Charles Manson died this week, cauterizing an open wound in the American imagination. Some believe it was during the sixties when America’s surface began to crack. Disillusioned World War 2 and Korean War vets struggled to make sense of their adult lives. The nation was rattled by the murder of their own president in 1963. Perpetual war in Vietnam created a rift in the culture, a rising movement seeking an anti-war alternative. ‘Free love.’
It was a lost country that settled on revelry as an outlet for frustration. The hippies sought to revolutionize the world through sex, drugs and rock and roll becoming the vanguard of the decade. But it was a hollow core for a politically demanding era, one that would eventually collapse on itself. All it took to exploit them was a career criminal with an LSD stash.
By the time he left prison in 1967, Charles Manson had already spent around half his life behind bars at just 32-years-old. At 13 he already had a criminal record, including armed robbery. The American counterculture he was greeted with was not one that meshed with him. He didn’t care about peace. He did like drugs, sex and pop music. He was a sociopath who did his homework on self-branding, he loved the idea of becoming famous.
Setting up shop in California, Manson wasted no time in establishing himself a place in the scene. With guitars, promises and psychedelics he was able to woo young women looking to latch onto something bigger than themselves. Wounded youth who moved to Haight Ashbury hoping to jump into the hippie revolution, only to discover it had moved on. Manson, whose jailbird streak was a selling point, offered reprise. A ‘family’ for those who still wanted the opulence seen in recent years. These women became instruments to recruitment and make Manson’s leeway into the entertainment industry.
Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys picked up two hitchhiking Manson Family members. Soon after the Family was using Wilson’s house as a crash pad, freeloading and plundering the fridge. The moment the relationship soured, the Manson Family trashed Wilson’s house and car, and the clan moved into a ranch used to film episodes of Zorro. Neil Young recalled meeting Manson, but was turned off by his intensity.
“A guy showed up, picked up my guitar, and started playing a lot of songs on it,” said Young. “His name was Charlie. He was a friend of the girls and now of Dennis. His songs were off-the-cuff things he made up as he went along, and they were never the same twice in a row. Kind of like Dylan, but different because it was hard to glimpse a true message in them… It was the ugly side of the Maharishi. You know, there’s one side of the light, nice flowers and white robes and everything, and then there’s something that looks a lot like it but just isn’t it at all.’”
Manson’s own politics were the antithesis of the 60’s counterculture, but the cult could barely tell the difference since they used the same props.
They had sex, experienced mind-altering drugs and sought a higher spiritual presence. Manson sold himself as a second coming. He obsessed over The Beatles’ White Album, believing the music had a subliminal subtext confirming his worldview. A vision he branded ‘Helter Skelter.’ Manson believed the world was heading for an apocalypse, a race war that would engulf everyone. He convinced his congregation that they could come out on top by provoking this race war. An idiot Napoleon, Manson’s schemed to recruit America’s white women into the family, ‘depriving’ black men, and wait for violence to erupt in the streets.
Manson’s desire for vengeance was numbskulled and pedestrian. Manson had it out for the Black Panthers, part of his ‘Helter Skelter’ vision. He instructed members to kill Bernard Crowe, a drug dealer he suspected to be a Black Panther. In the murder of Gary Hinman, Manson instructed his family to leave evidence that could potentially frame the Black Panthers. Sharon Tate was their most high profile victim, though Manson had hoped for Terry Melcher, the Beach Boys producer who Manson felt deprived him of stardom, but was unaware that he had sold his house to Tate and Roman Polanski.
For all the t-shirts Manson is on, he was boring. His actions were brutish and grotesque.
More than anything, his greatest accomplishment was revealing the shallow truth of a hippie movement, how easily free love could be twisted into it’s opposite.
The Tate murder happened only a week before Woodstock, hippiedom’s last gala.
Martin Luther King was assassinated in a cowardly attack against the Civil Rights Movement. Police killed protesting students at Kent State. The Manson family’s killing spree shook a liberally minded Hollywood into keeping their doors locked. Icons of Wavy Gravy were swapped for cinema’s rained upon burnouts like Philip Marlowe and eventually the tortured Travis Bickles of the world.
The 60s had plenty of progress, in tech, science, culture, and politics. But the hippies were decadence under a banner of independence. They might’ve seen something like the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and believed that if everyone simply joined them in loving each other then it would logically end hate. Manson, unstable as he was, could suss out how easy it would be to use the exact same imagery and momentum to seduce everyone into hate. Manson didn’t achieve his race war dream. America’s racism continues to do fine without him. Manson did receive his consolation prize: becoming an infamous celebrity.