Manson Family

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.