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The History Of Coven Part III: A Confusion of Comebacks

January 3, 2014

By the end of 1970, things looked grim for Jinx Dawson – her album had been withdrawn, and her band had abandoned her. On top of all that, she and the rest of the music world, were faced with the spectacle of a bunch of upstart limeys riding to an unprecedented commercial success with what looked like a blatant imitation of Coven’s original shtick. English proto-metal group Black Sabbath  released their self-titled debut album in 1970; it took off from the start where Coven’s album Witchcraft… had flopped. From the start, Black Sabbath was considered by many people  to be the band that Coven had wanted to be. Unlike Coven, they had a genuinely hard, heavy-metal sound (as opposed to a semi-psychedelic sound) to back up their satanic songs. And they got away with performing satanic songs, because unlike Coven, they didn’t have any uptight journalists linking their music to heinous crimes. To add irony to injury (if I can mangle a cliché), not only did Black Sabbath steal Coven’s image, but (as I mentioned above) their lead singer had almost the same name as Coven’s bass player. It was more than a human mind could bear. Dawson would not be stopped in her quest for rock ‘n’ roll glory, however. She left Mercury Records behind, and relocated from Chicago to Los Angeles. It was here, after a year of wandering in the showbiz wilderness, that Dawson would finally come into some good luck (despite her name), and re-form her benighted band.

Dawson’s good luck would come from one of the oddest places one could think of, in this context – or rather, from one of the oddest people one could imagine getting involved in this shock-rock saga. In 1971, Dawson was approached by filmmaker Tom Laughlin, and asked to record the theme song for his film Billy Jack. (There has to be a digression, at this point, about Tom Laughlin. Tom Laughlin was a counterculture Renaissance man: independent filmmaker, political activist, educator, and shameless self-promoter. But it was his 1971 movie Billy Jack that would put him on the map and make him a hero of the age and a heartthrob to those teenage girls of the period who considered themselves too enlightened to fall for Bobby Sherman. Billy Jack is a small historical milestone: with figures adjusted for inflation, it is the highest-grossing independent film to date. It is also the sort of desperately idealistic, Utopian counterculture movie that would never be made today, and would probably seem foolish, even bizarre, to modern audiences. It tells the tale of the titular hero, Billy Jack, a mysterious figure, half-Navajo Indian, living outside the law but dedicated the cause of peace and justice, and possessed of mystical powers. Over the course of the film, Billy Jack is called on to defend the hippie students of the independent Freedom School from the cruel, heartless, racist squares – cops and businessmen and mayors and such – who want to close down the school and run the hippies out of town. It’s a strange saga indeed, half muckraking political melodrama, and half modern-day Western.) I only go into such details about Tom Laughlin’s life and film in order to show what may seem obvious: Laughlin was the consummate, the absolute, the ultimate, dippy hippie. He was the sort of person whom one wouldn’t imagine wanting to come near the lead singer of Coven with a ten foot pole, and more to the point, he was the sort of person whom one wouldn’t imagine Jinx Dawson putting up with for more than ten minutes. But for whatever reason (maybe he’d been one of the few people who’d listened to Witchcraft… without being scared off by the Esquire article) he asked Dawson to record the theme song to his movie. Hard-up and desperate for a gig, Dawson consented. Backed by Osbourne and Ross, and by the orchestra who provided the film score, Dawson recorded the song, ‘One Tin Soldier.’ At this point, I want to say ‘and the rest is history’ – but, this being the saga of Coven, it’s more appropriate to say ‘the rest is Apocrypha.’

A poignant folk-rock parable about the folly of war, the song ‘One Tin Soldier’ became a hit, rising to number twenty-six on the Billboard charts in the fall of 1971, and becoming the most-requested song of the year. Anyone who reached film-going or radio-listening age by 1971 probably remembers the lyrics in full, so I will refrain from mentioning them here; the song has become a classic among pop protest songs. Naturally, it was an extreme departure from the cynical, sinister sound Jinx Dawson had pioneered with the first incarnation of Coven. But she sang the song with passion and relish anyway, already having learned that any publicity was good publicity, and knowing it was worth sacrificing her diabolical image if it would mean exposure and success. However, one hit single does not a band’s career make, and ‘One Tin Soldier’ was not the ideal hit single anyway. For one thing, Dawson didn’t write the lyrics herself, and neither did Tom Laughlin – the song did not originate with Billy Jack. The lyrics to the song had been written in 1969 by Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter, a songwriting team fromABC-Dunhill Records, in L.A. ‘One Tin Soldier’ was as much of a change of pace for Lambert and Potter to write as it was for Jinx Dawson to sing – Lambert and Potter’s biggest successes had been soul songs written for R&B group The Four Tops. The sheer fact that Coven’s biggest hit was written by someone from outside the group made it less than ideal – it ensured that no one in Coven itself would be able to profit from songwriting royalties.  Another large reason that ‘One Tin Soldier’ was not an ideal hit was that Jinx Dawson wasn’t even the first person to record it. The song was written in 1969, and it had been first recorded that year, by a lightweight folk-rock group from Alberta with the improbable name of The Original Caste. (Theirs would be the third improbable name in this saga, I suppose.)
Of course, a less-than-ideal hit was better than no hit at all. Her morale boosted by the success of ‘One Tin Soldier’, Dawson regrouped with her old band-members, and in 1972, Coven released a second, self-titled album, for MGM Records. Though the album cover featured the members of the band flanked by a black cat (that traditional witchy signifier) the album itself demonstrated a marked departure from the diabolical theatrics that Dawson and co. had first tried to make themselves famous with. Dawson, at least, seemed to have wised up, at least slightly, to what the people wanted. This was 1972, occultism was on its way out (at least musically), and squares no longer seemed quite worth scaring. There would be no more songs about witches and devils and human sacrifice, no more ominous tropical drums. There would instead be power ballads. ‘Nightingale’, the first song on the album, anticipated the sound of Heart by about three years; it was a piano-driven love song addressed to a fellow musician, who Dawson metaphorized into the bird of the title. It was a good song, as power-ballads go, featuring superb ululating vocals from Dawson, but it hardly stood out amongst the undistinguished pop-rock songs on the album. More to the point, people who’d heard Coven’s first album could be forgiven for wondering in exasperation (or desperation) where all the blood and thunder had gone. Overall, the sound of Coven’s 1972 album was the sound of a retreat. There’s nothing less rock ‘n’ roll than retreat, and the public must have known it, because the album was not a success.

Even the failure of their pandering second album was not enough to stop Coven. By 1974, Jinx Dawson decided her band was ready for one more shot at the big time. The members of Coven had relocated to Buddah Records by then, and they were all struggling for ideas. Their debut album, with its deviltry and darkness, had failed spectacularly; their second album with its pandering pop-rock, had failed unspectacularly. Someone in the band should have recognized these two different approaches were both dead ends, but nobody did. The proof of this oversight is Coven’s second attempted comeback album, Blood on the Snow, which was no more or less than a synthesis of the themes and styles of Coven’s first two albums. It featured a pseudo-spooky name, a kitschy painting of a fiddle-playing demon on the cover, and a general air of softened, second-hand occultism. (The occultism of Coven’s first album, Witchcraft…, had been pretty soft and second-hand, but now they weren’t even trying to scare any squares, they were just fooling around with blood and devils for their own sakes.) The songs featured on the album were split between light, catchy pop songs and sinister rock songs, with a couple of anomalies thrown in. The title track featured pounding drums, an insistent piano riff, howling background vocals, and the bare minimum of lyrics – ‘It’s so hard to say no, it’s so hard to say no, it’s so hard to say no, just like blood on the snow’ – repeated monomaniacally until the song’s close. It was a sure sign that Dawson and co. had got back their taste for blood and thunder. However, it must be said that some of the strongest songs on the album were the light pop songs. A particular standout was ‘Lady O’, a baffled and baffling account of a journeyman singer’s life and loves – at least, I think that’s what it’s about, the lyrics are more than a little vague. But as you listen to the song, you don’t mind – the tone of the thing takes over, and subsumes anything else.   Bright crisp piano and soaring strings are countered by Jinx Dawson’s blurred vocals, which alternate between rasp and full-throated yawp. ‘Just like an open field, it always catches rain/It’s just like my broken heart, it always feels the pain... she howls, and whatever ‘it’ she may be referring to, I believe her. But even that isn’t the highlight of Blood on the Snow, however. No, the highlight of Blood on the Snow is the final track, ‘Blue Blue Ships.’ Kindly overlook the fact that Dawson only repeats ‘blue’ twice so the thing scans; this song is a weird masterpiece. More than even the title song, ‘Blue Blue Ships’ represents a return to bloody and thunderous form – it’s a death song, sung from the perspective of someone who’s only just died. ‘Sweet life, you were always so contrary…’ moans Jinx, ‘does it make a difference now that I have died…’ What the blue, blue ships have to do with anything I still don’t know, but the song is genuinely disturbing.

Shocking and sweet by turns, a synthesis of two dead ends, Blood on the Snow missed the charts, and the public consciousness, by a long shot. Once again, it looked like the end for Coven.  It may not be true (no matter what F. Scott Fitzgerald said) that there are no second acts in America, but there are only so many second acts a person can have – or that a band can have, to get to the point. After the disastrous reception of Witchcraft…, the critical and commercial failure of both Coven and Blood on the Snow, and the one hit, ‘One Tin Soldier’ that brought them little royalties and much embarrassment, Dawson, and the rest of the group, realized it was time to pack it in. By 1977, Coven had disbanded for the second time, with Jinx Dawson attempting to start a career as an actress – the same thing she’d attempted to do in 1971, just before she was approached by Tom Laughlin – and the rest of the group vanishing into the ether.  Dawson’s attempts at acting proved only slightly more successful than her attempts at rock. However, she found more luck as – of all things – a clothing designer. In the early ‘80’s, she started making elaborate, rhinestone-studded jeans and jackets, selling them to people she’d met at Hollywood parties – rock stars and actresses more successful than herself, including Cher and Robert Plant. In an interview with author Jerry Miller, Dawson explained that ‘…I started making all my own stage clothes, then I started using crystals, then rhinestones. I wore one of my coats to a party, and Cher wanted me to make one for her.’ (Little Stars, Chapter Eight.) This ‘decking out of show business’ (as Jerry Miller calls it) was a profitable sideline, keeping the wolf from Dawson’s door and allowing her to keep one foot in the worlds of Hollywood and rock ‘n’ roll. But her dreams of a rock career slowly faded. It wasn’t until the 2000’s that there came to be renewed interest in Coven. But there did indeed come to be renewed interest, as Goths and heavy-metal fans dug around looking for the roots of their subcultures, and found, among many other things, that curious album from way back in 1969 with the crazy cover and the weird title – Witchcraft Destroys Minds and Reaps Souls. Coven had been ahead of their time in 1969. Though they may have brought bad luck on themselves, they influenced people (like the members of Black Sabbath) who had more success imitating Coven than Coven itself ever did. Now that the world had caught up with them, Jinx Dawson, and the rest of Coven, could start catching up with the world. In 2007, Dawson announced on her MySpace page that she, and three of the other original members of Coven, were planning to re-form the group, and record a new studio album. While an album of entirely new material from Coven has yet to appear, in 2008, Dawson released an album of previously unreleased Coven material from the ‘70’s. The collection was entitled Metal Goth Queen – an attempt by Jinx to align herself with the subculture she and her band had inadvertently influenced all those years ago.

Here ends the strange, slightly sad saga of Coven. Look for any of their three officially released albums – Witchcraft…, Coven, or Blood on the Snow – on vinyl. Buy one if you see one – they’re all rare, and they’re all worth a listen. If you find out that you love them, petition Rhino or Light In The Attic Records to reissue them. That would certainly expose more people to the work of one of the great forgotten bands of the classic-rock era, the band who proved before almost anyone else that the devil has all the best tunes.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. January 12, 2014 6:06 pm

    Fantastic coverage of Jinx and Coven! Jinx has surfaced as the guest artist on a new song: http://indy.st/KdDuQ9

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