We Spoke to Charles Manson’s Guitarist About Making Art While Serving Time for Murder

Bobby Beausoleil was an associate of Charles Manson who murdered Gary Hinman, a crime for which he was sentenced to death. But in the years since, he's become a prolific artist.

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08 april 2015, 4:00am

Bobby Beausoleil's 1969 mugshot. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

A version of this article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

Bobby Beausoleil was an associate of Charles Manson and he murdered Gary Hinman, a crime for which he was sentenced to death. But he's still alive and well, serving his commuted sentence in Oregon State Penitentiary.

I spoke with Beausoleil twice by phone recently. However, this interview is not about Manson or the murder. It's about his life before and after Hinman's death. Before the murder, Beausoleil was an up-and-coming member of the Los Angeles music scene, a guitar player who played with 60s-era rockers like Arthur Lee and, yes, appeared on Manson's album Lie: The Love and Terror Cult.

He's also released multiple albums that he recorded during his incarceration with fellow musicians that he met behind bars. His prison output includes the soundtrack to Kenneth Anger's legendary underground film Lucifer Rising—a project that, at various times, had Mick Jagger and Jimmy Page attached to it. Many of these albums were created with instruments he built himself in prison, including a guitar-like synthesizer controller that he dubbed the syntar.

He's also a prolific artist, selling his visual art through his website, and he's also taught himself digital animation, last year releasing the first segment of a cartoon he calls Professor Proponderus, which aims to help kids whose family members are incarcerated come to terms with the situation.

Here's what Beausoleil had to say about his music career behind bars, developing new instruments, and digital animation.

VICE: You've put out six distinctly different albums during your time in prison. Once you were locked up, how did you decide you still needed to make music?
Bobby Beausoleil: I don't think it was ever a decision that had to be made because it was in me to make music. I was born to it. It was just a matter of putting myself into a position where I could make music again. After I went to prison, I was on death row for two years. Instruments were not allowed so I made no music at all. (It was actually a three-year period if you count when I was going to trial.)

Then I was put on the main line in San Quentin, and immediately obtained a guitar, a little inexpensive Harmony acoustic guitar. Eventually we put together a little talent show that was a lot of fun. From that point, it was a or gradual navigation to put myself into a position to be able to do music in earnest. That didn't happen until I was transferred to Tracey Prison in Tracey, California, and started working on putting together a music program there.

There hadn't been a music program in Tracey since the 50s, and then it had been a brass band thing. I eventually found the instruments they had been using in the course of putting the new music program together at Tracey. I found a couple of working clarinets, a working sax, and a couple of trumpets in the pile, and all the rest went to salvage. We got the funds from that to pay for a couple of guitar amps and stuff. We eventually got a little bit of money from the business office for a PA system and a set of drums and we off to the races at that point. That's when I got interested in playing in earnest on a regular basis. I put a band together called the Freedom Orchestra.

How did you find the guys?
There weren't that many people in the prison. It was pretty easy to figure out who was interested in playing music. When I first got to the main line at Tracey, there wasn't a formal music program of any kind but there was a group of guys who would get together. One of the correctional officers, a lieutenant, allowed them to go into the chow hall when it was not being used and play guitars. Some guys with acoustic guitars and a guy playing drums on a pan or something. And that was about what existed when I got there.

Can you tell me about the routine? Do they let you guys jam when you want to jam?
It was initially scheduled out. I was tenacious. Getting a music program started, you know, I had to do a lot of politicking with the administration as well as with the inmates, my fellow prisoners. I hate that term, "inmate," by the way. The guys who wanted to play music were the easiest part, but the rest of it was negotiating for funding and negotiating a place to play, a place where we could get together, not just a town hall, but some location that would be a band room. And we did find one. I was fortunate to find a former barbershop that was no longer being used. It had windows to the control center so that the staff could observe us while we were in there. Supervision is of course a major necessity. You have to allow for supervision, otherwise you can't get together.

From that point, once we had a room, we started scheduling. We had several different groups, had to be concerned about ethnic balance or ethnic representation in any music program in prison, otherwise you have situations where you have people who are jealous and there's strife, there's problems. So we had a soul band, a rock band, a country band, and a Mexican band.

Were you playing with all of them?
I played with a couple of them. The rock band was my band, the Freedom Orchestra. I didn't really play country that much so I kinda stayed away from that. I did fill in with the soul band every so often, playing blues and R&B, I like to play in those styles.

It's interesting that you were playing in the soul band. I read one of the transcripts from one of your parole hearings, and they asked you something like, "Are you a racist?" Where did that come from?
[Laughs] You know, that's a good question. There's not a racist bone in my body, man, there really isn't. As long as I've played music, I've been playing, you know, ethnic music. So, I don't know where that comes from.

Actually, I do sort of know where that comes from, but it doesn't come from any real place. It comes from this perception, or misperception. I should note that when I was just beginning to gig professionally and I was 17 years old, I played with Arthur Lee and Johnny Echols in a band called the Grass Roots, that would later become known as the band Love. That was a racially mixed band. I loved R&B. It would be irrational to have that interest in that of music and then have a racist attitude towards black people. It's just absurd.

I do understand that there was a situation that developed in San Quentin in which I was involved. I was defending a friend of mine. There was a fracas, an event that became publicized as an in-house power struggle with a white, racist group. Because of that, that association developed.

And then there's also just being associated with Manson, who has been described as someone who wanted to start a race war, which is a complete crock, or once again a misrepresentation of what was actually happening—largely perpetuated by Manson himself, by the way. But, nevertheless, an association I think plays into the idea that I might be racist. But there isn't anything in my record that would indicate that's my orientation.

When did you start working with Kenneth Anger and when did you resume?
I met him in the spring of 1967 and he was working on Lucifer Rising. He was passionate about this concept that he had for a film that would be kind of the sequel and antithesis to his previous film, his most popular film: Scorpio Rising. He was very ambitious. This was going to be, for an underground film, epic. He wanted me to play Lucifer in the film, and I told him I would do it on the condition that I do the soundtrack. This was '67 and we worked together on the project for a while. I left the band that I had at that time, which was the Orchestra, and formed a new band called the Magick Powerhouse of Oz and began work on our composition for the soundtrack, kind of a freeform mode of composing.

There were some problems that developed between Kenneth and I. It's hard to describe, to be honest I don't really understand what happened, some kind of psychological breakdown that was going on with him. I can't really say what was the cause of it, but we had a famous falling out at that point. That was the end of that phase of the Lucifer Rising project. Years later, course I'm in prison and he had begun the project again. He'd renewed his approach to the project, got some funding and was working with Jimmy Page on the soundtrack, or at least Page was going to provide him with a soundtrack. I don't think Kenneth liked what he came up with, it was kind of amorphous, which I liked, actually. It was kind of ambient. It was a different direction than the direction I had taken, which had a lot of strong, melodic components rather than being strictly ambient or background music. I wanted something that was thematic, that had strong melodic component to it. I think that was more keeping with what Kenneth wanted for the project. Again, in 1975, I think, we were discussing it, I actually began work on the music itself for the soundtrack in 1976.

When I wrote the Lucifer Rising soundtrack, I translated the Lucifer story into my own and told the story from the standpoint of my own sense of loss and defeat and my own hopes and desire for restoration.

You were doing that on your own, in prison. It's ambitious music, how do you get that kind of sound quality when you're doing it in the most DIY way possible?
A lot of it just came out of experimenting, and studying, reading. It was all seat of your pants, for sure. But I'm very passionate about this. I wanted good sound quality, I had a very limited budget going into it. Kenneth provided $3,000 and that included recording equipment. I got one good microphone out of the deal, and two recorders, one being needed to master two tracks from the master track. I had a four-track and a two-track. Almost all the budget when to recording equipment, leaving almost nothing for instruments. So I built instruments and you know, just hustled. A little bit came from Ken, but a lot of it was just hustling and getting bargain-basement deals on parts and so on to build guitars and keyboards and amplifiers. Many of the instruments used on the soundtrack were actually handmade.

Do you feel that Lucifer Rising is your musical legacy?
I would say that a lot of people would say that it is, at this point. I think that it was an extremely ambitious, I guess is the right word, but it's not really what I mean to say. It was an ambitious project, it's a miracle that it happened under the circumstances that it did. It was very personal, it became a very personal statement, and in that respect I think it is probably my most significant published work today. It was autobiographical, my own story being in my own life, I took a fall, a serious fall, as Lucifer did in his. I translated the Lucifer story into my own and told the story from the standpoint, musically, of my own sense of loss and defeat and my own hopes and desire for restoration. To reintegrate and restore myself to integrity is I think the better way to phrase that. And find reconciliation with my loved ones.

Do you feel like you've accomplished that, gotten to that place of restoration?
I do. It hasn't translated to a parole, which is not necessarily a requirement, I don't think. I mean, it would be nice! [laughs] I don't think I belong in prison. I'm not a threat or a danger to anybody, so in that respect it doesn't make sense that I remain. But nor is it the nature of my success. So, yeah, I would say yes, I have restored myself to integrity, so yes I did fulfill the story I was telling in the music of Lucifer Rising.

Where's your head at when you work on new music, like theDancing Hearts of Fire LP? What's your inspiration now in comparison to Lucifer Rising?
Dancing Hearts of Fire is a unique piece. It came out of a time when I was grieving for my wife, who had just passed away. She was a dancer. She had a dance troupe of Middle Eastern–inspired tribal dance and I was composing some music for a collaboration between her and I for her dance troupe. I had just recently sent her some rhythms, some percussion that I had composed for her. Then she passed away and I was left with these rhythms. I wanted to do something with them and I needed some way of expressing through my work what was going on emotionally. It wasn't just all sorrow. There was some of that, but feeling bereft of someone who was nearer and dearer to me than anything I can possibly express in words. I needed some place to kind of put that energy. Dancing Hearts of Fire became that project and I used those rhythms that I had composed for her as the basis for, I think it's 35 minutes total on that album. So that's what that album is. In that sense, I don't know that it's necessarily an extension of Lucifer Rising, that was kind of an outlier in the sense of where I was at.

A new album that I've just about finished is called Voodoo Shivaya. This is a double album, I'm working on the very last track now, and it will be released later this year, at least that's the plan. Voodoo Shivaya is a extension of the Lucifer Rising project. I've done a lot of other music, a lot of it is mystically oriented, it has a lot to do with my spiritual advancement over the years. You'll hear aspects of paganism in some of the music or indications of it or higher forms of religion or shamanism and so on. A progression in my spiritual development that you can hear in some of my instrumental music, but some of my instrumental music is more about my experiments in electronics.

How do you get access to those electronic instruments? Are you able to get them from the outside?
I've got some pretty good ones at the moment, to be honest with you. I've got some really nice instruments at present, store bought. But at the time, a lot of the instruments that I had, I built myself. A lot of it came out of my experimentation in electronics...

When you say you were building your own instruments, you don't just mean acoustic, but full-on electric instruments?
Yes. I was very much into synthesizer circuits, effects pedal circuits, and experimenting. I had a device called an EBow that I used on the soundtrack that I really loved and I was trying to figure out how to mount it on a guitar—in fact, I did mount it on a guitar. There's a picture somewhere of me holding a two-string guitar that had an EBow mounted on the body. I built this instrument because I just really liked the sound of the rhythm guitar string using an EBow. I did a lot of experiments with devices, some that I bought, tore apart, rebuilt, added to, modified in various way. Cheap synthesizers that I took apart, experimented with and modified in various ways. I was a hobbyist, an experimenter. It sort of paralleled my interest in developing an electronic guitar called the syntar.

The syntar is a device that was designed from the ground up as an electronic controller but modeled after the way a guitar makes sound. Or any kind of stringed instrument. The idea was to mimic the playability of a stringed instrument and apply it to a synthesizer. Guitar-player technique or string-player technique and translate it to the ability to control any sound, which is theoretically what a synthesizer can do. That was my passion, I was very much into that and spent years and years and years experimenting. By necessity, I had to get into electronics in order to have instruments to use on the soundtrack.

I had this fantasy that Jimmy Page and I would put our versions of the Lucifer Rising soundtrack on the same album some day. But that was a fantasy. Turns out he's the superstar rock god, and he's envious of me—and I'm in prison.

What's nuts to me is how far ahead of the curve you were on this.
Yeah, I was in the vanguard on a lot of that. I was looking for a more direct way to control synthesizers than some finicky, error-prone system that converted the pitch of guitar strings to the controls of the synthesizer. I prefer a more direct controller. Take a keyboard, reshape it into the shape of a guitar, and then use that, instead of trying to take a guitar and adapt it to playing a synthesizer, which is always going to be an imperfect process.

So that was just a different approach that I took, and now you've got products that can track an actual guitar much better than the earlier systems that were designed along those lines. But there is a guy who was also experimenting. His design is a little different than mine, but using the same principle, what you might call the solid-state electronic approach to using a guitar to control a synthesizer. His name is Harvey Starr, he's been doing it almost as long as I have. He has a guitar called the Zeytar. You can find him online, his company is Starrlabs. He's actually turned it into a commercial product, which I never did. Being in prison, I could never do that.

Do you resent that you never got to take this technology to market, or not getting the credit of being a pioneer?
Well, I think there were times when I did resent it or felt frustrated because of it. I don't think I could really resent it, because there's nothing to resent given the fact that it's nobody's fault but my own. The only thing standing in the way of being able to market my designs is my being in prison. I can't really blame anybody else or give a sour grapes routine on that basis, so I just have to move on and accept that Harvey was in a position to do it. He didn't steal from me, we just had similar ideas. It's a piece of parallel thinking, you might say. So I'm grateful to him for bringing an instrument of that sort to the world. I don't look upon it with regret at all. It is what it is, I learned what I learned, and I'm richer for it. The technology is still available to other people. Yeah I didn't get credit, but you know, credit's overrated. [Laughs]

But it's still nice.
Yeah, but you know, it's OK. That phase of my life has passed. I don't experiment in that way. I'm not building circuits. I may again someday. But right now, I'm just enjoying using really well designed electronic instruments that were manufactured, that had come out of all those years of experimentation.

What about working on computers?
I don't have access to that for my personal music, I'm not allowed to do that.

So what do you record on? Tape recorders?
I actually have a personal recorder, a small handheld eight-track recorder. It records 24 bits, so I'm getting really good... What I have in the palm of my hand is greater than what I had when I did the soundtrack back in the 70s. I've got all that, plus digital effects built in, plus a lot of other things. That's what I use for recording, and I've got a really good synthesizer, a mini Nova that is just awesome. It's analog-style, emulated analog. Just an incredible instrument. And I've got a percussion controller device, a sampler called the Beat Thing, which is awesome. I've got good instruments and I'm able to do what I need to do. I'm so proficient at programming that I can get any sound I want. I did so much experimentation that I know intrinsically how to develop a sound out of one's imagination.

Do you miss playing live?
Once in a while I play live. I've been recording this thing called Ghost Highway, that came out of a live recording. Once in a while I get to get up on stage and play in front of an audience. It's a small audience, but it's still fun to do. I love to do it, I love playing live. There's really no replacement for it. I don't program my music. I perform my music. I'm actually playing it and I sometimes collaborate with other musicians here.

You replaced Jimmy Page on Lucifer Rising and you used to play with the guys from Love who used to jam with Jimi Hendrix....
I didn't get to play with Jimi, I was playing with Johnny Echols. He wasn't Jimi, but he was cool. Good guitar player.

Yeah, but do you feel you got screwed out of your proper place in musical history? Your contemporaries became legends.
You know, more power to them. I can't look upon my life with regret in that way and say, "Oh, if only I hadn't been so stupid that I put myself in a position of killing a guy and gone to prison, look at what I could have been." That would be ludicrous to do that, it would be a waste of energy. I can't spend the rest of my life doing sour grapes. You talk about Jimmy Page. I did an interview, him and I were featured in the same article, I think it was Classic Rock magazine, some years ago, and he was talking about the soundtrack, and he was all sour grapes, man. I was really surprised. I had this fantasy that he and I would put our versions of the soundtrack on the same album some day. I was thinking, how cool would that be? To put his music and my music on the same album so people could hear what he was doing, what I was doing, not competitively, but how similar-yet-different our visions for the soundtrack was. But that was my fantasy—turns out here's the superstar, the rock god, and he's envious of me, and I'm in prison.

It's weird how things work out that way.
[Laughs] Yeah, it is. I'll never be as famous as him for my version of the soundtrack. But I don't regret that. I can't look on my life with regret. It is what is, man. Hopefully my music will continue to resonate with people who discover it and what else can I hope for? Is just to be able to connect with people through my work and I get a lot of nice feedback from people who have discovered my work. I don't have any major distribution network to get it out there, so it's up to people who are passionate about music to find me, in a way. As you did, you found me, so other people have. Just to be known on that level is enough.

One last thing I wanted to ask you about. The cartoon, Professor Proponderus. What was your involvement?
I made it.

You made the whole thing? The design....
I created the environment, developed the characters, and did the voices and did all the animation and the music.

How did you do all that? I can't even build my own website.
[Laughs] Well, just over the years, I've been into doing videography for a long time. I started dabbling in a program in 1976 when I was in Tracey. I was actually working on the soundtrack at the time and the feds bought some equipment for the state for an experimental program to put video for education into all the prison cells for rehabilitation purposes. So I got into video way back then and stayed with it.

I love the visual medium, I love film and filmmaking and video has evolved into a type of filmmaking. So, I've gotten good at it over the years. I was doing a number of training videos for a company that's associated with the department of corrections. You know, safety training and inmate training of various types, sometimes training that is used for staff. In between work on those types of projects I was able to spend some time on this series of animations called the Ask Professor Proponderus which is for the children of incarcerated parents. The idea is to use this sort of engaging way of communicating through cartoon characters. Complex, difficult issues. To communicate ideas and concepts in a friendly way that will help children who have a loved one in prison understand what is going on with their parent or their brother or sister.

A day doesn't go by that I don't wish I was in a more normal type of place and able to interact in a more normal way.

What's the reception to the cartoon been like?
It's out there, it's part of a series. It hasn't been promoted to the extent that it should be or that it's planned to be. It's kind of on hold a little bit until we have more segments, there's more episodes. I'm working on the second one at present and there should be a few more after that. The idea is that it will be a series that's fairly comprehensive and it will be promoted more rigorously than it has been so far. It is out there on YouTube and available to be seen by anybody. It's on the Department of Corrections website, so it is out there, it just isn't promoted as extensively as it will be eventually.

You have so much going on, with the music and artwork and animation. How rigorously scheduled is your life? How do you find time to do all this stuff?
I've been working for the last six years for the business arm of the Department of Corrections, and we're working intently. It's a pretty rigorous job, it's a full day of work and it's OK. I work by myself, I'm a one-man production company. I work in a corner. Right now, I have left that company. I'm on vacation at present. My workstation will be moved to a new area. I'll be doing the same kind of work, but in a different location. Right now, I've got an operation coming up in a week and I've got an art show in Tasmania that's coming up May 5, so I've just kind of been taking advantage of the time off to get some other things done.

How do you organize something like the show in Tasmania?
I didn't organize it. It's a group in Tasmania, the cultural arts center there, they wrote to me and expressed an interest in showing my work. I guess I've got some fans down there. I've been putting some new work together. It's not a lot of new work, it's a group show. But it's an honor to be a participant in something like that.

Is it frustrating to not be able to attend these things in person?
Of course. Yeah. A day doesn't go by that I don't wish I was in a more normal type of place and able to interact in a more normal way.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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