What Charles Manson and Bon Iver Have in Common
Justin Vernon aka Bon Iver is a mild-mannered hipster heartthrob who crafts his rustic, emotionally fragile-seeming folk-rock in a secluded Wisconsin cabin. Charles Manson is a babbling former cult leader rotting away in a California state prison for an infamous murder spree. According to Pandora Internet Radio, they're a lot alike.
Pandora, of course, is a pioneering music streaming type that boasts some 200 million users. You set up Pandora "stations" based on artists or songs you like, and Pandora does the rest, populating the station you've created with artists who have similar sounds. If you set up a Bon Iver station, you will eventually hear one of Manson's gruff, atonal songs, "People Say I'm No Good" (a title that makes quite the understatement), slither its way out of the speakers.
Manson was an amateur singer/songwriter who got frustratingly close to the '60s West Coast rock vanguard and, as we'll discuss in a minute, much of his material has long been available. But it's vexing that Pandora plays would think users would want to hear his songs based on the approval the listener has given a man who serenades yoga classes.
How did Charles Manson get onto Pandora? Did a committee in a room somewhere debate the decision? Manson tracks can also be heard on Spotify and Rdio. These streaming sites are redefining the pastime of listening to music and in doing so they were delivering a convicted killer with megalomaniac tendencies more listeners than he could have ever received before. Any qualms about that? We set out for answers.
But first, Manson's discography. American's least favorite houseguest recorded a few demos during the years he spent hoofing around California with a guitar on his back. Even though he made a few industry connections while sharing his growing harem of confused drop-outs with Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, Manson never got to put out a record --that is, until he became the most famous criminal.
As he was on trial for what was then the most shocking set of murders anyone had ever seen, a music industry contact named Phil Kaufman with whom Manson had done time in the early '60s, got ahold of his self-recorded demos and compiled them onto a 14-track, 30-minute record. (Fun historical aside: Kaufman went on to a long career as a roadie and was part of the posse that stole Gram Parson's body and immolated it in the Joshua Tree National Park.) ESP-Disk, a New York City label specializing in free jazz and underground rock, released the album under the title Lie: The Love and Terror Cult. At the time, label founder Bernard Stollmam told The New York Times, "I think [Manson] should be examined, in the same way we examined Hitler. Nobody objects to Mein Kampf being published."
The songs were scratchy imitations of the anti-establishment flower-children music of the day, even if they were a little harsher than the ones Judy Collins was recording. According to District Attorney Vincent Bugliosi's bestseller Helter Skelter, the prosecution enlisted a folk music expert to analyze Manson's songs. "Somewhere along the line, Manson picked up a pretty good guitar beat," he reported. "Nothing original about the music. But the lyrics are something else. They contain an amazing amount of hostility ('you'll get yours yet,' etc.). This is rare in folk songs, except in the old murder ballads, but even there it is always in the past tense ... Very spooky"
After ESP folded in 1974, Lie was periodically out of print but available on bootleg. Meanwhile, low-quality prison recordings permeated the darker corners of record collecting and tape trading cultures, supposedly originating from places like San Quinten and Folsom prisons. Every now and then, a fringe label somehow got ahold of one and received a bit of press for releasing it. (Manson Direct, a site run by his two most reliable outside-world contacts has a list.) Compilations of songs, spoken-word poetry, phone interviews, diatribes, guitar tuning, tape hiss and occasional coughing made their way through double-cassette decks and CD burners, as Manson remained the object of both morbid fascination and a small truther-like movement that believes he is innocent and was defamed by The Establishment to be held up as an example of what happens when you take LSD and obsess over The Beatles.
Today, Manson's stuff is more available than ever. In 2005, ESP-Disk was revived from the massive graveyard of defunct labels and resumed issuing Lie, as a deluxe edition with bonus tracks (because every album released from 1965 to 1993 must, at least once, be rereleased as a deluxe edition with bonus tracks). Then, Magic Bullet Records, a real record label (home to All-American Rejects and Boy Sets Fire) started releasing Manson's prison output. Two albums have come out so far, with two more supposedly to come. As for the style and quality of Manson's prison work? L.A. Weekly's Paul T. Bradley, one of the few critics to evaluate a piece of it, dubbed it "a rudderless stream of poorly recorded brain diarrhea set to guitar-strumming."
And whereas Manson's songs were once only available through record shows, edgy urban CD stores and seedy friends with tape trading connections, the ones released by competent labels are now on iTunes, Amazon, Spodify, Rdio and Pandora--the same places where kids stream One Direction tracks, moms buy Adele songs and homebody freelance writers search for something like Bon Iver.