Manson was already a known (though “unsigned”) commodity to some of the most highly successful rock musicians in the L.A. area at the time. In late 1968, Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson was telling the music press about a mystery man in Los Angeles whom he called “the Wizard,” a spiritual teacher and wise man, his personal guru. The Wizard was named Charlie, Dennis said. He had “recently come out of jail after 12 years.”
“He’s dumb, in some ways,” Wilson informed the British music paper Record Mirror, “but I accept his approach and have learn[ed] from him. […] His mother was a hooker, his father was a gangster, he’d drifted into crime but,” (but?) “when I met him I found he had great musical ideas.” Wilson hinted that he was thinking of launching the singing Manson girls as a group, the “Family Gems.” (Imagine that: Frank Zappa and the GTOs, I’d like you to meet Dennis and Charlie’s Family Gems.)
As McKeen tells it, Dennis was an eager champion of his friend Charlie, encouraging his songwriting, co-writing songs with him, and helping him make contacts to advance his musical career. Even Dennis’s brother Brian, McKeen writes, “understood why Dennis was so fascinated by Manson,” but ultimately found him “creepy” and locked himself in the bedroom whenever Charlie (often barefooted, unwashed, and reeking) was in the house.
This book’s subtitle is, of course, a dead (Manson) giveaway, and a glowering photo of Charles-the-demonic-fifth-Beatle graces the cover just to drive the point home. McKeen’s narrative doesn’t skimp on the promised Manson lore, either. Few things seem as out-of-joint and fascinating as the chancy, fateful encounters between high accomplishment and degradation, hence the undiminished appetite for details of the bizarre and fraught relationship between the Beach Boys and Dennis Wilson’s dreadful choice of a guru and creative partner, who would end up physically threatening him. Music + crime = sexy story: witness the Phil Spector shooting saga, which also makes an appearance in this book.
Within the most exalted circles of the L.A. music scene in the late ’60s, Manson was regarded as a talented up-and-comer, and, like many up-and-comers, very much on the make. These circles included top-tier artists like Mama Cass Elliot, Frank Zappa, and Neil Young, who not only acknowledged having played with Manson (!), but was gutsy enough to praise his songwriting and guitar-playing even after the Tate murders. (“Shakey” did dub Manson “spooky,” at least retrospectively. It’s too bad Young doesn’t divulge more of their interactions in his autobiography.)
The collaboration between Dennis Wilson and the Wizard did result in the one known Charles Manson song that was actually recorded and released on a Beach Boys record: “Cease to Exist,” Charlie’s original title, gave way to “Never Learn Not to Love,” the B-side of a single for the 1969 album 20/20. It’s a pretty good song, though Manson’s version is better (you can hear it on the famous Charles Manson album Lie). There are widely credited rumors that Brian and/or Dennis Wilson helped Charlie to record an entire album’s worth of music at Brian’s home studio, but brother Dennis, so the story goes, torched the tapes not long afterward with the comment, “this should never be on the Earth.” (The rumor doesn’t really specify whether Wilson burned the creepy recordings before or after the crimes, though.)
“In ’67? He was a sweet-faced little pixie!” a former Laurel Canyon denizen, who worked at the famous Canyon Store, once told this writer about Charlie. “When I saw him again in ’69? Whoah…” The wiry little minstrel from Griffith Park with the twinkle in his eye and the empathic concern toward young runaway hippie girls had transmogrified into a pissed-off, ferocious, bloodletting monster.
Though presented as a more or less comprehensive summa of the milieu Manson haunted, the book is clearly written by a Beach Boys fan, so let the buyer beware. In fact, let’s go to the index, and to the last entry: no, it appears McKeen has no interest (zero) in lifelong Laurel Canyon resident Frank Zappa, at the time a major musical arbiter and the begetter of many a band who (love him or loathe him) now serves as a dependable touchstone of the Laurel Canyon scene in most of the accounts I’ve come across; see Harvey Kubernik, Barney Hoskyns, and others.
McKeen’s musical blind spot also means this book has nothing to say about Arthur Lee and Love, a prime dark-side-of-psychedelia band, now with a huge posthumous reputation. One would think that the group’s one-handshake-away proximity to Manson would serve as a perfect entry into the crime-and-music nexus this book is ostensibly about; it is on record that Manson lieutenant Bobby Beausoleil, a talented guitarist and songwriter, often sat in with Love and was a good friend of Johnny Echols, the group’s lead guitar player. Biracial Arthur Lee was himself as tortured as they come, eventually serving time for threatening a neighbor with a gun, but he was neither a psycho nor a killer.
McKeen has fun dipping into the purported origin stories of rock: “The Moondog Coronation Ball at Cleveland Arena on March 21, 1952, was the first rock n’ roll concert”? Really? “A little bit of the genetic material from that show,” he writes, “can be found any place where guitar, bass, drums and fans gather. That concert featured an all-star bill…” (McKeen then names three proto-rock combos whose names are now forgotten.) The man responsible for the gig was good old Alan Freed, the legendary Cleveland-based disc jockey who didn’t create the phrase rock-and-roll but was the first to make it popular. As McKeen tells it, a chance comment made to Freed in 1952 by a rhythm-and-blues musician named Billy Ward that he was about to “go rock and roll,” i.e., have sex, inspired Freed to give “this music he loved” the new moniker (though if I may enjoy my own moment of pedantry here, let it be noted that some recorded blues lyrics from the 1920s include the word “rock,” with the same sexual connotation).
This digging-for-origins stuff is, of course, a popular sport, but McKeen misses many more relevant (counter)cultural precedents. For instance, he leaves out (that aversion to Zappa again?) the story of a small group of post-beatnik bohemians in Los Angeles, including Zappa, who congregated at Canter’s Deli on Fairfax in the early ’60s and dressed in colorfully mismatched thrift-store clothes, arguably launching the psychedelic era, or at least its look. This group called themselves “freaks.” They made their mark and got the hippie look going, but for some reason the label didn’t last.
But what McKeen does include is interesting and provocative. He takes the warts-above-all approach in depicting the stars, like David Crosby (“David Van Cortlandt Crosby had all the arrogance that went with his stuffy name”), and takes a few digs at “bloated” and booze-addled Jim Morrison. Such low-down, contrarian treatment of so-called legends is refreshing, I must say, as is his surprising put-down of ’60s youth in general: “[P]erhaps the first generation to consider itself relevant without earning its place at the table.”
McKeen’s hero is clearly the tragic musical genius and obsessive perfectionist Brian Wilson. This is made plain by his closing benediction: “Though Brian Wilson and Mike Love no longer collaborate and Carl and Dennis Wilson are gone, they are all still together on the radio late at night, where they join voices and are young and golden and beautiful forever.”
If you’re looking for crime stories other than Manson, you’ll need to slog through enough Laurel Canyon rock-bios to get to the compelling tale of Frank Sinatra Jr.’s weird kidnapping in 1963 (give credit to Junior, who reportedly told his captors, “you guys don’t scare me”) and the strange connection between that crime and the hugely successful singing duo Jan and Dean (I won’t give it away here, just buy the book). Ultimately, like most mash-ups of musical and criminal lore, McKeen’s book makes for good reading, though it doesn’t cover either subject exhaustively.