Charles Manson has always been cloaked and hidden in music, and if not music, then at least the counterculture that swirls around it. Manson and his Family have, since their inception upon his release from McNeil Island in 1967 and subsequent move to the Bay Area, associated themselves with the counterculture in general and the musical counterculture in particular. As Bono alludes to in Rattle and Hum, he re-stamped the proto-punk of the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter” into a dizzying war cry and a complex and potentially racist eschatology that culminated in the macabre murders of seven people.
It’s no great secret that Manson himself was an aspiring musician, and that he tried to lobby a recording contract out of Terry Melcher, the producer who recorded the Byrds’ “Turn, Turn Turn.” Dennis Wilson, who introduced Manson to Melcher, would go on to record Manson’s “Cease to Exist” with the Beach Boys under the name “Never Learn Not to Love”. Melcher wasn’t interested in Manson’s music, though, and began sessions with Herb Alpert. Manson retreated to Spahn Ranch, Los Angeles, an abandoned movie set whose ghosts scream so loud, even now, that my fingers stop moving as I type out the letters.
And so now is the time where it needs to be said. I’m a music critic, a person who listens to records and attempts to tell you what they sound like and whether or not they’re worth your time. Much of what I do is, by necessity, subjective and based on taste, a taste that is shaped by (among many other things) the way I look at the world; the reason you enjoy reading Aquarium Drunkard is because you, too, (mostly) like the same kinds of music that we like. It’s likely that we all think in a similar way, that our moralities are, if not actively similar, based in the same root. This is a personal and trusting relationship we all have here, our words and your minds, and maybe it sounds a bit cosmic and Summer of Love to say that we’re on a similar plane, but, yeah, okay, it’s no stretch to say that we’re having a dialogue here.
So, friends, how do I tell you about a Charles Manson record? What does it mean if we like it? What if we find ourselves nodding our heads? It makes you wonder whether it’s even worth turning it on. It makes you wonder whether this topic of conversation is even worth pursuing.
Manson learned how to play guitar in prison in Southern California while serving a ten-year sentence (reduced to seven) for forging a treasury check. He began his incarceration in 1960. That year, “The Twist” was still in the height of its popularity. And The Beatles went to Germany.
The whole social order began to shift, rocking North America back and forth on its axis and spilling a few people into the ocean. Kids began to come from all over the continent to the Bay Area; bored by suburbia and searching for something they didn’t quite understand, they followed the trail of sunshine painted by the Big Rock Singers, creating a new world in the parks by the sea. But by 1967, the so-called Summer of Love, everything was starting to fall apart. George Harrison visited that year and was appalled by Haight-Ashbury, saying, “It wasn’t what was I thought of all these groovy people having spiritual awakenings and being artistic…it was like alcoholism, it was like any addiction.” Heavy drug users began to flock and mingle in San Francisco, lured to the area by promises of communal anarchy. Hunter S. Thompson eulogized the mid-sixties in 1971’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, writing
“We were riding the crest of a beautiful and high wave…Now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”
Four years before Thompson’s writing, Charles Manson stepped barefoot into those shallowing waters, and you can almost hear the tide move out on Lie: The Love and Terror Cult, the album recorded by Manson in September of 1967 and released during the trial to pay his defense fund. Taking cues from what were already genre clichés, Manson sings in vaguely Eastern melodies, strumming his guitar irregularly and stacking noises and voices together into meaningless collages. “Ego” is a cautionary tale that oddly warns its listeners against the dangers of isolation and the negative power of the personal. “Hey, remember Freud?” he sings. Well, yeah, Charlie. Do you? Over a shuffle whose raggedy timing vaguely recalls the Velvet Underground, Manson advises his listeners against breaking the law in “Don’t Do Anything Illegal”—not because it’s wrong, but because you’ll be harassed. He’s so disillusioned with society in “People Say I’m No Good” that he can barely be bothered to play open chords or use a well-tuned guitar.
Clunky didacticisms are the sort of thing we expect from Manson, though. What we don’t expect is songs like the jug-thumping “Arkansas”, whose stringy lead recalls Mike Bloomfield, or the goofy country-folk of “Garbage Dump”, which Manson dedicates in a, well, a pretty hilarious coda to “The Garbage Pickers of America”. These are Lie’s truly unnerving moments—when you find yourself enjoying it, or when you realize that Devendra Banhart took more than a look from Manson; that needley vibrato pokes out in opener “Look At Your Game, Girl”.
Manson’s influence still hangs around in the same way that graffitied hammers-and-sickles still hang around in Italy; the power of the image has shifted. Rather than evil, it now signifies a dedication to social animosity, an alignment with disalignment, a bucking of anything remotely resembling an established order. Ironically, Manson was the ultimate authority figure in his world. A quick glance at recent pop bands who have covered his songs or taken inspiration from him—Guns ‘n’ Roses, the Brian Jonestown Massacre, Marilyn Manson—reveals the same: all groups comprised of strong individual personalities forced to answer to one ego, all perpetually on the verge of destruction.
It’s tempting to write Manson off as some degenerate loser, a drifter with a remarkable malignant streak. In one video interview, Manson even describes himself as such: “I’m a tramp, a bum, a hobo. I’m a boxcar and a jug of wine.” But simple tramps can’t manipulate and mobilize beautiful girls from middle class homes—girls who wanted nothing more than to be understood, who fell under Manson’s spell for the simple reason that he appeared to give them the attention and love that the counterculture had refused them—a boxcar can’t turn those girls into killers. And as for the other obvious answer, that he’s pure and unfiltered evil—well, evil doesn’t play.
And that’s perhaps the most awful thing about Lie. It’s not the strange chords or the whispered backing vocals, or the creepy sound collage of “Mechanical Man”. It’s not even the immediate and awful realization that the rich, smooth voice coming through the speakers belongs to Charles Manson. It’s smaller than that. It’s the fact that this record exists at all, the fact that Charles Manson laughed and I, for a moment, laughed with him. I can deal with unbridled evil. This I can’t stand to hear. This is Charles Manson, and Lie is his album. And there is always something else to listen to. words/ m. garner