Interview: Charles Manson biographer Jeff Guinn on Charlie’s young life in the music industry

[dropcap]C[/dropcap]harles Manson has been getting a lot of play in the press lately. Mainly it’s focused on an extended piece Rolling Stone did recently on the 79-year-old lifer, where it was revealed that he is maybe/maybe-not marrying a waifish 25 year-old who is his latest follower, one that he has dubbed “Star.”

It was 44 years ago last week that Manson and his followers were indicted in the Tate and LaBianca murders that took place in August of 1969 in Southern California. The fascinating and disturbing aspects of the case, that Manson was trying to start a race war, the manner in which the victims were slaughtered, the psychological hold that he allegedly had over his followers, have enraptured each new generation.

What many people don’t know is how involved Chucky was in the music scene before the slayings went down. Like so many others at the time, he was an aspiring singer-songwriter. Most notably, he befriended producer Terry Melcher along with Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys, who co-opted his song “Cease to Exist” and turned it into “Never Learn Not to Love” which appeared on the band’s 1969 album 20/20. Manson’s songs have been covered by Redd Kross, Guns N’ Roses, and Marilyn Manson; Dave Grohl almost included him in the recent Sound City documentary, as Manson had spent time recording in the studio.

Earlier this year, an exhaustively researched and fascinating new book, Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson, was released to critical acclaim. Vanyaland caught up with the author, Jeff Guinn, who offered some extremely interesting insight into, among other things, if Manson had been signed to a record deal, the murders may have never taken place.

Michael Christopher: Was it daunting to take on the task of writing a book about a figure who has been covered so much over the years?

Jeff Guinn: We all know [Manson] for what happened in August 1969, but how did he get to that point? That was the question I wanted to answer.

A big part of “what got him to that point” was his involvement of the budding music scene in the ‘60s. People have said, “How could the Beach Boys have done a Charles Manson song?” But at the time, it wasn’t Charles Manson — the crazed lunatic — it was this guy who was trying to break into the music industry.

One of the things that I think people forget when they talk about that part of his story is the competition he had to become a musical superstar — he was certain he was going to do it. But as Terry Melcher said after he had listened to some of Manson’s music, there were thousands of Charles Mansons at least in terms of trying to make it big writing their own songs that wanted to be bigger than the Beatles. The fact that Manson had such great contacts, and not just Dennis Wilson, when you remember that Neil Young touted Manson’s songs to his label, John Phillips was listening to the music; Manson had every chance — if his music had been good enough.

What ended up happening, of course, is that Dennis Wilson cribbed maybe the most representative song that Manson had done, changed it all around and even took his name off the writer’s credits.

In the end did he figure everyone was out to get him or did he finally realize he was a subpar singer-songwriter?

Never. There are two things regarding Charles Manson of which I am certain after all these years; the first is his high opinion of himself never wavered. He really was convinced he was maybe the ultimate music talent out there. The second thing is he was never crazy. He was very cold, he was very calculating and he knew how to use people, but in terms of thinking of himself as an inevitable rock and roll star, that really was his fixation. When it didn’t happen it was something else, it was someone doing something unfair to Charlie. That of course would trigger anger and a thirst for revenge.

Was part of that revenge to be extracted on Dennis Wilson?

He was pissed off at Wilson, certainly. He felt betrayed by him. But because Melcher was Wilson’s friend and Manson had sort of transferred his hope of landing a recording contract to Melcher, sure, he could snarl at Dennis Wilson and go by his house and leave a bullet and hope it would unsettle Wilson, but he couldn’t actually do anything toward him.

Manson’s obsession with the Beatles is well known, but in the book, you say that he actually thought he was going to be bigger than the Beatles.

He told everybody that. That was his intention. His music was going to be the pervading cultural influence. He told the Family that his music had healing powers and great philosophy. You’re talking about a grandiose vision, not just someone who thought it would be great to have his LP in Montgomery Ward or something.

Nothing was more important to Manson than his music — ever.

And when he didn’t get signed, you think that’s what threw the switch to complete anger?

It wasn’t the only thing that threw the switch, but I think if Manson had still held out hope that there was still a recording contract in his future, I don’t think he would’ve put himself in the position where there would’ve been murder — at least then. But [Manson follower] Leslie Van Houten told me that when Terry Melcher turned Manson down, that was when he stopped pretending and that was when he was mad all the time.

One of the things that struck me most is when you talked about how when Rolling Stone magazine went to the Barker Ranch, members of the Manson Family couldn’t understand why the Beatles hadn’t come to their rescue yet.

Right! That’s something they were very open about. Manson preached to the Family that the Beatles were not only sending messages to the world and telling them what was happening, but that they were sending it directly to the Family. You’ve got to remember that these are people who regarded Charlie as the second coming of Christ and that the Beatles and Manson were linked together in the Book of Revelations. Then of course the Beatles were going to come to Manson’s rescue and explain to the Los Angeles authorities that Charlie couldn’t possibly be found guilty in any secular court.

Did Charlie actually believe that, or was he just trying to push it on the Family members?

I don’t think Manson ever believed in “Helter Skelter” predicting a race war. But I do believe that he believed himself an equal of the top rock superstars. His sense of self was so overblown that sure, he thought that the Beatles would be aware of him –- why wouldn’t they be? Anybody in the world that was tuned in would be aware of Charles Manson on some level or another.

Could it have further inflated Manson’s ego that years after he was imprisoned when there were bootlegs of his albums showing up, at one point during his time in Black Flag Henry Rollins produced a collection of his songs… might that make him go, “Yeah, I really was that great — I just never got the chance.”

It actually goes back farther than that. When Manson was first in custody, he managed to get some of his tapes to [record producer] Phil Kaufman who took his own money and printed up copies of Lie, only to find that when he took that album to store, no one would stock it. And Manson refused to believe that. If there were albums with his music on it, then certainly people would be buying them; Kaufman had to be lying. He already had this confidence in his music. Later on when the Lemonheads, Guns N’ Roses and so forth covered his songs, I think he saw that as logical — of course they’re covering his music — it’s the greatest music out there!

When you have contemporary artists cover his music, do you think it’s for shock value, or do you think there is legitimate talent behind the music he composed?

I don’t know that the music is great, but I think the link to Manson is sort of irresistible to some people. He’s sort of cultivated this whole charismatic lunatic image and I think it carries over to his music where when some of these artists cover Manson, they are making a statement that they are rebels, that they’re pushing back against the establishment and sort of working outside the box. Let’s face it: the bands that have covered the music are not considered some of your mainstream bands that would have been on the Ed Sullivan Show back in the old days.

You talk about people that just wanted to be associated with the Manson lore or myth, but then you have somebody like Kasabian, a very mainstream act — especially over in the UK — and they’ve taken their name right from [Manson Family member] Linda Kasabian.

That just shows you how much the Manson mystique has permeated the culture and how it continues to. That’s another reason for writing this book, to answer the question, “What is this ongoing fascination with Manson and the people associated with him?” It’s been just over 44 years since these murders — why is there still this interest?

[At this point, Guinn and I are wrapping up the conversation when he drops something that has not only been overlooked, but a fantastic theory regarding the shift in music at the exact time Manson was released from Los Angeles based prison Terminal Island in 1967]

There’s one more thing that I’d like to mention that I think was critical to the music. It’s something most people didn’t think about and I didn’t think about until I started researching the book. Right up until the moment that Charles Manson is released from prison in California [circa 1967] the top music was centered in New York — not California. It only gradually migrated across the country with Ricky Nelson, beach music and Dick Clark starts doing his TV show in L.A. instead of Philadelphia.

If Manson had gotten out of prison a couple years earlier and had this determination to be a rock star, he would’ve had to go to New York to try to do it. I don’t think his act would’ve played the same in New York as it did in the hippie, free and easy, everybody-loves-everybody-else days in Los Angeles. The timing of it was such that Manson’s release from prison in California, now he only has to be in Los Angeles to make the dream come true. If the music industry had stayed centered in New York, I think we would’ve had a much different story.