The process of recording music kills spontaneity
Manson’s recording sessions were few. The release of his music has been covert and, in terms of quality, erratic. This is a symptom of the general conflict between Manson and the music business. As a free spirit, guided by whim, Manson is the sort of musical artist that confounds the production of highly commodified recorded music. Manson believed that music was the key to communicating ideas: “Music doesn’t know time, music is soul… it stays in your infinite unconscious.” On Manson’s first recordings it is discernible that he feels, like most first time recording artistes, uncomfortable: giggling nervously; self conscious. The process of recording music kills spontaneity and so in this respect Manson was in accord with the key figures in the folk revival of the 1950s who detested the reduction of love and communal forms of music-making by the industrialisation of folk music to another product for mass consumption. The intrusive aspect of studio recording frustrated Manson. “I never really dug recording. You go into the studio and it’s hard to sing into microphones,” he said. The obsession with a perfect recording, with total separation, making mixing smoother, was impossible to apply to the manner in which Manson and his ‘group’ liked to perform. An insight into the spontaneous nature of Manson’s creativity is sometimes captured in filmed interviews. During one interview for example, Manson attempts to launch into a spontaneous percussive improvisation with a plastic waste bin. As might a jazz musician, Manson improvises his way out of a corner. “I am my music. I play my music for me,” was his refrain.
More broadly, anyone familiar with the machinations of the music business will recognise the way in which Manson was ‘ripped-off’ by producers, the administrators and legal guardians of the industry. The entertainment industry in California found Manson and his followers interesting and various film projects capturing their crazy lifestyle and behaviour were planned. “I really appreciate your talent Charlie, but there’s nothing I can do for you,” Terry Melcher eventually told Manson. But was it Manson’s limitations that were at fault or the music business’ lack of imagination? Despite allowing the Beach Boys permission to use one of his songs Manson was never paid. “You know what Manson? You’re a flaky little nothing,” he was told when he went to recoup the royalties that he was owed. Manson did not forget the way he was treated by the music industry. “If you’ve lied and broken someone’s trust, I have no control over what happens,” he told one disgruntled bootlegger of his music. Manson’s official psychiatric diagnosis is that he is a “passive-aggressive personality with paranoid tendencies”. I can think of few better descriptions of the psychology of pop and rock stars.
Jail Guitar Doors
Before the killings linked to Manson, his music was a meandering search for a timeless, spiritual life
Manson’s guitar playing is worth scrutinising in greater detail. A guitar has always been one of his most prized possessions. His guitar is supposedly buried somewhere in Death Valley “awaiting his escape”. Unlike most folk rock of the time and the blues tradition of steel string guitar playing, he prefers to use a nylon strung Spanish guitar and never finger-picks his guitar. This kind of guitar is difficult to impose in a dominant way over vocals and other instruments as it is clearly designed to be played solo or with a single vocal accompaniment (think of the British singer-songwriter Jake Thackray). While Manson is often associated with psychedelic rock guitarist Bobby Beausoleil, it is clear to see that he was never a pop or rock musician in the traditional sense. In addition to the type of guitar Manson used, his chord progressions go beyond the usual forms of pop and rock music. He makes use of the sixth and unresolved major seventh chords that are more commonly found in Latin music. Manson frequently uses open chords that ring out more forcefully (E and A major and minor chords). This style marks Manson’s music as out of the ordinary. There are elements of blues in Manson’s music but it is nearer to the blues of the desert, a sacred place for the Family. But then traditional blues music is an assertion of an aggressive form of male sexuality, something not clearly exhibited in Manson’s songs. Manson performed as a troubadour, as Life magazine dubbed him: a “roving minstrel”.
Before the killings linked to Manson, and before the sixties dream fell the wrong side of the razor’s edge, his music was a meandering search for a timeless, spiritual life in place of the exterior controls of the state mechanism. Manson himself eventually said: “How are you going to get to the establishment? You can’t sing to them.” Jeff Nuttall suggested of this time that the outlaw’s gesture and his honesty might “lead to public murder”. So it proved. Manson’s music is the perfect expression of how when “pleasure is outlawed, and people who celebrate love openly are jailed, violence has become a way of attaining intimacy with other humans” (George Paul Csicsery). Perhaps there is some glimpse of this in the songs that Manson composed, but what we hear is not the adolescent worship of a death cult that his imitators have turned out. His statement: “Music seldom gets to grownups. It gets through to the young mind that’s still open,” reveals the importance of sound in communicating ideas and thoughts. Hence the fearful power of music: to alter consciousness and open minds to influence like a drug.
Charles Manson’s own opinion of his forays with and without other Family members into the world of rock stardom are sanguine: “I guess the girls and I blew it.” “Manson was striking out at the establishment,” Bugliosi told me and the music establishment was clearly part of that target. An early review of Manson’s LIE LP ended “Charles Manson, the record industry welcomes you with open arms.”
They never did.
Of the recordings currently available of Charles Manson’s music none are official releases. Even LIE is a collection of high quality demos elevated to the status of a proper LP. This is one reason why it is easy to dismiss Manson’s music: it sounds rough and incomplete. But perhaps this is how Manson should be confronted. Manson was never about capturing an essence on tape but about the expression of a moment. There follows a review of the key Manson recordings. It is not exhaustive as many recordings have been sneaked out of whichever prison Manson resides. It is still better to listen to Manson’s original music than anything that came after.