Talking to You From Another World
Manson’s Music in Context
Liner notes essay, insert, for Charles Manson’s Horsefly
By Nikolas Schreck
This raw shout of sonic shamanism was recorded in a prison cell on a smuggled recording device during a few precious minutes of stolen silence. California Correctional Department jargon says this isn’t a record, it’s contraband. Some clever attorney’s probably making a case that merely by purchasing this, you’ve aided and abetted a crime.
But seen through Abraxas’s all-seeing non-dual eye, this record’s very existence is a potent symbol of a creative soul standing up to the inhuman system of stone and steel which holds his body captive but has never crushed his spirit. As befits an artist who proudly claims that he’s stood on the law’s other side since his bastard birth, this is a seventy-seven year old survivor’s defiant call to a society he X’d himself out of decades ago. A testament to music’s power to transcend even concrete and chains.
Artists and criminals both stand outside the fixed order of things, reshuffling social reality’s deck. They’re brothers in bearing the stigma that breaking the rules brings with it. In Manson, artist and criminal unite. The urge to create and the drive to transgress become one.
Jaded collectors of true crime curiosities and other pop culture ghouls will bring false expectations to this release. If you buy the cover-up pushed in court forty years ago and sold ever since, this is only the artifact of a deranged mind. Consensus reality has it that Manson’s only claim to fame is his supposed masterminding of a shocking crime spree committed for reasons that’ve come to be accepted as society’s gold standard for Satanic insanity. This is neither the time nor the place to correct Vincent Bugliosi’s career-making masterpiece of legal duplicity. Only a new trial could do that. Let us consider, instead, for once, the artist obscured beneath the vast tissue of fabrications concocted to convict him. To hear Manson’s music – really hear it – you must pull the plugs from your ears and dispel the projections superimposed on his art.
Manson was never the Beatle wanna-be the Helter Melcher Skelter caricature paints him as. Not a note of his music echoes the British minstrel show derived from Afro-American rhythm and blues that became the Sixties’ defining sound. His work twangs with his Scotch-Irish Southern hillbilly roots. This is the Great Depression country boy who praised the Lord in Protestant church choirs, his percussive way with a git-box informed by the Catholic monk who taught him chords in Gibault Boys School. Alvin ”Creepy” Carpis of the Barker Gang showed him some slide guitar rubs in Terminal Island. A Mexican amigo added a Latin twist during a brief time on the lam in Acapulco. The bare bones strum of Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell, the country and western heroes of Manson’s youth, left their mark too. His music was shaped by chain gang chorales and the anguished cries of convicts shouting on the tiers of all of the prisons in which he’s marked time. In short, it’s hard to imagine a more All-American musical fusion than Manson’s mix of white prison blues and hillbilly gospel. His holy roller snake-handler sound is built on the twin pillars of crime and religion, the two pillars upholding the American dream.
Along with the Beatles canard hung wrongly on Manson’s head, we find the well-entrenched lie that he was a jealous non-talent who struck out at random at the entertainment industry which supposedly spurned him. This willful denial of the facts, one of the rock and film industry Mafia’s most successful facades, is actually the complete opposite of the truth. Manson’s talent was hailed by many successful musicians, among them Neil Young, Dennis Wilson, and Terry Melcher – who never confessed to how deeply involved he was in pushing Manson’s career. Few who remember will admit it now. But Manson was no feared pariah until the media cast him as one. He was a welcome guest and admired musical and spiritual inspiration in the homes (and beds) of many of Hollywood’s groovy and moneyed elite. By 1969, the blessing/curse of Manson’s charisma had him well on his way to being marketed by the Hollywood rock aristocracy as the ”Next Big Thing” of the 70s. He fit right in with the fashion for country-tinged Laurel Canyon singer-songwriters with a message. His truly radical lifestyle, his prison past, and his unique mystical views stamped him with a visionary outlaw chic authenticity made to order for those insurrectionary times. A major Capitol Records album backed up by the Beach Boys was in the works. As was a companion documentary about life among Manson’s revolutionary circle meant to establish him as the countercultural avant-garde’s prophetic voice.
In the early summer of ‘69, Manson was no rejected would-be. In only two years, the ex-con had climbed out of society’s trashcan and managed to come within reach of a mainstream success he regarded with more than a little ambiguity. Manson wasn’t so sure he wanted to sell his soul. In spirited campfire singalongs in the hills of Santa Susana and Death Valley, his music was empowered by religious dimensions. Could that holy force be sustained in the rock and roll circus’s marketplace? Despite the star of the show’s reluctance, the music machine’s Manson campaign would’ve been going full blast within weeks. If it weren’t for the backlash set off by a series of hopelessly bungled drug burglaries, banal crimes conceived and committed by Manson’s associate Charles ”Tex” Watson on some well-connected industry drug dealer peers of his acquaintance. Manson’s industry backers got cold feet because of his marginal connection to Watson’s crimes, not because of any doubt about his talent and commercial potential.
In fact, Manson’d already tired of corporate rock’s formulaic rigmarole. He rejected pop stardom’s strictures as yet another prison. Dennis Wilson had stolen his music, changed his lyrics, and released it without proper credit or payment on the Beach Boys 20/20 album. When Manson tried to get paid what was due him, the Beach Boys’ manager threatened to have Manson rubbed out by a hit man. So much for the much misunderstood past.
Manson didn’t commit this latest musical violation – and suffer the penalty of removal of ”privileges” – to provide entertainment to those drawn to his monstrous media myth. Since the mid-Nineties, his keepers in the Mojave Desert hell-realm he calls home have denied him a voice. To prevent him from being seen as a ”hero”, Manson’s right to grant face-to-face interviews has long since been rescinded. This recording, smuggled out of the heart of the beast, allows Manson to speak. This isn’t show biz or polished performance. Under the hopeless conditions it was recorded, how could it be? Manson’s the first to admit that what he’s recorded in prison doesn’t match what he’d be capable of under proper circumstances. Consider this instead a coyote cry from the heart. No sweetening, no overdubs, no second take. A desperado at his most desperate. A special delivery lyrical letter from the depths of an Orpheus deep in the underworld, in every sense of the word.
Manson says this moment of Now is ”just for us”, his Inner Sanctum, the ”my-mes” and ”alikens” tuned into ”the thought.” But when Manson speaks of thought, it’s not the rehash of discursive chatter that usually fills the mind. Like all mystics, Manson breaks those familiar patterns, allowing non-thought’s silence to break through quotidian mentation’s clutter. Manson’s art is without artifice. Never contrived or forced but immediate and flowing. The unmediated reflection recorded here captures a fleeting moment in the middle of the night after the din of another day in his cage. The Bard of Corcoran’s poetry is a twilight language of underworld argot. Here is the uncut pulse of the alternate universe of American crime which slumming Beats like Burroughs sought to capture but never quite caught. Hermetic, cryptic, veiled with allusions meant for the few and never the many, Manson’s message resists the reductionism of linear minds. His refusal to explain is bound to engender confusion.
Manson’s knee-jerk detractors and admirers alike may miss one salient point. Given a rare chance to communicate, the state’s scapegoat issues none of the bloodthirsty orders to kill we’ve been led to expect from Public Enemy Number One. Instead, ”the most dangerous man in the world” makes the same appeal for Agape that’s always infused his deeply Christian Gnostic thought: Love your brother and you will survive. Hate your brother and you will eat your self.
Coming from a man who’s spent most of his life locked inside the heartless machine of America’s high-security hate factories, that hard-won lesson is a plea worth taking seriously.
Nikolas Schreck, September 2011