Despite facing a life sentence in California prison, the talented composer has never lost his musical and artistic muse
For most of the last half century, 71-year-old Bobby BeauSoleil has resided in a place as close to Hell on Earth as can be conceived. His death sentence for a 1969 murder having been commuted to life imprisonment in 1972, he has been a 48-year guest of the California state prison system.
That BeauSoleil has survived this long in such an environment with a certain degree of serenity is remarkable enough. That he has created music, visual art, poetry and his own electronic equipment while incarcerated is extraordinary.
And yet here he is, in 2018, with a new album, Voodoo Shivaya, written and recorded over the course of several years [2008-2015] on instruments he designed and/or built himself. This new recording builds on the soundtrack that he composed and performed for Kenneth Anger’s 1980 film Lucifer Rising.
Lucifer Rising by Bobby BeauSoleil:
If Robert Stroud could be called the Birdman of Alcatraz, then Bobby BeauSoleil may just be the Voodoo Vibes-man of Vacaville.
He has called this new album a document of “my personal journey to an authentic spiritual identity.”
And, while members of the folk band Blood Axis backed his playing on three of the nine tracks and he had some percussion help from two other prisoners at Oregon State Penitentiary, most of the music is BeauSoleil’s own work, played on a custom-made Schechter guitar. As he described the process, “With a modest recording setup and a small assortment of guitar pedals at my disposal, I began to explore the unique character of the guitar’s voice and soon found myself in a world of dark blues and haunted droning spaces.”
The “dark blues” begin with “Hard Road,” the very first cut on the album. In a raspy voice that recalls latter-day Bob Dylan, Beausoleil’s opening words—“It’s been a hard road”—sound like those of a man in a confession booth or perhaps a man singing into an abyss, hoping against hope for a response. Who can argue with him? He seems to find an alternative route to the light, though, in “The Subterranean Path,” the slower, more mournful tune about persevering against insurmountable forces that follows on the heels of “Hard Road.” There’s even a sort of confident swagger on “The Bones of My Mind” in which he keeps coming back to one image: “All I need are the bones of my mind to scrutinize the inscrutable.”
Listen to “Hard Road” from Voodoo Shivaya by Bobby BeauSoleil.
Arguably the most effective, and affecting, piece on the album is his highly emotional cover of “Nature Boy,” which is given a melancholic vibe by Annabel Lee’s violin backing. The song, first recorded by Nat King Cole in 1948, was written by the proto-hippie mystic eden ahbez, who gave it to Cole to record, resulting in a crossover pop hit by the jazz singer. “Nature Boy” was autobiographical, ahbez’s tribute to his philosophical mentor, Bill Pester. Among the many legends about ahbez is that he lived outdoors and often slept under the “L” in the famous Hollywood sign.
A short snippet of ahbez singing his composition, which has since been covered by countless artists, including Miles Davis.
The lyrics of “Nature Boy” close with the powerful line, “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn, Is just to love and be loved in return”. BeauSoleil’s wavering, sandpaper voice adds some new texture to that lyric.
On “Ghost Highway,” Beausoleil demonstrates his skills as an instrumentalist and improviser, his lead guitar riffs driven along nicely by Chad Hamlin on bass and Timothy Hill on drums. The first disc closes with an overlong version of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You”. The second disc is mostly instrumental, the “haunting droning spaces” of the three tracks (including the title track) at times evoking both Ravi Shankar and Weather Report. The production is clear and richly layered throughout.
All in all, Voodoo Shivaya is fascinating and passionate work, made more poignant by the conditions under which it was created. The album is available on vinyl, CD and digital download, from AJNA (www.theajnaoffensive.com) and via his website.
“The artist is always in something of a vacuum,” BeauSoleil told PKM. “I made the recordings without concern of what others may think or feel about them, and now, of course, I’m all about that.”