Every now and then, the consumption of art brings us into an uneasy moral conflict. The fact that Roman Polanski abused a 13 year old certainly doesn’t make it easier to like his movies. And it definitely got harder to enjoy Noir Désir, after singer Bertrand Cantat killed his girlfriend. Is it legit to listen to music made by a murderer? This question also looms heavily over the work of Bobby Beausoleil.
Bobby Beausoleil recorded most of his discography in jail. The circumstances of his crime are quite confusing, as there are a lot of contradicting testimonies and just as many contradicting theories surrounding them. Even Beausoleil himself modified his story of the incident over the years.
According to Beausoleil’s latest version, it all goes back to a drug deal at the infamous Spahn Ranch, where the Manson Family found a home in the Summer of Love. Beausoleil was supposed to organize drugs for a rocker gang and got ripped off by the dealer Gary Hinman, who sold him bad mescaline. He paid Hinman a visit to demand the gang’s money back and the situation got out of control as Charles Manson arrived on the scene, slicing off a part of Hinman’s ear with a sword. After Manson left, it took Beausoleil over 24 hours to take the fatal decision of stabbing Hinman, as Manson had commanded.
Beausoleil was arrested on August 6, 1969. Two days later, Manson proclaimed Helter Skelter, which cost the lives of over a dozen people, a fact that certainly wasn’t to the advantage of Beausoleil’s trial. The promising guitarist was sentenced to death. His music would have remained unheard, if the death penalty wouldn’t have been abandoned in California in 1972. Considering the limitations of recording in prison, Beausoleil’s innovative mixture of progressive, electronic and pastoral sounds is astonishing. His opus magnum is the soundtrack Lucifer Rising, a suite he started composing when he was still a free man.
When director Kenneth Anger first witnessed a performance of Beausoleil and his Orkustra in 1967, he was instantly struck by the charisma of the young guitarist. “You’re Lucifer”, Anger reportedly said, as he approached Beausoleil after the show to ask him whether he wanted to play the main role in his next movie. Beausoleil agreed, under the condition that he could record the soundtrack for Lucifer Rising.
It took over ten years until the project finally got realized, as the director and the musician ended up in dispute after they first started working on the movie. In 1970s, Anger revived the project and asked Jimmy Page to do the soundtrack. As Anger wasn’t satisfied with the score of the guitarist of Led Zeppelin, Beausoleil took over and assembled a group of fellow convicts to record the soundrack. The grandeur of his suite surpasses the awkward movie, which finally came out in 1980. The inner movie the music creates makes the film somewhat redundant.
Though most of the members of Beausoleil’s Freedom Orchestra didn’t get much out of the movie, the composer was apparently moved by it, as he saw the story as an allegory of his biography. Just like the fallen angel Lucifer, Beausoleil had been abandoned from everything he loved and was struggling to overcome his doom. Music was his way to find freedom within the prison walls.
The mighty 4LP-Boxset The Lucifer Rising Suite released by The Ajna Offensive documents the sheer creativity of the Freedom Orchestra. Besides the soundtrack, they recorded another one and a half hours of material, some of it stunningly innovative. The track Metamorph gives an example of the free form wizzardism the Freedom Orchestra developed behind the bars:
But who is this man born on November 6, 1947, christened Robert Kenneth Beausoleil? Truman Capote investigated Beausoleil’s feeling of guilt during a visit in the San Quentin prison and published it in the form of the short story And It All Came Down. In the interview, Beausoleil denies to divide actions into good and bad, showing absolutely no empathy with its victim. However, Capote’s text seems to be mostly fiction, as Beausoleil stated several times. More recent interviews picture a character that regrets his killing. A person that went through a transition from a violent outlaw to a humble artist.
Beausoleil, now aged 67, remains imprisoned until today in Oregon State Penitentiary, where he keeps on painting and making music. After 45 years in prison, Beausoleil has been denied supervised release 17 times already. On February 25 this year, his current parole hearing has been postponed without further explanation.