In one of the most unusual crossings of paths in rock music and likely in popular culture history, Neil Young semi-regularly encountered the infamous criminal and crazed cult leader Charles Manson.
The singer-songwriter met with the infamous figure as the soon-to-be-incarcerated Manson was trying to become a singer himself. Inspired by the blooming of the counter-culture, Manson was obsessed with becoming a pop star and, according to Neil Young, he may have had a shot at it.
Manson, who formed what became known as the ‘Manson Family’, was convicted of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder when his followers committed a string of nine killings at four locations in July and August 1969. The most well documented, of course, is the Tate–LaBianca murders which resulted in the tragic deaths of six people.
The Tate–LaBianca murders—of which Quentin Tarantino based his wildly successful film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood on—was a mass murder conducted by members of the Manson Family in 1969. Four members of the ‘family’ broke into the home of actress Sharon Tate and husband Roman Polanski and brutally murdered Tate and her three friends who were visiting at the time. Tate was also eight-and-a-half months pregnant when she was slain.
Polanski, at the time of the murders, was not at the house and instead was away working on a film in Europe, avoiding the massacre.
While Manson’s name became internationally famous after the Tate–LaBianca murders, he was well known on the outer-edges of music celebrity as a distinctive songwriter, even just weeks before the crimes were committed, he was seemingly a simple singer named Charlie.
A self-confessed super fan of The Beatles, Manson was said to have become obsessed by the band’s 1968 record known as the White Album—a factor which was later referenced in the murder trial as a trigger for the killings. Manson would even refer to his theory on how to incite a race war as the ‘Helter Skelter’ scenario.
Given his fandom of popular music, which was as intense as most things in his life, Manson became hooked on the idea of becoming a beloved professional musician. While his talent had resulted in him being recognised in some circles around Los Angeles and the powerful music scene that was bubbling away, it was Manson’s closest affinity to certain stars that had given him some attention.
In particular, Manson’s connection with the music industry came through the Beach Boys member and co-founder Dennis Wilson who regularly invited Manson into his home—a hangout spot that Neil Young would also often find himself in.
The result, somewhat bizarrely, meant that Young had not only been in the same room as Manson but jammed with the killer, helped write new music, gifted him a motorcycle and even tried to help the future murderer secure a professional record deal. It’s an eye-opening revelation.
In Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography, the brushes the musician had with Manson are noted: “At some point in 1968 he encountered Charles Manson a few times (curiously, Young and Manson share a November 12 birthdate). The two were introduced by Dennis Wilson, a friend of Young’s since the Beach Boyos tours. Manson lusted after a recording career. ‘Helter Skelter’ was months away.”
“This meeting of the minds provided much fodder for interviews, with Young telling journalist Nick Kent that Manson was ‘great, he was unreal… I mean, if he had a band like Dylan had on Subterranean Homesick Blues…'”
Young recalled the times he spent with Charles Manson: “We just hung out. He played some songs for me, sittin’ in Will Rogers’s old house, on Sunset Boulevard. Dennis had the house there, and I visited Dennis a couple of times… Charlie was always there. I think I met him maybe two, three times. Spent the afternoon with him, Dennis and all those girls—Linda Kasabian, Squeaky Fromme.
“The girls. They only paid attention to Charlie. Dennis and I felt like they weren’t there, okay? Now that may not seem that unusual, but—it is. Because both Dennis and I were known. These girls couldn’t see us.”
Young added an extra exclamation point to his feelings on Manson: “He was an angry man. But Brilliant. Wrong, but stone-brilliant. He sounds like Dylan when he talks.”
In quite possibly the biggest understatement about Manson you’ll hear, Young later added: “He seemed a little uptight, a little too intense. Frustrated artist. Spent a lot of time in jail. Frustrated songwriter, singer. Made up songs as he went along, new stuff all the time, no two songs were the same. I remember playin’ a little guitar while he was makin’ up songs. Strong will, that guy.”
“He’s like one of the main movers and shakers of time—when you look back at Jesus and all these people, Charlie was like that. But he was kind of… skewed. You can tell by reading his words. He’s real smart. He’s very deceptive, though. Tricky. Confuses you.”
Young, it turned out, was suitably impressed by Manson’s creative songwriting ability and saw the success that a captivating persona could have. So much so, that Young even went the extra mile to help him attempt to secure a record deal. “I told Mo Ostin about him, Warner Brothers—’This guy is unbelievable’—he makes up the songs as he goes along, and they’re all good.”
Young added: “Never got any further than that. Never got a demo.”
Manson, speaking in 1995 from his prison cell in California, told an interviewer that at the time of breaking into the music industry the people around him “didn’t give me shit” apart from Neil Young, that is, who curiously and perhaps a bit randomly gifted Manson a motorcycle.
After being informed of Manson’s interview, Young replied: “Charlie remembers me too, huh? Everybody else ripped him off, I gave him a motorcycle. I turn out to be a good guy.”
Young would later write the song ‘Revolution Blues’ inspired by Manson. Stream that song, and more of Manson’s material, below.