On a summer night in 1968, three cars eased down Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. They headed for the tricked-up portion of the long, winding street known as the Strip, a 1.7-mile stretch of nightclubs, shops, and restaurants that was one of the epicenters of cutting-edge counterculture in America.
Three hundred and eighty miles to the north, the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood in San Francisco still clung to its reputation as the capital city of Flower Power and hippie love-ins, but its pretensions of leading the world into a new era of enlightenment through great music, free love, mind-expanding chemicals, and disdain for class-conscious, capitalist beliefs were dissolving into drug-addled violence.
Sunset Strip was about music, sex, and drugs, too, but few among the amped-up throngs packing its sidewalks pretended their motivations were anything other than self-indulgent. As civil disorder swept the rest of America in response to Vietnam and racial unrest, the only major uprising on the Strip involved the closing of a popular club and the enforcement of a 10 p.m. curfew for those under eighteen. Young people flocked to the Haight in hopes of finding Utopia; youthful pilgrims came to L.A. with the dream of becoming friends with celebrities and becoming rich and famous themselves.
Such dreams were encouraged by the Strip’s traditional egalitarianism. Stars performing in or visiting many of its famous clubs were expected to mingle with the public, chatting amiably as if with equals and, in the case of those who’d made it in the record business, offering advice to the endless stream of wannabes who felt certain that their self-penned songs about love, spirituality, and revolution would make them as big as the Beatles—or even bigger.
The young men behind the wheels of the three cars inching down Sunset—sometimes it could take hours to maneuver through the traffic and crowds along the Strip—were out for a night in town and probably in all of America. Magazines from Time to Playboy touted it as the hippest place to see and be seen. Each night, long lines routinely stretched for blocks two hours or more before the Whisky opened at 8:30. The cover charge kept out panhandlers and riffraff. Regulars always anticipated thrills beyond those to be found at any other club on the Strip. Performers recorded chart-topping live albums at the Whisky. The flower of the music scene regularly dropped in; recent visitors included Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, and Eric Clapton. Hendrix and Young even jumped onstage to jam.
The Whisky usually alternated lesser-known local bands with big-name acts like the Turtles and Eric Burdon and the Animals. The club had been one of the first venues on the modern-day Strip to feature black musicians. Among others, Buddy Guy and Sly and the Family Stone graced its stage, and when Little Richard performed, rock gods Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones came to hear him. Every visit to the Whisky was certain to be special in some way.
Anyone in Los Angeles who had pretensions of being cool had to make the scene. Even Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton partied there. The nightly crowds meant parking was scarce anywhere near the club, but that was no problem for Melcher, Jakobson, and Wilson. The operators of the Strip’s jam-packed lots always found room for vehicles belonging to stars.
Melcher handed over the keys of a black four-door Mercedes convertible. Jakobson arrived in a black, mint condition 1939 Pontiac; he’d just swapped a Porsche for the vintage ride. Wilson pulled up in a burgundy Rolls-Royce recently given to him by his older brother, Brian, the reclusive leader of the Beach Boys.
As the trio strolled into the Whisky—there was no need for them to stand in line, or pay the night’s cover charge—everyone’s eyes were on them. Wilson, a big, handsome man, would have been recognized by virtually every music fan in the country. Melcher and Jakobson weren’t household names in Middle America, but the Whisky crowd, most of them savvy to all aspects of the L.A. music scene, knew who they were and why they were important. That wasn’t true of the fourth member of the party, who’d arrived in Wilson’s Rolls.
To the onlookers outside the Whisky, there wasn’t anything special about thirty-three-year-old Charlie Manson, just one among thousands of ambitious singer-songwriters who’d made their way to L.A. with the goal of getting recording contracts and becoming superstars. Manson was short, about five foot four, and scrawny. For much of the summer, he’d been lucky enough to mooch off the Beach Boys’ drummer, who was notorious for giving strays temporary run of his luxurious log cabin house further down Sunset Boulevard. Most of them drifted off after a day or two; Manson showed no sign of leaving.
For a while, that was fine with his host. Besides writing some interesting songs and spouting an addictive form of philosophy about surrendering individuality, Manson had with him a retinue of girls who adored Charlie and were happy to engage in any form of sex his rock star benefactor desired. Accordingly, Wilson’s summer was a carnal extravaganza, though he had to make frequent trips to his doctor since the Manson girls kept infecting him with gonorrhea.
In between sex romps, Wilson good-naturedly touted Manson’s music to the other Beach Boys and to friends in the L.A. music scene. To date, no one had been impressed enough by Manson’s songs to offer the scruffy drifter the recording contract he craved. But Charlie had unwavering belief in his own talent and in Wilson’s ability, even obligation, to make it happen. Manson assumed that he was always welcome to come along whenever Wilson went out to a party or to a club. He shared what he had—his music, quirky conversation, and sexually compliant women—and expected Wilson to do the same.
It was an unequal arrangement and lately Wilson was becoming fed up. It was aggravating enough that Manson constantly badgered the drummer to make the Beach Boys record his songs, but the leech and his followers were making a considerable dent in Wilson’s personal fortune at a time when the Beach Boys’ record sales and concert attendance were in alarming decline. They’d wrecked his uninsured Mercedes and run up bills with doctors and dentists. They raided Wilson’s closets and cut up his clothes to make themselves patchwork robes. Though they espoused scouring supermarket garbage bins for food, they gluttonously emptied Wilson’s refrigerator and pantry on a daily basis. They even felt his charge accounts were theirs to use—while he’d been away from home on a brief Beach Boys tour, Wilson’s house guests ran up an $800 tab with a local dairy, gorging themselves on the priciest cheese, yogurt, and fruit juice. As much as Wilson embraced the general concept of sharing, he was ready for these master freeloaders to move on. In recent weeks Wilson had also begun to fear Manson.
Concerned about their client’s involvement with such a questionable character, Beach Boys management ran a background check on Charlie and informed Dennis that his house guest had done time for armed robbery and was currently on probation. That didn’t bother Wilson in the least. He’d known all along that his new pal had a criminal background. Manson liked to brag that prison was his daddy and the street was his mother. Criminal credentials appealed to many young people in an era when it was fashionable for them to believe that the government was the enemy. But as Manson and his motley crew continued living with Wilson, Charlie’s entertaining philosophical rants occasionally turned dark. He seemed to believe that he held the power of life and death over his followers and friends, including his famous patron. He once held a knife to Wilson’s throat and asked how the drummer would feel if he killed him. Wilson muttered, “Do it,” and Manson backed off. It said a lot about Wilson’s self-destructive tendencies that he still allowed Charlie to hang around with him.
Though Wilson and his fellow Golden Penetrators hadn’t said as much, bringing Manson along to the Whisky on this summer night might remind him of his place. Despite what Charlie clearly believed, enjoying the largesse of a star didn’t make him a star himself. The Whisky was the apex of cool, home ground of the hip, but intimidating for everyone else. The club wasn’t particularly big, with a capacity of just 350, but its decor was guaranteed to impress. Decorated in dramatic tones of red and black, the venue featured a stage in the middle of a raised dance floor. There were a few tables for the public and a small, separate seating area for show business dignitaries. Dangling above the floor were glass “cages” occupied by scantily clad female dancers who pranced provocatively to records whenever each evening’s bands took a break between their 9:30 and 11:30 sets. These entertainers were dubbed Go-Go dancers, and copycat namesakes entertained in clubs all over the world.
For the Whisky’s noncelebrity regulars, getting out on the floor to dance was the real highlight of the evening. Unwritten club etiquette prohibited paying too much attention to other dancers; the conceit was that you were spectacular and everyone else was obliged to gawk at you. As a result, nobody ever watched anybody else, let alone gave the impression of being impressed. It was hard to find much room on the dance floor at any given time. Prospective dancers would wait until others cleared off for a bathroom break or to catch their breath, then tried to beat other hopefuls to the space. Sharp eyes and equally sharp elbows were helpful. Since Melcher, Jakobson, and Wilson were regulars, one of the celebrity booths was always available to them.
As they moved toward it Manson broke away, saying that he wanted to dance. Charlie couldn’t have chosen a more certain means of receiving his comeuppance. Few stylishly dressed, celebrity-obsessed girls at the Whisky would deign to dance with a short, scruffy nobody, and even if Manson did somehow make it onto the dance floor he’d just be one more body crammed in there. Had any of them been in a more generous frame of mind, Wilson, Melcher, or Jakobson could have escorted Manson down; dance space was always made for stars and their sidekicks. But they were content to let Charlie flounder on his own. Soon enough he’d slink over to their booth, chastened by an unmistakable reminder that, for all his philosophical prattling and grandiose dreams of rock stardom, at least for now he remained an insignificant speck in the L.A. galaxy. Manson disappeared into the crowd, and the three friends sipped drinks and chatted until they were startled by a commotion. Looking around, they saw something unique in the history of the Whisky a Go Go: Instead of vying to get on, everyone was struggling to clear off the hallowed dance floor, where they had been packed in so tightly that they now had trouble squirming apart.
Melcher, Jakobson, and Wilson exchanged puzzled glances. They stood up to get a better look, and that was when they saw that smack in the middle of the floor a single figure remained—Charlie Manson, gyrating to the music. His dancing grew increasingly maniacal; he tipped back his head and threw out his arms and they agreed later that it seemed as though electrical sparks flew from Charlie’s fingers and hair. The crowd had surged off the dance floor as if driven from it by some irresistible force field. Now it circled the floor, mesmerized by the sight of the whirling dervish who seemed oblivious to everything but the pulsating beat.
Over the past weeks, Wilson, Jakobson, and Melcher had seen Manson effortlessly enthrall small gatherings at meals or parties. Until this moment they had no idea that he could extend his magnetism and dominate a much larger audience, let alone a jaded one like the regulars at the Whisky. It was one thing for Charlie to convince a string of needy female hangers-on that he was an all-knowing guru who must be worshipped and obeyed. But these were hipsters whose self-images depended in large part on not acting impressed by anyone other than the biggest stars. Now they openly gawked at someone who only moments before would have seemed the unlikeliest candidate to command their rapt attention. It was a reaction far beyond deference, Jakobson thought. This approached awe. “That was when we realized that he was really something different, that time at the Whisky,” Jakobson said almost forty-five years later. “Anytime, anywhere, that Charlie decided to be the center of attention, he could be. At the Whisky, everybody thought that they had seen it all. “Until that night, when they saw Charlie.”
From MANSON: The Life and Times of Charles Manson by Jeff Guinn. Copyright © 2013 by 24Words LLC. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.