by Rev. Walter Beck
DISCLAIMER: This column is written strictly from the point of view of a music fan and archivist, the author in no way endorses the views of Charles Manson or the actions of the Manson Family.
Charles Manson is America’ boogeyman; his bloody orchestration of the Tate-LaBianca murders in a bizarre scenario that he called “Helter Skelter” will live on the consciousness of America as it has come to represent the darkest side of the 1960’s, an orgy of sex and drugs that spun out of control into a gruesome scene of mind-control.
But what many don’t know is that Manson is also a musician; when he was released from prison in 1967, he hit LA as an aspiring folk musician, recorded several demo sessions, one studio session and even befriended Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys (Manson’s song “Cease to Exist” would be rewritten as “Never Learn Not to Love” and released on the Beach Boys’ LP 20/20). After his imprisonment for the Tate-LaBianca murders, Manson has managed to keep making music from his prison cell and continues to release albums to this day.
So how does America’s boogeyman fare as a musician? You know, it’s surprisingly pretty good folk and blues. I was introduced to Manson’s music through a friend of mine who gave me a copy of Charlie’s album Lie: The Love & Terror Cult (Manson’s sole professionally recorded and produced record) and I listened to it and rather enjoyed it. It’s pretty typical fare of the 60’s, folk music with some strange sonic elements and lyrics of love, individuality and freedom.
My first year at Vincennes University, I got deeper into Manson’s catalogue, discovering records he recorded in prison such as Live at San Quentin, Commemoration and One Mind. Soon, I would start getting every record Charlie cut. It was an interesting experience, this was Manson away from the cameras, the journalists, this was Manson from his point of view, with just him and his guitar. The man is absolutely crazy, but you know, he makes pretty decent folk records.
So what records would I recommend if you want to listen to the music of America’s most notorious madman?
NOTE: The audio quality of the releases vary tremendously, the studio and demo sessions recorded before the murders is amongst the highest since it was recorded in a more professional setting, while most of the prison records are muddy in sound quality.
Lie: The Love & Terror Cult (1970, Awareness Records): This is the place to start with Charlie’s music. This was recorded before the murders and remains Charlie’s only professionally recorded album. Many contemporary musicians have recorded cover songs from this LP including Guns N’ Roses (“Look at Your Game Girl”), Marilyn Manson (“Sick City”), GG Allin (“Garbage Dump”) and the Brian Jonestown Massacre (“Arkansas”).
All the Way Alive (2003, People’s Temple Records): This one of the demo sessions recorded in 1967 and it’s one of Charlie’s liveliest records in terms of feeling, he sounds about the happiest he’s ever been in his life and it shows with the jumpy blues sound on this LP. Being that it’s a demo session, the audio quality is also fairly good. As a bonus, Charlie closes out this record with a pretty good cover of Willie Nelson’s “Night Life”.
Commemoration (1995, White Devil Records): The best in terms of sound quality with the prison recordings, this LP was recorded during several sessions in the 1980’s. I’m very impressed with the quality of this record since most of the prison releases sound muddy; someone must have slipped Charlie a pretty good four-track recorder. This one also has some of his best tracks including “Be Free (Be Free Now)” and “Peace in Your Heart”.
One Mind (2005, Independent): One of Charlie’s recent releases, recorded in prison, the audio is a bit muddy with tape hiss and conversations drifting into the background. But it’s a great representation of where Manson is now as a musician. The songs are good, particularly “Angels Fear to Tread”, “I Don’t Need Water Sprinklers in the Desert” and “If You Have No One”. And here’s a bonus, this album was released under the Creative Commons license, so it can be downloaded legally: http://www.archive.org/details/Charles_Manson_-_One_Mind
There you have it, the music of one of America’s most notorious psychopaths, forget what you’ve read, heard or seen about Charles Manson and give one of his records a spin. The music may surprise you.