Legs McNeil talks to Billboard about the book he and Gillian McCain have been working on for 20 years – documenting the late ‘60s California music scene and Charles Manson’s role in it
Cult leader and convicted killer Charles Manson, who died on Sunday (Nov. 19) at the age of 83, built his own perverse mythology upon a foundation of occultism, race war conspiracy theories and, ultimately, murder. Yet in spite of his heinous actions, many of the reports surrounding Manson are inaccurate, the result of grotesque folklore being passed down through generations until it was accepted as fact.
Music journalist Legs McNeil — who co-authored 1996’s groundbreaking Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk with Gillian McCain — hopes to change that. For 20 years, he and McCain have been working on a book that documents the late-‘60s California music scene and Manson’s role in it, tentatively titled 69 — though McNeil grouses, “We might change the title because I think that asshole Quentin Tarantino just stole it.”
There’s no lack of Manson reading material already on the market — Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry’s 1974 book Helter Skelter remains the bestselling true crime book of all time. But over the past 20 years, McNeil and McCain have interviewed every possible person connected to the Manson Family murders, several of whom have never spoken on record before.
McNeil recently spoke to Billboard about his painstaking reporting process, the broken ideals of the late-‘60s California music scene and Manson’s gruesome, enduring legacy in popular culture.
When did you start working on this project?
Gil and I did the first interview in 1998, two years after the hardback of Please Kill Me came out.
What drew you to Manson in the first place?
For us, it was, “How do people go from peace and love to murder and mayhem?” That was kind of like, “Wait a minute.” A lot of the story has not been told. I mean, Bugliosi was just getting fiction, and he wrote about it in such spacious terms — murder and death, zombies, but they weren’t on drugs, but they were on drugs, but not when the murders took place. It was like, “Wait a minute, we’re not getting the whole story here.”
So we went back, and for the last 20 years, we’ve been contacting people who have never talked to anybody, ever. We didn’t know what the story was. Gillian and I just both knew we weren’t getting the whole thing, and we needed to go back and talk to everybody.
Did you ever talk to Manson?
No… But you know what, Charlie’s just redundant, if nothing else. Charlie was redundant. It was all about how he’d been in prison all his life and he didn’t do it. Charlie’s full of shit. He’ll tell you whatever you wanna hear. And you know what, there’s a lot of stuff out there for Charlie to talk, and we have everything that anyone in the Manson Family has ever said in a courtroom or a parole hearing. You know, because it’s an oral history, you just need lots and lots of transcripts. And we have all those. So it’s not like Charlie’s gonna say it better to us.
Talking to people who have never spoken on record is probably more illuminating anyway.
Charlie’s the least interesting part of the story. It’s kind of the girls’ story. It’s basically how these women survived the ‘60s, or didn’t survive the ‘60s. I mean, basically, it’s a story about acid and pedophilia.
Manson did so many disgusting things, perhaps people somewhat overlooked his rampant misogyny.
Every girl we’ve talked to has been beaten up by Charlie at some point. Every girl. It wasn’t just one or two. He beat up everybody. Also, you couldn’t leave. You had no options. It’s not like you could go and check into a hotel and run away. These girls had no options. And Leslie Van Houten thought she was gonna get killed if she didn’t commit the LaBianca murders. That’s kind of an important point.