the band’s relationship with Charlie began with a threesome
Excerpted from The Manson Family: More to the Story
One spring day, following a morning at the beach, Manson Family members Patricia ‘Katie’ Krenwinkel and Ella Jo ‘Yeller’ Bailey 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 Beach Boys were arguably the most popular American rock band of that era. Dennis (the only actual surfer in the quintet) was inspiration for their bitchin’ looks and attitude. Since their first hit (1961’s Surfin’) they’d seen their star rise and rise, only to falter in recent years. By 1968, the Beach Boys were having an identity crisis. They tried reinventing themselves on their past two albums but now, their lead singer (Wilson’s brother Brian) was in the early stages of a drug-fueled mental breakdown. And the band’s next album (Friends, released that summer) would hit no higher than #126 on the charts.
Dennis was sick of feeling like a rusty wheel in his band, comprised of his two brothers (Brian and Carl), his cousin Mike Love and a friend, Al Jardine. The other Beach Boys considered Dennis flighty and distracting. True, his drumming skills were never top-notch, but the band would not have existed without him and he was feeling resentful.
That year, Dennis had separated from his wife Carol. He missed his daughter and adopted son. He had many friends, but trouble maintaining long-lasting relationships. He was deeply, disturbingly resentful of his abusive father, Murry. He’d turned to transcendental meditation, then to drugs, to deal with his anger. The drugs and chronic infidelity led to the dissolution of his marriage.
The Beach Boys spent several months touring that spring with Buffalo Springfield but following the assassination of Martin Luther King, suspended the tour. Dennis needed a full work schedule, else his idle hands usually got into some kind of mayhem. That season, he was quite the man about town along with pals Gregg Jakobson and Terry Melcher. The trio were known as ‘the Golden Penetrators’ for their sexual proclivities.
Dennis also felt guilty about his wealth, that he didn’t deserve it. He was literally generous to a fault with friends. He didn’t know it at the time, but these two hitchhikers would cost him over $100,000, a totaled sports car, the decision to flee his own home in terror and years of shame when he realized he supported one of the most deranged and dangerous men the country had ever known.
But that afternoon, good old Dennis was just happy to pick up two broads and bang them. Likely, he had done this dozens of times.
Dennis lived at 14400 Sunset Boulevard, at a little bend in the road. Sitting on three rolling acres, the luxurious log cabin home was near Will Rogers Park and had once been owned by the cowboy philosopher/actor. The house (designed to look like a hunting lodge) boasted a large wraparound porch and the interior featured a massive stone fireplace. Dennis, who rented the property, also had a swimming pool and several vehicles (including a red Ferrari) to enjoy.
After an hour romping in the sack, Dennis excused himself. He had to go to a recording session but told the women they were free to stay as long as they’d like.
When he returned home at 3:00am, Dennis saw a black school bus parked in the driveway and lights on in his house. 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.
Inside the house, Dennis found a dozen people partying, mostly female. Pat and Ella rushed over to introduce him to Charlie (who obviously already knew who the occupant of the home was). Manson then gently nudged a few girls to take their host to bed.
The next morning, with the group crashed throughout Dennis’ home, 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.
Charlie later tried to debunk the ‘Helter Skelter’ motive, claiming he was of the Sinatra generation, not the Beatles. But the Beatles represented the two things he did not and could not have: Fame and Youth. The Beach Boys were the American Beatles and Dennis was exactly what Charlie wished he could have been — young, carefree, handsome and adored.
The second call Dennis made on Charlie’s behalf was to his fellow Beach Boys. In 1967 the Beach Boys created their own record label (Brother Records) and Brian Wilson built a studio in his home. Dennis brought Manson to the studio to perform a few songs for his band mates.
They weren’t impressed. One of Manson’s fatal flaws was that just when he was presented with an opportunity at success, he usually blew it. He’d get the jitters and say really inappropriate things. Brian Wilson, the brooding genius of Pet Sounds, didn’t dig the Wizard at all.
Dennis believed in Charlie though, and promised he’d do his best to make something happen. Maybe Manson could write a song for the Beach Boys to record? Meanwhile, Wilson virtually turned over his beautiful home to Manson’s people. Girls were lounging by the pool, strange men were showing up, drugs were everywhere and there were orgies — many, many orgies. Anytime one of Dennis’ Hollywood friends visited, the girls would drop their clothing to deliberately freak them out. Dennis even let the women take his Rolls Royce dumpster-diving. The women would forage in garbage bins behind supermarkets and restaurants, scavenging browning lettuces and droopy carrots and bring them back to Wilson’s house for their vegetarian feasts. Brenda also sewed all of Dennis’ satin sheets into harem outfits. His housekeeper was really pissed off about that.
Dennis kept up his cheerleading for Manson, inviting friends like Neil Young to meet the singer. Young liked Manson so much he once gave him a motorcycle. The Harvest Moon artist wrote in his autobiography about a gathering at Wilson’s:
“A guy showed up, picked up my guitar, and started playing a lot of songs on it. His name was Charlie… His songs were off-the-cuff things he made up as he went along, and they were never the same twice in a row. Kind of like Dylan, but different because it was hard to glimpse a true message in them, but the songs were fascinating. He was quite good.” — Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream by Neil Young ©2012 Blue Rider Press, Penguin Group
Charlie was also introduced to Frank Zappa. Zappa’s wife, who met Charlie and the women, said that anyone she knew who wasn’t completely drugged out always got a bad vibe from them. Manson needed his acolytes around when he performed, especially in the studio. They were a package deal. In fact, it was Gregg Jakobson who first suggested the name ‘The Family Jams’ as a band name, and thus the moniker The Manson Family was created. Jakobson understood that Manson and his devotees seemed like family. A super-weird family with a penchant for knives and group gropes, but a family nonetheless. Charlie didn’t refer to his followers as ‘Family’ but others did. In return, the gals called Jakobson ‘Angel’.
Manson was right in one sense that there was ‘no Family’. He never saw those people as kin and wasn’t comfortable being responsible for them.
Music was not just Manson’s primary pursuit, and Charlie’s songs weren’t happy little ditties — they expressly conveyed his philosophies.
“Those who have written about Manson have implied that drugs and sex were his primary means of programming the Family,” wrote Paul Watkins. “But music was perhaps even more influential.” — My Life with Charles Manson by Paul Watkins with Guillermo Soledad ©1979 Bantam Books
Dennis Wilson was chasing life, seeking to soothe his inner torment. He was the first to jump onto new fads and the last to let go of failures. Dennis was also an adrenaline junkie. When the Beach Boys performed in New York City a few years later, the drummer snuck onto the construction site of what was to become the World Trade Center late at night, climbed to the top of the scaffolding and swung by his arms at horrifying heights, thrilled by the danger. There was no height or depth he wasn’t willing to plumb, to find salvation. Drag racing along the Strip, picking up hitchhikers, eventually diving into the bottom of a bottle of whiskey, Wilson was already showing signs in 1968 that he was destined to unravel many of the good things he had built in his life.
He also sought to soothe his inner demons through meditation and spirituality. Dennis was one of several rock stars in the late ’60s drawn to the pursuit of enlightenment. Members of both the Beach Boys and the Beatles were among those involved with the Indian mystic Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founder of the Transcendental Meditation Movement.
Charlie wasn’t interested in eastern mysticism, although he borrowed from it and other practices. Lynette Fromme wrote,
“Charlie thought it strange that so many Christians and Jews would migrate to other religions. To him, ‘religion’ was indigenous; it was as unrealistic to wrap up in a sari and call oneself a Hindu as it was to put on feathers and call oneself an American Indian.” She also witnessed Manson rekindle Dennis’ music talents: “One morning, Dennis stepped into the living room… sat down at the piano, and, for the first time since we had arrived, played some of his own music. His music was beautiful when he put his heart into it, and that’s what was attractive about him.” — Reflexion by Lynette Fromme ©2018 Peasenhall Press
Dennis provided everything that the Family desired. He paid for Sadie (Susan Atkins) to go to the dentist. He footed the bill for penicillin shots when everyone got the clap (gonorrhea). He let the Family stay at his home, eat his food, use his drugs, swim in his pool, drive his cars, fuck his friends and even gave Charlie a couple of the Beach Boys’ gold records! The only time he balked was when Charlie showed up with a milking cow. Otherwise, Wilson indulged the Wizard and his many whims. He thought Manson had a canny wisdom and truthfulness that soothed his own troubled soul.
But Charlie soon realized that he couldn’t stay in Wilson’s good graces if the Family remained at his home, especially with a crying baby underfoot. He sent Mary, Valentine Michael and several women north to Mendocino County. They were to stay a couple of months there and recruit as many young men as possible. Charlie decided to move the rest of his Family out of Wilson’s estate so he could preserve his relationship with the drummer. He made arrangements to relocate everyone to Spahn Ranch, a 500-acre property in Simi Valley.
Wilson’s friend Gregg Jakobson reminisced that,
“If Charlie had come up twenty years later, with MTV, he would have been a natural. He was a magic man, and in those days magic was allowed. Hanging out with him was an event, though you could only take so much of him… I remember — and this is one of very few more-or-less conventional nights — we ended up on the Strip, at the Whiskey, with Dennis, Charlie, and a huge entourage, some big show going on. Charlie hit the dance floor, and it wasn’t but a minute till he’d cleared it… there’s too much electricity coming off him. He’s just humming, shooting sparks out of his eyes and his head… It was total freedom, and he was moving to the music.” — Gregg Jakobson quoted in “Charlie Manson Saves the Whales” by Ivan Solotaroff ©1992 Esquire magazine
If Manson was chomping at the bit to get his record deal, Dennis Wilson and Jakobson were not. They understood the industry all too well and knew that it took hard work, talent and timing for even the strongest performers to succeed. Charlie just needed to be cool. Dennis continued to enjoy the pleasure of the women, of course.
And he again tried to get the Beach Boys to record Charlie. They did consent to performing one of Manson’s songs and releasing it as the flipside of their next single. Charlie’s tune “Cease to Exist” was selected by Dennis. Little did Manson know that by the time the song was released, he would feel very differently about Wilson and the Beach Boys.
The other Beach Boys hated Charlie and called him ‘Pig Pen’. They ran a background report and shared it with Dennis. But Dennis wasn’t turned off. He thought it made the Wizard more interesting. But his bandmates were alarmed.
Remember, the year before, some of the Beach Boys fell under the sway of the Maharishi. In fact, in late ’67, the band planned a tour with the yogi master. And Dennis’ cousin Mike Love was among those who traveled to India in March of ’68 to stay with the swami along with the Beatles, actress Mia Farrow and her sister Prudence. The Maharishi hit on the women, proving himself a charlatan and predator. Once deceived, Love and the others had their guard up in a way that Dennis never would. The other Beach Boys couldn’t understand why their drummer would believe that this former jailbird was anything other than exactly what he appeared to be — a grifter with minimal talent.
Manson’s greatest skill was sussing out people’s troubles and then, with just a word or a look, offering solutions. He knew that he was a star, and he believed that other people owed him their loyalty and generosity — especially those who were already part of the Hollywood elite.
After the women sent to Mendocino were arrested on drug dealing and solitication charges, Charlie needed money for bail.
“Charlie talked to Dennis about bailing the girls out… It was a problem. Dennis’ money was tied up in investments made by his advisors. He had specified charge accounts, but sometimes bummed pocket money from friends, and even from Charlie… Dennis’ people considered him irresponsible and untrustworthy to handle his own finances… we didn’t press him or the girls would’ve been out on bail.” — Reflexion by Lynette Fromme ©2018 Peasenhall Press
On August 1st, Charlie drove to Dennis’ house only to learn that Wilson had vacated the property.
His manager was at the Pacific Palisades house when Charlie arrived and had to tell him Dennis moved out and they were no longer welcome there. Wilson was now renting a place on the Pacific Coast Highway but still kept in touch with Manson. Paul Watkins recalled that,
“There were times that we would take a little orgy contingent to Dennis Wilson’s house just to blow the minds of his hip guests, who thought they were so sexually liberated” — My Life with Charles Manson by Paul Watkins with Guillermo Soledad ©1979 Bantam Books
Charlie and the Family left Spahn Ranch in October, and relocated to a meager property in Death Valley. During that time, Charlie decided to focus on his music, in hopes of furthering his recording career.
“We spent hours each day practicing, arranging and writing songs, and the music was often so good it gave me goosebumps… The acoustics out in the open didn’t compare with a studio set-up but the quiet, open desert added its own magic to our music. Without microphones or amplifiers there was a pure, earthy quality to our instruments and voices. We were a bunch of kids sitting around an open bonfire in one of the most primitive areas in the nation, but our arrangements and lyrics were as modern and free as our philosophy. God, there was so much talent there… We had reached a level of accomplishment that was amazing.” — Charles Manson quoted in Manson: In His Own Words as told to Nuel Emmons ©1986 Grove Press
But the onus wasn’t just on his talents and the support of his minstrel Family. Manson was also relying upon the Golden Penetrators — Dennis Wilson, Gregg Jakobson and Terry Melcher — to pave the way to recording superstardom. So, he and several others drove back to Los Angeles to get the ball rolling.
The first thing Manson did when he got back to L.A. was call Dennis and promptly got bad news: Wilson was on the road and couldn’t be reached. So Manson called Jakobson who convinced him to stay, to not return to the desert. He said that he had some great prospects for Charlie, soon enough. Likely Jakobson was just blowing smoke up Manson’s ass. But again, nobody knew how dangerous Charlie was, even those closest to him.
Then, Wilson returned to town. The Beach Boys had released a new single and Charlie’s song was the B-side. Dennis was eager to play it for the Wizard. That’s when Charlie learned that the title was changed to “Never Learn Not to Love” and his lyrics were altered as well. He was enraged (he also never earned royalties on the tune). 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 first week of May 1969, Gregg Jakobson and Dennis scheduled another studio session for Manson. It went disastrously. But Jakobson mentioned filming a documentary about the Family. He believed in Charlie and thought the film might spotlight his talents.
Jakobson reached out to NBC Studios to pitch his documentary about a hippie commune living above the Hollywood Hills and NBC was intrigued.
A month later, the documentary was off (Charlie wasn’t interested in showing the Family as a hippie commune which is what NBC wanted) and his need for money had grown: he shot a black drug dealer (who he mistakenly believed was a member of the Black Panther party) and thought that black militants were coming after him.
Still desperate for money, Charlie tried to reach Dennis. He didn’t know why Wilson wasn’t returning his calls, so he went to see Dennis’ agent. He wanted to collect money for his songwriting work with the Beach Boys, but also to do damage control. After bamboozling his way past the agent’s receptionist, the agent blew up at Charlie. He informed him that they didn’t owe him a damn thing because they had no contract with him. The man then ordered Charlie out of his office, intimating he would send a hit man after him.
Spitefully, Manson then left a single bullet at Dennis’ house — a warning that Charlie knew Wilson had turned on him.
Dennis Wilson, Gregg Jakobson and Terry Melcher all testified against Manson during the 1970 Tate/LaBianca trial.
Dennis Wilson died of an alcohol-related drowning in 1983.
You can learn more about Manson’s relationship with Terry Melcher here:
Cielo Drive: The House of Love and Terror
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And more about the events that led to the Manson Murders here: