by Brian Cook
on Wed, Sep 8, 2010 at 12:05 PM
Charles Manson Air Magic Bullet Records
At first, it sounds a little like Leadbelly or Son House. The recording is grainy, warbled, soaked in tape hiss. There are a few flubbed notes here and there. This is obviously one-take material, but played by someone with a fair handle on the guitar. The vocals seem off-the-cuff, driven by stream of consciousness, and maybe slightly drunken. With no background information on the album, one’s first guess was that this was a lost recording of some lesser-known Delta blues musician. But then comes “Gas Chamber”, which bares some mildly apocalyptic warning of living in a dying atmosphere, and then veers off into a seemingly impromptu spoken word breakdown loosely pertaining to environmentalism. This was either some very progressive tent revival stuff, or this is much more modern than the recording quality suggests.
But the album didn’t come out of 1930s Mississippi. It came out of this generation's prison walls. Air is the first part of a four record series by Charles Manson to be released by Magic Bullet Records. This record—as well as the upcoming albums, Trees, Water, and Animals—revolve around Manson’s ecological philosophy that goes by way of the acronym ATWA.
Knowing that these eight songs were written and performed by one of the most notorious criminals of the 20th century totally alters the experience of listening to them. The laid-back and light-hearted “East Bound Train” comes across as eerily playful, as if the casual essence of the song is a dismissive shrug of the past. The closing spoken word piece “Air Is The King” comes across less like poetry and more like a prophetic mad rant. Spinning Air under the assumption that it’s an old blues record is less of an experience in leisure listening than a historical study of American music. Realizing that this is actually a recent topical recording by one of America’s most nefarious personas makes the process of absorbing the album even less frivolously pleasurable and far more fascinating as a psychological profile and a portal into the mind of a troubled and tormented soul.
Manson has always fascinated the public, perhaps more so than any other murderer in American history. This intrigue partially stems from Manson’s ties to pop culture—his friendship to Dennis Wilson, his brief stint as a rock musician, his violent interpretation of “Helter Skelter”. It also has something to do with his role in the hippie movement, particularly with regards to dismantling the optimism and goodwill of ‘60s counterculture. Additionally, a big part of the obsession stems from Manson’s Jekyll and Hyde personality. As experts are prone to point out, Manson never actually killed anyone, but his magnetism and persuasive personality were apparently strong enough to convince others to do his ruthless bidding. His occasional post-conviction interviews show him playing two roles: the beaten, humble dog and the rabid angry animal. Not surprisingly, Manson is the subject of many conspiracy theories. Was he a patsy put in place to discredit the environmental movement? Was he a scapegoat of the drug culture? Was he really a murderous mastermind or was he a troubled individual that stumbled into adulthood by getting wrapped up in the wrong group of people?
Magic Bullet Records owner Brent Eyestone doesn’t pander to these theories and is careful to neither defend nor demonize Manson. “You don't take ‘what someone told me about him’ as truth. You don't take the claims of some guy trying to sell you a book for his word unchecked. And you're most certainly not going to ascribe complete validity to how a District Attorney might paint a picture of an individual he's hoping to get a conviction on, especially considering the millions of dollars he gleefully raked in post-trial. You go and you find it all for yourself and figure out where you sit with it. What I found for myself was a 75 year old man whom, after having spent well over 75% of his life in institutions—countless orphanages, reformatories, and prisons—and under the microscope of society and the media at all times, has survived all of it and is now only concerned with two very specific things: music and ecology.” Considering Eyestone’s politics, as evident in the socially aware nature of both his own band Forensics and in a healthy percentage of the other bands on his roster, one would hardly assume a Charles Manson album was merely a cash grab by way of controversy. As a seasonal fisherman, Eyestone is particularly concerned with ecology. “Where this really hits me is every June, when I go to Alaska to catch my fish for the year. Each time, I dunk my waders into the Kenai and immediately stand aghast at the annual recession of what was Portage Glacier. When I first began making this trek, there was plenty of it to be seen. Now, you really have to try to see any evidence that it was even there.”
If this is really about getting the environmental message out there, Manson surely isn’t the best spokesperson. Isn’t that a little like having Dahmer representing LGBT issues? “I delineate a marked difference between Dahmer and Manson on countless levels. I realize that most people won't ever make the effort to do this and will always lump the most notorious and popular criminals in the same category… If Charlie made a record about eating mashed potatoes, I wouldn't try to suppress the fact that I eat and enjoy mashed potatoes. ATWA is essentially ecology to a tee. There's no hidden context and no subversive theme to it whatsoever. So there's no reason for me to distance myself from the phrase ‘ATWA’ or avoid giving it credibility. I think Manson's passion toward ecology is a passion we should all have whether he endorses it or not. To put it in terms that a judgmental society at large can comprehend: if Charles Manson understands the value of protecting our natural resources, why can't you?”
This is certainly a valid point. But Charlie doesn’t exactly offer up fifty simple things you can do to save the planet on these recordings. And the music on Air isn’t exactly up there with The White Album. This project is still, to some degree, about the cult of Manson. So even if the sentiment behind the music is positive, it’s still obscured by the artist’s history. Let’s face it: even the most forgiving takes on Manson’s character are still less than flattering. The guy does have a swastika on his forehead, after all. Morbid curiosity is bound to be the primary appeal for most listeners, though Eyestone remains cautiously disinterested in playing up that element of the album’s appeal. “We tend to love our media figures in the sensationalized context by which we came to know them. Relatively few people from the populace at large are going to make the leap over to the real, genuine musical side of his personality.” And while Eyestone fervently puts Manson’s ecological philosophies at the forefront of discussions on this project, he does make one concession regarding Charlie’s personal stamp on the recordings. “Whether it's soulful and introspective or just straight fire and brimstone, there's one constant throughout: the visceral, undying spirit of a survivor.”
Ultimately, Air isn’t easy listening. But it’s unlikely anyone would venture into an album by Charles Manson thinking it’s going to come across like the latest Beach House. From a strictly musical standpoint, its primary appeal is it’s casual, front-porch simplicity and it’s haunting lapses into esoteric sermonizing. As a platform for the advocacy of better stewardship over the natural world, it’s hampered by both the standard problematic restrictions of rhyme and meter and by the enormity of the persona behind the music. As a window into the mind of Manson, it’s mesmerizing and shockingly human. But ultimately Air’s strongest asset is its ability to catalyze discussion on the roll of the media, our undeniable interest in the macabre, and Manson’s ongoing imprint on the cultural landscape.