The Other Side of Charles Manson: The Failed Musician

Charles Manson isn’t exactly remembered for his music. In fact, there is a pretty good chance that before today, you didn’t even know he wrote music. Nonetheless, he was an aspiring musician and even put out a considerable number of recordings from prison (before he died there).

Matt Smith as Manson / Charles Manson / Officers and Charles Manson

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His music was first released while he was standing trial for his part as the head conspirator and cult leader behind the Manson “family” murders. But everything that led up to the tragic night is another fascinating story. Here is the failed music career of the infamous criminal, Charles Manson.

Charlie’s Musical Dreams

Charles Manson loved writing music and performing. Although most people say his talent was mediocre, he believed he was destined for greatness. His aspirations of becoming famous with all of America knowing his name came true. Unfortunately, his fame came from his much darker actions.

Charles Manson traveling on a police van to the Santa Monica Courthouse

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Jeff Guinn’s book Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson describes the lengths that the once spiritual leader aspired to in the years leading up to the brutal murders he orchestrated in the fateful summer of 1969. The man who directed the events of that sweltering night had dreams of becoming a folk singer.

Small, Smelly Scammer

Manson was already situated in a place where stars were born every day. In early 1968, he and his “family” took up residence at Spahn Ranch, which contained 55 secluded acres in Los Angeles County. The dry, rocky landscape was a perfect shooting site for Westerns.

An abandoned cabin in Spahn Ranch.

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The “family” earned their keep by helping out with the horse rental business, a business that made up a chunk of owner George Spahn’s income. Stuntman Gary Kent revealed in a BMD interview that Manson was a smelly, small scammer. That comes as no surprise to me.

Meeting Phil Kaufman

So, before the murders, Charles Manson was already a long-time criminal. In 1967, he served time at Terminal Island in San Pedro, California, for stealing a mailed check. While he was there, he met a man named Phil Kaufman who was behind bars for smuggling marijuana to the United States.

A photo of Phil Kaufman.

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When Kaufman got out a year after Manson did, he moved in with the “family,” or cult. Kaufman was serious about recording Manson, but by that time, Manson was too busy with his cult activities. Kaufman eventually got frustrated with Manson and his increasingly erratic followers and got out of there (not a moment too soon).

Calling His Old Friend From Jail

However, Manson reconnected with his jail buddy in 1969, when he was on trial for the murders. He gave Kaufman a call and asked him to put out his music in whichever way he possibly could. Manson had apparently already recorded several songs between 1967 and 1968. Strangely yet unsurprisingly, the “family” backed him up on vocals.

Charles Manson with his guitar.

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Kaufman decided to take on his request and brought the songs to various record labels to see who might be interested. As you can imagine, they all turned the music away because of its connection to Manson.

Lie: The Love and Terror Cult

Desperate to get the songs out, Kaufman raised enough money for 2,000 copies and distributed them throughout the West Coast. After some time, a label called ESP-Disk released the record in March 1970, under the name Lie: The Love and Terror Cult.

A copy of Manson’s record.

Source: Twitter

As an aspiring musician since the mid-‘60s, Manson had been trying to break into the music industry long before he even met Kaufman. In fact, he had quite a few connections in the music scene of the greater Los Angeles area, most notably, his friendship with Dennis Wilson from the Beach Boys.

An Odd Twist of Fate

In a strange twist of fate, two of Manson’s girls ended up in the back of a car driven by a member of the Beach Boys. Patricia Krenwinkel and Ella Jo Bailey were hitchhiking when drummer Dennis Wilson picked them up. The girls had no clue who he was, but their cult leader certainly did.

Dennis Wilson at home.

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Once he heard about this random encounter, he tracked down Wilson, went to his house, and quickly befriended the pop artist. For the next few months, the small-time pimp brought his girls to Wilson’s Pacific Palisades home and slithering his way in.

Roomies With a Beach Boy

But Manson wasn’t just acquainted with the Beach Boy. Wilson let Manson (and his followers) move in with him and even paid for studio time for Manson to record. However, to this day, most of the tapes from those sessions have not been released. Manson’s increasing radicalization eventually ended his relationship with Wilson.

Brian Wilson and Dennis Wilson record at Western Recorders studios.

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After their fallout, Wilson decided to rework one of Manson’s songs, “Cease to Exist,” and turned it into the track “Never Learn Not To Love,” which made it on to the Beach Boys’ album 20/20. As you would expect, Manson was not pleased with Wilson’s changes… so he did the only rational thing. He went to Wilson’s house with a loaded gun but, thankfully, he wasn’t home. Instead, Manson left the housekeeper with a bullet and a message. (He didn’t shoot her; he literally handed her a bullet).

Changing the World Through Lyrics

As we mentioned, Charlie wasn’t trying to reach fame through the big screen; he wanted to sing. Between 1967 and 1968, he wrote and recorded a few songs for the tape we mentioned, Lie: The Love and Terror Cult. Songs on the album include: “People Say I’m No Good,” “Ego,” and “Sick City.”

A close-up of Charles Manson.

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Some of the lyrics talk about when he was carjacked on the corner of the hippie counter. He was trying to use his own story as a way to effect social change by showing the world what his daily battle for survival was like.

Helter Skelter

The songs were nothing more than the average staples of the folk-rock genre: disdain for cops, freedom in the hobo lifestyle, and various references to birds. But behind the music was a spirit rooted in racism and LSD-fueled madness over an apocalyptic race war that the cult leader called “Helter Skelter.”

Charles Manson at California Medical Facility.

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Blacks and whites would riot and battle to the death, and the Manson ”family” would be the phoenix that would rise from the ashes and rule the world… at least according to Charlie. His passion could be derived from the deep pages of the Bible and the margins of The White Album. Okay, guys (and girls), it’s time for some game theory:

The Beatles Made Me Do It

“Everyone should feel proud,” Charlie declared. Not only was The White Album the Beatles’ collective call-to-arms to the entire world, but it was also especially directed to Charlie and the “family.” He preached… that a Black uprising was imminent and not just because the Beatles said so, but the Bible. Revelation, Charlie explained, predicted that locusts would come, and locusts were, of course, beetles – the Beatles.

George Harrison, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and Ringo Starr are posing together.

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John said that the locusts would have “scales like iron breastplates” – which, according to Charlie, referred to the Beatles’ guitars. And there was more: Revelation also told of angels coming to earth, with the first four being the Beatles. The fifth, “given the key to the shaft of the bottomless pit,” was Charlie.

The Helter Skelter Scenario

So, basically, Charles Manson took the Beatles’ The White Album and used it as an excuse for his heinous actions. In Charlie’s mind, the songs on the album (particularly Helter Skelter) were a coded prophecy for a world-ending war between racist and non-racist whites, killing each other over their treatments of Blacks.

Charles Manson sits at the defendant's table at the Santa Monica Courthouse.

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The Helter Skelter scenario is a theory brought on by the prosecution in the Tate-LaBlanca murder trial to explain the murders committed by the Manson “family.” Manson often spoke about the song and the dark meaning he believed it contained. The prosecution used the Helter Skelter scenario as a motive.

Cease to Exist

After the Beach Boys bought “Cease To Exist” from Manson, they planned on including it in their 20/20 album, which would be released in December 1969. Instead, Brian Wilson recomposed it into “Never Learn Not To Love” and changed the sound from blues to pop.

Brian Wilson poses for a portrait in 1968

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And to top it all off, Wilson took compositional credit for the entire thing when the band dropped the single (a year before the album’s release). Still, Manson showing up with a gun was an extreme reaction. But the fact that the single didn’t reach higher than the #61 on the charts made the aspiring musician and cult leader even more infuriated.

Crushed Dreams

Since Charles Manson got no credit or recognition for that song, he was worried that no producer would be interested in him… and he was right. Despite exhausting the few connections he had made in the California music scene, neither Universal nor Brother Records would give him the time of day… let alone sign him.

Manson is sitting on the ground in the backyard.

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Now, he was no longer an aspiring artist; he was a failed musician. That song was his last shot at making it. But there was one Hail Mary left, Manson’s only glimmer of hope was his connection to Dennis Wilson.

A Glimmer of Hope

On the second night that Manson and his “family” partied at Wilson’s home, the drummer called his friend Derek Jakobson to come by. Jakobson just so happened to be a talent scout for Terry Melcher, a major producer who worked with notable artists, including The Byrds, Paul Revere & The Raiders, and The Mamas & The Papas.

Photo of Terry Melcher

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By this point, Charlie knew the game. He assigned one of his girls to hang out with the married man, all for the sake of his musical dreams. He eventually got his wish and was given an audience with Jakobson’s boss.

Last Chance to Impress

Terry Melcher had visited the “family” on a few occasions at the Spahn Ranch commune. He was a representative at Columbia, one of the very few places that hadn’t rejected Manson yet. The big day came in May 1969, and Melcher finally sat down at the ranch for a live show.

Matt Smith, as Charles Manson, is performing on the ranch from the film “Charlie Says”.

Source: The New York Times

Charlie Says, a 2018 American biographical drama film by Mary Harron, dramatizes the performance with all the cringe-worthy necessities: the girls ordered to wear skimpy outfits made of deerskin, with their twangs and accents that they had already rehearsed. Needless to say, the show was a disaster, and Melcher left without signing him. He did, however, give him some pity cash, and Charlie told his followers it was “an advance on a record deal.” Whatever helped him sleep at night.

Not as Good as He Thought

Another desperate performance about a month later brought similar results. As Jeff Guinn put it: “You’re good, but I wouldn’t know what to do with you.” Later, during the Tate-LaBianca murder trial, he testified with a more direct slur: “I wasn’t impressed enough on that level – as far as his musical talents – to want to pursue it and make a record.”

Charles Manson and Eddie Ragsdale pose outside Vacaville State Prison with two guitars.

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There were a few more efforts to get the attention of Frank Zappa, Mama Cass, and The Doors’ producer Paul Rothschild, but nothing came of them. It was over and time for Manson to let go of his musical aspirations.

Don’t Mess With Charlie

The fallout from this enormous disappointment cannot be understated. Manson gave the situation a bit of a spin when he broke the news to his confused followers. He told the members of his “family” that this was all a confirmation of his foretelling.

The three female members of Charles Manson's

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He had been betrayed, and the dirty hippie wanted to send out a message—a little something to kick off Helter Skelter and to show the Columbia Big Shit who’s boss. Nobody betrayed Charles Manson. This was the end of the summer of 1969. On August 8th, the Tate-Labianca murders were carried out by the Manson “family,” killing five people.

Changing the Lyrics

Wilson’s changes to the song were pretty significant. He changed phrases like “cease to exist” to “cease to resist” and “submission is a gift, go on, give it to your brother” to “submission is a gift given to another.”

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Upon analyzing the lyrics, one might notice how they shift from a possessive love affair to a relationship built on a give-and-take dynamic. Since lyrics give a glimpse into a person’s deep, true feelings and emotions, Manson’s lyrics are creepy in retrospect. “Cease to resist” also has an eerie ring to it.

Are They Just Words?

This brings us to another point: Charles Manson’s songs are a microscope into his sociopathic psyche. After all, this was a man who thought the Beatles’ White Album was about an upcoming race war and that that the song Helter Skelter was instructing him to orchestrate the devastating murders.

Charles Manson leaves the court in handcuffs.

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So, it seems understood that Charles Manson was trying to portray certain messages through his music. Then again, after listening to Lie: The Love and Terror Cult, it doesn’t sound any more bizarre than much of the other folk music that was coming out during this time.

What Could Have Been

Still, when listening to his music, it’s difficult not to find connections to his murderous philosophy. But that may just be because of our collective knowledge of what happened next. Everything comes together in retrospect, but many artists use dark lyrics as metaphors or a way to describe their emotions without actually carrying out tragic crimes.

Manuel Vasquez is photographed with copies of a Charles Manson album that he produced.

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It begs the question: Would things be different if someone had given Manson a record deal? It also makes you wonder which singers out there would have become evil cult leaders or sociopaths if their careers had gone in a different direction.

Bringing a Knife to the Studio

We mentioned Manson’s friendship with Wilson, but we didn’t really get into their falling out. So, Wilson paid for studio time and opened the music industry door for Charles Manson. He should have been grateful for every opportunity.

Brian Wilson in a recording studio.

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Instead, he got mad that Wilson’s producers tried making some changes to his music, and he eventually pulled out a knife during his sessions. Shortly after, Manson and his “family” moved out of Wilson’s house, and the former roomies were no longer friends. But their stay didn’t come cheap for the Beach Boy.

Beach Boy Aftermath

After the “family” moved out, Wilson had about $100,00 in damaged property, medical bills, and stolen personal items. But in the end, the drummer got his vindication. That’s when Wilson and the rest of the Beach Boy decided to rework Manson’s song “Cease to Exist.”

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Later, Wilson found a bullet on his bed that Manson admitted was from him. “I gave him a bullet,” the failed musician said. “Because he changed the words to my song.” Remind me never to mess with anyone’s song lyrics!

Guns N’ Roses

Over the years, several artists have covered Manson’s songs, from The Lemonheads’ rendition of “Your Home Is Where You’re Happy” on their album Creator to Guns N’ Roses “Look at Your Game Girl,” at the end of their album The Spaghetti Incident?

Axl Rose is wearing a T-shirt with Manson’s face on it.

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During the band’s Use Your Illusion tour, Guns N’ Roses frontman Axl Rose rocked a shirt on stage that said “Charlie Don’t Surf” with Manson’s face it. You know, so nobody would be confused about which Charlie he was referring to.

Marilyn Manson

But perhaps the most famous example is that the shock-rock provocateur Marilyn Manson created his stage name after the infamous cult leader. He combined the names of America’s sweetheart, Marilyn Monroe, and America’s monster, Charles Manson.

Marilyn Manson performs on stage.

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In 2000, Manson the rock star covered Manson the murderer’s “Sin City.” He Tweeted the link years later in response to the cult leader’s death. Strangely, this isn’t the only time someone was inspired by a psycho criminal. Keyboardist Stephen Gregory Bier Jr. took on the name Madonna Wayne Gacy. A combo of the singing sensation and the notorious serial killer.

Nine-Inch Nails

Nine-Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor started renting the home at 10500 Cielo Drive (the house where Sharon Tate and four others were murdered) in 1992. That’s where the band recorded their EP, Broken, and sophomore album, The Downward Spiral. The house was the perfect spot for their nihilistic ruminations on the downfall of society through drugs, sex, violence, disease, and self-harm.

The writing on the wall found in the Tate house says, “Death to pigs”.

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Demonstrating his twisted sense of humor, Reznor called the studio “pig,” a nod to the writing on the wall that the Manson ”family” left using Tate’s blood. He also filmed a video for “Gave Up,” which included a guest appearance by his protégé, Marilyn Manson.

Trent Reznor Regrets It

Reznor didn’t grasp the extent of his actions until he met Sharon Tate’s sister, Patricia. During an interview with Rolling Stone back in 1997, he recalled the encounter. “She [Patricia] said: ‘Are you exploiting my sister’s death by living in her house?’ For the first time, the whole thing kind of slapped me in the face.”

Trent Reznor is sitting on the sidewalk outside Tate’s home.

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“I said, ‘No, it’s just sort of my own interest in American folklore. I’m in the place where a weird part of history occurred.’ I guess it never really struck me before, but it did then. She lost her sister from a senseless, ignorant situation that I don’t want to support. When she was talking to me, I realized for the first time, ‘What if it was my sister?’”

Feeling Guilty

But Rezner continued: “I thought, ‘Fuck Charlie Manson.’ I don’t want to be looked at as a guy who supports serial-killer bullshit. I went home and cried that night. It made me see there’s another side to things, you know? It’s one thing to go around with your dick swinging in the wind, acting like it doesn’t matter.

Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails performs at Zenith de Paris.

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But when you understand the repercussions that are felt… that’s what sobered me up: realizing that what balances out the appeal of the lawlessness and the lack of mortality and that whole thing is the other end of it, the victims who don’t deserve that.” In 1994, the Tate house was demolished.

Dennis Joins the Clan

Charles Manson, his cult followers, and their vicious murders were a bizarre saga. But arguably the strangest part was the Beach Boys connections. Although they were roommates and Manson started acting up, that wasn’t the full story. At one point, Dennis Wilson actually joined the Manson clan.

A photo of Dennis Wilson

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In his defense, he wasn’t necessarily a cult follower, but he did spend a lot of time on the ranch. According to The Washington Post, in the summer of 1968, Dennis Wilson spent months with the ”family” sinking into a drunk fueled orgy.

See You in Hell

Despite not killing anybody himself, Charles Manson spent the rest of his life behind bars after he orchestrated the brutal murders. He served his time in the Corcoran State Prison in California from 1971 until he died on November 19th, 2017.

Seven deputies escort a handcuffed Charles Manson from the courtroom.

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He was denied parole for the 12th time in 2012. Throughout the years, Manson gave interviews where he literally acts like a crazy person. His strange behavior was replicated brilliantly by Damon Herriman on the second season of Mindhunter. Portraying a psychopath isn’t easy, but Harriman really pulled it off.