Our better and worse angels

This period in time marks the 50th anniversary of two events that nearly simultaneously captured the national imagination—and hit close to home for me.

On the nights of August 8 and 9, 1969, Charles Manson’s communal family committed the most shocking murders in LA history—which included the slaying of Valley of the Dolls actress Sharon Tate and four of her guests. The tabloids went crazy with the grisly details.

I was performing in a rock band that weekend on Sunset Strip, two miles from the first murder in the Hollywood Hills. Given the brutality of that crime and its tie to the entertainment industry, West Hollywood was in a state of shock. After the second murder the following night near Griffith Park, the condition became Code Red. Where would Charlie Company strike next?

It was reported later that Terry Melcher—the record producer for the Byrds’ million-seller hits “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Turn Turn Turn” and who had close connections to the Beach Boys, Glen Campbell, and The Mamas and Papas—had previously lived at the murder address and was the intended victim. Melcher had declined to sign rockstar-wannabe Charles Manson to a record deal and Charlie took it a little too personally.

Many of us in the LA music community had some connection to The Byrds and therefore to Terry Melcher, so it was too close for comfort. (I had worked with another Byrds’ producer, Gary Usher, the year before, and a friend of mine, Skip Battin, was about to join the band as a bass player.)

Meanwhile, 2,767 miles away in Bethel, NY, The Woodstock Festival, arguably the most celebrated musical event of the last half-century (captured in a recent PBS documentary) began six days later. The display of peace and goodwill by a half-million “hippies” in attendance was as shocking to the public as the events in Hollywood the week before.

My previous band, The Morning, had done concerts with seven of the acts that performed at Woodstock that weekend. If my band hadn’t ignored a swarm of managers and record producers who were courting us in 1967 and 1968, we might have stayed together and possibly landed a slot at the festival. Delusional thinking perhaps, but we had already played major concerts and outdoor festivals on both coasts with Sly and The Family Stone, Joan Baez, Tim Hardin, Blood Sweat and Tears, and Paul Butterfield—along with multiple shows with The Grateful Dead and Richie Havens.

I remember at the time wishing I was on that Woodstock stage. But in the next breath I remember feeling gratitude for my anonymity. Such was the Charles Manson Effect.

Looking back on it all now, it’s easy to wonder how the best and worst of humanity was on national display in a period of 10 days. Only in America?

I do believe that America’s rich musical tradition—filtered through the performances on stage at Yasgur’s farm in Bethel, New York five decades ago—is still the most eclectic and innovative in the world. In this regard I’m an unabashed American Exceptionalist. But of course there’s also the darker current of national culture that’s not so wonderful. This turbid underbelly is not uniquely American but its free expression through ubiquitous gun violence IS. Folks who don’t live in the States may be surprised to learn that most mass murders here don’t make it to the front page of the US dailies anymore.

But for a brief moment, I’m suspending judgment and looking at America as simply an argument that will never be resolved.

And so it is that the entrepreneurial spirit of this nation—and the creativity, innovation, and freedom of American enterprise itself—can best be described as “explosive.”

Note: I’ve explored the contradictions of American capitalism, in all its authenticity and plasticity—epitomized by the beauty and depravity of the music business—in a previous post: “Vinyl.”

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  1. Footnote to the above: Charles Manson was taken seriously enough as a singer-songwriter prior to his murder spree that The Beach Boys revised and recorded one of his songs, “Never Learn Not to Love.” The song was originally titled “Cease to Exist.” (Given Manson’s spooky demeanor and violent temper one might have hoped that title would have been a bit of a red flag.) Drummer Denny Wilson was even a pal of Manson, whom he dubbed “The Wizard.” Later I learned that the Manson Family had previously resided in Venice, where I lived and hung out. It was a tight musical community there and for all I know I might have run into the Wizard, playing his romantic love songs on Venice Beach.

  2. Excellent as always. I remember talking to Dennis Wilson about Manson one night when I was recording with him on his solo project. He said at first he liked Charlie, but when he realized what he was, it was too late. He had been letting Charlie and some of his "Family" live with him. When he realized how dangerous he was, he tried to get them to leave. Charlie wasn't going to leave, so Dennis, thinking he was in danger moved out of his own house to get away from them. Maybe one of the smartest things he ever did.
    Those were some scary times.

    1. Didn't know you recorded with Dennis, but I shouldn't be surprised at anything you've done! Others have told me DW was a bit of a troubled soul himself (tho not the caliber of CM). I liked some of his songs. "Forever" was pretty special and he sang it well. They all sang like angels. I think I liked Carl's vocals the best.

  3. And the new Tarantino movie brings back August, 1969 Hollywood in a unique way! With a happier ending.

    1. I should add that it's still not clear what Charlie Company was really up to 50 years ago. I'm reading that Manson, before he headed out to Benedict Canyon that fateful night, already knew Terry Melcher had moved out, so his choice of that home is all the more mysterious.

      Anyway, it's nice to hear someone has imagined a happier ending.

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