Bad Vibrations: Dennis Wilson & The Manson Family
In March 1967, the Beach Boys’ masterpiece smash song “Good Vibrations” hit a wall. Heralded as the group’s most ambitious and sonically-superior tune, the number one-charting single did not pick up the expected Grammy for Best Contemporary Rock Recording that month. The feel-good, harmonic melodies that had soothed a nation’s nerves in the first part of the decade were now considered not so daring or relevant to the shifting musical landscape. For the members of the famous surf band, they began to explore other outlets for enlightenment and creative rejuvenation. Brian Wilson had sunk into a world of psychedelics, teetering towards the brink of madness. Drummer Dennis Wilson, the brother who was born between older Brian and younger Carl, sought eastern methods of mind expansion. He introduced the boys to the merits of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, whom the band was to meet while touring in Paris later that year in December. Dennis was always the most fearless, the most eager to experiment of the quintet. Having been the only Beach Boy to actually surf, he’d parlayed his thrills into fast cars. Several automobile crashes later, he was undeterred in his pursuit to push the limits. Restless, searching, and open-minded, Dennis Wilson was about to come into contact with a guide to the wild side of life unlike any he had ever met before.
March 1967 was also the month in which a wiry inmate, standing barely over five feet tall, with a penetrating gaze and gift of gab, was released from Terminal Island prison in southern California. When Charles Miles Manson ambled out of the walled enclave on March 21, 1967, he was a thirty-two year old drifter with thirty-five dollars in his pocket and nowhere in particular to go. The son of a prostitute who never knew his real father, Charlie Manson had spent the majority of his life in the care of armed state and federal officials. His rap sheet and convictions centered primarily around car theft, burglary and forging federal checks. Somewhere deep inside his troubled, festering mind, Manson harbored dreams of making it big in the music business. Fellow con, Alvin Karpis, one of Ma Barker’s notorious gang members in the ‘30s, had taught Charlie to play guitar while he was incarcerated for a spell in Washington State. Flamboyant road manager Phil Kaufman, who later worked for renowned artists like The Rolling Stones and Emmylou Harris, first met Manson strumming a guitar, while Kaufman was serving time for marijuana trafficking at Terminal Island. “He sounded like a young Frankie Laine and was really quite good,” Kaufman later recalled in his autobiography. “A guard went up to him and said, ‘Manson, you’ll never get out of here.’ Charlie replied, ‘Get out of where, man?’ and just kept playing his guitar.” This kind of free-thinking, nonchalant view of the world and its authority would soon draw despondent and shiftless converts alike to the feet of this makeshift mangy messiah.
Around mid-1967, Dennis Wilson and his wife of two years, Carol, were no longer blissfully in love. When Wilson had met Carol Freedman in 1965, she was a 16-year old mom with a son named Scott. Dennis loved the boy so much, he chose to adopt him as his own. The young couple moved into a comfortable home in Los Angeles’ fashionable Benedict Canyon area. Just a mile or two up the road from their abode sat a home on Cielo Drive that would soon be the site of one of the century’s most horrifying crime scenes. Carol finally became fed up with Dennis by the end of 1967. Immersed in transcendental meditation, and yet still abandoning his wife for play time with female groupies, Dennis had also fallen prey to numerous narcotics. “For me it was the drugs,” Carol later told author Steven Gaines. “I was not into drugs, and with two little children (their daughter Jennifer had been born in 1967), that was really hard for me. The drugs started right after Jennifer was born, maybe while I was pregnant.” Dennis was allegedly so disrespectful of his wife that he was said to have boasted to friends that he’d made love to another woman on his front lawn the night his daughter was born.
The latter part of 1967 for Charles Manson, meanwhile, was eye-opening and eventful for the freed jailbird basking in the hedonistic Summer of Love. He hooked up with devotees Lynn “Squeaky” Fromme and Mary Brunner and headed north to the haven of hippie happiness, Haight-Ashbury, in San Francisco. While in prison, Manson had delved into the teachings of Scientology, a pseudo-religion that professed the merits of ‘auditing’ one’s own personality. Charlie had honed in on the mind control aspects inherent in the teachings and stretched the information gleaned to manipulate the will of others to him. His credo became, ‘All action is positive. Everything is right – nothing is wrong.’ Mixing in lessons learned from the Church of the Final Judgment (better known as The Process), a borderline cult that worshipped both Christ and Satan, Manson began to present his image as a kind of spiritual master, akin to a god. As Phil Kaufman later observed, “Charlie was the kind of guy that would just drop a hint and everybody would think that they had made it up. He’d say, ‘I know what we’ll do. Let’s do this.’ And they’d think that they had thought of it, but Charlie had already planted the seed.”
Dennis Wilson started branching out from his niche as drummer in his band around late 1967. His fellow Beach Boys began to tire of Dennis’ willingness to experiment with the latest fad and his seemingly lack of self-control. Life itself was a high, but that didn’t stop Dennis from sailing to the clouds sniffing nitrous oxide from whipped cream cans. He conveyed his “love everyone” philosophy in two songs he co-wrote, “Little Bird” and “Be Still.” Dabbling more in the studio, Dennis became chums with people in the industry who could help him with his music. Already pals with Gregg Jakobson, an occasional actor and talent scout, the twosome would sit around, scribbling potential tunes for upcoming Beach Boy albums. A friend of older brother Brian Wilson, Terry Melcher, soon became a best buddy of Dennis’. Melcher had produced acts like The Byrds and Paul Revere & The Raiders. His father had recently passed away leaving an inheritance filled with homes, cars, and assets in the millions. His mom, singer/actress Doris Day, relied on her son to whip her new CBS-TV program into shape. Terry, Dennis and Gregg formed a tight-knit club called “The Golden Penetrators,” whose mission statement was to keep track of the number of groupies and starlets each member could bed over a period of time. At the turn of 1968, Terry was living in a rented home in Benedict Canyon with his actress/girlfriend Candice Bergen. The address was 10050 Cielo Drive.
On the other side of the world, in London, on January 20, 1968, a renowned filmmaker, Roman Polanski, director of the recently-released “Rosemary’s Baby,” married a promising new actress named Sharon Tate. The two had met a year and a half earlier while filming his horror comedy, “The Fearless Vampire Killers.” Sharon had moved to Hollywood as a teenager seeking fame in the movie world. In 1963, she moved in with the town’s leading hair stylist, Jay Sebring. With clients like Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, and Steve McQueen, Sebring was a well-connected playboy who became enamored of the astonishingly beautiful starlet and subsequently proposed marriage to her. He may have been shaken when she instead fell for Polanski a few years later, but he never outwardly showed his dejection to the Hollywood community. Sebring remained pals with the Polanskis until the end of the decade.
Life in the Haight-Ashbury district turned cold and ugly that winter of 1968. Charlie Manson began to make a biased distinction that the area, especially the Fillmore district, was becoming overrun with African-Americans and crime. Whatever racial hatred he had before towards blacks was magnified to the extreme now that he and his band of hangers-on were forced to move out. Stolen credit cards and counterfeit money bought them meals, gas and eventually a yellow school bus they painted black. Dropout teenage runaways, Patricia Krenwinkel and Susan Atkins soon joined the entourage. Krenwinkel came from a nice, stable home back east, and Atkins was a cocktail waitress who danced topless on the side for Anton LaVey’s satanic church. The Family, as Manson dubbed them, traveled up and down the California coastline and as far east as Texas during this period. Another girl, Ruth Ann Morehouse, a 14-year old runaway hopped aboard the love bus and was pursued by her preacher dad, Dean Morehouse. Charlie slipped some LSD to Dean and soon the onetime Methodist minister became a devout proselytizer for Charlie. Former jail friend, Phil Kaufman, hooked Manson up with a record executive at Universal Studios, trying to forge an album deal. Charlie finally settled in the suburb of Topanga Canyon near Los Angeles in a two-story home. Teenager Bobby Beausoleil showed up one evening for a party and joined up immediately as one of Charlie’s right hand men. Beausoleil had been living nearby in the canyon at the home of Gary Hinman, a music teacher who was pursuing a degree in Sociology from UCLA. Within the next year and a half, Hinman would be the Manson family’s first documented victim.
Meanwhile, Dennis Wilson had moved out of the house in Benedict Canyon and settled into a rented home at 14400 Sunset Boulevard. Will Rogers once owned the hunting lodge abode that came complete with a log cabin exterior and a pool shaped like the State of California. It was the Spring of 1968. Charles Manson and his followers headed to an old movie set location in the northwest corner of the San Fernando Valley. The Spahn Ranch in Chatsworth was dilapidated and desolate, the perfect resting spot for The Family to disappear to. Its owner, 81-year old ex-stuntman George Spahn could barely say ‘no’ to the wanton girls and ‘feel-good’ guru vibe that Charlie could charmingly present. And it was one day in late May that found Dennis Wilson driving away from Malibu Beach when he happened upon two of Charlie’s girls, Ella Jo Bailey and Patricia Krenwinkel. They’d spent the afternoon in the sun and were hitching for a ride back to the ranch. Wilson instead offered to take them to his home in the swanky Beverly Hills area on Sunset Boulevard. The three made love that afternoon, and then Dennis headed off for a recording session, promising to see them later that night.
Upon his return to the house at 3:00am the next morning, Dennis noticed the place was hopping with music and girls. Manson came out from the backdoor and immediately dropped to his knees, kissing Dennis’ shoes. “Who are you?” Dennis asked. “I’m a friend,” Manson benevolently replied. Ella Jo and Patricia came out to greet Dennis, saying, “This is the guy we were telling you about. This is Charlie Manson.” Flabbergasted at first, Dennis was soon swept up in the fervor of the evening. Manson’s girls were smoking pot, laughing, and some were wandering about topless. Charlie made it clear that the girls were there to serve Dennis. Captivated by the sway Manson had over these people and lacking in the necessary self-esteem to realize he was being used, Wilson welcomed this new Family with open arms. Charlie immediately set up an orgy, under his direction, of course, that sealed the deal with the fun-seeking Beach Boy.
For the next three months, Dennis Wilson’s home life was filled with sex, drugs, and the philosophical musings of one Charles Manson. The girls cooked, cleaned, and catered to Dennis’ every whim. While they lived most of the time at his house, the Family still retreated to the Spahn ranch from time to time, in order to relax in the wilderness and subject themselves to more stringent, loopy teachings from their master. Hanging with Dennis, Charlie was introduced to the Hollywood lifestyle. Gregg Jakobson was suitably impressed by the squirrelly satyr who spewed morsels of intellect. “He could discuss almost any subject,” Jakobson later recalled. “…He had a 1,000 hats and he could put on any hat at any time. In another situation, he would have been capable of being president of a university.” Gregg would later relate that he’d spent countless hours over the year debating Charlie on the philosophies of life.
One afternoon, a few weeks after Manson had become chums with Dennis, the Wilson brother crossed paths with another man who would play a pivotal role in the horrific crimes that lay ahead. When 22-year old Charles Watson was driving his pickup truck along Sunset Boulevard and stopped to take on a hitchhiking Dennis Wilson, the fellow everyone referred to as ‘Tex’ was a wig salesman dealing a little marijuana on the side. Tex Watson had been a star athlete at his Lone Star State high school before he dropped out to head west for a new identity. Wilson invited Watson back to his home that afternoon to meet Charlie. “There he was surrounded by five or six girls – on the floor next to the huge coffee table with a guitar in his hands,” Tex later wrote. “He looked up, and the first thing I felt was a sort of gentleness, an embarrassing kind of acceptance and love. ‘This is Charlie,’ Dean (Morehouse) said, ‘Charles Manson.’ There was a large ashtray full of Lebanese hash sitting in the middle of the coffee table, and pretty soon, Charlie and Dean and Dennis and I were lounging back on the oversize sofas, smoking. Nobody said much. As we got stoned, Charlie started playing his music softly, almost to himself. Here I was, accepted in a world I’d never even dreamed about, mellow and at my ease…Late that night, at my truck, as I was leaving, Dennis smiled and told me to come by anytime, take a swim in the pool, whatever I wanted.”
Wilson apparently welcomed everyone to meet his new-found, intellectual friend. “People came and went, a peculiar mix of young drop-outs like me, drug dealers, and people in the entertainment business,” Tex later related. “It was a strange time in Hollywood. It had become chic to play the hippie game, and the children of the big stars partied with gurus like Charlie Manson and listened to them and bought drugs from them and took hippie kids to be and let them drive their expensive cars and crash in their Bel Air mansions. Everybody felt aware and free.” The swinging Hollywood community seemed to be particularly tolerant of the eccentric nutcase known as Manson. “…Charlie always managed to show up for their parties,” Tex observed. “And he did it well, playing the free, spontaneous child, the holy-fool, turning his self-effacing charm on a pretty young celebrity’s daughter…” Charlie tried to recruit Dean Martin’s kid unsuccessfully, but he’d been able to snare actress Angela Lansbury’s 13-year old child, Didi, as one of his devoted zombies.
Dennis allowed Charlie to use anything. His Ferrari, his Rolls-Royce, even his Mercedes Benz, which Manson’s group proceeded to crash. While the scraggly nomads had access to all the grub they needed at Wilson’s house, Charlie still would send some of the girls out in Dennis’ Rolls Royce at night to scrounge through supermarket dumpsters looking for discarded food. When there wasn’t a party to attend or one to be held at the house, Dennis and Gregg would take Charlie along to a hot Hollywood nightspot. One night while they were at the famous Whisky-A-Go-Go, “Charlie started dancing,” Jakobson later recalled, “and I swear to God, within a matter of minutes the dance floor would be empty, and Charlie would be dancing by himself. It was almost as if sparks were flying off the guy.”
Someone who definitely was not fooled by Charlie’s charm was Dennis’ girlfriend at the time, 16-year old Croxey Adams. She had moved into Wilson’s Sunset house shortly before the Family had made it their headquarters. “I would try to stop (the orgies),” she told author Steven Gaines. “I would start cracking up. I would get out of those things and say this is not for me…I said, ‘I’m here because I like Dennis,’ and Charlie would say, ‘You’re not allowed to have crushes. Everybody is supposed to love everybody.” Croxey never fell for that line of reasoning.
The Family splintered and came together while Charlie established himself in the Tinseltown parade. Bobby Beausoleil recruited 18-year old Leslie Van Houten in June 1968 while travelling around northern California. Meanwhile, Dennis and Gregg introduced Terry Melcher to Charlie. Dennis thought that Melcher and his friend Rudi Altobelli, a show-biz representative who looked after clients like Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn, could hawk Manson’s musical genius for a record deal. But while Melcher wasn’t dismissive outright, Altobelli saw no potential in Charlie’s crooning abilities. One evening, after Melcher went to Dennis’ home to hear Charlie play, the Beach Boy and Gregg Jakobson drove Terry back to his rented house at 10050 Cielo Drive. The home was owned by Rudi Altobelli, who lived in the back guesthouse. Charles Manson rode along in the backseat, calmly strumming his guitar, as he first came in contact with the notorious abode.
When fellow inmate, Phil Kaufman, was finally released from Terminal Island in March 1968, he had gone to visit Charlie and the Family while they were still living in Topanga Canyon. Kaufman subsequently spent the majority of his time crashing at the pad of his friend, Harold True. Harold soon met Manson through Kaufman and liked the setup because of the abundance of girls Charlie would have hanging around him. Throughout the summer of 1968, Manson and his devoted females would stop in to party occasionally at Harold’s home in the quaint Hollywood suburb of Los Feliz. Charlie even stayed there for a week. Harold lived in a house at 3267 Waverly Drive with music biz friends Al Swerdloff and Ernie Baltzell. In the house next door to Harold lived an unassuming couple at 3301 Waverly Drive. The husband, Leno LaBianca, was chairman of the Gateway Supermarket chain. Along with his wife Rosemary, the LaBiancas were still living in this house a year later when the Manson Family made a fateful stop outside.
Dennis Wilson just had to get Charlie the chance to record. He decided to try to bring Charlie under the Beach Boys’ new record label, Brother Records. He was now referring to his philosophical guru as the Wizard and spouting much of his rhetoric to anyone who would listen. “Fear is nothing but awareness,” Dennis asserted to Rave Magazine in August 1968. “I was only frightened as a child because I did not understand fear – the dark, being lost, what was under the bed! It came from within. Sometimes the Wizard frightens me. The Wizard is Charlie Manson, who is another friend of mine who says he is God and the Devil! He sings, plays and writes poetry, and may be another artist for Brother Records.”
Dennis’ fellow Beach Boys weren’t so sure the manic Manson was exactly the right guy to put on their personal label. The hot-wired maverick frightened the secretaries in the office, and they referred to him as ‘Pig Pen’ behind his back. As for the other Beach Boys, they weren’t very scared of their fellow bandmate’s loopy friend. “No, it was just irritating,” Beach Boy Al Jardine later related to Goldmine magazine, “’cause they were always around, and it was ‘Charlie this, Charlie that.’ And then he had this little thing that he (Dennis) and Charlie worked out. It was just a melody, a melody in ‘Never Learn Not to Love.’ Not the melody, but there was a mantra behind that. Then Dennis wanted to put it in everything. I thought, ‘Oh boy, this is getting to be too much.” The song “Never Learn Not to Love” was originally a Manson composition called “Cease To Exist.” Dennis would subsequently overstep his license with Charlie when it came time for the Beach Boys to record the song.
Meanwhile, working a deal with his own label, Dennis was able to get Charlie some recording time at his brother Brian’s home studio. After hours, Manson showed up with his girls, high on dope, trying to lay down tracks of his original compositions. Dennis rarely showed up for the sessions and left it to 24-year old Stephen Despar to produce a good sound for his protégé. “What struck me odd was the stare he gave you,” Despar later recalled to Steven Gaines. “It was scary. We were in there two or three nights, and then he got pretty weird. (He) pulled a knife on me, just for no reason really, just pulled a knife out and would flash it around while he was talking.” Despar wrapped up the sessions as quick as he could, and the recordings were locked away in the Brother Records vaults.
That August and September, the Beach Boys toured heavily to support their latest album “Friends,” which rose to a dismal number 126 on the Billboard charts. With his household becoming more hectic and his divorce finally having been finalized, Dennis was wanting to withdraw. He moved out of the house on Sunset and into a small place in the Pacific Palisades. The lease on the Sunset house eventually ran out three weeks later, and the landlord had Manson and his brood tossed to the streets. The Family relocated back to the dirt-poor surroundings of the Spahn Ranch. Over the course of their stay with Wilson, the Family had cost him roughly $100,000. The Benz had been totaled, clothes were stolen, the grocery tab was enormous, Beach Boy gold disc records had been pawned, and the bill for penicillin treatments for the numerous outbreaks of gonorrhea had reached into the thousands.
In September, the Beach Boys had a few days to record some new songs. Dennis introduced the composition he and Charlie had written, “Cease To Exist.” Dennis felt the title could be construed as too negative, so he changed it to “Never Learn Not To Love,” and altered the refrain ‘Cease to exist’ to ‘Cease to resist.’ Nevertheless, it was quintessential Charlie. “Submission is a game given to another/Love and understanding is for one another/I’m your kind, I’m your kind, and I see.” Lyrics like these, which suggested the surrender of ego to another was what made Charlie so strong. Manson later said to Rolling Stone magazine, “Paranoia is the other side of love. Once you give in to paranoia, it ceases to exist. That’s why I say submission is a gift, just give into it, don’t resist.” The Beach Boys recorded the track on September 11th, and when Manson heard of the alterations, he was furious. “Charlie had a big thing about the meaning of words that came out of your mouth,” Gregg Jakobson later related. “That is to say, to him all that a man is, is what he says he is; so those words better be true.” Charlie himself was heard to say on more than one occasion, “I don’t care what you do with the music. Just don’t let anybody change any of the lyrics.”
Sometime in that month of September 1968, Wojiciech “Voytek” Frykowski and Abigail Folger drove across the country to Los Angeles. The two had met in January at a party in New York. Abigail came from an extremely rich family, whose father was chairman of the A.J. Folger Coffee Company. Frykowski was a Polish émigré who had been pals with Roman Polanski in their native Poland. He and Abigail had fallen in love and shared a long trip both on the road and in their heads. They used drugs frequently and made a point to stop and score narcotics cross-country. In early October, they moved into a temporary home off of L.A.’s Mullholland Drive and proceeded to hold many a drug party for their new Hollywood friends. Their paths invariably crossed with Jay Sebring, the famous hair stylist, who was unofficially known in drug parlance as “The Candyman” around town.
Manson, meanwhile, was becoming increasingly unstable. What was once an espousal of free love and serving each other for the good of the Family became twisted into his statements of death and anarchy. His temper was more volatile. He still would stop by Wilson’s home in the Palisades to help himself to food and clothing. On one of these visits, Charlie encountered Croxey and demanded sex with her. “I said, ‘Get out of here and leave me alone,” Croxey recalled to Steven Gaines. “He pulled out a knife and said, ‘You know I could cut you up in little pieces…” The frightened girl ran from the premises, but after a few minutes’ reflection, returned to the house and defiantly barked at Manson to go ahead and attack her. This action suitably cowed the sniveling madman, and he beat a retreat back to Spahn Ranch.
On December 8, 1968, The Beach Boys released the single “Bluebirds Over the Mountain.” On the flip side was the tune “Never Learn Not To Love.” Manson’s name was not credited anywhere in the liner notes. At this same time, The Beatles released their double LP masterpiece, the so-called “White Album.” Manson and Tex Watson were at a friend’s house in Topanga Canyon when they first heard it. “His interpretation of the album took off,” Watson later wrote. “I had already made up my mind to run away from him while in town, so I called a friend to come and pick me up. I sneaked away and stayed gone for at least 3 months, then something drew me back. It’s a long story, but while I was away, he came up with the Helter Skelter philosophy.” Increasingly agitated over his fizzled attempt at recording stardom, and clouded with racial bigotry, Manson became a veritable drill sergeant, badgering his unswerving recruits about an upcoming race war between blacks and whites. Some of these visions may have been based upon the upsurge of race riots taking place across the country in 1968. Manson saw the Beatles as the messengers, the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, inciting African-Americans to rise up, and only he and his Family would survive the Armageddon. His followers were told they would need to live in the desert, to subsist on the barest of necessities. He set about having members steal Volkswagens to use their engines and parts in makeshift dune buggies.
Beatle George Harrison later said, “It was mentioned as if we were sending him messages. It’s just sick. It just shows that everyone is on their own trip, but they can attribute their actions to someone else.” The pivotal song on the album through which Manson derived the basis of his chaotic outlook was “Helter Skelter.” The opening lyrics started out, “When I get to the bottom, I go back to the top of the slide…” If Manson lived in England, this might’ve been a misconstrued tip-off to the fact that in Britain, a ‘helter-skelter’ is an amusement park slide. Charlie saw it as a calling of war, whereby a bottomless pit would open up. All of the doom and gloom imagery he spewed was derived from a mixture of Scientology, the Process Church and his readings of works like Robert Heinlein’s “Stranger In A Strange Land.” The Family moved into a Canoga Park two-story house on Gresham Street in the San Fernando Valley and listened to the “White Album” incessantly.
Terry Melcher, meanwhile, had moved out of 10050 Cielo Drive, and he and Candice Bergen holed up in one of his mother’s homes in Malibu. On February 12, 1969, the Polanskis signed a lease for $1,200 a month on the Cielo home and moved in three days later. By the first of March, Roman Polanski had gone back to Europe to work on movie projects, such as a possible film about the Donner Pass tragedy, and on scripts like “The Day of the Dolphin.” On March 23, 1969, Charles Manson knocked on the front door at 10050 Cielo Drive. A photographer taking pictures of Sharon Tate answered the door. Manson asked for the whereabouts of Terry Melcher. Voytek Frykowski and Abigail Folger were also there that night and inquired as to whom was at the door. The photographer told Charlie to try the guesthouse around back. Rudi Altobelli found Manson outside his guesthouse front door, and even though he knew Melcher had moved on to Malibu, told Manson he hadn’t a clue where the record producer had relocated. Charlie left quietly. When Tate flew to Rome the next day with Altobelli, she intimated how creeped-out she’d been by the strange man on their doorstep the night before.
Dennis Wilson had grown tired of seeing Charlie show up on his front porch in the Palisades. His friend Stanley Shapiro, a member of the Beach Boys’ management team, said, “Most of the time, Dennis avoided (Charlie) because he never passed up a chance to shake him down for money.” Wilson ejected most of his belongings, including Croxey, and moved into a basement room at Gregg Jakobson’s house. Later in the year, he revealed to New Musical Express his cleansing mindset. “I live there out of desire. I’m living where I want. I look at the room as my mind. There’s a piano in there. There’s a bed in there, and that’s all I need. What do you need in a home?…I’ve lived in a beautiful home in Beverly Hills, in harems, in the mountains, with a family, but where I like best is where I am now. I want to achieve happiness.”
When it came to Manson’s overt malevolent nature, Wilson didn’t appear intimidated at first. His personality makeup was just as headstrong as the crazed cult figure. “Ultimately, Dennis and Charlie went head-on, because they both had the same energy,” Gregg Jakobson observed to Steven Gaines. “Only, Dennis was more heart-cultured. They attracted each other immediately and then immediately repelled.” Brian Wilson collaborator Van Dyke Parks revealed to interviewer Bill Holdship that Dennis could definitely hold his own against Manson. “One day, Charles Manson brought out a bullet and showed it to Dennis, who asked, ‘What’s this?’ And Manson replied, ‘It’s a bullet. Every time you look at it, I want you to think how nice it is your kids are still safe.’ Well, Dennis grabbed Manson by the head and threw him to the ground and began pummeling him until Charlie said, ‘Ouch!’ He beat the living s*** out of him. ‘How dare you!’ was Dennis’ reaction. Charlie Manson was weeping openly in front of a lot of hip people. I heard about it, but I wasn’t there. The point is, though, Dennis Wilson wasn’t afraid of anybody!”
Voytek Frykowski and Abigail Folger moved into the Polanski house in April 1969. Jay Sebring was a constant visitor at the estate as well. Meanwhile, Dennis Wilson tried one last time to get Manson the shot at recording success he thought he deserved. In early May, he and Gregg Jakobson arranged for Charlie to lay down some tracks at George Wilder’s studio in Santa Monica. Manson showed up barely prepared and would not take direction from Dennis in the control booth. Wilder learned that Charlie was an ex-con and cut short the session. Manson later related to Rolling Stone magazine, “I never really dug recording, you know, all those things pointed at you. Gregg would say, ‘Come down to the studio, and we’ll tape some things,’ so I went. You get into the studio, you know, and it’s hard to sing into microphones. Giant phallic symbol’s pointing at you. All my latent tendencies…”
Dennis pretty much gave up on Charlie at this point. Gregg Jakobson was still convinced he could capture the magic and spontaneity his mad friend exuded. He asked Terry Melcher to go out to Spahn Ranch to hear Charlie play in his natural environment in mid-May. Manson sat on a giant rock, strumming his guitar, while his girls swayed adoringly at his feet. Melcher saw the potential of filming Charlie for a possible documentary. On June 3rd, he and Jakobson returned to Spahn with Mike Deasy, an engineer who had his own mobile recording van. The day ended with Charlie arguing angrily with Melcher. Manson and his Family members contend that Melcher had all but made a deal with them to produce a record and manage their career. What occurred two months later could easily be construed as either a direct or indirect result of Manson’s fallout with Melcher.
On July 1st, Manson got into an altercation whereby he apparently shot a dope dealer in the stomach. The man did not die from his injuries. A friend of Dennis Wilson’s was at the house the shooting occurred in and phoned the rock star to tell him about the incident that afternoon. Upon learning of the attempted murder, Terry Melcher told his friends that the documentary about Manson was off. Soon thereafter, a telescope that sat on Melcher’s Malibu porch was repositioned to the far end of the deck. On another day, when Terry awoke, he found the telescope missing. Manson joked to Gregg Jakobson about the errant stargazing device. Melcher was suitably shaken by the incident. Manson sent Leslie Van Houten and another girl to Melcher’s home to talk to him about the music deal, but Terry would only speak with them through the outside intercom.
On July 20, 1969, Sharon Tate arrived back from Europe in time to watch the first Apollo moon landing on television with her friends, Folger, Frykowski, and Sebring. Roman Polanski wasn’t due back until August 12th, so Sharon encouraged her pals to stay on with her in the house until then. Rudi Altobelli remained in Rome and had hired a caretaker, William Garretson, to move into the guesthouse, overseeing maintenance on the property and to look after his dogs.
Meanwhile, Manson was on the move. He’d already established an outpost at Barker Ranch, a deserted ghost town outside Death Valley, Nevada, and was amassing an arsenal of guns and knives for the big race war on the horizon. The Family was running short of money to get their weapons. Bobby Beausoleil had mentioned that his old pal in Topanga Canyon, Gary Hinman, was rumored to have inherited $20,000 and kept the loot stashed in his home. Hinman had provided the Family with synthetic mescaline but rejected Charlie’s repeated offers to join their cause. Manson saw Hinman as expendable. Bobby, Mary Brunner and Susan Atkins invaded Gary’s home on July 25th, tying up the bewildered musician and threatening death if he didn’t tell them of the money location. When he didn’t talk, Manson himself appeared and hacked at Gary’s ear with a sword. By early morning of the 27th, Hinman got into a struggle with Bobby, and Beausoleil fatally stabbed Gary twice in the chest and smothered him. Trying to tie the murder in with something radical African-Americans might have perpetrated, Bobby drew the words “Political Piggy” with Hinman’s blood on the wall. On Tuesday the 30th, Bobby went back to Hinman’s home to wipe the place clean of fingerprints and inadvertently left a clean print of his own on a door frame. Police later pulled over Bobby driving Hinman’s car, and subsequently, he was sentenced to San Quentin for the murder.
Also, on July 30th, someone in the Tate household phoned a “growth center” named the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. The facility catered to new-age ideas from all kinds of zealots, and was open to rich people who wanted to get in touch with their innermost selves. Abigail Folger had visited the center on previous occasions. It is not known if she made a quick detour there again in the early days of August. The institute would never reveal their client logs. But Charlie showed up at Esalen on August 5th. He was apparently given a cold reception and turned away. He recruited a 17-year old girl named Stephanie to his fold and returned to southern California. When he got to Spahn Ranch on the 8th, he learned of not only Bobby’s arrest but also the capture of Mary Brunner and another Manson girl, Sandy Pugh, while the two had tried to pull a credit card scam at a local Sears. Fuming with all of the botched dealings he had tried to put in motion, Manson pulled aside young Tex Watson and explained what he must do for the Family’s cause.
That night, on August 9, 1969, Sharon Tate, Abigail Folger, Voytek Frykowski, and Jay Sebring all had a late dinner at a Mexican restaurant called El Coyote located across the street from the Paramount Studios lot. They returned home to the 10050 Cielo Drive residence after 11:00. Folger and Frykowski were using a new drug they’d gotten from Canada called MDA (Methlenedioxyl-amphetimine). Jay Sebring helped himself to his stash of marijuana. Sharon Tate, over 8 months pregnant, abstained. Sometime after 12:30am on the morning of August 10th, Tex pulled up outside the gates of the Tate household in a yellow and white Ford. With him were Patricia Krenwinkel, Susan Atkins, and Linda Kasabian. It was alleged that the reason the girls went barefoot that night was because their feet were swollen with so many sores from gonorrhea that it hurt to put on shoes. Linda would not participate in the massacre and would later testify against her co-horts.
A friend of caretaker William Garretson’s, an 18-year old named Steven Parent, was heading up the driveway in his Dodge Rambler when he was fatally shot four times in the chest and head. The four occupants within the house were subsequently tied up in the living room and taunted by Tex. Abigail Folger and Voytek Frykowski managed to break free and were pursued out of the house onto the lawn. 25-year old Folger was stabbed 28 times. 32-year old Frykowski bravely fought his assailants for a long period of time, stumbling about the property, but in the end he was shot twice, struck on the head 13 times with the gun, and was left with 51 stab wounds. Inside the house in the living room, 35-year old Jay Sebring had been shot once and stabbed 7 times. A rope was wrapped around his neck. The other end of the rope was tied to 26-year old Sharon Tate’s neck, who lay four feet away beside him. Her end of the rope was strung across an overhead ceiling beam. Sharon had been hanged before she died from 16 stab wounds. Her unborn baby boy perished in the melee.
The slaughter was unimaginable. The word “Pig” was written in Tate’s blood on the front door. Incredibly, Garretson the caretaker had been spared. He supposedly had slept through the entire bloodshed in the guesthouse. He was immediately booked as a suspect. Back at Spahn Ranch, Charlie chastised the group for having made the scene look more like a rampage than an execution. That Saturday night, he drove the bunch himself to another location. The house next to Harold True’s place on Waverly Drive. True and his friends had moved out of 3297 Waverly sometime ago, but Charlie was more aware of what lay next door. Rosemary LaBianca had mentioned to friends that it appeared their house had been broken into a few times while she and her husband had gone out of town. On the night of Saturday, August 10th, the LaBiancas were returning home from a brief vacation to a lake. Charlie entered their home after 1:00am and tied them up. He then sent his crew in to do the dirty work. 38-year old Rosemary was found in her bedroom with a lamp cord tied around her neck and a pillowcase over her head. She was stabbed 41 times. 44-year old Leno was also bound with a lamp cord around his neck and a pillowcase over his head. The word “War” was carved on his flesh. Lying in the living room, Leno suffered 26 stab wounds, 14 of which were from a double-tined carving fork that stuck protruding from his stomach. The words “Death to Pigs” and a misspelled “Healter Skelter” were written in their blood on the walls.
Los Angeles immediately became enshrouded in fear overnight. Thousands of guns and security alarms were sold to jittery citizens over the next few days. Police were reluctant to link the two sets of killings to the same band of murderers. Warren Beatty, Yul Brynner, Peter Sellers and other prominent citizens in the Hollywood community set up a $25,000 reward for the capture of the killers. Manson, meanwhile, was trying to dig up last minute funds to move his Family permanently out to Death Valley. Conflicting reports suggest that he appeared on more than one occasion at Dennis Wilson’s house. He tried to finagle $1,500 out of the Beach Boy, but Dennis refused. Manson apparently threatened to kill his son Scott. Other reports have Manson talking with manager Stanley Shapiro at Gregg Jakobson’s house. Shapiro told author Steven Gaines, “He had a .45-caliber automatic pistol stuck in his waistband and he said, ‘Where’s Dennis?’ When told he wasn’t there, Manson replied, ‘Oh yeah?’ he raged. ‘Well you tell Dennis I’ve got something for him.’ Then Manson pulled the .45 out of his waistband and took out the magazine. He popped a bullet out of it and threw it on the floor. ‘When you see Dennis, tell him this is for him. And I’ve got one for Scott, too.” This tale mirrors the earlier scenario that Van Dyke Parks had spoken of, and it is hard to sort out the truth. Gregg Jakobson claimed to prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi that Manson had also visited him the week following the murders. “The electricity was almost pouring out of him,” Jakobson related. “His hair was on end. His eyes were wild. The only thing I can compare it to…is that he was just like an animal in a cage.”
On August 16th, police raided the Spahn Ranch and rounded up Manson and his Family members. The charge, however, was not homicide, but instead, theft of Volkswagens. A misdated warrant unfortunately caused a loophole in the arrest, and the gang was freed shortly thereafter. On August 26th, the entire Family participated in the killing of Donald “Shorty” Shea, a Spahn ranch hand, who’d been rounded up in the raid. Some members alleged his death was attributable to his snitching in jail on the Family. Others claimed Manson was appalled that Shorty was married to a black dancer. All the same, Shea was unmercifully tortured over a great stretch of time, then dispatched and buried in a faraway canyon. Family member Steve “Clem” Grogan, who had participated in the LaBianca assault, later told authorities where Shorty’s body could be found in 1979. Clem was the only Family member to be paroled when he was released for serving time in 1986.
Manson was finally arrested for good on October 12, 1969. He was captured at the Barker Ranch outside Death Valley. Dennis Wilson had received death threats. Around this time, Charlie’s minion, Lynn “Squeaky” Fromme appeared at Dennis’ place, demanding the Beach Boy return the music tapes that Charlie had recorded for the Brothers Record label. Wilson simply told her that he’d turn the music over to the State of California for evidence. In fact, the music was never turned in for exhibit purposes and remained locked up at Brian’s studio. Dennis was questioned by the District Attorney but was never asked to testify. Gregg Jakobson, Terry Melcher, and Rudi Altobelli wound up being key witnesses for the prosecution. Phil Kaufman and Al Swerdloff, with an investment by Harold True, found some old Manson music and released it in 1971 on Awareness Records. The team took a cover photo shot of a manic Charlie pose from Life Magazine, erased the ‘F’ from the Life logo, calling the album “Lie.” The record contained such eerie Manson ditties as “I’ll Never Say Never To Always,” “Garbage Dump,” and “Look At Your Game, Girl” which was later covered by Guns N’ Roses.
Manson, Patricia Krenwinkel, Susan Atkins, and Leslie Van Houten were sentenced to die in California’s gas chamber. However, in February 1972, the state Supreme Court suspended the death penalty, and Manson and his followers received life sentences. Dennis Wilson attempted to purge himself of Manson’s influence on his life. He turned away from some of the creepy kind of music he’d been pursuing in the late ‘60s and focused more on a positive outlook in his songs. He remarried in 1971. But Wilson was driven by excess, and he spent much of the ‘70s tanked on booze, high on drugs, and spending money he no longer had. His writing partner at the time, Daryl Dragon, later the “Captain” of singing duo Captain and Tennille, told author Adam Webb, “Very few people know that the reason Dennis drove himself to destruction was the fear of Charles Manson returning into his life…should he get out of jail, or maybe hire someone to ‘rub Dennis out.’ It was really that bad.”
In 1980, Wilson was forced to sell his beloved 62-foot boat “Harmony” to pay off loans and bills. Before losing the craft, he’d tossed many personal items overboard, into the waters of the boat slip in Marina Del Rey, enraged about his misfortune and losing his new wife to divorce. Three years later, just after Christmas on December 28, 1983, Wilson was onboard a friend’s yacht that happened to be parked in the old “Harmony” slip. Dennis drank all day long, starting at 9:00am. By 3:00 he was diving overboard and retrieving some of the items he’d tossed to the muddy bottom long ago. His friends watched him go down and then resurface with handfuls of mementos. The last time he was seen was around 4:15. His pals thought he might’ve swum to a nearby dock, pulling a trick on them, and was seated at the Marina bar having a laugh at their expense. A harbor patrol boat proved otherwise, when scuba divers brought up Dennis’ body from the marina bottom around 5:30 that afternoon.
In the end, Charles Manson, sitting in his 6’ x 11’ cell, felt the final chapter of Dennis’ life had left him vindicated. He was quoted as saying, “Dennis Wilson’s brotherhood took my songs and changed the words. His own devils grabbed his legs and pulled and held him under water.” In reality, Wilson had been on the road to self-destruction for many years. Whatever personal demons he had that led him on the path to ruin had been in his life long before his association with Manson. What made Dennis Wilson unique to the Charles Manson legacy was the fact that he may have blindly linked Charlie to a set of individuals who otherwise might’ve stayed out of harm’s way. It was through his connection with Dennis that Manson met Terry Melcher. Melcher resided at 10050 Cielo Drive. Susan Atkins later admitted they picked 10050 Cielo Drive to instill fear in Melcher who had supposedly reneged on a recording deal. That was more than likely only part of the reason. The Family needed money, and it was probably assumed that Folger, along with sometime-drug dealers Frykowski and Sebring, might have had access to a lot of cash for them. Dennis was also instrumental in introducing Manson to his soon-to-be number-one butcher, Charles “Tex” Watson. Of course, it was another set of music friends, Phil Kaufman and Harold True, who probably directed Manson’s attention to the supermarket chain-owning victims, the LaBiancas, on Waverly Drive.
To lay the blame for five individuals’ deaths on Dennis Wilson would be absurd. In essence, Dennis’ one main offense, in regards to his association with Charlie, was one shared by several others. He was gullible – easily swayed by the morally-bankrupt tempest that entered their midst. They were all conned by this mad, shiftless, drifter who left prison with $35 dollars to his name. Perhaps Tex Watson, serving life for his role in the heinous murders, summed up the Charlie experience for Dennis and all the Manson devotees alike. “In reality, we empowered him by giving him our lives,” Tex wrote. “We were young, rebellious, and even angry inside. I was looking for love, identity, direction, acceptance, and at the same time, I was very naïve, a ‘people-pleaser,’ in fear of failure with no sound belief system.” Charlie Manson fed on that insecurity, thrived on ambivalence, and his evil doings shocked the world with images of brutal and immoral savagery, a legacy that reverberates to this day with bad vibrations.
© 2001 Ned Truslow