Charles Manson’s sordid legacy endures thanks to pop culture’s odd fascination
A few summers ago, my friend Saul and I formed a covers band with several of our friends that would sing Manson Family songs onstage a couple of times. The first time we did it, we unwittingly joined the cottage industry of people who imitate or portray the love and terror cult . Even though Manson has appeared as a character in everything from B-movie exploitation films – there’s a whole Manson-inspired subgenre – to the works of National Book Award winners, via an opera , a German musical and a novelization of Columbo , I’m often amazed at the running for best Manson Family impersonators – not only how insurmountable the Fat White Manson Family ’s lead appears to be, but how the competition can be so weak.
Enter NBC. New crime drama Aquarius joins the imitation game this week like a uniformed cop at a hip happening. David Duchovny plays a square-faced detective whose missing-persons investigation leads to Charles Manson (a straw ascot-wearing Gethin Anthony), who somehow manages to lure young women to join his communal ranch with peaches like, “I pulled her out of the womb of ignorance and into the light of now”. It isn’t glorifying Manson to observe that the Most Dangerous Man Alive must have had better lines than that. In episode one, when Anthony fluffs the song Look At Your Game, Girl (as covered by Guns N Roses and the Fat White Manson Family), it’s clear this show’s as good at portraying Manson as Manson is at presenting himself to a parole board.
If people know anything about the Manson case, it will most likely come from state prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s best-selling Helter Skelter . Despite taking a criminal justice perspective – Bugliosi’s no stoned slacker and has no time for them either – it’s the most complete account of what actually happened in the Tate/LaBianca houses when members of the Manson Family butchered seven people, supposedly on Manson’s orders, on two consecutive nights, including the pregnant actress Sharon Tate. The 1972 documentary Manson, based on the book, is worth watching for the original Super 8 footage of Spahn Ranch, the girls singing Look At Your Love outside the courthouse and Manson’s soaring oration. In these key documents, Bugliosi famously attested – and this was presented to the court as a motive – that Manson believed he had heard hidden messages in the Beatles’ White Album, telling him that there would be a global race war in which the blacks would win, and his Family would eventually rule the world. “I may have implied on several occasions to several different people that I may have been Jesus Christ, but I haven’t decided yet what I am or who I am,” says Manson in Bugliosi’s book.
Manson was in fact a 13-year-old runaway who was sold by his mother for a bottle of vodka , before being beaten, buggered and learning to rape in sadistic correctional facilities where he spent a lot of his youth. This makes the core of the other essential book in the canon, Manson In His Own Words, an “autobiography” co-authored in the 80s by Nuel Emmons during prison visits. Manson believed that after spending most of his life behind bars, he was so unfit for life outside jail that before his release in 1967, he asked to stay in prison but his request was refused. He got out and became a pimp on Hollywood Boulevard before moving to San Francisco, where he started to sleep with the mostly suburban young women from good homes who would become the Manson Family. When he describes what happened at Sharon Tate’s house, the reader should be aware that they’re probably being conned by a master of the art.
There is no attempt at psychological or even biographical realism in the 1976 TV dramatization Helter Skelter (also based on Bugliosi’s book), which offers nothing to people who’ve seen the documentary with original footage. It’s the same stuff hammed up, and with Manson speeches that no actor has ever delivered with as much menace as Manson himself. Surprisingly the 2004 remake, also called Helter Skelter, boasts the only passable depiction of Charles Manson by an actor, Jeremy Davies. He masters the eyes, the voice and the paranoid preacher’s charisma. In campfire light he could be mistaken for the real thing, but the CSI-style helicopter music defiles it.
These TV and film adaptations are all a bit “hippie wigs”, then, as Danny in the cult British film Withnail & I describes the summer of love’s death. They imitate the aesthetics but not the spirit. Although you start talking about the spirit in pubs around London and people look wary. You have to have your arguments ready about Phil Spector being a convicted murderer too , and a good folk band that looks the part and knows how to play Ra-Hide Away.
Thomas Pynchon lampoons the idea of Manson as shorthand for the failure of alternative culture in his 2011 novel Inherent Vice. While Paul Thomas Anderson’s film cuts all but the author’s best riffs on Manson hysteria – a policeman declaring that all groups of three or more are a suspected cult – the novel has a Manson Family gag in pretty much every chapter. It’s also very good at describing, more than anything else in the canon, how you notice that strange moment when a scene starts to go sour; when older, more serious-looking dudes with an “unwillingness to blur out” start appearing at gatherings of carefree youths: “If everything in this dream of pre-revolution was in fact doomed to end and the faithless money-driven world to assert control over all the lives it felt entitled to touch, fondle, and molest, it would be agents like these, dutiful and silent, out doing the shitwork, who’d make it happen.”
In The White Album, Joan Didion describes the scene starting to go bad and hints at how she wound up in a psychiatric hospital. “In this light all connections were equally meaningful, and equally senseless.” It makes you wonder if Didion hadn’t broken down a year early, would she have joined Manson on the ranch? She describes how later, she shopped for the right kind of dress for Linda Kasabian, the Manson Family informant turned state witness, under the instructions of the tale’s ever-present director Bugliosi, who has been a master – perhaps even surpassing Manson – at controlling the narrative.
Manson’s prosecutor admitted recently that Charlie has “more supporters and sympathizers now than he ever did”. It doesn’t flatter Bugliosi to hold him partly responsible, seeing as he’s still giving interviews and selling books, albeit one-sided and, like the adaptations they sprung, unwilling to consider that Manson’s history of abuse and imprisonment may be as important to the horrors as the song White Rabbit, new-age spiritualism or bell-bottom flares.
Unlike the prosecutor who seems sure of the meaning he has impressed on the case with the blunt instruments of the law, Didion admits that even though she shares a godchild with the murdered Tate, writing about it “has not yet helped me to see what it means”. For me, it’s still all about The Family Jams album, the songs Look At Your Game, Girl and Garbage Dump – where trash like Aquarius belongs.
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