By Dan Herbeck
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
Charles Manson was convinced that he was destined to become one of the world’s biggest rock stars.
That never happened, but he did get to hang around a few rock stars. The one he got closest to was the late Dennis Wilson, the handsome and somewhat crazy drummer for the Beach Boys.
One summer night in 1968, Manson tagged along with Wilson, rock-and-roll producer Terry Melcher and musician Gregg Jakobson as they hit one of Los Angeles’ most popular rock hangouts, the Whisky-a-Go-Go.
Wilson was a major rock star, Melcher and Jakobson were well-known in LA’s rock world. But it was Manson – a strange-looking little nobody – who made a splash at the Whisky that night.
Wilson, Melcher and Jakobson were sitting in a booth, checking out the ladies, when they noticed a commotion on the dance floor. Everyone was leaving the floor so they could watch one man dance. The man seemed to have everyone else in a kind of trance.
“Smack in the middle of the dance floor, a single figure remained – Charlie Manson, gyrating to the music,” Jeff Guinn writes in this eerie biography. “His dancing grew increasingly maniacal; he tipped his head back and he threw out his arms ... it seemed as though electrical sparks flew from Charlie’s fingers and hair.”
The crowd at the Whisky was not the first group of people, and certainly not the last, to come under the spell of Manson, one of the most weirdly fascinating and truly evil American criminals of the past century.
Remember Manson? He was one of the bad things that happened in the 1960s – like the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and the Kennedy brothers, and the violent Rolling Stones concert at Altamont Speedway.
For those who don’t remember, Charles Manson was a mind-control expert who led the “Manson Family,” a group of people who looked like harmless hippies but in fact would sneak into peoples’ homes in the middle of the night, torture them and kill them.
Why did they do it? Mainly, because Manson told them to. After hearing the maniacal and intense “Helter Skelter” from the Beatles’ White Album, Manson somehow became convinced that the song was a call for him and others to begin a violent revolution against the “pigs” who ruled America. Breaking into homes and killing innocent people was the way to start it off, Manson decided.
His most famous victims were actress Sharon Tate and four others, whom Manson’s followers butchered in a fashionable Beverly Hills mansion in August 1969. But there were others – possibly many others, Guinn suggests in this very interesting and chilling book.
“Charlie had to point his followers to the right victims to serve his own purposes, and do it in a way that left them apparently responsible for all of it,” Guinn writes. “If something went wrong, Charlie could say it was completely their doing, not his.”
How did Manson manage to gain such total control over his followers? While spending years in prison for a series of petty crimes, he studied the teachings of Dale Carnegie and became a master salesman and manipulator. When he got out of prison in the mid-1960s, he scoured the streets for lonely, damaged women and weak-minded men who would do anything he asked them to.
Guinn, a veteran investigative reporter who has won many journalism awards in Texas, does a wonderful job of telling this story. He paints a horrifying portrait of an American monster, but also weaves Manson’s journey into the history of the 1960s – the music, the tragedies and the political upheavals that made it such a pivotal decade.
Despicable as he is, there is much to be pitied about Charles Milles Manson. He was born in Cincinnati on Nov. 12, 1934. He never really had a chance at a good life.
Manson never met his father. His mother was a troubled woman who spent time working as a prostitute and went to prison for robbery and other crimes. Young Charlie was raised by relatives, and he was always in trouble. He spent much of his youth in reformatories and youth prisons. He was a little guy who was frequently victimized by other young prisoners.
Serving time in an adult prison in California, Manson became totally obsessed with the Beatles. He got a guitar and “spent virtually every waking nonwork minute” hunched over his guitar, writing and playing songs. He was an average talent at best, but Manson convinced himself he had the makings of a superstar. He was certain he’d be every bit as big as the Beatles, maybe bigger.
Released on parole in the spring of 1967, Manson began to assemble his family. He became the hippie version of a pimp, putting together a group of young women who would beg for money, steal money and participate in orgies with drug dealers, rock stars and other people whom Manson wanted to impress.
Dennis Wilson enjoyed the orgies. He and Manson became so tight that Wilson allowed Manson and his family to move into his home for months at a time. Manson tried to convince Wilson to help him get a recording contract. Wilson tried. He helped Manson to get an audition with Melcher, the son of actress Doris Day and a fast-rising record producer. Melcher had produced huge hits for the Byrds, Paul Revere & the Raiders, the Mamas & the Papas and other bands.
Melcher heard Manson’s music and was totally unimpressed. Manson began his murder spree after being spurned by Melcher. The Tate murders took place at the Cielo Drive mansion where Melcher had previously lived with his then-girlfriend, Candice Bergen.
Guinn’s book has chilling and painful details of the murder of the pregant Tate and her friends and other Manson family murders that happened around the same time period. Some of it is not for the faint of heart.
The journalist does an excellent job telling the story of how LA cops and prosecutors pieced together the details of the slayings, and skillfully used witnesses – most of them disgruntled associates of Manson’s family – to get murder convictions for Manson and several of his followers.
Manson and four of his followers were sentenced to death in 1971, but after California abolished its death penalty, Manson was sentenced to life in prison. Now 78, he languishes in the Protective Housing Unit of a prison in Corcoron, about four hours north of LA.
According to Guinn, Manson still gets dozens of letters a month – some of it hate mail, some of it hero worship, and some of it related to a not-for-profit environmental organization Manson runs called Air Trees Water Animals.
Although he made many self-incriminating statements while ranting during his murder trial, Manson has never fully admitted his participation in the murders.
Sometimes, fellow prisoners will ask Manson what really happened back in August 1969, when all those people were killed.
“Charlie’s response is always the same,” Guinn writes. “He says, ‘I don’t know anything.’ ”
And then, Manson winks.
Manson – The Life and Times of Charles Manson
By Jeff Guinn
Simon and Schuster
495 pages, $27.50
Dan Herbeck is a veteran News reporter and the co-author, with Lou Michel, of “American Terrorist.”