Cult Leader, Mass Murderer, Alt-Right Hero, Folk Singer: Charles Manson and His Failed Music Career

On the 50th anniversary of the Manson Murders, a look back in time at the sonic inspirations and frustrated desire for glory that inspired Manson's killing spree.

Charles Manson's first prison interview | 60 Minutes Australia

Quentin Tarantino's "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" is preparing to take modern-day Hollywood by storm.

The film's release is timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the infamous Manson Family murders, when Charles Manson and his coterie of villains gruesomely took the lives of Sharon Tate and eight others.

Manson's legacy has persisted for half a decade, and Tarantino's movie reestablishes another gruesome truth: Hollywood can't get enough of its supervillains, especially when their mythologies involve young women, movie stars, and ambition that crashed and burned and left bloodlust in its wake.

All this recognition raises the question: When is it acceptable to revisit the legacy—and, in this case, the music—of a serial killer?

Hollywood Hallucinations

Before he became a cult leader, Manson actually wanted to be a folk musician.

From 1966-67, Manson recorded his compositions onto a mixtape called Lie: The Love and Terror Cult. Because Manson is a white supremacist and serial killer, we don't actually encourage you to waste the time or energy to listen to his album. Instead, according to other sources, the album's fourteen songs belie a troubled spirit with a (possibly subconscious) awareness of his own true nature—particularly on "People Say I'm No Good" and "Garbage Dump." Apparently, his music is also laden with counterculture tropes, from a hatred of cops to a bevy of lines about birds.

However, Manson's guiding mantras were in no way aligned with the starry-eyed, peace-and-love ethos of the average counter-culture hippie. Manson was motivated by racist ideas that led him towards the belief that an ensuing, super-apocalyptic race war was on its way, meant to annihilate both blacks and whites, thereby creating space for Manson and his (maybe "disturbed") 'Family' to take over the world.

Though his music never broke into the mainstream on its own, Manson did make some promising industry connections before initiating his final rampage. In 1968, two of Manson's female followers—Patricia Krenwinkel and Ella Jo Bailey—were hitchhiking when they were picked up by the Beach Boys' drummer, Dennis Wilson. Once he learned about this, Manson leapt on the connection, eventually ingratiating himself into the Beach Boys' social circle. He and some of his Family moved into the Beach Boys' mansion that summer, where they dropped acid and participated in group sex.

Soon enough, it seemed like Manson might've made a powerful connection with the Beach Boys, as Dennis Wilson eventually took Manson to a studio to record. However, everything came crashing down when Manson pulled a knife on Wilson's producers after a disagreement, and from there, things spiraled out of control.

That fall, the Beach Boys recorded a poppier version of Manson's original song, the forebodingly named "Cease to Exist," renamed "Never Learn Not to Love," with Brian Wilson credited as the sole songwriter. Afterwards, Manson presented Dennis Wilson with a single bullet, and said, "It's important to keep your children safe." This was the final straw; Wilson beat him up and sent him home.

Until he drowned off the coast of Marina del Rey in 1983, Dennis Wilson refused to talk about his relationship with the Manson Family. It is known that the Mansons wrecked the Wilson's car, blew $100,000 in cash, passed along STDs, and trashed his home. According to fellow Beach Boys member Mike Love, Wilson saw Manson shoot someone and throw him down a well. The psychological impact of a visit from the Manson family certainly did nothing to help with Dennis Wilson's battle with addiction, which would continue for the remainder of his life.

That was Charles Manson for you, though. He was a man whose fetid, twisted nature found a shell in the hectic abandon of the late 1960s counterculture movement, and whose ability to cast a spell over others enabled him to pull many innocent people into his twisted influence. As it turned out, the drug-addled, guru-worshiping, love-is-all-you-need ethos of the hippie age was the perfect guise under which to hide murderous impulses.

Interestingly, Manson's actions were partly inspired by some of the most famous music of the era. He claimed that the Beatles' White Album was the reason he committed all of his murders in the first place; specifically, he believed that several songs on the White Album foreshadowed a forthcoming race war. He believed that the song "Helter Skelter" referred to the four horsemen of the apocalypse, and that "Revolution 9" and "Piggies" predicted the vanquishment of the white man.

Chillingly, during one of the Manson murders, one of the killers wrote "Helter Skelter" in blood on a door in Sharon Tate's house.

Posthumous Glory

Since Manson's conviction, his music has gained controversial levels of recognition. The Lemonheads covered Manson's "Home is What Makes You Happy" in 1988, and Guns N' Roses put their spin on "Look at Your Game Girl," released as a secret bonus track at the end of their covers album The Spaghetti Incident?

Most famously, the boundary-pushing goth rocker Marilyn Manson created his name by smashing together "Charles Manson" and "Marilyn Monroe" to form a moniker that combines two of the most glorified objects of Hollywood tragedy. Marilyn Manson even covered Charles'"Sick City," and Nine Inch Nails recorded their 1992 EP, Broken, at the house where Sharon Tate was murdered.

All this posthumous recognition raises the question of when, and if, it's appropriate to recognize and interpret the art of a serial killer and white supremacist. This is the more extreme angle to a very common question—can we separate the art from the artist?

While contemporary "cancel culture" can sometimes go too far, in Manson's case, there is no separating his work from who he was as a person. Every consideration of what art we morally should or should not listen to needs to happen on a case-by-case basis, wherein we weigh the extremity of the person's offenses with the time period and extenuating circumstances surrounding their actions; and Manson can never be extricated from who he was as a person or from the lives he stole.

Things get especially hairy when examining the tremendous amount of art and pop cultural products inspired by Manson's legacy. From Joan Didion to Marilyn Manson, Mad Men to the Ramones, Manson has been a constant muse for everyone from punk rockers to political commentators. Sometimes, these products can be genuinely thoughtful—for example, Emma Cline's The Girls explored the brainwashing inherent in 60s California mythology and the effect of patriarchal aggression on the adolescent female psyche; and other outlets like Psychic TV have used Manson's story to explore the connection between cults and fanbases.

Still, other interpretations have been less nuanced, to say the least. Buried within the countercultural forces that motivated Manson was a stunning super-individualism, a belief that he was totally enlightened and free, to the point of total liberation from any form of consequence. It was a patriarchal, white supremacist, pack-mentality-created hatred that is very much alive today. (There are obvious parallels between the central ideas that fueled Charles Manson and fuel the alt-right today, and Manson is a frequent object of idealization on alt-right forums). In a way, attention—be it positive or negative—is exactly what Charles Manson wanted. The fact that he transitioned from an aspiring musician to drug-addled guru to murderous cult leader reveals that his number one love was not music, nor adoration. It was power and attention of any kind.

Therefore, Manson's music and life deserves no glory and no idealization. The only positive consequences of exploring his story and legacy are a potentially deeper understanding of the forces that created someone like him, if only to locate and address those forces when they reappear.

Tellingly, after Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor recorded in Sharon Tate's old home, he happened to run into her sister.

According to Reznor, "She said,'Are you exploiting my sister's 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 realised 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."



Now in Theaters: 5 New Movies for the Weekend of April 19

Are people singing on the subway ever not insane? Find out this weekend.

Photo by Hoach Le Dinh on Unsplash

Welcome back to "Now in Theaters: 5 New Movies for the Weekend."

This week we have more generic horror and the dumbest musical concept in human history.


The Curse of La Llorona

The Curse of La Llorona - Official Trailer [HD]

Based on an old Mexican folktale about the wailing ghost of a woman who drowned her children, The Curse of La Llorona follows a family...cursed by La Llorona. It's produced by horror icon James Wan, and while marketed as a standalone film, it takes place within the same universe as The Conjuring. Honestly, the trailer doesn't really set it apart from any of the other "spooky ghosts jumping out" horror fare of the last decade. Moreover, The Conjuring was fantastic, but the follow-up movies not actually directed by James Wan have been middling. Go in with low expectations and maybe it'll be fun.


Under the Silver Lake

Under the Silver Lake | Official Trailer HD |

Writer/director David Robert Mitchell's previous film, It Follows, was genuinely one of my favorite movies of the past couple years. As such, Under the Silver Lake is a personal must-see, even if it hasn't been getting the same across-the-board praise as its predecessor. Andrew Garfield plays a lovestruck young man trying to solve the mystery of his missing neighbor, convinced that a vast conspiracy of strange codes and hidden messages across LA will lead to answers. It looks weird and unlike anything I've seen before, so even if it falls short of expectations it should be an interesting ride.


STUCK Official Trailer #1 (2017) | Ashanti, Amy Madigan | Musical Film HD

Imagine being stuck on the subway in NYC and then a bunch of assholes start singing about their most intimate problems. That's the premise of this mind-blowingly stupid concept for a musical starring Ashanti, Arden Cho (Teen Wolf), and Giancarlo Esposito (Gus from Breaking Bad) for some reason. Maybe the music is good, I don't know. But as a New Yorker who encounters singing subway lunatics on my daily commute, I can think of better ways to waste my weekend.


GRASS (official trailer)

An artsy South Korean drama from director Hong Sang-soo (Right Now, Wrong Then), Grass is an unconventional narrative in which a writer eavesdrops on three different couples in a cafe. Their simultaneously unfolding stories influence the writer's work. The trailer itself is very interesting, playing an intimate, wordless moment out during a single shot. Your reaction to the trailer should be a good barometer for whether or not you'll appreciate Hong Sang-soo's directorial style.

Hail Satan?

Hail Satan? - Official

What if people's notions about "Satanism" are entirely wrong? Those misconceptions are exactly what the comedic documentary Hail Satan? sets out to rectify. Featuring exploits and interviews with actual, self-proclaimed Satanists, director Penny Lane highlights what amounts to an activist movement ironically posing as a religion. For anyone even mildly interested in the intersection between theology and politics, this documentary should be high on your list.

Dan Kahan is a writer & screenwriter from Brooklyn, usually rocking a man bun. Find more at

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TV Reviews

Sabrina Fights the (White, Straight) Patriarchy in Netflix’s “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina”

While a dazzling reimagining of its source material, the show isn't as "woke" as it thinks it is.

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina | Official Trailer [HD] | Netflix

Warning: this article contains spoilers for Part One of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.

Stories that explore the occult are rife with opportunities to explore identities typically "othered" by white patriarchal society, including women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ individuals. Witches and warlocks can inhabit our world as seen through the eyes of outsiders, and thus provide the perfect opportunity for storytellers to take a hard look at what (or who) we give priority, meaning, and power.

It's clear from the first episode of Netflix's TheChilling Adventures of Sabrina that this retelling of Sabrina Spellman's, the half-human, half-witch orphan who must choose between the two worlds, story is not a reboot of the ABC '90s sitcom. In the first ten minutes, a lonely, socially-awkward schoolteacher is murdered and possessed by a demon-witch, which gives the audience a small indication of the show's shift toward the comics' darker inclinations. The episode ends with a vision of hanging witch corpses and the horrifying goat-man Baphomet, AKA the Dark Lord, rising from the pits of hell. Oh, and there are no talking cats (Praise Satan).

Creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's Chilling Adventures takes a bold approach to the teenage witch's choice between life as a mortal and life as a spell-casting sorceress, framing her decision to inhabit both worlds as a middle finger to the patriarchal Satan. As Sabrina approaches her 16th birthday and prepares for her long-awaited dark baptism, a witch's rite of passage where she signs her name in the "book of the beast," she is told that the ceremony is largely symbolic. However, when she realizes that one must wed Satan and obey his every whim to join the coven, Sabrina chooses to flee and keep her freedom instead. Throughout Part One's ten episodes she casually plots to dethrone the Dark Lord—an intriguing idea despite its inherent lunacy.

Sabrina's human squad has also been reimagined. In the age of #MeToo, they are in charge, mad, and not willing to put up with their bully white guy principal any longer. Watch out, because they are "woke" teenagers adept at analyzing the influences of "civil rights" and the "collapse of the nuclear family" on zombie D-movie plotlines. Together with her black best friend Roz and gender-non-conforming Susie, Sabrina founds the first-ever WICCA club at Baxter High, which stands for the Women's Intersectional Cultural and Creative Association. This is where the eye rolls begin.

Sabrina is a White Feminist Ally™ and while the show relishes its "intersectional" tag, it's mostly just paying lip service. This is Sabrina's story, and any character who isn't straight or white is sidelined for her arc, which again and again reinforces the myth that only white people are powerful enough to solve the world's problems. For a show that spins itself as a feminist manifesto, it misses many opportunities to highlight race and LGBTQ+ issues for its large and diverse cast.

There are a number of warlocks and witches of color in the series, including Ambrose Spellman, Sabrina's pansexual English cousin, and Prudence Night, the leader of the antagonist witch trio the Weird Sisters. Neither character is used to their fullest capabilities.

Ambrose is maddeningly on house arrest for most of the story and is thus relegated to Sabrina's helpful, rule-breaking warlock sidekick. His pansexuality is referenced by his romantic and sexual interests with both men and women, which is refreshing to see, but also could be explored more deeply since pansexuality is likely an identity your average viewer is still confused about. The character feels like he's being tokenized, thrown in to pander to its socially liberal viewership.

Prudence on the other hand is a hell-raising, devoted witch who has it out for half-blood Sabrina. Of course, while audience members are invited to grow attached to Prudence throughout the series, her character is clearly the evil counterpart to Sabrina the "good witch." This dynamic is tired in 2018, as it paints yet another woman of color as the "angry black woman," and another white person as her moral superior. Too often the subtle choices we make in casting characters for television or film can reinforce inherent racial prejudices. Prudence is even surprisingly lynched by hanging (but does not die) in a tone-deaf choice by the show's creators in the fourth episode.

In a recent io9 piece, Beth Elderkin and Charles Pulliam-Moore critiqued the scene perfectly: "This should not have to be explained, but it is in extremely bad taste to depict black people being hanged on television without an extraordinary amount of context and care that make it clear that (a) the creators of the television show understand the significance of that imagery, and (b) said hanging serves a narrative point."

Like most cultural representations of witches, Chilling Adventures focuses on white women both as heroes (Sabrina) and also as the victims of social prejudice, as with the case of the Thirteen, a group of white witches who were hung and seek revenge in the show's final episodes. This ignores the victimhood of slaves and other people of color who had non-Christian religions that were demonized as witchcraft in real life. For example, Tituba, an enslaved woman of color, was accused of teaching and using curses on the girls on trial in historical Salem, and some historians think the racism against her was a great source of the mass hysteria that ensued.

The show also doesn't seem to know what to do with its much-touted non-binary character Susie. While the inclusion of the character seems to be well-meant, especially since they are played by non-binary actor Lachlan Watson, they are written to be a sad, misunderstood teenager who is constantly harassed by bigoted boys at school for not being feminine (Susie's pronouns are never revealed, but Watson prefers they/them pronouns). The word "non-binary" is never even spoken in the show, but Susie's identity struggle is obvious, especially with their nightly visitations from a cross-dressing ancestor whose ghost spills the tea on the Spellman family's secret witchcraft. Audience members feel a bit like they're in the '50s with the handling of gender identity on the show. And again, Sabrina is cast as the savior, ganging up with the Weird Sisters to taunt Susie's bullies with a weirdly homophobic gag, tricking them into thinking they're making out with the witches when they're really kissing each other (the horror!).

At the end of the day, Netflix's Sabrina is a teenage melodrama, so perhaps some of these critiques are unfair. It has its positive aspects, like its, at times, terrifying supernatural flare, a cast that gives mostly rock-solid performances, and an interesting take on Sabrina vs. the patriarchy/Satan.

However, the show is too obviously catering to millennials and Generation Z-ers in the age of #MeToo and hyper social justice. It screams its feminist intersectional allyship from the mountaintops, but clearly doesn't know what it's talking about. Rather than investing in meaningful plot lines that heighten the outsider's perspective of characters that are LGBTQ+ and people of color, it treats them as puppets to indulge its youthful base and make them feel "woke."

In reality, viewers are being fed the same old inequitable narratives that keep those at the top and bottom in their "rightful" place. If you're going to take the time to create a show with as much diverse, fantastical potential as this one, then you need to act on that promise.

Take note, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. Do more with season two.

Rating: ⚡⚡

Joshua Smalley is a New York-based writer, editor, and playwright. Find Josh at his website and on Twitter: @smalleywrites.

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