Why Are So Many Musicians Obsessed with Charles Manson?

Why Are So Many Musicians Obsessed with Charles Manson?
Image via Getty

“Is it a conspiracy that the music is telling the youth to rise up against the establishment?… It is not my conspiracy. It is not my music. I hear what it relates. It says 'rise,' it says 'kill.' Why blame it on me? I didn’t write the music.”

That's Charles Manson on the stand at his trial in 1970. The late cult leader was convinced that the popular music of the mid-to-late '60s, particularly a handful of Beatles songs, was sending him hidden messages about an impending race war. He was obsessed with music, desperately trying and failing to land a record deal for his idiosyncratic folk songs. Musicians, in turn, were obsessed with him, both before and after his orchestration of the notorious Tate-LaBianca murders of 1969 that left seven dead in the LA hills.

I just finished reading Tom O'Neill's excellent, exhaustive 2019 book Chaos, which journeys to the center of the tangled web surrounding the killings, attempting to debunk the sensational narrative that District Attorney Vincent Bugliosi established in court and in his 1974 book Helter Skelter. Coincidentally, while I was in the middle of Chaos, I encountered two Manson references elsewhere. I was concurrently finishing Thurston Moore's autobiography, Sonic Life, in which he explains a fascination with the Manson Family that inspired Sonic Youth's 1984 Lydia Lunch collab "Death Valley '69." I also interviewed the surviving members of Majesty Crush, a great, largely forgotten '90s shoegaze band, two members of which started off in a band named after an earlier Manson hideout: Spahn Ranch.

It's not the anniversary of the Tate-LaBianca murders; there's no noteworthy new song with Manson references (to my knowledge); I've just recently spent a lot of time thinking about Manson's many connections to popular music and wanted to write something about it.

Charles Manson's first leg up into the music industry came courtesy of Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson. In 1968, Wilson picked up two Manson Family members hitchhiking in Malibu and took them to his house. This sparked a months-long period during which Manson himself, along with an entourage predominantly consisting of young women, lived with Wilson. The Beach Boy was cool with it, mostly because he was a recent divorcé who, along with his friends Gregg Jakobson and prominent music producer Terry Melcher, had dubbed themselves the "Golden Penetrators," hellbent on the sort of prodigious lovemaking that Manson demanded of the girls who followed him. But Wilson was also awestruck by the cult leader, calling him "The Wizard" in more than one interview during the period.

Wilson and Manson wrote at least one song together. Originally titled "Cease to Exist," it was re-dubbed "Never Learn Not to Love" when The Beach Boys recorded it as a B-side in December '68 (an extended edit was included on their album 20/20 a few months later). Manson was not credited as a songwriter, allegedly accepting cash and a motorcycle from Wilson as consolation.

Neil Young visited Wilson's house a few times during this period and came away similarly awed by Manson's music and aura, even going as far as comparing him to Bob Dylan. In several interviews, Young has copped to conflicted feelings about Manson, struggling to reconcile memories of a talented but angry man. His 1974 song "Revolution Blues" seems to reference both the Tate-LaBianca murders and the time the Family spent in Death Valley stealing Volkswagen Beetles and converting them into dune buggies:

I got the revolution blues, I see bloody fountains /And ten million dune buggies comin' down the mountains / Well, I hear that Laurel Canyon is full of famous stars / But I hate them worse than lepers and I'll kill them in their cars

Throughout the '70s and '80s, Manson references sporadically popped up in music, some (like "Revolution Blues") treating the subject matter thoughtfully, but most invoking the name for pure and simple shock value. Take the Ramones' 1977 cut "Glad To See You Go," a breakup song that fantasizes about killing an ex "in a moment of passion" to "get the glory like Charles Manson." Then there's something like Ozzy Osbourne's 1988 song "Bloodbath in Paradise," a pulpy retelling of the murders complete with chanting and horror-film synths, which seems to exist solely to bolster Ozzy's "Prince of Darkness" rep.

The outwardly reverent stuff is more disturbing. Everyone from Guns N' Roses to Redd Kross to Crispin Glover dipped into the Manson songbook and released cover versions, but no one in the '80s would go as far as Black Flag's Henry Rollins. After seeing Black Flag on MTV, Manson began writing letters from prison to Rollins, who agreed to record and produce an album for him. The album was set to come out on the band's label, SST, but was shelved after they received multiple death threats.

In Sonic Life, Thurston Moore writes about meeting Rollins at a house show in LA, and having him excitedly explain his plans for the Manson album. "Much of our fascination with the nefarious figure could be chalked up to the puerility of our age," Moore writes, citing The Family's dubious “parallels with the sensibilities of punk rock." "But even though Manson had informed our 'Death Valley ’69,'" he continued, "there were limits to our interest in the man."

A few years later, while searching for new studio space in LA, Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor would settle on 10050 Cielo Drive: the house where The Family murdered Sharon Tate and four others. He claimed that he chose it simply for its size ("I looked at a lot of places, and this just happened to be the one I liked most"), but nevertheless he christened it Le Pig, the name referencing the message the killers left in blood on the house's front door. Reznor recorded most of The Downward Spiral in the house, and even filmed a music video there. Playing bass and singing backup in the video is, not so coincidentally, Marilyn Manson.

Manson got his stage name, like the rest of his bandmates, by combining the names of a sex symbol and a serial killer. He also covered a Charles Manson song. Marilyn Manson has never recanted on his invocation of the cult leader for shock value, and probably never will because he's a piece of shit. Reznor, to his credit, has. Here's a particularly sobering passage from a 1997 Rolling Stone interview:

My awakening about all that stuff came from meeting Sharon Tate’s sister. While I was working on "Downward Spiral," I was living in the house where Sharon Tate was killed. Then one day I met her sister. It was a random thing, just a brief encounter. And she 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. I said, “No, it’s just sort of my own interest in American folklore. I’m in this 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?” 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. 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 morality and that whole thing is the other end of it, the victims who don’t deserve that.

It's refreshing to hear dudes like Reznor, Moore, and (to a lesser degree) Rollins chalk up their Manson obsessions to being juvenile and inconsiderate.

In more recent years, Manson references in music have become more sparse—you've got System of a Down making an opaque nod to his "Air Trees Water Animals" philosophy, Kasabian taking their name from a Family member, Psychic Ills releasing a Manson cover—and then there's Death Grips. The noise-rap group sampled Manson on their 2011 debut, and depending how far down this Reddit rabbit hole you want to go, have continued to use Manson as thematic inspiration all the way up through their most recent album, on which the song "Linda's In Custody" seems to reference the aforementioned Kasabian.

There's a crucial difference between outright celebrating Charles Manson and exploring his story as a dark undercurrent of American culture. I'd be lying if I said I didn't find it all fascinating, especially in regards to the deeper conspiracies that Tom O'Neill uncovers in Chaos. It's pretty easy to differentiate creative, probing efforts to understand or reckon with the Manson phenomenon from "does this offend you, snowflake?"-style edgelord shit, but covering his songs is a little more ambiguous.

Manson is inextricably linked with counterculture, particularly music. The Tate-LaBianca murders are frequently cited as the end of the '6os because they represented the hippie dream spiraling out of control, slamming the door shut on free love and communal living and acid. The fact that it was someone who rubbed shoulders with music elites, not a stereotype of "the man," who brought forth this sea change makes it all the more fascinating. I'll say it again: musicians are obsessed with Charles Manson because he was obsessed with music.

BOI (Best Of Inbox) #26

200 Stab Wounds - "Hands of Eternity"

Location: Cleveland // Genre: shape-shifting death metal // RIYL: every era of the band Death, presented in successive 30-second snippets // From: "Manual Manic Procedures," out 6/28

dust - "Trust U See"

Location: Newcastle, Australia // Genre: sax-ed up post-punk // RIYL: Iceage if they were fronted by King Krule and weren't afraid to get funky

Evilgiane & Slimesito - "DESIGNER DRUGZ"

Genre: bleepy bloopy plugg rap // RIYL: Rxk Nephew rapping on a Soulja Boy beat // From: "EVILSLIME," out 5/03

Jahnah Camille - "Flesh"

Location: Birmingham, AL // Genre: zoomer nostalgia for the unremembered '90s // RIYL: Soccer Mommy, a less extra Olivia Rodrigo // From: "i tried to freeze light, but only remember a girl" EP, out 6/21

Las Nubes - "Would Be"

Location: Miami // Genre: big riff rock // RIYL: The White Stripes if Jack played guitar like Meg plays drums // From: "Tormentas Malsanas," out 6/14

Lunchbox - "New Year"

Location: Oakland // Genre: twee power-pop // RIYL: Heavenly, The Minders // From: "Pop and Circumstance," out 5/10

M. Vaughan - "Tire Swing"

Location: DC // Genre: clarified chillwave // RIYL: Memory Tapes, Washed Out // From: "Keep in Touch" EP, out 6/14

Men Seni Suyemin Feat. Kristina Li - "Dark Waves"

Location: Almaty, Kazakhstan // Genre: dark, wavy electronic // RIYL: dancing in goth clubs // From: "BELIEVE," out 6/7

Thurston Moore - "Rewilding"

Location: NYC // Genre: kraut funk // RIYL: "King of Limbs"-era Radiohead fronted by Mark Lanegan // From: "Samurai Walkman: Flow Critical Lucidity," release date TBA

All Inbox Infinity picks are available in playlist form via Apple Music and Spotify.

Subscribe to Inbox ∞ Infinity

Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.
Jamie Larson