If Christ Came Back as a Con Man
Or how I started out thinking Charlie Manson was innocent and almost ended up dead
By David Dalton

From Gadfly October 1998


Almost thirty years after the bizarre murders for which he was convicted, the malignant specter of Charles Manson still hovers in the thin night air of Los Angeles troubling the sleep of canyon dwellers and valley girls like some exterminating angel.

In 1969 Charles Manson was arrested for a series of cult killings known as the Tate/La Bianca Murders. They were brutal crimes filled with horrifying details.  Manson himself hadn't taken part in the murders—he was charged with conspiracy—but the fact that he had been able to get his followers—known as the Manson Family—to commit these horrors only added to his reputation.

There were chilling satanic overtones in the ritual murder of the La Biancas. They had been stabbed to death with forks, the word "WAR" had been carved into Leno LaBianca's stomach with a fork. Slogans daubed on the walls in blood—"PIGGIES," "RISE"—had overtones of violent revolution. The murders sent a chill of horror through the country. In LA, paranoia was as palpable as a live powerline writhing on Pacific Highway. To Angelinos, many of whom live in suburban houses set against hillsides, the most terrifying aspect was the apparent randomness in the selection of the victims.

The Gospel According to John, Paul, George and Ringo
At the time Andy, my acid-bride, and I were living with Dennis Wilson and his girlfriend in just such a ranch house up against a hill in Beverly Glen. On top of this Dennis Wilson knew Charlie, knew him a little too well as it turned out. You probably wouldn't have guessed that the Manson Family and the Beach Boys had a long history together. White racist Satan and the Doris Day of rock groups. But this is Southern California, baby. Worlds collide. Surf boards and Sufis, kitsch and apocalypse, dune buggies and doomsday cults live right next door to each other. Dennis, in any case, wasn't exactly the sweetness and light side of the Beach Boys. He was a troubled wild child, afraid of nothin' or nobody. He'd led a charmed life. He'd been in dozens of car wrecks and come out of them unscathed, surfed during hurricanes and walked away up the beach. With his werewolf beard and mad stare, Dennis—in a certain light—even looked a little like Manson.

For a while the Manson Family had lived in Dennis's twenty-room log cabin on Pacific Palisades with its swimming pool in the shape of California. Some disagreement had come between them. It could have been that Dennis knew too much or something as trivial as that Dennis had rewritten some of Charlie's sacred lyrics (he had)—with Manson you never knew what could piss him off. And Charlie had sent Dennis a silver bullet. From then on Dennis slept with a gun under his pillow. Whenever the power went out in the house we would all spend the night crawling around on our hands and knees in terror. Then someone would remember we hadn't paid the electric bill.

After the murders (which took place in August of 1969), there was immediate pressure on the LAPD to find a perpetrator. As far as the cops, the DA and the middle-class in general were concerned, Charlie Manson was the perfect perp. He was a cult leader with a twisted vision and a demonic pack of homicidal young girls at his beck and call.

But the first time most hippies like myself set eyes on Manson's picture in the paper we were certain he'd been railroaded. He looked just like one of us. He had long hair and a beard and, although skinnier, resembled Jim Morrison or maybe Jerry Garcia. We knew that anybody who looked like that could never have done these horrible things they were saying he did. It was just the Pigs picking on some poor hippie guru.

Even my cousin Joanna Pettet thought he was an unlikely candidate. Although hardly a hippie (she was a movie star), Joanna was sure the killings involved some drug deal gone wrong, or revenge by an outraged lover for some kinky sex scene. She was Sharon Tate's best friend and Sharon had told her that Polanski was in the habit of making home movies of himself having sex with young girls and then showing them to Sharon Tate while they were making love. Jay Sebring, she said, was into some very kinky stuff. It was that kind of scene.

I don't know quite what Dennis thought about Manson but he knew him well enough to have a healthy fear of him. Still, he wouldn't have invited a homicidal cult into his rustic mansion either. Dennis was reckless but he wasn't that crazy.

It was from Dennis that I first heard about the Beatles connection. Occasionally Dennis would say things like, "Charlie's real cosmic, man. He's deep. He listens to Beatles records and gets messages from them about what to do next."

This didn't seem all that strange. We all listened to records—not necessarily the Beatles at this point—for messages. That's what albums were: carriers of the vibe. Our little electronic bibles. We would go around repeating things like "nothing is revealed" (from Dylan's John Wesley Harding) and it said everything. So the fact that Charlie listened to the Beatles and read things into their lyrics wasn't, in and of itself, all that odd. What was disturbing was the messages Manson found there.

Dennis was going to demonstrate Charlie's warped exegeses for me. He put on The Beatles (commonly known as the White Album). I was familiar with these songs. In London the previous year I'd written about this album for Rolling Stone.

Dennis wasn't all that given to recondite philosophical questions. He couldn't remember too clearly what Charlie read into these tracks but he could convey the general drift. "Piggies" was about the cops. "And, y'know, uptight straight people."

"Yeah, Dennis, I get that. But what is the message, man?"

"Fuck if I know. Death to the Pigs. End of the world."

There was a lot of death and killing being read into Paul's innocuous ditties and John's hyperventilated yearnings. It was all a bit morbid but a year later people would start playing the Beatles' Abbey Road backwards and hearing "[the shoeless] Paul is dead." Maybe it actually said, "The Beatles are dead."

Manson's principal interpretation wasn't that hard to grasp. It all came down to the same thing: Armageddon, the battle with which the world would end. "Helter Skelter," according to Dennis, was "about what's gonna come down. It's all coming down and we better get ready. 'Revolution #9,' that's the same scene, dig?"

Okay, so far this was pretty typical hippie eschatology. The world—along with our youth—was soon to end. The creepy thing about Manson's vision was it all had to do with some apocalyptic race war. Manson apparently interpreted "Blackbird" and "Rocky Raccoon" (actually about the conga player Rocky Dijon) as racist directive—for what Dennis wasn't exactly clear but whatever it was, it wasn't good. The end of the world would involve global race bloodshed—and dune buggies.

The only variation in the relentless blood and annihilation concerned the river that runs backwards. This according to Manson referred to cave pools in the Sierras. Daredevil Dennis liked to go skin diving in these dark hidden rivers in the mountains. This was where he first met the Manson girls in the summer of 1968. They were hitchhiking and Dennis picked them up. They were on their way to the Spahn Movie Ranch where Manson and his followers lived. They talked incessantly about Charlie and his visions of the future. Dennis wasn't all that into end-of-the-world scenarios but any cat who had that many chicks deserved checking out.

Naturally, Manson was impressed by Dennis. He was a Beach Boy, a rock star. He had connections. Charlie wrote songs and had aspirations. He strummed his guitar and chanted his eerie homilies to Dennis. Dennis introduced Charlie to the record producer Terry Melcher, Doris Day's son. Melcher didn't see too much promise in Manson's musical career but soon Charlie was recording his songs down at the Beach Boys' studio and had moved in on Dennis.

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 this delusion.

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) and death.

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."

Yeah, right.

"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 prestidigitation involved.

"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 of where?"

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 imagination.

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 know."

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.

The idea that he was merely a projection of our darkest thoughts is a card he played ruthlessly. He endlessly toyed with the idea that he was just a mirror, a materialization. Manson's cobbling together of hippie philosophy—apocalyptic prophecy, Zen paradox, radical politics, pop occultism, acid logic, hipster jargon—was seamless and so mesmerizing that any challenge would ricochet back on you.

Manson had mastered certain LSD thought processes so craftily that his insights mimicked acid's uncanny ability to X-ray reality. Armed with the spiral logic of the ourobouros—the snake that bites its own tail—he cynically exploited LSD's molecular interpenetration of fantasy and reality to his own sinister advantage. Distortion of reality and its interiorization in the media are central to his conflation of the expedient with the sublime. "Everybody's stuck in a reality they already made," he says on his CD Manson Speaks, "and locked into the movies that have already perpetrated those realities."