1969 remains a landmark year in western pop culture. The old Hollywood system was threatened with extinction by the arrival of the independents with Easy Rider, Led Zeppelin started the journey that would transform the sound of rock ‘n’ roll and over a summer weekend in Woodstock, New York, a musical festival would capture the zeitgeist of the free love generation. But one week before the event, across the country in California, members of a cult forced their way into the home of a well-respected filmmaker and butchered a pregnant actress and her friends. In the aftermath of the gruesome discovery, the instigator of this horrible crime was revealed to be a perpetual criminal and failed musician called Charles Manson.
While his name would become synonymous with evil, Manson had crossed paths with many acclaimed musicians throughout the sixties and had succeeded in collecting a loyal group of followers who, devoted to his word, would be willing to lay down their lives in his name. He was a manipulator and a deviant, but many felt he was a good storyteller and was able to connect with people’s inner-selves. It would be this gift that would lull such artists as Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys into his web, yet Manson considered himself a musician in his own right and in the two years prior to the murders he was convinced that a major recording deal was within reach.
When Charles Manson emerged from his incarceration on Terminal Island in 1967 the world had changed. At thirty-two he had spent half of his life in a correctional institution but the America that he stepped out into felt alien to him. Manson had developed some musical skills while an inmate at McNeil Island, the facility where he had resided for the first five years of his sentence, having been taken under the wing of a gangster called Alvin Karpis. Despite the age difference, with veteran criminal Karpis almost thirty years older than his new friend, the two became almost inseparable during their time together and Karpis taught Manson the basics of playing guitar.
For Manson, whose birth certificate had merely identified him as ‘No Name Maddox,’ the years spent in institutions with little in the way of distractions would allow his passion for music to cultivate inside him. ‘Being in jail protected me in a way from society. I was inside so I couldn’t take part, play the games that society expects you to play,’ he told Rolling Stone in 1970. ‘I’ve been in jail twenty-two years, the most I was out was maybe six months. I just wasn’t contaminated, I kept my innocence. I got so I actually loved solitary. That was supposed to be punishment. I loved it. There is nothing to do in prison anyway, so all they can get you to do is, ‘Get up! Sit down!’ So solitary was great. I began to hear music inside my head. I had concerts inside my cell. When the time came for my release, I didn’t want to go. Yeah, man, solitary was beautiful.’
Having become too reliant on life in prison, when Manson was finally released during the Summer of Love he realised that he was terrified at the thought of re-entering society. ‘I was afraid of trying to cope in a world that I had never understood,’ he admitted to author Nuel Emmons. ‘I had my music, but I was afraid that if I depended on it too strongly, I would fail at that too.’ With no clear understanding of what was expected of him and no family or friends who could provide support Manson managed to hitch a ride from a prison driver who offered him lodging for his first night of freedom.
His salvation would be the streets of San Francisco which, in 1967, was the cornerstone of the American counterculture. While the country was enraged by the war in Vietnam and the civil rights movement, both of which were broadcast on the news in all their uncensored horror, the city had become a haven for those who had embraced what the mainstream referred to as the hippie lifestyle. Psychedelic drugs and sex were in endless supply and the city’s music scene was rich and vibrant, with local acts like Big Brother and the Holding Company and Jefferson Airplane dominating the clubs and bars.
The centre of this carnival-like world was Haight-Ashbury, a district of the city that had become the crossroads of the country. While the streets were awash with distractions there were several key meeting points for those searching for excitement; the Psychedelic Shop, a hippie den owned by siblings Ron and Jay Thelin and the Fillmore, a popular venue that housed performances from the likes of the Grateful Dead. Manson was overwhelmed by the love and free expression that San Francisco had adopted and having spent most of his life in prison or on the streets he felt he had finally found a home.
My trip was being free
‘Other than the love and hallucinogenic drugs, I did not participate in mind trips or rituals. Nor did I get involved in all the protests concerning the Vietnam War,’ he claimed. ‘I observed all that was going on with keen interest, but at that time I was not into controlling anyone or being controlled. My trip was being free!’ Haight-Ashbury was not without its problems, however, as each year hundreds of homeless youths made their way to the city in the hope of escaping from their poverty and lonely existence, only for their unclaimed bodies to be found on the street. It would seem that even a counterculture paradise such as San Francisco had a dark underbelly.
While enamoured by the neighbourhood of Haight-Ashbury, Manson also liked to travel and observe. A favourite pastime was hitchhiking to the University of California and playing his guitar on campus. It would be during one of these visits that he would meet a young librarian called Mary Brunner. Taking pity on him, Brunner invited Manson back to her home in downtown San Francisco and took him under her wing. Now finally having somewhere to live and a girl under his influence, Manson would become less an observer and more a manipulator as he discovered the spell he could cast over other young men and women who felt lost and disillusioned with their lives.
‘Over the next few weeks Manson convinced Brunner to allow him to bring other girls into her apartment. Manson was a big believer of the free love concept and averse to the concept of monogamy,’ explained author Clarissa Johns in the biography Manson Girl: The True Story of Mary Brunner. ‘A while after meeting Manson, Brunner left her library assistant job to join Manson as he wandered through the state of California. In 1967, Manson and Brunner were in Haight-Ashbury for the Summer of Love where over a hundred thousand people had gathered to celebrate hippie culture and non-conformism.’
While not involved in the murders that would occur in the August of 1969 Lynette Fromme – known to the group as Squeaky – would later find notoriety in her own right after her attempted assassination of President Gerald Ford. But in the late-sixties she was just another young American who had fallen under the spell of Manson. The two had met on Venice Beach soon after she had run away from home, where the mysterious man approached and introduced himself as the Gardener, as he tends ‘to all the flower children.’ Manson offered a non-judgemental shoulder to cry on and with Fromme joining his ever-expanding Family they travelled across California in search of meaning.
‘Your Ego Is a Too-Much Thing was one of Charlie’s prison compositions, with minor chords and an insinuating, snaky sound,’ recalled Fromme in her book Reflexion, published half a century after the two first met. ‘He sang it to neighbours in the red farmhouse but I knew it was really to me. I felt pulled to attention, personally attacked and disdainful of the peculiar lyrics. The expression ‘too much’ dated it. Four or five years earlier, ‘too much’ was common teen slang for amazement, delight and even disgust. Everything was too much…While singing, Charlie grazed me with his ego-eyes. This was a tête-à-tête. Something was definitely going on here.’
But it would not only be Fromme whose life was changed when she first crossed paths with Manson. ‘I moved back to San Francisco and into this pad with a lot of people,’ explained Susan Atkins to author Lawrence Schiller in the 1970 book The Killing of Sharon Tate. ‘Then one day about two months later a little man came in with a guitar and started singing for a group of us in that place where we were living in Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco. And as he sang, the song that hit me hardest was The Shadow of Your Smile. Even before I saw him, while I was still in the kitchen, his voice just hypnotised me, mesmerised me. Then, when I saw him, I fell absolutely in love with him. I found out later his name was Charles Manson. But he had other names too and so would I. Nothing was ever the same again after that. Charlie came there that day to speak the truth and to release anybody he could, to enlighten anybody he could.’
The entourage that Manson would build around him over the course of the next twelve months would be an eclectic group; Reverend Dean Morehouse, the eldest in Manson’s ever-growing following whom the former convict had seduced with the help of LSD, his daughter Ruth Ann ‘Ouisch’ Morehouse and Bobby Beausoleil, who had escaped from a respectable family home in Santa Barbara in search of excitement. Beausoleil’s talents had soon made him popular among the locals of the San Francisco music scene, initially as a member of the experimental troupe the Outfit and later for his involvement in Kenneth Anger’s experimental film Lucifer Rising.
Of all Manson’s followers Beausoleil was the one with the most intriguing past, despite being one of the youngest. Known throughout the neighbourhood for a flamboyant dress sense that would include a top hat, he was a charming and seemingly well-educated young man referred to as Bummer Bob. ‘We walked over to Golden Gate Park and made out fervently. I imagined he was Keats or Byron, a doomed beauty from another realm and I was the only one on Earth who understood him,’ said future rock groupie Pamela Des Barnes in her autobiography. ‘Years later I saw him on TV being interviewed by Truman Capote; he was Bobby Beausoleil, Charles Manson’s cupid-faced killer.’
Over the years Beausoleil has been reluctant to admit that Manson had any kind of influence over him, despite his subsequent involvement in the murder of his friend Gary Hinman, supposedly under the instructions of Manson. ‘He had his people, I had mine. If anybody was influenced it was him. By me,’ Beausoleil told Capote in Music for Chameleons. Whether or not Beausoleil was as fascinated by Manson as the other members of the Family, the name given to his group of followers, remains unclear, but like two other key players, Atkins and Charles ‘Tex’ Watson, he would still be willing to take a life to appease Manson.
Manson’s ability to charm and seduce through either intimidation or empathy was a characteristic that he had developed as an adolscent during his time in a boy’s home. With little contact with his family, the teenager was forced to develop certain defensive traits and these abilities would eventually come into play in his adult life. ‘By fourteen Charlie had an uncanny ability to decipher the unspoken vocabulary of body language. His skills were as honed as those of the best analysts,’ claimed Lawson McDowell in Before He Became a Monster. ‘It was not Charlie’s imposing physique that captivated them, for he was short and thin. Maybe his smile struck them. It was magic to be sure, but his fierce eyes were what they found most unusual. Never had they seen such eyes in a boy their own age. Those spellbinding, entrancing portals were something they had never seen.’
For his newfound teenage friends in the late-sixties, they too saw the mesmerising spark in his eyes and were overtaken by the commanding tone of his voice. ‘After listening to Charlie sing and talk, after dancing with him and making love, after sensing and seeing the power of his mind, I knew I would go with him if he asked,’ admitted Atkins, who would come to be known among the group Sadie, in her 1977 book Child of Satan, Child of God. ‘I felt fully responsible for my actions but at the same time I knew there was something inside me that was attracted to something inside him. I knew I had never encountered this before and I knew I had to have what he had. I was eighteen but older inside. I was free. My father, brothers and I were irreparably torn apart it seemed. I had come close but so far had found no substitute. Charlie had instantly seemed more of a father to me than my own father.’
Another lost child of the American system that had joined Manson’s flock was Sandra Good, a native of Chicago who, much like her other sisters and brothers within the Family, became seduced by the stranger’s philosophies and charm. While not present during the murders, Good would later find herself falling foul of the law due to ‘conspiracy to send threatening letters through the mail,’ but during her time with Manson she would remain one of the most silent of the group. ‘I had so many respiratory things going on, two tracheotomies by the time I was one. My mother did not want me to survive the many operations I had. I know that for a fact, she conveyed it daily,’ revealed Good in the 2019 documentary Manson: The Women. ‘I never saw fulfillment or happiness in the people I looked up to. None of them were happy. Many of them were alcoholics.’
While he would provide each lost soul with what they felt was missing from their lives, Manson’s penchant for manipulation was something that the media would immediately exploit upon his arrest. ‘Charlie was a fast talker with a glittering eye,’ declared Life when they published an article on his corruptive influence in December 1969. ‘He initiated new girls by taking them to bed for day-long sexual marathons. He broke down their ‘inhibitions’ by directing them in erotic group carnivals or ordering them to carnal activity with other men – and commanding them to do so in the same tones in which he sent them into the streets to panhandle. Charlie was no hippie. He was an entrepreneur. He gave people things – drugs, his own shirt – to get things back. He gave girls – often a naked, giggling, caressing gaggle of four or five of them – to men from the ‘straight’ world. He shaved and cut his hair, even at times after retreating to the desert, to facilitate dealing with the establishment.’
With his members growing in numbers, Manson was forced to find a suitable vehicle in which the group could both travel and find refuge. It would be upon a chance discovery of an old school bus that Manson would finally have the freedom to take his Family wherever he wanted, thus giving them endless possibilities for adventure and excitement. ‘For the next year and a half they roamed; north to Mendocino, Oregon, Washington; south to Big Sur, Los Angeles, Mexico and, eventually, back to L.A.,’ stated district attorney Vincent Bugliosi in Helter Skelter, his seminal chronicle of the infamous murder trial. ‘Accoring to Susan they went through changes and learned to love. The girls made love with each of the boys and with each other. But Charlie was complete love.’
Manson’s worst enemy was himself
Their escapades would take them from San Francisco to Los Angeles, which Manson saw as the city that would fulfil his dreams of stardom. Finally arriving in November 1967, his first port of call in his pursuit of a record contract was Gary Stromberg, whose friend Phil Kaufman had been a former cellmate of Manson’s. Based in Hollywood at Universal Studios, Stromberg’s introduction to the world of Charles Manson came when the budding musician arrived with a group of young girls to discuss his musical aspirations. Obtaining a day of recording at the acclaimed Gold Star Studios, Manson’s female fans took their seats around the room and indulged in acid while Manson ran through a selection of original material. But Manson’s worst enemy was himself and when Russ Reagan, who had authorised the studio time, insisted that Stromberg impose more restraint on their potential client, Manson’s anti-authoritative attitude would ultimately bring the sessions to a premature end.
Despite being rejected by Reagan, Manson’s luck seemed destined to change when two of his girls, Patricia ‘Katie’ Krenwinkel and Ella Jo Bailey, hitchhiked through Malibu and were picked-up by a charming and handsome young man who claimed to be a musician. Dennis Wilson had enjoyed considerable success throughout the sixties as the drummer for the Beach Boys, formed in 1961 with his siblings Brian and Carl and cousin Mike Love. But Wilson’s love of women, cars and hedonism had become more infamous than his musical abilities and it would be his willingness to approach two young girls by the side of the road that would almost be his undoing.
The Beach Boys emerged from the California music scene at a time when Elvis Presley had returned from the military to launch a movie career and the world had yet to hear the Beatles. With no youthful artist to win the hearts of teenagers the band, whose members ranged from barely twenty to just thirteen-years-old, became superstars overnight with a succession of hit singles that began in 1962 with Surfin’ Safari. Still relatively immature and unaware of the temptations that success would bring, they were not prepared for the reality of the entertainment industry. ‘Because of the Beach Boys‘ success, Dennis and Carl, as well as David Marks, had their childhoods stunted,’ claimed Love in his autobiography Good Vibrations: My Life as a Beach Boy. ‘Brian, Al (Jardine) and I were all out of high school but we were no more prepared than they were. I’m not complaining but it was not a natural life. Fairly sheltered growing up, we were suddenly travelling from city to city, country to country; climbing onto stages, standing in front of cameras, seeing our names in print, in lights, on the charts and revelling in all the fringe benefits.’
With the wealth he had accumulated from the band Wilson had purchased a luxury home on Sunset Boulevard and would regularly entertain a wealth of celebrity guests. Krenwinkel and Bailey were both fascinated by his lifestyle and were easily seduced into bed by the suave Wilson, although when he said his farewell soon afterwards he never expected to see the two girls again. Returning home late from a recording session with the Beach Boys, Wilson arrived to find young women in every room of his house, running around naked and under the influence of psychedelic drugs and free love.
‘Out of the shadows appeared a wiry, elf-like man with a wicked sparkle in his eyes,’ described Wilson biographer Jon Stebbins. ‘Manson easily commanded the attention of the thrill-seeking Wilson and for a year he would tirelessly exploit his famous new friend. And Dennis, of course, would take advantage of Manson in his own way. Theirs was a mutual friendship based on debauchery; Manson intended on using Wilson’s contacts in the music industry, as well as his endless supply of money and home comforts, while Wilson was happy as long as he was intoxicated and having sex with pretty young women, something that Manson had his own supply of.’
Having spent his life either in jail or on the road, Manson may have lacked the sophistication of a musician but his experiences gave his songs an authenticity that in some ways compensated for his crude singing and musical abilities. While his refusal to conform to the basic expectations of the music industry would always be the thorn in his side, there was at the very least potential to some of his songs and with a little more discipline and assistance from a producer his undiscovered talents may well have been honed. But having surrounded himself with followers who obeyed his every word, there was no one in his life who was willing to tell the truth and dare challenge his delusion that he was a musical genius. And for a time even Wilson was seduced by his charisma.
‘Dennis was a hell of a guy. For all his success and wealth he still enjoyed the simpler things in life,’ recalled Manson in the mid-eighties. ‘Sure, he put on airs and played the role of a Hollywood success story. He’d make appearances and play whatever part the occasion demanded but inside he was a rebel and had long ago tired of catering to the whims of a public who wanted him to be the ‘All-American Boy.’ He still loved his music but he tried to escape from the demands of his agents, the travel and the appearances, every chance he got. He wasn’t looking for a way out, just time and space to let his hair down and be out of the public eye. He was the dream of ninety-nine per cent of American youth but he was just as lost, just as wanting, just as in search of something as those kids with me. So it was kind of natural Dennis and the rest of us hooked up.’
With Wilson having come of age as a member of a pop band revered for their clean-cut image, he had struggled with the persona he had been given by the media, but his indulgence in women and excess was slowly becoming known in the industry. In Manson he found the perfect conduit in which to channel his sexual desires and self-destructive impulses. While Manson himself preferred to remain clear-headed in order to observe his followers, those in his Family would regularly partake in acid trips to expand their consciousness and fulfil their fantasies. Manson was the ringleader and this was his circus, something he took great pleasure in instigating.
In return Manson took liberties with Wilson’s wealth and generosity, with the young musician receiving regular royalty cheques from his work with the Beach Boys, some of which would find its way into Manson’s pocket. He had no qualms with exploiting his new friend for his own benefits, providing it served the purpose of his Family. Manson also took Wilson out of his safety zone by offering him occasional bursts of danger, such as placing a knife to Wilson’s throat, much to his delight.
Wilson would even reference his new hedonistic friendship in interviews. ‘I live with seventeen girls,’ he told the Record Mirror in an article published on 21 December 1968. ‘It happened strangely. I went up into the mountain with my houseboy to take an LSD trip. We met two girls hitchhiking. One of them was pregnant. We gave them a lift and a purse was left in the car. About a month later, near Malibu, I saw the pregnant girl again, only this time she’d had her baby. I was overjoyed for her and it was through her that I met all the other girls. I told them about our involvement with the Maharishi and they told me they too had a guru, a guy named Charlie, who’d recently come out of jail after twelve years. His mother was a hooker, his father was a gangster, he’d drifted into crime but when I met him I found he had great musical ideas. We’re writing together now. He’d dumb in some ways but I accept his approach and have learnt from him.’
Having lost out on his adolescence by becoming a pop star even before leaving school, Wilson was forced to grow up in front of the whole world and it soon became clear that his vices were even more excessive than his bandmates. ‘By then, Dennis had divorced his first wife Carole Freedman and was participating in orgies and other debauchery under Manson’s direction,’ detailed Rolling Stone in 1984, six months after Wilson’s death at the age of thirty-nine. ‘During this period he also tried heroin for the first time. The Manson Family spent $100,000 of his money and wrecked an uninsured $21,000 Mercedes…Wilson’s involvement with Manson was not atypical in at least one respect: the drummer loved to flirt with danger. In the early seventies, he would drink a six-pack or two, smoke some grass, then get in his jeep and drive through the desert at top speed with the headlights off.’
Despite his love of beautiful women and his extravagant spending Wilson was something of a humble man, struggling with the guilt of becoming wealthy for merely performing in a band. And so he would happily spend money on his friends, particularly those less fortunate, which would lead to Manson being financially secure throughout their friendship. But while he revelled in the darker side of the Family, those close to Wilson were apprehensive to welcome Manson, particularly the other members of the Beach Boys, who viewed him as a threat to both Wilson and the band.
‘He came home one night and told me that Charlie and the girls had invited themselves over to stay for a while,’ Love told ABC in 2017. ‘We were invited by Dennis to come to dinner to meet Charlie and the Family. They were in a group sex kind of situation and it wasn’t my cup of tea, so I excused myself to take a shower. No sooner than I got in the shower the door opened and Charlie Manson stood there, looked up at me and said, ‘You can’t do that!’ I said, ‘Excuse me?’ ‘You can’t leave the group!’ And he looked at me with these wide eyes, a maniacal look. When one of your members is involved with something so weird, it was kinda frightening and freaky to me.’
Aside from his association with Wilson, Manson desperately reached out to any figure he could find within the music industry to help him land the big break that he felt he deserved. ‘For all of the high profile contacts that the Family had made, Manson was frustrated by the fact that nobody who mattered, apart from Dennis Wilson, seemed particularly enthused by his music,’ explained writer Tommy Udo in Music, Mayhem and Murder. ‘John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas heard the tapes but wasn’t particularly interested. In his autobiography Papa John, Phillips recalls his introduction to the Family when Dennis Wilson phoned him up and said, ‘This guy Charlie’s here with all these great-looking chicks. He plays guitar and he’s a real wild guy. He has all these chicks hanging out like servants. You can come over and just screw any of them you want. It’s a great party.’ Rudi Altobelli, Melcher’s landlord, was a big shot agent but was also uninterested in his music or his philosophy.’
Charlie’s entertaining philosophical rants occasionally turned dark
Despite enjoying the benefits that came from Manson and his entourage, Wilson was more than aware of the dangers that his friendship with the group presented. ‘Concerned about their client’s involvement with such a questionable character, Beach Boys management ran a background check on Charlie and informed Dennis that his house guest had done time for armed robbery and was currently on probation. That didn’t bother Wilson in the least. He’d known all along that his new pal had a criminal background,’ detailed author Jeff Guinn in The Life and Times of Charles Manson. ‘Manson liked to brag that prison was his daddy and the street was his mother. Criminal credentials appealed to many young people in an era when it was fashionable for them to believe that the government was the enemy. But as Manson and his motley crew continued living with Wilson, Charlie’s entertaining philosophical rants occasionally turned dark. He seemed to believe that he held the power of life and death over his followers and friends, including his famous patron.’
Regardless of the threat he posed, Wilson remained determined to help his friend land his big break. ‘Dennis eventually brought Charlie over to Brian’s to cut some demos,’ said Stebbins. ‘Too slowly, it dawned on Dennis that Charles Manson was bad news and he tried to slip out of the ties that bound them without angering the quick-tempered little man. The Beach Boys‘ touring schedule during the second half of 1968 was a blessing in this regard: Dennis was rarely in town. Without telling Charlie and the Family, who were still occupying his house, he moved to different digs in the Palisades and allowed the lease to expire right out from under them. Manson had to move back to the desert site where he and his family often holed up – Spahn Ranch – and then shuttle back and forth to L.A.’
It was during their time at Wilson’s house that Manson had made the acquaintance of Charles Watson, who would become a key player in the Family and the crimes that would take place a year later. Despite his own treatment of Wilson, Manson also cited Watson as a reason for the souring of their association with the Beach Boys. ‘Before meeting us, his popularity among his old friends was on a downhill slide because of drug burns and a habit of never paying his bills,’ Manson claimed. ‘A few weeks later he couldn’t pay his rent and was facing eviction and Dennis allowed him to move into the mansion. The guy was such a freeloader that pretty soon even the big heart of Dennis sent him packing.’
Much like Manson’s other followers, Watson soon found himself easily seduced by the rock ‘n’ roll debauchery that he would witness when he was welcomed into the Family. ‘Drugs, rebellion, immorality and rock music all fit into the same package,’ he would later claim. ‘I can tell you from personal experience, each is culturally related to the other. I was addicted to rock music just as I was addicted to drugs. The more drugs and music I took in, the more drugs and music I needed. I became hooked, out of control and was in total rebellion against God and my parents.’
While history, members of the Family and Manson himself have stated on numerous occasions that he was determined to launch a career as a musician, Fromme would later argue against these claims. ‘I’d say that the biggest and most chronically repeated misconception was that Manson wanted to be a famous musician,’ Fromme would tell the Sun in 2019 while promoting her long-awaited autobiography. ‘When I met him in 1967 he had already been entertaining people for years. Upon his release from prison he had an open invitation to visit a record producer at Universal Studios in Hollywood. I describe in the book that after about six months of freedom he accepted that invitation but politely declined commitments of any kind. He was joyously experiencing life in a world radically different from the one he left before going to prison. He saw pleasure and purpose in every day. He was spontaneous and naturally funny. He made us laugh.’
Fromme may have been the most devoted follower of Manson but other members of the Family also remained seduced by his every word. ‘His trip was our trip. In other words, Charlie has no wants. All he wants to do is what he wants to do. He’s given up everything for that, to live for the people around him,’ Atkins told Schiller. ‘We had instruments, violin and flute and guitar. Charlie and the girls played. A couple of the girls played. His voice was the voice of an angel. High? Low? It was the voice of an angel. The pitch? No way, no way of me telling you. It changed, always changed, ever-changing. It was never the same. And the women just adored him, worshipped him. And, you know, there were mostly women in the camp.’
Following his exploitation of Wilson, Manson’s next target would be Terry Melcher. ‘Through Dennis, Lyn and Charlie met Gregg Jakobson, a talent scout who was the son-in-law of Lou Costello, the thicker half of Abbott and Costello,’ stated author Jess Bravin in the biography Squeaky: The Life and Times of Lynette Alice Fromme. ‘Jakobson, too, was impressed with Charlie and the music and he introduced them to Terry Melcher, a record producer who was Doris Day’s son. Melcher took some interest in hearing the Family sing but ultimately decided they had no future in the record business.’
Melcher’s career had taken off in the early sixties under the name Terry Day, during which time he became friends with members of the Beach Boys. His minor success brought him to the attention of Columbia Records, where he helped to launch the career of the Byrds with their rendition of Bob Dylan’s Mr. Tamborine Man. In 1967 Melcher found himself on the board of governors for the recently-established Monterey Pop Festival alongside Paul McCartney, Smokey Robinson and Brian Wilson, but after the truth behind the Manson Family finally came to light his brief association with them would become his most defining attribute.
For Melcher, a visit to Spahn Ranch would prove to be an interesting experience. ‘I arrived, met a bunch of people, they all sat down and played a dozen songs,’ he would later explain. ‘There’s a big campfire. Manson played the guitar and all the girls sang parts, harmonies and background stuff. It was quite an interesting thing. And they all talked about how they shared this and that; it was one big family and these were people who were basically disenfranchised by their biological families, who didn’t understand them, didn’t want to listen to them and had cast them adrift. And I thought, ‘Okay, maybe this is what’s going on today.’ Who knew that half of them were wanted by the FBI, for Christ’s sake, or some other law enforcement agency.’
Over the years many have claimed that the relationship between Manson and Melcher extended beyond mere acquaintances. ‘Manson went to Melcher’s home several times and even on occasion borrowed Melcher’s Jaguar. On one occasion when Melcher visited Dennis Wilson, Dennis and Gregg drove Melcher home to 10050 Cielo Drive while Manson sat in the back of the Rolls-Royce singing and strumming the guitar,’ claimed Ed Sanders in 1971’s The Family: The Story of Charles Manson’s Dune Buggy Attack Battalion, one of the first books written about Manson and his followers. ‘The relationship between the Family and Melcher is much more extensive than has been known. What William Burroughs calls an ‘area of silence’ has been created about the matter. People can’t really be blamed because a strong relationship with Manson could chop points from a TV series.’
While the Manson Family would remain silent during the early years of their incarceration, much of the information used by Bugliosi in the legal trial that would follow the murders was obtained by Virginia Graham, one of the thousands of young hopefuls who arrived in Los Angeles each year in search of fame and fortune. The excessive Hollywood lifestyle, which she documented in her 2015 memoir Manson, Sinatra and Me, would eventually lead to a prison sentence and soon Graham found herself a confidant of fellow inmate Atkins. ‘They – Charlie, Susan and the others – had lived with Dennis for a time,’ detailed Bugliosi. ‘Virginia got the idea they were hostile towards Melcher, that he was too interested in money.’
During his time in Los Angeles, in which he used the girls in the Family to attract the attention of industry figures, he would form friendships with various musicians, some of which were seduced by his raw and unconventional brand of music. ‘I knew Charlie Manson so it spooked the hell out of me,’ claimed Neil Young in an interview with the BBC when looking back on the revelation that Manson had masterminded a Hollywood massacre. While his solo album was not released until the early months of 1969, Young had already made a name for himself through his work with Buffalo Springfield and by the time that the Manson Family murders had been discovered, he had already recorded albums with the Rockets and Crosby, Stills & Nash. ‘He wasn’t what you would call a songwriter, he was like a song-spewer. But he got turned down by record companies, turned down by Reprise. I remember I told them how awesome this guy is, he’s good, he’s just a little out of control. But when he got turned down it pissed him off. He didn’t take rejection well.
By all accounts, Manson was truly dedicated to his music and viewed himself as more than just an artist, perhaps even a prophet, with his songs speaking directly to his devoted followers. ‘The purpose of Manson’s music was to manipulate or indoctrinate his listeners to accept his philosophies and beliefs. His music had a very real demonic influence on the Family members and still has today to those who choose to listen to it,’ claimed Watson. ‘I believe his music reflects his pain and anger towards the lack of parental relationships and therefore hatred towards society. The many years he spent in prison gave him plenty of time to develop this hatred and hostility, blaming everyone else but himself. The spontaneous songs he sang in the confines of the Family spewed forth this hatred, different from what he later released for public consumption.’
There were all these girls hanging around and they were living out of dumpsters
Word-of-mouth surrounding Manson and his followers soon spread around Los Angeles. ‘Terry Melcher told me about this exotic, charismatic guy who lived out near my family’s ranch in the valley,’ revealed singer Ned Doheny many years later. ‘He was writing tunes and there were all these girls hanging around and they were living out of dumpsters. Terry said we should go out and visit.’ But much like Wilson, it wasn’t long before Melcher realised just how dangerous this group could be.
Manson, who used his friendship with Wilson to approach Melcher, was honest in his poor handling of the situation. ‘He did give us a little attention, a lot more than was brought out during the trial and in other books that have been written,’ explained Manson. ‘He and Jakobson arranged for a couple of recording sessions and, in looking back, I guess the girls and I blew it. Melcher and the people who were doing the sessions had their ideas of how they wanted the recording done, the girls and I had our idea. We clashed and nothing was accomplished, but that relationship lasted right up until August of 1969.’
At the time he met Manson, Melcher had a home in Benedict Canyon at 10050 Cielo Drive which, by the end of the year, would become an address synonymous with murder. Many critics and members of the Family credit Manson’s discovery of the Beatles and in particular their eponymous 1968 record – more commonly referred to as the White Album – as the catalyst for his sudden bloodlust. Even Bugliosi’s infamous book Helter Skelter took its name from a song off the album that had supposedly inspired Manson’s plan for some kind of apocalypse, beginning with a list of celebrities that he intended on killing. This theory was further cemented with the inclusion of the word ‘Pig’ scrawled in blood across the front door after the first murders, believed to be a reference to the Beatles song Piggies.
‘Charlie obtained the Beatles‘ so-called White Album in late 1968,’ recalled Atkins. ‘It had a tremendous impact on our lives, especially Charlie’s. One night when many of us were playing records and listening to the album Charlie said, ‘They’re speaking to me.’ He was convinced that he had some sort of apocalyptic connection with the Beatles. I never fully understood it but I knew Charlie, our unchallenged leader, was deeply affected. And I and most of the others believed that, in some way, helter skelter – the end of the world – was coming down fast…To us, helter skelter was real. To the Beatles, their song was a takeoff on the use of a slippery slide in a children’s park, to which they added some suggestive, primarily sexual, connotations. To us, it meant things were going out of control in the world and the end was coming.’
Yet despite his obvious influence over his followers, Manson would later claim that his Family had become obsessed with the notion of the helter skelter without him having imposed it on them. ‘Two or three of those who lived within our circle have written books contending that when they first met me I was waving a magic wand of love and music. With a single wave, they came under my spell and had to be with me,’ Manson later said. ‘I don’t deny disappointment at not reaching my goals as a musician. Nor do I deny being impressed with the White Album…But I gotta say, those kids were expressing their own ideas more than what was going through my mind. Hell, those were kids of the Beatles‘ generation – I had at least ten years on most of them. I envied any successful musician and appreciated any bestselling album but, like most people, the music I felt close to was music I had heard when I was young.’
Every historian has their own interpretation of the true reason behind Manson’s actions during the summer of 1969 but one of the catalysts would be the disappointment and betrayal that he would feel against Melcher, thus targeting his former home as the site of his intended massacre. Yet in truth the first to betray Manson was Wilson, who had taken one of Manson’s original songs and reworked it into something that would be included on next Beach Boys album, without the struggling musician receiving the writing credit that he deserved. And while Manson lived in poverty Wilson had allowed himself solo credit on the song and thus giving his former friend none of the royalties that were owed to him.
‘Manson tried to use Wilson to jump-start his own career and one of Manson’s compositions, Cease to Exist, was indeed rewritten and recorded by the Beach Boys, appearing on their 1968 album 20/20 as Never Learn to Love. But Manson’s troubadourial endeavours were basically a bust,’ explained Spin in 1994. A quarter of a century later Esquire would add, ‘Manson, who died in 2017, allegedly sold the songwriting credit to Wilson for a one-time payment and a motorcycle. But the cult leader later reported that he put a bullet in Wilson’s bed after becoming enraged upon learning that the Beach Boys drummer had altered his lyrics.’
For Manson, the betrayal by both the Wilson and Melcher had angered the quick-tempered musician and soon this frustration turned to hatred. ‘When I go to get into the music, the Jew rejects me on the universal level,’ he declared in one of his more erratic interviews. ‘When I went into Dennis Wilson’s Beach Boys I said, ‘You owe me money for music, where’s the money?’ They put me onto the Italian business manager. I said, ‘Don’t I get something for this music here?’ And he said, ‘No, you get nothing.’ He said, ‘Sue me!’ I said, ‘I won’t sue you, I’ll bomb your car, man! I’ll blow your house up!’ He said, ‘I’ll call New York, I’ll call the mafia.’ Well, I know a lot of the dudes in the mafia so I backed off of him, that’s why I moved in with Dennis. You owe me! You won’t pay me on one level I’ll sneak you on another level, but you’re gonna pay me sooner or later because I’m that guy that always gets paid and I always pay.’
The Family had retreated back to the old derelict film studio of Spahn Ranch, where they had blocked out the world and formed their own rudimentary society under the leadership of Manson. When they required food they would obtain discarded products from dumpsters, but their most disturbing practice was something known as the ‘creepy crawl,’ where selected members would sneak into homes late at night without being detected, purely as a test and form of entertainment. But in August 1969 every threat Manson had ever made came true with the brutal death of Sharon Tate.
Born in Dallas in 1943, Tate relocated to California at the age of nineteen and found minor work as a model and television actress before landing her first break in J. Lee Thompson’s 1966 horror Eye of the Devil. After shooting wrapped in London she met Polish filmmaker Roman Polanski and the two fell in love. After casting Tate in his horror comedy The Fearless Vampire Killers the two married in 1968 and by the New Year she was pregnant. While Polanski remained in England to work on the development of his next project, The Day of the Dolphin, Tate stayed in Los Angeles and on the night of 8 August had a small group of friends over to keep her company.
One of the rarely mentioned members of the Family and one whom Manson had grown closer to during the time leading up to his prophesied apocalypse was Stephanie Schram who, at just seventeen, was one of the youngest of the group. ‘While Stephanie was getting her clothes together, Manson talked to her sister, who was also a Beatles fan. She had the White Album and Manson told her the Beatles had laid out ‘the whole scene’ in it,’ claimed Bugliosi. ‘In addition to the testimony of Schram, (Danny) DeCarlo and others, Linda Kasabian said that when the Family got together that afternoon, Manson discussed his visit to Big Sur, saying that the people there were ‘really not together, they were just off ther little trips’ and that ‘the people wouldn’t go on his trip.”
Aside from his frustration of having been cheated by the music industry there were other possible causes for Manson’s sudden desire to initiate the proposed bloodshed. ‘Lyn got a phone call from Sandy. She and Mary had been busted for using the credit cards at a Sears store. They were locked up in the Sybil Brand Institute, the women’s jail in East Los Angeles,’ claimed biographer Jess Bravin. ‘When Charlie heard the news he exploded: all these problems coming down and they were doing nothing to strike back. They would wait no longer. ‘Now is the time for Helter Skelter,’ he declared. It was frantic that night, Ouisch remembered, the girls getting the black clothes together, the weapons, ‘like we were going to get shot if we didn’t do it right now.’ Charlie gathered them up. Sadie and Katie and a blonde girl named Linda Kasabian; she had joined the Family in July and, Lyn learned, still had a valid driver’s licence.’
Manson had instructed Watson to lead several members of the Family to Melcher’s former home on Cielo Drive and so, dressed all in black, Watson left the ranch with Atkins, Krenwinkel and Kasabian. ‘From the moment Manson gave us the order I began to have second thoughts. How would I carry this out? As I drove to the crime scene, the girls and I were silent and almost frozen,’ claimed Watson in his book Manson’s Right-Hand Man Speaks Out. ‘The girls and I didn’t enjoy murdering our victims. It was insanely difficult for us all, but our slavish hearts were committed. We wanted this outbreak of violence to be over with.’
Yet Atkins’ own memoir Child of Satan, Child of God seems to contradict these claims: ‘As they raced and clawed their way out of the living room, my burning mind recorded a scene I’ll never forget. It was a picture of my good friend Tex – a gun in one hand and a knife in the other, both arms extended and a terrible mixture of scream and laughter coming out of his wide-stretched mouth. He was four feet off the floor, suspended in the air, a man possessed, driven. Even in that second I recalled the usual words of Linda one night after she had made love to Tex: ‘I feel like I’m possessed.’ In that flash, I knew Tex was not a human being.’
By the time Watson and his accomplices left the property five people lay dead, their bodies butchered and blood smeared on the front door. Twenty-six-year-old Tate was eight months pregnant. ‘One of the men closed the front door. Below the windowpane, in smeared red letters, was the word ‘Pig.’ I looked away but it was impossible to escape the implications of violence; blood was all over the porch, the grass, even the bushes,’ recalled Brie Tate in her own book Restless Souls, documenting her experience visiting the crime scene to discover the fate of her niece. ‘What kind of madness lay within the walls of that house? Like toppling dominoes, the muscles tightened throughout my body. For hours, my emotions had been in constant flux, from speculation and sadness to the rage that now seared my stomach. I wiped at the corners of my mouth, swallowing hard to keep the bile down…The living room looked as if a tornado had redecorated it in order to erase memories of placid evenings by the fire. Blood splashes stained the walls, furniture and carpet. In the centre of the room, a rope hung from the ceiling beam to floor. Laughter escaped through the window, just another day on the job for those boys.’
The following night a middle-aged couple, Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, were murdered across town, also victims of the Manson Family. No sooner was the second night of carnage discovered that authorities began to make a connection. ‘A Los Feliz couple were found slain Sunday night under bizarre circumstances that police say may connect the crimes with the weird ritual murder of actress Sharon Tate and four others in Benedict Canyon,’ reported the Los Angeles Times. ‘LaBianca, identified as the owner of a supermarket chain, was found lying on his back in the living room, his head covered by a white hood, his chest pierced by a meat carving fork which had evidently been used to cut the word ‘War’ and the letters ‘XXX’ into the flesh.’
‘We drove all over L.A., Manson was very agitated and Kasabian was very nervous and upset and he was yelling at her a lot,’ detailed Leslie Van Houten, who was drafted by Manson to participate in the second night of mayhem. ‘We sat in the car and Manson and Tex got out and went up…So Manson came back and I believe Tex did too, anyway the bottom line is he looked in the car and he pointed at Pat and I and told us to get out and go do what Tex said. I don’t remember if he said this in front of me or I heard it later but he said to Tex to make sure that everybody did something. And so we went into the house and I would say that was when I first really understood what was happening.’ By the time Manson and the remaining perpetrators were apprehended, the Family had become the story of legend.
I felt no remorse for the murders
‘I had never met any of the victims until a few moments before their deaths,’ Watson told journalist Chaplin Ray Hoekstra in Cease to Exist: A Firsthand Account of Indoctrination into the Manson Family. ‘I felt no remorse for the murders, no revulsion at the incredible brutality of the killings. I felt nothing, not even fear of what might happen if I were caught. Because, like the rest of the Family, I knew a secret: the next day or the day after that (at least sometime very soon) Los Angeles and all the other pig cities would be in flames. It would be the apocalyse, the deserved judgement on the whole sick establishment that hated us and all the other free children, the establishment that had cheated Charlie out of his genius. While the rich piggies lay butchered on their own manicured front lawns, we would have found safety. Charlie would have led us through a secret Devil’s Hole into the Bottomless Pit: an underground paradise beneath Death Valley where water from a lake would give everlasting life and you could eat fruit from twelve magic trees, a different one for each month of the year. That would be Charlie’s gift to us, his children, his Family.’
Watson was not the only member of the cult who looked upon their leader as the chosen one, a figure who would guide them to some kind of promised land. ‘According to Susan, Charlie himself went under a variety of names, calling himself the Devil, Satan, Soul,’ said Bugliosi. ‘Although Susan didn’t state that she believed Manson was Christ, the implication was there. Though I was at this time far from understanding it myself, it was important that I give the jury some explanation, however partial, for Manson’s control over his followers. Incredible as all this was to the predominantly upper-middle-class grand jurors, it was nothing compared to what they would hear when she described those two nights of murders.’
While both Watson and Atkins, along with their accomplice Krenwinkel, were dedicated to carrying out the gruesome task that Manson had bestowed upon them, Kasabian, one of the newest members of the Family, was less enthusiastic about spilling innocent blood. ‘I felt excited, special, chosen,’ Kasabian told the Guardian forty years later. But when she finally laid eyes on the victims the realisation of what was occurring inside the house finally terrified the twenty-year-old. ‘I saw a woman in a white dress and she had blood all over her and she was screaming and she was calling for her mom. I saw Katie stabbing her. I thought about going to a house where there were lights down the road and then I said, ‘No, don’t do that, because they’ll find me and kill all those people.’ So I went down the hill and I got into the car and I just stayed there and waited.’
Before the police finally apprehended members of the Family, the media would debate as to the cause of why such a beloved Hollywood star would be murdered in such a brutal fashion. ‘Hollywood carried on. The victims were buried with the obligatory number of weeping movie stars and harassed press agents in attendance,’ revealed the New York Times in their 4 January 1970 edition. ‘Screen director Roman Polanski, Miss Tate’s husband, called a press conference to defend his wife’s reputation and say that her unborn baby ‘had been her greatest picture.’ Before leaving, he found time to pose for magazine photographs in their blood‐stained living room. But even Polanski’s performance could not still the rumours: the murderer was a drug pusher, a victim of past sexual abuses, ‘rough trade’ picked up on Sunset Strip for fun and games, a friend who had freaked-out on speed and turned violent. All the stories had a common thread…that somehow the victims had brought the murder on themselves, that they were responsible for the violence.’
The arrest of Charles Manson and his youthful followers would drive a knife through the innocent perception of hippies that had dominated the counterculture since the Summer of Love two years earlier. Now these kids who had refused to conform to the expectations of Capitalism and consumerism were viewed by many as a dangerous threat. ‘How, people asked, could these flower-power children, whose memorable slogan had been ‘Make love, not war,’ brutally butcher a group of persons they had never met, seen or knew anything about?’ posed an article published by Parade in early January 1970. ‘As the horrendous activities of the so-called Manson Family leaked out, the public, especially in southern California, grew more fearful: ‘I bet they must have killed a hundred…It’s hard to believe we’ve had them in our midst…I’ll never pick up another hippie so long as I live…I’d feel safer if we got new locks for the doors and the windows.’ Nevertheless, people are morbidly enthralled by the Manson Family, by the bizarre behaviour and motivations they cannot understand.’
The American nation was perplexed by how seemingly-ordinary teenagers could willingly take a life, particularly for a cause as outrageous as the Helter Skelter philosophy that the media and trial had revealed. ‘Where had these beliefs come from?’ asked authors Tom O’Neill and Dan Piepenbring in Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA and the Secret History of the Sixties. ‘The murderers had been raised and educated in solid, conventional American communities but no one wanted to claim them. The Family, with its starry-eyed communalism, sexual frankness and veneration of LSD, offered a screen onto which anyone could project his insecurities about the era’s politics and pressures. The promise of the hippie movement had been in its willingness to forgo cherished institutions in favour of the new and untested. After the Tate murders, it seemed that hippies and freaks were more than a risible sideshow: they could really undermine the status quo.’
On 13 December 1971 Manson was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. While most commonly associated with the slaughter of Tate and her friends, Manson was found guilty of the murder of Hinman and the 1969 killing of thirty-five year old stuntman Donald Shea. After ten hours of debate the jury gave their guilty verdict and Manson was sentenced to the gas chamber, California’s death penalty. Four months later, however, a decision made by the Supreme Court of California resulted in a suspension of capital punishment in the state and Manson’s sentence was amended to life in prison. Yet despite his incarceration his passion for music was as strong as ever, as was his influence over his followers.
‘Since the Tate-LaBianca murders, Charles Manson had achieved almost mythical status in the country,’ documented author Nikki Meredith in her book The Manson Women and Me: Monsters, Morality and Murder. ‘To a subgroup of disaffected European and American youth he was a folk hero, an inspiration, an eternal rebel without a cause. To the rest of us, in his pint-size way, he had become as much a symbol of evil as Hitler. Though Manson didn’t personally kill any of those seven people, he was more widely known than any other serial killer. One of the impenetrable mysteries of Hitler’s Holocaust continues to be the unspeakable brutality of ordinary Germany; middle-class people who contributed in direct and intimate ways to the slaughter of the Jews. Similarly, the enduring potency of the Manson myth derives not only from his involvement in the murders but from his deft extermination of the humanity of seemingly normal young people who killed at his behest.’
Yet despite the devotion of his Family and the fascination that both the public and the press had for Charles Manson there were those who had immediately condemned him, not only for the violence carried out in his name but also the philosophies and unorthodox lifestyle of the group prior to the murders. ‘I wrote Five to Die, the first book about the infamous murders which was published three months before the trial began,’ recalled Ivor Davis in his retrospective Manson Exposed. ‘It was a damning indictment of Manson and his mindless followers. It laid out in graphic detail for the very first time the bizarre lifestyle, the drugs, the orgies and the violence which had become the daily routine of that raggle-taggle band of young men and women who were worshipping at Manson’s feet…Not surprising, this did not endear me to the remnants of Manson’s crackpot army of young women who were to keep a year-long vigil outside the Los Angeles courthouse. They had all pledged to remain loyal to their ruler forever.’
While Atkins had initially remained devoted to Manson even after their arrest, following many years in incarceration and having rediscovered her faith her opinion on the man that she had killed for would eventually change. ‘Considerable media attention has been given to Charles Manson’s ability to ‘control the minds of his followers.’ His ability to ‘brainwash’ people,’ she would explain in her second memoir The Myth of Helter Skelter, published posthumously in 2012. ‘He took young people, primarly girls, who had poor family relations, low self-esteem and who felt they didn’t belong. He took them away from all their familiar surroundings. He took them to an isolated place where he could control what they saw, heard and learnt. He prevented them from making any attachments outside his group. He took away all their money under the pretext that the Family would provide for them, which not only prevented them from leaving but aso made them dependent on him even for their clothes, food and shelter. He sowed dissension and bitterness toward outsiders. He encouraged them to become dependent on drugs, drugs which he alone would disperse. And then, to polish it all off, he threw in a sizable portion of brutal physical abuse.’
Long before Atkins changed her story and condemned Manson as a monster another member of the family had spoken out regarding his manipulating and dangerous ways. While not as infamous as her brothers and sisters within the group, Dianne Lake was just fourteen when she was welcomed into Manson’s inner circle and would play an integral role in his downfall. ‘I had buried my history so well I’d almost forgotten that once I was someone else,’ she admitted in her book Member of the Family. ‘A girl who had spent almost two years being manpulated by him before a moment of clarity broke the spell and who then went on to testify against him on 3 November 1970, helping to put him in prison forever. Over the course of the eight years that followed, I’d been in and out of the courtroom through the Manson trial and two retrials of fellow Family member Leslie Van Houten, coming of age on the witness stand and telling my story to the juries and the judges, as well as to the gawkers who obsessed over the gruesome acts that were committed by Charles Manson and members of his Family on two nights in August 1969.’
But at the time of the trial the rest of his Family had remained faithful to his every whim and were determined for his music to be heard by the world that had rejected him. ‘Lyn reckoned that music might well be the only way to raise money to mount Charlie’s defence,’ explained Fromme’s biographer Jess Bravin. ‘She had been unable to obtain Charlie’s demo tapes from Dennis Wilson – he had told her they had been confiscated by the district attorney – but she was able to pick up with Phil Kaufman, Charlie’s contact from Terminal Island Penitentiary. Kaufman obtained other tapes of the music and set to work, mastering the records and seeking a distributor.’
Charlie made the cover of Life
On 19 December, just four months after the murders, Life Magazine chose to feature Manson on their front cover, immediately immortalising the cult leader like some kind of rock star. ‘Another characteristic I’d noticed while observing Manson in court was his cockiness,’ declared Bugliosi on the defining attribute that would make Manson so appealing. ‘One possible reason was his new notoriety. At the beginning of December 1969 few had ever heard of Charles Manson. By the end of that month the killer had already upstaged his famous victims. An enthusiastic Family member was heard to brag, ‘Charlie made the cover of Life.’ But it was something more. You got the feeling that, despite his verbal utterances, Manson was convinced that he was going to beat the rap.’
And yet Manson would maintain that much of the story that the media had depicted as the truth was nothing more than fiction, particularly with regards to his involvement in the murders. ‘It’s a fairy tale, it’s worse than a fairy tale. It’s a comedy-tragedy,’ Manson claimed during an interview with 60 Minutes Australia in 1981. ‘You dealt the hand down there in L.A., you and that press dealt the hand, you put me on Life magazine, had me convicted before I walked in the courtroom. You had what people wanted to buy, when they wanted to buy it, they didn’t give a damn if they had to convict a district attorney, if they had to convict the whole building, to get that dollar bill going. They had big bucks going there. They made twenty-seven million, thousand, hundred billion. I’m bumming ten or fifteen dollars from my friend here…They said I had a great Family and I was the leader, there were no followers and leaders. A bunch of kids out at the ranch playing, to me. Playing at living.’
1969 was not only an important year in pop culture but also in American history. Under the newly-appointed President Richard Nixon the first US troops were withdrawn from Vietnam, the FBI declared war against the Black Panther Party and on 20 July astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first human to walk on the surface of the moon following the successful launch of Apollo 11. But all these significant moments in history were overshadowed in the autumn of 1969 by the bloody legacy that the Manson Family had left in their wake. Almost overnight the free love of the sixties was brought to a shocking conclusion when a group of outcasts from California’s counterculture butchered one of Hollywood’s rising stars. And in a bizarre twist of fate, in March 1970, barely six months after the murders, Charles Manson released his debut album.
Although there was an unprecedented hysteria that had grown around Manson and his devoted family, his newfound celebrity status would do little to promote interest in Lie: The Love and Terror Cult when it was unleashed upon the world on 6 March 1970 through a limited release. ‘Squeaky, Brenda (McCann) and a few of the girls held a press conference to launch the record,’ explained biographer Simon Wells in Coming Down Fast. ‘The presence of a film crew and a smattering of journalists did little to help propel the album up the charts. Finding suitable outlets for the disc was clearly going to be difficult, so a mail order scheme was devised. However, only a few leftist and fringe publications were prepared to take the advert. Regardless of the effort involved, initial sales only totalled a few hundred.’
Yet despite his dreams of becoming a famous musician he would instead achieve a level of infamy as the most notorious mass murderer of all time, something that would be continually perpetuated by popular culture for decades to come. ‘The media, film directors and book authors took a molehill and made it into a mountain,’ declared Manson on how he was transformed into the ultimate personification of evil. ‘The myth of Charles Manson has twisted more minds than I was ever accused of touching. Hell, in that book the D.A. got rich on, he’s got me so powerful that a look from me stopped his watch. In the movie, they had me making the hands of a clock spin by giving it a glance. The only way I ever stopped a watch is by stepping on it. Since the movie I’ve been staring at every clock I see. And you know what? As hard as I try, the clock neither stops nor spins. But all the bullshit had people believing I hold some kind of magic.’
While Manson had interpreted the music of the Beatles as a signal of a coming apocalypse, the artists responsible for those songs had mixed feelings about how someone could have felt so connected to their work. ‘I don’t know what I thought when it happened. A lot of the things he says are true: he is a child of the state, made by us and he took their children in when nobody else would,’ admitted John Lennon in an interview with Rolling Stone two years after the murders. ‘We also took seriously some parts of the role but I don’t know what Helter Skelter has to do with knifing somebody. I’ve never listened to the words properly, it was just a noise.’ For Paul McCartney, the one most responsible for Helter Skelter, the song was anything but a call for violence. ‘I was using the symbol of a helter skelter as a ride from the top to the bottom, the rise and fall of the Roman Empire,’ he explained in his biography Many Years from Now. ‘You could have thought of it as a rather cute title but it’s since taken on all sorts of ominous overtones because Manson picked it up as an anthem.’
By the dawn of the seventies Charles Manson had finally become a superstar and while his musical aspirations would eventually fall short, he is now as much a symbol of pop culture as Marilyn Monroe, Jim Morrison or the Beatles. Long before his death in 2017 at the age of eighty-three he had resigned to the fact that he would never see free skies again. But after a lifetime inside institutions perhaps this was where he felt most at home. ‘So for you people who are filled with the fear that I might someday be released, breathe easy. I don’t see it happening,’ he admitted in the mid-eighties. ‘And for you people who are victims of all the hype that portrays me as a charismatic cult leader, guru, lover, pied piper or another Jesus, I want you to know I’ve got everything in the world and beyond right here. My eyes are cameras. My mind is tuned to more television channels than exist in your world. And it suffers no censorship. Through it, I have a world and the universe as my own. So save your sympathy and know that only a body is in prison. At my will, I walk your streets and am right out there among you.’