Years ago, I was working in an art warehouse in Queens, one of those jobs where you do a lot of listening to music to pass the time. It was here that I was introduced to several bands that I still count among my favorites. One day, one of the guys I worked with brought in a real treat. The cover, in lurid reds and blacks, showed an intense-looking blonde spreading her arms over a blood-colored tablecloth adorned with skulls, candelabra, and an upside-down cross, flanked by two horn-throwing dudes who looked like they could be Hammer film extras. The band appeared to be called Coven… or Witchcraft Coven? And the sound… It was more so melodic rock tinged with psychedelic groove than particularly heavy. The singer had an impressive range and chanteuse’s appeal, along with the ability to shift into a rough wail or threatening whisper. But the overall feeling was steeped in a Summer of Love gone sour murk and was shot through, somehow, with a vein of real evil.
What in all that is unholy was this?
This, my friends, was Coven’s Witchcraft Destroys Minds & Reaps Souls, an album released 50 years ago this month, in June of 1969. That means that it predates Black Sabbath’s self-titled debut, an album that many metal and occult rock bands trace their roots to, by a year. And that woman on the cover was singer—Jinx Dawson, whose occult bonafides helped spawn an entire genre.
Flash forward to a couple of years ago, when I was attending NecronomiCon in Providence, and a friend enthused “And Coven is going to be playing!” “Yeah,” I replied, “but not the Coven, obviously.” “No,” he rebuffed me, “the Coven.” I was floored. I hadn’t realized at that point that Coven had reemerged and were touring again. And here there were, as if arisen from the grave. Or perhaps more accurately, still here, like some necromancer who has never died.
I’d like to assume that everyone, or at least everyone reading this, is familiar with this influential band and its pioneering singer. But despite some recent notice, Coven, to my mind, remains under-recognized. The band was formed in the Midwest in the late 1960s by Jinx, drummer Steve Ross, and bassist Oz Osbourne (not to be confused with a certain other of that name). They began playing shows heavy on evil theatrics, including altars, coffins, roadies hung on crosses, and, typically, a portion of a Black Mass performed on stage—credibly becoming the first band to do anything of the kind. The band eventually caught the interest of record producer Bill Traut, who saw opportunity in their blend of blasphemy and melody, and convinced Mercury Records to sign them.
Coming in the middle of the peace-and-love Woodstock era, Coven’s emergence is remarkable, and probably seemed even more impressive (if that is the right word) to baffled hippie audiences. Even more striking is the fact that these black clad musical warlocks were led by a woman at a time where female rock singers were rare (the bias being toward female pop singers), and those flaunting such blatantly evil images were nonexistent.
Another thing that sets Coven apart from some of the other occult-influenced bands that followed like hellhounds on their heels is that when it comes to their subject matter, Coven has always been sincere. Whereas others donned cloaks and pentagrams for show, Coven (or at least Jinx and the founding members) considered themselves to be legit practitioners of the dark arts. Jinx has made reference to a pair of great aunts who raised her in the ways of the Left Hand Path, and that it was this influence, combined with musical training and a penchant for the theatrical, that spawned Coven.
Unfortunately, Coven’s demonic trajectory hit a stumbling block early on in the form of everyone’s favorite cult leader, Charlie Manson. In August 1969, about a month after the release of Witchcraft, the nation was shocked by the brutality of the Manson murders. Things of a cultish nature suddenly seemed a little less fun and exciting, and a bit more genuinely concerning. Making matters worse, a picture emerged of Manson holding a copy of Witchcraft outside of Tower Records in Los Angeles. A March 1970 article in Esquire titled “Evil Lurks in California” threw Coven under the proverbial bus by associating the band and its ilk with Manson and legions of drugged out, murderous youth. Coven had no relation to Manson and none of the members had ever met him. Nonetheless, Coven’s then label Mercury Records, feeling the pressure of public fears, yanked Witchcraft from the shelves.
Coven took a pretty bad hit from this turn of events, and by the end of 1970 they had disbanded. Strangely, Jinx was recruited in 1971 to sing the title track to Billy Jack, an idealistic, utopian film that was about the opposite of the Coven ethos. The song, “One Tin Soldier,” became a Billboard hit, providing enough of a boost for Coven to reunite for a second and third albums Coven in 1972 and Blood on the Snow in 1974, but by 1977 Coven disbanded again, seemingly for good. In the interim, Jinx, settled in Los Angeles, sang backup for bands including the Beach Boys and Doobie Brothers. She appeared in a horror film or two and had stints in punk bands. She established a business crafting flamboyant outfits for performers including Cher. At some point, she returned home from LA to spend several years caring for her ailing father (that’s years people. Sort of stands in stark contrast to the interim activities of some early genre influencers I can think of). The band briefly reformed some time in the 2000s and released Metal Goth Queen, a compilation of unreleased material, in 2008. In 2013, Coven released Jinx, it’s first album of new material since 1974. And in 2017, to the delight of fans like me, they returned to the stage, and in July and August will be touring Europe.
Diabolique had the opportunity to speak via email to Jinx, who reflects on Coven’s past, influence, and future:
Diabolique: First, with this interview coming close to the 50th anniversary of Witchcraft’s release, it’s amazing to me to think about how you started this project and occult influenced rock when nobody was doing anything of the kind. I’ve read some interviews in which you talk about the atmosphere of the peace and love era being at odds with what you were doing. What was the audience reaction really like back then? Any memorable examples?
Jinx: Confusion at first. Audiences were used to mellow hippie songs and drug psychedelia. We kept getting booked where there were large lighting crews that projected onto the stage throbbing liquid lights and films of girls in bonnets running through fields of flowers. It certainly did not fit songs like our ‘Pact with Lucifer’ or ‘Dignitaries of Hell’. I finally knew I would have to do something as most halls had light shows. At one theater show I asked the lighting man if he had anything darker like fire on film. He got excited and said in fact he did. He had fire. After the other bands played with paisley and flowers projected over their set, we stepped onstage, started playing ‘Wicked Woman’ and filmed fire appeared on the stage. The audience went wild. After that show, I knew I had to connect visuals with the songs and added the human crucifix, skulls and other Occult accoutrements. Times would be changing.
Diabolique: When I read about the atmosphere surrounding your 1969 release, some articles say the “permissive” times led to Coven’s new popularity. Yet the label pulled Witchcraft right after the Manson murders, which seems like a fearful reaction. How would you describe the mood back then? Open or conservative? Do you think what audiences wanted differed from what the label thought? Do you think Sabbath had an easier time not being from America?
Jinx: Very conservative. It was not only the Manson murders. The album was beginning to be banned and pulled from stores around the same time anyway. It was being sold under the counter in brown paper wrappers by only the brave store owners. There was a backlash by churches and other groups due to the musical content and the nudity inside the gatefold. Our sister label did look toward England for a band with males only, and willing to take on a similar situation.
Diabolique: What has the reaction been since you started touring again? What has it been like taking Coven on the road again these past couple of years? Have there been any surprises?
Jinx: The reactions from the crowds have been phenomenal. I expected most would not really be familiar with Coven after so many years and so many other bands taking up the same Occult banner. But at all the festivals we drew the biggest audiences and crowds in Brazil were even singing the lyrics with me. My dark heart was truly touched.
Diabolique: Yes! When I saw you in Providence in 2017, there was this punk couple just going NUTS and singing all the lyrics (as was I). It was so great. Who do you consider your most devoted fans to be these days?
Jinx: The 20 to 40 age group who like to research music history and occult in music. Most actually like the fact Coven has been hidden for so many years. They feel a personal connection through their discovery. The album was indeed meant to be a scholarly work.
Diabolique: How did the concept of Coven come about?
Jinx: I came from a Left Hand Path family who held secret ceremonies and a mansion household of Obeah maids and cooks who practiced Hoodoo. I learned from both paths and had been trained in opera and classical piano. When I became a teenager and wanted to have a rock band and rebel against that. Little did I know at the time that I was rebelling against the rebels. Magick was to remain a family secret and I wanted to reveal that most interesting secret that I had kept since a child.
Diabolique: Were there any musical acts that influenced Coven’s early sound?
Jinx: Not as far as the band was concerned, but the producer definitely tried to fit it into a mold of whatever other bands were doing at the time with the production and sounds. Our live show was much louder and raucous than the album.
Diabolique: Can you describe some of your early stage shows? Were they very similar to what you do today?
Jinx: We reenact some of the original show. Using the human crucifix where we can and incantations but we have added film as a kind of history of Coven including our 1974 video ‘Blood on the Snow’.
Diabolique: The things Coven was doing music and performance-wise seems pretty ballsy for 1969. Even more so when you consider that you were a woman doing what, I can only assume, no other female performers were doing. What was that like? How do you think gender affected your work and reactions to it?
Jinx: I never tried to notice it at the time, but when I look back, being female in a male dominated arena was close to career suicide. Not for the female pop singers or folk singers of the lighter fare. But when I presented a new slant on music, executives felt it would be very lucrative but not for a female to present. I see many females in the darker arena now that seem to be doing well.
Diabolique: Times have changed somewhat. Nonetheless, do you consider sexism still to be an issue in heavy music?
Jinx: I think women are including and inserting themselves in heavy music more these days because the persona of a witch is a strong character for a woman to project. And much of the heavier music now is about exploring the darker side, Magick and the Occult. Tis no longer a boys club. Besides music, it is being seen in clothing, makeup, attitude, art and the women are giving the men a run for their money. The Occult and Magick in history have been very female oriented and it is indeed a vehicle for leveling the playing field, not only for performers but also for the audiences. And it has begun to spill into other areas of the human condition offering women a more powerful position.
Diabolique: How do your occult practices affect your artistic work, and vice-versa? Has this changed over time?
Jinx: I believe they go pretty much hand in hand. One feeds the other. And that hath not really changed. I still practice musick and I still practice Magick.
Diabolique: I understand that you don’t consider yourself a Satanist but a Left Hand Path practitioner? What does Left Hand Path mean to you?
Left Hand Path does not worship a Satan, which is a basically a Christian invention. If Satanic images are used it is only as a mascot and to mock the church and other religions. LHP do not believe that religion is a good path for humanity. LHP is an olde European ceremonial practice to solve problems and obtain levels. It has nothing to do with worshiping a Satan or Devil.
Diabolique: What do you think about the resurgent interest in witchcraft and the occult happening now?
When I compare to when I started the band, before that all was to be secret, now tis very strange indeed. Almost like a different dimension. There have for decades existed many books on Magick and witchcraft, but most contained blinds or were too difficult for most to understand. And of course there were horror movies and such, but it was a distant fantasy to most of the world. Not a reality. Now it is everywhere. Witchy clothes, makeup, music, art, television, et al. But I doubt many truly practice what they present. But the interest in all this is interesting.
Diabolique: Speaking of the occult: I have read about your family and your aunts and, probably like a lot of Coven fans, am dying of curiosity. What was it like growing up around that and how did they pass knowledge on to you? Are you basically the last of your line?
Jinx: I am the last of my particular line. I have done what I came here to do. I was very discouraged for many years feeling I had failed. My great-aunts disowned me for revealing secrets and I lost my inheritance. Those two were the last really, as they had no offspring and were two of the last great female Mages. Growing up under them and at their magickal mansion was like no other childhood. Only movies now capture some of what I saw and learned. The mansion was torn down and the vast acreage was turned to commercial which never seemed to thrive. Tis like the olde guard still haunted the land and were angry.
Diabolique: Who are your other magickal influences?
Jinx: The many, many books that I have read. My great aunts had an extensive library with some books handwritten.
Diabolique: And again speaking of… when is your book coming out?
Jinx: It should have been finished three years ago. There is so much I want to reveal but do not know if I should. My life hath been full of Magick and I am so grateful for it. And now just want to share those adventures.
Diabolique: Can you talk a little about how Coven’s music has changed over time? What about your creative goals in general?
Jinx: Coven missed many years of creative growth due to bad contracts and people not understanding. I like the new studio sounds available and always prefer to search new sounds, lyrics and performance.
Diabolique: Do you have any immediate plans for new albums on your label Nevoc?
Jinx: There is a boxset coming out soon with extras including music, spells and a ritual. There are also several songs finished for a new album.
Diabolique: What are your hopes for the future?
Jinx: Honestly, I am just here now for the ride. I bought the ticket and intend to release more musick and create more chaos. Tis all most amusing in the end. So mote it be.