Monday, July 13, 2015

The Legend of Charlie Manson

"These children that come at you with knives, they are your children. You taught them. I didn't teach them. I just tried to help them stand up."
--Charles Manson

There seems to be a resurgent groundswell of interest in Charlie Manson nowadays. There was the NBC miniseries Aquarius, a dramatized riff on the murders and in podcast land there's the ongoing Manson-in-Hollywood storyline on the series, You Must Remember This. But what launched all this interest in Charlie Manson was undoubtedly the new biography, Manson, written by Jeff Guinn and published in 2013. As a teenager, I'd read Helter Skelter, prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi's 1974 book on the Manson murders. Except for the antics of a few Manson Family members, nothing much has changed in the four decades to warrant a new book. Nevertheless, a different writer (also a less personally involved biographer than Bugliosi) would find different aspects of Manson's life to highlight. The consequence is a biography that is nearly unputdownable. No one symbolizes the decline and collapse of 1960s counterculture as Charlie Manson does. He is the Boogeyman incarnate to every mother and father worried about their kids straying into delinquency or worse.

Manson is written chronologically, from his parents' ill-fated meeting to the present day. Charlie Manson has lived for 80 years, but the biography specifically focuses on just four years of his life, from his arrival in San Francisco in March, 1967 to his guilty verdict in his circus trial in early 1971. Of course he had a terrible childhood and by the time he was 33 had spent the majority of his life in prison, where he had cobbled together a philosophy gleaned from aspects of the bible, pimps, Dale Carnegie, and Scientology. He had listened to the Beatles. He loved their music and dreamed of being as big a rock star as they were. However, he'd spent nearly the entire decade in correctional facilities so when he'd arrived in the Bay Area in 1967 it was like stumbling into Ground Zero of student activism (Berkeley and its Free Speech Movement) and the sex and drugs revolution (San Francisco's Haight Ashbury) without having witnessed or understood its flowering.

Manson's biographer calls Charlie "the wrong man in the right place at the right time." It didn't take long for someone so charismatic and skillfully manipulative to weave spells on emotionally insecure, drug-addled teenage girls. Free love and drugs became essential Manson tricks for running his personal harem. But as eventful as San Francisco was in the late 1960s, it wasn't Charlie's scene. He wanted to be a rock star and the recording industry was down in LA. Through a series of petty tricks and some swindling, he secured himself an old yellow schoolbus and he and the girls headed south.

Manson had convinced some of his followers that he was Jesus reincarnated

The thing about Manson is his story is the extreme version of what had been a very strange, exceptionally unique period in American society. And things got really weird in LA. His Family grew, not just with girls but guys too. LSD trips and group orgies which Manson directed became nightly bacchanals. But nothing really mattered much until Manson could secure a record contract. And despite being an ex-con with no musical background and limited talent, he befriended and auditioned with some prominent personalities including Paul Rothschild (the Doors producer), Frank Zappa, Neil Young, and notably Dennis Wilson from the Beach Boys and Terry Melcher, Doris Day's son, and a Boy Wonder at Columbia Records, producing numerous rock and roll hit records. Not only did Manson get inside Dennis Wilson's house-- he lived at Wilson's Bel Air pad in the summer of '68-- he got in Wilson's headspace as well, Wilson introducing him to nearly everyone he knew as a genius including Terry Melcher. Melcher hung out with him a little bit, but wouldn't let himself get too close. After auditioning Charlie he decided against signing him and put him out of his life. Until early 1969 Terry Melcher and his girlfriend, Candice Bergen, lived at 10050 Cielo Drive.

10050 Cielo Drive is, of course, where Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, Wojciech Frykowsky and Steve Parent were brutally murdered by Manson Family members Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, and Patricia Krenwinkle. This is the watershed moment not just in Manson's life but in the downward spiral of hippie counterculture itself. How Manson convinced his followers to kill for him has terrified society for years. It was a very complicated moment for his cult: Manson had been preaching Helter Skelter for months, which was that an uprising by blacks (Manson was racist and feared the Panthers) would destroy the white race but blacks would be unable to govern and enlist the Manson Family to lead them (the followers hiding out in an underground abyss in Death Valley during Armageddon). All this was communicated to Manson in the Beatles' White Album. Of course, this sounds like absolute poppycock, but Manson Family members were heavily drugged on psychedelics and these were very paranoid times: Vietnam, race riots, urban uprisings, radical bombings, and political assassinations. What if a great race war was coming? What if Manson were right?

The Tate Murders had a two-fold purpose. One was to incriminate blacks so that they would be blamed for the high profile killings and thus take revenge on whites, jumpstarting the race war. To do this they smeared "Pigs" on the wall with Tate's blood. The other urgent matter was freeing a Manson associate, musician hunk Bobby Beausoleil, by doing a copycat murder so it would look like Bobby was innocent of the murder of Gary Hinman (an extortion deal of a music teacher/drug dealer gone bad that Manson had been involved in and thus eager to escape implication). He'd ingrained in his followers one of the tenets of Scientology-- that life and death were the same thing and thus it wasn't exactly murder but expediting the transmigration of the soul. Nuts, yes, but his followers, especially Tex Watson and Susan Atkins believed it and everyone wanted to be Charlie's favorite.

The Tate murders made sensational headlines but because the media failed to mention the Black Panthers connection, Manson had Watson, Atkins, and Leslie Van Houten murder a middle class couple, the LaBiancas, the following night. Los Feliz was a different neighborhood than Bel Air, and though the murders were just as grisly with bloody slogans splattered on the walls: "Rise," "Death to Pigs," and a misspelled "Healter Skelter," LAPD didn't connect the crimes. Amazingly, there were different detectives working on each case and it took police almost four months to crack the case. Luckily, Manson and some members of the family were already in custody in Death Valley after authorities confiscated some stolen dune buggies. The week the police announced Manson and his sect as the prime suspects in the Tate murders, four people died at the Altamont Free Concert in San Francisco. Between Manson and the bad press at Altamont, the hippie dream died that week. Longhairs weren't just slackers or bums, but were actually very dangerous. The trial of Manson and his followers would only highlight in detail how far gone down a rabbit hole Manson's hippie cult had fallen.

Not your average teenage hippie runaways

Like Adolf Hitler before him, all Charlie Manson wanted was to be a famous, respected artist. To be honest, his music isn't bad, better than a lot of groups at the time and sometimes, particularly when the Manson girls are singing, somewhat beautiful. If Terry Melcher had signed Manson to a record deal, he would have never been as big as the Beatles, but maybe Sharon Tate and her friends would still be alive today. Maybe the hippie dream, too, instead of dying a slow death in the 1970s, might have flourished and evolved and the United States would be a  more tolerant, liberal country today. The great, tragic irony is that Charlie Manson got his wish of eternal fame. And maybe some place this very moment some kid is listening to Manson's music, tripping out that this hippie murdering madman maybe had some good tunes too. And the other, great irony is that Manson did not murder anyone himself. But what had condemned Manson and made him so terrifying was that he could rally young people with malleable minds to shed blood for him. And again this echoes Adolf Hitler, who convinced regular people to organize the Holocaust and die for his world view. There is legitimate fear then, that anytime, anywhere, we might be just one charismatic madman away from local or global apocalypse. 

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Lunch with Orson

"A typical few hours-- in short-- some stories, some hopefulness, some creative ideas, some anecdotes, some sadness, some old memories, much shared understanding, many communicative smiles."
-- Henry Jaglom regarding his last lunch with Orson Welles

Of the many larger than life personalities to come out of Hollywood over the last century, there is no one quite so substantial perhaps as Orson Welles. The maker of Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil,  F for Fake, and his legendary Shakesperean adaptations of Macbeth and Othello, lived out his life as an unreconstructed genius, which is to say he was too smart for his own good. At one point or another he had probably antagonized everyone in Hollywood, most especially the suits who could afford to produce a picture. After his wunderkind debut, he had trouble financing his projects, and some of his best films were destroyed in the editing room by antagonistic studio heads. An actor with presence and an incredible voice, his voracious appetite for life led him to becoming a legendary gourmand, with the terrible consequences of obesity and its attendant diseases. The last ten years of his life he struggled to get funding for his numerous unfinished projects, an amazing development when you consider how integral Welles was to moviemaking.

Like Welles, Henry Jaglom is an independent filmmaker who idolized Welles. They became buddies and met weekly at a restaurant called Ma Maison (where Wolfgang Puck got his culinary start in California). The last few years of Welles' life, Jaglom (with Orson's consent) had begun tape-recording their conversations. Two years worth of lunch conversations are collected in My Lunches with Orson (edited by Peter Biskind). A lot of the conversations are Jaglom and Orson talking shop: the travails of financing for Welles' films. They also gossip about the sex lives of stars in Hollywood's golden era and Orson relishes in pontification. The conversations, though freeform rambling are often thematically unique enough for provocative chapter titles ("Everyone should be bigoted" to "It was my one moment of being a traffic-stopping superstar.") 

Throughout, Orson is engaging and eminently quotable. He chastises the chastisers ("Irene Dunne was so dry-toothed and such a good fucking Catholic that I wanted to kick her in the crotch."). He impugns aesthetes with wide-ranging tastes ("I say there's a point where somebody can't really dig that other fellow if they dig this one. Our eyes, our sensibilities, are only so wide.") And ironically, he condemns the film industry (sneaking in a smear on ballet while he's at it): "You know, I'm not interested in other filmmakers-- and that's a terribly arrogant thing to say-- or in the medium. It's the least interesting art medium for me to watch that there is. Except ballet-- that's the only thing less interesting." Orson has a bombastic personality and perhaps a penchant for exaggeration, often  inserting himself Zelig-like into the lives of many an icon, but he peppers his relevance with an anecdote suggesting some truthfulness. While Jaglom does adore Welles, they're tight enough for Jaglom to call "Bullshit," when Welles really winds himself up.

But Welles can be something of a philosopher too. In one conversation, Jaglom is feeling guilty about failing to give up his film career to do good work in Africa. Their talk evolves into free will and the nature of good and evil. Orson, guilty as anyone of living for himself rather than the dying stranger is nevertheless cognizant of his shared culpability: "Even if there is nothing out there except a random movement of untold gases and objects, sin still exists. You don't need a devil with horns. It's a social definition of sin. Everything we do that is self-indulgent, and that is selfish, and that turns us away from our dignity as human beings is a sin against what we were born with, the capacities we have, what we could make of this planet."

Orson Welles and Henry Jaglom

Later in the conversation he acknowledges that a number of people depend on him-- not just family, but actors and technicians for work, and of course there was his audience. He can do much more collective good as a filmmaker than as another body distributing foodstuffs in Ethiopia. But this isn't arrogance, this is truth. Most of the talks between Jaglom and Welles are humorous but there is an underlying current of sadness in that by the 1980s, Orson had become a has-been. If he could have walked away he might have found closure with his past. He couldn't-- not just because he needed the work to pay off his debts, but a certain indelible pride precluded him from retiring from what he did best. The man never stopped plotting, scheming, dreaming. Welles died the night of October 10th, 1985, with a typewriter on his lap.