Why Charles Manson Really Terrified America

From Issue 2

In his later years Charles Manson was grey and frail, squat like a hobbit from hell, and still breaking prison rules. He had access to illegal cell phones, a supply of LSD, and when his girlfriend Star came to visit, he had an arrangement with the guards that allowed him to finger her pussy under the table.

As the year was about to fall into 2017, Manson, 82 years old, called his closest friends from Corcoran maximum security jail, where he was housed in the highest-security wing, to say farewell. His snarling voice had grown weak on the phone and he was “fading, a bit confused,” according to Nikolas Schreck, the friend who took one of the calls. Due to inadequate medical facilities at Corcoran state pen, prisoner B33920 was transferred to hospital a few times without anybody noticing. But with the swastika tattoo still visible on his forehead, it was not surprising that during an in-patient appointment at a civilian surgery in Bakersfield, California, a visitor recognised the man Rolling Stone branded the “Most Dangerous Man Alive,” and called whoever it is you call when you see Charlie, alive in death’s waiting room, with your very own eyes.

Armed guards surrounded his bed as though he was the President of the United States. It was another weird kind of cache for the man who was projected into American culture as the new antichrist in 1969, when police attended Roman Polanski’s villa at 10050 Cielo Drive and found his pregnant wife Sharon Tate and their friends, Hollywood hairdresser Jay Sebring, “film producer” Wojciech Frykowski, and coffee heiress Abigail Folger, splattered and gored, like in one of Polanski’s horror movies. At the Cielo Drive scene, as well as at the home of business owners Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, who were butchered the next night, there were multiple stab wounds, forks protruding from abdomen, the words “WAR,” “PIG,” and most notoriously “HELTER SKELTER” scrawled in the victims’ blood.

Manson’s story will always be told as a variation of Helter Skelter (1974), the best-selling “true crime” book of all time, written by prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi. In the courtroom and in the book, he presented a literally incredible narrative that the diminutive, uneducated Manson brainwashed his “cult,” the Manson Family, into murdering those at Cielo Drive and the LaBiancas, essentially out of delusions of grandeur. He was well-known around Hollywood hippie circles for preaching new-age ideas based on apocalyptic and quasi-Satanic faiths including Scientology and The Process Church, and he is said to have resented the Hollywood establishment because he was a musical failure, but the catalyst was supposedly hearing subliminal messages in The Beatles’ White Album prophesizing “Helter Skelter,” a global race war. In Bugliosi’s unbelievable version, somehow sold to a jury and still regarded as gospel, Manson “chose” the wealthy white victims – “Piggies” – to inspire the Black Panthers to rise up and finish the job. When the cities had been taken by the blacks, the Manson Family would ride in from their Death Valley desert hideout on their moon buggies and rule the world...

At a time when America’s conservative institutions were losing their appeal to alternative culture, central casting couldn’t have come up with a more befitting villain than Manson. He was supposedly the head of a “Family” of up to fifty middle-class runaways who lived a communal lifestyle. Familial activities were automobile theft, credit card fraud, taking and dealing hallucinogenic drugs, campfire singalongs and group sex. As well as being a convicted felon and a preacher of anti-establishment ideas, Manson was also poor, and America doesn’t like poor people – a point Manson understood. “Who we gonna blame it on?” he’d later say. “Let’s blame it on somebody we can get away with blaming it on. Let’s blame it on some convict that ain’t got no money, let’s blame it on somebody that ain’t got no education. When Bugliosi seen me, I was custom made for his ambitions.”

Despite having Manson clearly in his sights as the perpetrator throughout Helter Skelter, Manson did not kill anybody at Cielo Drive, he wasn’t even there, and Bugliosi had no physical evidence that Manson ordered the murders committed by Charles “Tex” Watson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houten.

The LAPD, Bugliosi’s fellow prosecutors and the media initially investigated the Tate case as drug-related, based on the stash found at the scene and the open secret that Sebring and Frykowski were big-time Hollywood dope dealers who’d been involved in violent gangland incidents, such as the ritualised pistol-whipping, at Cielo Drive, of a drug pusher who’d tried to rip them off. But instead of listening to the police or his fellow prosecutors, Bugliosi took his directions from Polanski, who was fending off press speculation about his role in the drug scene he’d surrounded his pregnant wife with, when he hinted: “I’d look for something which doesn’t fit your habitual standard… something much more far out.”

In order to prove to a jury that the accused was responsible for murders where he hadn’t been present, Bugliosi would have to convince them of “Manson’s domination over the Family,” the prosecutor wrote. “A domination so total, so complete, they would do anything he told them to do.”

While two of the killers, Watson and Patricia Krenwinkel, and their lookout, Linda Kasabian, were under arrest for the murders, Bugliosi was still in search of that far-out motive connecting the hated Manson when he interviewed two key witnesses.

Columbia records talent scout Gregg Jakobson claimed he’d spent over a hundred hours chatting shit with Manson while high. Disgruntled Family member Paul Watkins was a gentle but impressionable young man who, since the disbanding of the Manson Family, had undergone an attempt at cult “deprogramming” by a rival for Manson’s spiritual power near their Death Valley squat, a Scientologist named Paul Crockett. Watkins painted a vivid but critical picture of the control Manson exerted over him and the rest of the family, including rationing drugs and directing orgies. Jakobson told Bugliosi how Manson considered the Beatles’ songs “prophecy.” He had rambled about the connection the Beatles’ White Album and the Book of Revelation, and how the band had “set things up for the revolution.” Remarkably for such a sober man, Bugliosi interpreted this paranoid drug talk as the “missing link in Manson’s motive for the murders.”

In December 1969, in LA county jail, 21-year-old Manson Family murderer and compulsive liar Susan Atkins was a babbling wreck. She’d recently given birth to Manson’s child, and she later claimed that when Bugliosi visited her, he threatened to refuse her access to her son unless she played ball. He had her testify in front of a Grand Jury to his version of events, where she exaggerated what Watkins, Crockett and Jakobson had said about Helter Skelter being a serious idea.

Bugliosi then stage-managed things brilliantly. Atkins sold her story to the tabloids and rushed out the first book on the subject, a trash paperback called The Killing of Sharon Tate, where she made more wild claims about Manson’s hypnotic control over the killers.

The press coverage then became littered with satanic imagery. On 5 December 1969 the LA Times introduced occult themes to the narrative in its interview with the prosecution’s star witnesses, Watkins and Crockett, where they revealed the Manson Family was “Ruled by ‘Black Magic’.”

The papers then went on a trial-prejudicing rampage. In an article titled “The Demon of Death Valley,” the Times called the defendants, who were still legally innocent, “a mystical, semi-religious hippie drug-and-murder cult led by a bearded, demonic Mahdi able to dispatch his zombie-like followers, mostly girls wearing hunting knives, to commit at least eight murders.”

A week later Life magazine beamed Manson into the national psyche with its iconic 19 December 1969 “Love and Terror Cult” front page, portraying him as a wild-eyed maniac, the “dark edge of hippie life.”

Manson could see what was going on. “I think a hearing should be called so we could get these very same people who wrote these articles and find out from them where they get their information to write the articles, who feeds them the information to write the articles,” he said. “The media is used by the District Attorney to try a man before trial.”

When the stakes looked like they couldn’t get any higher for Manson, who was now one of the most famous criminals in America, in the middle of the trial President Richard Nixon, in true John Wayne fashion, declared the long-haired defendant guilty.

Disdainful of establishment institutions due to the brutal abuse he suffered in state correctional facilities as a child (detailed in excruciating detail in the co-authored autobiography Manson in His Own Words), Manson attempted to defend himself in court, but was not permitted. He spoke with amazing – or perhaps, frightening – dexterity for a man with no formal education. Often it was to an empty courtroom because the jury, in another legally questionable move, had been removed. Still, he railed against the hypocrisy of a government that was trying him for ordering homicide with a limited amount of hearsay as evidence, while successive presidents had murdered thousands in Vietnam. To prove that he had not ordered the killings was impossible, and is not the defendant’s prerogative in any case.

“She is telling the truth now,” Manson said sarcastically of Kasabian in the courtroom. “She wouldn’t have any ulterior motive like immunity for seven counts of murder. Why a woman would stand up and project herself into a man and say, ‘Actually he never told me anything, but I knew it all came from him.’ Am I to be found guilty on her assumption?”

“I have killed no one and I have ordered no one to be killed. I may have implied on several occasions to several different people that I may have been Jesus Christ, but I haven’t decided yet what I am or who I am. I was given a name and a number and I was put in a cell, and I have lived in a cell with a name and a number. I don’t know who I am.

To make his conviction even more legally questionable, all the key witnesses had to some degree been bought: Linda Kasabian was offered total immunity; Susan Atkins was trying to get access to her son and the death penalty dropped; and Watkins was given a chance to launch his musical career on the soundtrack to Bugliosi’s 1973 Manson documentary.

Outside the courthouse, the Manson Family looked every bit the demented cult. They shaved their heads, tattooed crosses on their bonces to signify their condemned status, and sang Manson’s songs. As if they knew the fear it would create, they claimed on the news that young people across America were shaving their heads in support of Manson.

If that seemed to prove that they were under Manson’s spell, chaotic scenes inside the courtroom showed a madness in the group that Charlie may have stirred up, but emanated from elsewhere. Manson Family defendant Leslie Van Houten – rumoured to have dropped acid in the courtroom – repeatedly denied Manson held any sway over her. “I was influenced by the war in Vietnam and TV,” she told the court.

While the news portrayed him as the antichrist, some of the counterculture latched onto Manson as a revolutionary hero. “Offing those rich pigs with their own forks and knives, and then eating a meal in the same room, far out! The Weathermen dig Charles Manson,” said radical leftist Bernadine Dohrn.

The performance from all sides was so spooky, Manson would later say: “I was convicted of witchcraft in the 20th Century.” He was sentenced to death, later commuted to life in prison when the death penalty was temporarily suspended by the Supreme Court in 1972.

For the rest of his life behind bars, from age 35 to 83, Manson was the closest thing a nation without an honours system had to an official heretic. His image was kept in the public consciousness with a continual stream of tabloid hype, “true crime” documentaries, dramatizations, and even an opera. For news channels, putting Charlie Manson on the screen was a desperate symbolic manoeuvre. It was like they’d found a moving-image version of medieval demon art, a way of defining an increasingly scorned Christian morality in contrast to this babbling monster. Clips of Manson in prison garb on TV news gurning, raving, dancing, threatening violence, and baffling parole boards are archival classics that will keep him alive in American culture after he ceases to be news.

Yet alongside the freak-show interviews, there is Manson’s music, spooky folk and stripped-back crooner ballads such as the classic “Look at Your Game, Girl,” available online and in rare collectors’ items, but hardly known.

“When I was in my twenties, in the 1980s, I didn’t think the Helter Skelter thing made sense, but frankly I didn’t care,” said musician and author Nikloas Schreck. Always a fan of the music, Schreck got sucked down the Manson rabbit hole and spent the next twenty-five years researching and writing the definitive account of the murders, The Manson File: Myth and Reality of an Outlaw Shaman. “When I got into this, I thought it doesn’t have anything to do with the music. But this is complicated and hard to understand when you’re immersed in the media legend and myth,” Schreck said. “[Manson] made it clear to me from the very beginning of my talking to him that there’s no part of his criminal career that’s not interwined with his musical career.”

In 1961 Charles Manson, a 26-year-old auto thief who had spent most of his youth in detention or running away from it, arrived at McNeil state pen, where he started to play guitar properly for the first time. He jammed with his cellmate, the depression-era gangster “Creepy” Alvin Karpis on the steel guitar. Manson got to know plenty of other legends of organized crime in the can, such as the head of the east coast Genovese syndicate Frankie Carbo, who became somewhat of a father figure to “Little Charlie”. It was also while doing time he met Phil Kaufman, who mixed and put out Manson’s first album Lie: the Love and Terror Cult on his own label, and would later claim that while living and recording with Manson and the Family, he “had sex with more serial killers than anyone else in show business.”

Manson was unlocked in 1966 and headed to San Francisco. But the pacts he’d formed with music and the mafia on the inside would follow him out of the prison gates, and become essential ingredients in the plot that terrified America. Manson quickly established himself in the hippy wonderland of late sixties California as a kind of musical shaman of the street. Already an experienced pimp from his time in LA in the late fifties, he picked up an entourage of young suburban women who accompanied him not only in his prolific criminal enterprise of auto theft, credit card fraud, drug dealing and prostitution, but as vocalists on the mesmerising Family Jams album, recorded after Charlie’s arrest with the murderer Steve “Clem” Grogan taking Manson’s place on lead vocals.

Neil Young heard Manson playing in the late sixties and thought he was “unreal.” But Manson’s biggest fan in the music industry was Dennis Wilson from The Beach Boys, whom he met while hitchhiking. It’s widely reported that Wilson let Manson and the girls live with him in his mansion, and that he used two of Manson’s compositions on the Beach Boys’ 1968 album 20/20. But the true extent of Manson’s association with The Beach Boys – and the rest of the music industry – is often hushed up, for fear of contamination.

In 1968 the Manson Family recorded a whole album in Brian Wilson’s home studio that is unlikely to be released while any of the participants are still alive. Dennis Wilson also put Manson in contact with his friend, the Columbia records producer Terry Melcher. After a number of failed attempts by numerous people at recording the disorganized band, in the summer of 1969 Melcher tried to tape them in their natural environment, on the Spahn movie ranch where Manson and the commune were living. Melcher and Jakobson planned to make a documentary and accompanying album, which was well into pre-production when the band’s criminal lifestyle sent things spiralling out of control.

Throughout 1969 Manson and Tex Watson were committing serious narco crimes to try and feed the ever-increasing Family. Just before Melcher started shooting his film, Manson and Watson robbed a drug dealer named Bernard Crowe, and Manson shot him. In his autobiography, Manson claims Melcher knew about the shooting, and he ditched him fearing, quite rightly, that the Manson Family, despite their uniquely captivating sound, were too dangerous for mainstream entertainment.

Ed Sanders writes in his 1971 book The Family how Melcher had been funding Manson’s career for at least a year. Melcher had leant the Manson Family his car and even his credit card to use on the road. Jakobson recently revealed to Manson biographer Jeff Guinn that Melcher tried to procure one of Manson’s underage girls, Ruth Ann Moorhouse, as a live-in concubine or “housekeeper.”

In court, like the rest of the entertainment industry, Melcher tried to distance himself from Manson. He claimed they only met three times, they barely knew each other, and he wasn’t at all impressed with his music. “Melcher perjured himself in court,” says Schreck. “It’s almost mind-boggling, the degree to which Melcher lied, and to which people accepted the lie.”

The motive for Melcher and others lying about Manson being either an unremarkable musician or a Messiah-like figure – blatant contradictions – is to diminish their own responsibility. Melcher clearly had nothing to gain by proclaiming himself to be not only a Manson fan but his financial backer, while the other members of the Manson Family could plead more effectively if they could show that Charlie had control of their minds. This was more than convenient for Bugliosi, who recognised from the beginning that this was not just another case. He wanted it to represent a moral and social divide between the rich and successful Hollywood victims, who in this airbrushed version representedAmerica’s values, and the shamanic outsider who corrupted the souls of its children.

In reality, the Manson Family and their victims shared many of the same moral and social codes. They were all heavy into drugs, often dealing and scoring for one another. As the police discovered when they searched Polanski’s home and found some rather strange black robes in the attic, they were all dabbling in occult rituals and, according to Sanders, both Manson and Polanski were not only the head of drug-fuelled orgies, they made pornos, with Polanski’s supposedly featuring humiliating scenes of Sharon Tate.

In Hollywood, the truth is not a very well-guarded secret. In his 1992 autobiography, for instance, the veteran British actor Michael Caine says he was introduced to Manson and the girls at the same social event as Sharon Tate and his barber Jay Sebring.

That there was a major drug deal going down on the night of the murders was such big news that even squeaky-clean Jane Fonda knew. On the night of the murders, Fonda told her biographer, “a messenger from Sebring’s hair salon” had brought a mother lode of coke and mescaline to the house. The “messenger” was a mob contact named Joel Rostau, who was dating Sebring’s secretary. Rostau was found in a mafia whack-job at JFK airport the night before the Manson trial. Remarkably, his name never appears in the 700 pages of Helter Skelter, despite being one of the first people questioned by the LAPD.

Even for people who remain justifiably sceptical of Manson’s capacity for truth telling, it always seemed significant that he admitted to attempted murders such as Crowe’s, and an astonishing number of criminal acts that would have imprisoned him for centuries, yet he refused to accept the two crucial elements that made him infamous: that he ordered the murders, or they had anything to do with Helter Skelter.

Susan Atkins recently debunked that myth in her death-bed memoir. “That Charles Manson’s Helter Skelter story was around [the commune] will not be disputed,” she wrote in The Myth of Helter Skelter. “That he used it to manipulate the young people around him is abundantly obvious. But the contention that this had any relation to the true motive for the murders will slowly become ridiculous as the events are unfolded.”

In his autobiography, Manson said the idea of the race war came about after he’d shot Crowe, who he thought was a member of the Black Panthers. “I was convinced I had initiated a war with the blacks,” he said. “The kids at the ranch caught the worst of my paranoia.”

They weren’t the only ones. Perhaps the most remarkable and scary thing about the case is not the savagery of the crimes, or Manson’s undeniable power to influence people; it’s how the prosecutor and the media sold the public such a paranoid narrative when the “regular motive,” as Polanski described it – one group of crazed drug dealers murdering another group of drug dealers – would have tarnished the image of the Hollywood elite.

Manson’s story was created to strike fear into the American public, and it was a huge success. Bugliosi became a celebrity prosecutor, and went on to star in a 1980s televised “mock trial” of Lee Harvey Oswald, where he found the “defendant” was guilty, and had acted alone. Bugliosi died in 2015.

Fittingly his nemesis, Charles Manson, made his exit in December 2017, aged 83, at the time America is said to have become suspicious of both “fake news” and powerful men in Hollywood. Perhaps Manson’s legacy will live on as a different kind of nightmare for the people who created it. Despite the best efforts of many influential people, Manson’s music may finally get the recognition it deserves if it’s no longer associated with a living monster. And the Manson story, while continually fascinating, will surely be regarded as one of the most ludicrous fake news stories ever told.

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