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Sixties

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.

I’m going to tell you about a moment. A matter of several minutes in my life.

This moment occurred in the late June of one of my high school years, either 1989 or 1990. School was not a comfortable place for me. I was a definite nerd. While I had my small group of friends, the larger student body had no use for me. My grades were decent, but I didn’t particularly enjoy academics, preferring my own intellectual pursuits. But school was out. I was savoring the liberation of summer, and it was June: the plenty of summer—not the nervous waning days of August, but the fat of summer, the overflowing cup of summer.

This moment occurred at our family cottage in New Hampshire, on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee. That locale has always been where I have felt happiest, since my first visit at the age of three weeks. My family had just arrived. It was night—the trip took a while. It was warm. We had put away our luggage. Mom was making up the beds.

The moment began when someone—I’m not sure who—snapped on the old GE portable radio kept at the cottage so we could listen to broadcast of Red Sox games. There was no Red Sox game. The radio played Tommy James and the Shondells’ “Crystal Blue Persuasion.”

Time changed for me.

I knew the song. VH1 had a show, hosted by Peter Noone, “My Generation,” on which I had seen a video. Not one of the emblematic songs of the Sixties, but I knew it anyway. Even at that age, I had a seeking interest in the Sixties. Heck, I once wrote an entire blog about it. The question of the Sixties grabbed me from an early age, for reasons I still don’t entirely understand.

With the opening notes of the song, time changed. I was still in the main room of the cottage, but it wasn’t the Eighties or Nineties anymore. Which isn’t to say it was the Sixties, either. I was overwhelmed with the sense that the room in which I was sitting had been there, much the same, twenty years before. Time was one. There was no distinction between that year and my own. “Crystal Blue Persuasion” is a trancey, languid song. That had something to do with it. All I knew was that as long as it played, the moment, that unified moment, continued. I was free and safe and connected. It was a variant of ecstatic experience.

Then the song ended. The sensation ended with it. I returned to the present. The rest of my family didn’t even know anything had happened.

Over a quarter-century later, I still remember the moment. A moment in most ways wholly unremarkable, yet one of the most intense moments ever given me in my entire life. Did I live in the Sixties? No, but I got to touch them for about four minutes once.

I have always heard the Doors’ “Light My Fire” thusly

The time to hesitate is through
No time to wallow in the mire
China we can only lose
And our love become a funeral pyre

Let me explain. There was a phrase, common in the McCarthy era: “Who Lost China?” As in, who was responsible for allowing good, decent, Pearl-Buckesque China to be subsumed by the Kremlin Red Slava Rodina Konspiracy (Spoiler: McCarthy, upon consultation with what he pulled out of his own ass, decided it was Owen Lattimore)? By including the saying in “Light My Fire,” Jim Morrison was mocking the anticommunist piety of the previous decade, putting the ghost of Tailgunner Joe on the altar of his Fire

Did I honestly ever think those were the lyrics? Not really. But that’s what hit my brain.

(I also got the first line wrong, though not in any way that changed the meaning)

“Scars of Sweet Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin,” by Alice Echols

Very good bio of Janis, well conveys the transition between the folk/beatnik early Sixties and the rock/hippie High Sixties (a transition that Janis herself experienced). Things that stick with me are:

-the idea of the “Saturday Night Swindle,” which Janis heard from her father: “…about how you hear over and over that if you work real hard, you’ll go out Saturday night and have a really good time. And everybody lives for that good time, but it never really happens.”

-that Mnasidika, one of the first hip businesses in Haight-Ashbury, was originally intended as a store for lesbians. Due to lack of lesbians in the neighborhood, it switched focus to hippies.

-From Linda Gravenites, one of the best one-sentence summaries of the Haight I’ve ever heard: “Up until then [1967], people came because they were full to overflowing and were sharing their fullness. After that, it was the empties who came, wanting to be filled.”

The story of Janis herself is very sad, a cautionary tale of wanting fame and getting it. The main testimony to Echols’s abilities as a biographer is that you want to reach into the page and give Janis a hug, to comfort her. But it’s far too late for that.