This summer, I’m going to make playlists and write about them. The first playlist was called, “Lovestuck.” This one’s called “Chaos.” If you’d like to read from the beginning of the playlist series, start here. Hope you enjoy.
“Never Learn Not to Love” by The Beach Boys
“Lovestuck” was an exploration of the interior: the inside of our homes as we sheltered-in-place, the swirling power of memories, influence, and emotions, and the inner battle between hope and despair. (We’re no longer asked to be inside, though perhaps we should.) As the summer wanes, we look outward, toward the world and the stories we tell about it, those fabricated to make this chaos more bearable and knowable, those told in an effort to keep it from crumbling. We begin, as we did with the last playlist, with the end of the 60s, but this time I would like to talk about Charles Manson.
The Manson murders, or as journalist and author Tom O’Neill refers to them, the Tate-LaBianca murders, signaled to many the end of an era. Like O’Neill, I’ll quote Didion: “…The Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community.” In the wake of this brutal, drug-fueled massacre, it seemed that dropping in and tuning out was no longer an option. But the abruptness of this ending is not quite accurate, O’Neill points out, and I agree. There’s also Meredith Hunter’s murder in Altamont later in 1969, or the repeated targeted harassment, manipulation, and murder of members and allies of the Black Panthers by law enforcement throughout the late 60s, or we can definitely factor in the 1968 murder of Ann Jimenez in Haight Ashbury, epicenter of the hippie movement. From the shore, it’s easier to point out the crest of a wave than the forces underneath it, and either the Tate-LaBianca murders were certainly one of those crests. O’Neill’s book CHAOS swims out, dives under the white water, and stays there.
I’ll let you seek out the finer points this sprawling, meticulously-reported epic yourself, but suffice it to say O’Neill’s major task is proving that the widely accepted narrative about the Tate-LaBianca murders—based mainly on Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s bestselling “true crime” account, Helter Skelter—contains wide holes, baffling inconsistencies, and a generally impossible sequence of events. What began as O’Neill’s basic human-interest piece about the crime’s 30th anniversary became a decades-long search for answers to some incredibly obvious questions; questions posed not only by O’Neill, but by the victims’ families, local law enforcement, and Bugliosi himself. Frustrated as I was by O’Neill’s churchmouse unwillingness to make conclusions based on his mind-blowing research, the author’s obsessive adherence to documents, corroboration, and facts is a model for detangling and contextualizing any singular story we tell about American history.
No doubt that Manson, a dangerous and cruel man, is at the center of the crimes; O’Neill is not interested (nor am I) in discounting his nefarious role in these deaths. But there is enough evidence to suggest that Manson’s actions before and after the murders, as well as the subsequent crazed, counter-culture cult stereotype that has seeped into our collective consciousness as a result of his infamy, did not spring out of a vacuum. For one, the spaces Manson inhabited during the crucial period in which he gathered followers—spaces that range from the office of his experimental criminologist parole officer, to a clinic in the Haight Ashbury occupied by Dr. “Jolly” West—were monitored and funded by the same shell organizations that funded Project MKUltra, the CIA’s now well-documented, highly unethical program testing the ability to weaponize psychological manipulation and mind control. On the fringe of the Manson case, O’Neill has also found evidence among shadowy figures that slip in and out of court documents and memories to suggest ties to another covert operation, COINTELPRO, an FBI-led effort to infiltrate, agitate, and dismantle leftist and Black power groups from the inside.
Like a fraudulent tax-evading, racist reality star running one of the most powerful and diverse nations in the free world, O’Neill’s findings seem stranger than fiction. America is not alone in allowing its government to commit secretive and heinous acts in the service of its national security and economic interests, but O’Neill’s work is a reminder of our county’s uniquely powerful collective ability to prioritize entertaining stories over facts.
Our leader, a constant and flagrant liar, just recently told us to fight a pandemic by eating medicine endorsed by a woman who believes in demons and aliens. Those of us who acknowledge science are shaking our heads, but secretly, we all love this sh**. When you think about it, our love of sensational stories is in the DNA of our colonial roots. (See: The Witches by Stacy Schiff, the painstakingly thorough and endlessly fascinating curation of accounts from the Salem Witch Trials.) DJT is not the first racist conman we’ve rewarded, both for their lies and the fascinating stories their lies create. (See: Bunk by Kevin Young, the rich and confounding history of America’s racially-motivated love affair with snake oil salesmen, hoaxes, and fakes.) We’re all fed fiery nonsense, and we’re all complicit in its effects. Media companies owned by the same five or six men told us parallel and opposite stories about our country, and as they made money off of advertisements, we chose which lie we liked best. (See: this excerpt from Ezra Klein’s Why We’re Polarized, specifically the survey about Democrats’ and Republicans’ perception of the opposing party.) We love stories so much, we are now in the process of using technology to offer up the marketable story of our very selves, at the cost of our time, mental health, and personal relationships. (See Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino, a masterfully incisive collection of essays about selfhood and delusion in the Information Age.)
This latest playlist, named for the state of our country as well as the book (and yet another CIA surveillance operation), opens with The Beach Boys’ “Never Learn Not to Love,” released in 1968 as a B-Side to “Bluebirds Over the Mountain.” The American euphemistic way of talking about this weak sauce is that musically, “this is not one of the Beach Boys’ more remarkable songs.” Sure, there’s a weird reverse recording of a cymbal at the beginning that sounds like the gong at some ancient execution ritual. And sure, Dennis barely hits the final notes, perhaps to strike an intentionally desperate tone, or perhaps because of his cig-shot vocal cords. But with the Beach Boys’ trademark angelic harmonies and tambourine-driven percussion, it’s dressed up and pretty enough for the party, right? Then, you listen to the lyrics. “Cease to resist,” Wilson sings, and later, “Submission is a gift.”
It turns out the released version of this song is allegedly scrubbed to protect the image of the Beach Boys. The lyrics “cease to resist” used to be “cease to exist”, which share the song’s original title. The story is that one day in 1968, Dennis Wilson picked up two hitchhikers, young women he took back to his home Pacific Palisades who told him all about their friend and mentor, Charlie. Charlie was a musician, philosopher, ex-con, anybody who Wilson wanted him to be, really. God and the devil. Shaman and pimp. Family. Eventually, Manson even came into the studio with the band, but he wasn’t as talented as his hubris made him seem. “Give up your world, come on and be with me,” Wilson sings as Manson’s proxy. The lyrics take on a new, chilling significance when you imagine them out of Manson’s mouth. “I’m your kind, I’m your kind, and I see,” he wrote. He seems to sing not only to everyone who ever believed his lies, but to all of his fellow liars—all the powerful men who pretended he wasn’t a threat to get access to the young women who followed him, the California parole boards and jails who mysteriously released him over and over, the government that stood back and watched him just to see what he would do. And now me, who proliferates his myth.
What happened between Manson and the Beach Boys may be based in fact, but I can’t pretend I was drawn to this story, this song, or even to CHAOS merely by the truth. Nor was I ever one of those people obsessed by the Helter Skelter story. I wanted to see the gap between facts and fiction grow wide and dark. I wanted to see the liars dressed down and brought to their knees. I assure myself I would never buy the snake oil, but I’d be present when they put the shackles on the salesman. In the Salem Witch Trials, I would have been one of the gossips in the town pubs. Like crime, virtue, too, can be made into a spectacle. And I wonder if consuming either means I have to keep myself at a certain distance, or if to see what I want to see, I am somehow taking part.