Welcome to Part 3 (I Wasn't Directing Traffic, Lady!) of our 6 part series with Dr. Dave Williams, author of Searching For God in the Sixties. Each part is being presented on Mondays. Dr. Dave is making himself available to answer questions in the comments section.
---------------To begin with, and to take care of one of the most persistent misunderstandings about Manson, he was never convicted of killing Sharon Tate or the LaBiancas. He was never even charged much less convicted of any of the murders that occurred that August in Los Angeles. The man who prosecuted Manson and put him away makes this quite clear in his book about the trial. In Helter Skelter, Vincent Bugliosi goes to great length to describe how he had to put together a circumstantial case in order to convict Manson, not of murder, but of "conspiracy to commit murder." Even Bugliosi admits that Manson had no direct role in the killings. Instead, Bugliosi had to show that Manson somehow directed the killings and then stayed back while his followers got their hands bloody. But the problem was, as Bugliosi admits, "Manson rarely gave direct orders." Indeed, Manson rarely speaks in direct or clear statements. Instead, he is, said interviewer David Felton, "a super acid rap - symbols, parables, gestures, nothing literal, everything enigmatic, resting nowhere, stopping briefly to overturn an idea, stand it on its head, then exploit the paradox." He may never have actually told anyone to commit any of the murders. Bugliosi argued instead that Manson implied what he wanted done and that his followers inferred that intention. The command was never explicitly stated, and to this day Manson insists that his followers misunderstood and took literally what had been only another of his mind games.
Though this mind game ended up in deadly reality, it was not the only such game played at the group's desert hideout. Asked what they did every day at the ranch, Manson told Tom Snyder in a 1981 interview, "We played games, - forgot who we were, - went off into other dimensions." They even had a name for such game-playing, "The Magical Mystery Tour." But not everyone understood it as just a game. As Manson explained it:
We speed down the highway in a 1958 automobile that won't go but fifty, and an XKE Jaguar goes by, and I state to Clem, "Catch him, Clem, and we'll rob him or steal all of his money," you know. And he says, "What shall we do?" I say, "Hit him on the head with a hammer." We Magical Mystery Tour it.The particular game that ended up in brutal murder has been described many times, but it bears repeating. That it was believable, even to these uneducated drop-outs, tells us as much about where the country was at in 1969 as it does about the particular consciousness of these individuals. What made Manson such a potent symbol was that his mad fantasy could just as easily have been anyone's. Manson, like Vietnam, was where the trail of tears was heading all along.
Then Linda Kasabian gets on the stand and says: "They were going to kill a man, they were going to kill a man in an automobile." To you it seems serious. But like Larry Kramer and I would get on a horse and we would ride over to Wichita, Kansas, and act like cowboys. We make it a game on the ranch.
It begins with the Beatles, and with the Beatles' celebrated White Album that came out in 1968. In it, while tripping on acid, Manson heard the message that put it all together for him. There would be a war between blacks and whites; whites would lose. Manson and his followers would hide out in the desert when the slaughter took place. When it was over they would emerge from their hiding places and somehow convince the blacks that they should be made the leaders of this new world.
He got all this not just from the Beatles but also from the Bible. Perhaps his most fascinating connection was to put side by side the Beatles song "Revolution 9" with "Revelations 9" from the Bible. Revelations, the final book of the New Testament, has always been the favorite of mystics because its wild apocalyptic imagery is so bluntly addressed not to the literal but to symbolic consciousness. For those who read scripture not as a moral code of social behavior nor as a literal history book but as a symbolic rendering of a reality out of time and out of mind, the book of Revelations is the proof text. No one can read John's visions of the beasts with the seven heads and seven horns and believe that it is a rational, literal narrative. This is mysticism.
Nevertheless, Manson seems to have taken the literal descriptions and compared them, as so many mystics have done so often in the past, to literal events and persons in his own world. This lead him to imagine that the predictions of Scripture were indeed addressed to his times. Revelations 9 begins with the fifth angel being given the key to the bottomless pit. Out of that pit comes, among other things, locusts "and unto them was given power, as the scorpions of the earth have power." These locusts, Manson reasoned, were insects, bugs. This was a hidden reference to the Beatles. They were ordered not to hurt the grass nor any people "who had not the seal of God on their foreheads." The shapes of these locusts "were like unto horses prepared unto battle." They were the four horsemen of the apocalypse out to wage the battle of Armageddon. And though they had faces of men, says scripture, "they had hair as the hair of women." Hard as it may be to believe now, the length of the Beatles' hair was a scandal when they first arrived in the US in 1964. The breastplates described in scripture were their electric guitars, the "sound of their wings … as the sound of chariots of many horses running to battle" was their music. Their "tails like unto scorpions" were the cords of their electric guitars, and "the stings in their tails" was their electrified power.
This and more convinced Manson that the message was being sent from the Universe to him through the Beatles. So he turned from scripture to interpret the text of the lyrics of the album itself. There he found a consistent theme lurking between the otherwise cryptic lines and apparently random songs. Only on the surface was it all meaningless and random. Like life itself, it only appeared random to those who had not eyes to see. To Manson, the message was clear:
What do you think it means? It's the battle of Armageddon. It's the end of the world. It was the Beatles' Revolution 9 that turned me on to it. It predicts the overthrow of the establishment. The pit will be opened and that's when it will all come down. A third of all mankind will die."Rocky Raccoon" was the song that made the implicit connection to the black revolution."Coon. You know. That's a word they use for black people," Manson explained to Rolling Stone while he was still in jail waiting to be tried. "Blackbird" was a song calling on black people to "rise." "Piggies" was a description of the rich establishment which would be overthrown. And "Helter Skelter" was a description of the battle of Armageddon itself, pure chaos and confusion. But "Revolution 9" was the song that Manson listened to and talked about most. It's a good 6 minutes of disorganized, disconnected noise, babies crying, machine guns going off, church hymns, car horns, whispered words, football yells, and the repeated chant of "number nine, number nine, number nine." Even more than Revelations 9, it is so freefloating as to allow itself to be interpreted in almost any way the listener wants - or fears. As such, it serves the purpose of much great art, that it bypasses the logical mind and zaps straight into the subliminal, allowing a direct flow of associations from the subconscious. Listening to it, Manson was inspired.
Manson's crime, thus, was an act of imaginative literary criticism. Had he been a professor at Berkeley, rather than a hustler on the street, this reading might have won him tenure, a different sort of life term than the one he now serves. Did he believe it literally? How is one to tell? He may not have known himself. Here is where the line between the "real" world of cause and effect rational logic and the romantic realm of imagination disappears. Bugliosi, the prosecutor, is all logic and literalism, pure arminianism, pure Nurse Ratched. Rejecting Manson's interpretation of "Helter Skelter" out of hand, he says "There was a simpler explanation. In England, home of the Beatles, helter skelter is another name for a slide in an amusement park."
But so what? Does it even matter whether Manson knew this? Symbols are always both their literal selves and the things they symbolize. The existence of a literal object does not by itself discredit any symbolic meanings that might be attached to it. Perhaps Manson was thinking along the lines of James Baldwin with his argument that to whites blacks represent the dark subconscious and whites conscious rationality. Perhaps Manson's race war between blacks and whites was itself a symbol of the war of the subconscious rising up to take over consciousness as Norman O. Brown said it must. Manson was asked if he thought the Beatles' intended the meanings that he found in their texts. His answer speaks to this very problem of authorial intention:
I think it's a subconscious thing. I don't know whether they did or not. But it's there. It's an association in the subconscious. This music is bringing on the revolution, the unorganized overthrow of the establishment. The Beatles know in the sense that the subconscious knows.Nor is it clear how Manson's followers understood him. Perhaps, as he claimed, they took him more literally than he intended. Perhaps they heard things spoken through him which he never intended to say? It is clear that at least one of his followers, a girl named Ouish, saw that both interpretations were possible. She told her friend Barbara Hoyt, "We all have to go through Helter Skelter. If we don't do it in our heads, we will have to do it physically. If you don't die in your head, you'll die when it comes down." Here, the literal and the metaphysical meanings run on parallel tracks.
Manson's main defense is that his followers, sensing some frustration that his predicted Armageddon still had not occurred, set out on their own to get it started, to show the blacks how to do it, and to show the world their leader. According to Manson, they did it as if to say, "Here, we want you to see this guy, but I didn't want to be seen." Just as Lenin, unwilling to wait for history to achieve its inevitable Marxist end, had jump-started the world-wide proletariat revolution in pre-capitalist Russia, these zealots, utterly taken by Manson's vision, wanted to bring their revolution quickly to life. After the Tate killings, when Susan Atkins proudly told him that they had just given him the world, Manson claims to have shouted, "You dumb fucking cunt, I already had the world. You just put me back in jail again."
Just as Luther was astonished and then horrified at the literal way in which the Anabaptists of Munster tried to put the "Priesthood of all believers" into practice in the world, so others have been amused and amazed at the extent to which our innocent American willingness to believe in a literal and material Kingdom Come remains part of our culture. Here too we Americans are the descendants not of the Lutheran but of the Calvinist Reformation heavily tainted by Anabaptist enthusiasm for the Coming Kingdom of Zion here in this world literally in the flesh. If Luther came up with the idea of a door, Calvin pushed it open just a crack, a crack through which poured many of the zealots who had been looking for a way to break out of the structures in Europe. The Kingdom of God in America has been the dream of enthusiasts since long before the nation began. Our antinomians are the ones who took the words seriously, who took them all the way beyond mere symbolism, who came to America because they really did believe that here in this world and in this flesh they might create the Kingdom of Freedom in which all hypocrisy and pretense were shed and the pure bliss of essential truth could be had. Gypsy, one of Manson's more articulate followers, put it thus:
The Dream can be real when you see it, and when you live it. And that's what the Beatles are singing about. They're singing it's all a dream, life passes by on a screen. They're singing it, but they're still asleep singing it. They haven't woken up to the fact that what they're singing about is more than a song. They could be living it….Gypsy uses the word "stupid" but she doesn't mean it in a negative sense. She means it in the sense of being innocent as babies, as being, to use a line from another Beatles song, "the fool on the hill" whom everyone laughs at but who sees it all. Here we have a 20th century American, like her predecessors, trying to convince worldly skeptics that in America the mystic promise really can be made flesh.
Give up everything and follow me, Christ said, and we have given up a lot to follow our dream. There are other communes, but everyone has their old lady and their old man. It's just the same old song in different costumes. There are no couples here. We are all just one woman and one man. "All you need is love." We were the only ones gullible enough to take the Beatles seriously. We were the only people stupid enough to believe every word of it.
It must be said that if Manson did not really want his followers to initiate the race war he called "Helter Skelter," he had the responsibility to make that perfectly clear, but he didn't. Instead, he allowed ambiguity and uncertainty to proliferate. He stayed within his own circle and did not take responsibility for the influence he was having on what was going on in other people's circles. Like the cagey ex-con that he is, he played his cards close to his own chest. In the world of prison, that ethic works. In the outside world, a broader definition of responsibility comes into play.
If Manson is to be held responsible for his ambiguous creation of a scenario that others then went and brought to life (or death!), what is to be said of anyone who writes a book or a movie or sings a song that then inspires others to go out and live its message? Is Marx to be held personally responsible for Stalin's massacres? Should Orson Wells have been tried for the deaths of those people who killed themselves mistakenly thinking his "War of the Worlds" was a real alien invasion? Should the creators of violent television shows be jailed if a kid picks up a gun and imitates what he sees on TV? And what then of the Beatles themselves? Don't they have some responsibility for what Manson heard in their music?
If metaphorical obscurity combined with a violent suggestiveness are criminal activities, then the Old Testament itself deserves to be banned. What of the bloody account of the Children of Israel's re-conquest of Canaan, with whole cities slaughtered and blood flooding up to the horses' thighs? Or the text can be read, as Jonathan Edwards did, as pure metaphor:
There is no necessity in supposing that the word death, or the Hebrew word so translated, if used in the manner that has been supposed, to have been figurative at all. It does not appear but that this word, in its true and proper meaning might signify perfect misery and sensible destruction, though the word was also applied to signify something more external and visible. There are many words in our language … which are applied to signify external things,… yet these words do as truly and properly signify other things of a more spiritual, internal nature.Death, in this typological, symbolic reading of scripture, thus becomes a signifier of spiritual or ego death, the experience which was said to be a precursor of conversion. The Puritan Thomas Hooker called it "a shiveredness of soul all to pieces." Jonah's "death" in the belly of the whale and Christ's death on the cross thus can be read metaphorically as well as literally. Those who misunderstood the spiritual reading and took the words literally have been responsible for millions of deaths over the 2000 years of Christian history. Perhaps this is why Plato wanted to banish all poets from his perfect Republic? The Beatles were poets too, creating images and messages which had repercussions.
Like so many others in the Sixties, the four Beatles followed a familiar progression from innocence to romanticism to decadence and back again. In the innocent early Sixties, they sang naïve teeny-bopper love songs like "I want to hold your hand." As they and the decade aged, they toked deeper into dope, let their hair grow longer, and played music further and further out there. They remained enormously popular because their audience was undergoing the same transitions they were. They evolved along with the baby boomer population they were playing for. "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club band" with its Woodstock fun and happiness approach to the drug culture was perfect for 1967. "The White Album" with its faceless cover and its demonic possibilities spoke to the madness of 1968 and 1969. "Revolution 9" especially was a bonfire in a tinder dry forest. Its violent associations, provocative noises, and complete incomprehensibility played to the heightened paranoia of the time. As the Stones had sung "Sympathy for the Devil" during the worst moments of Altamont, so the Beatles, by putting together a series of images upon which frightened people could project their worst unconscious fears, had to be at least partially responsible for the chaos that followed. It is perhaps not a coincidence that their next album, "Abbey Road," was a total reversion, a plea to "Get back, Jo Jo, Get back to where you once belonged" and "Let it Be." As David Felton wrote in The Mindfuckers, "I just can't help thinking: If Abbey Road had come out sooner, maybe Sharon Tate would be alive today."
If this is so, then Manson's crime was that he never clearly designated the line between reality and imagination, between the fantasy and the deed, the literal and the symbolic. In that ambiguous realm, he moved from what we consider rational to the irrational. He abandoned all civilized self-control and became the complete antinomian, outside the structures of the legal and the mental law.
At the trial, Manson's followers certainly claimed they were doing his bidding. He had said to them, "Just do what you have to," and they had had a pretty good idea what they thought he meant. Manson's proven presence at the LaBianca's residence, having driven the killers there, undercuts whatever claim he continues to make that he was an innocent whose followers took it upon themselves entirely on their own to begin the slaughter.
But Manson's repeated claim that he "broke no law of man or God" is not entirely without basis either. For in the prison world in which he grew up and lived most of his life, people are responsible for their own deeds - Period! The act of murder is what is punished, not some vague indirect suggestion by a third party. "I take responsibility for my acts," he insists. "Every man must take responsibility for his acts. We each live within our own circles." To this day, Manson still does not understand how the law can hold him responsible for murders that other people actually committed. His stubborn refusal to confess his guilt, as misguided as it may be, is at the very least an honest statement of his beliefs and not an artful dodge. He really believed it relevant that, as he shouted at Diane Sawyer, "I wasn't directing traffic, lady."
Indeed, that is the heart of the enigma of Manson. That is why back in 1969 and still today, people find something fascinating about him. Bugliosi and other spokesmen for society have tried at times to say that Manson is little more than another two-bit thug, a thief, a pimp, a hustler out for himself, a murderous con filled with uncontrollable rage. It is too neat and too well-known a box. More is going on.
Manson's true crime, and the reason he will remain in jail until his death, is that he didn't just blur, he erased the line between reality and imagination. He crossed over to the other side, completely outside the combine. Most of us are like the little boy crying at the corner because, he sobs, "I want to run away from home, but my parents won't let me cross the street." Manson demonstrated that the street could be crossed, that society's rules and moral codes, even its prohibitions against murder, are artificial constructs and not to be thought essential or absolute, making him a post-modernist before Derrida. Once the human mind is finally liberated from the rituals and traditions, the taboos and inhibitions, which have bound the web of human culture together, anything becomes possible. To some this is the meaning of freedom. To others, it is the definition of insanity. "Crazy" becomes a label applied to those who don't agree with the consensus. Even Emily Dickinson felt that
Tis the majority
In this, as all, prevail-
Assent and you are sane-
Demur you're straightway dangerous-
And handled with a chain-
But the need to break the bonds of the combine's programming requires that occasionally people step outside the bounds of what is allowed and dare the wilderness, at whatever risk. Says Manson, "It's so abstract that someone has to carry insanity. Someone's got to be insane. Some one's got to be the bad guy." Looking at the world around him, Manson was not always convinced that he was the only one. Acknowledging the disintegration of the old paradigm and the resulting confusion since the Sixties, he recently remarked, "A long time ago being crazy meant something. Nowadays everybody's crazy."
Individuals have crossed that line before, many times, but what Manson also did, and what he was convicted for, was, like Socrates, corruption of the innocent. He spun the tales that they believed. His imagination created the constructions which they then acted upon. Bugliosi could find no evidence that Manson ever said directly that his followers should actually kill anyone. What he claims, and what seems believable, is that they believed he wanted them to kill and, freed from the usual inhibitions that would keep middle-class American kids from slaughtering strangers, that they acted out his fantasy and did not need his direct command.