Were the Beatles the Catalyst for the Charles Manson Murders?
As the Beatles evolved as songwriters, some of their more impressionistic, abstract lyrics became open to interpretation. For an ex-con and violent racist named Charles Manson, the November 1968 release of The Beatles, also known as the White Album for its plain cover, would provide a treasure trove of new puzzles.
Manson claimed he heard secret messages in many of the two-disc set's 30 tracks, believing that the songs were a confirmation by the Beatles that a sweeping race war was looming. He thought that if a string of grisly murders that he hoped could be blamed on black activists, Armageddon would happen and he would rise to power in the void left behind.
In the summer of 1969, Manson lived on a ranch in California's Death Valley with a group of followers who would become known as the Family. Manson instructed his disciples to go to the Los Angeles home of director Roman Polanski and actress Sharon Tate on a deadly mission. Polanski was in Europe working on a film; the five people in the house, including the pregnant Tate, were killed after midnight on Aug. 9, 1969. “Pig” was written on the front door in Tate’s blood.
On Manson’s orders the next night, Family members killed Leno and Rosemary LaBianca in their home. Police found “Rise” and “Death to Pigs” written on the living room walls and “Helter Skelter” misspelled in blood on the refrigerator. The inscriptions were gruesome references to songs from the White Album.
At his 1970 trial, Manson testified for an hour outside the presence of the jury. He provided some insight about the connection Manson made between the Beatles’ music and the brutal murders of seven innocent people. "Helter Skelter," it was said, had simply been Paul McCartney’s attempt to write a very loud, raunchy rock ‘n’ roll record. But Manson had a more sinister interpretation of lines like “it’s coming down fast.”
Mansion would later testify that “'Helter Skelter' is confusion. Confusion is coming down fast. If you can’t see the confusion coming down around you fast – you can call it what you wish. It is not my conspiracy. It is not my music. I hear what it relates. It says ‘Rise.’ It says ‘Kill.’ Why blame it on me? I didn’t write the music."
Prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, in an interview with Time magazine, said "'Helter Skelter' was the motive for the murders. In England, helter skelter is a playground ride. To Manson, 'Helter Skelter' meant a war between whites and blacks that the Beatles were in favor of. When the album first came out [...] he got a copy, and he came racing back to the ranch all excited and said, ‘The Beatles are telling it like it is! The s– is coming down!’ It was this war that he felt he could ignite by killing white people and blaming black militants, this war called 'Helter Skelter.'”
Charles Mansion believed, Family member Catherine Share said in the documentary Manson, that he had received some sort of validation. “When the Beatles’ White Album came out, Charlie listened to it over and over and over and over again,” she said. “It wasn’t that Charlie listened to the White Album and started following what he thought the Beatles were saying. It was the other way around. He thought that the Beatles were talking about what he had been expounding for years. Every single song on the White Album, he felt that they were singing about us."
"Revolution 9," a disturbing montage of screams, explosions, grunting pigs and machine gun fire, also resonated with Manson. “Rise,” the word that would be written in blood on the walls of the LaBianca home on the second night of the killing spree, is shouted on the track. The phrase “Number nine” is repeated throughout, which Manson interpreted as a reference to the ninth chapter of the Bible’s Book of Revelation.
Charles Manson made a connection between the verses of Revelation 9, the Beatles and himself. Some examples: “And the four angels were loosed, which were prepared for an hour, and a day, and a month, and a year, for to slay the third part of men.” To Manson, the four angels were the Beatles, who would help him destroy the white race. “And their faces were as the faces of men. And they had hair as the hair of women.” Manson believed this referred to the Beatles’ long hair. “And the fifth angel sounded, and I saw a star fall from heaven unto the earth: and to him was given the key of the bottomless pit.” Manson saw himself in the role of the fifth angel. The "bottomless pit" represented the desert hideout where the Family would wait out Helter Skelter.
“I saw the horses in the vision, and them that sat on them, having breastplates of fire, "the Bible verse reads, "and out of their mouths issued fire and smoke and brimstone.” The “breastplates of fire” represented the Beatles’ electric guitars; the “fire and smoke and brimstone” were the band’s incendiary lyrics that would incite Helter Skelter.
When the Beatles released the hard-rocking "Revolution" as the B-side to "Hey Jude" in August 1968, it included the lyric, “But when you’re talking ‘bout destruction / Don’t you know that you can count me out.” But when a slower version was released on the 'White Album' three months later, the line became “Don’t you know that you can count me out – in.” Manson took this change as an indication that the Beatles now sanctioned his plan for a race war.
The image of pigs was used to portray greedy people in George Harrison’s "Piggies," but Manson and his followers took the imagery many steps further. Family member Susan Atkins used a towel saturated in Sharon Tate's blood to write "Pig" on the front door of Tate's house. Leno LaBianca was found with a knife in his throat and a fork in his stomach, which was believed to be a reference to the song's last line, that the pigs were “clutching forks and knives to eat their bacon.”
For Manson, "Blackbird" was an emphatic statement that this was the time for black people to revolt against the white power structure. Paul McCartney, however, offered a much different take on the meaning of "Blackbird," in an interview with KCRW. “I was in Scotland just playing on my guitar, and I remembered this whole idea of ‘you were only waiting for this moment to arise’ was about, you know, the black people's struggle in the Southern states, and I was using the symbolism of a black bird. It's not really about a blackbird whose wings are broken, you know. It's a bit more symbolic.”
People heard what they wanted to hear, the Beatles would later lament.
“Everybody was getting on the big Beatle bandwagon," George Harrison said in Anthology. "The police and the promoters and the Lord Mayors – and murderers too. The Beatles were topical and they were the main thing that was written about in the world, so everybody attached themselves to us, whether it was our fault or not. It was upsetting to be associated with something so sleazy as Charles Manson.”
John Lennon, in Rolling Stone, added that "a lot of the things he says are true: he is a child of the state, made by us, and he took their children in when nobody else would. He’s balmy, like any other Beatle-kind of fan who reads mysticism into it. [...] I don’t know what 'Helter Skelter' has to do with knifing somebody."
Paul McCartney, while focusing on the distance between the Beatles' intent and Manson's, seemed befuddled by it all. "It was terrible. You can't associate yourself with a thing like that," he said. "Some guy in the states had done it; I’ve no idea why. It was frightening, because you don't write songs for those reasons. Maybe some heavy metal groups do nowadays, but we certainly never did.”
Meanwhile, the murders hit Ringo Starr particularly close to home. “It was upsetting,” he said. “I mean, I knew Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate and, God, it was a rough time. It stopped everyone in their tracks, because suddenly all this violence came out in the midst of all this love and peace and psychedelia. It was pretty miserable, actually, and everyone got really insecure -- not just us, not just the rockers, but everyone in L.A. felt: 'Oh God, it can happen to anybody.' Thank God they caught the bugger.”
In 1971, Manson and four members of the Family – Charles “Tex” Watson, Patricia Krenwinkel, Leslie van Houten and Susan Atkins – were convicted of murder and sentenced to death. The following year, California abolished the death penalty. The sentences of Manson and the Family members were commuted to life in prison. Atkins died in prison in 2009. Manson and the others remain behind bars, where they have been repeatedly denied parole.
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