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Valley Public Radio Staff
Wed September 18, 2013
Bio Credits Manson's Terrible Rise To Right Place And Time
Originally published on Wed September 18, 2013 1:10 pm
Lots of listeners read all kinds of messages into The Beatles' White Album, but nothing compares to the album's impact on Charles Manson. He heard it as a message to him and his followers — known as "The Family" — that the world was on the verge of an apocalyptic race war in which blacks would rise up against their white oppressors and enslave them.
This battle would be set off by an event called Helter Skelter, after the eponymous Beatles song, and Manson planned to lead his followers into the desert, where they would hide until the chaos ended.
That's just one example of Manson's distorted thinking, but there are many more in Jeff Guinn's new biography of the cult leader, Manson. Among the many people Guinn spoke with are Manson's sister and cousin, who had never before given interviews, and former Manson followers who are now in prison serving time for murder.
Manson and his followers were responsible for nine murders, including that of Roman Polanski's pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate. Guinn's book has new information about Manson's upbringing and how Manson came to San Francisco in 1967, after serving time in prison, and used what he learned from pimps, the Bible, Scientology and '60s counterculture to attract followers — mostly young women — and teach them to follow and fear him.
Guinn tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross about how Manson accumulated followers and then struggled to keep them.
On how location influenced Manson's success in recruiting followers
Charlie Manson is paroled from prison in California. Now, if he's in Nebraska, let's say, and he gets out of prison and goes to live in Omaha; if he tried to pull this shtick with the daughters of the farmers of Nebraska, they would've stuck him on a pitchfork and left him out in the field as a scarecrow.
But [San Francisco's] Haight-Ashbury is the place where as many as 300 teenage waifs a day are drifting in. And Haight-Ashbury is overflowing with children who don't know where they're going, what they're going to do ... but they've come in search of some guru to be able to tell them what to do and make their lives better. And that's who Manson preys on. Any other time, any other place, it could not have worked. But unfortunately for the world, he was in the perfect spot to exploit his very terrible gifts.
On how Manson's musical failure pushed him to find fame through murder
Gurus can't be seen to fail by their followers. When that happens, that's when the followers start to drift away. And some of Manson's followers were leaving him, some of his long-term people that he counted on and depended on. So he needs to do something spectacular.
And here's where the other threads come in: Los Angeles is a hotbed of racial tension, maybe the worst in all major American cities in that year, in that hot summer. ... All across America there were race riots. It's a terrible, tense time, and that permeates through the city, and Manson sees a way to use that.
At the same time, a drug deal has gone wrong, and Charlie has shot a man he believes to be a Black Panther who was owed money by The Family for some drugs. And Charlie expects that the Black Panthers are going to come storming onto Spahn Ranch [The Family's home] anytime and attack, so there's that pressure on his followers.
On why Manson targeted famous people
Manson thinks that they need to kill famous, rich people to get the kind of attention he wants. If they can make it look like black militants did it, he tells everybody, "This will start Helter Skelter: This will make the whites mad; the blacks will retaliate; we'll be in the desert. This is the beginning of the time that we're going to become masters of the world." ...
So they pick this house ... not because they know Sharon Tate is there, but because they know how to get there. It's location that decides the fate of five people that night.
On how Manson changed the Tate murder scene to look more spectacular
He gets in the car and drives back to the house where these murders have occurred and changes things around. And the reason we know that ... [is] during the Helter Skelter trial, when they're bringing out photographs of the murder scene, [accomplice Patricia Krenwinkel] starts looking and thinking, "Wait a minute, that wasn't there, that wasn't there ..."
In particular, Manson found a large American flag in another part of the house, and he took it over to the sofa and draped it theatrically on the sofa, and [on] the floor beside the sofa was the butchered body of Sharon Tate. He was convinced that was going to be the visual that was going to start bringing down, not necessarily Helter Skelter ... but if it could trigger even a small race riot in Los Angeles, then he can point to that to his followers and say, "See, I told you, we have the power to make these things happen."
On Guinn's method of writing history
What I do in all of my nonfiction books is I try to pick an era in American history that I want to write about. Once I pick that era, then I try to find some iconic individual or event. The theme, the theory behind all my books, is that history doesn't happen in a vacuum. So I look for interesting times in our nation's history, when all of the different threads of things would come together to make one moment possible, be it a wonderful moment, be it something horrific like the Tate ... murders. But really, the purpose of the book is to, through Charlie Manson, show the context of the 1960s.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HELTER SKELTER")
THE BEATLES: (Singing) Helter skelter, helter skelter.
GROSS: Lots of stoned listeners read all kinds of messages into the Beatles' "White Album," but nothing compares to the album's impact on Charles Manson. He heard it as a message directed especially to him and his followers, who were known as the Family, that an apocalyptic race war was soon to begin in which blacks would rise up against their white oppressors and enslave them.
This battle would be set off by an event called Helter Skelter. Manson planned on leading his followers into the desert, where they would remain in hiding until the chaos ended. That's just one example of Manson's bizarre thinking. Many more examples are in a new Manson biography by my guest Jeff Guinn. Among the many people Guinn spoke with are Manson's sister and cousin, who had never before given interviews; a former prison cellmate, and two of his former followers who are now in prison serving time for murder.
Manson and his followers, who were known as the Family, were responsible for nine murders, including the murder of Roman Polanski's pregnant wife, Sharon Tate. Jeff Guinn, welcome to FRESH AIR. So for our listeners who may be too young to remember the Charles Manson story, or for listeners who have simply forgotten the details, just refresh our memories about why Charles Manson is so infamous.
JEFF GUINN: In the late 1960s, Charles Manson put together a family of followers who were either emotionally broken or drug-addled enough to buy into him as the second coming of Jesus Christ and themselves as the instigators of an apocalyptic race war.
On August 9th and 10th, 1969, the Family murdered seven people in horrific ways, and two others died at their hands before he was arrested. Helter Skelter is probably the most famous criminal trial in America because of that.
GROSS: And that was his trial.
GROSS: Why did you want to write about Manson after having written earlier books about the shootout at the OK Corral and Bonnie and Clyde?
GUINN: What I do in all my nonfiction books is I try to pick an era in American history that I want to write about. Once I pick that era, then I try to find some iconic individual or event. The theme, the theory behind all my books, is that history doesn't happen in a vacuum. So I look for interesting times in our nation's history when all the different threads of things would come together to make one moment possible, be it a wonderful moment, be it something horrific like the Tate-LaBianca murders.
But really the purpose of the book is to, through Charlie Manson, show the context of the 1960s.
GROSS: Oh, well, thanks for showing the '60s through the eyes of Charles Manson. (Laughing)
GUINN: Well, he had an interesting view.
GROSS: Yes. Well, you know, one of the things so interesting about Charles Manson in the '60s is that he's drawing on all these things that are the opposite of what he was. He's drawing on all these '60s countercultural ideals of, you know, open sexuality, living together in groups, forming families that aren't your own family.
And he's using it to create himself into a demonic cult leader. Is that what interested you about connecting him to that period?
GUINN: The most fascinating thing about Manson is that he certainly did what you describe in the 1960s, but by then he had already been doing the very same thing in the 1940s, in the 1950s. He was a lifelong sociopath who would take the best, most interesting things of cutting-edge culture and turn them to his own devices.
For instance in prison in the early 1950s, he got the basis of the street rap he would use later in Haight-Ashbury by cribbing lines, word for word, from Chapter 7 of Dale Carnegie's "How To Win Friends and Influence People."
GROSS: Which is an incredibly mainstream book.
GUINN: Well, it was at the time, I think, one of the most popular books in America. Dale Carnegie permeated every part of our culture. But it's Charlie Manson, this uneducated hick from West Virginia, who figures out ways to use Dale Carnegie precepts in the most horrible ways imaginable.
GROSS: Give us an example.
GUINN: I interviewed Leslie Van Houten and Patricia Krenwinkel, two of the convicted Tate-LaBianca murderers, in their women's prison in Corona, California. And when I came to see them - and I interviewed them separately - I asked right away what could Charles Manson possibly have said to you, when you first met him, that made you think this is an interesting man who seems to understand me; I want to talk more to him, I want to get close to him?
And they would say, well, Charlie said this, and he said this, and he said this, word for word from "How to Win Friends and Influence People." I got a copy of the textbook that Manson used in prison, and he cribbed those lines directly from it. So...
GROSS: What are some of the lines?
GUINN: He said - one of his philosophies was always make the other person think that the idea is his or her own. That's straight out of Chapter 7. And Leslie Van Houten talked about how when she first meets Manson, he starts talking to her about how wonderfully intelligent she is, and she understands the Bible, and she's got all these great skills. She was a Kelly girl. And Manson was thrilled that she knew shorthand because he liked to make up song lyrics on the spot, and then he'd forget them.
So her first assignment was to follow him around with a notebook and in shorthand scribble down all the song lyrics he was improvising. But he intrigued her working straight from Chapter 7. With some of the men that he recruited, Carnegie wrote that the things that interest people most are the sex drive and the urge to be famous. And Manson promised the men who followed him all the sex they wanted, and if they stuck with him, they were going to not only be famous, they would rule the world after the apocalyptic race war he called Helter Skelter.
So he's tying in these ideas from the 1940s with the cultural events of the 1960s. And the thing we have to say about Manson is yes, he's uneducated, yes, he had problems reading, but the guy is smart. He's smart in devious, terrible ways, but in his way he is a master manipulator.
GROSS: And he also included into his approach to manipulating people, something he learned from pimp philosophy, which is make the woman love you and fear you. He knew pimps in prison. Did he ever work as one himself?
GUINN: Oh, that was originally his plan for his life's work.
GROSS: To be a pimp?
GUINN: When he first goes to prison for car theft, he thinks this is a great opportunity to study at the feet of some of the great pimps, who for whatever reason or another, find themselves in prison with Charlie. And they teach him about separating women from their families and loved ones, beating them enough to scare them but being loving enough to make them feel valued, cut them off from every type of communication except your own.
And he just knew, instinctively sometimes, how to find a woman's weakness, whether it was a bad body image, whether she had serious issues with her father. He could exploit and would exploit anything like that.
GROSS: And he knew how to find vulnerable women. Like when he got - after his years in reform school and then prison, when he gets out, he goes to the Haight-Ashbury, and he basically looks for teenage runaways who were already in a very lost and vulnerable position.
GUINN: And this is what I mean again by how the threads of history come together to make something possible. Charlie Manson is paroled from prison in California. Now if he's in Nebraska, let's say, and he gets out of prison, and he goes to live in Omaha, if he tried to pull this shtick with the daughters of the farmers of Nebraska they'd have stuck him on a pitchfork and left him in a field as a scarecrow.
But Haight-Ashbury is the place where as many as 300 teenage waifs a day are drifting in.
GROSS: This is 1967.
GUINN: Right. And Haight-Ashbury is overflowing with children who don't know where they're going, what they're going to do, what they're going to eat next, but they've come in search of some guru to be able to tell them what to do and make their lives better. And that's who Manson preys on.
Any other time, any other place, it could not have worked. But unfortunately for the world, he was in the perfect spot to exploit his very terrible gifts.
GROSS: And his audition, so to speak, of these young girls, he would ask the young girl to perform oral sex on him, and if she refused to do that, then he knew this was not a girl who he could keep under his thumb.
GUINN: Well, to Manson that sex act was so basic that any woman who wouldn't perform it clearly was not worthy of his attention. And he would try to break down all their sexual inhibitions. It's a sad thing to hear described by some of the participants now, how virtually every day there would be some sort of group gathering, and Manson would be orchestrating everything, taking part sometimes himself, but even more so trying to make sure that the women and men who followed him didn't become emotionally attached to an individual in the group, that everybody got passed around from Family member to Family member.
GROSS: Scientology figures into this, too, and he learned about Scientology in prison, where he also learned about Dale Carnegie. So how did Scientology figure into the creation of his cult following?
GUINN: Well, when we talk about the timing in history again, the year Manson goes to prison is the same year that the American penal system changes its philosophy. Before, it was always retributive justice: make them suffer so much in prison they'll never want to repeat a crime and come back. But Manson comes in just when the new philosophy is let's have courses and programs to help inmates acquire social skills and some emotional stability so they'll succeed in the world when they get out in it.
That's why they have Dale Carnegie. That's why they encourage various religious groups. Manson glommed onto Scientology, not because he thought it was the perfect faith, but because he loved the way they would recruit people, telling these broken kids you're beautiful, you're perfect the way you are. If your families don't love you, it's because they're not accepting you for who you are, like I do.
And he cribbed a lot of that by twisting some of the things he learned about Scientology in prison.
GROSS: And of course he used the Bible, too. And let's talk a little bit about his grandmother. His grandmother was a fundamentalist Christian. His mother rebelled against the grandmother. But what was the relationship of the grandmother to Charles Manson, and how much did she talk to him about the Bible and taking it literally and its importance? Do you know anything about that part of their relationship?
GUINN: Oh, quite a bit. We were fortunate in researching this book to find Manson's sister and his cousin, neither one of whom had ever been interviewed before, about his life. And through them they shared family letters, photographs. And I even have Charlie's grandmother Nancy Maddox's Bible study guide that she would make Charlie pore over because she thought if there was ever a child that needed good Christian values, it was him.
And she would underline in ink on the pages of the book the passages she thought were most important for Charlie to learn. And they attended a very fundamentalist church in McMechen, West Virginia. That was part of his grandmother's deal when he got out of reform school, he can live with her, but he has to go to church with her, and he has to join the Nazarene Church Youth Group.
And there Charlie heard, over and over, the Book of Revelation, about the end of times. And he had a good memory when he wanted to, and he memorized many passages out of the Book of Revelation, which thrilled his grandmother at the time. But really, Charlie was just storing knowledge for later use, and when he was discussing Helter Skelter and the apocalypse that's coming in 1969 and getting his followers to do some pretty warped things because of that predication, he was pulling a lot of it right out of the Book of Revelation.
His grandmother loved him. She thought if she could just pound the Bible into him enough, that God would change him. Well, he learned a lot about the Bible, but just as he twisted Dale Carnegie's words, he twisted the passages in the Bible, too.
GROSS: My guest is Jeff Guinn. He's the author of the new book "Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: The Beatles were so important in his mind, and when "The White Album" came out - what year was "The White Album," the Beatles' White Album?
GROSS: Thank you. He saw that as having all kinds of secret messages, including secret messages to him. What did he read into "The White Album" and particularly to the track "Helter Skelter"?
GUINN: Actually what Manson did with "The White Album" was, just as he used the Book of Revelation to brainwash his followers, he would use the Beatles' music for the same reason. He didn't allow them to listen to much outside music. It was either the Beatles' albums or Charlie singing his own songs. And he also had a soft spot for Steppenwolf 's song "Born to Be Wild," for all your listeners who are old enough to remember it.
What Manson did over the winter of 1968 and the early months of 1969, was have his followers listen to "The White Album" over and over again and ask them to interpret for him what the songs were saying. And the songs in particular he wanted them to listen to were Helter Skelter, a song called "Piggies," another song called "Blackbird." And they had all these different wild guesses, but whenever someone would say, well, I think "Blackbird" is maybe about the black people rising up in America, Charlie would say that's the most wonderful insight, I never thought of that, you're brilliant, when of course that's what he wanted someone to say all along.
And with "Helter Skelter," he claimed that this was the Beatles predicting an imminent race war, that blacks had been held down in history for so long, and now they were going to rise up. And when they did, they would massacre the white population. Charlie had been afraid of armed blacks ever since he ran into the Black Muslims in prison and the Black Panthers when he got out. He had a real fear of armed black men and believed they were coming for him anytime, if not for the rest of the world.
So he's saying that we're going to have this apocalyptic race war. When it breaks out, our Family will go out into Death Valley, where as the Bible has said, there is a bottomless pit with a great city underneath. We're going to go down in that pit, and we're going to wait out the war. And when the war is over and the blacks have won, because they're intellectually inferior, they won't be able to rule themselves. So they're going to have to turn to Manson and the Family to rule the world.
And it says, I think, how indoctrinated his followers were, that most of them bought into at least part of the story. Charlie told them really they had a choice between sticking with him and something much worse. He said if they don't stay with him, when the race war comes, the blacks will either kill them or enslave them.
GROSS: So when you talked to Leslie Van Houten and Patricia Krenwinkel, who were both followers of Manson, what did they tell you about how they saw his vision of Helter Skelter?
GUINN: They thought, as the rest of the Family did, that at this point Manson knew everything; that if he predicted this was happening, it was going to happen. Patricia Krenwinkel, more than Leslie Van Houten, was also physically afraid of Manson. One of the things he would do to the women who were his followers, to make them prove they were loyal, is he would have them stand against a tree and he would throw knives into the tree trunk over their heads.
If they flinched, that meant they didn't really believe in him and therefore weren't worthy. And Krenwinkel thought that Manson might very well throw a knife, accidentally on purpose, and hurt her badly. He would hit the women, yank their hair. So Patricia said, more than anything else, she went along with him because of fear. Leslie Van Houten said she liked the drugs very much, and Charlie had promised that while they were in the underground city waiting out Helter Skelter, that they could change their bodies at will to become whatever they wanted.
And Leslie at this point in life thought it would be great to be an elf with wings. And after they were arrested and were in cells awaiting their indictments, she actually was afraid because she thought the wings were growing on her back, and they were growing out too soon. So that shows the kind of confusion that he had carefully crafted in his followers.
GROSS: And that kind of confusion could really be helped along, really encouraged, by hallucinogenic drugs. If you're taking hallucinogenics under the guidance of somebody who's crazy, you're being exposed to some really scary and - you'd be very impressionable in a way that you might not otherwise be. Bad trips can be very contagious in that respect.
So what did they tell you, what did the two Manson followers who you interviewed, tell you about what LSD sessions were like with Manson?
GUINN: Not only the two of them, but some other people who participated described these sessions. Manson would hand out the LSD and take a much smaller dose than anybody else. Then everyone else except Charlie was required to sit in a chair while Charlie sang or preached.
Quite often Manson would act out himself being crucified in front of them to strengthen the belief that he was Jesus coming in. If someone in the middle of a trip took a bad turn and started to make noise or move around, Manson would be furious, and he was pretty likely to hit 'em with something.
He actually - people said that a couple times he actually took a chair and smashed it into somebody's back and kept hitting them until they would sit quietly again. Again the LSD trips were all part of Manson's overall plan. I mean, he had these people isolated all the time. There's a reason he picked isolated Spahn Ranch. There's a reason he wanted to take them out to Death Valley. He didn't want them being influenced by anyone other than himself.
GROSS: So, you know, getting back to Death Valley and his vision of "Helter Skelter," how did he have his followers prepare for the Death Valley days?
GUINN: There were several things that he had them do. The first was they began stealing cars by the dozen and trying to convert them into dune buggies. And it was about this time that Manson tried to recruit any number of biker gangs into the Family, in hopes that they could serve as sort of a personal cadre of protectors for him, because he was predicting, you know, the Black Panthers were going to come pouring out over the horizon any time now. They stole guns. They had knives. Charlie carried a sword, actually. And on the side of his dune buggy, he welded a scabbard, so he could have his sword handy, should he ever need it.
He made the members of the Family stand guard at night with guns, telling them that any minute now, they might be attacked. And then, when they found an isolated ranch out in Death Valley, during the day, he would keep them busy, telling them they had to go out and try to find the bottomless pit in the desert. Meanwhile, the women were expected to gather edible plants and prepare them for meals. Charlie said that, as women, they should know how to do that. And they're in the middle of Death Valley. At one point, they nearly starved.
Krenwinkel remembers when a day came that they had a small bag of rice, a little powdered milk and a jar of cinnamon. That was all the food they had. So Manson is having to commute back to L.A. and try to beg money from people to buy food to feed the Family out in the desert. It was a very confusing, awful situation. But by that time, the Family members were so physically worn down that they really just didn't have the strength to insist that they go back to more hospitable climes.
GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about music in Manson's life. He wanted to be Jesus or a rock star, or some combination of both. And he must've thought he was good, that he really had talent. And what he wanted to do was meet, like, famous rock stars or other famous people in the music industry and parlay that into a record contract so that he could find his audience and reach the fame he knew he was destined to have. And he was pretty successful at becoming friends with Dennis Wilson, the drummer of, you know, in the Beach Boys. How did he get to know Dennis Wilson?
GUINN: Well, Charlie's music roots actually go all the way back to his childhood, when he was the orneriest, most disagreeable little boy in McMechen, West Virginia. And the one good trait he had was that he had a nice singing voice. And when he would be forced to go to church by his grandma, at least when the time came to sing hymns, Charlie would be outstanding. And later on, he fell in love with the music of Frankie Laine.
GROSS: That amazed me in your book.
GROSS: It's, like, made me wonder, did Frankie Laine ever know that? Like, he liked Perry Como.
GROSS: He liked Frank - like, Frankie Laine was his hero when he was young.
GUINN: Right. Do not forsake me, oh, my darling. Charlie liked to sing that a lot.
GROSS: Oh, I wasn't thinking about that. Right. The theme from "High Noon."
GUINN: Right. But when Charlie's in prison, and he's in the workshop in 1964, 1965, suddenly, every other song on the radio was by this band called the Beatles. What got Charlie was not just the music, but the effect the Beatles had on everybody. Suddenly, you know, everybody's talking about them. Everybody's looking up to them, and Charlie wanted some of that for himself. So he had a guitar, and for the first time, he started writing songs. And he was positive when he got out of jail, if he could just get somebody powerful in the record business to hear him play his songs, he would get a record deal right away, would sell millions of records and become more famous than the Beatles.
So, when he moved his family to L.A. from Haight-Ashbury, he sent his women out to troll for rock stars. And it was a very heady time, when everybody was having sex with everybody else and sharing drugs. And it was just a matter of time until a couple of the Family women ran into Dennis Wilson, who invited them back to his palatial mansion off Sunset Boulevard.
He told them he wanted them to come with him to have some milk and cookies. And he actually meant it. He gave them cookies and raw milk, which was the only kind he'd drink. They didn't know who he was, because the Beach Boys', you know, sort of sunny, happy music was not the kind of music that Charlie allowed his followers to hear.
But they get back to Spahn Ranch, and Manson says, well, you know, did you find anybody? Did you find anybody? They said, well, yeah. You know, this guy picked us up. He said he was the drummer in some band you probably never heard of. They're called the Beach Boys?
And the next thing the women knew, Manson was insisting they bring him and the whole family back to Wilson's house. Wilson gets back from a recording session that night, and there's Charlie and the Family inviting him into his own house. But they have the Beatles on the record player. There were plenty of drugs, and most of the girls were naked, and Dennis liked that a lot.
And Manson and the Family members pretty much moved in for a while. Wilson listened to Charlie's songs, and Dennis was a nice guy. The Beach Boys had a label called Brother Records, and Dennis thought, well, maybe they'd record Charlie. But the rest of the Beach Boys thought he was a talentless bum, and so that didn't work out.
Manson moved on a little bit. Neil Young was impressed enough with Manson's music - his improvisations - to suggest that his label give Charlie a listen. But they weren't interested. John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas passed. Rudy Altobelli, who was an agent for a lot of music stars, including Buffy St. Marie, didn't think Manson had anything special to offer.
So Manson set his sights on the one guy in L.A. who, if he liked Manson's music, Manson had a record deal right away. And that guy's name was Terry Melcher, the son of actress Doris Day and the boy wonder producer of rock and roll hits in Los Angeles. And Manson became obsessed with impressing Terry Melcher.
GROSS: Terry Melcher was producing the Byrds at the time.
GUINN: The Byrds. And he also - Melcher had this ability to sort of pick obscure performers and elevate them. Like, he found a garage band, dressed them up in Revolutionary War stuff, called them Paul Revere and the Raiders. And over the course, I guess, of three or four years at Columbia, Terry Melcher ends up producing about 80 hit singles.
So if he had thought Manson had talent, Manson would've gotten signed by Columbia Records. But when Manson auditioned for Melcher out at Spahn Ranch, Melcher's private reaction was this guy is nothing more or less than 100,000 other longhairs trying to pretend to be the Beatles. He has no sales potential. And he told Charlie in the politest way, you know, you're interesting, but I just wouldn't know what to do with you.
And when that happened, Manson's dream of becoming a rock star was essentially over, and that meant he had failed in front of his followers, who thought he couldn't fail. So he had to come up with something that would be audacious enough to bind them to him. And so that was one part - not all of it, but one part - of the reason for the Tate-LaBianca murders.
GROSS: Before we get to those murders, I want our listeners to hear some of Charles Manson's music. He wrote a song called "Cease to Exist," you know, he hoped would be recorded. And Dennis Wilson was, you know, actually recorded it, got it recorded on the Beach Boys' album "20/20," which was released, I think, in '69?
GUINN: Maybe '68.
GROSS: Maybe '68. Yeah.
GUINN: Late '68.
GROSS: OK. OK. So the lyric, the way Charles Manson sings it, includes the lines: Pretty girl, cease to exist. Just come and say you love me. Give up your world and be with me. Submission is a gift. Give it to your brother.
And it's, like, whoa. That's almost like his philosophy. Like, girl, cease to exist? Give up your world and be with me? Submission is a gift?
GUINN: Very much so. And that was the reason Manson was furious with Wilson, not just for claiming complete authorship of the song himself...
GROSS: Yes. If you look on "20/20," it just has, you know, it's just credited to Dennis Wilson. There's no Charles Manson credit.
GUINN: But what really hacked Manson off was the fact that Wilson had the nerve to change Charlie's lyrics. He had always told Wilson, you can change my music any way you want to, but you can't change the lyrics. Because if Charlie said it, it must be true. And, as you said, the whole idea "cease to exist" is that's Charlie throwing out his philosophy of life to any young woman listener. But Wilson changed all that around.
GROSS: But the line "cease to exist" is still in the Beach Boys' version, isn't it, even though that's no longer the title?
GROSS: The title is "Never Learn Not to Love"?
GUINN: Right. But Wilson changed the tone of the song. And he might be addressing anyone, and not just a girl that he wanted to get - come submit to him. And Manson hated that.
GROSS: What I'd like to do is play the Manson version back to back with the Beach Boys version so our listeners can hear both of them. Any comments before we do that?
GUINN: (Laughing) I think you're going to see that Charles Manson actually was not quite the gifted musician he believed himself to be.
GROSS: I'm with you on that. This is, it's really not... (Laughing) It's not a good recording. OK. So here's Charles Manson doing a song "Cease to Exist," and then the Beach Boys doing a version that was titled "Never Learn Not to Love."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CEASE TO EXIST")
CHARLES MANSON: (Singing) Cease to exist. Just come and say you love me. Give up your world, come on, you can't be. I'm your kind, oh, your kind, and I can see. You walk on, walk on. I love you, pretty girl. My life is yours...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEVER LEARN NOT TO LOVE")
THE BEACH BOYS: (Singing) I'm your kind. I'm your kind, and I see. Never had a lesson I ever learned. I never know, I could never learn not to love you. Come in, now closer. Come in closer, closer, closer, ah. Submission is a gift given to another.
GROSS: So that was Charles Manson singing his song "Cease to Exist." And then we heard the version that the Beach Boys recorded, but it was under a different title, called "Never Learn Not to Love." And that was on their album "20/20." And my guest, Jeff Guinn, is the author of a new book about Charles Manson, called "Manson."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH Air. Let's get back to my interview with Jeff Guinn, about his new biography of Charles Manson, the leader of a small cult group known as The Family. They were responsible for nine murders. Just to let you know, this part of the interview includes some pretty gruesome descriptions.
So, you were telling us that Manson really wanted to get a recording contract, but when everybody turned him down - including Terry Melcher, a very successful producer, who's also the son of Doris Day - he realized at some point he had to give up on his dream and continue to impress his followers with something else. So how does that lead to murder?
GUINN: Gurus can't be seen to fail by their followers. That's when the followers start to drift away. And some of Manson's followers were leaving him, some of his long-term people that he counted on and depended on. So he needs to do something spectacular. And here's where the other threads come in. Los Angeles is a hotbed of racial tension, maybe the worst in all major American cities in that year, in that hot summer. Watts had been just a few years before, and all across America, there's race riots. It's a terrible, tense time. And that permeates through the city, and Manson sees a way to use that.
At the same time, a drug deal has gone wrong, and Charlie has shot a man he believes to be a Black Panther, who was owed money by the Family for some drugs. And Charlie expects that the Black Panthers are going to come storming onto Spahn Ranch any time and attack. So there's that pressure on his followers.
And finally, there's a murder, a music teacher named Gary Hinman. The Family believes that Hinman has reneged on a drug deal with them. Bobby Beausoleil, a friend of Manson's but not a member of the Family, and a couple of the Manson women go down and torture Hinman. They think he's got money. He swears he doesn't. Manson comes in the middle of the night with his sword, cuts off part of Hinman's ear, leaves and later tells Beausoleil you know what to do, meaning kill him and try to make it look like the Black Panthers did it.
Beausoleil is arrested for Hinman's murder shortly afterward. He's driving a car stolen from Hinman, and he's got the bloody knife he used to kill Hinman in the wheel boot. Manson is worried that Beausoleil is going to flip on him, turn him in to the police. He can't have that happen, either.
So here, these things are coming together, and Manson helps the Family think: You know what? If there were copycat murders with signs again that black militants had done it, then the cops - because Bobby's in jail - would figure Bobby hadn't done it, and they'll have to let him go. Manson thinks that they need to kill famous rich people to get the kind of attention he wants. And if they can make it look like black militants did it, he tells everybody this will start Helter Skelter. This will make the whites mad, the blacks retaliate. We'll be in the desert. This is the beginning of the time that we're going to become masters of the world.
So they have to pick a place to go, and the reason they pick the house on Cielo Drive where Terry Melcher once lived is not because they think Melcher still lives there. They know he moved. But they also feel that only somebody really rich and famous could afford to live in that spectacular house at the top of a hill.
And Tex Watson, who Manson sends out that night with three of the women - Linda Kasabian, Susan Atkins and Patricia Krenwinkel - knows how to get to that house in the middle of the night, because they visited it before. So they picked this house not because they think Terry Melcher lives there, not because they know Sharon Tate is there, but because they know how to get there. It's location that decides the fate of five people that night.
GROSS: And Sharon Tate was the pregnant wife of the film director Roman Polanski. And she and four other people were murdered by Manson people. And then - go ahead.
GUINN: We were able, in the book, to have new information again about this night of murder. Patricia Krenwinkel, who had never given a full statement ever before, decided to finally tell the story, and she walked me through it, hour by hour. And it is horrific. It's horrible, horrible stuff.
GROSS: What horrified you most about what she told you?
GUINN: She told me about chasing Abigail Folger out on the lawn to the house.
GROSS: One of the victims.
GUINN: Right. And how she was stabbing her over and over, and how, when her knife would hit bone, it would hurt her hand, but when it hit organs, it felt more comfortable.
GROSS: Part of the reason why people were butchered in the way that they were was that Manson wanted these murders to be spectacular, not just like any murder. They had to be extraordinary and get a lot of media attention.
GUINN: Manson not only orchestrated these murders in advance, but afterward, when the killers get back to Spahn Ranch, he's waiting for them at the gate. And he questions them: Did you do this? Did you do that? How'd you leave everything? And he's furious, because he thinks they haven't made it spectacular enough.
He gets in the car and drives back to the house where these murders have occurred and changes things around. In particular, Manson found a large American flag in another part of the house, and he took it over to the sofa and draped it theatrically on the sofa. On the floor beside the sofa was the butchered body of Sharon Tate. And he was convinced that was going to be the visual that was going to start bringing down - not necessarily Helter Skelter, I don't know that Charlie ever bought into that himself. But if it could trigger even a small race riot in Los Angeles, then he can point to that to his followers and say, see, I told you we have the power to make these things happen.
So Manson orchestrated the murders beforehand, and he went back and he changed things around afterward.
GROSS: How did he try to pin the murders on the Black Panthers?
GUINN: He believed that if you left Black Panther signs, and they tried at the Hinman house to leave a bloody pawprint on the wall - they thought the Black Panthers referred to the cops as pigs, which they did. But, of course, a lot of the young white revolutionaries did the same thing. So that's why they wrote the word "pig" in Sharon Tate's blood on the door of Cielo Drive. They thought these would be the signs that would make the cops think it was the Black Panthers.
And, of course, nothing like that happened at all, which is why Manson, furious, on the morning of August 10th decided they would have to go out and do it again that night. This time, he was going to come along the whole way, to make sure it was done correctly.
GROSS: And that's when Rosemary and Leno LaBianca were murdered.
GUINN: And, again, it was not a case of Manson specifically picking individuals. He and a lot of the Family members had attended parties at a house next door to the LaBiancas'. And so, again, they knew how to get there at night. It was just the LaBiancas' misfortune that they were there then.
GROSS: Are any of Charles Manson's followers in touch with you, and have you gotten any intimidating messages from any of them who maybe don't want to see the story told?
GUINN: Well, Manson very kindly shared my contact information with some of his current followers, and I'm heard from quite a few of them. They're an interesting mix, and some of them are actually interesting folks. I thought that, you know, they wouldn't be, shall we say, exceptionally bright, but some of them are intelligent people who I think have just chosen the wrong person to admire.
GROSS: I mean, do they threaten you, or just try to reason with you?
GUINN: Not - the reasonable ones didn't threaten me. I've gotten a couple of direct threats, but they're from the kind of folks who use crayons when they write. So I'm not too concerned.
GROSS: About how many followers of Manson's are still out there?
GUINN: They must number in the hundreds, and they're all over the country.
GROSS: Really? Oh. What qualifies as being a follower at this point? And it sounds more like a fan than a follower.
GUINN: Well, Manson doesn't really differentiate, but he communicates with lots of folks. He likes to stay in touch with people who are fairly worshipful of him, and a lot of them hope someday he will be released and actually come out to be their leader.
GROSS: I would like to hear you describe why you think some people would choose to follow him now, when we know he's behind the murders of - eight?
GROSS: Nine, thank you. Like, now that we really know the story, why would somebody want to follow him?
GUINN: They don't accept that as facts. If Manson says I never killed anybody, that's all they want to hear. There are people in this world who are going to believe what they want to, and aren't going to let the facts get in the way.
GROSS: You tried to interview Manson and wrote him, what, like, 40 requests. What kind of response did you get?
GUINN: Well, I didn't hear anything for a long time, and finally, he wrote me a letter. It was not a pleasant letter. He did not want me to write the book. And I'm sure he had an idea that I was finding people who'd never talked before, and the book was going to be able to point out all the lies he's told about himself all these years.
So he wrote me a letter telling me off. But later, when I asked to use some of his prison art in the photo section of the book, he gave me his permission. At any rate, Manson has loved this. He has always wanted to be famous, and if instead of being famous he has to be notorious, he'll settle for that. And, again, I think if we can just understand who this man is, he'll lose something of the magic that people have somehow imbued him with over all these years since.
GROSS: What is the magic that he's been imbued with?
GUINN: Manson fed into the national paranoia at a unique time in our history. When I interviewed Tom Hayden for this book, he said he didn't think there'd ever been a period in American history like 1968, '69, when something momentous seemed to happen virtually every day, something unbelievably good or horrifyingly bad, everything from assassinations, race riots, a very unpopular war that was dividing the nation.
At the same time you've got this amazing creative explosion in movies, in music and literature. A man walks on the moon. The New York Mets win the World Series, which at that time, people would have believed was far less possible than man walking on the moon.
Every day, something is happening, and we're reeling emotionally, and we were not yet used to horrific murders. There was something unique about these, an evil hippie guru sending his addled followers out. And now, of course, I think most Americans in the street can't remember the names of the kids who were the Columbine killers or the man who shot up Virginia Tech University.
We've seen so many mass murders in the most horrible of ways, it's kind of like Charlie established himself as the first king of that particular crime and has held the title ever since. He's a terrible, terrible human being, but there's nothing mystic or magic about him.
GROSS: Jeff Guinn, thank you so much for talking with us.
GUINN: It's been a pleasure. Thank you.
GROSS: Jeff Guinn is the author of "Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org, or you can also download podcasts of our show. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.