Driving through the busy streets of Orlando on a recent afternoon, dressed in long-sleeve business attire, I could feel the August heat and humidity in all of its punishing oppression, and was reminded once again of just how slowly the air conditioning works when you first start up a boiling hot car. Alas, my mood was decidedly sour.
But as I navigated the urban streets, occasionally dealing with impatient and rude motorists, what really irritated me wasn’t the temperature, the slow pace of my a.c. system, or my fellow drivers. It was the sounds emanating from my car’s compact disc player.
I had known for some time that the story of mass murderer Charles Manson intricately involved music. Manson had believed that the Beatles spoke to him through their “White Album,” and that the songs on it – particularly “Helter Skelter” – were predicting a coming race war in America.
Manson also maintained a friendship with Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys, who would rewrite and record one of Manson’s own compositions, “Cease to Exist,” on one of their albums.
And it’s well known that Manson, who spent most of his teen years and his twenties in various jails and prison, would aspire to become a great songwriter — which is why he eventually gravitated to Los Angeles in the late 1960s, in search of the fame he was certain would come his way through the songs he had written in prison.
And it’s known that when a prominent music producer, Terry Melcher, failed to express interest in recording Manson, the leader of a hippie commune outside of L.A., Manson would send his follows to Melcher’s home at Cielo Drive on Aug. 8, 1969 to kill the people living there – perhaps not even knowing that Melcher had moved out and was now renting the home to film director Roman Polanski and his wife, eight-months-pregnant actress Sharon Tate. Polanski was in England working on a film on that night, but Tate and four other people at the house got butchered by the “Manson Family.”
Having read so much about Manson’s dreams of following the Beatles to superstardom, I was aware that a CD existed of his recordings, and recently came upon a cheap used copy of the disc titled “LIE: The Love and Terror Cult,” featuring 14 songs written and performed by Manson. Listening to the CD in my car, I was a bit startled by one song, “Mechanical Man” — and the fact that I recognized it. It turns out that shock-rocker Marilyn Manson had recorded his own version, retitled “My Monkey,” for his “Portrait of an American Family” album.
Marilyn’s version — recorded perhaps in a cheesy attempt at shock value — was not bad, and vastly superior to Charlie’s. Then again, it would be hard to imagine any music on the planet that sounds inferior to the abysmal compositions of Charles Manson, which more than 40 years later remain tedious, uninspired, and just downright awful. Whatever future career path Manson might have taken if he’d avoided crime isn’t clear, but singer and songwriter most definitely wasn’t one of them.
This notion was totally reinforced in my mind recently as I was reading a book by Jeff Guinn, his superb biography, “Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson”. More than four decades after the fact, and with so many other Manson books already on the market – including what has long appeared to be the definitive one, “Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders” by Manson’s prosecutor, Vincent Bugliosi – it couldn’t have been easy to come up with a fresh approach to such a well-known chapter in recent history.
(My own interest in reliving this grim story was sparked by Debra Tate’s elegant book “Sharon Tate Recollection”, which is certain to generate a painful and tragic sense of what-might-have-been in anyone who sees the photos and follows the happy early life of the beautiful Sharon Tate.)
And yet, Guinn accomplishes three significant things in this book — no small accomplishment.
For starters, he does a masterful job setting the scene for the Manson era – the late 1960s, starting with Manson discovering the Summer of Love in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, then recognizing how easy it would be to exploit, and take control, of the wandering, aimless hippies who arrived there feeling rejected by the families. Guinn devotes a considerable amount of effort writing about the decade itself – and how the spirit of rebellion, so innocent at first, became the perfect social movement to be exploited by the likes of Charles Manson.
He also manages to scrupulously avoid glamorizing Manson, of painting him as an exciting or scary or mystical figure, as some earlier books have done. Instead, Guinn does a convincing job taking an entirely different approach: painting Manson as one of the world’s consummate losers.
That’s probably the biggest accomplishment of his book – the way Guinn recounts Manson’s story without finding anything in it that is enticing, gripping or challenging to our senses about Manson himself. From the beginning, Manson was a true loser, a kid who got picked on a lot, never had any accomplishments, and very quickly followed his single mother into a life of crime. His only real “talent” was using his experience in prison to learn how to manipulate others – decent survival skills in an environment like prison, and sadly tools that he would use so maliciously as he set sights on those wandering hippies – particularly young women who needed to feel loved. Manson was a true manipulator, but it was all for nothing, except a horrific two nights of vicious slaughtering, and then his life sentence.
This month, which marks the 45-year-anniversary of the Tate-LoBioanca murders, it’s easy to find television shows looking back at the case – and which simply can’t resist making Manson look fairly exotic, as the wild cult leader of a band of homicidal murderers, a man who claimed to be a visionary and who commanded a flock of hippies to commit unspeakable crimes. It’s easy to find Manson pages by twisted devotees on Facebook that have a sadly high number of followers.
We should be grateful to Guinn, then, for reminding us in no uncertain terms that Manson really was just a vain, talentless, meandering twit — one who exploited other losers, and who today has a following of, it’s safe to say, a new generation of losers.
Manson’s own music was awful. No wonder he couldn’t get a record contract.
And he knew it, too, which is why he ordered the murders on Cielo Drive that night.
And nothing will ever change how pathetic he was, and still is.
Contact Mike Freeman at Freeline Media at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..