Matt Smith and Sosie Bacon in a still from 2018’s “Charlie Says,” directed by Mary Harron.
“Kids respond to music,” Charles Manson told the Rolling Stone reporters David Dalton and David Felton in a famous interview conducted a few months after the horrifying Manson Family murders, on August 8 and 9, 1969. “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.” Amid a wave of renewed interest in Manson, prompted by the fiftieth anniversary of his crimes and Quentin Tarantino’s film “Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood,” many still wonder how a scruffy, charismatic grifter who spent half his life in prison managed to attract dozens of followers, most of them young women, eager to do his psychopathic bidding. Manson had three primary lures: LSD, sex, and music. But music, and its power to unite a community of outsiders and misfits, remains the least-examined weapon in his arsenal.
Manson learned to play guitar in the federal pen, when he was serving time for various offenses. He was taught by Alvin (Creepy) Karpis, a member of a Depression-era gang run by Ma Barker. By the time Manson emerged as a nascent cult leader in San Francisco, during the Summer of Love, he’d become a prolific songwriter. He bound his Family together by group sex and psychedelic drug trips, the relinquishing of possessions and ties to the “straight” world, the transgressive thrill of “creepy crawling” (sneaking into wealthy homes to rearrange the furniture and commit minor thefts), and his songs. The Family sang his lyrics as they scavenged for food in dumpsters; they harmonized with Manson around the campfire at Spahn Ranch; and they eventually crooned the songs in their cells while serving life sentences.
Manson’s music garners little consideration in cornerstone texts about the killings: “The Family,” from 1971, by Ed Sanders, and “Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders,” from 1974, by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry. (The latter became one of the all-time best-sellers in the true-crime genre.) Sanders was a second-generation Beat poet who led the New York-based proto-punk folk-rock band the Fugs. In his book, he sought to salvage the peace-and-love counterculture from the wicked taint of the Family, so it isn’t surprising that he glossed over the appeal of Manson’s music. Bugliosi was the ambitious prosecutor who successfully convicted the Family—the epitome of the law-and-order establishment man and Manson’s diametric opposite. (They were the same age.) In “Helter Skelter,” he and Gentry deal with music primarily via the Family’s fascination with the White Album. The title of his book comes from the Beatles song, which Bugliosi claimed inspired Manson to jump-start a race war that would eventually lead to him ruling the world—a motive that many question, then or now.
Although the authorial voices of Sanders and Bugliosi couldn’t be more different, they both subscribed to what has become cultural shorthand: the notion that Manson put a stake through the heart of the hippies’ utopian dream. “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969,” per Joan Didion’s celebrated line. The two authors also don’t spend much time examining Manson’s music. Bugliosi dismisses Manson as a failed musician, which isn’t really accurate, given his followers’ devotion to his music and its continued afterlife. Sanders is more enthusiastic—he contends that, given the right production, a Manson record could “leave groups like Crosby-Stills eating gravel”—but he doesn’t dig into it much deeper (surprising, given that he is a songwriter himself).
In the recent book “Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties,” Tom O’Neill (who spent two decades reporting what was supposed to have been a magazine article timed to the thirtieth anniversary of the murders) and the co-author, Dan Piepenbring, spend more than five hundred pages debunking Bugliosi’s “Helter Skelter” theory and exploring countless other loose ends. Some of these excursions head into “Twilight Zone” conspiracy territory (Was Manson working with the Feds or somehow connected to the C.I.A.’s MKUltra mind-control experiments?), but other connections are solidly documented, including Manson’s links, much closer than often reported, to Dennis Wilson, of the Beach Boys, and Terry Melcher, a prominent music producer and the only child of the actress Doris Day.
Melcher recorded some of the biggest hits by the Byrds and by Paul Revere and the Raiders, and he auditioned Manson for Columbia Records. Dennis and his brother Brian Wilson recorded Manson and considered signing him to their Brother Records label. They also covered Manson’s song “Cease to Exist”; retitled “Never Learn Not to Love,” it was the B-side of a single in 1968 and appeared, credited to Dennis, on the Beach Boys’ “20/20” album the following year. Manson spent time with another serious music-industry player, Phil Kaufman, who did time with Manson in prison, then managed Gram Parsons and worked as a roadie for the Rolling Stones, Emmylou Harris, Frank Zappa, and others. Fourteen acoustic demos of Manson’s songs, recorded by Kaufman, were released in 1970, as the independent album “Lie: The Love and Terror Cult.” Not coincidentally, between 1966 and early 1969, Melcher had lived with his then girlfriend, the actress Candice Bergen, in the house, at 10050 Cielo Drive, in Benedict Canyon, Los Angeles, where the Family killed Sharon Tate, three of her houseguests, and a teen-age boy who was visiting the house’s caretaker. As for Kaufman, in 1968 he had briefly stayed next door to the house in Los Feliz where Leno and Rosemary LaBianca were killed the following night. Manson knew both of his music-business acquaintances had moved, but he was familiar with the properties that he steered his Family toward.
Manson’s web of contacts in the music world is explored in fascinating detail in the recent, updated edition of “Charles Manson’s Creepy Crawl: The Many Lives of America’s Most Infamous Family,” by Jeffrey Melnick, an American-studies professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He provides context for how the Family interacted with Hollywood’s young élite, especially on the music scene, where even some stars considered him a contender. Neil Young, for one, thought that he was “great . . . unreal,” and Young told the head of Warner Bros. Records that all Manson needed was a “band like Dylan had on ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues.’ ” That may have overstated the case, but “Lie” reveals that Manson, especially when accompanied by his girls, didn’t sound much different than an American version of the Incredible String Band, the British psychedelic folk-rock group that performed at Woodstock a week after the Tate-LaBianca murders (and that also lived communally), or members of New York’s freak-folk scene, in the early two-thousands. Devendra Banhart, one of its leaders, regularly covered Manson’s song “Home Is Where You’re Happy.”
In “Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood,” Tarantino’s soundtrack is surprisingly lightweight, focussing on AM pop-radio hits that lack much hint of the era’s utopian fantasies, or its lurking menace. He leans most heavily on the bubblegum tunes of Paul Revere and the Raiders—the epitome of square in 1969—though he doesn’t use “Kicks,” the one song that may have resonated, with its chorus warning about the excesses of unchecked hedonism: “Kicks just keep getting harder to find.”
The recent film “Charlie Says,” directed by Mary Harron, is a much better and far more thought-provoking exploration of Manson. With a screenplay by Guinevere Turner (who wrote in The New Yorker about growing up as a member of the Lyman Family), the movie is based, in part, on “The Long Prison Journey of Leslie Van Houten: Life Beyond the Cult,” by Karlene Faith, a feminist activist and scholar who taught women’s-studies classes to the Manson Family members Leslie Van Houten, Susan Atkins, and Patricia Krenwinkel after their convictions. Harron, whose other credits include “I Shot Andy Warhol” and “American Psycho,” doesn’t just shed empathetic light on how Manson warped his female followers’ minds; she’s got a flawless ear for music, too. (She started out as a music journalist.) The soundtrack of “Charlie Says” relies on psychedelic rock inspired by bad trips rather than idyllic journeys toward white light, including four of Manson’s songs and several by Love and the 13th Floor Elevators, whose respective lead musicians, Arthur Lee and Roky Erickson, knew well how acid dreams can turn into nightmares.
“Charlie Says” and “Charles Manson’s Creepy Crawl” both suggest that Manson’s rejection by the West Coast music industry triggered his rage, which his followers vented against random targets on those infamous nights in 1969. That theory is more plausible than many others, but no one knows for sure. At the end of Harron’s film, after Van Houten (played by Hannah Murray, who was Gilly on “Game of Thrones”) begins to reject Manson’s brainwashing, she says, “We didn’t have to do any of it, but we did. And why?” Half a century later, the question lingers without a clear answer, but Manson’s songs play on, sampled or covered by artists in almost any genre that we can name, and streaming now on Spotify, iTunes, Amazon, and YouTube.