Rock 'N Roll Case Study: CHARLES MANSON – A Musical Motive?
I was first drawn into the world of Manson intrigue when they showed the Helter Skelter mini-series in 1976. Having just discovered The Beatles, I was fascinated by all the Beatles "clues" that were mentioned in the first episode - and went out the very next day and purchased the Beatles "White Album". Soon afterwards, I got the book, HELTER SKELTER and I was hooked. Sure, it was interest in the Beatles that first hooked me, but then I became fascinated by the failings of the hippie mentality of the '60s that the Manson murders represented. Almost ten years went by until my interest in Manson reemerged, this time by finding a vinyl copy of his album LIE at a record convention. The spooky-looking photo on the cover just made the album seem more foreboding. I couldn't wait to hear Charlie's songs with all the dark messages about the coming apocalypse. I was thinking, "this has got to be earth-shattering stuff, right? I mean, if he had all these music people under his spell, there has got to be something about Charlie's music?" So I rushed home to put the album on the turntable...only to be terribly disappointed. This was no 'hippie messiah', with a new philosophy that was going to change the world. Charlie was simply a second-rate folkie hack. Sure, Charlie had a decent voice and a better than average grasp of songwriting, but overall, I can see why ALL of the music labels rejected him. Had there not been the notorious Manson murders, I seriously doubt that any of Charlie's music would have made it to vinyl at all.
The story of Charles Manson has entrenched itself into urban legend, so I wont go into too much of his background. What is important is that in 1967, Charlie was released from prison after serving half of his life in various institutions. And yes, that means that he could not have auditioned for the Monkees because he was still incarcerated in 1966. In prison, he learned two things that would help him cast his spell over gullible hippies: he learned guitar Alvin "Old Creepy" Karpis of the Ma Barker gang and he delved into scientology. He also asked Karpis for music contacts when he got out of prison. Another inmate who did give Charlie a musical contact was Phil Kaufman who gave him the name of somebody at Universal Studios in Hollywood (where Charlie would record the first of many demos in late '67). It is also claimed that the Beatles captivated Manson. Karpis remembered, "He was constantly telling people he could come on like the Beatles, if he got the chance."
II. DID CHARLIE HAVE MUSICAL TALENT?
Charlie must have had some musical talent, and made quite a few contacts with those in the music business. Phil Kaufman described Charlie's music as, "He sounded like a young Frankie Laine and was really quite good." Beach Boys drummer, Dennis Wilson later said, "Charlie didn't have a musical bone in his whole body." Yet, he did get Charlie studio time at brother Brian Wilson's studio. Even Neil Young knew Manson. "He had this kind of music that nobody else was doing. I thought he really had something crazy, something great. He was like a living poet." John Phillips of the Mamas and Papas was less enthusiastic. When others would suggest that he record Manson, Phillips recalled, "I'd just shudder every time. I'd say no, I think I'll pass."
Yet, Dennis was willing not only to introduce him to his music industry contacts (such as Terry Melcher), but also recorded Charlie at his brother's home recording studio. I think that Charlie used the drugs and the girls in his entourage to 'enhance' his music. Studs like Dennis Wilson and Terry Melcher simply went along for the ride, and the ever-available girls and drugs just made it seem like Charlie's music was special. You can almost hear them thinking out loud, "why else would all these chicks be hanging around this elfish little hippie? It's gotta be the music." But alas, once the drugs wore off, Dennis discovered that Charlie's girls gave him the clap and Manson's entourage fleeced him of about $100,000 (in the summer of 1968) - the reality set in.
However, Dennis did convince the Beach Boys to record one of Charlie's songs on their new 20/20 album. "Cease To Exist" was recorded under the new title of "Never Learn Not to Love". The song was the b-side of a Beach Boys single, which only made it to number 61. In May of 1969, Manson informed his parole officer that he had a song on the charts. Charlie could later claim the notoriety of being the only notorious mass murderer to have a song on the charts!
Charlie could write decent, interesting songs. But, after hearing his first recordings, its not hard to see why the various record labels weren't pounding on Charlie's door with contracts waiting. Charlie was obviously nervous at this first recording session and his performance suffers. Plus, the music just wasn't there yet - there are no entertaining gems like "Garbage Dump" or "Cease To Exist" that Charlie would record in 1968 (songs which became the LIE album). However, these first recordings do give a clue to Charlie's "gift of the gab" and his between songs banter is a curious relic indeed of Charlie-speak. However, I found it interesting that in the time between his first recordings in fall of 1967 and the LIE album recordings in 1968, Charlie's skill at songwriting jumped enourmously. But still, there was something lacking...Charlie's recorded performances sounded too unpolished.
III. CHARLIE IN THE STUDIO
In the recording studio, Charlies showed a complete lack of direction and motivation. This is more than a little baffling, especially for someone that spent such a large amount of time and energy to get a record deal. Charlie usually arrived at recording studios unprepared and unwilling to take any suggestions as to recording procedure by the producer. Who knows, maybe Charlie thought the tape would magically pick up the vibe that he got when he was the center of the party, singing with girls and drugs. He would also bring his whole 'Family' in, each with assorted instruments. This must have been a recording technician's nightmare, since Charlie refused to be recorded alone. Bobby Beausoleil said, "You just can't do a good recording like that! I tried to tell him, "You know, if you want to add this, we can always overdub," but it wasn't working.' But Manson wanted all the Family included, replying, "What fun would it be without all of us?"
Dennis arranged for Charlie to be recorded at Brian Wilson's home recording studio. Stephen Despar was a recording technician for the Beach Boys, described the sessions. "He brought nothing, except half a dozen girls, and they stayed in the studio with him and smoked dope." Despar also added, "He had musical talent." Manson explained, "I never really dug recording, you know, all those things pointing at you. You get into the studio, and it's hard to sing into micro-phones. My relationship to music is completely subliminal, it just flows through me."
IV. MUSIC MOTIVES?
If the murders were NOT retaliation for Charlie's rejection by the music 'establishment', there are however many interesting coincidences. There are ties to both the Cielo Drive and the Waverly Drive crime scenes and Manson was familiar with both places. Manson was introduced to Terry Melcher, while Melcher was still living at 10050 Cielo Drive. Another incident places Charlie at 10050 Cielo Drive, when Dennis drove Melcher home, as Charlie sat in the back seat. Rudy Altobelli, a business manager for show-business personalities, lived in the guesthouse at Cielo Drive. He had contact several times with Manson when he came to the house looking for Terry Melcher. During one visit, Charlie even met Sharon Tate.
Manson had also attended parties with Phil Kaufman at 3267 Waverly Drive, a house that Harold True was renting. The La Blanca's owned the house next door, 3001 Waverly Drive. Kaufman states that, "Manson had the La Biancas killed when he was looking for Harold and me. I had previously fallen out with Charlie over his music and he was after me."
Charlie pursued his musical aspirations through 1969. Terry Melcher came to hear Manson play at Spahn ranch but wasn't impressed enough to offer a contract. While Family members claimed that Melcher discussed a recording contract, Melcher denied ever discussing this. Gregg Jakobson probably hit the nail on the head when he told Terry Melcher, "This guy should be captured on film. You're never gonna capture this guy on tape." Ultimately, Charlie failed to convince anyone to sign him to a record contract. Was this the spark or just a coincidence in the resulting murders? Manson allegedly told a friend that summer, "How are you going to get to the establishment? You can't sing to them. I tried that, I tried to save them, but they wouldn't listen. Now we've got to destroy them."
Of all the books that have been written about Charles Manson over the years, each one has its own theory as to why the murders were committed. Of course, the "Helter Skelter" theory is the most popular, simply due to the enormous popularity of the book and TV movie (and it is being re-filmed for another go around on TV next year!). While the Helter Skelter motive has the dramatic mixture of the Beatles, the Bible, LSD, sex and the apocalypse - it doesn't answer the 'motive' question 100%. Were the Manson murders just payback for drug burns? (There is evidence that Frykowski was trying to be a dealer for the drug MDA and rumors that Mrs. LaBianca was a dealer of drugs as well). Was it just coincidental that both of these houses had 'musical' ties? When you mix all the drugs, sex and music...who knows what really went down? Only Charlie truly knows. But, I have a feeling that Charlie will take his true motives to the grave.
But when it comes to describing the music of Charles Manson, I think that the reviews of the LIE album best sums up his music: "Trite…lighweight folk-pop…mediocre…coffee-shop strummer."