Whis is the raw interview Viola Bonaldi did with Bobby BeauSoleil in the summer of 2018. Viola Bonaldi wrote an article incorporating the raw material below for Salmuria.
You can read the English version here.
… Or if your first language happens to be Italian, read it here.
How did your passion for art — first music and then visual art — come about? Do you remember a specific moment or an episode that enlightened you? Did the Sixties atmosphere play an important role?
As far as I can tell, I mean, to the best of my recollection, I already had a passion to express myself in creative ways when I was born. According to what my mother told me later, about the time I took my first steps I was playing her pots and pans and making drawings on the walls of the house.
Honestly, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t feel like I had something to say in the arts. I believe this is the case with most if not all artists. For some a passionate desire to express in the arts may lay dormant for a time, and then suddenly something happens that triggers the calling, awakening the latent artist within. In my case it seems that I was born turned on. I didn’t need the social explosion that happened in the 1960s to bring the creative urges out of me, but it did provide a playground for them, and sometimes I found inspiration in the passions of people I encountered during that period.
When you haunted the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles you were known as “Cupid”, the archaic Roman primordial god of love, because of the way girls liked to be around you, a young, vibrant, beautiful, multicolored artist. From that capricious god you eventually turned yourself into “Lucifer”, the “angel of light”, fallen from Paradise as a consequence of his pride. Your life is largely connected to archaic myths, and this is often reflected in your work as an artist, both musically and visually, which is full of esoteric symbolism. Now, more than four decades after your work on Lucifer Rising, who are you? Lucifer, Cupid, or some other “creature”? And how do you explain your interest in the arcane?
Wow! Big questions! Well, first of all, I have never pretended to actually be any “creature”, as you put it, that I’ve been associated with. I am just me, an innately nameless soul. As an artist, I have sometimes used my own physical being as a canvas, willingly adopting personas from mythology that others have seen in me. My parents gave me a name at birth and I have been happy to be that person most of the time. Occasionally I have taken on the personifications of archetypes from myth as a way of allowing them to live for a brief time, and in a limited way, in the world of the mundane. There are, by the way, some common traits between Cupid and Lucifer. Both of these mythological beings are imagined as angelic, both known to have a naughty streak, to be creatively rebellious, and both are associated with love. I can think of far worse things to be known for expressing in the world.
What attracts me to the myths is the wealth of story and allegory that can enrich our larger capacity for understanding. Myths are often used as a tool for deepening cultural identity, and to give a hand up by way of providing context and instruction to those who aspire to higher truths. And mythology is an art form that can inspire new art, and thus myths can be alive and continue to grow and influence. As for other arcane interests, I have found little of any real substance in the so-called “dark arts” or silly practices like devil worship. However, as a mystic seeker I have found that treasures are often hidden in dark places. Following a shadow to its source will invariably lead one to the light.
You write that your works are rarely borne out of direct observations of the natural world, from the perception of real things, but come instead from your own mental reinterpretations and from the world of dreams. Is this a consequence of your limited conditions in terms of the space you live it? What is your process for drawing subjects from your recurrent dreams?
Certainly, there are no beautiful vistas to be seen through the dirty windows of the place where I live. I can see moving images from nature in photographs and films, and sometimes these inspire me to produce a visual interpretation. For the most part, though, I tend to see the beauty of nature as paintings made by God, ever changing in the light of consciousness, awesomely inspired and breathtaking, far beyond the capabilities of any human artist to do them justice. Rather than producing poor imitations of the moving paintings created by God, my natural inclination is to make a few humble additions to God’s creation, as one of the forces of nature.
So, for the most part, I draw inspiration from my unfettered and fertile imagination. You can fly in your dreams, right? What can be seen, imagined or experienced is not limited to what is possible in the physical world in some states of mind. I cultivate some of these states of mind, such as lucid dreaming, as a source for concepts that may be made manifest in the physical world through my arts. This works for visual imagery and for music as well, and even sometimes for written words, like poetry. In the vast territories of dreams especially — both daydreams and the kind that happen during sleep — the mind plays freely, in safety, amorphously creating odd mash-ups, evolving patterns, astonishingly wonderous sounds. Much of my work is an attempt to bring these experiences into the physical realm, or at least to hint at them.
What does a young man think when he is sent to death row? You couldn’t play an instrument or have contact with other people, right?
When I arrived on San Quentin’s death row in 1970 I was a total wreck, broken and shattered, far more devastated than I ever let anyone know during that period. As difficult as it was, in some ways that 26 months I was on death row was a blessing. I needed that time alone to grapple with my conscience, to fully face what I had done head-on, to begin to learn how to think things through and begin the process of accepting responsibility for how I was going to deal with the consequences of my actions and eventually find a way to redeem myself. It was a tall order, one that seemed utterly insurmountable at the time. Think of a complicated picture-puzzle with about a million pieces.
Having a guitar was not allowed on death row, like you say, but I could get a little manual typewriter and a few pencils and sketch paper. Writing and drawing helped me to focus on my inner world and begin the process of putting the pieces of myself back together.
Where did you learn to create musical instruments? How did you manage to do that in prison?
Finding ways of making new or different kinds of sounds has been a fascination for me since I was a small boy. The first time I built a musical instrument was when I was about 8 years old. It was a contraption I called a “jazz band” — basically a percussion instrument made out of a wooden crate, with a variety of found objects like tin cans, pie plates, glass jars, spoons and whatnot nailed or attached to the crate in some way. I made a lot of noise on that thing, beating on it with sticks. A couple of years later I made an electric guitar — or rather, something that looked like a guitar I had seen in the window of a music store — in the workshop class at my school. It didn’t work, but from that experience I learned a lot about what is needed to make one that would. I have customized, or “hot-rodded”, every guitar I’ve had since, and built a few guitars from scratch.
In the mid-1960s, when I was putting together a band that would become known as The Orkustra, I was faced with the challenge of figuring out how to go about electrically amplifying different kinds of woodwinds and stringed instruments. This was a necessary step in fulfilling my desire to assemble the first electric orchestra. This experience became invaluable ten years later when I took on the Lucifer Rising soundtrack project. After I was given a permission from the warden at the prison to produce recordings for the project I successfully sought an additional permission to build some of the instruments I would need in the prison handicraft shop. I was allowed to build several guitars and keyboard instruments, and to experiment with music electronics and synthesizer design. This led to the invention and development of some instrument innovations.
Things have changed in prisons since then, with most of the prison handicraft programs having been shut down. Though I’m not able to build instruments at present, I still manage to find ways to hot-rod guitars. Fortunately, the technical skills I acquired earlier opened doors to my being in prison jobs that have given me access to advanced tools for producing work in various media, including video and sound design. I have been blessed with some unusual opportunities to employ my abilities in ways that are helpful and beneficial to others. Despite the imprisonment, I count myself fortunate to have had these opportunities, and I am grateful.
How can a human being detained for decades in prison survive in such a place without becoming a “monster”, as you have reflected in some of your writings? Can we say that Lucifer Rising saved you?
Prisons are unnatural places. They are ill-conceived responses to social problems like crime and mental illness — and in the US, anyone who breaks a law, mentally ill or not, is subject to incarceration in the prison system. In practice, imprisonment worsens these types of problems, generally speaking. Imprisonment warps the mind, not only of prisoners but also of the people who are paid to supervise them and keep them locked in.
Fairly early in my incarceration I became aware of the effects being in prison was having on me, and on others around me. By that time, I had already begun to slip into involvement in violent situations. When I saw what was happening I began to take steps to mitigate those negative effects. I resolved that I would never allow the prison environment to define me. Making a personal vow of non-violence that I have maintained to this day was one of those steps. By pouring myself into creative expression as an artist, along with promoting and maintaining healthy relationships with people on the outside, I have been able to gird myself against the insanity around me. It takes continuous effort and resolve, and a lot of vigilance, but it is possible to empower oneself to rise above the snares and pitfalls of prison life and maintain one’s personal integrity.
Yes, you could say that the Lucifer Rising soundtrack project saved me, in a way. It took years to complete the soundtrack compositions and recordings. During that time the project consumed me utterly. And it did so in a positive way. My concept for the Lucifer Rising themes was to musically describe the fallen angel’s desire to redeem himself, tracing his path through the dark passages he would pass through in his journey toward reconciliation and the light. The story, as I decided to interpret it, has certain resonances in my own life, so working on the project was cathartic.
Did you like Charles Manson’s music?
Sometimes I did and sometimes I didn’t. Charlie was a uniquely talented musician, but he had a tendency to be inconsistent in the way he approached musical performance. Much of this had to do with context. Some of his songs were a lot like songs for children, and were obviously meant to be sing-along songs for the people in his commune. Those songs would not have had much appeal to a general audience, and I have seen them used in sensationalist media to ridicule his musical ability. There were songs of Charlie’s that would not stand the tests of time, like much of the music that was made during the sixties, but many of his songs were entirely relevant for that period and some of them had real depth of meaning. The ones I liked best were those that he sang and played spontaneously, in a stream-of-consciousness style, like some rappers of today. As an improvisational player, I particularly enjoyed playing with him on songs he created in this mode. My accompaniment seemed to inspire him and helped to bring out the best qualities in his performances. This type of collaboration formed the basis of my relationship with him, such as it was. Unfortunately, no good recordings have survived.
You appear to have a deeply spiritual conception about purpose in relation to destiny. You have written that every person is born with some special ability or message they are meant to express in the world, a unique hand of cards to play in life. If you had not done “a bad thing” as your Professor Proponderus character said in the animated film you made, and been sent to prison, what do you think your life would have been like? Who would Bobby Beausoleil have become outside of jail? How would he have played his cards?
Taking my cue from the cards metaphor seems like the best place to begin a response to your questions ... The thing is, most human beings are not dealt only one hand of cards in life. Each time one makes a major decision in life, or has a significant accident, Destiny deals the individual a new hand of cards to play. It is impossible to say what my life might have been like had I not made the dire decisions that caused me to be sent to prison.
Some imaginative writers have postulated that each major decision creates a new timestream in a parallel universe. Well, I don’t know if that’s true, and it’s doubtful any of us ever will in our lifetimes, but let’s play along for the sake of giving due respect to what you are asking. Had I played my hand of cards differently in 1969 it’s conceivable that the Bobby Beausoleil of that alternate universe would have become a famous rock star, as I once hoped to be. Just as conceivable, the Bobby Beausoleil of another parallel universe might have wound up in some dark alley, dead of a drug overdose, something I have never had any aspirations to be.
We don’t get to choose beyond playing the cards we are dealt as well as we can in the hope that our decisions will take us to where we want to go. It is when we play our cards willy-nilly, without care, that we may instigate disasters in our lives and the lives of others. That said, I have done my best to play my cards well in the intervening years, and to overcome, to the extent that may be possible, the failings of my past. We shall see what the cards I play now will bring in the future.
Reading the transcript from your last parole hearing one can note that your artistic activity, and publishing communications with people outside of prison via the internet, has sometimes been used against you and your release. But you still do it. Do you do this out of a philosophical sense of duty, or because you feel safer in prison and don’t really want to be released? I mean, it seems like you’re shooting yourself in the foot ...My idea is that it’s only an excuse. It doesn’t matter what you do. For some people you will always be condemned because you have the Manson stigma on you.
Excuses are made by people who shirk the responsibilities they have agreed to accept, and who fail to have the courage to do the right thing and uphold those responsibilities. After long and very careful consideration, I resolved years ago that I would not restrict or limit my life in accordance with the excuses made by other people.
This is not an act of defiance by any means. I carefully follow the rules I am given to follow; none of my art or publishing actually violates any of them. And I assure you, I have no desire to wrap myself up in the dubious security of prison life. I want to get out of prison as much as any imprisoned person ever has. In the end, what it comes down to is that my spiritual obligation to fulfill my purpose in life trumps any of the rationalizations or excuses that may be used to justify keeping me in prison, and all the nonsense related to them.
A soul comes into the world for only a brief time and for the purpose, however slight it may be, to contribute to bringing sentience to the physical universe through expression of a God-given ability. This is called dharma, the purpose in life. Failing to uphold this responsibility is a breach of the sacred covenant a soul makes when coming into the world.
As an artist, it is my role to express creatively and to share the work I produce in such efforts with the world. Perhaps this will serve to uplift another soul, or to inspire someone to make their own dharmic contribution to the human mission. Or maybe it’s of no real value at all. In any case, I feel very strongly that I must remain true to my calling, and to fulfill my sacred obligation as a sentient soul, come what may.
In the years past I fought long and hard to restore myself to integrity. Too great an investment has been made to retreat from what I know I’m here to do, or to otherwise compromise my integrity out of fear of some arbitrary, politically motivated resistance. Clearly, nothing in the work I create is indicative of any violent tendencies. Excuses aside, this is what should be the focus in a parole consideration hearing. At some point I may be fortunate enough to have my case in front of arbiters who recognize that my creative efforts have been the instrument of my rehabilitation, restoring me to a responsible human being, and who will, in consideration of this, support my release from prison.
From your experience, what do you think of the use of social media and the internet?
My direct exposure to the internet has been limited by restrictive prison policies, but studying technological advancements is a hobby of mine. I won’t be left behind like Rip Van Winkle! As a multi-media artist, I am interested in how computers and computer devices like tablets and cell phones can be used to express creatively in new ways. There are artists out there who are doing amazing things with these new technologies!
The internet is a mixed bag, mostly because it is still like the wild west — a work in progress. For the everyday person to have rapid access to so much information is truly marvelous, extremely empowering, but this is only beneficial if the information is accurate. With every person able to have their very own pulpit there is way too much fake news and click-bait gossip poised to ensnare the unwary. I believe this will improve in time as the search engines incorporate better algorithms to snag and tag the suspicious content. On the other hand, there is the wonder of streaming media. I can’t wait to be able to catch up on come of the films and music I’ve been missing!
There is a lot about social media that doesn’t seem very sociable to me. The ability to communicate across vast distances in real time via texting and chatting on Facebook and other social media sites, with pictures and video, makes for an extremely valuable tool. That’s just it: a tool. There is no replacement for real sensory contact between human beings. We are hardwired for touch and direct eye contact. There are reasons why suicides are occurring more frequently in these times; it seems to me that too much reliance on social media platforms is part of the reason for this. It worries me that many young people will sit side-by-side and text to each other instead of looking at one another and talking. And too many people are cocooned in their personal bubbles, insulated from empathic connection to humanity, making derogatory, harsh, even hateful judgements of other people, often only because they are isolated and lonely and need to share their misery. Emojis are cute but they are a poor substitute for communicating real emotions. Humans are complex creatures. We can actually choose to be less anxious and depressed as a species by relying less on virtual socializing.
You took your freedom early, still a child, but soon you lost it. Unlike the stories of most prisoners, however, you affirm that your family situation was very positive when you were a child. Do you remember the happiest episode of your childhood, and the saddest one? Do you recall your childhood home and the scents of that time?
I remember my childhood home vividly, smells and all. Although I tended to be more adventurous than most of the kids I knew, my childhood was pretty average, growing up in a tract house nearly identical to all the other houses in the neighborhood. My happiest times were when I was sent off to stay with my grandmother during the summer, because the world seemed so much bigger in the Los Angeles area where she lived. My happiest memory there was finding an old guitar in my grandmother’s attic. Destiny dealt me a new hand of cards that day! The saddest day of my childhood was, at age 15, going with my family to my grandmother’s funeral. That was the day I left home for good, for some reasons that didn’t actually have anything to do with my grandmother’s death. I loved my family, but the family home was just too small.
Silvio Pellico, an Italian writer and patriot imprisoned for life in 1820, then given a commuted sentence and released after 10 years, stated that, without a doubt, free living is much better than living in prison, yet even in a miserable prison you can enjoy life. What do you think about this?
Prison is generally a pretty miserable place, that’s a fact. Spending my time in a puddle of self-pity has always been an option, just as it is for people on the outside. Choosing that option is what turns a miserable place into a hell. Many people in prison do just that. There is not only misery but a good deal of anger and rage in here as well. I mentioned earlier, I made the decision to not allow prison to define me. As a result, I have managed to do the extraordinary while in prison, and I have inspired some other prisoners to do similar things. While prison is a miserable place, being a miserable prisoner is not a must. Transcendence of misery is always possible no matter how hard it gets.
Your answer to a question no one has ever asked you ...
“Do you wear boxers or briefs under shorts?” No, I don’t.
Describe the room you live in and what your days are like at the prison where you live. What do you do for entertainment. How are you feeling?
My mind is much younger than my body, so naturally I have my share of aches and pains to deal with. To help preserve my health and activity I do hatha yoga on a semi-regular basis. I am also one of the two teachers for the yoga class here. A couple of times a week I play with other musicians here and once in a while we perform together in the prison house band. We have a music class once a week and I help with teaching guitar to students. Even though my spiritual orientation is grounded in the traditions of West Asia, I’m perfectly comfortable playing in the Gospel band in the prison chapel. Also once a week I take my guitar to the Hospice part of the prison hospital, and play music for men who are in the process of dying.
My cell is about the size of a typical bathroom in someone’s home. There’s a door in one end and a window in the other end that lets in daylight; there is a small sink, a toilet, and a large metal locker for storage. I use the top of the locker as my work surface. I’m using it now while typing these words. My bed is the size of a cot, a concrete block with a mat stuffed with jute fiber; of course, it serves also as a seat and a place where I set my art materials when working on a painting or drawing. My guitar shares the space, and I’ve got a small television and a radio. I would say that I live like a monk if my cell were not so cluttered with stuff for work, play, eating and sleeping. I manage to figure out ways to make the space work for me fairly well under the circumstances.
I currently have a job five days a week in the prison library. It takes up a bit too much of my time and sometimes conflicts with things I’m trying to do. But then, most people who have jobs have similar problems.
Much of my time has been going into writing and editing. A couple of books are in the works, one of which is scheduled for publication in 2019. This leaves me little time for reading, though I manage to find some time to read, mostly books on spiritual philosophy, mythology, media technology. But when it comes to words it’s the writing that gets most of the juice. I love good films and some television dramas, if they are done well. I will watch the TV for two or three hours in the evening if there is something on worth my attention. Some of my writing time naturally goes to communicating with family and friends, creative collaborators, and, when I can fit it in, some of the fans of my work as well.
My long-awaited double vinyl LP, Voodoo Shivaya, a concept album I worked on for seven years, recently debuted. The response has been gratifying, quite favorable so far, even though the music does not fit in any of the established categories or genres. So I’m feeling pretty happy that I’ve been able to share this music with the world.
Do you have a suggestion you can give us?
Try to avoid killing anyone, if you can. It is very very difficult to come back from something like that. And if you find yourself faced with a seemingly insurmountable challenge, don’t be too shy to ask for help. The best place to look for help is deep within yourself where you will surely find great resources of strength and courage you may not yet be aware of. And remember, there is always at least one way to play your cards that will allow you to prevail over and ultimately transcend any challenge.