Charles Manson :: Lie: The Love and Terror Cult

LIECharles Manson has always been cloaked and hidden in music, and if not music, then at least the counterculture that swirls around it.   Manson and his Family have, since their inception upon his release from McNeil Island in 1967 and subsequent move to the Bay Area, associated themselves with the counterculture in general and the musical counterculture in particular.   As Bono alludes to in Rattle and Hum, he re-stamped the proto-punk of the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter” into a dizzying war cry and a complex and potentially racist eschatology that culminated in the macabre murders of seven people.

It’s no great secret that Manson himself was an aspiring musician, and that he tried to lobby a recording contract out of Terry Melcher, the producer who recorded the Byrds’ “Turn, Turn Turn.”     Dennis Wilson, who introduced Manson to Melcher, would go on to record Manson’s “Cease to Exist” with the Beach Boys under the name “Never Learn Not to Love”.   Melcher wasn’t interested in Manson’s music, though, and began sessions with Herb Alpert.   Manson retreated to Spahn Ranch, Los Angeles, an abandoned movie set whose ghosts scream so loud, even now, that my fingers stop moving as I type out the letters.

And so now is the time where it needs to be said. I’m a music critic, a person who listens to records and attempts to tell you what they sound like and whether or not they’re worth your time.   Much of what I do is, by necessity, subjective and based on taste, a taste that is shaped by (among many other things) the way I look at the world; the reason you enjoy reading Aquarium Drunkard is because you, too, (mostly) like the same kinds of music that we like.   It’s likely that we all think in a similar way, that our moralities are, if not actively similar, based in the same root.   This is a personal and trusting relationship we all have here, our words and your minds, and maybe it sounds a bit cosmic and Summer of Love to say that we’re on a similar plane, but, yeah, okay, it’s no stretch to say that we’re having a dialogue here.

So, friends, how do I tell you about a Charles Manson record?   What does it mean if we like it?   What if we find ourselves nodding our heads?   It makes you wonder whether it’s even worth turning it on.   It makes you wonder whether this topic of conversation is even worth pursuing.

Manson learned how to play guitar in prison in Southern California while serving a ten-year sentence (reduced to seven) for forging a treasury check.   He began his incarceration in 1960. That year, “The Twist” was still in the height of its popularity.   And The Beatles went to Germany.

The whole social order began to shift, rocking North America back and forth on its axis and spilling a few people into the ocean.   Kids began to come from all over the continent to the Bay Area; bored by suburbia and searching for something they didn’t quite understand, they followed the trail of sunshine painted by the Big Rock Singers, creating a new world in the parks by the sea.   But by 1967, the so-called Summer of Love, everything was starting to fall apart.   George Harrison visited that year and was appalled by Haight-Ashbury, saying, “It wasn’t what was I thought of all these groovy people having spiritual awakenings and being artistic…it was like alcoholism, it was like any addiction.”   Heavy drug users began to flock and mingle in San Francisco, lured to the area by promises of communal anarchy.   Hunter S. Thompson eulogized the mid-sixties in 1971’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, writing

“We were riding the crest of a beautiful and high wave…Now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark–that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

Four years before Thompson’s writing, Charles Manson stepped barefoot into those shallowing waters, and you can almost hear the tide move out on Lie: The Love and Terror Cult, the album recorded by Manson in September of 1967 and released during the trial to pay his defense fund.   Taking cues from what were already genre clichés, Manson sings in vaguely Eastern melodies, strumming his guitar irregularly and stacking noises and voices together into meaningless collages. “Ego” is a cautionary tale that oddly warns its listeners against the dangers of isolation and the negative power of the personal.   “Hey, remember Freud?” he sings.   Well, yeah, Charlie.   Do you?   Over a shuffle whose raggedy timing vaguely recalls the Velvet Underground, Manson advises his listeners against breaking the law in “Don’t Do Anything Illegal”–not because it’s wrong, but because you’ll be harassed.   He’s so disillusioned with society in “People Say I’m No Good” that he can barely be bothered to play open chords or use a well-tuned guitar.

Clunky didacticisms are the sort of thing we expect from Manson, though.   What we don’t expect is songs like the jug-thumping “Arkansas”, whose stringy lead recalls Mike Bloomfield, or the goofy country-folk of “Garbage Dump”, which Manson dedicates in a, well, a pretty hilarious coda to “The Garbage Pickers of America”.   These are Lie’s truly unnerving moments–when you find yourself enjoying it, or when you realize that Devendra Banhart took more than a look from Manson; that needley vibrato pokes out in opener “Look At Your Game, Girl”.

Manson’s influence still hangs around in the same way that graffitied hammers-and-sickles still hang around in Italy; the power of the image has shifted.   Rather than evil, it now signifies a dedication to social animosity, an alignment with disalignment, a bucking of anything remotely resembling an established order.   Ironically, Manson was the ultimate authority figure in his world.   A quick glance at recent pop bands who have covered his songs or taken inspiration from him–Guns ‘n’ Roses, the Brian Jonestown Massacre, Marilyn Manson–reveals the same: all groups comprised of strong individual personalities forced to answer to one ego, all perpetually on the verge of destruction.

It’s tempting to write Manson off as some degenerate loser, a drifter with a remarkable malignant streak.   In one video interview, Manson even describes himself as such: “I’m a tramp, a bum, a hobo.   I’m a boxcar and a jug of wine.”   But simple tramps can’t manipulate and mobilize beautiful girls from middle class homes–girls who wanted nothing more than to be understood, who fell under Manson’s spell for the simple reason that he appeared to give them the attention and love that the counterculture had refused them–a boxcar can’t turn those girls into killers.   And as for the other obvious answer, that he’s pure and unfiltered evil–well, evil doesn’t play.

And that’s perhaps the most awful thing about Lie.   It’s not the strange chords or the whispered backing vocals, or the creepy sound collage of “Mechanical Man”.   It’s not even the immediate and awful realization that the rich, smooth voice coming through the speakers belongs to Charles Manson.   It’s smaller than that.   It’s the fact that this record exists at all, the fact that Charles Manson laughed and I, for a moment, laughed with him.   I can deal with unbridled evil.   This I can’t stand to hear.   This is Charles Manson, and Lie is his album.   And there is always something else to listen to. words/ m. garner

MP3: Charles Manson :: Look At Your Game Girl
MP3: Charles Manson :: Mechanical Man

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28 thoughts on “Charles Manson :: Lie: The Love and Terror Cult

  1. This is why I like this Blog. Nothing really easily fits in a box. There are no real answers to life’s dusty corners and it’s always more complicated than you think. Thanks for the review, still, I will pass and choose not to listen. I refuse to succumb to my own yellow curiosity.
    Great job and beutiful use of the HST quote.

  2. Excellent stuff, Marty. One of your best. One of AD’s best. It is certainly a bit uncomfortable listening to that first song and liking it.

    Top AD Halloween and/or soul-devouring-related post ever.

  3. I downloaded some Manson on a lark from pre-Metallica Napster… I don’t think it was this album, but it was a full set of songs/demos from him. I listened to about 15 seconds before I had to stop. I was worried about liking the music and what that would mean, if it meant anything at all, about me. I never deleted the files, but never listened to them beyond those few seconds.

  4. Excellent post. As grotesque as this character was, I would hope AD would shed light on his musical output. AD does more than highlight specific artists, it helps us explore genres and periods. His talent, or lack there of, is superfluous. He was very much a part of the late 60s California scene and in that sense he’s a voice that’s warrants a listening to with our socio-musical hats on. Besides, it’s Halloween.

  5. beautiful writing, man. i have recently become obsessed with the cultural/social baggage wrapped up listening habits and this piece confirms, elucidates, and, in some way, resolves many of the things i have been dealing with. thanks. this is why i am here every day.

  6. Well written piece, no doubt. Personally, I find myself liking his work, without having to go through such lengths to explain the obvious; Charles Manson was a sociopathic scumbag. All the same, the dude had some genuine talent. Sure, it’s of the “outsider art”, but I’d much rather listen to Lie than any assortment of American Idol bullshit or Top Forty nonsense. I have a feeling you think the same way, or else this post wouldn’t be here to begin with.

    There’s a very thin line between the likes Daniel Johnston and that of Charles Manson, musically speaking.

  7. @ CTL– Thanks for the compliments and comments. To be quite honest, though, I don’t really want to listen to American Idol or Charles Manson (I will cop to a fondness for Top 40 rap music, though). I’m not about to deny that Manson had talent, though I’m loath to suggest that that talent was musical in nature. “Look at Your Game, Girl” is easily the record’s best song, and his vocal performance is solid, but it still sounds like crappy white soul to me, particularly in the chorus.

    I understand your point re Daniel Johnston, and I do agree that there are similarities between the two, but there’s a distinct difference between the two that fattens that line up quite a bit–I believe that Johnston’s songs are actually good and interesting to listen to on levels that have nothing to do with sociological study. I listen to Daniel Johnston because I enjoy his writing; I listened to Charles Manson’s music because it makes for an interesting study.

    As for why the post is here, it’s because Manson has always had a strange and uncomfortable connection to music and the music industry, whether it’s via his songs, the fact that he lived with Dennis Wilson, the Terry Melcher/10050 Cielo house connection, the burnout of the sixties, etc. I do admit to having enjoyed parts of the record, but that’s half my point–to explore the question of what it means to be able to admit to yourself that Charles Manson could have done something that I can enjoy, and what it might mean about the world and human nature, and what it might mean about how and why we listen to music. So you are right to imply that I enjoyed parts of the record, but I still have no desire to listen to it over anything else.

  8. Fair enough. That’s a well-reasoned response. This is why I love the site; it digs under the surface and puts it all in another light.

  9. Why’s everybody scared to listen to these songs?It’s like the hysteria of playing records backwards, or going after Juda Priest in the 80s. “Look at Your Game Girl” is an amazing song. I’ve never really heard any of Manson’s songs and now I want to dig deeper. That’s the great thing about art, it turns pre-conceptions upside down. I put this song on a mix CD and played it at my Halloween dinner, with my grandparents eating nearby.
    Would they go kill someone cuz they heard the sweet love song by a killer?
    Everyone gets dillillusioned, he just decided to stop picking up a pen and go for a knife instead.
    Great song Charlie. Changes my whole idea of good and evil.

  10. @ CTL–can’t tell you how much I appreciate your grace. I was worried that I’d been too harsh in my response. Thanks for your support!

    @ Steveo–I’m not trying to suggest that the music of Charles Manson is going to make anyone kill. People who do the things that Manson did (or any killer etc) do those things no matter what music they listen to. What I’m arguing for is, essentially, the morality of music, and whether it’s wise to listen to something just because we enjoy it. It differs from the hysteria of the backwards-masked records because I’m not suggesting that this album will make us all evil; if I believed that, I wouldn’t have written about it, and I would have asked Justin not to attach the mp3s. I’m simply arguing that not all “good” or well-made art is worth consuming.

  11. Saw this link over at Buddyhead. I was reluctant to play it at first, not because it was from a convicted murderer but because I thought the songs would sound like gothy, Marilyn Manson stuff. I’m surprised, “…Game girl” was actually, uh, sweet. At one point, I actually felt sad for him.
    Good job, marty. Enlightening response to CTL (#13) as well.

  12. Good call Jossie. I felt sad for him too.
    He has a much better voice than I figured – and a dead-ringer for Davandra Barnhart.
    Maybe he should have looked at his own game. As a songwriter myself, often the lyrics I’m singing that pretty girls think is all about them, is actually advice to myself. The questions I pose to others are really meant for me. Maybe ‘ole Charlie was “confused by all the delusion” and what could have been a promising singing career, took a much darker turn.
    I almost wanted to go visit him in prison and give him a hug, then I realized he looks like an aging crack head and who has a forty-year-old swastika carved in his head. Cest la vie.

  13. @ Steveo — That’s an excellent point. Maybe he was singing to himself and was, like you said, “confused by all the delusion”. I hadn’t thought of it in those terms.

  14. I have mildly mixed feelings about these songs. They aren’t great, but they are good. Should I feel guilty for thinking that they are good? I don’t think so. At first I was unsure if I should even listen. But now I’m glad that I did.

    I would hope that anyone who is unwilling to listen to these songs simply because they are Charles Manson never listens to a Phil Spector production again.

  15. Brandon has the right idea. To separate the monster and the music is what we have to remember. Keeping that in mind. I downloaded Mansons music about 3 months ago because I heard “Look At Your Game Girl” I thought that he had a great voice and was amazed I hadn’t heard it before. Well Lie was part of the download and I have to say really the rest of the music was really slap dash and had a lack of focus. I couldn’t find another track that was as good as the first one I heard. The other download was him in the studio trying to do demos and it is very telling of what kind of man he was. When it came to his music he was very unsure of his skill. He could hardly get through a song with out stopping or laughing or talking to the producer. He didn’t know what to do is what I am saying. Now maybe if Manson had a good producer (Phil Spector HAHA!) something could of come of it. His music sounded as confusing as I suspect his mind was. That said like most music it is subjective. I don’t think it is that good to even have this discussion. He has one good song and some good ideas that never panned out. But some people might like it. Hey alot of people like Jack Johnson too. But I think even the writer of the article is putting more weight on it by saying that he was scared (I know that isn’t the word but you know what i mean) to like it. (By the way the article is brilliant). The writers article is better than mansons music! If it truly was THAT good this really would be a moral question. If Manson was more organized in his writing he would be more organized in his life and mind and if that was the case he probably wouldn’t be a killer. So I find his music totally fitting of his life. Interesting, terrible, sometimes sad, unorganized, unfocused and ultimately unsatisfying. There is a reason that Terry Melcher wasn’t interested in his music.

  16. Thanks for posting this. I actually really like the Lie record. I think it’s great, and I have no issue feeling that way. The fact is that there’s lot of music out there performed by people who have done horrible things. Not as bad as Manson necessarily, but as the last two comments suggest, you have to isolate the work completely.

    Just like in criticism, you can’t judge work based on whether you like someone as a person. I have friends I love that make music I hate. Conversely, I love music by some total assholes. If you can’t listen to Charles Manson because of his actions, I would argue you can’t take John Lennon’s peace and love statements seriously either, considering how horrible he was to his first wife and Julian. The music and the person, often, are two separate entities. Except for Daniel Johnston maybe….

  17. Why do you think it’s called LIE? It was meant to make fun of LIFE magazine because of all the lies they posted about him. In fact practically everything known by the average person, Healter Skelter that is, are blatant lies. Vincent Bugliosi saw the trial as an opportunity to make money and after LIFE magazine helped to create the mysterious hippie cult hype about him Vincent Bugliosi figured he could write a book that in the end made him over 1 Billion dollars and this is not exaggeration. I think that would be pretty good motivation to ruin and innocent persons life. And the way he did it was just as ridiculous. He made an agreement with Linda Kasabian who had only met Manson once, and got her to testify Vincent’s fabricated Healter Skelter scenario in return for her freedom. Of course she would make the agreement too because she barely even knew who Charles Manson was. After that the money started printing for Vincent Bugliosi and the whole world was giving the negative connotations of Charles Manson that they continue to have. When truthfully Charles Manson was very humble and independent man. And after a life in prison for petty crimes that gave him more time than usual. He found himself in California where the children of the 60’s seemed to flock aroudn him. There was no commanding, he didn’t even want the attention but being the kind person that he was, he let them stay with him as he drifted until settling at Spahn Ranch. He did partake in some small crimes and ate out of garbage cans to survive but never came up with any Healter Skelter ideas. Eventually with all the drugs goign around, Tex Watson and Susan Atkins went crazy and started to think that they should kill the residence of Terry Melchers house but this was thier own idea. They other motivations behind the murders was to create copycat murders so they could get a friend out of Prison. Some who participated also fealt that they would be helping ATWA but this was thier own decision. So if Charles Manson wasn’t about Healter Skelter, then what was he about? Charles Manson was about survival, through all the time in his life he became very wise which was one of the reasons the kids loved him. And with this wisdom came all his knoledge of how sad the world had become with the pollution that everyone was contributing, and he came up with ATWA which was his phillosephy about saving the envirnment from pollution. He also reflected a lot on his life and learned about the human condition. You can obviously tell that he did this and that Healter Skelter is made up by the fact in all his interviews and music and friends, if you listen with unbiased ears not infected by the media, you never once hear him say anything even resembling Healter Skelter which is pretty strange if that was sopposedly his idea. Plus nearly all of his friends from Spahn Ranch could attest to him not even caring about the beatles. Sure they listened to them but they were 60’s kids and it would be normal for them to like music. Kids usually do. The only ones who said he beleived Healter Skelter was Linda who didn’t even know him in the first place and was just trying to save her own ass. Tex and Susan may have made implications in their books but they were so high on Meth, Coke, and LSD that they didn’t know what the hell was going on at the time; they just felt like killing. They just wanted people to like them after getting imprisoned and would say whatever it took, which you can see by there turn to Christianity. But Charles Manson is actually a very smart and wise man. He still makes recordings, Music, and talks about Philosephy and ATWA with the help of his new friends Star and Redwolf and will hopefully be released someday. When you listen to him in the music, recordings, and interviews you can either view it as crazy mumbo jumbo or you could open your ears and hear what he has to say about saving the World from pollution. So do you want to believe the truth or the media?

  18. awesome. have loved this album a long for a long time and this is the best writing ive seen about it. what great descriptive colorful emotional writing

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