In this episode of Rock ‘n’ Roll Storytime we talk about how Charles Manson hijacked two things for me: the month of August and The Beatles’ “White Album.”
Let me explain.
The Manson Family committed most of their brutal murders in August of 1969 and as a kid growing up with a sick obsession of the sick obsessions in pop culture, Charles Manson’s story has always been fascinating. It’s literally the story of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Add a healthy dose of Hollywood, cult behavior, tragic events and you’ve got one helluva story. So in my twisted brain, my internal calendar looks something like this:
The other piece that’s so intriguing, and disturbing, about Manson is his obsession with The Beatles and particularly their “White Album.” It’s pretty obvious from most RnRSTs that I’m a fan of the Fab Four and while albums like Sgt. Pepper, Revolver and Abby Road are considered their masterpieces, the “White Album” holds a special place in my heart. I have vivid memories of listening to the “White Album” as a kid and looking back, I can see why it might have resonated with me.
First, it’s a sprawling album with a variety sounds and genres. And for a kid, there’s a strange spectrum of songs including animals: ‘Blackbird,’ ‘Rocky Raccoon,’ ‘Piggies’ and ‘Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except For Me And My Monkey.’ There are other songs with vivid imagery and storytelling like ‘Back In The U.S.S.R,’ ‘The Continuing Saga Of Bungalow Bill’ and ‘Cry Baby Cry.’ There are upbeat, sing-songy tunes like ‘Ob-La-Di-La-Da’ and ‘Honey Pie’ and of course the song that my mom played for everyone in the family during their special day, ‘Birthday.’ (And let’s not forget the most guitar-driven Beatles’ song ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps.’)
So of course I’m strangely amused with the fact that Charles Manson based a lot of his teachings on the “White Album.” I mean who hasn’t listened to a Beatles song and interpreted it to something in their life?!
Sadly Charlie Manson not only interpreted these songs as signs of an impending race war, but convinced others to instigate this war by way of brutal murder.
Now don’t worry, we’re not going anywhere near these horrific crime scenes, but instead we’ll talk about the songs that Charlie misinterpreted and some of the musical players in his game.
Everybody’s Got Something To Hide
While neither really need an introduction, it’s worth calling out a few things about both Charles Manson and The Beatles before diving into our storytime.
Charles Manson, the neglected son of a prostitute, was basically raised behind bars. Charlie was juvenile delinquent without a steady home and soon became institutionalized, learning most of his life lessons in jail or prison. While in the joint, Charlie learned from pimps how to manipulate people, and at an overbearing 5 feet 5 inches, Charlie learned that no matter how big you might be, no one wants to fuck with crazy. So if you act like a wild animal, most people will avoid you. For a modern example just Google, “Juggalo.”
While incarcerated, Charlie really honed in on his skills of racism. But during this time Charlie heard The Beatles for the first time and like so many since, picked up a guitar and dreamed of being a rockstar. On top of all that, Charles Manson was released in the spring of 1967 and promptly made his way to San Francisco to test his new found skills of music, manipulation and plain ol’ crazy.
By 1967 The Beatles were bigger than Jesus. They had fame and fortune that had rarely been seen in modern society, but they didn’t feel spiritually fulfilled…until they met Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a transcendental meditation guru whose teachings took the most famous band in the world to India. While there – along with other celebrities like Donovan, Mia Farrow and Beach Boy Mike Love – The Beatles wrote a majority of songs that would be featured on their upcoming album.
Unfortunately the inner peace and love The Beatles found in India didn’t last. With unlimited studio time and a growing separation within the group, the ironically titled The Beatles was their least collaborative work to date. (Because of its plain white cover, a stark contrast from their most recent records, the album has since been dubbed the “White Album.”)
“The White Album” was release in November 1968 and by New Year’s Eve Charlie Manson had already fully sketched out this interpretation of the record. Logically, Charles Manson thought he was Jesus Christ and that The Beatles – whom he viewed as the four horsemen of the apocalypse – included special messages in the album instructing him to prepare an army for the impending race war in which Charlie was going to be the leader. You know, typical stuff that you hear when listening to pop music. Let’s take a little peek into Charlie’s version of “The White Album,” shall we?
How Charlie Heard “The White Album”
‘Helter Skelter’ is a song about a slide at an English fairground that Paul wrote in response a to hearing Pete Townshend say The Who just made “the raunchiest, loudest, most ridiculous rock ‘n’ roll record you’ve ever heard.”
Just like riding Helter-Skelter, you’re gonna want to hold on tight for this one. But only because it’s going to get a little nutty…
Chuck used ‘Helter Skelter’ as the basis for his theory about the impending race war where black people were going to rise up and enslave white people.
Chuck was going to lead his followers to a Bottomless Pit in Death Valley where after 50-100 years they would become 144,000 people strong.
Yanno what? Let’s move on.
Chuck actually believed that with his army – driving dune buggies mounted with machine guns – he would then easily be able to conquer black people and become their leader because Charles Manson was a massive racist and thought they weren’t smart enough to govern themselves.
If that’s not nutty enough, Chuck took ‘Honey Pie’s lyrics of “Come and show me the magic // Of your Hollywood song” as The Beatles reaching out to him, asking for him to respond with his own album filled with messages and additional instructions for what to do during the upcoming race apocalypse.
‘I Will’ shows how Chuck was just a Beatles fanboy at heart. Again, thinking he was rock ‘n’ roll Jesus, he thought The Beatles wanted to be near him and to hear message-filled songs,
“And when at last I find you,
Your song will fill the air.
Sing it loud so I can hear you,
Make it easy to be near you,
For the things you do
Endear you to me
Oh, you know I will.
Chuck really ran with the animal songs on the album. (Though this is where Chuck’s logic doesn’t really make sense. It seems like to him The Beatles are both pulling for black people as well as for Chucky to win. But maybe I’m crazy for trying to understand the criminally insane.)
‘Blackbird’ was Paul’s civil rights themed lullaby which Chuck took as a call to arms for black people.
Chuck of course turned ‘Rocky Raccoon’ it into a racially insensitive term while finding a way to include biblical references into his theories with McCartney’s mention of “Gideon’s Bible.” Chuck took the phrase “Rocky’s revival” to mean the black uprising.
‘Piggies’ was Chuck’s call to violence of the greedy people that slighted him on is path to fame. Particularly the line, “What they need’s a damn good whacking!”
‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’ is pretty obvious…as is ‘Revolution 1’ especially for Chuck because Lennon says, “you can count me out” and then quickly adds, “in” before going to the chorus. ‘Don’t Pass Me By’ and ‘Yer Blues’ were also included in Chuck’s ramblings. Even the nonsensical sound collage of ‘Revolution 9’ spoke to Chuck.
And then there was ‘Sexy Sadie,’ the only true “coincidence.” The song’s original title and theme was actually ‘Maharishi’ in response to Lennon hearing of inappropriate advances by his spiritual guru towards Mia Farrow. George told John he couldn’t have a song calling this guy out, so Lennon changed the title to ‘Sexy Sadie.’ Manson family member Susan Atkins was given the nickname of Sexy Sadie prior to the album coming out. So I guess we’ll give you a pass on this one, Chuck. Only because you struck out so hard with the others.
Surprisingly The Beatles never returned Chuck’s calls, but the Manson family spent some time with another big name of the day. But we’ll save that for another day…
After this storytime you might “look” at these songs differently, but just remember, it’s not the way The Beatles intended them to be heard. John Lennon said, “What’s ‘Helter Skelter’ got to do with knifing somebody?” The answer: nothing. Unless you’re a nutter like Chuck.
So let’s put our trust in another musical messiah and hope that Bono really did steal ‘Helter Skelter’ back for The Beatles.
Even if they didn’t, fuck Charlie Manson. I guess it just goes to show that if you’re a big enough narcissistic psychopath that believes your own bullshit so much that eventually you’ll think you deserve to be leader of the free world.
This has been Rock ‘n’ Roll Storytime. Now go lock your doors.
Just a warning, the playlist for this storytime “will scare the hell out of you.” Along with “The White Album” and The Beach Boys version of Charlie’s song, it includes Chuck himself (thanks, Spotify!). You’ll also find covers of Chuck’s songs by bands like The Lemonheads, Guns ‘n’ Roses and Crispin Glover (yes, Marty McFly’s dad). You’ll also hear songs by Manson friend and convicted murder Bobby BeauSoleil who recorded with Frank Zappa before going to prison for murder…then making more recordings in prison.
And what’s that, you want to learn more about Charlie’s twisted saga? Then we highly recommend the detailed 14-part series from one of our favorite podcasts, You Must Remember This: