Look at me and I will turn you on,
Don’t try to think because your mind is gone.
The Ballad of the Hip Death Goddess, Ultimate Spinach.
I’ve been reading The Family, Ed Sanders’ 1971 chronicle of the events which culminated in the notorious Tate/LaBianca murders of ‘69. The second-hand copy I chanced upon is pretty much like the one pictured above, except more lurid and groovy as the colour scheme is reversed and Manson’s bug-eyed face is GREEN. It’s the first full length book that I’m aware of on the subject, followed in 1974 by Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s mega-selling Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders. Sanders had his feet much more on the ground, so to speak, than Bugliosi, being a significant figure in the latter Beat movement and subsequent 60s counterculture. Sanders started writing poetry in the early 60s, and began publishing the confrontational avant-garde literary journal FUCK YOU (it’s motto I’LL PRINT ANYTHING) in 1962. He was also a founding member of the Fugs, and a significant player in the classic absurdist caper of 1967 in which the Yippies and others performed an exorcism on the Pentagon, and attempted to levitate it.
The Family is a hell of a read. The Manson saga itself is a source of perennial morbid fascination – a lurid, scarcely believable story that maps out a strange intersection between the lives of various counterculture freakniks, bikers, dope dealers, and the glittering elites of the entertainment complex. The Manson story captures in microcosm the biblical and apocalyptic weirdness of American culture in the late 60s – a time when the children started to believe that they were mutants or aliens shipwrecked in a strange land, and large swathes of the general population were turning to face the strange. Sanders covered the Manson trial for the Los Angeles Free Press, and gradually became obsessed with the case. Over a period of year and a half, he gathered the often staggering amount of data and detail which would be incorporated into The Family. Primarily, he was writing from a position of considerable anger, both as a result of the savagery of the crimes themselves, and of Manson’s betrayal of the countercultural ideals which he held so dearly. As Richard Christgau observed in his New York Times review of The Family, “Sanders really does believe in expanded sexuality, sacramental and recreational psychedelics, and non-rationalistic modes of knowing”, and Manson had left all of these things open to the paranoid caricatures of the conservative Right. Despite the righteous anger, however, what makes The Family a gas to read is its distinctive hardboiled-hippie prose, an overripe style which sometimes captures the cadence of old social guidance/mental hygiene films:
There had been a year of flowers. But sometime in the summer or spring of ‘68 a change occurred in the family. Into the mix of flowers, sex, nomad-community walked Satan, devil-worship and violence. Perhaps it was the will to change – the need to maintain that magnetism – that caused Charlie to groove with gore.
It seems to me that perhaps Sanders was slyly lampooning his mass market audience’s expectation of condemnation mixed with titillation; the style also brings to mind the spate of hippie/devil-worshipper b-grades that blazed through the grindhouses in the wake of the Manson furore. The most notorious and hilarious of these that I’m aware of is the immortal I Drink Your Blood:
The well-worn tale in brief: on March 21, 1967, Charles Manson was released from Terminal Island federal prison. Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, to a sixteen year wild child and alleged prostitute, Manson had spent more than half of his 32 years in correctional facilities and prisons. He had become so institutionalized by this point that he asked the guards to take him back in. Manson would be re-arrested (for the final time) on October 12, 1969 in Death Valley; one of the most striking things about the whole saga is how quickly it all went down. Despite his initial trepidation, Manson acclimatized himself quickly to the anarchic and surreal America which had slowly blossomed while he was behind bars. He became a migrant troubadour, having learned how to play guitar in prison. He washed up on Haight-Ashbury street, just as its Utopian idealism was degenerating into a predatory and lysergically burned-out rat-hole. The Haight was a mecca for middle-class runaways who had roundly turned their backs on the country and reality that their parents were living in. Possessed of a prodigious charisma and the ability to lay down all kinds of convincing raps about Truth, Charlie quickly went from being a petty criminal to a small-time, short-change guru. He honed in on troubled and alienated runaway teenage girls, and gradually accumulated the beginnings of the harem or cult or fellowship that infamy would later know as the Manson family.
At first, it looked on the surface like Manson and his girls were riding the crest of the 60s zeitgeist in high style. He offered his followers a participation in something like a modern variation of the more orgiastic of the mystery cults, mixed with a psychoanalytic encounter group. LSD and transgressive, communal sex was the initiation, the first Breaking of Set. From there, the idea was to strip away all the trappings of the programmed social identity, all the hang-ups and inhibitions, until you got to the core, the authentic, unfettered self, the Soul. Then you were finally free and able to experience the total Now. It sounded like good clean fun. Like the Merry Pranksters, who also aspired to exist in a kind of total Now state of mind which they called Edge City, Manson and his crew yo-yoed around the country in a converted school bus. Following the tradition initiated by the beats and occultists of the fifties, they made the desert a spiritual home and source of mystic mythology. Like Carlos Castaneda after him, Manson identified with the tricksterish coyote:
Have you ever seen the coyote in the desert? Watching, tuned in, completely aware. Christ on the cross, the coyote in the desert — it’s the same thing, man. The coyote is beautiful. He moves through the desert delicately, aware of everything, looking around. He hears every sound, smells every smell, sees everything that moves. He’s in a state of total paranoia, and total paranoia is total awareness. You can learn from the coyote just like you can learn from a child. A baby is born into the world in a state of fear. Total paranoia and awareness….
The Family also began to make tentative inroads into the worlds of celebrity and music. A chance encounter between two hitchhiking Family members and Dennis Wilson lead to the Beach Boy falling under the spell of Manson. Wilson labelled Manson “the Wizard” and the “most tuned-in dude I know”, and introduced him to Doris Day’s only son Terry Melcher, the influential West Coast producer best known for his work with the Byrds. (Neil Young was also briefly an admirer of Manson’s scattershot and monotonous songs.) Bizarrely, Angela Lansbury’s daughter Deirdre hung out briefly with the Family, with a letter from her mother stating that all was kosher in the event of catching some heat from the cops. This is a pregnant connection for conspiranoid readers of the Manson saga, Lansbury having starred in John Frankenheimer’s mind control classic and Oswald foreshadower The Manchurian Candidate. (It was long erroneously believed that Frank Sinatra withdrew Manchurian Candidate from distribution because of its resonance to the Kennedy assassination about a year later. In reality, the film had merely outlived its commercial viability by that time. Nevertheless, you really start to go down the K-hole when you realize that the disgruntled former Kennedy supporter Sinatra had already starred in one Oswald foreshadower, 1954’s Suddenly, in which he played a war veteran who hopes to become a “somebody” by gunning down the president with a sniper rifle. Suddenly is now thought to be a strong influence on the Manchurian Candidate’s source novel, and has long been proposed as an Oswald influence. In his 2007 whitewash Reclaiming History, Manson prosecutor and Helter Skelter author Vincent Bugliosi claimed that Oswald did see Suddenly on television in October ’63, but this is widely disputed. To complicate this stew a little more, Sinatra will later turn up briefly on the set of Sharon Tate foreshadower Rosemary’s Baby, but that is getting ahead of ourselves.)
From the outside, then, the Manson family might have looked like a Magical Mystery Tour headed for the Emerald City of the new Aquarian Age. To a lot of movie and music people, day-tripping in the multiplying realities and hedonistic possibilities of the times, it certainly seemed that way. But there was only one problem: Manson remained a heavily damaged psychopathic ex-con ratfuck, and the LSD was only finding more florid forms for that psychopathology to express itself. He had awakened his followers from the programmes of mainstream middle-class American life, only to give them a new programme, every bit as authoritarian and misogynistic as the old. Meanwhile, his Jesus trip was becoming increasingly, frighteningly intense; in a clearing in the desert near their Spahn Ranch hideaway, the Mansonoids staged what Sanders calls the “world’s first outdoor LSD crucifixion ceremony.” Manson was strapped to a rustic cross while various family members played the roles of his mourners and persecutors. Finally, Manson was resurrected, precipitating the then routine Family acid-drenched orgy. (In Sinister Forces: A Grimoire of American Political Witchcraft, Peter Levenda argues that this ritualistic mock-crucifixion was an unconscious, debased version of an initiatory ritual carried out by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and that this was the moment where Manson’s brain really and truly snapped. Whether you buy this or not, LSD-fuelled mock-crucifixion is probably best not tried at home.)
One of the great ironies of the story is that Manson himself, the great deprogrammer, couldn’t debug his own life-long patterns. In some respects, the story could be read as a reiteration of the old cliché that leopards can’t change their spots, and tigers never lose their taste for raw, bloody meat. As the Family more or less settled in Spahn Ranch, a movie ranch which had provided the backdrop for episodes of Bonanza and The Lone Ranger, the dream started to unravel and crash hard into petty criminality and lysergic/messianic psychosis. Dennis Wilson and Terry Melcher began to get cold feet, as they realized that Charlie’s world was far too erratic and violent even for the saturnalia of 60s rock. Manson famously began to splice the Beatles’ White Album together with passages from the Book of Revelation to create an absurd race war apocalypse scenario which quickly became a reality in the heightened and suggestible Mansonoid Now. On the nights of August 8th and 9th, 1969, various Manson family members went on a home invasion/killing spree which has horrified and fascinated America ever since. The motives have been endlessly theorized: retribution for a drug burn or Terry Melcher’s fame burn; a drug-addled ploy to get Kenneth Anger and Arthur Lee associate Bobby Beausoleil out of prison or a mind control ploy to discredit and shut down the counterculture; motiveless acid-frazzled madness or occult ritual, and so on, and on. The killing of eight and half months pregnant Sharon Tate and Hollywood hairdressing wizard and bon vivant Jay Sebring at 10050 Cielo Drive sent shockwaves through Hollywood’s hip set; rumours of star studded pornographic films and occult kinkiness swirled in the air like a gossipy fever-dream from Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon. A post-Manson issue of Esquire ran the cover-story “Evil lurks in California. Lee Marvin is afraid.” A kind of Rubicon had surely been crossed when even a bad-ass like Marvin gets the fear.
A work of art isn’t any great shakes if it doesn’t speak to you on some kind of personal level; however, you might want to put on the brakes if you feel like a work of art looked YOU up specially in the phone book to pass on a message or give you instructions….or screw with your head. In several of his fictions, William Burroughs describes an agent who receives his instructions from random sensory signals in the world around him: from snatches of overhead conversation, popular songs, an advertisement seen on a bus, and so on. Of course, Burroughs’ agent could merely be a schizophrenic; or, as in the case of Burroughs himself, a shamanic artist or creative paranoiac. Excessive psychedelic use can sometimes lead to a collapsing of the boundary between the ego and external world whereby the user begins to receive instructions from popular artworks, and a kind of chaotic rather than creative paranoia sets in. Something like this happened with Manson and the works of the Beatles, particularly the White Album. The following anecdote is not directly related to the Manson story, but essays a similar cautionary theme, with tangentially related personnel.
A few years after The Manchurian Candidate, John Frankenheimer made a movie called Seconds with Rock Hudson. Seconds is a surreal neo-noir sci-fi thriller with the vibe of an extended Twilight Zone episode:
In Seconds, a depressed, unhappily married middle-aged man played by John Randolph encounters a strange organisation known only the “Company”. The Company offers people the opportunity to “die” and be reborn with a new identity, a premise echoed in David Fincher’s inferior The Game. (Manson offered his followers a similar kind of death and rebirth trip.) First, their death is faked; then their appearance is altered via extensive plastic surgery and physical conditioning; finally, they begin their new life as a “Second.” The overweight and middle-class Randolph is reborn as a younger artist named Tony Wilson, played by Hollywood double-lifer Rock Hudson.
In 1966, Beach Boy Brian Wilson was working on the torturous and exhausting Smile sessions; due to excessive LSD use and various mental problems, he was tethering on the brink of schizophrenia. Wilson arrived late at a screening of Seconds, and the first line of dialogue he heard as he took his seat was “Come in, Mr Wilson.” Adrift in his own total Now of heightened suggestibility, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Brian Wilson was profoundly spooked by Seconds. In the months after seeing the film, he often fantasized about escaping from the pressures of his own life in the manner suggested by the film. On other occasions, he slipped into a truly conspiranoid reality tunnel in which rival pop genius Phil Spector had somehow conspired the production and release of Seconds specifically to fuck with his mind. The experience was so shattering that Wilson didn’t venture back into a movie theatre until ET in 1982.
Seconds is a beautifully photographed and sorely neglected classic. Since Phil Spector is currently doing 19 to life, it is completely safe to watch.