Charles Manson and the Demons of Rock ‘n’ Roll That Haunt Us to This Day
The cult murderer, who died Sunday, just wanted to be a rock star. When music rejected him, the tangle of art, celebrity and violence gripped the world.Photo: public domain Music Features
When the followers of Charles Manson murdered Sharon Tate, the pregnant movie-actress wife of movie director Roman Polanski, on Aug. 9, 1969, it was Plan B. They had really wanted to kill Terry Melcher.
Manson, who died Sunday at age 83, was one of millions of Americans who have clung to the belief that their lives of absent parents, jail and rootlessness can be healed by celebrity. But he wasn’t thinking of fame on TV or in the movies; he wanted to be a rock star. It was the ‘60s; he had a rock star’s looks; he’d learned guitar in prison, and he found it easiest to recruit women for his “family” from the clusters of hippiedom in California. He never became a rock star, but his troubling persona would haunt rock ‘n’ roll for decades to come. For when his dreams of a music career were dashed, he didn’t take rejection well. He blamed Melcher and went looking to kill him.
Manson, who died Sunday at age 83, was one of millions of Americans who have clung to the belief that their lives of absent parents, jail and rootlessness can be healed by celebrity.
Melcher, the only son of movie star Doris Day, had a hand in some of the key moments in Southern California music. With future Beach Boy Bruce Johnston, Melcher formed two cult-favorite surf-music groups: the Rip Chords and Bruce & Terry. As a Columbia Records staffer, he produced the Byrds’ first two albums, more or less launching the folk-rock movement. He produced most of Paul Revere & the Raiders’ hits. He sang harmony on Pet Sounds, introduced Brian Wilson to Van Dyke Parks and co-wrote The Beach Boys’ final hit single, “Kokomo.”
Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson met Manson after picking up two of Manson’s women hitch-hiking and taking them home. When Wilson returned home the next day, the girls, Manson and his entire retinue had taken over the house, devouring all the food, liquor and drugs they could find. At first Wilson, who enjoyed the bacchanalia, was impressed by Manson’s charisma and some of his songs, and brought the drifter to his pal Melcher, who was similarly captivated. Ten still unreleased tracks were recorded, and there was talk of a record deal with The Beach Boys’ boutique label, Brother Records, as well as a documentary film.
Philip Kaufman, who had befriended Manson in prison, had produced a different set of tapes during 1967 and 1968 that became Manson’s debut solo album, Lie: The Love and Terror Cult. The repertoire overlapped with the potential Brothers Records release, but the arrangements were quite different. Kaufman would go on to be a road manager for Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons, famously stealing Parsons’s dead body and burning it in Death Valley, per the singer’s instructions.
You can hear what attracted Wilson, Melcher and Kaufman on Manson’s version of “Cease To Exist,” from Lie. The songwriting isn’t much—just simple blues changes and some fragmentary phrases urging a woman to give in to him—but the performance is arresting, from the heavily echoed, edgy vocal to the mood-enhancing blues guitar. Wilson took the song, toned down the creepiest lyrics, straightened out the meter and rhyme scheme, added a chorus melody, wrapped the whole thing in late-‘60s psychedelic-pop, retitled it as “Never Learn Not To Love,” and recorded it for the Beach Boys’ 1969 album, 20/20.
In the meantime, the party at Wilson’s place had turned sour, as the guests refused to leave, and Manson’s behavior grew more aggressive and bizarre. Eventually Wilson had to move out of his own house, leaving it to his manager to evict the invaders. Melcher too had had enough and canceled plans for all Manson projects. An embittered Wilson removed Manson’s name from the songwriting credit for “Never Learn Not To Love.”
All of this infuriated Manson. For a moment, a music career had seemed in his grasp, and then it had all slipped away. It never occurred to him that taking over his key patron’s house or beating up a friend of Melcher’s might spoil his chances. Bent on vengeance, Manson and his posse visited 10050 Cielo Drive in the Beverly Crest neighborhood of Los Angeles on March 23, 1969. When Manson had last visited, it had been the home Melcher shared with his girlfriend, actress Candice Bergen, and the Raiders’ lead singer Mark Lindsay. But they had moved out, and the house was now rented to Polanski and Tate.
Manson stewed all spring and summer, trying to find Wilson and Melcher without success. He became convinced that The Beatles were sending him a personal message via the song “Helter Skelter” to start an American race war. Maybe he couldn’t find Wilson and Melcher, but he knew where two other famous celebrities—Tate and Polanski—lived. On Aug. 9, 1969, Manson sent his sidekick Charles “Tex” Watson his three young female acolytes to the house to kill them. Polanski was in London, but Tate and three of her friends were beaten and stabbed to death; a fourth was shot. The next night, Manson and six of his followers broke into the home of supermarket executive Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary, who lived next door to a Kaufman friend who had hosted a party Manson attended. The LaBiancas were also stabbed to death, and their blood was used to scrawl “Death to Pigs” and “Healter Skelter” (the title misspelled) on the walls.
The murders were designed to shock, and shock they did. The references to The Beatles and Black Panthers fed the paranoia that hippies and black nationalists were coming to murder you in your own home. It took the Los Angeles Police Department nearly five months to connect the two murders to each other (and to the earlier murder of Gary Hinman), but the arrest of the crazed Manson and his harem only heightened the paranoia.
After everyone involved had been sent to prison for life, Manson became a shorthand for the darkest side of American culture. If you wanted to outrage your parents or your do-gooder friends, all you had to do was say something positive about the man with the failed rock career, maddened eyes and blood-stained knives. It worked better than swastikas or heroin needles. And for reasons of psychological revenge and shock-value publicity, there were always a few musicians ready to go that route.
Lie was released by Kaufman’s Awareness Records in 1970 between Manson’s arrest and his conviction. One of the songs, “Look at Your Game Girl,” was released as a hidden bonus track on Guns ‘N Roses’ 1993 covers album The Spaghetti Incident? as a kind of breezy Brazilian ballad, not so different from the original. Other songs were recorded by the Lemonheads, Cobra Verde, G.G. Allin, Eugene Chadbourne and Redd Kross. Musician Brian Hugh Warner famously adopted the attention-getting stage name Marilyn Manson, claiming that “Marilyn Monroe and Charles Manson, to me were the most memorable people from the ‘60s for their own separate reasons.”
“We used to just tell our parents we were into Charles Manson just to drive them crazy,” Redd Kross’s Jeff McDonald told MTV News in 2012. “Then we’d have to say we were joking. They were furious we were on the cover of Flipside magazine in our garage and we were holding this picture of Charles Manson with the word ‘Lie’ on it. We were laughing. They were not happy. [We] dropped it after a while, but we’re still associated with it, which is kind of a bummer.”
It’s the kind of joke that doesn’t wear well.