I think the most eloquent words ever on the subject of the Manson Family were from Winifred Chapman, the Polanskis’s housekeeper, on the morning of August 9th, 1969: “Murder! Death! Bodies! Blood!

Everything else is just commentary.

Libraries have been written about the Family, the victims, the murders, the context. The Manson phenomenon links into so many things—Hollywood, the counterculture, the Sixties, the media, the myth of the West, the myth of Los Angeles. So many links that it seems this must mean something, but what? It’s like reading a book in a dream, when you can’t get the words to focus and you peer & squint, but they never resolve.

Charlie may have never killed anybody himself. There’s a school of Manson thought which holds that Charlie got railroaded. This is not entirely inaccurate, but I don’t care. I think the world was a better place for having Charles Manson in jail. He was the living embodiment of a bad influence.

We still don’t know why, exactly, the murders took place. Some plausible rationalizations have been given for Cielo Dive, but no one really has any firm clue why the LaBiancas were killed. The one thing nobody with any real knowledge of the case buys is the “Helter Skelter” theory, the idea that Manson was hoping to start an apocalyptic race war. This was, naturally, the basis for the convictions.

I believe Charlie’s statement that he didn’t really like the Beatles. To the extent that he admired them & wanted to be them, he wasn’t envying their musical accomplishments. He wanted their power. He wanted the same worship they received.

I can listen to “Helter Skelter” every so often. It’s an interesting forerunner of heavy metal. But I’ve only listened to “Revolution #9” once. Charlie was right about that track; it does sound like the Tribulation. It’s got a real bad vibe.

I’ve also no doubt that people were listening to the White Album at the Spahn and Barker ranches, and that Charlie declaimed on it. Bugliosi took the chatter, the injokes and common delusions, and systematized them. He made the Family seem much more coherent than it was. We should remember that when we look at history, at our tendency to read order into disorganized things.

The idea of Helter Skelter was at least more interesting than the truth, the facts about a bunch of stupid, gullible kids trying to impress the psychopathic hard case who’d beguiled them. We want things to be more interesting. If we did know the truth of why the victims were lost, it’d probably be as idiotic as “trying to get Bobby out of jail.”

Bugliosi introduced me to the case, as he did so many. I can’t remember when I first saw the book Helter Skelter, but I must have been age 11 or so. I first finished it when I was about 15, staying up until 2AM reading. I was too terrified to turn out the light, so I read further, growing yet more terrified.

Charlie’s problem—in terms of his musical career, anyway—was that singer/songwriters weren’t big in ’68. If he’d just managed to hang on until James Taylor blew up, he might have made it. Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell, Don McLean, and Charles Manson.

Music. If we’re not going to let Mrs. Chapman’s be the last words, maybe the better resort is music.

When I was a kid, I heard a song on the radio, an instrumental with a strong, sad harmonica rift. The memory of that song stuck with me for the next three decades, even though I never heard it again. Sometimes I wondered if I had imagined it.

In the summer of 2009, around the 40th anniversary of the murders, I did a Youtube search for “tate/labianca”–and found it. The song turned out to be the theme to “Midnight Cowboy” by the Percy Faith Orchestra. Someone put together a montage of clippings & photos from the time and set it to this tune. I rediscovered my long-lost song only to find it connected to The Family.

I resented that for a while. I didn’t want my fond childhood memory tainted by blood. But eventually I gave in, because it’s the right song. It’s appropriate. It’s mournful and lonely. It fits.

Murder. Death. Bodies. Blood. The sound of a lonesome harmonica. After half a century, there’s nothing else left to say.

Fifty years ago right about now the sun was sinking into the black, black ocean. Sharon and her friends went to El Coyote. At Spahn Ranch, things were tense. Mary and Sandy had gotten themselves arrested. Gary was already dead.

G’night, Sharon. G’night, Jay. G’night, Wojciech. G’night, Abby. G’night, Steve.

(Anybody wanna buy a clock radio?)

A car left the ranch. It drove onto the freeway and headed for the hills.

In recent weeks, the people of Hong Kong have been leading protests against the threat of Chinese oppression. Today in India, the government announced they intend to revoke the statue that allows the state of Kashmir self-determination and will split it into two union territories, ruled directly from New Delhi.

These are two instances of the same phenomena. In both cases, the vicissitudes of history have made these territories extraordinary. Nationalism cannot stand that. They must be reduced, brought into the fold, broken and remolded and melted into the whole.

In both cases, there is a larger picture. If the Chinese government cannot keep Hong Kong placid, what hope do they have of ever enticing Taiwan to rejoin the motherland? If, after more than 70 years, Kashmir still chafes at Indian rule, what hope is there for the unification of Akhand Bharat?
Yet, to the nationalist mindset, it would be intolerable to let them go. Thought form is destiny. If the people of these territories will not see reason, they will see force. They will be made to see the glory of New China/Bharat Mata.

There’s a basic problem in that the Enlightment idea of human rights was developed in the Western sphere (despite the fact that those of the Western sphere have often ignored it). Therefore in the other major spheres–the Islamic sphere, the Sinosphere, and the Indosphere–there will always be some measure of resentment of the idea. It will always, to some degree, be considered an alien intrusion. In these days of rising nationalism, that degree is increasing.

The ironic thing is that the idea of the nation state was also developed in the Western sphere, but hardcore factions of all spheres seem to take to it like a duck to bread.

But whatever intellectual chuckling I get to have at the nationalists of other spheres ignoring the foreign origins of their actions is bullshit compared to what’s at stake. Kashmir has been an oozing sore for decades. The Chinese government, judging from Xinjiang, seems enthusiastic about crackdown.

Power to the people. To the people of Hong Kong. To the people of Kashmir. It’s hard to see how all this will turn out well. But there’s still hope.

Nuclear fusion occurs in nature all the time. It’s that big hot thing in the sky. We all know that.

But does nuclear fission every occur in nature?

The answer is: yes. Once, that we know of. 1.7 billion years ago, in what is currently, but was not then, Gabon, veins of uranium ore arranged themselves just so and were affected just right so that nuclear fission spontaneously began.

But how did this affect the life forms atop the land? Did they mutate and acquire superpowers? IS THIS HOW DINOSAURS BEGAN?

No. Because multicellular life as we know it only started about 600 million years ago.

As with so much of natural history, the only witnesses were protozoa, and they weren’t in the habit of filming newsreels.

Tonight the city is full of morgues
And all the toilets are overflowing
There’s shopping malls coming out of the walls
As we walk out among the manure
That’s why
I pay no mind

Twenty-five years ago this summer, I and a group of my friends remained on campus in Western Pennsylvania. It was a pleasant time, the summer before our senior year, the last season of freedom before the world was forced upon us.

Beck’s first album, Mellow Gold, was popular that summer. I played it often in our sweltering little apartment. Besides “Loser,” the hit single, two songs really stuck out: “Pay No Mind (Snoozer)” and “Whiskeyclone, Hotel City 1997

Rattlesnake on the ceiling
Gunpowder on my sleeve
I will live here forever
With the ocean and the bees
Lay it on to the dawn
Everything we’ve done is wrong
I’ll be lonesome when I’m gone
Lay it on to the dawn

My summer job was shelving in the library. It was not demanding. I had plenty of time to pursue the stacks.

City of Quartz.” What a great title! What’s it about? It’s about Los Angeles and its fate.

My interest in Southern California had already been primed by a few things, such as Bruce Wagner’s miniseries Wild Palms (in which the themes of Southern California become the natural end of the entire country) and the essay collection Sex, Death, and God in L.A.—not to mention a longtime interest in the Manson Family (more on that next week). But Mike Davis’s neo-Marxist jeremiad reframed things. Davis had been lucky enough to sync with the ’92 riots, making him hailed as a prophet. His vision of Los Angeles, a rivalry between sunshine and noir on the brink of implosion, vibrated within my college-junior skull.

All the time I kept listening to Beck, kept listening to those two tracks on Mellow Gold. The most curious reveries filled my head.

In those songs, I heard a desiccated slow-apocalypse, the logical end of the City of Quartz. A crumbling motel next to empty dusty bungalows, the skeletons of realtors and talent agents left abandoned in empty swimming pools. Faceless cops patrolling the canyons. Luxury cars burning on the freeways. An infinite beach, because the tide kept going out and out and never came back, ’til you could walk to Catalina.

In those moments, I understood Los Angeles. The place that will someday be erased by the earthquake. The place where “the sun gives up and sinks into the black, black ocean.”

(needle scratch)

See what I did there?

I constructed a thought form. Out of various bits of information related to the objective existence of the territory and people termed “Los Angeles” and “Southern California” (used interchangeably), I formed a mental image and interacted with it, creating emotional responses that could lead to action. In this case, a variety of elements came together in my head to form a strongly “noir” picture of the city.

This fashioning didn’t really have any consequences. I was just a college student; I had no power to make them a reality. But it could have if I had gone on to have any power over, say, federal funding to Southern California.

Really, there was never any real threat that this thought form could lead to action, because I was skeptical enough about it even at the time. I did once warn someone against moving to L.A., but not seriously.

I touched on thought forms here. Thinking back to the summer of ’94, it occurred to me that my mental L.A. was a glass-case example. Note this thought form was developed from a poor & entirely theoretical information base—a few books, movies, and miscellaneous media. Most of our thought forms are developed on such poor bases, and, due to the Problem of Information, no one’s forms can encompass a significant amount of the relevant data.

Often our thought forms harden. We form them in youth and then invest ourselves in them. Information that reinforces our favored forms is welcomed; information that undermines them is passed over or rationalized away. We make the world we see and then we see the world we make.

But in the case of my view of L.A., I can report that I was not content to leave things on an last-chapter-of-Less Than Zero note. Steve Martin helped. His L.A. Story and the essay on Los Angeles in Pure Drivel paint the city as a place of ironic joys. There are countervailing voices, if you listen hard enough.

In the end, all our thought forms stand as beetles against the obelisk of reality. The actual thing called “Los Angeles” is the aggregate of every life carried out within its borders. Some end wonderfully, some horribly, all in infinite variety, each one slightly different. There’s no way to grasp it all. Lived experience will always ooze around our expectations.

Since 1994, I’ve actually been to Los Angeles. Just once, on a happy occasion, for a weekend. We drove the length of Santa Monica Boulevard, rode the ferris wheel at the pier, saw the moonlight on the Pacific surf while jets from LAX soared aloft like angels. It was beautiful. We can never comprehend the totality of real life. But every little bit helps.

Iago Didymus knew immediately he was in a dream. This increased, not decreased his fear. Wizards have many more dangers in dreams than in waking life.

He was walking down a country road, through deserted fields. The sky was gray, everything was gray. He could see no one. As he walked, he came to a small, squat church. The steeple keeled over. Holes stared through the stained-glass saints in the windows. Next to the church lay a graveyard, surrounded by a waist-high wall. Inside the graveyard stood himself.

No, not himself, but a thing that looked exactly like him. The thing stared at him with hollow eyes. When he reached the wall, Iago could see its feet were ankle-deep in an open grave.

The thing bore no expression. But Iago knew it was filled with hatred for him. He knew that the wall was the only thing keeping him safe. So why was he moving toward the graveyard gate?

His feet inexorably padded toward the gothic arch of the gate. The thing’s head moved to track him.

Wake up, he told himself. Wake up.

His hand emerged from his pocket and fumbled toward the brass latch of the gate door. A tiny smile appeared on the thing’s face.

Wake up. Wake up.

His hand grasped the latch and began to turn.


Iago found himself face down in his pillow smothering himself. He convulsed backward, gasping for air. He pointed toward the candle on his bedstand and conjured a flame, a light to keep away evil.

There didn’t appear to be anything there. He curled up against the head of his bed and recited the Three Great Spells of Revelation. Nothing appeared.

Trembling, Iago retrieved his pipe and tobacco from the bedstand. There would be no more sleep tonight. He lit his pipe, sat in bed, and wondered why his brother wanted to kill him

The thing in the dream had been his brother. “Didymus,” he took as his nomme arcane, The Twin. For he had been born a twin. His brother had died in the womb, and Iago had only seen him in dreams. Twice before, he had dreamed of his brother. The first time was during the plague that carried off their mother and sisters. The second had been during a dark time that every aspiring wizard must face, a time when he must decide whether to pursue necromancy and worse arts or reject them. On both occasion, the dream had presaged baleful things.

Why did his brother hate him? Had Iago wronged him somehow, even before they were born? Or was it simple jealousy that Iago had lived and he had not? What was dread event was he happily presaging?

Eventually, dawn came. Iago feel back asleep, and did not dream.

Age makes monks of us all
Stripping away pleasure from pleasure
Turning our minds toward death and time
Doctors give discipline as abbots
No wine, no salt, no cheese, no oil
A liturgy of pills, taken by the Hours
So we watchfully approach our end
Let us keep at least our memories
Yet even they might be required from us
Lord, let thou thy servant depart in peace
Having endured thy salvation