March 8, 2011 § Leave a comment
In Your Music Mind
by Douglas Payne
The music sometimes wafts from the speakers in a gentle croon, so much like the folk troubadours of yesterday. Sinatra even. Smooth, buoyant, maybe even soothing to the ear. If it is not gentle, then it is primordial. Indeed, this transition might happen within the span of one song. The music is so often a wounded animal lashing out from a state of calm with teeth bared, upset by the wrong touch of a human hand. The sound of these albums, crafted on a cheap recorder with a only an acoustic guitar and a ragged throat to stir up the melody echoes back to the raw enchantment of Hank Williams. At the same time, it precludes the weirdest efforts of the Velvet Underground and the emergence of ‘freak folk’ in the new century. The music is hypnotic more than anything, possessing a quality akin to the ragas of Ravi Shankar.
The music’s greatest asset is it’s strangeness. Scat vocalizations and groans bridging verses that appear spontaneous lyrically, all underpinned by chord progressions that play around with an appropriate stylistic blend of jazz, folk, and country. The strings flit and flutter like an angel’s harp, they settle into steady walking rhythms, they chug and shout like a rapid fire machine gun. The music defies classification, foregoes convention, and comes across unbridled and unscrubbed, and would probably remain so even if given the opportunity for mixers and producers to shape it up, simply because the sounds at work here spit at any sort of glitz and glamor. The music is not commercially viable. That fact is hardly a concern, since nearly all of it has been smuggled out of prisons over a thirty year span up to the present, and the man who makes it might never come out from behind the bars.
Charles Manson is America’s most beloved and reviled pariah. He is a walking nightmare in the American subconscious. At the worst, he is conjured in the mind as an unhinged mass murderer slicing up the Hollywood Hills. If not that, than he is a ringleader of marauders, a black shaman casting spells of violence upon the youth, draping a red shroud over the tye-dyed free love idealism of the nineteen sixties hippie subculture. Whatever the case may be, we might attempt to view the music independently of the man, at least to a degree where we might look Charles Manson the musician, and not Charles Manson the criminal.
Many venerate the work of Beat writer William Burroughs, despite the fact that he was a pederast and heroin addict convicted of manslaughter. However, it is perhaps more probable that Burroughs’ murder of his wife was accidental than it is that Manson’s role in the Tate-LaBianca murders was one of guilt by association. Many people read Burroughs, or de Sade, for the very fact that they led rather dubious lives. Such people are rewarded, because the subject matter of their fiction draws from the sordid tales of their own lives to some degree. Aside from some tracks on his first album Lie, “Big Iron Door” in particular, this is not the case with Manson. Insofar as he doesn’t sing about killing pigs or all out race wars.
The lyrical content in his music, beyond the fact that its meaning is often cryptic if not indecipherable, is spontaneous and imagistic. His entire oeuvre is laced with references to the soul, the mind, love, and nature. All these large abstractions are rung out like dish towels in a tumbling and free flowing cyclone of word play and cultural references to objects like the American Revolution and Marilyn Monroe. His songs, often written in second person, jab at the “game” of modern man, caught in a web of consumerism and mental and spiritual bankruptcy. Another recurring theme is the ‘hallways of always’, the endless labyrinth of jails and institutions that Manson has been all too familiar with throughout his life.
Manson’s first album, Lie: The Love and Terror Cult, was recorded in 1967 and released in March of 1970, a few months before Manson and his cohorts were put on trial for the murders. This has been the most widely circulated of his recordings, having been reissued on compact disc by Awareness Records, and later as an expanded edition by ESP-Disk, under the title of Charles Manson Sings. Both reissues are usually available from Amazon, or can be special ordered at most major music retailers, if you can cope with a few weird looks. A handful of songs from the album have been covered by other artists, most notably a cover of “Look at Your Game Girl” contained as a hidden track on Guns N’ Roses fifth album The Spaghetti Incident, and a revved up punk rendition of “Garbage Dump” was recorded by GG Allin in 1987. The Beach Boys, famously know to be one time associates of Manson, recorded a heavily altered version of “Cease to Exist” for their 1969 album 20/20, and retitled it “Never Learn Not to Love”.
All of Manson’s material after Lie has been put down on cassette tapes, smuggled out of prison by friends and associates and given limited distribution. It is on these recordings that Manson crafts a sound that is organic, visceral, and often times otherworldly. One of the most notable sets from his prison tapes, recorded in the 1980s, was released under multiple titles including White Rasta, Poor Old Prisoner Boy, and Live at San Quentin, the artwork of of this last version parodying the cover of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. This batch of songs is Manson’s musical opus if he were ever recognized to have one. They encapsulate all the qualities I have mentioned above in one continuous stream of acoustic improvisation, complimented by the ambience of shouts, toilet flushes, and the clang of closing cell doors.
One of Manson’s most recent recordings, One Mind, was released in 2005. It was re-released in 2008 under a Creative Commons license as a free digital download. The songs here have a more mellow tone to them. Manson’s guitar never chugs and his voice never lapses into frenzied chanting. He might have his legs stretched out on the bunk, guitar sat loosely against his torso, a now ghost white hair of his beard fallen onto the weathered wood of his now weary instrument. We know that Manson’s legendary fervor is hardly absent only when another inmate has the nerve to ask him for a cigarette in the middle of a song. Manson barks and spits at this trespasser in his audial daydream, his temporary escape from the brick and mortar madness of prison life. For Manson, music inevitably became a vehicle of expression and liberation, a way of melting the walls that have held him for so long. Music became a way of reconnecting with the most pure elements of the macrocosm beyond those walls. Manson succumbs to and channels the universal positive force of melody, song, and poetry in all of its whimsy, playfulness, power, and aggression. His compositions cannot be packaged, pigeonholed, or easily described, but are infinitely melodious and captivating in spite of it all. Manson is not only the most hated man of the 20th century, but its most intransigent and demanding troubadour.
For more information about the music of Charles Manson, visit the Manson Direct website.