Charles Manson hovers like a spectre in the background of Quentin Tarantino’s excellent new retro-romp Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, just as he’s haunted American popular culture ever since he orchestrated a series of gruesome murders in Los Angeles in August 1969.
The way his crimes came to represent the poisoning of the hippy ideal has given him an outsized reputation, making him appear far more powerful and terrifying than he really was. The truth is that Manson was a cruel and manipulative piece of shit, and like many pieces of shit before and since, what he really wanted in life was to be a rock ’n’ roll star.
Manson had learned to play guitar while he was in prison for attempting to cash a forged check. He arrived in California in 1967, and soon managed to ingratiate himself into musical circles. He became friends with Dennis Wilson of The Beach Boys, who in turn introduced him to Neil Young.
In a 1986 interview, Young recalled what Manson was like as a performer at this stage: “He had this kind of music that no one was doing. He would sit down with the guitar and start playing and make up stuff, different every time, it just kept comin’ out, comin’ out, comin’ out. Then he would stop and you would never hear that one again. Musically I thought he was very unique. I thought he really had something crazy, something great. He was like a living poet. It was always coming out. He had a lot of girls around at the time and I thought, ‘Well, this guy has a lot of girlfriends.’ He was very intense.”
Young would later be inspired by his experiences meeting Manson to write ‘Revolution Blues’ (“Well, I hear that Laurel Canyon is full of famous stars/But I hate them worse than lepers and I’ll kill them in their cars”).
Like many musicians of the era, Manson learned early on how to tailor his music, indeed his whole character, to suit an audience that were often tripping out of their tiny minds. “He knew how he would be interpreted, and he was really manipulative,” says Scott Michaels, a Manson expert and the host of LA’s Helter Skelter Tour. “He knew the way he was seen. The acid trips and the orchestration was a whole bit. I saw The Doors, Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger one time, and they knew everyone in the whole place was tripping! They’d be like: ‘Let yourself go!’ They knew what was going on in people’s heads, and that’s the way Manson was too.”
It was Manson’s relationship with Dennis Wilson that would lead to his closest brush with musical stardom. Wilson took a song that Manson had written, ‘Cease To Exist’ and turned it into the Beach Boys’ song ‘Never Learn Not To Love’. In the process, he changed many of the lyrics, including making the opening line to: ‘Cease to resist’. If you’re anything like me, that line will spark a whole different song in your head: Pixies’ ‘Wave of Mutilation’.
Here’s Black Francis explaining what’s going on to this magazine back in April 1989: “The first line is a joke on The Beach Boys and Charles Manson. They hung out together and all that. And he wrote this song called ‘Cease To Exist’. And supposedly The Beach Boys used a lot of his lyrics and gave him a sports car or something. And they had this boy-loves-girl song where they went ‘cease to resist’ and changed his lyrics around. They couldn’t have ‘cease to exist’ because it was all powerful suicide stuff! He’s just some glorified charismatic figure like Hitler. But he does say some interesting things, he’s a result of something but I don’t know what.”
In fact, Manson didn’t even get a sports car. Wilson took the writing credit, and all Manson got was a one-off payment and a motorbike. In time this enraged Manson, and he left a bullet on the drummer’s bed as a wordless threat.
After Manson’s followers murdered Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, Wojciech Frykowski, Abigail Folger and Steven Parent at 10050 Cielo Drive, as well as Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, Manson found himself thrust into a twisted sort of celebrity. In order to capitalise on this, an album of his music ‘LIE: The Love And Terror Cult’ (a pun on a Life magazine cover) was released. Although 2,000 copies were pressed, only about 300 actually sold.
The album is still widely available on streaming services such as Spotify – along with a whole host of prison-recorded bootlegs – and Manson’s music seems to exert a perverse pull on many musicians. Guns N’ Roses recorded his song ‘Look At Your Game, Girl’, Devendra Banhart has covered ‘Home Is Where You’re Happy’ and he inspired the names of both Marilyn Manson and Kasabian (Linda Kasabian was a member of the Manson Family who later turned witness against them). This is all despite the fact that Charles Manson was – and I can’t emphasise this strongly enough – a piece of shit.
One musician who came to regret his fascination with Manson was Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. In 1992 he rented the house at 10050 Cielo Drive, the site of the Tate murders, to use as his studio during the recording of ‘The Downward Spiral’. However, during the time he was living there he had a chance meeting with Debra Tate, Sharon’s sister.
“She said: ‘Are you exploiting my sister’s death by living in her house?’ For the first time the whole thing kind of slapped me in the face,” Reznor told a Rolling Stone interviewer in 1997. “I said, ‘No, it’s just sort of my own interest in American folklore. I’m in this place where a weird part of history occurred.’ I guess it never really struck me before, but it did then. She lost her sister from a senseless, ignorant situation that I don’t want to support. When she was talking to me, I realised for the first time, “What if it was my sister?” I thought, ‘Fuck Charlie Manson.’ I don’t want to be looked at as a guy who supports serial-killer bullshit. I went home and cried that night.”
Once again, fuck Charlie Manson.