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 was 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 and 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.’
One of Manson’s cellmates during this time was Phil Kaufman, who would gain notoriety a few years later when he stole the body of his close friend Gram Parsons and attempted to cremate the remains at Joshua Tree National Park. Much like Manson, Kaufman too shared a fondness for his time in prison. ‘I don’t recommend it as a panacea for people with inferiority complexes, but prison gave me a real insight into life,’ he told the Los Angeles Times in 1994. ‘It really woke me up. I came out a better person, not because of the penal system, but because I decided I wasn’t going to let it be a negative experience. I actually had some good times in prison.’
During their time together Kaufman regularly heard Manson playing his guitar in their cell and, having connections within the music industry, decided to approach his friend with a proposition. ‘I heard Charles sing and I was quite impressed with him,’ he explained to District Attorney Aaron Stovitz in January 1970. ‘He was singing a couple of originals but mostly Frankie Laine-type songs. So I got to know him in Terminal Island and when he was leaving I asked him to see a friend of mine in regards to recording. I, in turn, notified my friend in the recording business that this fellow would perhaps stop and see him.’
In the foreword for Marlin Marynick’s 2010 biography Charles Manson Now, Manson wrote, ‘When you’re raised up in a prison you learn all the tricks, and you figure out all the reasons why everything happens. You know the game better than they do…So, then they kick me out of prison. They say, ‘Your time is up, we gotta let you go.’ They can’t deal with me so that’s what they do. I’m not in a prison, that’s my home, man. ‘Get the hell out of here! We don’t want you in here no more because you’re fucking things up, because the kids are not looking up to us like we’re father now and they’re giving us trouble, and you’re causing trouble!’ You get to the point where people are destroying themselves; they would cut their own wrists, and you see them committing suicide, before they could accept the truth about themselves.’
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.
‘Mary Brunner is a bit of an enigma,’ claimed writer H. Allegra Lansing in the 2019 retrospective The Manson Family: More to the Story. ‘She has never divulged her own memories of that time or her understanding of the elements she helped to create, but Mary was a critical member of the Family, especially to the other women. She was older than most of them, and welcomed them into her life, her home, her bed and her heart. It is clear that she was intelligent, that she had values, dreams and ambitions, but like so many others, those values became twisted with each passing month beside Manson.’
Through the influence of Manson, Brunner soon abandoned her old life and embraced the liberation that he seemingly promised. ‘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.’
While not involved in the murders that would occur in 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 in 1975. 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 avant-garde film Lucifer Rising.
‘According to Anger, Beausoleil had stolen reels of Lucifer Rising at a celebrated San Francisco ritual/happening known as the Equinox of the Gods, celebrated on the Fall Equinox of 1967. The legend, perpetuated by Anger, maintains that Bobby buried the footage in the desert,’ detailed writer Nikolas Schreck in The Satanic Screen. ‘Beausoleil insists that these events never happened, and that he was simply being scapegoated by the notoriously vindictive – and imaginative – movie-making Magus. Beausoleil has also stated that Anger couldn’t afford the cost of getting what little footage actually existed from the developing lab, and concocted the accusation to appease creditors. Whatever the facts may be, Anger duly placed one of his famous curses on his protégé. When Beausoleil was convicted in 1969 for his complicity in one of the first of the Manson-related murders, Anger annouced that his curse had been efficacious.’
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 their leader.
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.’
Some authors have documented over the years how, despite Atkins’ devotion to their leader, there would often be conflict between the two. ‘Charlie frequently butted heads with Susan, whom he began calling Sadie Mae Glutz,’ stated Lansing. ‘Her nickname eventually morphed into Sexie Sadie, but that was not until he heard The White Album at the end of the year. Susan was a force of nature. She had a soft, childlike voice, but a fierce and stubborn will and for all he tried, Charlie never truly broke her. ‘Let me tell you something about Sadie,’ Charlie disclosed. ‘Sadie was always coming to me and saying, ‘Do you love me?’ And I’d say, ‘Do you love you?’ She would say, ‘Tell me you love me, do I look pretty?’ And I’d say, ‘Tell yourself you look pretty.”
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.’
Among the young women that would join Manson was nineteen-year-old Patricia Krenwinkel, known among the group as Katie. ‘As I started to go to school I never felt like I had fitted in, I never had that sense of belonging,’ she told the New York Times in 2014. ‘I stared losing contact with friends and I dropped out of college and I went to live with my sister. I was starting to drink, using marijuana and whatever my sister had around. I was killing for a way out. I found myself thinking there has to be more. I never ever developed a sense of who I was and where I was going and what I wanted to do…I wanted to please, I wanted to love, I wanted for the first time to feel safe. I wanted to feel like someone was going to care for me, because I hadn’t felt that from anywhere else in my life. And giving up and moving on with Manson was just basically throwing away the rest of my life.’
Much like the other lost souls who had willingly chosen to follow Manson on his spiritual journey, Krenwinkel longed for acceptance and a place to belong. ‘The Vietnam War was a major influence in the lives of Charlie’s followers,’ detailed Lansing. ‘Opposition to the war, including student and civilian protests, fuelled a desire for many Americans to opt out of any system – social, economic – that sent poor, and largely black, young men to fight and die overseas. Dropping out of society was de rigueur for many people, but dropping acid was another ‘fuck you’ to the powers-that-be, including the stodgy, controlling parents of these kids. In a 1994 interview, Pat elaborated on her drug use. ‘I was smoking a lot of marijuana, hash and had already used acid a couple of times. At that time, drinking and using drugs did not seem unusual, because I was doing it all with my high school friends.”
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.’
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. ‘When a date was set, Charlie and Lyn headed east on the Ventura Freeway to reach Universal City, the sprawling complex that housed Universal Pictures, MCA Records and countless other entertainment ventures,’ Jess Bravin documented in the biography Squeaky: The Life and Times of Lynette Alice Fromme. ‘Clearly, they were not the most important people in Universal City but perhaps they could open some doors.’
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. ‘It was Stromberg’s job to seek out potential talent and Kaufman wasn’t one to recommend too many people. If Kaufman saw something in this guy, he was worth auditioning,’ detailed Jeff Guinn in Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson. ‘Charlie took a little extra time cleaning up for their first meeting. He bathed and put on clean clothes but what Stromberg remembered most later on was that Charlie arrived barefoot…Charlie brought his guitar into the office with him, eager to talk about his music, but Stromberg was distracted by the way Mary, Lyn, Pat and Susan constantly watched Charlie, waiting for him to signal whatever it might be that he wanted them to do. What he wanted that day was for them to sit back and let him wow Stromberg with his songs.’
A delicate, unusually self-deprecating portrait
With his girls in place, Manson began to run through renditions of various songs he would perform for the Family. ‘From what can be gathered from the producer’s instructions, Charlie was scheduled to deliver his material over a two-hour period,’ explained biographer Simon Wells in Coming Down Fast. ‘While there is little that is overly commercial, collectively the tracks present some interesting themes. Manson’s singing is fairly competent throughout, but his guitar-playing transcends the predictable three-to-four chord sequences most singer-songwriters rely on. If there is one standout feature, it is the symbiotic rhythm that Manson simultaneously beats out on the strings, a furious percussion, born from years of busking. Lyrically, the bulk of the songs show Manson’s proclivity to revel in allegory and metaphor. However, one track offers an unambiguous and frank reflection of Charlie’s inner psyche during 1967. It is listed as My World and is a delicate, unusually self-deprecating portrait. Hard as it may seem to think of Manson as a sensitive soul, in the song he delivers a heartfelt summary of his suffering and remote positioning in society.’
Other writers would also deconstruct the themes represented in Manson’s recordings. ‘The lyrics of these songs suggest that Manson and his followers see themselves as being even outside of society to a greater extent than the hippies of the era,’ claimed James E. Perone in Music of the Counterculture Era. ‘None of the Manson demos hinted at the violence that was to come, but songs like People Say I’m No Good and Garbage Dump are eerily complete in their rejection of mainstream, white, middle classic society’s norms. The leitmotif of de-emphasis of individual egos was also central to Manson’s ability to put together a group of people willing to follow their leader’s every explicit or implicit command. The songs that Manson recorded feature musical influences ranging from raga rock to a blues-ish Bo Diddley-style, to folk revival textures and melodic shapes reminiscent of Phil Ochs, to a near-Grateful Dead style.’
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. ‘They just went in there improvising. He had nothing planned,’ recalled Stromberg decades later. ‘He started strumming and making up songs and it was wild and it was nuts. I was just listening in and laughing, I was having a good old time, listening to all this crazy stuff. But it was going on and I had no concern about the time or how much this was costing. It went on for a while and then into the studio Russ Reagan appears. And he peeks in and he sees this mayhem in the studio and he says, ‘What’s going on here?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know, they’re just doing what they’re here to do.”
It would be during this time that the man responsible for his first shot at a music career re-entered his life. ‘Manson’s jail friend Phil Kaufman was released from prison in March,’ stated Ed Sanders in The Family: The Story of Charles Manson’s Dune Buggy Attack Battalion. ‘Kaufman had a friend named Harold True who came out to Topanga to visit him in March 1968. Harold True lived in an opulent house located at 3267 Waverly Drive near the Silver City Lake area of Los Angeles. Next door to True’s house was a home owned by the family of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. Harold True met Manson and the Family through Kaufman. Before True moved out of his Waverly house in August 1968, Manson visited four or five times during the summer, sleeping over twice.’
Despite being rejected by Reagan, Manson’s luck seemed destined to change when two of his girls, 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. Spearheaded by the family’s patriarch, manager Murry Wilson, the Beach Boys were immediately thrust into the spotlight and transformed into teen pinups and world-renowned pop stars.
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.’
Although Wilson had been exposed to the temptations of the music industry from an early age, he had attempted to settle down by marrying his girlfriend Carole Freedman and adopting her infant son Scott. Together, the family had moved into their new home on Benedict Canyon Drive, but the turbulent relationship between Wilson and his new wife would cause their marriage to come to a premature end. ‘I was a lonely kid and was often reliant on my dad to keep me entertained,’ claimed Scott in his book Son of a Beach Boy: My Dad, Dennis Wilson. ‘Doris Day’s son, Terry Melcher, lived practically opposite our house, so dad and I often hung out with him.’
With the wealth he had accumulated from the band and following his split from Carole, Dennis Wilson had purchased a luxury home at 14400 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.’
Several members of the Family have since maintained that Manson knowingly manipulated those in his life through either hallucinogenic drugs or attractive girls, with Wilson becoming the latest to fall under his spell. ‘When people would come and he wanted power over them, he would offer them whatever women he had,’ revealed Krenwinkel. ‘And he had certain women he always put out front, which he called his front street girls; they were the ones that he thought were the most beautiful, the ones that would be the most enticing. And that’s what he would do. I mean, he was an excellent pimp.’ And in return for offering sex with these young woman, Manson in turn would exploit the situation to his full advantage.
As author Steven Gaines detailed in Heroes and Villains: The True Story of the Beach Boys, ‘Dennis’ self-styled brand of generosity was just what Charlie needed. Charlie helped himself to anything that belonged to Dennis: cars, clothing, money, food and a couple of gold records – the latter Charlie gave away as gifts. Yet, although they were living in high style, some aspects of the Family’s behaviour remained the same, such as their food-collection service. Despite the enormous deliveries to the house every day by the Alta Dena Dairy, of parcels including yogurts and ice cream and generous cash supplements from Dennis to buy food, Manson still sent the girls on nightly ‘food runs.’ On these scavenger hunts, the girls would pile into Dennis’ Rolls-Royce in the middle of the night and visit a selection of closed supermarkets, where they would search the garbage dumpsters for decaying food that were waiting to be picked up by private sanitation companies.’
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 a 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.’
For Love, who was somewhat apprehensive regarding his cousin’s new friend, he could understand why Wilson would be so seduced by the philosophies and lifestyle of the Family. ‘Manson knew how to nurture the grievances of new recruits, telling them that their father caused their problems,’ claimed Love in 2017. ‘This made sense to Dennis, who surely told Manson about the beatings he had received from Murry. Manson’s frustrations with the music industry and his diatribes about the injustices of the world dovetailed with Dennis’ own disappointments that his music skills were not taken more seriously and that society never really understood him. Manson was a racist and Dennis, while not outspoken or mean spirited, may have absorbed his father’s uncharitable view of black people. Finally, while Dennis had been drinking heavily for a number of years, he had also developed an appetite for drugs, including LSD and Manson’s blending of psychedelics, sexual servants, rock music and new-age rhetoric was too much for Dennis to resist.’
While Wilson was willing to serve as a patron to his new friend, many close to him would not share his enthusiasm. ‘Dennis’ estranged wife, Carole, had meanwhile noticed an extreme change in Dennis. He seemed to be continuously in a drug stupor, as though completely overwhelmed by his new friends,’ claimed Gaines. ”He invited me there a lot and I never went and I think the reason I didn’t go is because I knew what was going on,’ Carole said. ‘I didn’t want to walk around where there were naked girls and sex happening at all hours of the day and night and stuff like that.’ Carole had several conversations with Manson on the phone. ‘He would call and say, ‘Come on, we want you to be here,’ but she always made some excuse. Carole did, however, go to the house on a few occasions to pick up her children, Scott and Jennifer, who visited their father on the weekends. One weekend, Carole arrived at the house to discover that all the water had been drained from the California-shaped swimming pool and that there were several young girls sitting at the bottom of the empty pool with an elderly, white-haired man. After that, Carole never let the children go back to visit with Dennis.’
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’s dumb in some ways but I accept his approach and have learnt from him.’
There were moments, however, when Wilson’s uncertainty towards his friend became evident, and the insistence that Manson was a musical genius was perhaps overcompensation for the terror that was lurking at the back of his mind, hiding within his subconscious. ‘Fear is nothing but awareness,’ he claimed in an interview with Rave. ‘I was only frightened as a child because I did not understand fear, the dark, being lost, what was under the bed. It came from within. Sometimes the Wizard frightens me, Charles Manson, who is another friend of mine, who says he is God and the Devil. He sings, plays and writes poetry and may be another artist for Brother Records.’
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.’
Wilson was something of an enigma; a kind-hearted and humble soul who sought danger and revelled in the darkness within. ‘There was a magnetism about him, a charisma. He was unpretentious, charming and had a heart of gold,’ insisted his second wife Karen Lamm, whom he would divorce in the late seventies due to his penchant for womanising. But his love of women and excitement had become something of an obsession even before he crossed paths with Manson. ‘Dennis was at that point intrigued by the lifestyle of many women around him; free love was psychedelic, we were all new to it. It left us incredibly vulnerable, and it ultimately scared the hell out of him,’ added Lamm.
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 for 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.’
Love would not be the only member of the Beach Boys who found Manson intimidating. ‘One night when I thought everyone had left, I wandered into the studio,’ recalled Brian Wilson in his first autobiography Wouldn’t it be Nice: My Own Story. ‘Dennis was still there, working on a song he intended to sing with the Wizard. ‘What’s so great about this guy?’ I asked. ‘His power,’ Dennis said. ‘He’s so persuasive and full of power. And he’s got these girls who do whatever he says.’ ‘Why do you call him the Wizard?’ I asked. ‘Everyone does,’ said Dennis. ‘But what’s his name? His real name?’ ‘Charlie,’ Dennis smiled. ‘Charlie Manson.’ I liked the image of a Wizard, but everything I heard about Manson gave me the creeps.’
Certain members of the Family would later claim that Wilson had wanted to escape from the pressure of the Beach Boys and his celebrity life and join Manson in his commitment-free world. ‘Dennis wanted to live with us,’ insisted Sandra Good. ‘He was gonna just drop everything and come be with us, whether it was in a tent, or whatever. And his brothers basically said, ‘You know you’re bound by contract and if you renege we’re gonna have you committed. We’re gonna get psychiatric testimony that you’ve flipped your lid and so you’re a slave to this contract.’ And that was that…Dennis loved Charlie!’
While much of the time spent between the two new friends consisted of drug-taking and orgies, Wilson would try to assist in bringing the music of Charles Manson to the masses. ‘During this period, Dennis brought Manson and the girls to Brian’s home studio to producer a demo tape of some of Charlie’s tunes,’ explained Adam Gorightly in The Shadow Over Santa Susana. ‘When Manson arrived for his first session, he was totally unprepared. ‘He brought nothing,’ studio engineer Stephen Despar remembered, ‘except a half dozen girls and they stayed in the studio with him and smoked dope. I guess I got on Charlie’s good side, because the first thing that happened was he pulled out a cigarette and didn’t have a match, so I went to the kitchen and got a match for him. He was very impressed that someone would actually go to the trouble just for him. He made a big deal out of that.’ Eventually, though, Manson’s true nature manifested and Despar became uneasy.’
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 Guinn. ‘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.’
While Wilson would rarely agree to discuss Manson or the Family following their arrest in the autumn of 1969, another member of the Beach Boys, one who remained anonymous, revealed in an article published by Rolling Stone two years later, ‘I didn’t want nothing to do with Charlie. He was living with Dennis at the time. Dennis was just divorced; I suppose the lifestyle appealed to him. Perhaps I have more sexual inhibitions, moral strictures. I wasn’t into drugs at that point, which was Charlie’s way of conditioning his little friends, turning them into egoless entities. I wasn’t going for his pitch. Dennis ran up the largest gonorrhoea bill in history the time the whole family got the clap. He took them all to a Beverly Hills doctor; it took something like a thousand dollars in penicillin.’
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. ‘It began one night when I was driving out Sunset Boulevard toward the beach, heading home to Malibu. By then I’d sold my T-Bird and had an old 1935 Dodge pickup. Hitchhikers were pretty common on Sunset and I pulled over to pick one up,’ claimed Watkins in his 1978 memoir Will You Die For Me? ‘When he told me his name was Dennis Wilson it didn’t mean anything to me, but when he said he was one of the Beach Boys I was impressed. I remembered all those surfing songs banging out of my brother’s room back in Copeville and grinned to myself, wondering what he would think if he could see me now, with Dennis Wilson taking a ride in my truck and explaining how he’d wrecked his Ferrari and his Rolls Royce so was having to use his thumb.’
According to Watkins’ account, Wilson was driven back to his home in Pacific Palisades and as a show of appreciation he invited the stranger into his house to meet his friends. Having first been introduced to Reverend Moorehouse, whom he would eventually become close friends with, Watkins then came face-to-face with the head of the Family. ‘Charlie murmured in the background, something about love, finding love, letting yourself love,’ he continued. ‘I wanted the kind of love they talked about in the songs; the kind of love that didn’t ask you to be anything, didn’t judge what you were, didn’t set up any rules or regulations. The kind of love that just accepted you, let you be yourself, do your thing, whatever it was. The kind of love I seemed to be feeling right now, sitting around this coffee table getting zonked on some of the best hash I’d ever had, with a rock star and a fat old hippie and the little guy with the guitar who just kept singing softly, smiling to himself. It occurred to me that all the love in the room was coming from him, from his music.’
In My Life with Charles Manson, one of the many accounts he has penned on his time with the Family, Watkins expressed his own feelings towards Wilson. ‘He seemed to be easygoing, but his jovial exterior betrayed a subtle sense of agitation. Still in his early twenties, he’d been married, divorced, and was the father of a child,’ said Watkins in the 1979 memoir. ‘At the time, I viewed Dennis as an all-American middle-class surfer kid who suddenly made it rich and didn’t quite know how to handle it. He was a prime target for the Family. Charlie self-righteously played the role of Robin Hood, taking from the rich, namely Dennis, to give to the poor, namely Charlie. He really wanted to work on Dennis, made him feel guilty for possessing so much wealth, urged him to renounce it in exchange for a simple communal life based on love: Charlie’s love.’
Despite his own treatment of Wilson, Manson also cited Watson as a reason for the eventual 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.’
Regardless of the threat that Manson posed, for a time Wilson was determined to help his friend land his big break, but after months of drug-fuelled mayhem the atmosphere in the house began to change. ‘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,’ said Stebbins. ‘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.’
Following the gruesome events that would take place in the summer of 1969, Spahn Ranch soon became infamous as the sanctuary that Manson and his Family had chosen to remain detached from the world around them. ‘One summer day, owner George Spahn, seventy-nine-years-old and blind, heard the ranch hands talking about a school bus full of hippies camped in the woods nearby,’ wrote Lansing. ‘A few days later, he heard the sounds of singing from inside the rundown house where he lived. Then he heard a tap at the screen door. He got up and shuffled to the door, wearing his dark sunglasses and weather-beaten cowboy hat. The high-pitched voices of what sounded like teen girls told him they’d had car trouble and would it be okay if they crashed there for a few days? There was only a few of us, just a handful of kids, they told him. George wasn’t keen on strangers staying on his land, but if it were just a couple of nights, that’d be okay. The next morning he woke to the sound of weeds being clipped near his living room window, the scrapes of raking against the desert brush and rustle of tall grass. He shouted out the window for someone to tell him what was going on. The wranglers said there was a bunch of long-haired kids, girls and boys, clearing some of the brush, tidying things up.’
Manson may have been forced to relocate from Wilson’s home but he had not given up on his dream of breaking into the music industry. 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.’
Another contact that Manson would make during this time was Gregg Jakobson, a close friend of Wilson and occasional songwriter for the Beach Boys. ‘Jakobson lifted my spirits by saying, ‘Damn Charlie, it’s good to hear from you. I’ve been intending to get out to the desert and talk to you. Dennis and I been talking you up to some of the studios and there are a couple that are interested in hearing you play,” claimed Manson. ‘The ups began with Dennis’ return. He and Jakobson immediately came over and paid us a visit. After hearing us play, they were enthused about the new music and how far we had progressed.’
Following his exploitation of Wilson, Manson’s next target would be Terry Melcher. The son of screen icon Doris Day, his career began in the early sixties under the name Terry Day and minor success brought him to the attention of Columbia Records, where he helped to launch the career of the Byrds. 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.
‘Jakobson finally convinced Melcher to see Manson that spring, when Manson had moved back to the Spahn Ranch,’ wrote biographer Gaines. ”My idea,’ said Jakobson, ‘was for a film, not just a record. I said to Terry, ‘This guy should be captured on film. You’re never gonna capture this guy on tape.’ It’d be like having footage on Castro while he was still in the mountains or something. This guy was a real rebel; it had to be movie footage. This crazy guy with all his girls and music, but his music was visual, too. You had to see the guy sing his songs, not just hear him on a tape. I wanted to do a documentary, at least. It would be like a B-movie.”
For Melcher, the 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.’
While his attempts at landing his first break in the entertainment world had so far proved unsuccessful, Manson intended on remaining on good terms with Melcher and his other contacts. ‘More than anyone else, he had it in his hand to pick us up and put us in the music world,’ Manson explained. ‘As long as I was still trying to get into a music career, Melcher and Dennis and Jakobson were people I liked to be around. When things were really desperate out at the ranch and some money was needed, Melcher was a touch. For the prosecuting attorney to say I sent those kids after Melcher is total bullshit. Why would I? He gave me money, lent us his car and credit card. Melcher was alright and I had no bad feelings for him.’
Melcher has maintained, however, that despite his friendship with Manson, he never truly believed that he had the talents that would make him a star. ‘Unfortunately, the music was below-average nothing,’ claimed Melcher in his mother’s memoir Her Own Story. ‘As far as I was concerned, Manson was like every other starving, hippie songwriter who was then jamming Sunset Boulevard. A hundred thousand every day, who looked, dressed, talked and sang exactly like Charles Manson, sang about the same topics of peace and revolution, about the themes that were in the Beatles albums. They all wore the same Levis, boots and shirts, the same scruffy beards, Manson included and there wasn’t anything about him that gave any indication of the Manson who was going to shock the nation a year later.’
‘I recalled strange conversations I had had with Dennis Wilson,’ revealed John Phillips, formerly of the Mamas and the Papas, in his memoir Papa John. ‘‘This guy Charlie’s here with all these great-looking chicks,’ he told me once. ‘He plays a guitar and he’s a real wild guy. He has all these chicks hanging out like servants. You can come over and just fuck any of them you want. It’s a great party.’ Terry called me once or twice about the same guy and said he had some songs. He played me a tape once of his music and I wasn’t particularly impressed. Terry was apparently at one time considering giving the guy a break and producing a song but had rightly changed his mind. I never went out there. It sounded a little too crazy and cosmic for me…A guitarist friend of mine told me about a horrifying night he had spent out in the desert among a bunch of acid-crazed hippies who worshipped their leader. He had described the guru again as a wild-eyed hippie who had a beard and played guitar. ‘The guy tries to steal your soul,’ my friend told me.’
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.’
Despite Wilson having attempted to distance himself from the Family, on occasion Manson would reappear in his life, such as one incident when Wilson was with his group’s promoter Fred Vail. ‘One day, Fred was at the apartment talking with Dennis when a wild-looking Manson burst in, ordering Dennis to provide him with food and clothing,’ said Stebbins. ‘As Dennis sat by passively, Charlie cleaned out the refrigerator and then the clothes closet. When Vail asked, ‘Who is that creep?’ Dennis coolly replied, ‘Fred, you don’t even want to know.’
During his time in Los Angeles, in which he used the girls in the Family to attract the attention of industry figures, Manson formed 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 also recorded an album with 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.’
Many years later, during a 1986 interview with critic Bill Flanagan, Young was once again asked about his experience with Manson. ‘I met him through Dennis Wilson. He wanted to make records,’ he explained. ‘He wanted me to introduce him to Mo Ostin at Reprise. He had this kind of music that no one was doing. He would sit down with the guitar and start playing and make up stuff, different every time, it just kept coming out, coming out, coming out. Then he would stop and you would never hear that one again. Musically, I thought he was very unique. I thought he really had something crazy, something great. He was like a living poet. It was always coming out. He had a lot of girls around at the time and I thought, ‘Well, this guy has a lot of girlfriends.’ He was very intense. I met him two or three times…But I don’t know what happened. I don’t know what they got into. I remember there was a lot of energy whenever he was around. And he was different. You can tell he’s different. All you have to do is look at him. Once you’ve seen him you can never forget him.’
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.’
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.’
The sour ending to his time with Melcher would mark a turning point for Manson. ‘I hadn’t been hassling him for a few weeks but the recording date was still unfinished business and I had to have an answer on it. Melcher was friendly enough but beat around the bush about another recording date,’ Manson recalled. ‘My dream of the last ten years had gone the way of any dream when you wake up. Back to reality. I was the same grubby nothing whose mother dumped him on the state. Only this time there were no tears. If I had left Melcher’s feeling down and sorry for myself, by the time I got back to Spahn, the self-pity was pretty well shadowed by hate and contempt. Hate for a world that denied. Contempt for people who can’t see or understand.’
At the time he met Manson, Melcher shared a home with actress Candice Bergen 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.’
Watkins also recalled the Family’s introduction to the latest Beatles opus. ‘We went to Topanga Canyon Lane to see a friend, where we heard the Beatles‘ White Album for the first time,’ he said in 2003. ‘His interpretation of the album took off. I had already made up my mind to run away from him while in town, so I called a friend to come pick me up. I sneaked away for at least three months, but something drew me back. While I was away, he came up with the Helter Skelter philosophy. What drew me to him? It had everything to do with my own weakness. I think the world of psychiatry would call it codependency. In reality, I had needs that only God could meet. When I left Manson, it seemed like I was running away from the answer for my life, because Charlie seemed to know all my weaknesses and the things I needed to give up.’
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.’
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 their little trips’ and that ‘the people wouldn’t go on his trip.”
Following his incarceration, Manson would repeatedly deny that the Beatles or the White Album had a significant effect on him and that it was his younger followers that had become devoted to the group. ‘Let me tell you something, I am not a Beatles fan. I have never been a Beatles fan. I am a Bing Crosby fan. I am fifty-years-old, I am not a little kid. You see me in 1969 and you act like I was born in 1969. You think I am a generation of the sixties, but I am not. I am the generation of the forties and fifties,’ he insisted in a 1985 interview with High Society. ‘You’re at a party and someone is playing the White Album all the time. They say, ‘Boy, he sure does like the White Album,’ but you never played it. Everybody else liked it and played it. And everybody else had a thought about it and would ask me what I thought about it. Then I’d give my interpretation.’
Regardless of whether or not Manson was obsessed with the Beatles during the summer of 1969, the association that the Manson Family would have with the band and, in particular the song Helter Skelter, continued to haunt each member of the Beatles for decades to come. ‘Well, that put me off doing it forever,’ confessed Paul McCartney in a 2018 interview with NME. ‘I thought, I’m not doing Helter Skelter, you know, because it was too close to that event and immediately it would have seemed like I was, either I didn’t care about all the carnage that had gone on or whatever, so I kept away from it for a long time.’
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 the 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 sole 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.’ In one interview, when asked why Manson was not given credit for his contribution to Never Learn to Love, Wilson replied, ‘He didn’t want that. He wanted money instead. I gave him about a hundred thousand dollars worth of stuff.”
Despite the debate that would surround Wilson’s decision to rewrite one of Manson’s songs and release it without offering its original author credit, Manson maintained that he had composed the song as a tribute to his friend. ‘You know Cease to Exist, I wrote that for the Beach Boys,’ he told Rolling Stone the summer after his arrest. ‘They were fighting among themselves, so I wrote that song to bring them together. ‘Submission is a gift, give it to your brother.’ Dennis has true soul but his brothers couldn’t accept it. He would go over to Brian’s house and put his arms around his brothers and they would say, ‘Gee, Dennis, cut it out!’ You know, they could not accept it.’
While music had always played a major role in his life ever since he had first learned to play the guitar in prison, in a 1991 interview Manson reacted with hostility when journalist Ron Reagan Jr. attempted to play some of the recordings that he had made with Stromberg over twenty years earlier. ‘It’s never been my thought to be anything other than what I am,’ Manson insisted. ‘I went to Hollywood because people wanted me to go there. And they would tell me, ‘Come over and do this because we’ve got some acid, or go over there and do that because there’s some girls.’ And I would go and I would play but when it came down to it I wouldn’t feed through that. I just got out of one prison, why do I need to go through another? I’ve got all the money I could use. I’m a mafioso, I’m a Godfather. I don’t need no money, I don’t got a job. I’m not even trade; I don’t buy and sell things.’
But 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.’
Paul Watkins, another former member of the Family, cited Manson’s treatment by the music industry as a catalyst for the subsequent bloodshed. ‘Despite earlier frustrations, he had not given up trying to get our album recorded. We had spent hours making tapes and wanted to get them heard. But Charlie’s anger at Melcher hadn’t subsided,’ claimed Watkins. ‘I didn’t learn until later that he had finally gone to 10050 Cielo Drive looking for Melcher, only to learn that Melcher and his then girlfriend, Candice Bergen, had moved to Malibu. It was during this visit to Cielo Drive that Charlie met the owner of the house, Rudi Altobelli, who was then living in the rear cottage and who later told authorities of Charlie’s visit and that it was quite likely that, on his way in, had seen the occupants of the main house: Voytek Frykowski, Abigail Folger and Sharon Tate.’
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 the Richard Burton drama The Sandpiper. After making a suitable impression on its producer Martin Ransohoff, the two reunited the following year for Eye of the Devil. When Ransohoff joined forces with Polanski to work on The Fearless Vampire Killers, he suggested Tate as the female lead. ‘Martin Ransohoff had to sell Roman on the idea of even considering me,’ Tate had once confessed. ‘He arranged for the two of us to have dinner. Roman never said a word to me, we just sat there and ate and he just looked at me. Then we had a second dinner meeting and the same thing happened. Later he took me to his apartment. He lit some candles and then excused himself and left me standing there alone. A short while later he came storming into the room like a madman and he was wearing a Frankenstein mask. I let out a bloodcurdling scream and while I was still crying from the scare, he was calling Ransohoff to tell him that the part in the film was mine.’
Despite his initial reservations at casting Tate, by the time the shoot in London came to an end the two soon had fallen in love. ‘Sharon was more than just stunning to look at,’ declared Polanski in his 1984 memoir Roman. ‘She wasn’t naïve or stupid or a cliché starlet. Her background was conventionally middle-class but not without unusual features. Her father, an intelligence officer in the U.S. Army, had been stationed in Europe and she spoke Italian fluently. She’d won several beauty contests as a teenager and had always hankered after a career in films, despite her father’s fear that Hollywood might make her easy meat for predatory males, if not turn her into a high-class hooker. In the end, she simply hitched her way there and started making the rounds of the film and TV studios.’
Events soon took an unexpected turn, however, as by the end of 1968 Tate discovered that she was pregnant. ‘If truth be told, I was rather thrown by the news. A child seemed such a luxury, such an important event, that I felt it deserved the same careful planning as a film,’ claimed Polanski. ‘Terry Melcher, the young record impresario, was splitting up with Candice Bergen, so their rented house off Benedict Canyon was on the market. Sharon, who had always liked it, contacted the owner, Rudi Altobelli and we signed the lease on 12 February 1969.’ 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.
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 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.’
As the Family butchered each of their victims one-by-one, revelling in the bloodshed, one of the group attempted to escape. ‘Abigail Folger started to get herself undone and she took off,’ Krenwinkel told Diane Sawyer on 1994’s Turning Point. ‘And at that point in time I left and followed her. I ran after her with an upraised knife, we went out through the back door, I ran her down and I began to stab her. I remember her saying, ‘I’m already dead.” Folger, heiress to the Folgers coffee empire, had been accompanied that evening by her lover, Wojciech Frykowski and Tate’s former partner Jay Sebring, a professional hairstylist. Another victim would be claimed with Steven Parent, a friend of the property’s caretaker, who had been leaving the grounds when Watson opened fire on him.
Atkins, meanwhile, observed the chaos all around her with a demonic glee. ‘I saw Sharon Tate on the floor. Blood was all around her,’ she recalled. ‘I knelt beside Miss Tate and dipped the end of the towel into her blood. It was still warm. My mind began to race madly. I thought of her body. I had a strong urge to remove the baby, to save it. But I knew that was impossible. Then I pictured myself tasting her blood. I nearly threw up at the thought and a wave of disgust swept over me for even having the idea. I found myself looking at the woman. She was very pretty. I took the blood-dipped towel and went to the front door. On the bottom section, I wrote the word Pig. Then I threw the towel back into the room and left. To get out of the door, I had to step in blood with one foot, so I hopped on the other foot down to the grass and wiped my bare foot back and forth several times. I joined the others at the fence and we climbed over and walked quickly to the car.’
By the time Watson and his accomplices left the property five people lay dead, their bodies butchered and blood smeared on the 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.’
As well as the grief that he would feel following the news that his wife had been murdered, Polanski confessed that he had become overwhelmed with guilt. ‘To this day, I believe that had I been there when the gang of three women and one man climbed over the fence and broke in, Frykowski and I might have tackled them and, between us, driven them off. Frykowski’s multiple wounds showed that he must have put up a fierce struggle on his own,’ insisted Polanski fifteen years after the murders. ‘The thing that amazed me about the Manson Family was the extent to which it had been dominated and exploited by a single individual. Prior to the murders, I’d never thought of hippies as potentially dangerous. On the contrary, I’d found them an attractive social phenomenon, one that had influenced us all and affected our outlook on life. I’d also seen their movement as one more proof of American affluence. What other society in the world could have supported such a sizeable fringe of people who, though wholly unproductive, contrived to live relatively well? Clearly I’d underestimated the dangers latent in the hippie lifestyle, for which Sharon and I both had felt a certain admiration.’
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 regarding the night that Tate was murdered. 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.’
Although she would not participate in the murders, Kasabian would remain haunted by the events that took place on on 9 August 1969. ‘I once asked Linda what she thought about the apparently chance sequence of events which had brought her first to the Spahn movie ranch and then to the Sybil Brand Institute for Women on charges, later dropped, of murdering Sharon Tate,’ explained Joan Didion in her analysis The White Album. ”Everything was to teach me something,’ Linda said. Linda did not believe that chance was without pattern. Linda operated on what I later recognised as dice theory and so, during the years I am talking about, did I.’
According to Brian Wilson, soon after the murder of Tate, Manson reappeared in their lives. ‘Days after the bludgeoing, Manson appeared at Dennis’ house,’ he revealed in 1991. ‘When Dennis asked where he had been, the freaky Wizard replied, ‘I’ve been to the moon.’ Unnerved, Dennis wanted to distance himself from this strange man who’d become a nuisance, but it was difficult…In November 1969, Manson and a group of his disciples were arrested for the Tate-LaBianca murders. Apparently, Manson attempted to reach Dennis from the police station, calling his house. When Dennis’ friend wouldn’t accept the charges Manson screamed, ‘You’re going to be fucking sorry!’ Upon hearing the news, Dennis freaked and spent days piecing together all of his eerie run-ins with Manson. The last time I spoke to Dennis about the Wizard, he had few words.’
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.’
Polanski, too, would speak out about the speculations and insinuations that were made by both the media and general public following the murder of his wife and friends. ‘I despise the press tremendously for its inaccuracy, for its irresponsibilty and for its often even deliberate cruelty. And all this is for lucrative purposes,’ he explained to chat show host Dick Cavett in December 1971. ‘This is part of human nature. I mean, I was accused of being one of the accomplices. Even people who I thought were well-willing. But it was like a great psychoanalysis; I could see that everybody saw it from his angle, his point-of-view and looking for the culprits in the area which would be somehow related to the way he was thinking.’
Fifty years after the death of Tate, Polanski commented again on how the media chose to cover the events. ‘When it happened, even though I was already going through a terrible time, the press got hold of the tragedy and, unsure of how to deal with it, covered it in the most despicable way, implying, among other things, that I was one of the people responsible for her murder, against a background of Satanism,’ he told Indie Wire in 2019. ‘For the press, my film Rosemary’s Baby proved that I was in league with the Devil! It lasted several months, until the police finally found the real killers, Charles Manson and his Family. All this still haunts me today.’
The horrific details of the crimes and its impact on the free love mentality of the late sixties shook America and in particular Los Angeles to its very core. ‘All of us who were friendly with Roman and Sharon were saddened and stunned beyond words. It was impossible not to be haunted by the agony and horror of the doomed victims’ last desperate moments at the hands of their demented killers. My heart broke for Roman,’ confessed John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas in 1986. ‘In the midst of the wave of paranoia, the Woodstock Nation was born in upstate New York, three thousand miles away. It was Monterey all over, but this time with half a million people. I had had no interest in working with the producers. At Woodstock, kids were blissing out on drugs and rock for three days. I knew that we had helped pave the way for Woodstock, but it seemed to be a long way off now. In L.A., the savagery of the killings had become a morbid obsession. The sixties’ myth of peace, harmony and free love had been shattered by a blood-soaked orgy of murder and mutilation.’
For Melcher, who only a few months earlier had resided at the house that had been the site of these brutal murders, he maintained that he had never given Manson any cause to turn violent throughout their brief association. ‘Susan Akins, one of the murderers, had told her attorney on tape, ‘The reason Charlie picked that house was to instill fear into Terry Melcher, because Terry had given us his word on a few things and never came through with them.’ I have no idea to what she was referring,’ he insisted in 1975. ‘I made no representations to them about anything. But facts and logic don’t mean much when you’re dealing with minds like this…It didn’t mean much, as far as retaliantion was concerned, that Manson and four of his followers, who slaughtered Sharon Tate and others, were in jail. Manson had a legion of devoted henchmen who were at large. And they were totally capable of carrying out their leader’s wishes wherever he was. During the trial, one of the defence attorneys, Ronald Hughes, who had fallen out of favour with Manson, confided to friends that he was in mortal fear of Manson. He mysteriously disappeared during the trial, turned up as a corpse.’
As the truth surrounding Manson was unearthed, several of his former accomplices found themselves under interrogation. ‘Returning home from a Beach Boys tour in November, Dennis was immediately taken in by the police for questioning. They finally had Manson and his followers in custody ands were attempting to unravel their twisted actions,’ wrote Stebbins. ‘Dennis gave the district attorney little information, and when it became apparent that he would be only mildly cooperative, the police went looking for what they needed elsewhere. The D.A. did tell the badly shaken Beach Boy to keep his doors locked, because some of Manson’s cult remained at large. The warning was unnecessary. Dennis had been reluctant to assist the police for one very compelling reason: he and his family had already been threatened by Manson.’
It would not be long before the media began to make associations between the crimes of the Manson Family and the music of the Beatles. And while the likelihood that the group’s music had inspired the murders has been routinely dismissed, songs such as Helter Skelter and Piggies have remained forever tarnished by the blood that was spilt on that fateful night. ‘It was upsetting. I mean, I knew Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate and – God! – it was a rough time,’ confessed Beatles drummer Ringo Starr in 2000. ‘It stopped everyone in their tracks because suddenly all this violence came out in the midst of all this love and peace and psychedelia. It was pretty miserable actually and everyone got really insecure; not just us, not just the rockers, but everyone in L.A. felt, ‘Oh God, it can happen to anybody.’ Thank God they caught the bugger.’
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.’
In 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 and the 1969 killing of thirty-five year old stuntman Donald Shea. ‘Monday, 29 March 1971, the jury returned to the courtroom with their verdicts,’ chronicled Michael White in Crucified: The Railroading of Charles Manson. ‘The court clerk, with verdicts in hand, commenced to read, ‘We, the jury in the above-entitled action, having found Charles Manson guilty of murder in the first degree as charged in Count 1 of the Indictment, do now fix the penalty as death.’ A sense of relief engrosses the country at the announcement that ‘the most dangerous man in the world’ will be put to death in the manner prescribed by the State of California.’
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. ‘Charles Manson’s criminal record until the time of the Tate-LaBianica murders was not filled with violence,’ White would claim. ‘They were mainly economic crimes. Crimes that provided necessities. The background of Charles Manson was actually strongly influenced by love. He was guilty of giving value to young girls that were in need of validation that they had been deprived. A validation that all people need. This validation or nurturing is as essential to life as food and water. A validation that Charles Manson had been denied all his life.’ And yet despite his incarceration, Manson’ passion for music was as strong as ever, as was his influence over his followers.
‘These children that came at you with knives, they are your children. You taught them, I didn’t teach them. I just tried to help them stand up,’ declared Manson in a statement addressed to the court during his 1970 trial. ‘Most of the people at the ranch that you call the Family were just people that you did not want, people that were alongside the road, that their parents had kicked out, or they did not want to go to Juvenile Hall, so I did the best I could and I took them up on my garbage dump and I told them this: that in love there is no wrong. It is not my responsibility. It is your responsibility. It is the responsibility you have toward your own children who you are neglecting and then you want to put the blame on me again and again and again.’ Yet despite his insistence that he had played no part in instigating the murders, by the time the trial had come to a conclusion he had become a legend.
‘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 also 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 sizeable 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 manipulated 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.’
Despite her role in the death of Tate and her friends, Krenwinkel would eventually express remorse for her actions. ‘By the time I was on trial, by the time I was facing those charges, I just accepted everything that I had been told and I gave up every little bit of me to that man, who demanded every little bit of me. I didn’t realise that I gave up the person that I could have been,’ she claimed forty-five-years-later. ‘At twenty-three I ended up on death row, I was in a cell twenty-three hours a day and it was, I think, at that point more than ever that all of a sudden, having been on death row and away from any influence of him, that I was going to have to make the decision of my life and I would have to say that everything that I have ever believed was now wrong. To do that was going to be the most difficult thing I had ever done, because I would now have to be fully responsible for the damage, the wreckage and the horror. It is countless how many lives were shattered by the path of destruction that I was a part of and it all comes from such a simple thing as wanting to be loved.’
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.’
Other sources would claim that Wilson was the one responsible for Manson’s recordings having disappeared and not the authorities, leaving the fate of the studio masters uncertain. ‘Dennis would later claim that he had destroyed the Manson demo tapes, that he remembered almost nothing of his time with Charlie and the Family, and that he certainly knew nothing about the Tate-LaBianca murders,’ wrote author David McGowan in Weird Scenes Inside the Canyon. ‘At some point in time though, Wilson had a change of heart and decided that maybe he did indeed know a little something about the murders. ‘I know why Charles Manson did what he did,’ said Dennis. ‘Someday, I’ll tell there world. I’ll write a book and explain why he did it.’ That book, however, was never written and Wilson’s story, if indeed he had one, was never told.’
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.’
While both the public and the media had accepted Manson as a killer, there were some who refused to believe that he was guilty, at least in the way he had been depicted. ‘I don’t think Manson ever did physically murder anyone,’ claimed Kaufman in his book Road Mangler Deluxe. ‘He planted the seeds and other people did it. I looked after some of the girls after Charlie’s arrest because I didn’t think any of them were guilty. When I looked at the papers and read the names of the perpetrators and their accomplices, I realised that I’d had sex with every one of those murderesses.’ When asked years later whether he believed Manson could have become a popular musical artist Kaufman replied, ‘His only selling point is because of what he did, what he allegedly did. He wanted a recording contract, mostly so he could get his music out, so people would be following him. I don’t think he was concerned about big touring.’
As long as I live, I’ll never talk about that
For Dennis Wilson, the man who had once championed the musical genius of Charles Manson, when the murders were first revealed to the world, the Beach Boys star withdrew from the media, refusing to discuss his former friendship with the convicted killer. Even when asked about his association with Manson in a 1976 interview with Rolling Stone, Wilson merely replied, ‘As long as I live, I’ll never talk about that. I don’t know anything, you know? If I did, I would’ve been up on that witness stand.’ Whether or not it was due to his ties to a figure as notorious as Manson or merely the changing of the times, the seventies marked a notable decline in popularity for the band. While their 1975 effort 15 Big Ones would achieve gold status, it would prove to be their last successful record outside of the endless reissue of compilations. And on 28 December 1983 Wilson’s life was tragically cut short. ‘Dennis Wilson, the drummer for the Beach Boys, whose surfing sound helped define an era in the sixties for millions of young Americans,’ announced the New York Times, ‘drowned today not far from the beaches where he became famous.’
The revelation that a member of the Beach Boys could have associated with the mastermind behind the brutal murder of Sharon Tate held a fascination for both the public and the media. ‘The contrast between innocence and evil so vividly captured in the Beach Boys/Manson connection was just too intriguing to be left alone,’ declared Wilson biographer Jon Stebbins. ”Dennis just wanted to put it behind him,’ says Fred Vail, but a story that sensational was destined to take on a life of its own. Today, a certain strata of youth culture has actually embraced Manson as a kind of psychotic antihero, the ultimate horror movie villain; but even better, because Manson was the real thing.’
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 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.’
While he may have remained incarcerated for over a decade, Manson enjoyed a new level of infamy during the eighties as his bootleg recordings began to circulate among curious listeners. Around this time Manson reached out to a young rising singer whose work with punk icons Black Flag had transformed him into something of a cult icon. ‘He wrote me a letter out of the blue once and he said, ‘I saw you on MTV and I thought you were pretty cool,” revealed Henry Rollins during an interview with NME in 2008. ‘So we corresponded a few times in 1984; I’d just tell him about what we were doing with our new record and he’d send back semi-lucid responses. He made references to the Beach Boys stealing his ideas, which sounded like sour grapes, and told me to tell everybody else to take care of wildlife. That must have been the old hippie in him talking. At the time I was very young and having him write me letters made me feel very intense and heavy. I’d always know I’d have a letter in my P.O. Box from him because the woman behind the counter at the post office would give you this awful look. His letters would always have swastikas on them so they were easy to spot.’
Rollins would then be commissioned to edit together a new album of Manson material for SST Records, one of the few labels that were willing to even entertain the notion of releasing music from a convicted killer. ‘A second album of material was recorded secretly by Manson within his cell at Vacaville in the early eighties, in between the flushing of jail latrines, blaring daytime television and the gurglings of a prisoner strangling himself in an adjacent cell,’ explained author Nikolas Schreck. ‘Due to strict and apparently arbitrary prison restrictions, the recordings were smuggled out of the penitentiary. Though scheduled to be released by SST Records, the project was cancelled due to a series of death threats against the Boston lawyer David Grossack, who represented Manson and his agent. After this event, Manson was transferred back to San Quentin from the comparatively benign Vacaville. Available on bootleg records, this second album, known as Charlie Manson’s Good Time Gospel Hour or Completion, contains the incantatory autobiographical song Fire, which chants and burns with shamanic fury.’
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.’
Many years later, fellow Beatle George Harrison, whose song Piggies had been referencing in the blood that was scrawled across Tate’s front door, expressed contempt for being associated with someone such as Charles Manson. ‘Everybody was getting on the Beatles bandwagon. The police and the promoters and the Lord Mayors; and the murderers, too,’ he explained in The Beatles Anthology. ‘The Beatles were topical and they were the main thing that was written about in the world, so everybody attached themselves to us, whether it was our fault or not. It was upsetting to be associated with something so sleazy as Charles Manson. Another thing I found offensive was that Manson suddenly portrayed the long hair, beard and moustache kind of image, as well as that of a murderer. Up until then, the long hair and the beard were more to do with not having your hair cut and not having a shave; a case of just being a scruff or something.’
For Polanski, whose world was torn apart the moment Sharon Tate and her unborn child were brutally slain by members of the Manson Family, he believed that Manson’s failed music career had been the catalyst for the subsequent bloodbath. ‘My own feeling was that the murders might not have been as motiveless as they seemed,’ proposed Polanski in 1984. ‘Manson’s rage was that of the spurned performer; one who seeks revenge on others for his own lack of talent and recognition. Bitterness and frustration were his probable motives for sending a raiding party to what he still thought of as Terry Melcher’s house: to get his own back on someone who had declined to cut a record of his mediocre compositions.’
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.’