Charles Manson is famous for one thing, and it’s not his music.
When Manson died on Nov. 19, 2017, at the age of 83, the major media outlets rushed to publish retrospectives of his life as the mastermind behind nine brutal murders committed by members of the Manson Family in 1969. The majority of these articles followed a predictable template: a thumbnail sketch of Manson’s troubled childhood, followed by an overview of his rise to power as the charismatic leader of a group of young middle-class dropouts at the height of the 1960s counterculture movement. Then came an analysis of Manson’s manipulation of his followers, which forged an unshakable loyalty and willingness to do anything for him — even commit murder. A where-are-they-now of his followers typically served as a wrap-up.
But the one thing these long-form obituaries neglected to explore was why he did it.
Though many touched on Manson’s obsession with The Beatles’ White Album, particularly the song “Helter Skelter,” which inspired his way-out theory about an impending apocalyptic race war that the murders, including actress Sharon Tate, was supposed to catalyze, this musical connection may be the key to understanding what motivated Manson’s evolution from ex-con to hippie guru to murderous cult leader.
Four years prior to Manson’s death, Jeff Guinn offered an intriguing theory about what was going on in Manson’s head throughout his life, even during his most illogical and brutal moments. His heavily researched Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson argues that Manson wasn’t in it for the race war or the perverted vision of the hippie ethos or even “the crazy.”
He was trying to become a rock star.
The quest for fame
Born to a teenaged single mother (sometimes portrayed as a prostitute) in 1934, Manson spent the first 32 years of his life in and out of prison. In early 1967, released yet again, he headed to San Francisco with a plan, and it involved the guitar he’d learned to play in prison.
Styling himself as a sort of troubadour-cum-guru in the epicenter of the hippie subculture, Manson quickly attracted a following that would later become the infamous Manson Family cult. More surprising, his music also attracted the attention of big name L.A. musicians and producers, including The Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson, songwriter and producer Terry Melcher, The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd agent Gary Stromberg, songwriter Gregg Jakobson, The Mamas & The Papas guitarist and singer John Phillips, and influential agent Rudi Altobelli. His followers also managed to get his songs in front of The Mamas & The Papas singer Cass Elliot, The Doors producer Paul Rothchild, and singer-songwriter Frank Zappa.
But it was all for naught.
“Making even one of these contacts would have been beyond the grasp of almost all of the other would-be rock stars who flocked to L.A. daily. Charlie had enjoyed far more than his share of access and it still came to nothing,” Guinn writes.
Well, not exactly nothing.
“To get some idea of how his songs might sound on tape, Jakobson booked a quickie recording session for Charlie at a small studio in Van Nuys. Charlie brought the Family along; on some of the tunes the girls sang amateurish, quavery backup,” Guinn recounts. “The results were listenable but not much more. It was hard to tell whether Charlie was no more than an average musical talent or else hampered by limited studio equipment.”
An “average musical talent” or not, in short order one of Manson’s songs, “Cease to Exist,” would be recorded by The Beach Boys.
The Beach Boys slapped a puzzling double-negative laden title on it and issued it as a B-side single, “Never Learn Not to Love,” at the tail-end of 1968. It was not a hit. In response, the band gave Dennis Wilson songwriting credit and re-released it on their 1969 album 20/20. Again, it was not a hit.
Notes Guinn, “As it turned out, Charlie was the uncredited composer of a failed song.”
During this time, Manson was busy orchestrating Helter Skelter and training his followers to kill. But even the apocalypse could wait if it meant Manson could advance his musical career.
“In mid-March, Charlie received word that Terry Melcher would finally come to hear him perform some of his songs. Charlie had been keeping everyone busy preparing for Helter Skelter, but a cataclysmic race war paled compared to Charlie finally getting a record deal. All of his followers were ordered to drop everything else and prepare.”
Again, nothing came of the Melcher connection, but Manson had bigger problems. The cult committed the first of their infamous home-invasion multiple murders (not so coincidentally, at a home owned by Rudi Altobelli and previously occupied by Melcher) on Aug. 9, 1969, and the second the next day on Aug. 10. Manson and his followers were arrested just two months later in October 1969. Less than a year later, in July 1970, the trial began. And by April 1971, Manson was in prison on seven counts of first-degree murder and one count of conspiracy to commit murder, staring down a death sentence.
But there was an upside: He was finally famous.
“Charlie enjoyed his newfound fame, but it wasn’t enough. He still wanted to be a rock star, and thought he knew how to do it. There were tapes of him performing his songs,” writes Guinn. “People would rush to buy them.”
As it turned out, people did not rush to buy the 2,000 copies of the album, which was titled LIE: The Love and Terror Cult, a parody of the famous LIFE magazine cover of Manson.
“No one wanted to stock it. It was one thing for head shop owners to find Charlie fascinating, but another to seemingly endorse murder by offering his record for sale,” Guinn notes. “There was no market, underground or otherwise, for a Charlie Manson album.”
LIE featured 14 songs, including the original version of “Cease to Exist,” “Home is Where You’re Happy” covered in the 1980s by The Lemonheads, and “Look at Your Game, Girl” covered by Guns N’ Roses in the 1990s. A handful of lyrics were also used by his demi-namesake, Marilyn Manson, in “My Monkey.”
Are Manson’s songs any good? Surprisingly, yes. They’re not the work of a superstar by any means, and a few offer little more than the wild ramblings you’d expect from Charles Manson (“Big Iron Door” has a cool title and little else to recommend it; “Home is Where You’re Happy” sounds like it came off the soundtrack of a generic, hippie-era B-movie starring Peter Fonda; “Arkansas” is straight-up bizarre and “Garbage Dump” is garbage).
But the opening track, “Look at Your Game, Girl,” is actually pretty damn good. It’s better, in fact, than the cover released by legit Grammy-nominated rock stars.
Taken as a whole, the album comes off less as the demented rantings of a psychopathic killer, and more like the mediocre first effort of a later-successful singer-songwriter before his agent shipped him off to Germany to hone his style and get some stage practice, à la Manson’s beloved Beatles.
So, what held Charles Manson back from becoming a rock star? He had the personal magnetism to attract ludicrously devoted fans. He also had, according to contemporary accounts, a compelling performance style that masked the lion’s share of his technical inadequacies. He certainly had the drive, and his networking skills were phenomenal. And, if “Look at Your Game, Girl” and “Cease to Exist” are any indication, he had at least as much talent as, say, Herman’s Hermits (also Grammy nominees, not Manson admirers).
Some believe it was “the crazy” that held him back. And that seems like the obvious answer — so obvious it might just be wrong.
A few say Manson’s was a case of wrong era, wrong genre.
“Jakobson had been around lots of successful artists, even some musical geniuses like Brian Wilson, and he thought Charlie had them all beat when it came to improvising,” Guinn writes. “Years later, Jakobson thought that Charlie would have been a natural rap music performer, ‘reporting’ in songs all the latest details of the hard life out on the streets.”