Helter Skelter

How one Beach Boy housed the Manson family and how the Beatles got lumped in with the whole mess

I’m a sucker for an interesting story. Even more, I’m a sucker for a true story.
In the case of the 1969 Charles Manson murders, the bizarre events surrounding the horrific ordeal were both interesting and true. The reason? Well, one of the most insidious acts of the past century, one that captivated fearful news audiences the world over, just so happened to have ties to two of the most popular musical acts on the planet: the Beach Boys and the Beatles. Weird, right?

Oh, and here’s a quick disclaimer: I’m going to do my best to skim over some of the more unsettling aspects of this story in favour of the uncanny and the coincidental elements. If you want the full, gruesome account of events then acquaint yourself with the Internet.

Anyway, our story begins with the Wilson family. By the late 60s, the Beach Boys were well into their transitional period, moving from surf rock to psychedelic music all at the creative whims of one Brian Wilson. Brian was one of the three Wilson brothers who made up the original Beach Boys lineup, along with guitarist Carl Wilson and drummer Dennis Wilson.

In 1968, Dennis Wilson found himself driving around in Malibu when two female hitchhikers caught his attention. As Dennis was wont to do, he took the two hitchhikers to his home. As you may or may not have surmised, this turned out to be an overall poor decision. Soon enough, Wilson would learn that the two he had picked up had also brought with them a short, wild-eyed man to the Beach Boy’s house. The whole thing shared an almost unbelievable resemblance to those side-of-the-road robberies you see in old Western movies, where the damsel in distress flags down a stray vehicle while the more unsavoury members of the damsel’s party emerge from behind a rock. In this case, the man emerging behind the proverbial rock was Charles Manson – at the time just a weird looking charismatic individual.

Clearly not a fan of rational decision-making, Wilson decided to house Manson and his entourage (somewhere between 12-24 “family members”) as guests at his Sunset Boulevard dwelling for nearly a year.

Now, apparently Manson thought himself something of a talented songwriter at the time. Wilson was even convinced to help record some of Manson’s songs, going so far as to bring them to the attention of several Hollywood insiders and, inconceivably, speaking off-hand about the prospect of getting Manson signed to the Beach Boys’ recording label, Brother Records.

As you might imagine, in time, things began to get weird at the Dennis Wilson household. Manson’s “family” had started to take over the place and, if you believe the reports, Wilson was paying thousands upon thousands of dollars for damages caused by his houseguests, including payment for the destruction of his uninsured car and a hefty medical bill for the treatment of a household gonorrhea outbreak.

Even for Wilson, the group’s behaviour was beyond the pale and by late 1968 the Beach Boy drummer broke contact with them, insisting they move out of the Sunset Boulevard house. The request was met by something any sane person would rightly identify as a warning sign – a gift left to the housekeeper to pass along to Dennis that, well, wasn’t so much a gift as it was a threat: a single bullet.
This is where the story turns a corner.

Wanting nothing to do with the “family,” Wilson vacated the scene and the job of informing Manson that there was going to be no record contract fell to music producer Terry Melcher who, in all fairness, was equally weirded out by this point.

Months passed and all parties seemed to go their separate ways. The next year the dreadful events of the Manson family murders would dominate headlines. The so-called family committed several murders over the span of two weeks. One aspect that seemed minor at the time, however, was that one of the major crime scenes associated with the Manson family was the former home of one Terry Melcher, who had moved out of the house with his girlfriend Candice Bergen soon after cutting ties with the family at the advice of Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson.

But what about the Beatles? Well, this one tends to be a bit better documented.
In the late sixties, after hearing a copy of the White Album, Manson became obsessed with the Beatles. So much so that he started using song names and lyrics from the band in his own twisted theology. He even started using the song  “Helter Skelter” in reference to some sort of apocalyptic race war he predicted would boil over in the United States. According to some accounts, Manson believed that the entire album secretly confirmed all of his visions and that “Helter Skelter” even held a coded message that would confirm the proper escape route the family should take to evade persecution.

The “Helter Skelter” aspect of the Manson family caught much media attention during the murder trials and because of this, many people still associate the music of the Beatles with the terrible acts of 1969. Audiences around the world were fearful of the horrifying news reports and wanted to know why someone would commit these crimes.

“We used to have a laugh about this, that, or the other, in a light-hearted way, and [ . . . ] some symbolic youth generation wants to see something in it. We also took seriously some parts of the role, but I don’t know what “Helter Skelter” has to do with knifing someone,” said John Lennon in a 1970 Rolling Stone interview.

Oddly enough, it wasn’t until the years to come that people began to realize; even though, historically, these crimes had been connected so closely in memory to one of Britain’s most famous musical exports, it was America’s favourite surf group who in reality came that close to the face of evil.

1 Comment on "Helter Skelter"

  1. Keep in mind that at the time, nobody knew that Manson was “MANSON.” He was just this short singer-songwriter with some fairly decent songs and a group of girls hanging around him. He was like alot of guys on the fringes of the music industry then. So it’s really not inconceivable that a major player like the Beach Boys (and Terry Melcher, and Neil Young) would be interested in helping him get a recording contract. Much of this story has been so sensationalized that to call the whole thing “true” is shaky, especially for a journalist.

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