Fifty years ago, an ex-con, wannabe rock star named Charles Manson channeled all the paranoia, fear and hatred hovering around Los Angeles into a murder spree that altered the course of American counterculture, for worse or worse. One thing that’s often forgotten is that Manson did not exist in a vacuum. He was a part of the scene, so to speak, with famous friends like the Beach Boys, Neil Young, Terry Melcher and perhaps even Frank Zappa…
by Anthony Mostrom
“Your home is where you’re happy,
It’s not where you’re not free
Your home is where you can be just what you are
‘Cause you were just born to be
So burn all your bridges
Leave your old life behind”
To this day people are amazed when they hear a recording of the young Charles Manson singing one of his songs, like the innocuously pleasant “Look At Your Game, Girl.”
It doesn’t sound at all like the Manson voice we’ve come to know from those angry prison interviews, that snarling hillbilly twang. If anything, the voice is mellow, verging on buttery-smooth, like some late-‘50s crooner a la Perry Como or Frankie Laine. Like every other recent L.A. arrival, Charles Manson in the mid-to-late ‘60s was on the make, or at least trying to be.
But commentators and biographers are either lazy or dishonest when they claim Manson had no talent; the Beach Boys, after all, worked with him and recorded one of his songs as their own. And there is a persistent rumor that Brian Wilson himself engineered an entire album of Manson’s music, the tapes of which very likely still exist, somewhere in the Wilson brother’s vaults.
Clang bang clang
Went the big iron door.
They put me in a cell
With a concrete floor.
Neil Young spoke highly of Manson the songwriter-and-musician at a time (in 1970) when it took some guts to do so, while Manson’s onetime songwriting partner, Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson, praised Manson publicly in 1968, telling a British music journalist: “When I met him I found he had great musical ideas.”
I’m just one of those restless people
can’t never seem to be
satisfied with livin’
In a sick old,
sick sick sick old
It’s still amazing to think that the Beach Boys (the Beach Boys!) performed a Charles Manson song on national television…but there they were on The Mike Douglas Show in the spring of 1969, swaying dreamily onstage to Charlie’s composition “Never Learn Not to Love”. What was Charlie’s reaction to the broadcast? No one seems to have ever asked him.
But we know that Manson’s contacts in the L.A. music scene at that point included some of the most innovative producers in town: the Beach Boys’ reigning “genius” Brian Wilson, Neil Young’s friend David Briggs, the Byrds’ producer Terry Melcher.
There does indeed seem to be a cloud of silence around the question of who the musicians were that Manson might have played with, and where. Frank Zappa’s name pops up occasionally. “We couldn’t believe we had played with him,” Neil Young once admitted out loud.
It would be odd indeed if Zappa, the producer, had never even scouted Manson and “the group,” considering the small, tight world of networking that was going on within the L.A. music scene at a time when Zappa’s Bizarre label was seeking out and signing “weird” rock acts like Wild Man Fischer and the brilliant Captain Beefheart (whose hobos-and-trains themes overlapped with Manson’s own).
The Manson Family’s canyon-music-slash-spooky-folk sound could have easily found a home on Zappa’s roster of musical eccentrics…another great musical “what if”. (Meanwhile, a long-circulating and false rumor that Charlie Manson had “tried out” for the Monkees was started by, of all people, Micky Dolenz…as a joke!)
There are veterans of the ‘60s counterculture scene in Los Angeles today who can still recall their own ‘Charlie sightings’ at different points in time between 1967 and 1969, often with a sense of amazement that they were so close to someone so dangerous, someone who seemed so much like one of them. One resident of Sierra Madre (east of Pasadena) remembers seeing Manson among the runaways and flower children up in the secluded bohemian-and-hippy enclave in the foothills known, then and now, as ‘The Canyon.’
“Manson was here,” remembers a café waitress named Alice. “Everybody came through here then…even Jimi Hendrix came through at one time.” (The Canyon, she adds, was known during the late ’60s as “overdose alley.”)
Up in rustic Box Canyon near Chatsworth in the San Fernando Valley, one longtime resident (“no names, please”) recalls seeing Charlie play a solo set in a bar there, most likely in ‘68. A Hollywood woman named Kathy recalls seeing Charlie at the Griffith Park “love-ins’ with his guitar slung over his shoulder, and lightheartedly insists: “he was really funny! My friends and I always called him ‘Uncle Charlie’ after the My Three Sons character on TV.” And a Valley resident (“Phil”) remembers to this day driving up to the Spahn Movie Ranch and being turned away by Manson, after inquiring about the horseback riding which the ranch then offered to the general public at the rate of a buck an hour.
“This surly little guy with no shoes on and a five-o-clock shadow just gave me the evil eye and shook his head and he said, ‘no, man. There’s no horseback riding here.’ Okay…I left.” (“Phil” insists this mini-incident occurred around the time of his own birthday, August 5, which would put it squarely just days before the Manson murders.)
“When I first met Charlie in ’67? Man, he was a little pixie! When I saw him later in ’69? Whoaahh….”
A surviving witness to the hippies-and-flower-power era in Laurel Canyon has described the Charlie Manson who showed up there in late 1967 as “cute” with “sparkling little eyes.” This witness (let’s call him Ben) was working at the famous Canyon Country Store, the legendary general store where everyone from Mama Cass Elliot to Graham Nash to Frank Zappa hung out and, of course, bought groceries. The witness encountered Manson several times in Laurel Canyon over the course of that freewheeling rock-and-folk period that saw the Mamas and the Papas, the Byrds and CSNY enjoying casual, outdoor jam sessions on each other’s rustic balconies and porches, a brief Golden Age when everybody knew everybody and, as many have attested, no one locked their doors.
“I threw a party at my place in the Canyon,” Ben told me in 2013, standing in the Canyon Store where he was still working, and keeping his voice low.
“This had to be in the Summer of ’68. Everybody was having a good time and at one point I come into the kitchen and there’s Charlie and he’s got my wife cornered, literally in a corner, coming onto her, basically. I said ‘Charlie!’ ‘Aww, nobody belongs to anybody, man…’
“Another time we’d just gotten back from a week-long trip, and there’s Charlie outside my house in the Canyon, hauling my furniture into a truck! He’s got a dolly! I said ‘Charlie, what the hell are you doing, man?’
Of course, the apocalypse Manson dreamed of was unique, and uniquely and utterly opposed to the utopian dreams of the ‘60s counterculture, those peace-loving longhairs who looked and acted and talked like he did, but who had very different ideas from his own.
“But that was nothing compared to this very weird scene at another party in ‘68…this might have been at Cass Elliot’s house but I’m not sure about that. Anyway, there was this other hippy-minstrel guy there, a musician named Paris Sheppard.” (Sheppard was part of a self-styled psychedelic rock band called Fire & Ice Ltd.) “And the guy was just like Charlie! It was the same set-up: he’s got a crew of young girls with him, he’s ‘cute’ with kind of a baby face, he’s got the buckskin jacket on, feathers, beads, the whole thing. Well…him and Charlie were basically trying to out-do each other in the machismo department.
“So I see them together in the kitchen, and all these kids are surrounding them, and Charlie is holding his hand over a flame on the stove, and I can’t believe what I’m seeing. He’s holding it there, rock-solid, letting it burn a hole into his palm. I kid you not, it was dripping flames. And you know what he said to this guy? So help me I heard him say this: ‘The difference between you an’ me? Is that I’m not afraid to die.’” Ben shook his head: “Whooohh!”
For Manson the prison-born con man, hippy-dippy communalism meant only one thing: gimme. But Manson had always seen the world through the eyes of a thief. The prevailing peace-and-love ethos may have kept Charlie-the-cult-leader in check for a while, but as he told Geraldo Rivera in an candid moment, his followers “knew to look out for number one,” then pointed to himself. Here was a prison-hardened manipulator, a domineering control freak who also happened to be obsessed with knives. The Manson-mind was quite a layer cake.
History records that it was his proclivity for taking that ruined Manson’s promising creative alliance with Dennis Wilson, at a time when he was still considered a peer, a musician who was genuinely, legitimately in the running. After “ripping off” most of Wilson’s possessions, Manson finally capped his lack of gratitude to the ever-generous Wilson by threatening him.
Phil Kaufman said, “The sole purpose was to get the message out.”
For evidence of this, we have to rely on surviving Family recording sessions, like The Family Jams: The Manson Family Sings the Songs of Charles Manson, a recording (issued later as a CD) of Charlie’s songs as performed by members of the Family in 1970, when Charlie himself was in a jail cell awaiting his trial for murder. “Ride Away”:
“How else do you think I could talk with you except through the music?
How else do you think I could stop the confusion that’s in your minds?
C’mon, sing these songs as you come along to the music: Each unto his own kind.
“Now everybody knows that there’s nothing to know
Everybody knows that there’s no place left to go.
When you travel fast it’s so much better than slow.
Cause it’s comin’ down quick, and you know you know.
“We’ll find a place to hide…Where the Man won’t find you.”
If the rumor is true that these tapes were broadcast at the time by KPFK-FM, the radical-left Pacifica radio station in Los Angeles, then this was indeed a case of Charlie “getting the message out,” direct from his cell.
So how did Manson, who has gone down in history as the wannabe leader of a mighty, resurgent, lysergic, post-Armageddon, Aryan-race-based civilization strike his associates and fellow rock-and-rollers in late 1960s L.A.?
“I’m Jesus Christ,” Manson was fond of saying. “Whether you wanna believe it or not, I don’t care.”
Neil Young, who knew Manson peripherally, actually wrote a song inspired by Manson and his “family.” It’s called “Revolution Blues” And it was on his apocalyptic 1974 album On The Beach:
“Well we live in a trailer at the edge of town / You never see us ‘cause we don’t come around /We got 25 rifles, just to keep the population down. /But we need you now, and that’s why I’m hangin’ ‘round. / So you be good to me, an’ I’ll be good to you /And in this land of conditions I’m not above suspicion /I won’t attack you, but I won’t back you. / Well it’s so good to be here, asleep on your lawn / Remember your guard dog? Well I’m afraid that he’s gone. / It was such a drag to hear him whining, all night long.”
“ Yes that was me with the doves, setting them free / Near the factory where you build your computer, love… / I hope you get the connection, ‘cause I can’t take the rejection / I won’t deceive you, I just don’t believe you. / Well I’m a barrel of laughs, with my carbine on / I keep ‘em hoppin’, ‘til my ammunition’s gone. / But I’m still not happy, I feel like there’s something wrong. / I got the Revolution Blues, I see bloody fountains, / And ten million dune buggies, comin’ down the mountains. / Well I hear that Laurel Canyon is full of famous stars, / But I hate them worse than lepers, and I’ll kill them in their cars…”
In the early ‘80s, Neil Young performed this song from his classic album On the Beach and announced to the crowd, “this is dedicated to Charles Manson.”
As “Ben” at the Canyon Store noted, by the beginning of 1969 Manson was becoming full-blown monstrous-minded, his criminal origins and prison-born race-paranoia bubbling to overflowing, as he spread the fear of “Blackie” and the “piggies” to all of the young, blond-and-blue-eyed followers on the Ranch, preparing them now for the war that he saw coming between the races. It was the beginning of the end for many people, thanks to Manson’s out-of-control paranoia.
In the midst of all of this drug-and-hate-induced madness, Charlie had now convinced himself that the Beatles were communicating with him directly when they released the White Album, stuffing it full of coded messages for him to decipher and to act upon: Helter Skelter, Piggies, Revolution, Revolution 9, Sexy Sadie. How could this be?
Is it too much to conjecture here that Manson, who knew that he was only one handshake away from the Beatles themselves, thanks to his Beach Boys connection (remember that both groups had hung out with each other more than once, and Charlie knew this), now felt not only within their orbit, but on their wavelength?
Charlie’s strong ego, LSD-imbibing and arrogance may have been the connecting threads that made the thought of messages-from-John-Paul-George-and-Ringo-to-Charlie that much more, shall we say, believable. And all this was backed up by Charlie’s incessant obsession with the Book of Revelation in the New Testament, which, as Family members confirmed, he tied in with the Beatles: “So the four angels, who had been prepared for the hour and the day and month and year, were released to kill a third of mankind…”
“I don’t know what Helter Skelter’s got to do with knifin’ somebody, you know? But, he’s cracked,” said John Lennon in 1970. “Why didn’t Manson listen to our song Revolution? Revolution clearly states my position on violence: ‘When you talk about destruction, you can count me out.'”
“If Melcher said so, Charlie had a record deal at Columbia, one of the most prestigious labels,” according to Manson biographer Jeff Guinn, surely one of the biggest what ifs in history.
If Manson had gotten a record deal through Terry Melcher, or a reluctant Brian Wilson or an enthusiastic Dennis Wilson, what then? Would he have attempted to carry out a musical propaganda campaign pushing white-Aryan racial purity, coded through music, to an audience of hippies?
Is it possible Terry Melcher and Dennis Wilson and Brian Wilson could detect whiffs of morbidity (recall the famous Manson song “Cease to Exist”) and Aryanism in Manson’s lyrics and decided: forget it, this should never be on the face of the Earth?
Why did Joan Didion, in her famous essay “The White Album”, write about the Manson murders: “I remember that no one was surprised?” Because “a demented and seductive tension…was building” in the Los Angeles of 1968 and ’69, and “the jitters were setting in” in a city too in love with the temptation to go “too far,” through a “mystical flirtation with the idea of ‘sin.’” This against a background of so-called revolutionary violence that had become a fatiguing fact of life in assassination-riddled, race-rioting, Nixon-hating America.
Aside from the particularly nightmarish quality of the crimes (what can be more frightening than nighttime home invasion murders?), the Manson Family was not alone, in the frenzied late 1960s, in killing strangers to achieve a vague, cloudy political ideal. Of course, the apocalypse Manson dreamed of was unique, and uniquely and utterly opposed to the utopian dreams of the ‘60s counterculture, those peace-loving longhairs who looked and acted and talked like he did, but who had very different ideas from his own.
Charles Manson’s funeral service took place at the only church that would take him in Kern County, California: the Church of the Nazarene, in Porterville, on Saturday March 17, 2018. In attendance were Manson’s grandson, Jason Freeman, as well as the kind of people you would expect to see there: rustic old hippy-types with long gray beards, bandanas and overalls, though a few looked more militant. One acolyte of Charlie’s, who looked like a Latino biker, sobbed and bent over and kissed the corpse on the mouth. Original Family member Sandra Good was there. So was the young girl who had been engaged to the old, old Manson during his last two years of life.
In Loving Memory: Charles Milles Manson, read the program.
Pastor Mark Pitcher gave a short speech, which was ‘controversial’: “There were many choices thrust upon him that brought about very challenging circumstances through his early years. But he also made choices that brought great consequence and negatively impacted other people for many, many years.” Reportedly, some people in the audience didn’t like that. Charlie’s body was dressed in an orange A.T.W.A. T-shirt: Manson’s environmental crusade: Air-Trees-Water-Animals. Later, a few mourners were allowed to spread a spoonful of his ashes outside, next to a creek. And of course, it was videotaped.
If you die, you will fly
Through the hole, where the soul lies.
There ain’t no question.
In his last will and testament, Manson the would-be prophet wrote: “I’m not in the best spot to rest in peace. But to quote the real Jesus, ‘it is finished’.”