The second of a non-concurrent three-part series on major events in our recent history which will be commemorating their fiftieth anniversary this summer. As they approached, it turns out, for me, the memories of these significant dates brought vivid childhood reflections that have remained with me and would be integral to my view of self, America, and society at large.
All those pathetically eager acid freaks who thought they could buy Peace and Understanding for three bucks a hit. But their loss and failure are ours too. What Leary took down with him was the central illusion of a whole life-style that he helped create… a generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, who never understood the essential old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody… or at least some force – is tending the light at the end of the tunnel. — Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
In the wee hours on the morning of August 9, 1969, four ragamuffin refugees from the California commune/cult acid culture, hijacked by a lunatic thirty-four-year-old con man, pimp, murderer— Charles Milles Manson—slipped over the high steel black fencing of 10050 Cielo Drive, in Benedict Canyon, Los Angeles. Once on the grounds they shot to death an eighteen-year-old student, who was merely visiting a friend that worked the grounds of the estate, and then proceeded inside the mansion to massacre (in the most brutal way) five people, none of whom they had ever so much as met. The screams of the victims, some of them high profile names of American business royalty and one—the young, beautiful, nearly nine-months pregnant actress, Sharon Tate, then the wife of celebrated Polish film-maker, Roman Polanski—could be heard echoing through the Hollywood Hills. The crippling fear it engendered in the community, and eventually the nation, would be deeply embedded in our collective psyche forever. But perhaps the most jarring cultural/generational impact of these few hours of this extremely bloody and random violence was further imprinted by the cryptic messages smeared along the walls of the palatial estate:
Piggies.Arise. Helter Skelter.
Unlike the moon landing, which I discussed two weeks ago, what would be known as the Manson Murders was not an immediate social-shattering event until the facts began to unfold. This bizarre unraveling would tumble well into the next decade, as the 35-year-old California District Attorney Vincent Bugliosi would investigate, try, and convict Manson and his zombie cohorts, Charles “Tex” Watson (age 23), Susan Atkins (21), Patricia Krenwinkel (21), and Leslie Van Houten (19) for these premeditated murders (12/13/71), then publish a book (Helter Skelter—The True Story of the Manson Murders with Curt Gentry, 1974) that would cement its iconography for all time. A TV film was made in 1976, which I saw at 13 and it frightened me like nothing I had experienced – and I was an avid horror buff. Later, when I read Bugliosi’s detailed accounts, it further intrigued and truly weirded me out. So much so that most of my friends, my beloved cousin (sis) Michelle, and any poor bastard who might saunter up to me at a party, had to hear about this thing. Shit, the first conversation I would have with the woman who would become my wife surrounded this ghastly tale.
What these cultist, even ritualistic murders would do to Hollywood, and as stated the nation—by the way, these kids went to another middle-aged couple’s house in the area later on August 9 and once again massacred its inhabitants, again festooning bloody messages everywhere—was further exacerbated by its gruesomely puzzling subtext.
It is difficult to separate the “hippie era” of chemical experimentation, free love, and egalitarian constructs and brush past Charles Manson and his “Family,” a distilled group of impossibly young runaways and vagabonds mixed with virulent bikers, rapists, drug dealers, and professional criminals. Their earthy appearance enhanced by trippy language, long hair, beads, tie-dye, and quasi-spiritual granola mumbo jumbo infiltrated the otherwise peace and love edict of first the Haight Ashbury movement up in San Francisco, and predictably, the brainlessly commercial miasma of what L.A. presented for a tsunami of youth that flooded its streets for most of the decade. Essentially, Manson preyed on a youth crusade to exploit, rip-off, and eventually exact vengeance for nearly a lifetime spent in juvenile houses and prison.
But none of this occurred in a vacuum. If anything, The Family, just one of many cult/commune subcultures, illustrated a major fault line developing within the mass hallucination of what was always an unfocused generational shift existing somewhere between fuck-it and serious revolutionary politics.
From the purported and ultra-hyped Summer of Love in 1967 through the assassinations, street riots and horrors of Vietnam that wreaked havoc in 1968, the relentless heat and intensity of the summer of ’69, made far eerier by the visions of men walking on the moon weeks before, would be the dramatic backdrop for the killings. The stories later of how Manson maniacally brainwashed these otherwise naïve children of our white, privileged, middle-class American Dream with sex and drugs, bent on the queer interpretations of strangely opaque songs by the deified Beatles and the Bible’s apocalyptic Book of Revelation as a template to terrorist mayhem, trembled the zeitgeist. All of this would usher in the pessimistic realities of the nineteen-seventies, nineteen-eighties’ plastic evangelical, unchecked greed, and finally the shrugging apathies of the century’s final decade.
In other words, Charles Manson killed “The Sixties”. Within months the aforementioned Beatles, who more or less invented and then provided a soundtrack for its times, would fracture, a concert in the hills of northern California would result in violence and murder, protesting college kids would be gunned down at Kent State, and Richard Nixon would polarize the country and then obliterate any trust in our institutions.
The reason why so many late seventies punks and anti-establishment figures of the following decades would wear Manson’s image on their shirts or evoke these thumb-in-the-eye actions against the status quo as a symbol of fear is that the influence of his crimes rose above mere news. The Manson Murders were, in the most heinous way, American Art; ask Marilyn Manson (um, you get it, right?) or Oliver Stone (Natural Born Killers, 1994) or the bare aesthetics of our current smoldering violent nature splayed out over the Internet, on TV, and in our neighborhoods. Cult of personality and a whiff of revulsion is how you get the over-saturated media mass-shooting celebrity demons, reality show cretins, and eventually, Donald Trump.
In the end, it is the Boomer visage of Manson that has eclipsed all of the violence, mass murder, and serial killer underbelly of American culture. He was a satanic figure to the establishment and for a time (Rolling Stone put him on the cover with the tagline, “Our Continuing Coverage of the Apocalypse”) a symbol of crass import to the counter-culture before that slid eventually into the grim realities of Hunter S. Thompson’s eulogy of “the wave” in his brilliant Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the Rolling Stones brutally poignant Let It Bleed album, and the gritty, ferocious films of the auteur era (Scorsese, Peckinpah, etc.).
Turns out Charles Manson just wanted to be a rock star. He recorded mostly shitty demos for record guru Terry Melcher, who previously owned the mansion on Cielo Drive, hung out with the Beach Boys, and ingratiated himself in the Hollywood bohemian culture he sought to destroy. In reality, Manson was no hippie. He was a product of the nineteen-fifties’ have-and-have-nots insurrection that would play out in the Civil Rights movement, Beat Poetry, Be-Ins, the Berkeley Free Speech, etc., and would forge a new path; a path for a few hours on August 9, 1969 that turned down a dark and dangerous cul-de-sac and forced us to rediscover our perpetual fascination with our damaged anti-heroes; Frank and Jesse James, Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, Al Capone, Pretty “Boy” Floyd, Charles Manson.
But fear not. In less than a week, three days in a hamlet in upstate New York would offer a glimpse of light and reflect the honesty in all that the human experiment can offer to defend itself against all… that… darkness.