The music of Charles Manson

Much has been made of Charles Manson as a musician. He was good enough that many influential people in the industry thought he had talent and invested their time in his career. But when success didn’t happen fast enough, it was part of the downward spiral that led to the ‘Helter Skelter’ murders of Summer 1969.

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Charles Manson: a man and his guitar

Charlie first got a guitar when he was a 21-year old newlywed, living in West Virginia and newly released from seven years of youth detention centers, correctional institutes and federal reformatories.

He had married Rosalie Willis in January 1955. By that July, the couple were on the lam — Charlie stole a ’53 Mercury and together they traveled to California, where Manson’s mother was living. He was arrested on auto theft charges just a few weeks after his arrival in Los Angeles, and took off with Rosalie (who was pregnant) to Indianapolis. There, their son Charles Manson Junior was born in early ‘56.

“Four days later, Charlie was arrested and returned to California. He was now 22 — legally an adult — and received a sentence of three years at Terminal Island Penitentiary in San Pedro. During these years, Rosalie divorced Charlie (he claims she cheated on him) and took their son back to West Virginia.

At Terminal, Charlie found a more lax penal system compared with the juvenile detention centers he’d previously served in. Administrators were no longer trying to save a wayward child. Inmates were encouraged to make their own rules, particularly those who were bright and could learn from others. While at Terminal, Charlie sought mentorship from the pimps. They coached him on how to control girls, but warned Manson to stay away from the nuttier ones. According to his biographer Jeff Guinn, ‘You wanted girls who were cracked, but not broken.’ Clearly, Charlie didn’t absorb this particular lesson very well.

Charlie also took advantage of the prison library. An early favorite was Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.” — From The Manson Family: More to the Story by H. Allegra Lansing ©June 2019 from Swann Publications (including citation from Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson by Jeff Guinn ©2013 Simon & Schuster)

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A late 1950s mugshot of Manson

Charlie got out of prison in 1958 and was released in Los Angeles, where he began pimping. But by 1960 he was back in the pen on check forgery charges. He served from 1960–1966 at McNeil Island Penitentiary in Washington State. There, he made good use of his time:

“While serving at McNeil, Charlie continued his unorthodox tutelage by studying the works of L. Ron Hubbard (founder of Scientology). Manson received over 150 hours of Scientology auditing while at McNeil, most of it conducted by his cellmate Lanier Rayner. From Hubbard’s teachings, Charlie began to understand that he was ‘an immortal spiritual being’ rather than just a half-assed criminal from a shitty background. This not only elevated his confidence, it validated his sociopathic belief that he was better than other people. Charlie sometimes claimed to be ‘Theta Clear’ which in Scientology means someone free from the reactive mind’s negative effects. Later, he would crib together the flotsam and jetsam of each of his found belief systems into his own weird philosophy. A lot of people believed in Charlie-ism. Some perhaps still do…

Manson also gained another mentor at McNeil, Alvin ‘Creepy’ Karpis, who was in the Ma Barker gang in the ’20s. Karpis was one of several older inmates who saw potential in the young man and sought to teach him something useful — in this case, guitar lessons.

Charlie wasn’t half bad. His training wasn’t orthodox but he had talent. He was introduced to the music of the Beatles during this time and the four lads from Liverpool made quite an impression upon the man. According to Karpis, Charlie wanted to perform music, he wanted to write his own songs and he wanted to be famous. In fact, Manson wrote between eighty and ninety original tunes during his time at McNeil.” — From The Manson Family: More to the Story by H. Allegra Lansing ©June 2019 Swann Publications

From McNeil, Charlie was transferred to Terminal Island in San Pedro, near Los Angeles. He made an important musical connection at Terminal Island:

“He met Phil Kaufman. Kaufman, a bit player in Hollywood, was in jail on a marijuana charge. He heard Charlie perform and thought him a decent singer/songwriter. He passed Manson the name of a producer in L.A. and told Charlie to give the man a call, once he was out.” — From The Manson Family: More to the Story by H. Allegra Lansing ©June 2019 Swann Publications

Charlie had only $35 in his pocket when he was released in March 1967, but he also had his guitar. He asked for permission to transfer his parole to San Francisco, where he hoped to launch his music career. He was granted parole and made his way to the Bay. But he hadn’t seen much freedom during the Sixties (a few months at the very start of the decade, that was all) and he was in for quite a shock:

The intersection of Haight and Ashbury in the Summer of 1967

“Charlie may have rented a room for $5 that night or crashed in one of the parks in the Haight/Ashbury district. He met a 15-year old panhandler who taught him the rules of the Haight and Manson listened to the kids around him. They were escaping society as much as he was trying to relearn it. They called each other ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ and readily gave away what they could — food, flowers or love. Charlie told them he was just out of prison. Groovy, they said and they meant it. There was no judgment here, there was no shame. When they saw he had a guitar, they asked him to play it. Then they maybe tipped him a few dimes in appreciation.” — From The Manson Family: More to the Story by H. Allegra Lansing ©June 2019 Swann Publications

By that summer (the Summer of Love) Charlie had made a bit of a name for himself in San Francisco, playing guitar and busking. He even managed a few one-off gigs as a solo performer, but his attention was diverted by the young women that began to drift toward him. Women and teen girls who were lost, adrift, in search of love and security, and Manson tried to provide all of that. Soon, the runaways and hippies of the Haight were calling Charlie ‘The Gardener’ for his ability to ‘tend’ to the young lost souls of the era.

Some found his behavior seedy or even predatory, but not Mary Brunner, Lynette Fromme, Ruth Ann Moorehouse, and Patricia Krenwinkel. They found Charlie whimsical, charming, and even paternal. Soon, three of these women had hopped into an old school bus painted black with Manson, and hit the road for Los Angeles.

In October 1967, Charlie called Phil Kaufman’s contact at Universal Studios, a producer named Gary Stromberg.

“Charlie was eager to start building contacts in the record industry. He brought Pat, Lyn and Mary to his second visit with Gary Stromberg in October. At Universal Studios, he made a big deal of parking the black bus in a spot reserved for movie star Cary Grant. During the meeting, Stromberg talked about a film score for an upcoming movie based on the life of Jesus Christ. Would Manson be interested in helping the writers with the dialogue? Manson practically howled in pleasure.” — The Manson Family: More to the Story by H. Allegra Lansing ©June 2019 Swann Publications

But Charlie soon learned that in the movie, Jesus would be portrayed by a black man. Deeply racist, Charlie withdrew from the project.

But in early 1968, he met 23-year old Bobby Beausoleil, a fellow musician. They jammed together and developed a mutual respect for each others’ music. They also briefly played together in a band called The Milky Way (they had one gig and then were fired from the club). But meeting Bobby inspired Manson to get really serious about his music. By the spring of 1968, he had begun to think that if he was going to be successful in the music biz, he might need someone who had already made it to help him.

“One spring day, following a morning at the beach, Patricia and Ella were hitchhiking on the Sunset Strip. Along came a nice car driven by a rugged, good-looking guy. He pulled up and invited the women in, who said they were going to Topanga Canyon. He asked them, before I drop you off do you want to come by my house for a visit?

They nodded as the young man drove to an upscale home in the Pacific Palisades. The three sat together in the kitchen, eating cookies with milk then went to his bedroom and had sex. Finally, he introduced himself. His name was Dennis Wilson and he was the drummer for the Beach Boys.” — The Manson Family: More to the Story by H. Allegra Lansing ©June 2019 Swann Publications

After Pat and Ella had sex with Dennis, the drummer said he had to leave and go to the recording studio. But, he told them, they were welcome to stay and make themselves at home. And so they did.

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Dennis Wilson had everything going for him except happiness

When Dennis arrived back at his rented house at 3am, he saw the black school bus in the driveway and lights on all over his house. His first sight of Charles Manson scared the bejeezus out of him:

“He cautiously opened the door and was greeted by Charles Manson. Charlie was grinning like a lunatic. Dennis took a step back and asked if he planned to hurt him.

Charlie quickly assured the famous drummer that he didn’t mean him any harm. He demonstrated his benevolence by getting down on his knees and kissing Wilson’s feet.” — The Manson Family: More to the Story by H. Allegra Lansing ©June 2019 Swann Publications

Charlie quickly put Dennis at ease, encouraging some of the beautiful young women with him to satisfy the drummer in bed. And so they did.

Charlie and the women stayed with Wilson for several weeks. Dennis was a troubled soul who, despite his success, didn’t believe he deserved it. He was also an adult survivor of an abusive childhood, who was looking for someone wise to believe in. He had tried the Maharishi, along with his fellow Beach Boys, but the yogi was later proved to be somewhat of a charlatan. He looked at Charles Manson — 34 years old, short and kind of ugly, an ex-con with no job prospects, no life savings, no possessions — and he saw something good.

“He and Charlie started talking. Charlie laid his usual line of sage wisdom and total bullshit on the drummer. Before long, Dennis was referring to Manson as ‘the Wizard’. He bought into it, Charlie’s philosophy. This was what Dennis was looking for. And when he heard Charlie play his music, he vowed to make something happen for his houseguest.

The first person Dennis called was his buddy Gregg Jakobson, one of his fellow Golden Penetrators. Jakobson, a talent agent, knew many movie stars and musicians. Like Dennis, Gregg liked what he heard from Manson and assured him that he would help him secure a record deal.

To be fair, Manson was a good guitarist, a gifted songwriter. His lyrics seem quite dated today but at the time, he seemed to presage the singer/songwriter era looming ahead. Musicians like Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell, and Harry Chapin were just launching their careers in ’68. Manson might very well have found himself on the cusp of this generation of performers who wrote their own music. He probably never had what it took to be a big star but he certainly could have found fame and success in the music industry, if he hadn’t gotten so stabby.” — The Manson Family: More to the Story by H. Allegra Lansing ©June 2019 Swann Publications

Through Dennis Wilson, Charlie was introduced to Jakobson, Neil Young, Frank Zappa and a young record producer for Columbia Records. That man was Terry Melcher — the son of movie star Doris Day — and Melcher just happened to live at 10050 Cielo Drive in luxurious Benedict Canyon.

Charlie fomented his relationship with Wilson, Jakobson and Melcher (the three were known during that era as the Golden Penetrators, for their sexual proclivities) believing that they would help him land a record deal. Jakobson and Melcher also liked what they heard, and they appreciated the way the women (again at Manson’s encouragement) made them feel, even more.

Wilson introduced Manson to his fellow Beach Boys and, well, that didn’t go as well. Charlie had a tendency to act extra weird whenever he was trying to impress people. The other Beach Boys thought he was creepy, and even hired an investigator to put together a background report on the ex-con, so they could show it to Dennis and warn him against further involvement. But Dennis felt responsible for Manson, and promised to help him.

He got the Beach Boys to agree to record one of Manson’s tunes (a song that Charlie called ‘Cease to Exist’) and it was featured as the B-side to a single that was released in early 1969. Unfortunately, they changed the title and lyrics (‘Never Learn Not to Love’) which pissed Charlie off. But he was somewhat appeased when Dennis and Gregg got him some more studio time:

“Dennis and Gregg did score Charlie a two-song recording session at a Westwood Village studio early in ’69. Charlie didn’t understand they were just trying to placate him. By that point, nobody thought Manson was a star. Wilson and Jakobson knew he could be volatile. They tried to do something nice while patronizing Charlie, not realizing they were making the situation so much worse.

Weeks later, Dennis invited the Family to Brian Wilson’s home studio for a 10-song recording session. Charlie’s songs were improved but the session was sloppy. Brian’s wife Marilyn (mom to then 10-month old Carnie) really didn’t like Manson or his group. She later claimed that she spent hours scrubbing the bathroom after the girls used it.” — The Manson Family: More to the Story by H. Allegra Lansing ©June 2019 Swann Publications

In May 1969, Gregg Jakobson again tried to help Charlie’s career by approaching NBC Studios. He pitched them a documentary about Manson and the Family, which would feature Charlie’s music and help the mainstream understand the communal, hippie counterculture. But Charlie wanted to focus the documentary on his philosophy — which now was almost entirely focused on his Helter Skelter theory (a race war between blacks and whites that would engulf the world and eventually put him into global power) — and he nixed the idea.

Instead, he agreed to allow Terry Melcher set up an outdoors recording session for him, at Spahn Ranch (a former movie studio backdrop in Simi Valley where the Family were staying). On June 3rd, Melcher arrived with Mike Deasy, an accomplished session musician with a mobile recording van.

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Spahn Ranch: a 500-acre property in Chatsworth

As arranged by Melcher, the plan was to have the Family gathered out of doors, with Manson performing live and Deasy to record them in his mobile studio. Melcher came only because it was his idea to bring Deasy in. Terry clearly had no serious thoughts of taking responsibility for Manson’s recording career. He probably just wanted Charlie to see that he had actually done something and get the ex-con off his back.

Gypsy recalled, ‘Charlie was very nervous. I think Charlie thought that he was going to be famous. He thought Terry Melcher was the person who might make him a star.’

Melcher did not stay for the full recording session. He left early after witnessing an altercation between Manson and a stuntman. Melcher realized that Charlie’s temper was going to make it impossible to work with him and he left Spahn Ranch, planning to end his association with the musician. Had he known what was about to happen, he probably would have dragged Deasy out of there with him.

Before he departed, Terry gave Charlie $50 and told him to ‘buy hay for the horses’. Actually, the producer saw that the people around Manson were dirty and hungry and he felt bad for them. But Charlie claimed that Terry was giving them a ‘deposit’ on future earnings. He told everyone the fifty bucks was Melcher’s promise to record them.

Mike Deasy had a long and storied music history performing with some of the best acts in the world. He’d just experienced a career high — playing guitar for Elvis during his 1968 comeback TV special. On June 3rd, he stayed overnight at the ranch, setting up equipment, before recording the next day. But things went awry.

As he explained, ‘I had a trailer with a four-track unit that I was going to use to record the Hopi Indians. Manson and the Family lived like a bunch of Indians, so Terry said, ‘Why don’t you go check it out?’ Deasy won’t go into detail about his encounter with the Family, calling it a descent into hell. ‘I felt this great fear of the evil that was there.’ Overwhelmed, he overdosed on LSD. ‘I took so much acid, I couldn’t get down. I was having so much difficulty with my own mind. Here I am, working with Elvis Presley and the Beach Boys, I’m at the height of everything I’ve dreamed of doing, I’ve got a wife and beautiful kids, and all of a sudden I’ve wrecked it. It all crashed down…’ — The Manson Family: More to the Story by H. Allegra Lansing ©June 2019 Swann Publications including the following citations (Catherine ‘Gypsy’ Share from the documentary Manson ©2009 The History Channel; and Mike Deasy quoted in the blog by Dawn Eden Goldstein)

The day that Deasy was at Spahn Ranch to record (June 4th), police showed up to arrest Charlie on a statutory rape charge. He was released the next morning, but that was the last day that he really had any shot of a recording and music career. Over the next seven weeks, life at Spahn Ranch spiraled badly out of control. There were drug deals that went awry, and Charlie shot a dealer on July 1st which led to total paranoia and rage. In late July, the Family killed their first victim (Gary Hinman, a fellow musician) and less than two weeks later, the Tate/LaBianca victims were murdered.

After Charlie’s arrest on charges of murder, Phil Kaufman arranged for some of Manson’s former recordings to be released. The album LIE (which took the LIFE magazine cover as design inspiration) was released in March 1970, while Charlie was awaiting trial. “People Say I’m No Good” was one of the songs included on LIE.

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LIE consisted of previous recordings, packaged and released in March 1970 by Philip Kauffman

“Immediately after, an attorney representing Wojciech Frykowski’s son filed a garnishment order against royalties for the album’s sales. To date, any monies from this recording go directly to Frykowski’s descendants.” — The Manson Family: More to the Story by H. Allegra Lansing ©June 2019 Swann Publications

Wojciech Frykowski was one of the victims at Cielo Drive — the home formerly occupied by producer Terry Melcher, where the killers murdered Sharon Tate and her houseguests at Charlie’s orders.

Charlie and his co-defendants in the 1970 Tate/LaBianca trial were found guilty of first degree murder, and sentenced to death. That sentence was commuted to life in prison (with the possibility of parole) after a 1972 California Supreme Court (temporary) abolishment of the death penalty.

Charlie continued to play music in prison and even managed to smuggle some bootleg recordings out, with friends. People were still interested in his music — some of them were quite famous.

Henry Rollins exchanged letters with Charlie. So did actor Johnny Depp. Marilyn Manson named himself in homage of Charlie. Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails rented the Cielo Drive home in the early 90s, and used it as a recording studio (he later claimed he heard and saw some very strange, creepy things, and moved out — the house was later demolished and a new house stands in its’ place). Reznor even named his studio Le Pig — in honor of the word PIG that Susan Atkins wrote upon the door, in Sharon Tate’s blood.

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Film Director Roman Polanski, widower of slain actress Sharon Tate, sits beside the front door of the home at 10050 Cielo Drive; the word PIG is written upon it, in his wife’s blood

Other musicians actually covered some of Manson’s tunes: The Lemonheads, Crispin Glover, and Guns N Roses included “Look At Your Game, Girl” on their 1993 album The Spaghetti Incident?

But if Charlie thought he’d profit from these royalties, he was mistaken:

As the Los Angeles Times reported, ‘Bartek Frykowski was 9 years old and living in Poland when his father, Voytek {sic} Frykowski… was stabbed 51 times and shot at the Benedict Canyon estate. ‘Manson destroyed my life really,’ Frykowski said from the German village where he lives. ‘Always this case was with me. I became a different man without a father.’ Finally seeing results from a lawsuit filed more than two decades ago, Frykowski has received $75,000 in royalties for a song Manson wrote before the murders. ‘Look at Your Game Girl’ was used by Manson to lure young hippie women into his fold… Guns N’ Roses recorded it on an album that has sold more than 2 million copies worldwide — with Manson’s share of the profits going to Frykowski. Frykowski said he is using the money to help give his two children the sense of security he never had… He wonders how Manson’s music could become popular — and how a mass murderer could become a cult celebrity among young people in Europe and the United States. ‘People have a fascination with evil,’ Frykowski said. ‘But why do they think Charles Manson is their hero?’

Bartlomiej ‘Bartek’ Frykowski died in 1999, and royalties from Charlie’s music pass now to Bartek’s two adult children.” — The Manson Family: More to the Story by H. Allegra Lansing ©June 2019 Swann Publications (including citation from “The Long, Chilling Shadow of Manson” by Richard C. Paddock ©August 6, 1994 The Los Angeles Times)

Charles Manson died November 19, 2017. His music is still available today.

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Charles Manson: 1934–2017

You can learn more about the Charles Manson, the Family, and their crimes at

You can also read more about Manson’s early life here:

And more about his final years here:

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Author of the “More to the Story” true crime nonfiction series.

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