It's a good thing I'm not an actual writer, because the story of how my band met underground rock and roll icon and Coven lead singer Jinx Dawson sounds like poorly crafted fiction, the kind you'd have to alter because it's not even remotely believable.
My name's Jilly Weiss. I sing for the band We Are Hex. You've got to believe me; the tale I'm going to spin is true.
When our drummer and captain, Brandon Beaver, found out that Jinx lived in Indianapolis again, we knew we wanted to write a song for her. We found it in a witchy psych track that culminates in the refrain, "Goddamn the ghouls again / they fall like leaves when the summer ends," a perfect nod to she who is known as the High Priestess of the Left Hand Path. So we named the track "W.D.M.R.S." after the essential Coven album from 1969, Witchcraft Destroys Minds and Reaps Souls. Then we booked time at the Lodge studio here in Indianapolis to record with our buddies Alex Kercheval and Tyler Watkins.
We finished that track, along with a few others and were listening back when Tyler said he had to take off for another session. We asked him who he was recording and he said, "some sixties chick," offhandedly. I looked at Brandon, and we knew it was Jinx. We just fucking knew. I said, "It's not Jinx Dawson, is it?"
When Tyler said it was, I pushed him across the room. I thought maybe he heard us talking about "W.D.M.R.S." or Jinx or Coven or something earlier in the session and was messing with us. Nope. We watched the security camera as her big black Cadillac pulled up and she stepped out in all black leather, motorcycle hat, upside down cross.
We still had to finish what we were doing and she had an entire session to get through, but somewhere in there, Tyler brought her to meet us and listen to the track. She didn't seem to believe us at first that we'd written a song dedicated to her, but she dug it. By this point I think I had offered her something to drink like three times even though she said that she was just fine ... each time. Oof. I was nervous (typical), but decided to ask her if she wanted to add some vocals to our track. Beaver knew what I was going to say before I said it and was shaking his head "no" at me. We had a wordless argument with a lot of frowning, which I won. So I asked her.
I tell you, she listened to the song once, had me write down the one refrain, went into the booth and took two passes at it. Two! Nailed it.
Here's what you probably already know about Jinx Dawson: She introduced music crowds to the sign of the horns. Her band, Coven, held Satanic masses on stage. Charles Manson was photographed holding their record. Black Sabbath ripped them off.
And it's all true. But there is a lot more to the story of this musician, who should be a household name, and who instead leads a cult of record nerds like me. Jinx left Indianapolis in 1968, returned for several summers in the '80s to put on concerts, and returned for good in the early 2000s to take care of family. Right now, there's an energy building behind her. People are taking notice, digging into her history, listening to her classic cuts.
And the best part is, she's making music again.
Here's my conversation with Jinx Dawson, a living rock legend.
Jilly: What kind of music did you grow up with?
Jinx: I was not allowed to listen to much popular music of the 1950s. Only during the summers at our lake house was I allowed to listen, and I mimicked all the 45s. The rest of the year was classical, musicals and opera. I was training in classical piano and opera starting around age 8. I received a special opera scholarship at age 13 to the Jordan School of Music at Butler University. The professor would make me sing arias in front of the college students to show them how it was properly done. I also received a scholarship to Herron Art School at 14, where I saw my first fully naked person. We were at the anatomy class and I think they forgot I was very young among the college age students drawing a live nude model.
Jilly: Did your formal training influence your vocal style?
Jinx: Most assuredly it did, indeed. I learned how to sing properly from the diaphragm, not from the throat which most rock singers do. I never really fully caught on to properly reading the music though. I was caught at one opera lesson when I did not turn the page of the songbook at the correct time. The teacher then realized I had memorized the entire piece by ear, as all the pieces I had learned before.
Jilly: Was Coven's Witchcraft Destroys Minds and Reaps Souls originally supposed to come out on Chicago label Dunwich Records? Had you started conceptualizing and writing while still in Chicago?
Jinx: Coven was residing in Chicago by fall of 1968. Dunwich was a small Chicago record label owned by our producer and manager. Both the band and his office wanted a major deal and Mercury Records immediately signed us in late 1968. We were finished with the album by spring 1969,with its release late summer 1969. We had already been playing regularly on the Midwest circuit and had a full set of songs and gothic stage show since 1967.
Jilly: It blows me away to think that you were just 18 or 19 when you made such an influential record. How did you maintain your direction within the industry? Did you lose control of some things that in retrospect you wish you hadn't?
Jinx: The music business in the late '60s was in a toddler stage. Walking, but still trying to find itself. Trying to find artists that would make money for their labels, while trying to release musical art. Engineers just learning to use the studio equipment for recording heavier rock. Musicians trying to stay a course when managers, producers and record companies thought they knew what was best. A very difficult time. An experiment. Everyone "borrowing" from everyone else to catch the Magickal brass ring.
Jilly: There seems to be a lot of contradictory information about Coven's influence on Black Sabbath. It seems like they don't want to admit the influence, but you guys had a song called Black Sabbath come out before their band formed. And, of course, your bass player's name was Oz Osborne, which cannot be a coincidence. What's the deal? It seems like there are so many things that you innovated and do not get credit for. How did you keep from getting bitter about it?
Jinx: The music business was a bigger boys club back then than it is now. And Black Sabbath were indeed named Earth until Fontana/Vertigo Records signed them in 1970, just after we broke from our label Mercury. Vertigo/Fontana was a subsidiary of our label Mercury. And they also had a song called "Black Sabbath" on that '70s release, as we did on our 1969 release. Sabbath also did a cover of a song on our publishing company, Yuggoth Music, a song called "Evil Woman" by Crow who were managed by our Chicago management company, Arkham Artists. All in the same office.
I think they did not imagine the future would bring an "Internet." Before that, all publicity and stories on these bands came from the labels and the bands. Secrets were easily kept. Even Gene Simmons had originally claimed the sign of the horns rock hand sign, but later, he learned he was doing it wrong, and doing the deaf hand sign for love instead. Amusing that we knew Gene and were offered the same Casablanca Record deal before they were signed and then called KISS. And Coven drummer Steve Ross was in the band Rainbow for a few weeks, then they later hired Cozy Powell, who had a bigger drum set. We played with Black Sabbath in 1970 at the Whisky a Go Go in Los Angeles. Yet they do not seem to recall Coven in the press. I guess everyone desires to be first, an original.
Am I bitter? No. Imitation is the highest form of flattery.
Jilly: So you shared a stage with Pink Floyd, the Yardbirds, Deep Purple, The Stooges, the MC5. Who else?
Jinx: Over the years this is a list that has become fairly long and I am sure to miss many. Rod Stewart and the Faces, Henry Rollins and Black Flag, Zappa's Mothers of Invention, Ted Nugent and The Amboy Dukes, Bob Seger System, SRC, the Frost, Berlin, the Electric Prunes, Vanilla Fudge, Jefferson Airplane, The Who, Black Sabbath, Brownsville Station, Liza Minelli, Stiv Bators and The Dead Boys, The Runaways, The Motels, Alice Cooper, Circle Jerks, The Jam ... and also some of my own bandmates over the years were originally from Steppenwolf, Jethro Tull,The Hollywood Stars and Todd Rundgren's Utopia.
Jilly: You played with Alice Cooper at this time, right? I think a lot of people consider him a progenitor of shock rock, but I've seen Coven called "pioneers of shock rock." Your crazy stage show predates Cooper's, yes?
Jinx: We played several festivals and concerts where Alice Cooper also played in the late '60s. At that time they were known as a "tranny" or ''glam" band, meaning they dressed and made up feminine for their shows. Alice Cooper was the name of the band, not Vince Furnier's personal stage name (he later adopted it), and there was no occult nor dark theme about their shows at all. That came later when they were at the Zappa rehearsal studio in the 1970s in LA and we rehearsed there also. After we split from the Bizarre/Zappa management, we saw that Vince and his band started changing their garb to black and studs, more like our Coven gothic clothes and they started using props onstage, most noticeably a noose. Coven always had a noose hanging from our organ during our late '60s to early '70s shows. And their press photos and album covers became darker in a kind of Halloween way, as did some of their songs.
Jilly: You have mentioned that you don't define your religious affiliation, despite that fact that most people believe you're a Wiccan or a Satanist. Can you give a bit more insight into your spiritual path?
Jinx: I am Left Hand Path, which is not a religion but a practice. I have no religious affiliations, so I am neither a Wiccan nor a Satanist. I enjoy the study and practice of the arcane arts and historical Occult materials. Left Hand Path has more to do with science, math, astrology, herbology, personal powers, etc. than with spiritual endeavors.
Jilly: Did you mean to share the secret Left Hand Path sign (the sign of the horns) with the world onstage or was it just something you did, and people caught on? How do you feel about how it's been used?
Jinx: I did not think it would catch on as it did. Back in 1967, when I first did the Horned Hand Sign on stage, no one knew what it was nor had ever even seen it. Most were doing the peace hand sign back then. It is strange for me to see so many doing it now as it was originally a very guarded sign, one only known to members of the secret society of LHP. It has now become ubiquitous but its original, esoteric meaning has been diluted.
Jilly: I find myself getting annoyed at some of the things I've read that accuse Coven of harnessing the occult as a gimmick. Not only were you really living it, you had already formed and were practicing your beliefs in Chicago before the release of Witchcraft, right?
Jinx: I personally was always into the occult. As a child my great aunts were part of the Post Victorian Spiritual Age where popular interests were anything from Houdini magic tricks to ghosts to séances to mesmerism to pendulums and fortune telling to Hoodoo and casting spells. And powerful secret societies were very much in effect. They also had an extensive library of occult books in their large Italianate mansion which I eagerly read. There is a vast difference between having a fascination for a subject and the actual study and practice of that subject.
Jilly: What prompted Coven's move to California? This was at Frank Zappa's invite, right?
Jinx: Coven played a two night gig with Zappa and The Mothers in 1970, which was actually in Indianapolis at a theatre called Middle Earth. The Mothers were the headliner, so the first night, we opened for them. We played a very heavy set with serious dark music and occult-themed stage show and received a huge ovation. Zappa was in his comedy show and heckle-the-audience phase. They went on and the audience did not like the Mothers set at all. So the next night, a fuming Zappa wanted to go on first so they could get out of town earlier. His bandmates, especially Aynsley Dunbar and Jeff Simmons were impressed with our show and said they wished they were doing serious music. Zappa invited us to L.A. to sign with his Bizarre label. Zappa would go on to later mention this episode with us in two of his songs. One, in the infamous "200 Motels" film and soundtrack and the other in "Billy the Mountain."
Jilly: There's a description of your voice that I heard in a 2008 radio interview with WNYU. The interviewer said that your vocal chords could run circles around Stevie Nicks. Why do you think you didn't have the same level of mainstream success? She also seems to have "borrowed" your look from this period. Annoying? Or were you used to people stealing from you at this point?
Jinx: I was pretty used to it by that time. Even though Stephanie is older than me, she arrived in LA at the same time we did in 1970, and stayed at the same rock hotel that we did, the infamous Tropicana. That is where we met. She and Lindsay Buckingham were there shopping for a duo record deal. This was before they met anyone in Fleetwood Mac. She asked me once, "How do you get to play at the Whisky?" where we were playing at the time. She would go to our gigs and study carefully. I did not think much of it at the time, but it all seems so ludicrous now.