Charles Manson, one of the most infamous serial killers in history, haunted the popular culture since 1969 when he mobilised his cult followers to commit a series of gruesome murders in the hope to trigger a racial war that he had anticipated. Equipped with charm and the power of manipulation, Manson not only harnessed the wind of freedom and liberty that was storming through the West during the 1960s, but steered it in another direction.
Although his cult operated on the three tenets of drug, sex and music, which were rooted in the hippie culture, their use was strikingly different and far from innocent. Rather than using them as “instruments of change,” he turned them into “weapons of destruction.” While there have been in-depth discussions about the lethal use of drugs and sex, people have largely overlooked music’s role in Mason’s case study.
Spending most of his youth in prison, Manson walked into the brimming music scene of Los Angeles in the late 1960s after getting bail. The fast and glamorous life of the rock stars roused Manson’s dormant desire to be popular. During his serving time in the federal prison for numerous offences, Manson had learned to play the guitar from Alvin (Creepy) Karpis, a member of a Depression-era gang that Ma Barker ran. As soon as he got the license to walk free, Manson started frequenting studios, labels and clubs along the Sunset Boulevard, nurturing the dream of being a folk-rock artist, desperate to get attention. Interestingly, the Manson family’s core members also comprised two ex-musicians, namely Charles ‘Tex’ Watson and Robert Beausoleil.
The closest Manson came to fulfilling his “rock star dream” was when he lodged with the charming Beach Boy Dennis Wilson just a year before the family went on a murder spree. Wilson introduced him to the celebrated singer-songwriter, Neil Young. “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 comin’ out, comin’ out, comin’ out. Then he would stop, and you would never hear that one again,” recalled Young in a 1986 interview.
Young added: “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.” However, this encounter didn’t materialise into a record deal—something that supposedly infuriated Manson and turned him even more neurotic.
A troubled soul, Wilson sought temporary solace in the enigmatic Charles, thrilling himself with the meaningless pleasures. As Wilson’s cousin and bandmate Mike Love, who visited their dinner parties, recalled: “We were the only ones with clothes on.” These gatherings typically ended up being the hub of a large amount of drug consumption and open orgies which made Love feel out of the place and “quite unusual.”
By the time Manson’s effect on Wilson waned, Wilson was left distraught both financially and mentally. Moreover, when the Beach Boys released ‘Never Learn Not to Love’, Wilson started to get death threats from the Manson family even though he put himself at a safe distance from the cult by that time. ‘Never Learn Not To Love’ was a restructured form of ‘Cease To Exist’, which Manson made with Wilson and other musicians during their days of friendship. Naturally, Manson was furious when the band didn’t credit him for his work and changed a few precious lines such as “Submission is a gift/ Go on give it to your brother/ Love and understanding/ Is for one another.” As revenge, the family stole Wilson’s gold records and damaged his Mercedes, losing $100,000 for the Beach Boys in the process.
Rock music also influenced Manson’s vision of an apocalyptic race war that he preached to his followers. He borrowed the term “Helter Skelter” from The Beatles track in the White Album to describe the sweeping execution that he orchestrated in 1969. After killing Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, follower Patricia Krenwinkel scribbled the phrase on the house’s wall. At the same time, another follower Susan Atkins scrawled “pigs” on actress Sharon Tate’s door, possibly referring to a track in the Beatles’ 1969 album.
After the series of murders, Manson found himself to be a celebrity in a twisted way. He made sure to capitalise on this popularity and thus released two albums from the prison. The first among them was Lie: The Love And Terror Cult that contained 14 originals by Manson. Although some of the tracks were covered by bands like Lemonheads and Guns N’ Roses, only 300 copies of the album out of 2000 sold, once again pushing Manson towards failure.
Manson didn’t get to enjoy a rock star’s life directly, but his notorious legacy lived on through other’s music. Neil Young’s ‘Revolution Blues’, Sonic Youth’s ‘Death Valley 69’ and Ozzy Osbourne’s ‘Bloodbath in Paradise’ all refer to Manson’s cult. The UK rock band Kasabian even borrowed the name from Manson’s groupie Linda Kasabian.
In an interview conducted by the Rolling Stone reporters David Felton and David Dalton, a few months after the Manson family mass murder, Manson said, “Kids respond to music. They can hear it; they’re not so conditioned they can’t feel it. Music seldom gets to grownups. It gets through to the young mind that’s still open.” Manson’s words do not tally with his actions.
As we know, his musical pursuits were not so much driven by the power and appeal of music but by his thirst for luxury, attention and fame. Hence, the quote makes us confused and unsure about his stance. The one thing we are sure about is the vulnerability of a rock star that exhibits some very problematic symptoms. Manson’s failure to be one highlights those disturbing aspects by showing what happens when the idea of a rock star is taken to an extreme. It reemphasises the urgent need of giving the idea a new definition.