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2019 marks fifty years since Woodstock, the height of counterculture. While we celebrate the anniversary of that hippie dream, it’s also a reminder of the cloud of darkness that settled over that very movement. A time when the hills of Los Angeles became a place of murder and bloodshed.
At the heart of the story is the notorious Charles Manson, a man featuring prominently in Quentin Tarantino’s latest. The complete story, however, involves a bigger cast. Including a Beach Boy and The Beatles — specifically their sprawling 1968 masterpiece The White Album.
By 1968, cracks were appearing for the The Beatles. Factors like the death of handler Brian Epstein, along with internal conflicts, had divided this once unstoppable force. Egos rose to the surface, and already thoughts of solo projects had entered each of their heads. Some had even started to record separately. This turmoil was the catalyst for The White Album. It was the anti-Sgt. Pepper — no lavish packaging, merely a minimalist white cover with the name indented on the sleeve. The individual photos of each of The Beatles included inside, a sign of the collective pressure.
The late producer George Martin always stated how good a single album it would have made, however, looking back, all the tracks paint a picture — not of perfection but of the band and its state of mind. Perhaps the best example of this is the last verse of George Harrison’s ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’. Left off the original album, it points to the mood within the camp. A mood which would explode the following year in the well documented Let It Be Sessions.
The Beatles’ retreat to Rishikesh in India inspired the album. The track ‘Dear Prudence’ is directly about Mia Farrow’s sister (Prudence Farrow) who was present in India and obsessed with meditation. But it was ‘Sexy Sadie’ which illuminated the shadow at the heart of that trip. The song was directed at the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who had made indecent sexual advances towards Mia Farrow. This was the red flag for The Beatles to flee not only India, but the spiritual enlightenment they sought. Lennon re-wrote the original lyrics from, “Maha-rishi what have you done?”.
The White Album became Charles Manson’s latest obsession at the time of its release. In particular the abstract John Lennon song ‘Revolution #9’, which Manson misinterpreted as a reference to the bible passage Revelations 9. This inspired him to send the four Manson family members to 10050 Cielo Drive, on August 9, 1969.
“And the four angels who had been kept ready for this very hour and day and month and year were released to kill a third of mankind.” — Revelations 9:15
The widely publicised, horrific torture and murder targeted six people, including a pregnant Sharon Tate. An incomprehensible horror in a modern society.
Maybe the motive had more to do with music than a strike against the upper class — both Manson’s own music and that of his favourite band. In Manson’s mind, there was a prophecy in the music. Songs like ‘Blackbird’, ‘Piggies’, and, most prominently, ‘Helter Skelter’ — the title of which appeared in blood at the scene. For Manson, all foretold a bloody, apocalyptic race war. But when the battle failed to arrive, he decided to kickstart it with the murders. Even the poignant ‘Rocky Raccoon’ spurred Manson on, as he found a racial slur in the lyrics, taking this as reason enough to revolt.
Enter the seventh victim of Charles Manson that night. Dennis Wilson was the original Beach Boy — the one who could actually surf. The good looking guy who would spend days at the beach partying, surfing, and picking up girls, he was everything the Beach Boys sang about on those early records. Though sometimes overshadowed by his brothers Brian and Carl, he proved himself more than just a drummer, coming into his own as a songwriter. Wilson’s only solo album, 1977 release Pacific Ocean Blue, is a testament to his abilities. The record even outsold The Beach Boys’ efforts at that point.
A flirtation with darkness has long been attributed to rock stars. From Elvis to Jim Morrison there has always been a perception of that need to push beyond the boundaries of society. Sometimes out of boredom, others because of excessive wealth or addiction.
Towards the end of spring 1968, Dennis Wilson picked up two female hitchhikers. The hitchhikers, Patricia Krenwinkel and Ella Jo Bailey, both turned out to be members of Manson’s cult, his so-called “Family”. He dropped them off at their destination, but a few days later their paths met again. This time they headed directly to his mansion, 14400 Sunset Boulevard.
Wilson left for a while to go to the recording studio, where both he and the Beach Boys were deep in the recording the Friends album. With the sessions continuing through the night, Wilson headed home at dawn, only to meet a crazed stranger in his driveway — Charles Manson. Taken unawares, Manson’s next act did little to alleviate Wilson’s anxiety. As the story goes, Manson knelt down and kissed his feet.
Wilson ultimately befriended Manson, even allowing Manson and his “family” live at his home, with the promise that Wilson would record him and make him famous. Of course, this is where things turned sour. The Manson penned original ‘Cease To Exist’ was recorded by The Beach Boys and credited as a Dennis Wilson original with a new title, ‘Never Learn Not To Love’. The song was released as the B-side to The Beach Boys single ‘Bluebirds Over The Mountain’ in December 1968.
On their next album, 20/20, from February 1969, Wilson alone took credit for the song. Here is the first cog in the wheel of events leading to the murders. Some say Wilson ripped off the track, others say Manson wrote it for the Beach Boys and was paid — in the form of money and a motorcycle — for the rights. Little is clear, but to say Manson got angry is an understatement. Indeed, he made his feelings clear by sending Wilson a bullet with his name on it.
Terry Melcher met Manson through Wilson. Melcher, a hotshot producer, had been the man behind the success of The Byrds and The Mamas & The Papas. The producer, however, refused Manson a record deal, citing his musical direction as unsuitable for current Los Angeles trends. Melcher’s relevance is that he originally lived at 10050 Cielo Drive in the Hollywood Hills with his girlfriend, actor Candice Bergmen. Shortly after severing ties with Manson, Melcher moved out of Cielo Drive, leaving the owner, Rudi Altobelli, to rent it out. Altobelli leased the house to film director Roman Polanski and his wife Sharon Tate. In the aftermath of the murders, Melcher went into hiding, fearing a reprisal from the remaining members of the ‘Family’.
”As long as I live, I’ll never talk about that.” — Dennis Wilson
Guilt and pain hung around Wilson’s neck like a noose, tightened slowly by Manson himself. His spectre haunted Wilson. In some ways, it may have contributed to his spiralling drug addiction, tendency toward self-destruction and, eventually, his tragic death in 1983.
To say The Beatles were responsible for a series of murders is ridiculous, and the influence of The White Album goes far beyond Manson. Countless artists have covered tracks from the record. U2 covered the aforementioned ‘Helter Skelter’, as did Motley Crue. Tori Amos covered ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’, while Siouxsie and The Banshees delivered a sublime ‘Dear Prudence’. John Denver made ‘Mother Nature’s Son’ his own, and The Pixies recreated ‘Wild Honey Pie’, turning it into their own violent ramble.
Charles Manson achieved what he had set out to do, attaining the kind of rock star fame he craved. His face even appeared on the cover of a 1970 edition of Rolling Stone Magazine. That same year saw the release of his album — Lie: The Love And Terror Cult.
Legend has it that while awaiting trial, Charles Manson’s only concern was the album’s release. His then associate, producer Phil Kaufman, had urged him to record his songs back in 1968. After Manson’s arrest, he was receiving phone calls five days a week from the incarcerated cult leader. Manson urged him to get the recordings out there while his notoriety was at its peak and, of course, he gave in out of fear. The fear Manson had long used as a source of control. Wilson’s dance with the devil came at a terrible price, damaging Wilson himself and taking lives in the process.