Branch Davidian impact on pop culture ranges between whacky, insightful
Waco Tribune-Herald, Mar. 23, 2003
By CARL HOOVER, Tribune-Herald staff writer
» Part 5 of a 9-part series. See FlashPoint in History: 10 years after Mount Carmel
WACO – In Blazing Saddles, Mel Brooks’ raucous 1974 spoof of westerns, Gene Wilder played a gunslinger who’d seen faster days. His name – the Waco Kid.
Just as it had been for characters in about 20 earlier western films, Waco stood as a name evocative of the American West. Short, handy, a bit out of the ordinary, a word with Native American roots, a word nearly synonymous with cattle trails and cowboying.
Waco – not Smithville or Georgetown or Jefferson or any of the settled East’s more common names.
Then came the events of 1993. The failed, deadly U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms raid on Branch Davidian leader David Koresh and his followers at their Mount Carmel compound; federal authorities’ 51-day siege; and the much-questioned inferno in which 76 people died, 21 of them children.
All of it seared “Waco” into global awareness.
aco would never again find its way into pop culture as a word with only mild, vaguely western connotations.
The story of David Koresh and the apocalyptic communal group that followed him offered much for a hungry media: guns, sex, rock ‘n’ roll, polygamy, mind control and whispers of child abuse.
“The sheer outside-the-norm of the whole thing” made the Branch Davidian crisis riveting at the time, says University of Texas at Austin English professor Don Graham, who has dissected popular culture in such books as Cowboys and Cadillacs, a look at how Texas is portrayed in Hollywood films.
But while millions followed the day-by-day siege of the Davidian compound, they did so more out of curiosity than personal identification with Koresh and his followers, Graham says.
“There was a general disconnect between the Branch Davidians and the general public,” he says.
Yet certain issues swelled up from the Central Texas tragedy to provoke deep thought.
From the siege and its outcome sprang questions of religious liberty, community tolerance and government force. Under the microscope ever since has been the psychological chess game played out between Koresh and frustrated FBI negotiators, plus threats of Armageddon against a hostile, outside world.
Late-night hosts Jay Leno and David Letterman found plenty for their comic commentaries as did standup comics such as Austin’s Bill Hicks. Jokes, some mild, most vulgar, flowed through Internet newsgroups, list-servs and chat rooms, particularly after the siege’s fiery finish.
During the siege, People magazine featured Koresh on its March 15, 1993, cover. By May, a made-for-TV movie on the siege, In the Line of Duty: Ambush in Waco, with actor Tim Daly as Koresh, was broadcast. And within months of the siege’s end, three books were in area bookstores: Tim Madigan’s See No Evil – Blind Devotion and Bloodshed in David Koresh’s Holy War; Bob Darden and Brad Bailey’s Mad Man in Waco; and Clifford Linedecker’s Massacre at Waco, Texas: The Shocking Story of Cult Leader David Koresh and the Branch Davidians.
Documentary films tackled the subject, primarily 1997’s Waco: The Rules of Engagement, Mike McNulty and William Gazecki’s provocative examination of the Branch Davidian crisis. An Academy Award nominee for Best Documentary, the film questioned government handling of the siege.
Special editions of TV journalism shows such as ABC’s “Nightline,” Arts & Entertainment’s “American Justice” and the History Channel’s “The 20th Century with Mike Wallace” also focused on the incident. VHS copies of many such shows are still available to the public.
But the wave of books and videos that splashed through pop culture in the 1990s appears to have subsided in recent years. While Waco: The Rules of Engagement spawned a 1999 sequel, Waco: A New Revelation, and filmmaker McNulty continues to delve into the subject, mainstream Hollywood hasn’t touched the topic beyond an occasional fanatical religious leader as villain.
Few songs on the subject bubbled up to radio airplay or attention on sales charts. A handful of punk and rock bands have used Waco and Koresh as icons for rage and anger, but it’s more for shock effect than commentary.
Theaters across America haven’t staged, by and large, any dramatic interpretations of what happened to Koresh, his followers and the governmental authorities who confronted them.
Some novelists worked with storylines paralleling the events outside Waco in spring 1993, most notably John Updike in his 1996 book In the Beauty of the Lilies. But no best-sellers resulted.
And a press once fixated on Mount Carmel has found other stories to cover – among them, the O.J. Simpson trial, the Oklahoma City bombing, President Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and yet another war with Iraq.
But the Branch Davidian siege has yet to fade entirely from the pop culture scene. Danny Schechter, executive director of the media watchdog organization www.mediachannel.org, believes its power as a symbol has merely gone underground.
“I think it became embedded in people’s memories,” he says, “and those memories often shape their views and outlook.”
Schechter believes Waco was a crucial step toward the country’s current political polarization. One reason it isn’t higher in public discourse is that the political scene has changed for vocal opponents of what Waco represented.
“Clinton was in power when Waco happened and those who felt that they weren’t being heard by the government appropriated Waco as a symbol of liberal government out of control,” he says. “With Bush in power … the people who felt unrepresented … now feel a level of having moved into the mainstream.”
Waco, he says, was the spark that ignited a zeitgeist of discontent with Clinton and his administration, particularly among the far right. Now, with Clinton gone, the people who championed Waco as a symbol have, to some extent, let it go.
Ironically, liberals who protested the curbing of civil liberties in the Sept. 11 aftermath were silent when rightwing critics made similar charges against the Clinton administration following ATF and FBI actions at Mount Carmel, Schechter says.
Yet, the right catalyst could resurrect questions about government handling of the Branch Davidians in 1993.
“Waco is definitely in the subconscious of many people,” Schechter says, “but open to differing interpretations.”
A look at many of the books published in the past decade shows how differing such interpretations can be. Their titles indicate strong points of view – Why Waco? Cults and the Battle for Religious Freedom in America; The Ashes of Waco: An Investigation; The Shadows and Lights of Waco: Millennialism Today; No More Wacos: What’s Wrong With Federal Law Enforcement and How to Fix It; A Place Called Waco; Wait-Out in Waco; From the Ashes; Prophets of the Apocalypse: David Koresh and Other American Messiahs; Armageddon in Waco: Critical Perspectives on the Branch Davidian Conflict; This Is Not An Assault: Penetrating the Web of Official Lies Regarding the Waco Incident; Send in the Waco Killers: Essays on the Freedom Movement 1993-1998; and In the Wake of Waco: Why Were Adventists Among the Victims?
As a sign of how deeply the Branch Davidian tragedy is etched in contemporary American history, no less than three books published on the topic were aimed at school-age readers.
New Jersey freelancer Marylou Morano Kjelle wrote the most recent, The Waco Siege (Great Disasters: Reforms and Ramifications), released last year by Chelsea House Publications. The Waco book joined other titles on disasters in the series, including one on the ill-fated space shuttle Challenger.
Distilling the Branch Davidian incident into a 25,000-word volume for middle and high school students proved a formidable task, Kjelle recalls, but the challenge lay more in translating the event into simple language than picking what to cover.
“I didn’t fault either side,” the author says. “Yes, things were going on at Mount Carmel that probably weren’t correct, but the FBI and ATF probably shouldn’t have gone in the way they did either.”
Others have chosen different media to express sentiments about the Branch Davidian siege, including independent filmmaker Hal Hartley, who was intrigued by how the drama at Mount Carmel mirrored the cultural clashes that marked the formative days of Christianity.
Director of such films as Henry Fool and Trust, Hartley got his chance to create a piece incorporating those thoughts when the Salzburg Opera Festival tapped him for a stagework. He decided on a theatrical piece about followers of a Davidian-like cult under siege who debate and defend various courses of action.
“I was interested in the dynamic between religious tolerance and the responsibility of citizens in a democracy,” he explains.
His work, “Soon,” involves four men and three women in an empty space with only a stool and Bible for props plus microphones attached to four-foot poles. Experimental in nature, “Soon” didn’t click with the audience at its debut at the 1998 Salzburg Opera Festival.
“It was met with complete non-comprehension, like it was from outer space,” Hartley recalls, noting that Salzburg viewers are religiously and politically conservative. “It was easier when we got to Antwerp (Holland). There was a more modern sensibility in its theater.”
Three years later, “Soon” appeared before an American audience, premiering at the Eclectic Orange Festival in Orange County, Calif. The play drew full houses populated with local church leaders and politicians. Many lingered afterward to discuss the piece with its playwright.
Hartley toyed with the idea of adapting his theater work for film, but HBO and European television have been cool to the idea of what they view as an “art movie” interpretation. That frustrates Hartley, who sees questions raised during the 51-day siege as still pertinent 10 years later.
“This subject matter is crucial,” he says. “Dealing with the issues is the issue nobody wanted to deal with … (Waco) is always going to be pertinent in this country. It was an uber-tragedy.”
Don Howard, a Waco native and now an Austin filmmaker and instructor, thinks interest in Waco and the Branch Davidian siege has waned in pop culture, though he too was unable to ignore its impact on his hometown.
Howard looked at the social forces that shaped the Waco of his youth in the documentary Letter From Waco, which aired on hundreds of public television stations in 1996 and subsequent years. Koresh and the Branch Davidians weren’t part of that past, but international attention over the event ranked so high at the time that he felt obligated to touch on the subject.
Ironically, the filmmaker did so with a segment that imagines Koresh as he’s driving his hot-rod Camaro through the backroads of McLennan County. Howard and his crew almost secured Koresh’s actual car, but its owner at the time backed out of the agreement.
Letter From Waco was submitted for consideration to the Sundance Film Festival but had the unlucky timing of going up against another Waco-related film that year: Waco: The Rules of Engagement, soon featured on HBO. Waco: The Rules of Engagement created a considerable buzz at Sundance and later won an Emmy.
Like Hartley, acclaimed novelist John Updike looked at how sect members saw themselves and their beliefs in the fourth and final section of his novel In the Beauty of the Lilies. Updike, who came to Waco in November 2001 to speak at Baylor University, is perhaps the most prominent novelist to explore the Branch Davidian siege in fictional terms.
Best-selling writer Dean Koontz pursued another angle to the story – the belief in a sinister governmental conspiracy to kill the Davidians – in his 2001 book, Dark Rivers of the Heart, whose two protagonists flee a powerful shadow agency within the government that is committed to erasing them.
Lesser writers used the framework of the Davidian crisis and its personalities in such works as John Ross’ pro-gun Unintended Consequences, which mixes elements of the Waco and 1992 Ruby Ridge incidents with, among other things, the Warsaw Uprising in World War II Poland.
There’s even a youth-oriented novel, Jane Yolen and Bruce Coville’s Armageddon Summer, which imagines two young people, both members of millennialist cults, who fall in love and must decide whether to break with the religious community in which they live.
Like fiction, pop music shows spotty results at how the events in Waco percolated through the medium of song. Given that Koresh was an amateur rock guitarist who had formed a band and written his own music, it’s no surprise that Waco, Koresh and the Branch Davidians surface in rock and punk music more than other genres.
A quick survey of rock and pop songs with Waco or Koresh in their titles reveals a handful of references, most written within five years of the siege. Pop singer-songwriter Paul Ruderman finds almost everyone guilty, including the media-consuming public, in his song “Madman in Waco” on his 2001 release Wish, but his is a rare analytical piece.
In other instances, Waco has become shorthand for death and anger – subjects frequently addressed in punk music.
More typical are the Waco-related cuts on Helter Skelter, the 2001 double album release by British punk/goth rockers Sex Gang Children, with straightforward titles such as “Children of Waco,” “We’re Supposed to be Christians,” “Rise and Fall of the Branch Davidians” and “The Mass Suicide Symphony.”
And the band Waco Jesus states it was created specifically to “torture and induce contempt in our modern social culture in direct response to the Koresh incident.”
The best-known group with Waco in its post-1993 title is the Chicago-based alt-country band, the Waco Brothers – none of whom are from Waco and none of whom are brothers.
Group members hailed from such bands as the Mekons, Bottle Rockets and Poi Dog Pondering.
Lead vocalist John Langford, whose accent betrays his English roots, says the players liked the sound of Waco when fishing about for a name that would stick longer than previous band appellations.
“It’s a provocative thing,” he concedes.
And the brash country rockers use it that way, with such album titles as Waco World and Electric Waco Chair.
Though the word Waco catches folks’ attention, members sometimes have second thoughts about bearing a name that many immediately connect to the deaths of 82 Branch Davidians, including six killed during the ATF’s initial raid.
“It kind of makes us feel uncomfortable,” Langford admits. “It’s a very loaded word … You can’t really predict what people will make of it.”
The Waco Brothers are no strangers to Waco. The Chicago-based band journeys to Austin each year to participate in the South By Southwest music festival and frequently drives through the town of nearly 114,000.
Once, several Waco Brothers stopped long enough to view the Mount Carmel site. The experience was not what they expected.
“They felt it was ghoulish . . . a profoundly creepy thing,” the band leader recalls.
But when it comes to genuine Texas country bands taking up Waco and the Branch Davidian saga as subject matter for song, most have passed. Texas music scholar Joe Specht, director of McMurry University’s Jay-Rollins Library and a contributor to the Encyclopedia of Country Music and the Handbook of Texas Music , draws a blank about the subject working its way into country.
“I’m not even aware of any,” he says. “Country music 50 years ago might have had songs written about it. The way country music has changed since then, though, if anything was lucky enough to be recorded, it’d never be played on the radio.”
In a broader sense, Texans have sidestepped claiming the Branch Davidian incident as their own, despite Koresh’s birth in Houston, the Branch Davidians’ historical roots in Waco and the Texas ancestry of many Davidians who lived at Mount Carmel.
Author and UT professor Don Graham says the reason why takes little deduction: Texans want positive endings to their myths.
“It was a depressing story, all those children killed,” he says. “There was no aspect of spiritual triumph ….
“Texas is famous for having a place where a group of men fought for individual liberty,” he acknowledges. “Although they all were killed, ultimately their cause was successful. That’s called the Alamo.”
The tragedy near Waco, on the other hand, was “dramatically opposed” to the cause of personal liberty, Graham says.
The scholar doesn’t believe much in the Branch Davidian story resonates with the average Texan. For one thing, he says: “I don’t think Texans are very much interested in cults.”
Graham knows. He pursued writing a book about the 1989 murder of Mark Kilroy, a University of Texas student kidnapped in Matamoros, Mexico, and killed by a satanic cult.
Like the Branch Davidian story, the Kilroy murder drew intense media attention for several weeks. But when it came to finding a book publisher for the project, Graham found no takers.
“The story was exhausted by the media,” he says.
“It’s so hard for a story to persist,” he says. “A story has to have some mystery, like the Kennedy assassination.”
Granted, despite subsequent investigations by federal and state authorities, the Branch Davidian siege continues to offer its share of mysteries, including the fire that erupted the last day of the siege.
“But do people really care whether the fire was started by David Koresh or the government?” Graham says. “They don’t care … Texans are more interested in rich people who kill other rich people.”