Thus far into their unsteady, insight-riddled journey deeper into the lowlands of Hell, Dante and his guide Virgil have met little resistance, having glimpsed only the more timid – or passive – sinners to be found in the world of the dead. Heretical, lustful, greedy, just plain angry: all told, this was some relatively tame shit.
It still is in today’s world…
It should seem natural therefore that no doomed soul hath yet tried to step to them along their walk into Hell; no one so much as bothered to give Dante the “fresh fish,” routine. Not even some mild intimidation. But shit was about to change…
As Dante and Virgil begin to negotiate a very sudden, very steep drop that separates Upper and Lower Hell, leading into the Seventh Circle, Virgil decides to serve up a little real talk about this next phase of Hell. It is here, he explains, where they say arrivederci to the passive sinners in Upper Hell and begin to tangle with active, malicious sinners found in Lower Hell.
They also come upon their first real impediment in Hell, the famous Minotaur, who is best known for being the unholy product of a human woman (Pasiphae) and a male bull, as well as for inhabiting the famous Labyrinth of Knossos. He serves here in much the same capacity that he once did in life, guarding the entrance to Lower Hell in a way similar to the boss at the end of a level in your everyday nineties video game.
Dante goes on to learn that the Seventh Circle is actually dissected into three separate rings, the first of which (the Outer Ring), is really just a large, burbling river of fiery blood, the way we commonly think of Hell to this day. It is here that Dante finds those individuals who were violent against people and things.
The second group of violent sinners he comes upon are the suicides and profligates: respectively, those who were violent to themselves and those who wasted their wealth and property to the point where life was no longer possible. Famously, the Suicides have been transferred into thorny bushes, and fed upon by the Harpies (of Greek myth fame), whereas the profligates are merely chased and bitten by feral dogs.
Finally, in the inner ring of the Seventh Circle, we find those who were violent against God (the Blasphemers ) or against nature (Sodomites and usurers)
To be sure, the medieval concept of violence was so granular, so nuanced, and complex that it’s difficult to discuss in prose. In verse, these varied metaphysics are reflected tangibly in Dante’s description of the Seventh Circle. But how does one best some it all up in a single, classic album? I give you Lie: The Love and Terror Cult by Charles Manson.
A warning, dear reader: Should we have cause to lay pondering between the blacks and whites of life, seeking out a definitive stance on each issue at hand, finding that side which is good, the corresponding side which is evil, should we find ourselves there, in a reduced state, where the options are clear, will it matter not that Charles Manson is a singer and writer of songs, in addition to being a criminal mastermind? Will it matter not that his underlings were themselves brought to bare to sing of him, and his words, and his music? Will it matter not that I too have been bewitched by his deeply speculative cantata and pleasantly affixed madrigal?
I admit it: growing up, I had a serious crush on convicted murderer Susan Atkins. I listened to Sexy Sadie on the White Album and dreamed of going on the run with her; she with her straight brown hair and her minidresses, breaking into the sumptuous mansions of Laurel Canyon and the Hollywood Hills, giggling and aroused, then making a break for the desert, living out our lives in the motor hotels of the universe, where all was beautiful and nothing hurt. There’s something deeply potent about the mix of West coast sexual abandon and the brand of overt violence that the Manson family inspired: lustful, dangerous, and sure to asphyxiate our collective unconsciousness just to the edge of rapture.
But to contextualize Ms. Atkins, in late August 1969, while America was busy reveling in its cultural simulacra, watching imperfect copies of more distant Americans walk on the moon, or fuck each other in colorful tent cities birthed from runaway music festivals, or stuck placidly in military-industrial hell-scapes, born of oaken legions, or rejuvenating in thick Middle Eastern sands – we suddenly had occasion to crane our heads westward and find that, in at least one man’s skewed opinion, our whole way of life was wrong, and that it must change, either by coercion, brute force, or the oft-foretold race war between the Blacks and the Whites.
After months of engaging in what his bleary-eyed cult had called ‘creepy crawlers’ – sneaking into occupied homes in the dead of night and rearranging the furniture before unceremoniously leaving the premises – Charles Manson and his cult of over-sexed, aristocratic, and narcissistic dropouts were planning to drop a large and sure-to-fail mindfuck on the heretofore aloof American public.
What’s more, by the time our nation was poised to pick up the pieces, his bravado and engaging personality had already made Manson the kind of grandiloquent, counter-culture media critic that many Sixties upstarts could only dream of becoming: Abby Hoffman and John the Baptist bolted together like some sensuous, yet fractious Frankenstein’s monster. Whereas Morrissey had succinctly summed up the gravity and gloaming of a small town I feared I would never escape, Manson, in his ineffable way, brought a clear and present indictment of big city largesse and overt West Coast glamour.
But let’s take a deeper step back in this man’s history, when at the tender age of 18, we find young Charles at the minimum security Natural Bridge Honor Camp just outside Lynchburg VA, where he was well on his way to becoming a ‘reformed’ man, nearly free from the baggage his oppressive upbringing had bestowed upon him. Shortly before his release, however, Manson was found sodomizing a fellow inmate while another held a razor blade to the victim’s throat.
That same year saw the release of Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon, a classic American western, which notably won an Oscar for Best Music (Song) with ‘Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin,’ later made famous by one Frankie Laine:
Charlie was an ardent fan of Frankie Laine, an eclectic, soulful crooner of many Western movie soundtracks and ballads. Known as “Old Leather Lungs” or “Mr. Rhythm,” Laine’s doleful rendition of Do Not Forsake Me, My Darling was one of his favorite songs to play later on in life, in his largely successful attempts to mesmerize the LSD-addled children of his eventual home, the Spahn Movie Ranch – where many of these Westerns had actually been filmed. With Charlie’s voice and his guitar, he easily coaxed his followers into his strange and iridescent worldview, and it was perhaps here that the undercurrent of Manson’s love for Westerns – with their side-chained themes of rebellion and self-reliance – only deepened.
But prior to that, back in 1964, we find Manson languishing in California’s Terminal Island Penitentiary for check fraud, working the shop tools and commercial-grade washing machines of life, whereupon he hears some moppish, young upstarts on the radio, going by the name of The Beatles. So moved was he by the collective reaction Americans had for these Beatles, that Manson decided that he too would like to have a go at being a rock star. When he was released from prison in 1967, he set about to amass his own cult of personality, first inculcating Berkeley librarian Mary Brunner with his own brand of messianic hokum, eventually moving in with her. Then came along Squeaky Fromme, Ruth Anne Moorhouse, Patricia Krenwinkel, my crush Susan Atkins, and many other wayward girls and boys, ejected rather tragically from the establishment frying pan.
While in Terminal Island, Manson became friends with small-time actor Phil Kaufman, who convinced Charlie the he could obtain a record contract as a singer-songwriter upon leaving prison. Kaufman, in acquaintance with various people in the music industry, in fact obtained for Charlie, and his gathered band of misfits, a recording session with a serious producer.
The resulting session was a disaster. But the promise of constant sex with a multitude of young women was enough to convince Kaufman to live with Manson and the Family at Spahn Ranch, and it was during this time that various tracks on Lie.. were actually laid down.
Do keep in mind that Manson’s audience up to that time were members of his own cult, whom he ordered to drop acid, sit peacefully in a chair, and watch him as he performed his music for them – truly a captive audience, if ever the Sixties had one. Despite this, there remains one inconvenient fact: Charles Manson could actually sing.
And so into this gnostic reawakening, where perfectly weird singer-songwriters oft-emerge – the kind only the Seventies would eventually muster the strength for – into this deep chalice of Southern California cool, sintering within the LA music scene, enters Dennis Wilson. Yes, a Beach Boy.
Things must have looked very different to would-be auteur and Socal nightlife king Dennis Wilson – less renowned brother to oft-cited musical genius Brian Wilson – who saw in Manson an entrée into an utterly authentic America. An America where all illusions and all ego had dissolved away, and where poetry flowed from real mens’ mouths, and sex flowed like narcotic ether around you. It was here he found this Charlie Manson – this Enkido to Allen Ginsberg’s Gilgamesh – queerly wrapped as he was amongst the gallant stars, a soul whom the mounting revolution alone had born.
Manson entertained Wilson with a nearly endless source of easy, free women and, in return, the Beach boys actually recorded Manson’s Cease to Exist, unlicensed and without any credit. You and I would know it as Never Learn Not to Love You:
Both Dennis and Carl Wilson went on to work with Manson, recording about ten songs in their own private studio before bidding him adieu. It was Phil Kaufman who went on to finish up Manson’s debut album Lie, the Love and Terror Cult, and raise money for it to be pressed and distributed as a kind of bootleg.
Lie… is in some sense a beguiling fairytale of eternal love, serving as a shroud over the acts of a truly horrifying group of human beings. In this singular album, you can experience Manson’s famous charm and ability to talk away life’s intricacies with a mysterious and sensually toned voice, while laying out the most hackneyed of Sixties new age platitudes, seemingly lifted from the gaping maw of Haight Ashbury and the venerable cross streets of Greenwich village:
The moment, is ever constant in the mind
Everywhere I look the blind lead the blind
Here’s your chance to step out of time
There ain’t no reason and there ain’t no rhyme
Here we find in his insistent delivery, lifted from the best Kingston Trio ballads, an entreaty to leave the simulated lifestyle of late-Sixties American life, coyly juxtaposed with the naiveté of nursery rhyme (as in I’ll Never Say Never to Always), making for a splendid glimpse into one of America’s most murderous, high profile cults.
Consider the opening audio snatches in Arkansas, a song that Manson no doubt meant as a rambling country-fried soul ballad, but rendered here more as the kind of one chord droning that was surely a well-worn psychedelic trope at the time of its recording. Before the song begins, we can hear a brief snatch of conversation between a few of the girls in the cult, talking about the nature of life, with its ‘struggles and struggles,’ their privilege and aloofness palpable.
Then we have Garbage Dump, which recalls the unplanned spontaneity of singer-songwriters Garth and Kat:
…eventually degrading into an unexpected paean to the garbage pickers of America:
In many of these challenging tracks, one gets the feeling that you’re being distracted by poorly executed legerdemain, as Manson and his crew secretly enter your brain and size up what to break, what to steal, and what to leave behind.
Consider Linda Kasabian’s 2009 Interview with Larry King, wherein she describes in details more vague than I have above about the Manson Family’s practice of ‘creepy crawlers’:
KASABIAN: That’s where you just kind of sneak around people’s properties…
KING: For what purpose?
KASABIAN: To steal possessions, money.
The truth is even richer: the Family would often break into the homes of strangers, walk around in the dark, and rearrange the furniture, before ceremoniously leaving as quietly as they had arrived.
Consider I’ll Never Say Never To Always, a song I legitimately love, especially now with the advent of the iPod and its shuffle feature, where this track can be unexpectedly elided with the likes of Earl Sweatshirt, Wu Tang, Onyontrix Point Never, Boards of Canada, and, I don’t know…Madonna? Try it yourself and you’ll find that this song compliments an immense collection of pop culture high-water marks:
It’s time we put our love behind you
The illusion has been just a dream
The valley of death and I’ll find you
Now is when on a sunshine beam
So bring all the young perfection
For there us shall surely be
No clothing, tears, or hunger
You can see you can see you can be
Despite its sophomoric posture and overall lack of polish, Lie, the Love and Terror Cult deftly conjures up those aspirations of wholly free festivals and liberal cities where one careens down streets named and unnamed with ganglia flailing, or ends up amongst the cold floors and resounding echoes of California jails, and deep clones of the most feral emotions, gone otherworldly in the stank funk of San Francisco love-ins.
There you’d have angry nights, and crazy nights, nights where the wall paper annoyed you, and the floorboards betrayed your ambitions, nights most of all where you’d look up into the sky and see the most complete balance. Nights you pretend to read something heady, like Prufrock or The Wasteland, and nights you played the cassette tape of Eliot reading each aloud. Nights we were stoned or drunk, night the girls had their tits out, and we were naked up in the mountains, like it was Ancient Rome.
Lie… makes tangible just how deep Charles Manson was within his own personal mythology, how enamored he was with the idée fixe of race wars and Messianic redemption, that we can even imagine what he must have been thinking at the time of his sentencing: “I was on the outside. I had escaped. I was free. What happened? Was I caught. Entangled? Entrapped? Implicated?”
Furthermore, it had always struck me how Charles Manson had never committed the actual Tate-Labianca murders. He wasn’t on the premises. He was nowhere to be found. And yet here we are, over fifty years later, and Manson is newly deceased, yet still a cultural enigma, adored by some, loathed by most, having simply wasting away like one of the Gallic kings that so plagued the Caesars.
What could be more Christ-like than that?
No, Manson didn’t commit the murders that he went to jail for: he merely laid the groundwork, having expertly pulled on the levers of a massive, Baudrillardian simulation that would soon reach an upward inflection as the Sixties gave way to the Seventies, with the televised killings of Bobby Kennedy and MLK, the horrors of the Vietnam War gaining robust purchase within America’s visual soul (My Lai, Nguyen Ngoc Loan, Phan Thị Kim Phúc, Thích Quảng Đức, et al), the Pentagon Papers laying bare the craven tendencies of the Executive branch, whereupon the long-simmering Watergate scandal finished it off in short order.
Boiled away were any remaining allusions about the dignity of the American experiment, the American simulation. Charles Manson lifted the veil and showed us, to our great dismay, that we were all imprisoned within it. Inside. Solitary. In the shoe. Tortured. Incarcerated. Life without parole.
If one were to scrape the rind from Hall and Oates’s early catalog, mince them deeply into a fine unguent, and attempt to replant new forms within these salty remnants, then the unholy weeds that would no doubt grow would easily resemble the music that Manson and his compatriots have created here. That said, if you ever find yourself walking listlessly through the shallow banks of Lower Hell, sulking along to the bipolar works of Neutral Milk Hotel, the brutal overshare of Daniel Johnston, the cyclical rantings of Van Morrison, or the frustrating boldness of Robert Pollard’s less imagined solo efforts, you might hear an inkling there of Charles Manson, picking the locks on the back doors to our brains, and just for a moment there, stoking the firelight and sidling up to the bulwarks of complete freedom.
Till the next circle…