Forget His Name

When Charles Manson was a boy, his mother traded him for a pitcher of beer. He was fetched home by an uncle and returned to his mother, who merely shrugged. She was a prostitute and a small-time thief who passed trade secrets to her son.

Charles Manson

Manson was jailed for the first time at 13, for burglary. By the time he was in his early 30s, he’d already spent half his life behind bars.

As he was being released from California’s Terminal Island prison in 1967, he panicked and asked the jailer not to turn him out into the world. The guard laughed, but Manson was serious. Prison was the only real home he’d known.

When the lifelong con man hit the streets, much had changed since 1960, the year he had last tasted freedom. It was the Summer of Love and Manson drifted to San Francisco, epicenter of America’s cultural revolution.

This is an earlier version of what became an essay for The Conversation. To read that piece, click on the logo above.

There he found docile flower children — easy marks, even for an inept crook. He adopted the hirsute look of the tribe, recycled some of the Scientology babble he’d picked up in the joint, and started building a “family” of followers drunk on his flattery. He preyed on lost and damaged young women — wounded birds — and made them think they were beautiful, as long as they followed him.

He sought fame. He deserved fame, he reasoned, and he needed to make the world notice him. “His followers had no idea that Charlie was obsessed with becoming famous,” biographer Jeff Guinn wrote. “He told them that his goal, his mission, really, was to teach the world a better way to live through his songs.”

He figured the fastest route to fame was through music. He knew a few chords and could reasonably mimic the peace, love and flowers ethos in his lyrics. If he looked the part and acted the part, he could bask in the fame he felt he was owed.

Dennis Wilson

He brought his “family” of damaged goods to Los Angeles and sent his women to scout for men who could either help Charlie find fame or money. While hitchhiking one day, a couple of the girls found an easy mark: the big-hearted, generous and sex-obsessed drummer for the Beach Boys, Dennis Wilson. He picked them up, took them home for milk, cookies and sex, then left for a recording session. When Dennis returned home in the middle of the night, the girls were still there, along with Charlie Manson and 15 other young women, all mostly nude. For a sex junkie like Dennis, it was paradise.

Manson saw Dennis — and his Beach Boy brothers Brian and Carl — as his entrée to the music business and international fame. Although the group’s star was dimming  by the late ’60s — they were no longer the hip boy band they had once been — it was at least a moccasin in the music industry’s door. Through his time as Dennis Wilson’s roommate, Charlie had gotten to know record producer Terry Melcher, Cass Elliot of the Mamas and the Papas, Neil Young and Frank Zappa.

Click on Manson’s guitar to go to the iTunes playlist for my book ‘Everybody Had an Ocean,’ which features Manson singing ‘Look at Your Game, Girl.’

Convinced he would make Charlie — whom he called the Wizard — into a star, Dennis urged his brothers to record the fledgling singer at the Beach Boys studio in Brian Wilson’s home. Wherever Charlie went, of course, his “family” followed. Marilyn Wilson, married to Brian at the time, had the bathrooms fumigated after every session, fearing the filthy girls were spreading disease. (And they were, though not the kind that showed up on toilet seats. Dennis ended up footing, for the Manson women, what was jokingly referred to as the largest gonorrhea bill in history.

When Dennis’s efforts bore no fruit, Manson glommed onto Melcher, who had produced the Byrds and Paul Revere and the Raiders. Melcher and Wilson introduced Manson to L.A.’s music society, largely through lavish parties at the estate on Cielo Drive that Melcher shared with actress Candace Bergen. At Cass Elliot’s parties, Manson played whirling dervish on the dance floor, entertaining all with his spastic monkey moves.

The Beach Boys’ 1969 album, ’20/20′ featured a song called ‘Never Learn Not to Love,’ which Dennis Wilson adapted from Manson’s song ‘Cease to Exist.’

When Neil Young heard Charlie sing his compositions during a drop-in at Dennis Wilson’s house, he called Mo Ostin, president of Warner-Reprise Records, to urge the boss to give the guy a listen. Young warned him that Charlie was a little out there and spewed songs more than sang him. But still, Young insisted there was something there.

And there was. Manson’s voice was good enough that he had a reasonable expectation of getting a recording contract. His original compositions were good enough to be recorded: The Beach Boys adapted one of his songs into something called “Never Learn Not to Love,” which they performed on the supremely wholesome “Mike Douglas Show.”

Manson’s lyrics, unfortunately, were mostly honky gibberish, bad enough to justify Ostin’s rejection and for Melcher to tell Charlie he couldn’t get him the record contract he so desperately wanted.

But it was too late to stop now. Charlie had drunk from the trough of fame. He mingled with rock stars and thought he was entitled to be a rock star.

The American Dream used to be described thus: Come to America with nothing and, with the great freedoms and opportunity offered by the country, exit life with prosperity. It has also been described as simply the ideal of freedom — of living in a free and robust society, with nothing to impede people but an open road.

At some point, this changed. In the post-war world of abundant leisure and instant gratification, an ethos of opportunity, hard work and the gradual accumulation of wealth fell away, replaced by a longing for instant fame and fortune. Perhaps it was a result of the conspicuous wealth so visible on the new medium of television. Maybe these new celebrities burned so much brighter because their images slipped through the cathode ray into millions of American homes, turning the house into the new movie theater.

Either way, for millions today, the American Dream is simply the delirious pursuit of fame. Ask a school child what he wants and it’s simply to be famous — by any means necessary.

Charlie Manson was an early avatar for this new concept of the American Dream. He sought fame at any cost. He tried to achieve celebrity through music and, when he didn’t reach that goal, he turned to crime. Sure, he would spend 61 of his 83 years in prison. But the cameras rolled, the papers were printed, the books were sold. No one would ever forget his name.

Terry Melcher and Candace Bergen lived at 10050 Cielo Drive before Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski moved in.


Manson achieved his goal, becoming so famous that his name replaced those of his victims. The crimes became known as the Manson Murders.

Look to the media today to see Manson’s ideological descendants, thirsting for fame at any cost. Some don’t just risk humiliation, they court it. Remember the early rounds of “American Idol” with jarringly dreadful performances giving the reprehensible “singers” their 15 seconds of fame?

Other, more deadly offspring, could be the boys who shoot up schools and coffee shops and prayer-group meetings. They might be dead, they might have left a trail of destruction in their wake and they aren’t mourned. But like Manson, they are remembered. That’s certainly more than most failed con men can claim.

Unfortunately, Manson achieved his goal: fame. Perhaps the best way to honor his victims is to forget his name.

Recommended reading: I don’t reference it in this piece, but I’d like to mention a great book by Ed Sanders called The Family (Dutton, 1971). This was one of the most important books in my life — not because of Manson, but because it made me want to be a writer. I know the book has had the same effect on a lot of other people. Of course, any dive into literature about Manson includes Helter Skelter (WW Norton, 1974) by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry. Jeff Guinn’s biography, Manson (Simon and Schuster, 2013) is superb.

Out of the sandbox

The Boys at Zuma Beach, 1967. Left to right, Carl Wilson, Alan Jardine, Brian Wilson, Mike Love and Dennis Wilson.

At the beginning of 1967, Brian Wilson was on top of the pyramid.

In the previous year, he’d made Pet Sounds, one of the most influential albums in recorded history, then produced a stunning, shimmering song called “Good Vibrations.” With Brian Wilson as producer-arranger-composer, the Beach Boys had become America’s pre-eminent rock band.

The word was that Brian Wilson was a genius and that he was to American music what Magellan was to world travel.

Most of this ‘genius’ speculation was based on Brian’s work-in-progress, an album to be called Smile that would serve as his “teen-age symphony to God.” Brian’s idiosyncratic music, paired with the intense and playful lyrics of Van Dyke Parks, were the stuff of rock-critic legend. Reporters chronicling the making of Smile gorged on Brian’s eccentricities, including his filling his dining room with sand, so he could move his piano into the room and wiggle his toes as he composed.

As I say: at the beginning of 1967, he was on the top of the pyramid. By the end of the year, he’d tumbled from those staggering heights.

Brian Wilson

Lots of reasons, but the one that seems to have earned the most favor over the years: The Beatles surpassed him. The British group produced Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and left the Beach Boys in their stellar wake. Since Sgt. Pepper strove for — and achieved — grandiosity, Brian probably thought Smile — with its celebration of small moments of joy — might not stand up.

Whatever the case, he cancelled the album after Pepper‘s release and withdrew the band from the Monterrey International Pop Festival. Those two events are seen as crippling the Beach Boys as a significant rock’n’roll band.

(Though tragically unhip in America, they remained revered in Great Britain, where they were arguably more popular than the Beatles.)

To recover, other members of the band coaxed Brian back to life on the ground. They built a studio in Brian’s house and cocooned him, which kept him away from the great studios — Western Recorders or Gold Star — and the session players history has dubbed the Wrecking Crew.

‘Smiley Smile,’ released September 1967
‘Wild Honey,’ released December 1967

Instead, Carl Wilson helped his big brother to make “music to cool out by.” The other members pitched in. If their musicianship was not at the level of the session pros in the Wrecking Crew, then so be it. They worked toward a simpler sound. For some reason, Brian had his piano detuned, so it sounded like the kind of thing you’d heard when friends got together in the basement after a few beers.

In place of Smile, the Beach Boys produced Smiley Smile in September 1967 and Wild Honey in December 1967. And ‘produced’ is a key word there. The earlier Beach Boys albums bore the ‘Produced by BRIAN WILSON’ credit. Now the jacket said, ‘Produced by THE BEACH BOYS.’

This music was the antithesis of Sgt. Pepper or The Notorious Byrd Brothers or anything by Jimi Hendrix (who sealed the doom of the band’s hipness with his “may you never hear surf music again” hidden lyric on “Third Stone from the Sun”). As Roger McGuinn of the Byrds said of 1967, all the artists were trying to out-weird each other.

The Beach Boys had done weird, with Smile, and found it not to be suitable.

Click on the image for the remastered “Darlin’ ” from “Sunshine Tomorrow.”

They never tried to be something they were not. And what they were was three brothers and a cousin from the suburbs. So the heavy intellectual stuff and pomposity didn’t fit well. Years ago, a writer put it nicely. Wish I could remember his name or the correct phrasing, but it was something like “We are a confounding country. We can put a man on the moon but we can’t stop people from wearing spandex pants to the mall. The Beach Boys will drive you crazy that way too.”

In short, you’ve got to be willing to take the goofy with the great.

When Smiley Smile came out, it was largely panned, though it’s an excellent album. But since it was the ‘Instead of Smile‘ album, it was held to an impossible standard. As Carl Wilson said, “It was a bunt instead of a grand slam.”

A mock cover of the never-released pseudo-live album, “Lei’d in Hawaii.”

The recorded-in-the-living-room vibe gave Smiley Smile a wholly original sound. After a live album in Hawaii was discovered to have been poorly recorded, the Beach Boys took this new homegrown work ethic into a studio where they tried to fix the live album with some live-in-studio recordings. They abandoned that project and instead went back to the living room and made Wild Honey, the closest thing the group ever recorded to a rhythm and blues album.

This has always marked the beginning of my favorite period in Beach Boys music. When the mass audience and the new ruling class of rock intelligentsia looked elsewhere, the Beach Boys made music for themselves. This wonderful era is now chronicled in the two-disc history 1967: Sunshine Tomorrow (come on boys, pick a title).

What we have in Sunshine Tomorrow isn’t a collection of snippets and scraps. Producer Mark Linnett has taken these old pieces and put together a new piece of work — not just a document of a creative period in the band’s life, but something that stands up today. This is a glorious album.

‘Sunshine Tomorrow’ features 65 tracks over two discs.

Linnett sets the stage by starting with Wild Honey in a new stereo mix. He then works through some session outtakes and live performances. As brilliant as that is — and Wild Honey has some of the best Beach Boys songs ever — it’s the Smiley Smile sessions that provide some of the great delights.

Wisely, Linnett leaves off “Good Vibrations” (Brian didn’t want it on the original album anyway) and he uses the backing tracks of “Heroes and Villains,” instead of the vocal, which would have contained those wonderful but overwhelming lyrics. Linnett eases into the Smiley Smile material with revelatory backing tracks, gradually building to the wonderfully weird and stoned-out “Wind Chimes,” “Cool, Cool Water,” “Vegetables” and “Little Pad.”

From there, Linnett goes into the faux-concert album as the scaled-back homegrown Beach Boys recreate their Hawaii setlist from the poorly-taped concerts on Oahu. (Brian had come out of performing retirement to join the band on stage.) These quiet versions of “California Girls,” “Help Me Rhonda” and “Surfer Girl” are wonderful reinterpretations.

The five performing Beach Boys in 1967. Left to right, Carl Wilson, Alan Jardine, Dennis Wilson, Bruce Johnston (Brian’s stage replacement) and Mike Love.

If I never hear “Surfer Girl” again, I’d be okay. But here, it’s done in a laid-back style that renders it a whole new song. Mike Love loses his usual braggadocio and “California Girls” becomes a gentle lament. (Love’s singing throughout is reserved. He pulls back on the usual swaggering bullshit and sings with tenderness.) Alan Jardine changes the perspective of “Help Me, Rhonda,” turning the story around, so it’s more of a “Help You, Rhonda” now. They sound remarkably like the Ramones doing “Beat on the Brat.”

The real surprise is the concert-in-the-studio version of “You’re So Good to Me,” from the 1965 album Summer Days. Brian Wilson’s new arrangement is much richer than the shrill chant from two years (and a lifetime) before. If only the music business still revolved around singles, this would be a good one.

The group also does some then-current songs by other groups: “With A Little Help From My Friends,” “The Letter” and “Game of Love.” The combined Carl-Brian-Mike shared lead vocal on “The Letter” is particularly fun. (By the way, the set ends with a thrilling a cappella “Surfer Girl.”)

This was a great period for the group and to hear them and marks Carl Wilson’s emergence. Though in retrospect we can see he had the best solo voice, he was not eager to sing lead vocals. He carried “Pom Pom Play Girl,” but it was “Girl, Don’t Tell Me” from 1965 that he considered his first lead. Then big brother entrusted him with “God Only Knows” and “Good Vibrations.” If that doesn’t demonstrate trust and respect, I’ll eat my Volkswagen.

Baby brother Carl Wilson not only moved into the front-man role for the Beach Boys in 1967, he began his long career of trying to hold the group together.

Carl is all over Wild Honey and his love of rhythm and blues comes out in his unrestrained, fluid vocals. He does a tremendous cover of Stevie Wonder’s “I Was Made to Love Her” (listen for the you-son-of-a-bitch hidden lyric) and “Darlin'” is irresistible.

As McGuinn said, everyone was trying to out-weird each other, but the Beach Boys were hanging out in Brian’s living room, singing rhythm and blues around that deliberately detuned piano. The slightly off sound of the music — and the overall dominance of the piano — gives the music of this era a resonance.

Who knew that the Beach Boys would be the harbingers of what would start happening that very month Wild Honey was released.

Tired of the grandiose bullshit (he thought Sgt. Pepper was a piece of crap), Bob Dylan came out of his 18-month seclusion and produced the quiet masterpiece, John Wesley Harding. It was Dylan’s way of grabbing rock’n’roll by the lapels and saying, “Pull yourself together!”

Soon, the Beatles were cutting out all of the studio gimmickry and promising to ‘get back.’ Meanwhile,  the Byrds and the Band were discovering what today we call roots music and Americana.

In a way, the Beach Boys were there first.