Manson Is Innocent!
I called Jann Wenner, the publisher of Rolling
Stone, and told him about all these strange
goings on. I said I thought there was more to the
Charles Manson story than was being told. I felt the
whole counterculture was on trial here and we needed
to tell our side of the story. Jann, in his characteristically
enthusiastic way, said: "Let's do it! We'll put
'MANSON IS INNOCENT!' on the cover. Come up to San
Francisco and we'll talk."
In Jann's office a couple of days
later there was this deceptively straight-looking
character with a quizzical expression on his face
named David Felton. David had worked for the Los
Angeles Times and Jann thought that for
a crime story like this I needed to work with someone
who had hard news background. I was immediately
suspicious. Naively, I saw the Manson case as a
fight for the life of the counterculture itself—one
of our own was being martyred, our most cherished
beliefs were being trashed by the cynical establishment
and their lackies, the LAPD. I was not alone in
David wasn't convinced that Manson
was innocent. He thought he might be
innocent. "Isn't this what we're trying to
find out?" Traitor! Embryonic hippie culture
was just then beginning to poke its scaly head into
the great American reich. Didn't he
see this was a holy war? This kind of nit-picking
objectivity was the curse of Western society—Cartesian
logic, Euclidean geometry, linear thinking. I felt like Castro (yet another fallen idol!). "Everything
for the revolution; against it nothing!"
But truth to tell, my reporting
experience previous to this had been confined to
rock groups. Compared to Charles Manson, the most
fiendish rock band in the land were merely naughty
poseurs with guitars.
We Go to Meet the Devil
in His Lair
Manson's attorney arranged for us to interview him
in jail under the subterfuge that we were material
witnesses. On the lawn outside the L.A. County Jail
were friends and family of the prisoners. It was
pretty clear who Manson's family were. A group consisting
mainly of young girls sat together on the lawn.
Their heads swivelled in synch when anything—like
my walking towards them—caught their attention.
Their pupils were dilated and they stared like the
children in Village of the Damned.
A kid with long blond hair was looking into the
sun, drawing spirals in the air. I thought he might
be freaking out, so with hippie camaraderie I said,
"It's a hole in the fourth dimension, man."
"It's a hole in all
dimensions," was his easy answer. He had a
chipped tooth and a smile that was either goofy
or a scary leer... depending. His name was Clem
Tufts. A freckle-faced young girl took me by the
arm. "You're from Rolling Stone,"
she said. It wasn't hard to guess how she knew this
but at that instant it was startling. Her name was
Squeaky Fromme, the same Squeaky who a few years
later would pull a gun on Gerald Ford.
We met with Charlie in a little
booth with glass sides. Without his beard he had
a crazy, Appalachian face, all strange cubistic
angles and points. Sitting opposite him I didn't
find the famous glaring eyes of his disturbing.
He'd retuned them to my wavelength. We got on fine.
Hey, I thought he was innocent and he could read
that in a flash. We talked with him for about an
hour and asked him everything we wanted to. Satan
and God (one and the same, dig?), good and evil
(two sides of the same coin), sex, ego, submission
(it really means service to others—uh-huh)
At one point I asked him about
the silver bullet he'd sent Dennis. Without missing
a beat he said, "I had a pocketful of bullets
so I gave him one."
"Then it wasn't given as a
threat?" I asked.
Manson said that was just Dennis's
paranoia. How deluded that Dennis was! But Manson
wasn't going to leave it at that. He was a master
of obfuscation. His technique was to take the improbable
and push it until it turns into its opposite. The
trick is so mesmerizing you forget about the mental
"If you gave me a bullet,"
he answered, "I'd wear it around my neck and
let them see your love for me." What was it
Hitler said? Tell a big enough lie and everyone
will believe you.
I wanted to know about the stuff
on the White Album. "Can you
explain the prophecies found in the Beatles' double
album?" we asked.
"'Revolution [#9]' referred
to Revelations chapter 9," he
said. "It's the battle of Armageddon. It's
the end of the world.... It predicts the overthrow
of the Establishment. The pit will be opened, and
that's when it all will come down. A third of all
mankind will die. The only people who escape will
be those who have the seal of God on their foreheads.
You know the part, 'They will seek death, but they
will not find it.'"
The final verse of Revelations
9 ominously reads: "Neither repented they of
their murders, nor of their sorceries (the Greek
word pharmakos can also mean drugs),
nor of their fornication, nor of their theft."
Charlie made diagrams of four songs
from the White Album for us: "Piggies,"
"Helter Skelter," "Blackbird"
and "Rocky Raccoon." Under "Helter
Skelter" he drew a zigzag line, under "Blackbird"
he put two strokes which he said indicated bird
sounds. It was all pretty hermetic.
"The bottom part is the subconscious,"
he explained, not too helpfully. "At the end
of each song there is a little tag piece on it,
a couple of notes. Or like in 'Piggies,' there's
'oink, oink, oink.' Just a couple of sounds. And
these sounds are repeated in 'Revolution 9.' In
'Revolution 9' all these pieces are fitted together
and they predict the violent overthrow of the white
man. Like you hear 'oink, oink' and then right after
that, machine gun fire. [He sprayed the room with
imaginary bullets.] AK-AK-AK-AK-AK-AK!"
"Do you really think the Beatles
intended it to mean that?"
"I think it's an unconscious
thing. I don't know whether they did it or not.
But it's there. It's an association in the subconscious.
The music is bringing on the revolution, the unorganized
overthrow of the Establishment. The Beatles know
in the sense that the subconscious knows."
It's true that "Piggies"
and "Revolution" seemed to intimate radical
ideas but what could he possibly read into a jokey
little ditty like "Rocky Raccoon"?
"Coon," said Charlie.
"You know that's a word they use for black
people. You know the line, 'Gideon checked out/
And left no doubt/ To help good Rocky's revival.'
Rocky's revival—re-vival. It means coming
back to life. The black man is going to come into
power again. 'Gideon checks out' means that it's
all written out there in the New Testament,
in the Book of Revelations."
During our interview with Manson
there was one particularly spooky moment that made
me wonder who exactly I was dealing with. I was
going to ask him what his sign was but by mistake
I said, "You're a scorpion, aren't you?"
In a split second his face went through a dozen
different emotions. As if seen in stroboscopic flashes,
his face flickered from anger to confusion to fear
to a sort of demented arrogance. It was the strangest
reaction I had ever seen. It was as if I had suddenly
opened an emotional worm hole into his soul and
could observe him as he wriggled through these states
like some kind of psychic salamander.
He disdained words, he said, and
yet he was a prodigious and dazzling talker. He
was a metaphysical dancer who could effortlessly
turn his imprisonment into tautology. When a warden
told him, "You'll never get out of here,"
with Sufi sleight-of-hand Charlie answered, "Out
We asked him a similar question
but he read the subtext as if he were reading the
lips of my mind: "Death is psychosomatic. The
gas chamber? [Laughs] My God, are you kidding? It's
all verses, all climaxes, all music. Death is permanent
solitary confinement, and there is nothing I would
like more than that."
A bell rang, a deputy came to tell
us our time was up. Charlie gave us a copy of a
song he'd written called "Man Cross Woman."
He stood in the attorney room. Beyond the bars Clem
and Squeaky were miming to his every move, like
coyotes communicating in a silent animal language
to one of their kind in captivity.
Okay, he seemed a little more slippery
(and creepier) than I had imagined but this might
be accounted for by the fact that he had been touched
by some terrible truth, been struck by some divine
lightning. I was more convinced than ever that he
was innocent. David just thought he was crazy. It
was just like Charlie had told us, "Anything
you see in me is in you. If you want to see a vicious
killer that's who you'll be.... If you see me as
a brother that's what I'll be.... I am you and when
you admit that you will be free. I am just a mirror."
The Manson girls had invited us
out to the ranch and so we drove out there that
night. The Spahn Movie Ranch—desolate, rocky
scrubland, an almost biblical landscape, a perfect
setting for Charlie's apocalyptic plans. It was
a dude ranch where you could rent horses and ride
trails. Mr. Spahn was an old cowboy himself, he
was eighty-three and so smitten with horses he had
given all his children horses' names like "Ginger"
and "Sparky." On one side was a trailer
where the Manson Family ate their meals. On the
other was a barely plausible Western-town movie
set with a Longhorn Saloon and jail where B movies
had once been shot. The Manson Family lived in the
rooms behind the set. There was a leathery stunt
cowboy living out on the ranch named Randy Starr,
who was a "specialist in neck drags, horsefalls
and death drags." His forte was an act in which
he appeared to be hung from a gallows.
The Spahn Ranch on the face of
it wasn't much different from any other commune.
We sat around a fire talking to Gypsy and Squeaky
Fromme. Andy and I decided to stay out there. We
went riding bareback in the corral at night, we
talked and hung out.
He Showed Us the Polaroids
Jerry Cohen, a friend of David's at the Los
Angeles Times, had arranged an interview
for us with one of the prosecutors, Bugliosi's assistant
as a matter of fact. I forget his name but in Rolling
Stone we called him Porfiry after Raskolnikov's
nemesis in Crime and Punishment.
The DA's office was in the old
County Hall of Justice. It was hard to tell the
difference between the D.A.s and the reporters for
the Los Angeles Times and it was from
the Times that almost all the information
about the case came. I saw further evidence of a
conspiracy to set Charlie up.
The DA ate lunch (a grapefruit)
in his office while he talked to us, stabbing the
grapefruit rind when he wanted to make a point.
He prefaced his remarks by saying that the so-called
Manson Family were animals.
"They take drugs, hold orgies
and eat out of dumpsters."
"And...?" we said. He
rolled his eyes. We told him we would turn off the
tape recorder any time he asked. It didn't matter
to him if it was on or off. To Porfiry, Rolling
Stone was indistinguishable from any
other underground paper. He didn't think anybody
was going to read it. He was very glib, smooth-talking.
He was in love with himself. He was also in love
with talking about the case and did himself in.
He described the murders in gruesome
detail. On the night of August 10 of that year members
of the Manson Family had broken into a Hollywood
mansion and killed Sharon Tate, movie star and pregnant
wife of the director Roman Polanski, along with
Jay Sebring, a fashionable Hollywood hairdresser—the
movie Shampoo was based on him—Abigail
Folger, heiress of the Folger coffee fortune, and
her boyfriend, Wociech Frykowski, a scenemaker and
childhood friend of Polanski's, and Steve Parent—who
just happened to be there. The DA surmised that
the motive was revenge on Terry Melcher who had
put down Manson's music. Melcher had lived in the
house where the murders took place until a few months
before. But, the DA admitted, Manson knew he no
longer lived there and his reason was that the rich,
decadent people who lived there deserved to die.
The following night Leno and Rosemary
La Bianca were grotesquely stabbed to death with
forks. Their bad luck, it seemed, was to live next
door to Richard True, an acquaintance of Manson's.
The DA portrayed the La Biancas as a nice middle-aged
couple who owned a chain of grocery stores, enjoyed
water-skiing and watching late-night television
in their pajamas. Subsequently the La Biancas' story
turned out to be somewhat different. He was deeply
in debt and Rosemary, a former biker chick, was
running amphetamines. As was Charles Manson. There
has been some question as to whether the murders
at Sharon Tate's didn't somehow involve drugs, too.
Then came the clincher. From a
locked file he pulled out some bound photo albums,
not unlike the ones you put family snapshots in.
Except that these were photos of blood-splattered
bodies taken by the County Coroner's Office of the
murders. The moment of truth came for me when I
saw "HELTER SKELTER" written in blood
on the La Biancas' refrigerator. I now knew the
Mansons had done it. I may have thought that the
LAPD storm troopers were capable of almost any kind
of sleazy frame-up but daubing Beatles lyrics in
blood on a refrigerator was a little beyond their
Faces Come Out of the Rain...
When You're Strange
I was in free-fall. Everything was turning inside
out. All that had seemed solid an hour earlier had
vanished into thin air. I couldn't afford to dwell
at any length on the metaphysical ramifications
of it all—the fate of the counterculture,
etc. But I had more immediate problems. My wife,
Andy, was still out at the Spahn Ranch. I had to
find a way to tell her and get her out of there
without anyone in the Family suspecting I knew.
They were a very psychic bunch, tuned in like a
mutant hive to a single wavelength. They would know
in a second if anything was wrong.
On the drive out there desperate
realizations were coming down like hail. The most
chilling was that two people involved with Manson
had died since I'd started working on this story.
The attorney who took us in to see Manson had died
in a freak skiing accident and Randy Starr, the
stunt cowboy, had hung himself in front of a crowd
at an amusement park when something went wrong with
his act. Another friend of the Family had narrowly
escaped being burnt to death in his sleep when his
trailer had caught on fire the week before. Previously
these had seemed like freakish accidents. Suddenly
they didn't seem all that accidental.
By the time I got out to the ranch
the fear and paranoia were so intense that I was
hallucinating. Every rock had a face and every telephone
pole had turned into a cross.
The first person I ran into was
Clem Tufts. I knew if he looked me in the eye he'd
know something was up so I started madly taking
pictures of him. Every click sounded like the clatter
of the Devil's knitting needles. His features corkscrewed
into clownish, menacing grimaces as if terror itself
could warp the contours of his face.
I told Andy we were going to take
some horses and go for a ride. "Are you crazy?"
she said. "In the middle of the day? It's 110
degrees out there." She looked in my eyes.
I was crazy. You can't argue with
a crazy person.
"Okay, if that's what you
want," she said in the way you talk to a lunatic.
I was on the other side of the
looking glass and I saw all things darkly. All life
animate and inanimate was writhing in a macabre
dance of forms. Malevolent dead Indians leaped vengefully
out of the rock formations, phantom runaway trains
rushed through the cactus, headless dogs were barking
my name. I knew the Temptation of St. Anthony wasn't
just a theological metaphor. I was in it.
When we were far enough away I
told Andy what I'd seen at the DA's office. "Baby,
we gotta get serious. When we get back to the ranch
we're gonna split but we gotta do it casually,
dig, like we're just going for a walk. We can't
even brush our teeth."
"No?" said Andy. She'd
never broken a promise to her dentist.
"No! And we can't take any
of our stuff when we leave either or they'll
Andy wasn't happy about this. She'd
bought a bunch of clothes in L.A. and wasn't about
to leave them behind. "That really cool halter
top from Cher's boutique on the Strip, y'know? I
just got that yesterday."
"To hell with that, we're
gonna end up in some drainage ditch."
"Oh, that's just silly. You're
just paranoid, honey, and you're seeing everything
in—you know—like a bad trip or something."
A mile away from the ranch we came
across what looked very much like a shallow grave.
It could have been some buried electrical
switching box but then again....
"Andy," I said, pointing
to the sinister mound of earth, "do you believe
death is psychosomatic?"
"Well, of course not."
Andy was beginning to pick up the terror vibe herself.
"Let's get the hell outta
here," I said, "before we become part
of Charlie's rosy apocalypse."
Seeing the Spahn Ranch recede through
the rear-view mirror it felt as if we were rowing
furiously away from the Isle of the Mutants in a
small dinghy as a pack of zombies wailed their anguished
cries from the dock. We had escaped from Dr. Manson's
fiendish experiments just in the nick of time.
The Looking-Glass Nightmare
When you need a monster one will appear, I guarantee
you. Perhaps the one thing that most determines
the way we think about Manson was his timing. He
is a demon of the zeitgeist immaculate in his terror
and confusion. It's as if he were summoned up out
of the churning wells of our own fear and doubt.
Appearing with almost supernatural precision in
the last months of the sixties, he seemed to call
into question everything about the counterculture.
His malign arrival synchronized so perfectly with
America's nervous breakdown that it is hard not
to bestow occult meanings on him.