Manson: murderer, madman and master of manipulAtion

It's 40 years since the Sharon Tate murders. Damian Corless looks at a new book on the man behind the mayhem

Independent, UK/August 8, 2009

'Stop! I'm already dead!" That was the pitiful plea of heiress Abigail Folger as she winced under the brutal stabbing frenzy of a well-bred woman her own age. Her attacker was Patricia Krenwinkel, a former Catheticism teacher who'd swapped visions of convent life for the worship of Charles Manson, a criminal lowlife who preached that he was Jesus Christ.

Folger's imploring words brought only more torture, as A-student Tex Watson joined in the murderous assault, running across the lawn of the Santa Monica mansion from where another bludgeoned victim lay dead. Inside, held down by another female attacker, actress Sharon Tate begged in terror for her life. Heavily pregnant with the child of director husband Roman Polanski, she begged for her baby's life. Her captors fell upon her, mutilating her with 16 gaping wounds. Her blood was used to daub the word "Pig" on a wall.

The slaughter took place 40 years ago this week -- on August 9, 1969. On the far side of the States the crowds were starting to converge on Woodstock for the greatest affirmation of the hippie dream. In LA, Manson's disciples were halfway through summoning up a hippie nightmare. The following night Leno and Barbara LaBianca were savaged in another suburban bloodbath. This time the slogans "Rise", "Death To Pigs", and "Healter (sic) Skelter" dripped down the walls.

The Sixties of love and peace died a bloody death days before Woodstock, but no one knew it for months because the LAPD failed to recognise that "Pig" and "Helter Skelter" echoed songs on The Beatles' recently released White Album. Harrison's song 'Piggles' was an attack on fat-cats. Interpreting it as a personal message, Manson took it as an incitement to attack the police. McCartney's 'Helter Skelter' was an attempt by the nice Beatle to blow up a filthy storm of noise. The lifelong racist Manson read it as a prophecy that uppity blacks would take over the world by egging white liberals and white supremacists into destroying each other. "Manson was obsessed with The Beatles," says Simon Wells, author of Coming Down Fast (a line from 'Helter Skelter') -- a new biography that tracks the Manson murder trail and examines why it still fascinates.

Born in 1934 to a 16-year-old prostitute, Manson appeared as "No Name Maddox" on his birth certificate. A miserable childhood was punctuated by humiliations such as when an uncle dragged him to church in a dress "to learn to fight and be a man".

At 13 he was the youngest ever inmate of Indiana County Jail. He became a career jailbird, with each release followed by arrest for offences ranging from car theft to rape. Bright as a button, he read voraciously in prison, hoovering up titbits of philosophy, religion and mumbo-jumbo that he would later regurgitate in the guise of a guru. He also took up guitar, and saw the light when the fresh sound of The Beatles blared from his tinny transistor radio in 1964.

According to Wells: "He became a Beatlemaniac. He was in jail and they were an enormous cultural phenomenon, yet he didn't see them as different from him. They showed him that you could rise from nothing to the very top. So he decided to become a pop star."

Manson left prison in March 1967 and headed to California in time for the summer of love. With his bohemian good looks, his piercing eyes, his charismatic magnetism and his deep reserves of junk philosophy, he quickly gathered an entourage. Wells says: "His followers were mostly women, mostly from broken homes. Very often they were looking for a father figure. Manson was mercurial. He could be anything and anyone he wanted to be, to serve his own ends."

What Manson wanted more than anything was to be a pop star. Initially, his flock, who'd become known as his Family, were assembled with a view to making music. A prison contact provided a tentative link to Denis Wilson, the wildest of the Beach Boys' bunch.

Manson moved his Family into Wilson's Sunset Boulevard mansion where the Beach Boy was enlisted to the cause, eventually paying for studio time to record songs penned by the jailbird.

Wells says: "Denis Wilson was the dissolute personification of the LA coke-head, pot-head, speed-freak. I don't think he was so much attracted by Manson's music as by his drugs and his entourage of women." Manson treated his harem as sex slaves whose duty was to indulge the whims of himself and those he wanted to cultivate as contacts. As part of Wilson's circle, Manson got to know showbiz bluebloods including record producer (and son of Doris Day) Terry Melcher and Rudi Altobelli who would later rent his LA house to Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski. Melcher had previously occupied the house, and it was the nursing of a grudge against the record producer that was behind Manson dispatching his murder gang there on the night of August 9. Wilson's infatuation with the Family lasted just a few months. The dozen or so disciples who'd initially invaded his home soon multiplied. In August Wilson had his management muscle turf them out, but only after they'd run up an enormous drain of some $100,000 (€69,623) on his bank balance. Reputedly this included the $21,000 (€14,621) loss of an uninsured luxury car which they'd "borrowed" and totalled, and an extensive Family-size course of gonorrhoea medication.

Simon Wells says: "Manson had set his heart on a musical career. When that didn't happen, he allied himself with The Beatles in a new way." Moving the Family to squat in two vacant ranch houses in California's Death Valley, Manson cast around for a new goal to keep his followers focused and his dictatorship intact. He found it, he claimed, with the pre-Christmas release of The Beatles' follow-up to Sergeant Pepper.

Family member Susan "Squeaky" Atkins recalled him bringing home the White Album in a state of starry-eyed rapture. She reported: "Charlie said 'They're speaking to me'. He was convinced he had some sort of apocalyptic connection with The Beatles. And I, and most of the others, believed that, in some way, 'Helter Skelter', the end of the world, was coming down fast."

According to Manson's new vision, the blacks would have little time to savour the extermination of the whites before they, in turn, would be subjugated by the Family, who would rule the world.

According to Wells, Manson's vision was a pick and mix affair. He says: "Manson was a magpie. He nicked from everything, including that other made-up religion, Scientology. He was already a racist, but when the race riots exploded across the States he picked on the fears generated for his own purposes."

It took the LAPD months to track down the murderers and their leader. In the courtroom Manson found the stardom he'd craved, rising to the occasion to outsmart and torment his prosecutors. As he faced sentencing, he appeared with shaved head and a forked beard, announcing: "I am the Devil."

When Manson was hatching his handful of Hollywood murders, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, and others were perpetrating the genocide of millions, yet as a monster, he seems to outrank them. If he'd committed his savagery in Idaho or Inishowen, would we be talking about him 40 years on?

"No," states Simon Wells. "Take Sharon Tate out of the equation and what have you got? You've got the murder of some flakey people by other flakey people. It was savage, but it happens in LA every day."

Now aged 74, Manson knows he will die in jail. In his own twisted soul, he will probably die happy too, as the rabid Beatlemaniac who made himself part of The Beatles' legend.

Charles Manson: Coming Down Fast by Simon Wells is published by Hodder & Stoughton.

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