Saturday, October 6, 2018

The White Album 50 Project: Charles Manson

No discussion of the Beatles' 1968 double album, regrettably, is complete without a discussion of Charles Manson.  It nauseates me to get into his connection to the Beatles' White Album, but to ignore Manson when discussing this record is like ignoring the Trail of Tears while discussing Andrew Jackson.  It would be historically dishonest for me not to bring it up.
Here's the short version of how Manson came to hear the White Album's songs as messages to kill and initiated the killing spree that rocked California in 1969.  Manson was a one-time juvenile delinquent and ne'er do well songwriter who somehow endeared himself to Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys after Wilson had picked up two female hitchhikers who knew Manson.  He hoped that Wilson and Byrds producer Terry Melcher, whom he met through Wilson, would give him a break in the music business.  While all this was going on, he established a hippie cult comprised mostly of young women.
Manson came to believe that a race war in America was imminent following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and when he heard the White Album after its November 1968 release, he thought the Beatles were oracles for the coming conflict.  The song "Helter Skelter" was, to Manson, a call to arms against the white establishment, and "Piggies" instructed capitalists to be severely punished.  And even though "Blackbird" was, as Paul McCartney later said, a song about black women in America gaining their civil rights, Manson heard something far more extreme - a call for black revolutionaries to start the war against the white man.  "Happiness Is a Warm Gun," Manson believed, was the Beatles telling blacks to arm themselves and fight whites.  Manson heard "Honey Pie" as the Beatles instructing him to reveal himself as the prophet by showing the magic of his "Hollywood song."  He had similar interpretations of other White Album songs. 
And of course, Manson heard "Revolution 9" as a sonic depiction of the race war, and that the track's name referred to the ninth chapter of the final book of the New Testament: "Revelation 9."  He believed that the Beatles themselves were in fact the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
The Manson Family, as Manson's followers were known, tried in August 1969 to start the race war their leader had predicted by murdering high-profile people in California per Manson's instructions.  They murdered actress Sharon Tate - who was eight moths pregnant and married to director Roman Polanski - and her house guests, including coffee heiress Abigail Folger, and the next night they also killed supermarket executive Leno LoBianco and his wife Rosemary.  In each of the cases, the killers left behind messages written in the blood of their victims: "POLITICAL PIG" (from "Piggies") and "ARISE" from "Blackbird").  The killers were soon apprehended.   
The Beatles, of course, were deeply disturbed by all this, and John Lennon was particularly shocked.  He said that Manson was an extreme version of the people who started the "Paul is dead" rumors or thought "Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds" was an acrostic for LSD.  Paul McCartney found it "frightening" that Manson would arrive at such interpretations - "because you don't write songs for those reasons."  George Harrison lamented that people as horrible as murders were attached themselves to the Beatles when it wasn't the Beatles' fault.  Ringo Starr said that it stopped everyone in their tracks due to all the violence coming out "in the midst of love and peace and psychedelia."
Manson and three other defendants were tried and found guilty.  Manson himself was sentenced to death in 1971 but his sentence was commuted to life; he died in prison in 2017.  Some of Manson's other followers remained active in crime, and one female follower attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford in Sacramento in  September 1975.  (Incredibly, another female radical who had nothing to do with Manson attempted to shoot Ford in San Francisco a couple of weeks later.)
Ironically, even though he is remembered as, as Geraldo Rivera called him, a "mass-murdering dog," Manson never killed anyone himself; all of the murders he orchestrated were committed by his followers.
Right.  That is all I want to say about this.  I don't want to talk about it any more than I already have.  Those who want the full story can consult "Helter Skelter," the book on the Manson case by Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi.     

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