Showing posts with label charles manson. Show all posts
Showing posts with label charles manson. Show all posts

13 Jul 2019

If You Only Palpitate to Murder / No One is Innocent

Jamie Reid: God Save Jack the Ripper (1979)
One of a series of posters designed by Reid for The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle (1980)
For more information visit the Victoria and Albert Museum website: click here

Some interesting emails have arrived in my inbox concerning a recent post by Símón Solomon on Charles Manson: click here.

Several people professed no interest in the case; others voiced their concern that, in publishing the post, I am helping to further mythologise Manson and his Family when such vile individuals should be starved of the oxygen of publicity and allowed to fade from the collective memory as soon as possible.

However, whilst I agree with D. H. Lawrence that "if you only palpitate to murder" it quickly becomes boring and results, ultimately, in "atrophy of the feelings" (i.e., like the sexual excitement generated by pornography, the sensational thrill of violent crime is subject to a law of diminishing returns and one must therefore seek out an ever more lurid level of explicit detail), I don't think we can simply ignore negative limit-experiences.

Like it or not, figures like Charles Manson are indelibly part of the cultural imagination and undoubtedly have something important - if disturbing - to tell us about ourselves. As Símón rightly argues, it's virtually impossible to exaggerate (or expunge) Manson's enduring impact and whilst some might need to think him beyond the pale, he was "very much a product of American post-War popular culture and a toxic body politic".

Similarly, in the UK, figures ranging from Dick Turpin and Jack the Ripper to Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, are as British as fish 'n' chips and will continue to haunt our cultural imagination for as long as we continue to consume the latter (even though he's horrible and she ain't what you'd call a lady).

This was perfectly understood by Malcolm McLaren and Jamie Reid, the latter of whom designed the provocative series of God Save ... posters that the former pasted up in Highgate Cemetery in the famous 'You Needs Hands' scene of The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle (dir. Julien Temple, 1980) - a scene which I have discussed elsewhere on this blog: click here.      

Reid's artwork - much like the Sex Pistols' 1979 single featuring Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs on vocals - advances the challenging theological idea that, thanks to original sin, no one is innocent - i.e. we are each of us, as fallen beings, corrupt at some level and capable of committing acts of atrocity. Similarly, we are all of us - no matter how evil and depraved - capable of redemption; for we are all God's children (not just those who attend church and say their prayers).

Was punk rock, then, simply a disguised form of moral humanism founded, like Christianity, on a notion of forgiveness ...? Was its nihilism merely a pose?     

See: D. H. Lawrence, The Letters of D. H. Lawrence, Vol. VI: March 1927-November 1928, ed. James T. Boulton and Margaret H. Boulton, with Gerald M. Lacy (Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 600.

Play: Sex Pistols, No One Is Innocent (Virgin Records, 1978): click here.

12 Jul 2019

Again to Nowhere and Nothing Again: The Multiple Death-in-Life Masks of Charles Manson - A Guest Post by Símón Solomon

With the 50th anniversary overlap of Quentin Tarantino's latest movie - a black comedy-cum-thriller set in 1969 LA - and an orthodoxy-busting new book by Tom O'Neill, the helter-skelter spiral concerning the life, death and afterlife of celebrity mass murderer, Charles Manson, continues to unravel.

If Tarantino’s title attests to a sense of his picture's elliptical storyboarding, O'Neill’s obsessive study, two decades in the making, underwrites its anarchic archetypal matrix. Either way, should one or both works help to provoke laughter at the facile official version of the Family's choreographed career, a valuable public service will have been performed. In any event, the supposed madman who derailed free love's peace train and called himself no one is a media star all over again.

Some might need to think of him as beyond the pale, but, arguably, Manson was very much a product of American post-War popular culture and a toxic body politic. Thus, at a time when the psychedelic Summer of Love was turning - or being turned - hateful and psychotic, the Family's graphically mediated slaughter of the heavily pregnant actress Sharon Tate, plus three unfortunate friends and a visitor, would be obscenely exploited in order to euthanise the counter-culture by injecting a final shot of fatal terror into the haunted paradise of the beautiful people.

Although the Leno and Rosemary LaBianca slayings two nights later in a separate Los Angeles neighbourhood were suspected by investigators to be copycat homicides, the synergetic contiguity of the two events sealed the Manson clan's fate, implicated as its purported ringleader already was in the murder of Gary Hinman by Bobby Beausoleil.

What fascinates about Manson's legacy as Hollywood's Bluebeard-esque signature villain, is his shapeshifting multiplication through a panoply of visages that evoke resemblances with Jim Morrison, a desert Christ, Büchner's schizophrenic assassin Lenz, and a swastika-stamped beatnik Nazi.

Shot through with a consummate performer's narcissistic and solipsistic grandiosity (in my mind's eye my thoughts light fires in your cities) and memorably inflected anti-humanism (I have X-ed myself from your world), Manson may or may not have been a malignant killer, but, like some fire and brimstone reincarnation of Oscar Wilde without the dress sense, he was always fiendishly quotable.

One can readily see how Tarantino was drawn to his cinematically suggestive story, even as one suspects a superior auteur like David Lynch - whose noirish attunement to Hollywood’s underside is indissociable from the Manson-magnetised termination of flower power  - might have concocted a far more unsettling film.

As we might expect of a mortal so manufactured, if not consumed, by his own demoniacal myth, it is difficult to exaggerate Manson's enduring cultural impact. Yet the more prosaic and humiliated humanity onto which his personae were pinned curdles the legend: a rootless and institutionalised roamer from a broken family; a beatnik thief; a sociopathic fantasist of race war who hung out with Hell's Angels; a failed musician with a monstrous superiority complex.

His archetypal reversion to zero, to a politics of utopian and/or dystopian annihilation, is presumably the clearest clue to the Family's engineered reality. To take Charlie at his word means to view him as essentially a cipher, a figment, of Hollywood’s phantasmic horror, a parodic Freddie Kruger precursor to the Terrible Beauty generation.

His final reported phone call from jail, a recursive quasi-Beckettian microscript, says it all in its unsaying:

'Nothing with everyone and everything over and gone to start backwards again and again to nowhere and nothing again.'


Quentin Tarantino's new film, Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on 21 May 2019. It is released in the UK on 14 August 2019. Click here to watch the official trailer.

See: Tom O'Neill (with Dan Piepenbring), Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA and the Secret History of the Sixties, (William Heinemann, 2019).

Símón Solomon is a poet, translator, and critic. He is a professional member of the Irish Writers Centre, Dublin and currently serves as managing editor with the academic journal Psychoanalysis, Culture and Society. He can be contacted via

This is a revised and updated version of an earlier (unpublished) post of the same title. 

For a follow-up post to this one, click here

20 Jun 2019

Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom: On the Genealogy of Hippie Morals

Pippa McManus: Crazy Daisy Dreams (2017)
Flower Child Group Exhibition (12 Aug - 2 Sept 2017)
Modern Eden Gallery (San Francisco)

I. Summers of Love and Hate

As a punk rocker, the symbolism of the zip and safety pin means more to me than that of the groovy floral designs so beloved of the hippie generation. However, as the Summer of Hate is now as much part of ancient cultural history as the Summer of Love, it's easier to view both events with critical perspective and concede that wearing flowers in one's hair is probably preferable to having to remove spittle.

And, of course, as a floraphile, I very much approve of intimate relationships between plants and people and can see how one might wish to develop a green neo-pagan politics upon a love of flora - although, personally, I've no desire for universal peace and love and refuse to accept that flowers can only symbolise such benevolent (and naive) idealism.    

II. If You're Going to San Francisco ...

Back in '67, San Francisco was the epicentre of the hippie counterculture, a movement mostly composed of privileged white youths who temporarily dropped out and experimented with drugs, sex, and alternative lifestyles, before moderating their views and dropping back in again as corporate yuppies in the 1980s à la Jerry Rubin.           

Thanks to a strong economy, the hippies were able to spend their time getting stoned, listening to psychedelic music, reading Allen Ginsberg,* protesting against the Man, dreaming of revolution and generally indulging their narcissism. Some formed communes and attempted to live as far outside mainstream society as possible. It's easy to mock and tempting to despise these idealists with flowers in their hair, but they have had (for better or for worse) a wide and lasting impact and many of their ideas and values are now part of the liberal orthodoxy.

Interestingly, the American author Robert Anton Wilson suggests that the hippies can be characterised as unearthly angels whose psychology manifests friendly weakness. Such people are kind, passive, generous and trusting. But they are also easily led and secretly in search of authority (which might explain the obsession with gurus and, indeed, why Charles Manson was able to wield such control over his extended Family of followers).  

III. On the Genealogy of Hippie Morals

I say their values, but, as the sociologist Bennett Berger pointed out at the time, there's nothing very new or uniquely hippie about the morality of the flower children. Their movement was merely another expression of the 19th-century bohemianism that the literary critic Malcolm Cowley had reduced to a relatively formal doctrine with several key ideas, some of which we might (briefly) summarise as follows:

(i) Only a Child Can Save Us

This first point, found in Christianity and Romanticism as well as flower power philosophy, continues to resonate today; thus the astonishing rise to global fame of Greta Thunberg, for example. The idea is that the innocent child is born with special potentialities which are systematically repressed by society. If they could only be left to blossom naturally and develop their personalities, then the world might yet be saved and humanity redeemed. 

(ii) Express Yourself (Hey, Hey, Hey, Hey)

When hippies claim the right to do their own thing, they are, of course, simply reviving the idea that the moral duty of each person is to express themselves and realise their full potential as individuals via some form of creative activity. Or smoking weed. Madonna was still churning out such bullshit twenty years after the Summer of Love.       

(iii) Paganism Good / Christianity Bad

The idea that paganism is a happy, innocent worship of the natural world that regards the body as a temple in which there is nothing unclean, whilst Christianity, in contrast, is a morally repressive and anti-sexual religion is one that I used to subscribe to myself. But then I read Michel Foucault on power, pleasure, and Christian ascesis and realised that things aren't so simple; that the difference between Graeco-Roman (i.e. pagan) and early Christian forms of self-disciplining cannot be established in terms of a fundamental distinction or dialectic. Ultimately, even the Nietzschean binary of Dionysus versus the Crucified has to be deconstructed.    

(iv) Seize the Day, Man

The idea of living spontaneously and for the moment is crucial to hippie philosophy; the immediacy of the present or the nowness of the Now is where it's at; the past and future are just abstractions and what D. H. Lawrence calls the quick of time is contained only in the instant. We have the Roman poet Horace to thank for this: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero ...  But whether it's ever very wise listening to a poet (or Robin Williams) is debatable; doesn't it all just end in the sanctioned hedonism of consumer society and a Nike slogan?

(v) Free Love

Ah, the so-called sexual revolution of the sixties ... Again, part of a long tradition carried on by individuals who objected to the state having any say over matters such as marriage, contraception, sexual orientation, etc. What an individual chose to do with his or her body was, they argued, entirely up to them. The great hope was that sexual liberation would lead to greater freedom in all spheres of life and bring about profound social, political, and cultural change. Again, I used to subscribe to this, but then I read Foucault and realised that the politics of desire involves a naive and mistaken understanding of sex, power, and subjectivity thanks to our unquestioning belief in what he terms the repressive hypothesis.   

(vi) Romantic Primitivism and Exotic Otherness 

Finally, the hippies were of course anti-Western and believed that spiritual enlightenment either lay in Asia (and involved transcendental meditation and taking lots of drugs), or with native Americans who combined tribal wisdom with noble savagery. Embarrassingly, I also used to buy into this in my Kings of the Wild Frontier/Nostalgia of Mud period. But now, I'm wise to the culture cult and refuse the tyranny of guilt identified by Pascal Buckner.

Indeed, now, not only would I never trust a hippie, I'd never trust a punk, pagan, or poet either (even though I used to self-identify as a combination of all three during the 1980s).

* Note: In an essay written in 1965, Ginsberg advocated that anti-war rallies should become non-violent spectacles and that hippie protesters should be provided with masses of flowers to be handed out to political opponents, police, press, and members of the public. Thanks to activists like Abbie Hoffman, this idea of flower power quickly spread and became an important expression of hippie ideology. It also led to some iconic images, as flower-wielding protesters were confronted by armed force.


Bennett M. Berger, 'Hippie morality - more old than new', Society, Vol. 5, Issue 2 (December, 1967), pp. 19-27. Note that Society was entitled Transaction at this time.

Malcolm Cowley, Exiles Return, (W. W. Norton, 1934). The Penguin edition (1994), ed. Donald W. Faulkner, is perhaps more readily available.

Robert Anton Wilson, Prometheus Rising, (Falcon Press, 1983), p. 55. 

Play: San Francisco, sung by Scott McKenzie, written by John Phillips, (Ode Records, May 1967), the unofficial anthem of the flower power generation: click here. It's a pleasant enough tune, but like Sid Vicious I was busy playing with my Action Man whilst all this was going on.