It was 3 a.m. in the small worship building at the Branch Davidian compound outside Waco. Amid an obstacle course of church pews and opened beer bottles, cult leader Vernon Howell was tending heartily to the needs of his alter ego.
He was jamming.
With him were musicians of a band that had just lost a battle of the bands competition earlier that night two years ago, but the pains of the loss were silenced by screaming guitars. This, though, was as much for Howell as for his guests, the band Riff Raff.
“I felt kind of creepy, drinking beer, hanging out and raising hell there,” singer Jimbo Ward said. Ward recalled his association with the self-proclaimed Christ now holed up at the Mount Carmel compound 10 miles east of Waco since Sunday’s bloody gun battle with authorities.
“He seemed like he tried to be a friend to everybody who was in music,” he said.
“I had heard stories that he thought he was the Lamb of God,” Ward said. “But when he was around us, he was a rock ’n’ roll wannabe rather than a Jesus Christ wannabe,” Ward said. “I guess both have a lot of fringe benefits.”
Most of Waco learned about Howell and his eerie claims of impending apocalypse when the world did. But for many devout followers of the meager Waco rock ’n’ roll scene, where Howell made his second home, it was old news.
Howell was an enthusiastic fan of local rock bands, even traveling to hear them.
He fancied himself a rocker, too, investing a lot of money in music equipment. He owned all the sound equipment at the now-defunct Cue Sticks, a rock bar. Melissa Ross, who co-owns Lone Star Music, said that according to some of her musician customers, “He’s got more guitars than he has guns.”
But his music didn’t strike a chord with the musicians he tried to befriend. One guitarist, who asked to be identified only by his nickname, “Ol’ Billy Goat, said, “He was a good guitar player, but the music had no form, no direction.
During the rowdy revelry of a live performance or while hanging out with the band afterward, though, Howell usually found a way to turn to religion.
And that usually didn’t mix with the objectives of the rock crowd.
“He went into it, but I always cut him short,” said Jason Collins, singer of the now-disbanded classic rock band Flashback. “I would say, ‘Hey man, I just like to drink my beer and just hang out, and that’s what I’m going to do.’ He’d say, ‘Man, this is something you really ought to know.’”
Howell usually had an entourage of men with him, several in long hair, who also played music with him. To free-spirited rockers, some of them seemed unusually dependent on him.
Collins, who was working at a fast-food restaurant, recalled how Howell would order for himself as well as friends.
“He’d say, ‘We’ll have three steak finger baskets,’” Collins said. “Funny thing, he would get something to drink, but he wouldn’t get them anything to drink.”
Treated him like a father
Ol’ Billy Goat said Howell’s friends would sometimes ask him for “permission” to go outside the club or to the store.
“They treated him like he was their father,” he said.
At Cue Sticks, Howell would sometimes take the microphone and espouse his religious beliefs, urging people to come to his Bible studies at the compound, Ol’ Billy Goat said. “He was intelligent, friendly but not really convincing.
“I called him Jim Jones behind his back,” said Ward, referring to the cult figure who prompted his followers to commit suicide in Guyana in 1979.
It’s unclear whether Howell’s intense interest in bands and music was sincere or a recruiting tool. Local musicians said a few among their ranks did attend Bible studies with Howell.
“I could see how he could convince people, people who are easily led,” said Johnny Schoen, bass player for Dixie Wreck. “Musicians are sort of wayward souls, searching for something, anyway.”
But Ward said that, more likely, Howell was confused. “He either wanted to be a guitar god or the Son of God.”