Pop cultures dark obsession with Charles Manson from Guns N Roses to Mad Men
The cult leader has inspired thoughtful works of art and literary novels but is more often used as a hackneyed shortcut to outrage. Why the fascination with a white supremacist and misogynist who masterminded the murder of seven people?
here is a certain grim irony in the fact that Charles Mansons trial and conviction on seven counts of first-degree murder got him what he wanted. He finished up on the front of Rolling Stone magazine, a cover apparently designed to make him look exactly like the rock star he had always dreamed about becoming. His music got a wider audience. Before the trial was over, Mansons debut album had been released, albeit on a tiny label set up expressly for the purpose by his friend, record producer Phil Kaufman, rather than one of the major companies he had courted in the late 60s. T
That was an era when Neil Young attempted to interest Warner Bros Records in Mansons unbelievable music; an offshoot of MCA had been sufficiently interested to pay for Manson to record some demos; and Dennis Wilson had mooted him as a potential artist for the Beach Boys own label Brother, successfully lobbying the band to record one of his songs, Cease to Exist, under the title Never Learn Not to Love. And the Beatles, with whom he was obsessed, finally heard about him. I dont know what I thought when it happened. I just think a lot of the things he says are true, said John Lennon when an interviewer brought up Mansons name. That hes a child of the state, made by us. That he took their children in when nobody else would But of course hes cracked, all right hes barmy.
A quick guide to Charles Manson
Who was Charles Manson?
Charles Mansonwasone of the most notorious murderers of the 20th century. Heleda cult known as the Manson Family in California, most of whom were disaffected young women. Some became killers under his messianic influence.
Murder from afar
Despite spending more than 40 years in prison for the murders of seven people in 1969,Manson did not carry out the killings.Instead
he c onvinced members of his familyto murder. One of their victims was the actor Sharon Tate, who was married to Roman Polanski and was more than eight months’ pregnant when she was killed.
By the time of histrial in 1971, Manson hadspent half of his life in correctional institutions forvarious crimes. He became a singer-songwriter before the Tate murders andgot a break in the music industry when he met
Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson,who let him crash at his home.
It is believed that Manson intended using the murders to incite an apocalyptic race war he called Helter Skelter, taking the name from the Beatles song.
Photograph: Los Angeles Times
Thus began popular cultures curious and apparently unceasing obsession with
Charles Manson. He is the thread that links Joan Didion to Kasabian, Throbbing Gristle to NBCs David Duchovny-starring cop show Aquarius, Guns N Roses and System of a Down to Emma Clines acclaimed 2016 novel The Girls. Manson didnt just inspire film-makers to make documentaries or rework the saga of the Tate-LaBianca murders into TV movies, he inspired an entire subgenre of exploitation films, as well as a 1990 opera by composer and Philip Glass protege John Moran that improbably starred Iggy Pop as prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, and a German musical, Charles Manson: Summer of Hate, which one horrified critic compared to The Producers Springtime for Hitler.
Mad Mens Megan Draper: styled like Sharon Tate. Photograph: Michael Yarish/AMC
His influence has seeped into popular culture in more subtle ways: in season six of Mad Men, the character of Don Drapers wife Megan was deliberately styled to reference Mansons victim Sharon Tate. The recordings Manson made before the murders have spawned umpteen cover versions that stand alongside the umpteen songs inspired by or referencing Manson from Sonic Youths Death Valley 69 to David Bowies Sweet Thing to Ozzy Osbournes Bloodbath in Paradise.
If they didnt satiate your desire for Manson-related product, his years in prison spawned a steady trickle of new Manson albums, featuring material recorded behind bars, their market presumably the kind of deeply wearying people keen to impress upon everyone how incredibly transgressive and daring they are. If you could make a vague and far from watertight claim for a couple of the songs Manson recorded prior to the murders having some musical value not least Look at Your Game, Girl there is absolutely nothing worth hearing in the subsequent recordings.
Initially, at least, pop cultures obsession with Manson seems to have been fuelled by the widespread belief within the late 60s counterculture that he was innocent, a martyr who had been picked on by police as part of The Mans war against the long-hairs. If Lennons quote sounds like a surprisingly equivocal response to an unrepentant racist and misogynist who masterminded the murder of seven people, one of them eight months pregnant well, there was a lot of that kind of thing about in the wake of the Tate-LaBianca murders.
Rolling Stone cover, 1970
One of the Rolling Stone reporters sent to interview Manson for the aforementioned cover story, David Dalton, started from the premise that Manson had been framed. He looked just like one of us, he later wrote. He had long hair and a beard and, although skinnier, resembled Jim Morrison or maybe Jerry Garcia. We knew that anybody who looked like that could never have done these horrible things they were saying he did. It was just the pigs picking on some poor hippy guru. The magazines editor, Jann Wenner, initially planned on running the story with the headline: MANSON IS INNOCENT! In the event, Dalton became convinced of Mansons guilt while researching the piece and the cover instead billed him as the most dangerous man alive.
After his conviction, Manson initially hung around in the popular imagination as a source of terror. The first fictional films he inspired preyed on Americas newfound fear of homicidal hippy cult leaders. I Drink Your Blood, Deathmaster, The Night God Screamed, Terror on the Beach and The Love-Thrill Murders all featured acid-befuddled commune-dwellers on killing sprees: sometimes they were satanists, sometimes they were Jesus freaks, but there was always a Manson-like figure guiding the murderous action.
Meanwhile, if you were a rich and successful rock musician, zonked out of your gourd in your big LA home, perhaps it was hard to stop your mind drifting to the events that had taken place at Roman Polanskis residence at 10050 Cielo Drive. Something like that had happened somewhere like this, to people not unlike you, masterminded by a man who had spent a lot of time scouring the lyrics of albums for non-existent reasons to murder, who was driven at least in part by jealousy towards those who had succeeded in the entertainment industry. This was the post-Manson LA described by Didion in her 1979 essay The White Album: paranoid and detached. One story has Stephen Stills and David Crosby arming themselves in response to the Manson murders, telling a friend: Theyre killing all the people with estates! I hear that Laurel Canyon is full of famous stars, sang Mansons old acquaintance Neil Young on 1974s Revolution Blues, a song haunted by the killings, I hate them worse than lepers and I kill them in their cars.
Black Flags Henry Rollins. Photograph: Bob Chamberlin/LA Times via Getty Images
Something changed around the time of punk, with its scorched-earth shock tactics, nose-thumbing attitude towards rock musics past and particular contempt for the excesses of the hippy era. Manson ceased being a mere bogeyman and became a figure artists aligned themselves with, a matchless example of the 60s dream gone horribly wrong. Gonna smile, Im gonna laugh, youre going to get a bloodbath, and in a moment of passion, get the glory like Charles Manson, sang the Ramones on Glad to See You Go. LA hardcore band Black Flag referred to their tours as creepy crawls Mansons name for the Familys nocturnal housebreaking activities while their vocalist Henry Rollins corresponded with Manson and produced an unreleased album for him. At the time I was very young, and having him write letters to me made me feel intense and heavy, Rollins later conceded.
That may be the perfect skewering of Mansons latterday appeal to musicians. Some examples of popular cultures fascination with him are thoughtful and complex: Genesis P-Orridge and Psychic TVs obsession with Manson was part of a wider interest in the power structures of cults and their similarity to the relationship between artist and fan; Clines The Girls uses the Manson Family as a means of exploring the brainless dream of 60s California, the awfulness of female adolescence and the compounding impact of male aggression upon it.
But most are not. They are an exercise in button-pushing, an increasingly hackneyed, cliched shortcut to suggest the artist involved is dangerous and unbiddable, an outlaw who defies conventional mores: from Guns N Roses covering Look at Your Game, Girl on 1993s 5m-selling The Spaghetti Incident? to Panteras Phil Anselmo a man not above giving Nazi salutes and shouting White power! on stage sporting a Manson T-shirt. They frequently seem to be done without any real thought as to what exactly the artist is aligning themselves with, and frequently end in a public apology when said artist is confronted by the reality of what Manson was. Guns N Roses guitarist Slash later claimed their song was done with naive and innocent black humour, and the band donated royalties to Mansons victims.
Nine Inch Nails Trent Reznor. Photograph: Ian Dickson/Redferns
In this respect, the example of Nine Inch Nails Trent Reznor is also an instructive one. In 1992, he rented 10050 Cielo Drive and established a recording studio there, which he dubbed Pig, a reference to the word once daubed in Tates blood on the door of the house. He recorded Nine Inch Nails 1994 album The Downward Spiral there, and collaborated with Marilyn Manson, recording a song called My Monkey with lyrics derived from a 1970 Charles Manson track, Mechanical Man. Then, he said, he happened to encounter Tates sister.
And she said: Are you exploiting my sisters death by living in her house? For the first time, the whole thing kind of slapped me in the face. I said: No, its just sort of my own interest in American folklore. Im in this place where a weird part of history occurred. I guess it never really struck me before, but it did then. She lost her sister from a senseless, ignorant situation that I dont want to support. When she was talking to me, I realised for the first time: What if it was my sister? I thought: Fuck Charlie Manson. I dont want to be looked at as a guy who supports serial-killer bullshit.
November 25, 2017
Celebrities Pop cultures dark obsession with Charles Manson from Guns N Roses to Mad Men 11.25.2017