The Manson case had a touch of evil to it — in fact, more than a touch; it was, in many minds, a post-apocalyptic deluge. It exposed how defenseless the folk-rock stars, the movie stars, the producer stars, the drug stars, the limo driver stars and thousands of would-be and wannabe stars were in their pretend fortresses up in the hills of Los Angeles and Malibu.
No one had guards packing pistols or rifles in the summer of 1969. It was as if the whole Los Angeles scene was being protected by the hippies at Hog Farm commune, who had recently provided security at Woodstock consisting of what their leader called “seltzer bottles and cream pies.”
Then, around midnight on Aug. 8, Abigail Folger was lounging in a Cielo Drive guest room in Benedict Canyon, reading a book, when a knife-wielding Susan Atkins walked into her bedroom unannounced. Folger, an heir to the Folgers coffee fortune and a guest of the very pregnant actress Sharon Tate, waved hello.
It was ultimate vulnerability.
The ultra-brutal killings that followed stunned the world, prompting headlines about Hippies and Weirdos and Ritual Murder. Along with Folger and Tate, who was married to the director Roman Polanski, the victims that night included Folger’s boyfriend, the Polish writer Wojtek Frykowski; Tate’s friend, the hair-stylist-to-the-stars Jay Sebring; and a young man named Steven Parent, who had been visiting the estate’s caretaker.
The next night, in another part of town, the owner of a supermarket chain, Leno LaBianca, and his wife, Rosemary, were killed in a similarly barbaric fashion, with the words “Healter Skelter,” misspelled by one of the killers, written in blood on the LaBiancas’ refrigerator.
Things changed quickly in Los Angeles after that.
As I first began to investigate the case for my 1971 book, “The Family,” the allure of the Tate-LaBianca murders seemed obvious: It had famous rock ’n’ roll stars like Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys, who briefly housed the so-called Manson family; it had the appeal of the Wild West; it had the bass drum of the 1960s, with its sexual liberation, its love of the outdoors, its ferocity and its open use of drugs. It had the hunger for stardom and renown; it had religions of all kinds; it had warfare and hometown slaughter; and it had it all in a huge panorama of sex, drugs and violent transgression.
But now, I ask myself: What is the big deal about the Manson family? After 50 years, surely the obsession has died down?
It has not. As the bountiful media attention around Quentin Tarantino’s new film, “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” attests, the obsession is alive and well. And that film is only the latest in a long line of pop culture products from the past half-century to be inspired by the crime, including movies, TV series, a stop-motion animation film and too many documentaries, books, articles and musical tributes to count. At least one prestigious university offers a semester-long seminar on the murders.
As the novelist Graham Greene noted in “The Third Man,” “One’s file, you know, is never quite complete, a case is never really closed, even after a century, when all of the participants are dead.” And as Tarantino knows, Hollywood dotes on self-revealing and self-obsessed stories about itself.
We may be stuck with Charlie Manson for a while.
The End of the ’60s
The Manson case had ripped aside the veils of Hollywood and inflamed the world’s interest, and as a fairly well known musician and writer of the counterculture at the time, I was interested, too, if at first for different reasons. For years after my book was published, I had so much Manson family lore in the front of my brain that my personal calendar was based on what the Manson group had done on that particular day in 1967, ’68 or ’69.
When I first started looking into the family, I thought they might be innocent, and might have even been framed. I pondered whether some scheme were afoot to blame a hippie tribe with psychedelic dune buggies for some killings that others had committed.
I soon learned otherwise.
In my weekly column, written during the 1970 trial for The Los Angeles Free Press, I tried at first to write about Manson and the other defendants as human beings, not cult demons. I was also concerned with whether Manson and his followers were being judged by a jury of their peers.
In addition, I was against the death penalty, and the prosecutor, Vincent Bugliosi, although a good Los Angeles liberal, was very adroit at putting on a trial that could lead to a death sentence.
If Manson got death, I wrote in one of my columns at the time, then what about William Calley and the perpetrators of the massacre at My Lai during the Vietnam War?
Because of my countercultural bona fides — among other things, I was a member of the rock band the Fugs, and the Free Press was the country’s premier underground newspaper — I was accepted by remnants of the Manson family. Before and during the trial, they invited me out several times to their home base on the Spahn Movie Ranch, at the edge of the San Fernando Valley, where several key scenes in Tarantino’s movie take place. After a garbage run dinner, they asked me to lead their communal singing in which they specialized in Manson’s songs. They handed me a guitar, but I turned down the offer.
A few weeks before the trial, which was scheduled for June 15, I had gone camping with members of the Manson family, along with a documentary filmmaker, out in the vastness of the mountains above Death Valley, 50 miles from the nearest phone. I slept in a van with a key — and not yet arrested — member of the group.
Even though I often dressed more like a Manson family member than like Bugliosi, I nevertheless had an assignment from Esquire and a book contract from a major publisher, so I had access to the prosecution and homicide investigators. When I called one of the prosecutors, Burton Katz, he was dumbfounded to learn that I had slept in that van beside the guy he believed had cut off the head of Shorty Shea, a former stuntman working on Spahn Ranch who had disappeared several weeks after the Tate-LaBianca murders. (When investigators finally located Shea’s body, over a decade later, his head was attached.)
That’s when I began to get the shivers about the Manson group.
I had also begun learning about a plot to free Manson.
The young man in the van, I found out, had during our trip asked a member of the film crew, “What would you say would happen if one night 75 heads were cut off?” From what was being tossed about, it was obvious an escape attempt for Manson was being planned.
Members of the Manson family said that he had maps of the Los Angeles sewer system. They said there was a set of parallel dry tunnels running all the way from downtown to the edge of the desert, which you could barrel through on motorcycles to freedom. They had talked to the filmmaker about chopping off heads as a distraction to aid the escape.
I told them I didn’t care about their plans. I wanted them to think that an escape meant nothing to me so they wouldn’t become suspicious.
I had never snitched in my life. In my youth, I had been counseled by friends never to catch the eye of a police officer and to be very wary in their company. Later, as someone whose face had been on the cover of Life magazine as a leader of the so-called “other culture,” I was doubly suspicious of the police. In writing and researching the book, however, I began to feel sympathy and respect for a number of police officers whose work I began to understand and appreciate.
So I decided to go to the authorities. I contacted a CBS reporter who was covering the trial and told him what I knew. Together we made arrangements to tip off the police.
The weekend before the trial began, I learned that Manson had been moved to a super secure cell at the Hall of Justice, the same place he was to be tried. The cell had previously held Sirhan Sirhan, the man prosecuted for the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy.
Fear Swept the Poolsides
There was great fear of Manson and his disciples, at least in Los Angeles during the trial, among those associated with movies and the music business. One need look no further for the origins of our abiding fixation: Many of the culture’s prominent voices from the past 50 years were shaped by that fear, their worldviews and obsessions forged in it. (In a recent interview with Esquire, Tarantino, who grew up in Los Angeles and was 6-years-old at the time, called 1969 “the year that formed me.”)
I saw that fear at work firsthand. Whenever my band played Los Angeles in the 1960s, we stayed at Sandy Koufax’s Tropicana Motel, located on Santa Monica Boulevard near La Cienega. There was a banana tree by the pool and hibiscus bushes with large red flowers. And there was always a party. During the summer of 1970, while I attended the Tate-LaBianca trial, I stayed with my wife, Miriam, and 5-year-old daughter, Deirdre, at the Tropicana.
Others in the music business were also staying at the Tropicana that summer, including Kris Kristofferson, the 5th Dimension and Janis Joplin, who was cutting her final album, “Pearl.” In the afternoons, the tables by the pool would fill up with visiting friends, including Phil Ochs, the writer John Carpenter and the singer Rita Coolidge.
The musicians were very anxious that I not bring any of the Manson family to the Tropicana. A few vowed to move out if I did, and I promised I wouldn’t.
A ripple of fear seemed to sweep across the poolside when it appeared that I had breached the edict one afternoon, as two hirsute young men came to visit me. Their names were Glenn Frey and J.D. Souther, and you could almost hear the shudders around the pool, where everyone was certain I had violated the ban against Mansonites.
Frey, whose band the Eagles would sell tens of millions of albums, was not attired in the threads of a star. Souther, who wrote many hit songs during the ensuing decade, was similarly bedecked. Their band, Longbranch Pennywhistle, performed a Fugs cover at their concerts, and the two had come by to invite Miriam and me to a show.
Kris Kristofferson told Miriam at the time that when the two men came poolside, he contemplated diving into the pool and swimming to the other side — the quickest route to safety.
“Live Freaky, die Freaky,” one of the people gathering outside Sharon Tate’s house reportedly said the morning after her murder. What that meant for the hills and valleys of Hollywood was, “From now on it’s lock your doors, close your gates, hire some guards, get some guns.”
Bread and Circuses
Some important people and events fade with time. A few years ago, I gave a talk at a large Midwest university on the subject of 1968, and I spoke about the time Allen Ginsberg chanted a poem by William Blake in a confrontation with military troops during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
After my presentation, I was leaving the auditorium when a young man approached me and asked, “Mr. Sanders — Allen Ginsberg, he was one of the lawyers at the O.J. Simpson trial, right?”
But some events last and last and last.
Ask Tarantino. He has his finger firmly on a key element of human proclivities. His “Once Upon a Time” received a six-minute standing ovation this year at Cannes.
He knows, to paraphrase the ancient Roman poet Juvenal, that the people want bread and circuses. They want sex scandals and shocking violence, the more vicious the better — even today, when such things seem as common as a hamburger stand.
Ed Sanders is a poet, writer and co-founder of the underground rock band the Fugs. For his 1971 book, “The Family,” he embedded himself among several of Charles Manson’s followers.
Fifty years later, the horror of their crimes still resonates.
As Quentin Tarantino’s new film revisits Los Angeles at the end of the ’60s, a man who was there — and literally wrote the book on Manson — argues that we never really left.