Any serious music critic is making a mistake to write off the music of Charles Manson.
While it may be a good clean fun to sneer at the pseudo-mystical pop misfires and amateurish strumming of David Koresh or get yourself nice and creeped-out by the surrealist clown paintings of John Wayne Gacy, it has always been a cumbersome fact that this particular killer cult leader cannot be so easily cast into the sideshow tents. Charles Milles Manson had made serious inroads into the music industry long before he found his fame through dark alternate channels. This diminutive, wild-eyed man had gained many influential fans who are most likely chilling in your record collection as we speak. Known as The Soul to his Family of groovy, displaced hippie kids, he recorded a body of music that truly did make an impact in the Age of Aquarius, ringing out from the scraggly Topanga canyons like a troubled, but strangely positive, clarion call for everyone from DayGlo Sunset Strip clubbers to fringed lumpens looking to get it together in the country. Even if he had not taken the ’60s to its furthest-out conclusion in August of 1969, this music would still have a following today and would most certainly have been reissued on vinyl many times over.
Neal Young was a fan. To the cranky old man’s credit, he is one of the few who never denied it. “He had this kind of music that nobody else was doing,” Young let writer Bill Flanagan know. “He would sit down with a guitar and start playing and making up stuff, different every time. It just kept comin’ out, comin’ out. Then he would stop and you would never hear that one again. Musically, I thought he was very unique. I thought he had something crazy, something great. He was like a living poet.” It would take some heavily tinted Roger McGuinn shades to miss the Manson influence on Mr. Crazy Horse’s music at the time as he veered hard from CSN&Y four-part harmonies to the outriding, jagged returns of “Revolution Blues”. Terry Melcher, the legendary Byrds and Beach Boys producer, Doris Day’s son, and possessor of one of the all-time finest Sgt. Pepper’s mustaches, saw a lot of potential in Manson and his Family. Melcher recorded a number of sessions with them plus a documentary (Just dig for a moment that the man responsible for “Kokomo” once rolled with the Manson Fam). But there was no greater fan than Dennis Wilson, the amateurish but great-looking drummer of the Beach Boys, who told Rave Magazine that his soon-to-be-infamous roommate was a “friend of mine who says he is God and the Devil” and referred to him in the same article as “The Wizard”. And yes, Charlie did record a session at Brian Wilson’s home studio. Although no film footage exists of this historic occasion, one can;t help but marvel at the thought of the sandbox-bound genius and the fast-rapping ex-con interacting within the shag rug confines of a Bel Air mansion. And Charlie was indeed a candidate to be signed to the Beach Boy’s imprint, Brothers Records. The contract ink would have been dry had The Wizard not decided to take his Family into the desert to get their helter skelter on instead.
Which leads to the most important point, the one that obliterates the conception that this was an untalented fringe musician: Charles Manson had a Billboard hit. The Beach Boys version of Manson staple “Cease To Exist”, awkwardly re-titled “Never Learn Not To Love” and coupled with an awful Ersel Hickey cover “Bluebirds Of The Mountain”, hit number 61 on the top 100 chart in late 1968. It was even more popular in the UK, reaching number 33 on the Brit chart (Charles “Top Of The Pops” Manson, anyone?). On Youtube you can watch The Boys lip syncing this syrupy version, sporting awesome drain pipe striped pants, on a 1969 episode of The Mike Douglas show. So to put it bluntly, the pre-infamy Charles Manson was far more successful than 96% of individuals who ever pick up an instrument. This is an unwieldy fact that you can choose to gloss over, but it will always be there for those who dare to accept it.
The original version of “Never Learn Not To Love” appears as track 11 on this excellent 1970 release. Even the staunchest Beach Boys fan would be hard pressed to claim that NLNTL lives up in any conceivable way to this spell-binding dirge. Unspooling like a tripped-out spider web over just two minutes and ten seconds, “Cease To Exist” is the perfect encapsulation of The Soul’s music. All of the essential elements are here, so if you’re only doing one Charles Manson song then this is the perfect window through which to experience an authentic Spahn Ranch campfire sing-along (minus the chiggers and rampant STDs, thankfully).
Take note of the acoustic blues runs snaking their way across the outskirts of the track like colorful junk on a desert floor. An impressionistic player, Manson used the instrument to paint in the blank spaces around his words, wielding his trusty classical six-string more like a touch-up brush than the main stroke. Charles had been tutored on steel guitar in the Terminal Island Federal Penitentiary by none other than Alvin “Creepy” Karpis of the Barker Gang, and many long hours of cell block blues bleed through in his playing. While not technically masterful on the instrument, Charlie certainly plays competently within the folk/blues vein, punctuating his verses and choruses with nifty little runs that drop like effective afterthoughts . On the studio outtakes from the Brian Wilson house sessions, you can hear a man behind the boards (Melcher? Dennis?) proclaim, “Groovy, Charlie Baby, just groove with it.” And groove he does all over Lie, staking out a territory somewhere between first-four-records-era Bob Dylan and a 1920’s chain gang in action, plus subtle nods to early 50s big band pomp and classic crooner background music. On hard chargers such as “Ego” and the immortal “Arkansas” he taps into the rhythmic possibilities Bo Diddley had been exploring, utilizing partial chords to smash out bedrock primal rhythms, though while you couldn’t picture naked hippies twirling around nighttime bonfires to Bo, Manson managed to gift wrap his rhythms for just this scene. No, Charles Manson was not a showy guitar god of the Hendrix/Clapton ilk, but he played cleverly and effectively within his chosen corner. If you’re comparing the strumming here to anyone it would be another prophetic folkie of the time, Mr. Bob Dylan. While it cannot be determined if The Afro’d One has ever dug into this record, it wouldn’t be beyond the pale of imagination to imagine Mr. Zimmerman would admire the grit and feeling on display in this guitar work.
And then there’s the voice. One of the most tricky aspects of any pit stop in the music of the ’60s is getting used to the throaty rock bellowing vomited forth by most of the day’s popular singers. In a world where everyone thought they were Grace Slick or Janis or Jack Bruce or Daltrey, Mr. Manson stands out as a subtle and sensual alternative. Imprisoned through the mid-’60s, Charlie had indeed missed the Beatles. And though he would eventually pick up on The Fabs in, ahem, spectacular fashion, on the LIE sessions Charlie proudly pulls the Bings and Franks and Tonys of his wayward youth out of his patchwork sleeves. With its smoky, after-hours vibe and self-pitying but wise lyrics, “People Say I’m No Good” would have appealed greatly to Ella Fitzgerald or, more recently, Amy Winehouse. “Home Is Where You’re Happy” carries within its DNA the jaunty, lilting vibe of an upbeat Dean Martin number. And then there’s “Look At Your Game Girl”, a song that has been covered to within an inch of its life but still rings truer here in its original form than in the hands of the countless bands who have used it as an attempt at being edgy. The reason these covers always fail is the simple fact that this song is not edgy. There isn’t a mean bone anywhere in its makeup. Charles goes full-on crooner here in a way that Jim Morrison was also attempting around the same time, but while Jimbo was far too leering and cocksure to pull it off, Charlie shines through with flying colors. In many ways this is his natural musical setting, pining for the salvation of a pretty young thing caught up in the debilitating maw of the straight world. Frank himself would have been happy to swoon in with a line like “Think you’re loving baby, but all you’re doing is crying”, and it’s always been hard to reconcile the all-seeing mystic terror of his various mug shots with the wounded break in his voice while lamenting, “Just to say love’s not enough, it can’t be true, oh, you can tell those lies, but you’re only fooling you.” At the time this song was recorded at some point in 1968, The Manson Family was not yet in the grips of apocalyptic, acid nightmare desert panic. The early Fam was about love and salvation, and it bleeds through in this gorgeous and, yes, tender track.
Anyone in search of darker overtones and hints of what was to come can skip right to “Ego”, the second half of mini-epic “People Say I’m No Good”, “Arkansas”, and “Cease”. In these tracks you can catch a glimpse of the future Prime Time Manson persona as seen on countless TV interviews in the 80s. But make no mistake, this is still a hopeful and cherubic Charles Manson, stunned at the possibilities unleashed by the Summer Of Love and still with plenty of room to steer clear of knives and dune buggies. Within the gritty, ominous blues tangle of “Arkansas” lurks cryptic weirdo lines like, “Far far down Arkansas, I was my mother I was my pa, a gov’ment man and a-whiskey still too, and everywhere I’m a-lookin’ at you”. Chilling? Yes. But when taken in with an unbiased ear, the song rings a whole lot truer than the slabs of white boy blues being sputtered out by 23-year-old Englishmen in paisley shirts that same year. Don’t forget that Manson as a child was sold off by his mother in a bar for a pitcher of beer. This put him much closer to Lead Belly in feeling than Ten Years After could ever hope for.
Arguably the centerpiece of the record, “No Good” kicks off as a sad crooner anthem packed with woe-is-me late night drunk tank burners such as “People say I’m no good, but never never do they say, why their world is so mixed up, or how it got that way”. While it can’t be proven that Manson knew about Gram Parsons, the line “They all look at me and they frown, do I really look so strange, if they really dug themselves, I know they’d want to change” parallels the lost-in-the-crowd sentiments of “Do You Know How It Feels To Be Lonesome”. At around the halfway point of the track, easily the longest on this record of 2-or-3 minute chargers, the song suddenly spirals out into the type of supernatural guru rap one would expect from the mind of Manson. “In your cardboard houses, and your tin-can cars, you sit there and you wonder, you wonder where you are…take yourself off the shelf, you can’t belong to nobody”. This is the type of stuff from which Geraldo reaped his ratings gold in 80s interviews, but it’s interesting to hear it coming from a young-ish, more hopeful Manson still firmly in control of his destiny and facial hair.
Giving up your ego was a huge thing in the ’60s (which explains why many hippies didn’t survive the 70s, much less the 80s), and there were no two greater proponents of ego death than Charles Manson and Dr. Timothy Leary. But while Leary was coming from degrees and bound leather books and New England campus quad student rap sessions, Manson had to learn all this shit himself with only LSD, a beat-up Heinlein paperback, and a pack of feral hippie kids as tools. Needless to say, Charlie’s ego death trip is a whole lot more immediate and exciting than Leary’s “Tibetan Book Of The Dead” knockoffs. In “Ego” he manages to shout out Freud without sounding pretentious (because he wasn’t pretentious) and lines like “Look out ego is a too much thing, when everything seems goin’ so fine, old ego puts itself on a bind, then you ease on out of your mind” inject a jubilant, jailhouse swagger into a concept usually treated with the staunch seriousness of a controlled laboratory acid test.
Many of the songs on this record are just plain hippie-dippy fun. If you want dark side of the ’60s music, stick with the Stones or the Doors. Because the true dark side of the ’60s was singing with tongue firmly in cheek (only with a hit of orange sunshine on it). On “Mechanical Man” Manson seems to poke fun at the very concept of his Family, not to mention his whole guru trip, in a way that Jim Jones never would have dared. Don’t forget that the Fam was still a Utopian, communal vision at this point, just one of many dozens springing up within the youth culture, and the vibe here is ultimately sunny and playful. The Manson Girls take a star turn on “I’ll Never Say Never To Always”, a childlike a cappella ditty that could be described as “delightful” if some of the singers hadn’t gone on to slash up rich people in their mansions just one year and many dark twists later. “Garbage Dump” is definitely the first ever freegan anthem, extolling the virtues of dumpster diving and nodding to the Family’s notorious garbage runs (often performed while driving Dennis Wilson’s cherry red Porsche). Onomatopoeia is used to lighten the edges of the jail lament “Big Iron Door”. And the irony of Charles Manson singing a song titled “Don’t Do Anything Illegal” really just never gets old.
In their version of “Cease”, the Beach Boys changed the line “cease to exist” to “cease to resist”. The fact that the Boy’s attempt to tone down this slow burning strummer actually backfired and made it even more creepy speaks volumes for how well the song was originally constructed. No matter how much they messed with it, whether it was heaping on swells of cheeseball strings or batting away the homoerotic undertones of a line like “Submission is a gift, give it to your brother”, they still couldn’t escape the vibe of the song. And here is where Charles’ main strength as a songwriter can be pinpointed. The man was all vibes. Whether he was hexing a song with witchy voodoo, dosing it with sunshine, or sprinkling it with penitentiary grit, the song’s vibe was locked firmly into place and could never be tampered with.
To call this outsider music is to sell it way short. Many kids were feeling like outsiders in 1969, and records such as these tapped into the Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out lifestyle very much in vogue with large swaths of the world population. In many ways Lie: The Love and Terror Cult is the perfect document of the late ’60s communal era, placing the glorious naivety and colorful flaws right up front for all to see. The love supreme and ego-free togetherness and hope for a less-stressed future are all here, as are the jagged blue cheer trips and the lice outbreaks and the fear of the world beyond the campfire. It’s all here for those who want to experience it over headphones from the comfort of their cubicle or high-rent coastal one-bedroom. The continued interest in this album isn’t only due to the Tate/LaBianca murders. Even if the Family hadn’t creepy crawled off the rails and into the history books, this would no doubt be a frequently reissued cult classic highly revered among record store workers everywhere.
And it’s certainly a lot easier on the ears than The Incredible String Band.
- Cease To Exist
- Look At Your Game Girl
- People Say I’m No Good
Editor’s Note: To listen to this record is not to support murder and mayhem. Due to a series of complicated court rulings, not one member of the Manson Family or their estates receive a single penny from the sale or streaming of this record. Nor does Phil “The Road Mangler” Kaufman, who executive produced it. The most popular re-issue, the 2006 version on the ESP Disk label, sends all artist royalties to the estate of Family victim Wojciech Frykowski. The earlier reissue on Awareness Records donated all royalty proceeds to a California fund for victims of violent crime. Any other copy you may come across will be a bootleg edition where no Family member will profit. Should you come face-to-face with one of the original 2,000 copies from 1970, then you will be the one to profit since these are worth hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.