the record. There are instances of storytelling such as in the case of The White Witch of Rose Hall, Coven in Charing Cross or For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, just as much as there are outright seeming incantations as in Choke, Thirst, Die, down to the personal encounters with the abyssal lord himself in Portrait and entrance into his service via the record, and unfortunate career, ending Satanic Mass. Throughout all of these, excluding Satanic Mass, the musicality provided offers variations of tempering and incitement that fill out and shade the main objective of the track. Take for instance Pact With Lucifer, much of the instrumentation in the track is restrained, allowing Jinx to drive the narrative with her powerful offerings until the devil comes to take his due and there is unleashing that creates a frenetic atmosphere of helplessness and claustrophobia with the space once vacant now being so aggressively occupied. Then you have the single, Wicked Woman, an exercise in good old fashion straight-forward Psychedelic Rock and Roll where Jinx’s vibrato seems a constant challenge to Chris Neilson’s never ending riffing out with a steady and faithful chugging by Oz Osbourne on the bass, undercutting any subtlety in favor of a good thrashing.

All of that you have just read in conjunction with Witchcraft Destroys Minds and Reaps Souls was done by a woman not yet out of her teens. It is utterly insane to think of the lasting impression of, not just the record itself, but everything attached to it and how it has transcended and endured over half a century. Equally insane to think is how often this work goes unnoticed, and unattributed to the rightful person. It is also, in my opinion, unacceptable that such a talent as Jinx Dawson was derailed first by misfortune and then further blocked out by a scene made fertile by her tilling of the soil. What might Metal have become if left in the capable hands of such a woman? Who might her esoteric ways might have inspired in lieu of other horror-shock approach? That is something we may never know, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t know where and from whom Metal came from.

Hail Metal!

Hail Coven!

Hail Jinx Dawson!




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