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1969 remains a landmark year in American 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 the 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 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 almost 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 been incarcerated for the first five years of his sentence, having been taken under the wing of a gangster called Alvin Karpis, who taught Manson the basics of playing guitar. Despite the age difference, with veteran criminal Karpis thirty years older than his new friend, the two became almost inseparable during their time together.
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 Neul 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 movements, both of which were broadcast on the news in all their uncensored horror, San Francisco 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 the 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.
‘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 on campus 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 spell, Manson would become less an observer and more an instigator as he discovered the spell he could cast over other young men and women who felt lost and disillusioned with their lives.
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 Manson’s ever-growing family whom the former convict had seduced with the help of LSD; Lynette Fromme, an eighteen-year-old runaway desperate for a father figure; and Bobby Beausoleil, who had escaped from a respectable family home in Santa Barbara in search of excitement. His musical talents had soon made him popular among the locals of the San Francisco music scene, first as a member of the experimental troupe the Outfit.
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, however, Beausoleil has been reluctant to admit that Manson had any kind of influence over him, despite Beausoleil’s 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 Brunner and two other key players, Susan Atkins and Charles ‘Tex’ Watson, he would still be willing to take a life to appease Manson.
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 several years later. But in 1968 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 her and asked what was wrong. Introducing himself as the Gardener, as he tends ‘to all the flower children,’ Manson offered a non-judgemental shoulder to cry on and son Fromme joined his growing entourage as they travelled across California in search of meaning.
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 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. 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 sears 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 Krenwinkel and Ella Jo Bailey, were hitchhiking 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 1960s 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.
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 afterwards he never expected to see them 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 woman, 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.
During his session with Stromberg he had succeeded in recording many of his original compositions that had included Look At Your Game, Girl – perhaps one of his most famous songs – Devil Man, Sick City and My World, the latter later reworked by Guns N’ Roses for their 1991 album Use Your Illusion II. They would not be the only band to reference Manson in their songs, however, as Marilyn Manson‘s 1994 track My Monkey from the band’s debut album would include portions of Manson’s Mechanical Man, while British goth metal group Paradise Lost claimed that they were forced to pay the families of Manson’s victims in order to use a sample from an interview in their 1995 song Forever Failure.
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 had 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.
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.
‘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 would be during their time at Wilson’s house that Manson would make 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. A few weeks later he couldn’t pay his rent and was facing eviction and Dennis allowed him to move into the mansion,’ he claimed. ‘The guy was such a freeloader that pretty soon even the big heart of Dennis sent him packing.’
While he had been willing to distance himself from Manson without helping to launch his music career, Wilson would take with him one of Manson’s compositions called Cease to Exist which, after reworking it into a new song called Never Learn Not to Love, which was released on the band’s 1969 album 20/20. Furthermore, Wilson would be credited as the sole writer of the song, despite retaining the general melody and many of the lyrics from Manson’s version. Suddenly one of his songs was on a hit album but Manson’s own career had remained stalled.
His 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 1960s 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.
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 a book on the Family by prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi was entitled Helter Skelter, the name of a song from 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’ on the wall in blood after the first murders, believed to be a reference to the Beatles song Piggies.
‘Two or three of those who loved 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. The group 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 later 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.
Manson had instructed Watson to lead a small group to Melcher’s former home on Cielo Drive and so, dressed all in black, Watson left the ranch with Atkins, Krenwinkel and another member of the Family, Linda 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 walls. Twenty-six-year-old Tate was eight months pregnant. The following night a middle-aged couple were murdered across town, also victims of the Manson Family. Upon discovering the gruesome crimes the authorities were understandably shocked yet without leads, but over the coming weeks evidence was discovered that no only linked the two crimes but also the murder of Hinman at the hands of Beausoleil the previous month. By the time Manson and the remaining perpetrators were apprehended, the Family had become the story of legend.
‘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.’
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 Gary Hinman two years earlier 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.
‘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.’
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 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 fall of 1969 by the bloody legacy that the Manson Family had left in their wake. And in a bizarre twist of fate, in March 1970, barely six months after the murders, Charles Manson released his debut album.