The song Neil Young wrote about the infamous murderer Charles Manson
Neil Young and Charles Manson have a bizarrely intertwined history. The two men once shared a jam session at a time when Manson was an up and coming talent, one that had started to make waves in California and caught Young’s attention. Their paths then diverted, as Young became one of the most revered artists on the planet and Manson became the world’s most notorious cult leader. Manson would then later become the muse for Young’s track, ‘Revolution Blues’.
Manson was infamously the mastermind behind the Tate–LaBianca murders—of which Quentin Tarantino based his wildly successful film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood on—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 her life ended on Manson’s demand.
Prior to this moment, the cult leader had started to make a name for himself in Los Angeles and built up connections across the music industry. A career break would come when Manson struck up a friendship with Beach Boys member and co-founder Dennis Wilson who regularly invited Manson into his home—a hangout spot that Neil Young would 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.
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 men were brought together through mutual friend Dennis Wilson, an ally 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.'”
In a 1985 interview with NME, Young praisingly said: “I can see these things in other people. You can see it and feel it. Manson would sing a song and just make it up as he went along, for three or four minutes, and he never would repeat one word, and it all made perfect sense, and it shook you up to listen to it. It was so good that it scared you.”
Neil Young recalled the time he spent mixing with the Manson Family to The Observer Music Monthly October 2008: “Spooky times. I knew Charlie Manson. A few people were at this house on Sunset Boulevard, and the people were different. I didn’t know what it was; I was meeting them, and he was not a happy guy, but he seemed to have a hold on girls. It was the ugly side of the Maharishi. You know, there’s one side of the light, nice flowers and white robes and everything, and then there’s something that looks a lot like it but just isn’t it at all.”
The track ‘Revolution Blues’ appeared on his 1974 album, On The Beach, rather than being a scathing song about the hideous acts that Manson demanded his followers carry out on his behalf — it is written from the perspective of the cult leader. The track does paint Manson in an evil light, but, it also humanises his actions with the lines: “But I’m still not happy, I feel like there’s something wrong, I got the revolution blues, I see bloody fountains.”
‘Revolution Blues’ isn’t a cartoonish caricature of a villain. Instead Young tries to tell a nuanced tale that explains why the cult leader carries out the heinous activities he does and how it’s all an attempt to make him feel something, rather than having a divine inclination to be evil.