In an exclusive interview, author Simon Wells talks to Planet Paul about his most recent book ‘Coming Down Fast’ a chilling biography of Charles Manson, examining the events behind the brutal Tate/LaBianca slayings in 1969.
From its opening lines, Simon Wells’ biography on Charles Manson, ‘Coming Down Fast’, avoids the typical sensationalist shorthand expected of his subject:
“Childhood. Infancy. Youth. These are not the words that sit easily with someone once depicted as the ‘the most evil person alive’.”
These certainly aren’t the words we expect when describing Mad Charlie and his murderous Family. No. Rather we expect the image of Charlie the baby-eating Satanic killer, who slaughtered nine innocent people in an orgy of blood and violence in 1969.
This is how Manson’s story is usually written up, but as Wells shows in his excellent book, the truth about Manson and his involvement in the Tate/LaBianca murders is far more complex and disturbing than any tabloid tale.
“I think Manson’s part in these murders has been hugely overplayed over the years, although ironically, it’s probably not that surprising given how he has presented himself since,” says Wells.
“While he has definitely played a conspiratorial and accessory role in the killings, to me he was not guilty of the nine counts of First Degree murder he was charged with. Manson was a small-time crook, a mediocre busker whose skill came in manipulating young people with a particular mindset. He wasn’t even a successful criminal as his extensive Rap Sheet testifies.”
The extensive Rap Sheet gives a clue as to how Manson came about. An unwanted baby, born to a 16-year-old mother, Kathleen Maddox, Charlie was originally called “No Name Maddox”, as no one was bothered about giving him a first name. On paper, his father was William Manson, a labourer but even this is not certain, as over the years, much has been made of a “Colonel Scott”. No matter, it was his mother who had the first and most important affect on the Manson’s life.
His mother, Kathleen, was an alcoholic, and had once sold baby Charles to a waitress for a pitcher of beer. In 1939, Kathleen was sent to jail for five years for her role in robbing a service station. Charlie was packed off to relatives. Manson later claimed the only moment of family happiness he felt was when his mother hugged him on her release from jail. Hyperbole perhaps, but Kathleen was soon trying to offload her son in foster homes, and in 1947, Charlie was eventually dumped in the strict Gibault School for Boys, Indiana.
Manson spent 10 months there, before he escaped in a bid to be reunited with his mother. It was pointless act, as she rejected him, and so began the uncoupling of chains that led to the runaway train in the 1960s.
Hardly into his teens, Manson started his life of crime by necessity – food, money, roof overhead. Those who commit crimes out of desperation, tend to be inexperienced amateurs – they get caught and don’t understand why they are being punished for trying to provide for their needs. So, it was with Charlie. He ended up in the Indianna School for Boys, Plainsfield, where as the smallest, weakest, puniest kid in the jail, he was repeatedly brutalized – sexually and physically – by the other inmates.
Over the next two decades the story repeated itself. When Manson was released, he was an immature, psychologically damaged, dehumanised creature. Charlie had started his time jail in the black and white austerity of the 1940s. By the time of his release, he had entered the psychedelic storm of the 1960s.
“While it might be hard for some to conceive, there were lots of ‘Charles Manson’ figures around California, if not across the whole of America, at the tail end of the late 1960’s. The whole youth/LSD explosion of 1966/7 had emancipated numerous characters that held some sort of power and charisma, and they slipped under the rug and into the unregulated Hippie community. Manson was no different to a raft of other commune dwellers possessed with impossibly large egos and self-presumed divinity. While Charlie was hugely charismatic, his alleged “power” could only work its charm over teenagers and those in their early twenties; most people over the age of 25 wanted little to do with him.”
As Wells explains, the key to Manson’s success as the deranged messiah of the disaffected was dependent upon the abundance of drugs, particularly LSD.
“It’s evident that LSD was an important component of what ultimately led to the murders. While for most people, the drug wouldn’t inspire violence or any sort of horrific act, for Manson’s tribe, acid managed to break down the barriers between fact and fiction; dream world and reality, making them receptive to anything that Manson (or indeed Tex Watson) suggested.
“Under Charlie’s tutelage, acid destroyed any trace of a value system, allowing for them to be susceptible to anything that appeared fun and out of the ordinary; murder included. Add into this the hallucinogenic landscape of Death Valley and the no boundaries lifestyle they shared at the ranch and you have a very potent manifesto.
“I sort of think Manson’s influence would work if enough LSD was ingested, and only then with the right sort of personalities; those being from broken homes, strong religious backgrounds and fairly affluent ones at that. I doubt whether we could see a situation like this now. People are far more cynical these and would probably be influenced by television more than someone like Manson.
“Furthermore, I think they believed they were doing the likes of Sharon Tate a huge favour by killing them. When one witnessed the way they laughed and giggled in court, it says to me that they were in some sort of a war-mentality, as though they were engaged in a conflict. While many found their attitude quite chilling, the Family were keen to point out that similar horrors were being enacted at places like Mai Lai in Vietnam.
“This acid-mentality was not exclusive to the Manson Family, there were many in the counter culture highlighting the perverse duality of killing.”
The Sixties epitomised this perverse duality of killing, a decade of war, terrorism and bloody assassination. Even in cultural terms violence and revolution was a focus of cinema and literature, most notably with the writer Norman Mailer, who foolishly defended violence as a cure against cancer, and centred his best novel of that decade, ‘An American Dream’ on his own stabbing of his wife.
Drugs, sex and violence fuelled Manson’s control over his Family. He had sex with the women, and then pimped them out to pop stars to help with his own ambitious plans to win a recording contract. One of Manson’s major clients was Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys, who helped Manson record a selection of his songs, and introduced him to producer, Terry Melcher. This small event ended in the slaughter at Cielo Drive.
Instead of progressing in his music career, Manson was repeatedly blocked by Wilson and Melcher, who soon regretted their association with the increasingly delusional Manson.
Manson saw himself as some undiscovered genius, and surrounded by impressionable youngsters he had no one to contradict his fantasy. Over three separate recording sessions, Manson laid down over 20 tracks, enough for an album or two. He also wrote one song ‘Cease to Exist’ which was renamed ‘Never Learn Not To Love’, and was recorded by The Beach Boys as a B-side. Manson was credited on the single, but never saw a penny for his song.
The failure of his music career, together with excessive drug use, destroyed what little grasp Manson had on the world.
“I chose the title ‘Coming Down Fast’ as it sort of sums up the avalanche of disappointment that accompanied the downfall of Manson’s dreams, which in turn led to all the craziness. I still believe that if he had managed to secure a recording contract and had had a modicum of success, none of what later went down would have ever occurred.”
When I met Simon Wells, he was dressed in a white T-shirt, black leather jacket, blue jeans and Lennon hat. He reminded me of one of the revolutionary sixth formers who fought alongside Mick Travis’ in ‘If…’.
An intelligent and sophisticated man, Wells has an incredible encyclopaedic knowledge of modern popular culture. He is the author of a list of best-sellers: ‘Your Face Here – British Cult Movies Since the 1960’, ‘The Rolling Stones: 365 Days‘, ‘The Beatles: 365 Days’, and ‘The Beatles in Japan’. Modest, polite and softly spoken, which made the subject matter of our discussion all the more chilling.
Wells’ description of the events leading up to the murders, are amongst the most powerfully horrific and disturbing written. Measured in his writing, Wells doesn’t flinch from presenting the absolute horror of what happened to Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, Voyteck Frykowsk, Leno and Rosemary LaBianca.
Frank Lloyd Wright once said, “Tip the world on its side and everything loose will land in Los Angeles.” With the building of the Freeways across Los Angeles from the 1950s onwards, it became easier for rogue elements like the Manson Family to infiltrate the very heart of the city.
On the night of 8th August 1969, Manson instructed Family members, Charles “Tex” Watson to take Susan Atkins, Linda Kasabian, and Patricia Krenwinkel to Terry Melcher’s house at10050 Cieleo Drive and “totally destroy everyone in there, as gruesome as you can.”
Unknown to Manson, Melcher had vacated the premises at Cielo Drive, and a young couple, film director, Roman Polanski, and his wife, the actress Sharon Tate, had moved in.
Manson directed the whole operation, but it was his followers who carried out the brutal slaughter. The main perpetrator was 23-year-old, Charles “Tex” Watson, who announced his arrival to his victims by saying, “I am the Devil, and I am here to do the Devil’s work.”
“I believe that Tex Watson was a far grizzlier personality that Charlie ever was. Nonetheless, he presented himself dutifully contrite in court, and later turned towards Christ, blaming his actions on Manson.
“My own thoughts on Watson’s prolific body count over those two nights was that he owed Manson over a botched drug deal which Charlie had extricated him from. While there are many who would disagree with that summation, there was clearly some leverage going on there. I think he felt indebted to act out Manson’s orders as some sort of payback.”
On the 10th August, Manson accompanied Watson, Atkins, Kasabian and Krenwinkle, along with Leslie Van Houten, Steve “Clem” Grogan, to 3301 Waverly Drive, the home of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, where the six Family members, under Manson’s direction, tortured and slaughtered the couple. The killing of the LaBiancas is often over-shadowed by what happened to Sharon Tate.
“Forgive me if this seems insensitive to the victims, but I truly believe that if Sharon Tate was not included in that night of horror, we wouldn’t be talking about this. This is in no way to undermine the savagery of what happened, but (as now) it is a painful reality that celebrity’s lives are worth a lot more than the average guy on the street.
“In support of this, I checked the murder figures in California from 1969 to the present day: they are nothing less than shocking. But put Hollywood into the equation and it elevates it up to a whole new level. I could detail other, equally horrific murders committed since August 1969, which haven’t endured as long as this case has, but of course nobody knows (or cares) about them.
“But this was a celebrity killing which occurred close to Hollywood with A-List personalities involved, so it isn’t that surprising to me at all that the case has generated so much publicity.”
Wells research into Manson uncovered some disturbing new information, including the alleged murder of a former Family member, Joel Pugh, in London.
“The London angle had to be explored, as investigators in California were convinced that a former Family member had been killed by one of Manson’s henchmen in a Hammersmith hotel.
“Obviously, as a UK based author, this appeared totally out of kilter, as I’d always felt the Manson story was exclusive to the west coast of America. I actually spent more time on this part of the case than any other aspect of the book, and in doing so, I turned up some extraordinary documents.
“While many investigators were convinced that a character called Joel Pugh was murdered by Family member Bruce Davies, I am absolutely convinced that his death was included in the Manson death toll to add gravitas to the story.
“Detectives fired by the raft of alleged murders committed by the Family, were seemingly eager to draw in anything to add to what was already a prolific series of killings. In the case of Joel Pugh, they clearly twisted the facts around to make it look like a Manson murder. In a perverse sense, Pugh was ‘murdered’ by his brief association with one of Manson’s women, and of course it makes better copy if he was killed by a Family member rather than something as mundane as suicide.
“Nonetheless, Joel’s story is a fascinating one, and it illustrates that anyone connected to the Manson Family, however peripheral, was fair game for both detectives and media.
“However, I do believe that there were a further two murders that may have been committed by the Manson Family.
“One was the death of a young man named John Haught, otherwise known as ‘Zero’. He died in very suspicious circumstances in a house in Los Angeles, supposedly the result of playing Russian roulette with one of Manson’s girls.
“The other is the death of Ronald Hughes, one of the defence lawyers in the case, who disappeared part way through the trials.”
Wells is currently working on his first novel, about the extraordinary power of LSD.
“While it is neither supportive nor dismissive of the drug, I bemoan the fact that little (if any) current material dares to mine the rich landscape of drug culture and its associated lifestyles, especially from a British point of view.”
‘Coming Down Fast‘ is available from Hodder Paperbacks