CHARLIE AND ME
When I was growing up, my parents kept their eclectic library of books on full display in our small downstairs den. From a very young age, a few stood out to me—namely a Life World Book about Japan, my mom’s copy of In Cold Blood, and a particularly lurid-looking paperback with a cover that looked like bad news through my young eyes.
|This was the edition and cover of my mom's |
worn paperback on the bookshelf of my childhood home.
Many consider this the definitive account,
but Simon’s book, and this interview, may change your mind.
The book’s title, HELTER SKELTER, seemed to have been painted in blood, set against the kind of warm yellow backdrop one might associate with the California sun. I was also old enough at the time to know what “murder” meant, so of course I was sufficiently intrigued to flip through the photos—which were fortunately whited out. Undoubtedly, part of what’s made the book the #1 true crime book of all time was the shocking brutality of the killing spree—carried out by “hippie cult leader” Charlie Manson and select members of his so-called “Family” of mostly young, female, twentysomething drifters.
In my late 30s, I moved to San Francisco and revisited the topic by reading Manson in His Own Words by Nuel Emmons, which provided insight into Manson’s awful upbringing and distorted worldview. Flash forward to early 2020—before COVID, BLM, election anxiety—when I felt compelled to learn more about the Tate-LaBianca murders, Manson himself, and his young followers who carried out these unspeakable acts. I’ve since spent the last several months watching documentaries, reading at least a dozen more books on the subject, and sifting through infinite online archives.
Tellingly, more books, films, articles and documentaries have been written about Manson than one could possibly consume in a lifetime—it’s a bottomless rabbit hole. But longstanding interests in a number of subjects—Los Angeles, late ‘60s American history, San Francisco’s Summer of Love, the introduction of LSD to the counterculture, the music and Hollywood film biz, true crime, and cults—all compelled me to go deep on the topic. The story of Manson and Helter Skelter is one where all of these subjects seem to intersect.
|One of Manson’s many mugshots since age 14, this one from 1969. |
You’ll find a gallery of them here.
Additionally, America has not felt this divided since the late ‘60s. Things seem to be breaking down to the point where it feels like there are strong parallels between then and what we’re going through today. Most writers and musicians like myself tend to be interested in pop culture and feel a certain attunement to the zeitgeist. Even so, I only recently realized that 2020 was the 50th anniversary of the August 8–10 murders, putting them in the spotlight all over again.
That’s my best explanation of why, like so many others—and perhaps more than ever—I’m compelled to understand why Manson and his followers did these things. Who were they? How did the social and political climate of the time make such horrifying and bizarre crimes even possible?
MEET SIMON WELLS, AUTHOR OF CHARLES MANSON: COMING DOWN FAST
In the many Manson documentaries I’ve watched these last many months, several familiar faces are interviewed with strong ties to the case—including Jeff Guinn, author of Manson, and retired FBI profiler John Douglas, who interviewed Manson in prison decades ago as part of his groundbreaking work on serial killers.
But in the excellent documentary Manson: Music from an Unsound Mind, someone new to me was interviewed: UK author Simon Wells. From the first time he appeared on camera, I thought, Wow, this guy really gets it. I promptly ordered his book, Charles Manson: Coming Down Fast.
This was the first documentary (but not the last) I saw that featured Simon.
Even though the Introduction is seven pages long, I’d never read such a clear, concise, insightful summary of the Family and their crimes—along with the complex social and political climate that spawned it all. As I continued to read, I became utterly absorbed by the book’s craft, unique tone, and thoroughness.
|My paperback copy of Simon’s book.|
Once I’d gotten about halfway through, I reached out to Simon to learn more about the project, and he was gracious enough to agree to the following interview. Before we dig in, I’d like to thank him now for his time, the insights into his process, and for his unique perspectives on this pivotal event in American history.
What got you interested in Manson and how did the project come about?
Anyone who is a student of the 1960s will have come across Manson. He is the decade’s foremost bogeyman—the man who as legend informs us was the person “who killed the 60s.” I was intrigued by Charlie’s assignation of a serial killer and mass murderer when it was clearly obvious he was neither. So on that basis, I was hooked into exploring the story.
It was around 2008 I started pitching the idea around, and I was fortunate that Hodder in the UK was interested—so much so that they paid little attention to my brief to de-sensationalise the story. What they wanted was something to update the story and to cash in on the 40th anniversary. To be honest, I was just excited that they went with it.
The whole writing and research process was regrettably quick (I don’t recommend it). With the 40th anniversary looming in August 2009, it left me just 11 months to write a 500-page book. Nonetheless, I was intent on sticking with my quest to present what I believed would be the first sober account of the story.
So much has been written about Manson these past 50 years. What was your research process for this project, and how did you synthesize that into such a well written narrative in just 11 months?
A lot of hard work! I had the bare bones of the story—which is freely available—so I used that as a very bare skeleton to hang my story around. The next process was to challenge every aspect of what had been previously written and draw out as much of the truth dressed in as little emotion as possible. A lot of what I read didn’t ring true—so I decided to cross-check and re-investigate as well as interviewing many people who I feel had been badly represented earlier.
What is your daily writing routine (at least at the time)? Do you have any special rituals, tools or techniques you rely on—especially when taking on such a large project?
I always set myself a word target, but given I had research running in tandem it often blurred. Many of my interviews were done on the phone and with the time difference in the States (eight hours behind from the UK) it meant frequent late nights.
|Leslie Van Houten, Susan Atkins, and Patricia Krenwinkel |
being escorted to court during the most infamous trial of the century—perhaps ever.
Of all the books I’ve read on Manson and the Family, you tell this story with such exceptional care and craft. It’s detached and objective, but at times also laced with a subtle dry wit. What informed and inspired your unique approach?
The brief of the book was to de-sensationalise Manson and place him and his cohorts in a more solid reality than before. To expand; I come from an alternative community and have spent time around many fringe and esoteric groups. I am not intimidated by the weird and alternative, and I have met many “Charles Manson” characters in my time—so Manson as a character did not faze me. Equally, the activities of the so-called “Family” were of no real shock to me (apart from the murders obviously) so I could view all of this in a way that hopefully didn’t offer any judgement or hysteria.
Given emotion, fear and horror had previously driven the narrative; it gave me a new angle to explore. At times, especially during the murders, I found it hard to detach myself—especially given the horrific detail of the murders. I found that particularly harrowing—but it had to be told.
Aside from the unbelievably brutal nature of the murders, and overall strangeness of the Family, why do you think this dark chapter in American history continues to fascinate the world some 50 years later?
It’s rock and roll. And to decode that a bit further, it’s that most murders are pretty dour and dismal affairs. However, the Manson case embodies all the elements of rock culture. With participants such as the Beach Boys, the Beatles, the counterculture of southern California and the 60s, it will endure as long as all these parts remain attractive. (This is not to act as an apologist of Manson or indeed the murderers).
Manson was cunning and manipulative, but his obsessions with race, the Beatles, and the Bible—along with his violent outbursts before the murders—seem almost schizophrenic. Do you think he really believed his vision of Helter Skelter, or it was just part of his act to keep his followers frightened and dependent as he felt his control over them slipping away?
I believe Manson believed and conceived Helter Skelter as a conversational point—something that would wow and (possibly) control his followers. Manson’s wacky spiel was not unique to him—as we know many were convinced that Paul McCartney was dead and that the Fabs had been sending messages about his demise through their records.
|From left: Brenda McCann, Sandy Good, Cathy Gillies, |
and Kitty Lutesinger of the Manson Family, kneel on the sidewalk
outside the Los Angeles Hall of Justice on March 29, 1971.
Charlie’s madness appeared to gain a greater precedence as his musical aspirations began to slide. His failure called for something to mask his (and by extension his followers) disappointment, but more importantly to preserve his self-appointed divinity and oracle status. Manson had lots of proclamations in the run-up to Helter Skelter, so it wasn’t an unusual topic. He’d previously been obsessed with the Fab’s “Magical Mystery Tour” album, so the connection with the Beatles had already been made. Helter Skelter remained a conversation topic up until August 8th when he flipped it into a reality. I doubt very much if Manson and the Family’s downturn in fortunes hadn’t occurred, it would have remained in the domain of a campfire chat.
Manson very much seemed to want to be a player in Hollywood’s music scene, but was rejected. How much do you think that fueled his commands to commence Helter Skelter and the Tate-LaBianca murders?
It was a combination of many elements. The murder of Gary Hinman, the shooting of a drug dealer “Lotsapoppa” (aka Bernard Crowe, who Manson believed was a Black Panther), the arrest of Bobby Beausoleil, Sandra Good and Mary Brunner, Manson’s rejection at the Esalen centre and not least, the defection of many Family members. With the music rejection ever present in the background, it presented a cocktail of dismal failure. All of this came to a head on the afternoon of August 8th. So it was a combination of rejection and upset.
It also was an example of what happens when commune living breaks down, something I know a lot about. I personally feel Manson didn’t plan Helter Skelter as a reality, it was just that circumstances forced it. I called my book “Coming Down Fast” as it really was that—a monumental collapse. The few weeks before the murders are the true key to what happened. I do detail it in great depth and to me at least, it is academic why they occurred.
There seems to be a good deal of circumstantial evidence of Manson murdering others before the infamous two nights of Helter Skelter. You seem to disagree. Can you expand on that?
There is something quite insidious that I couldn't really explore in the book—that being the rush to associate as many "freaky" murders with the Manson Family. Bugliosi's claim that there were somewhere in the region of "35" deaths ascribed to the Family is spurious. Given the resources available at the time, I would have thought in the 50 years plus since the crimes, at least one would have been proven.
My opinion is that in reality there is only one murder that could be ascribed to the Family after Tate-LaBianca, and that is the death of Christopher Haught (aka Jesus). To me, it seemed strange that police in Inyo County were eager to jump on the bandwagon with the Pugh case as if there were some kudos to be associated with the drama (ditto lawyers). They patently avoided the glaring evidence of Pugh's mental health status and failed to contact Joel's family—probably knowing the answers would derail their more sensational investigation. I did get a chance to expand on this on my blog, so I hope that will put the record straight—as far as it can be.
If you could change anything about how the book turned out, what would it be?
Ooh… I would have liked lots more time and twice the page count! To be honest, the story needs a three-volume approach to do it absolute justice. Before the crimes, the crimes and the trials, and the aftermath. It is such a complex and labyrinthine story—far too small for one book.
What have you been working on since the publication of Coming Down Fast?
I wrote a book on the Rolling Stones famous drugs bust of 1967, a couple of books on the Beatles, a book on the film Quadrophenia, a biography of Anita Pallenberg and a 60s London retrospective. A couple of books of poetry and a novel too!
Do you think a murderous cult like the Manson Family could ever happen again, or do you see it as something of an anomaly?
Not exactly like Charlie’s gang. Given the era, Manson had what appeared to be unchallengeable license to spew out his blurb to his followers. I dare say many today would Google what they heard and probably question him. The drugs are different too—and are far more acerbic. It’s very much an episode of its time and of region. That said, radicalization has many links with what happened with Manson, with young people—often from unremarkable homes—being brainwashed into killing. It’s a new and disturbing parallel.
Do you see any connections between the turmoil of the late ‘60s (race riots, social unrest, Vietnam, the Summer of Love) and what the world is going through today?
I don’t think so. There’s such passivity about life these days. It appears that revolt has been largely dampened down. I fear that IT, increased wealth and consumerism have swallowed up the hurt and the hunger that often underpins dissent. Yes, there are demonstrations and the occasional riot, but they are largely (as far as I can see) without the passion of what back-dropped the 1960s.
After the massive undertaking of researching and writing Coming Down Fast, do you have any lingering curiosity or feelings around Manson and the case? Does it still stick with you, or do you feel like the project provided a sense of closure to any of that?
The deeper you go with the Mason story, the more you uncover. I remember feeling that there were many lines that I hadn’t properly explored, or that other angles could produce some interesting stuff. Manson and the Family’s tentacles touched so many people in southern California, and everyone who came across them has a story to tell—so I dare say I could have reached out even further. Sadly, because of the time constraint, I could not. Who knows, I may dip my toe back in one day.