Regardless of the silly cult that has enveloped an undistinguished petty criminal called Charles Manson over the last half-century, death probably won’t extinguish the fascination he continues to exude, alas. Manson, whose death at the age of 83 has been announced, finally passed away having spent the last 46 years behind bars. In 1971, he was convicted of instigating the notorious 1969 Sharon Tate murders, with him and his disciples conveniently evading the electric chair by virtue of California outlawing the death penalty during his lengthy trial. However, the Manson legend has continued to cast a spell upon successive generations of pop cultural scholars on account of timing; he committed his crimes at a point in the 60s when the Age of Aquarius Utopia was poised to turn sour, and his activities have been retrospectively tied-in with other Dystopian disasters of the decade’s death throes such as Altamont and the premature departures of Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison.
It doesn’t help that Manson had been on the fringes of LA’s music scene prior to his immersion in messianic murder; having failed the audition for The Monkees, Manson had one of his songs recorded by The Beach Boys and proceeded to move himself and his growing hangers-on into the home of Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson. Wilson’s eventual exasperation with his unwelcome house-guests led to an eviction that provoked threats of a virtual fatwa on Manson’s part. Another target was Terry Melcher, son of Doris Day and top record producer, whose rejection of Manson as a potential recording artist was the reason why Melcher’s mansion on Cielo Drive was chosen by Manson as the site of a ritualistic blood-fest before he even knew it had been leased to Roman Polanski.
Disillusionment with the material riches of the American Dream drew a fair few lost souls to California in the mid-60s; some had talents that enabled them to carve out musical careers, whereas others bummed around looking for something that eluded them as they sought solace in bad drugs. George Harrison’s impressions of a visit to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury in 1967 were of a glorified Bowery, and an undoubtedly charismatic loser like Manson, one who was a generation ahead of such adolescent wastrels, could find willing recruits to his plans for a twisted race war inspired by his interpretation of ambiguous Beatles lyrics. Convinced the Fab Four were harbingers of the Apocalypse, Manson turned-on, tuned-in and dropped out with the White Album as his Koran. A cut-price Maharishi for those lacking the funds to decamp to India, Manson easily indoctrinated the growing followers he christened his ‘Family’, persuading them to do the dirty work on behalf of their guru.
Initially, there was a disturbing sense of humour to Manson’s operations, such as breaking into the homes of the rich and famous to simply rearrange the furniture; the home-owner would come downstairs on a morning, instantly realising he or she had received an unwelcome visitor during the night, yet nothing was missing. If only he’d stuck to a career as an unconventional interior designer, perhaps we’d remember Charles Manson as a prototype Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen rather than a counter-cultural Aleister Crowley. Unfortunately, the devotion Manson inspired meant his followers would indulge in him in any insane scheme he devised, and it was one such scheme that led to the brutal butchery inflicted upon the tenants of Terry Melcher’s house in August 1969.
As with similarly barbaric acts carried out by Jack the Ripper, Pol Pot and ISIS, there have been occasions in which I’ve accidentally stumbled upon photographic evidence of Manson’s Family’s evening out with Sharon Tate. The heavily pregnant actress and wife of Polanski was one of five slaughtered that night, and I defy anyone to uphold the opinion of Manson as ‘cool’ once exposed to images of what was done in his name. The Manson Family’s murderous spree not only put the fear of God into the Laurel Canyon Rock aristocrats – who had momentarily indulged Manson’s musical ambitions – but it also cast a malignant shadow across US pop culture at the turn of the 70s, bound up with Vietnam and Watergate as examples of the nation’s decline and fall. Four years after the conviction of the guilty, a Family member who had evaded imprisonment called Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme attempted to assassinate President Ford.
During Manson’s show trial, enlivened by his female followers shaving their heads and hanging around court hoping to be picked out by TV and press cameras (which they naturally were), his demo recordings were packaged as an LP to cover his legal costs; his peripheral presence on a scene that continues to keep the likes of ‘Rolling Stone’, ‘Mojo’ and ‘Uncut’ in business has maintained his unhealthy legend throughout the decades of his imprisonment. Even an otherwise mediocre band such as Kasabian have played their part in the industry by taking their name from a Manson Family member.
Ironically, in a day and age when celebrities can be instantly cast out as pariahs for looking at images on their PC or being accused of touching a knee years before, Manson’s far more damaging actions are routinely excused. Those who perpetuate the Manson myth hypocritically overlook the barbaric consequences of his imagination in a way they wouldn’t with, say, Peter Sutcliffe or Ian Brady; but the Yorkshire Ripper and Moors Murderer prowled the grim landscape of Northern England; they never resided in exotic LA or auditioned for The Monkees or rented a house from a Beach Boy or released an album. None of these factors should make a difference, but for some reason they do. To be fair, though, vicarious apologists were present from the beginning where Manson is concerned, particularly in the underground hippie press of the period, which couldn’t quite decide if Manson was hero or villain for ‘sticking it to the pigs’.
In theory, his death from boringly uninspired natural causes should finally draw a line under the issue; but if the pop culture that Charles Manson hovered over has taught us anything in the last fifty years, it is that death is merely another stage in a long line of career moves.
© The Editor