Saturday, August 8, 2009

Helter Skelter

One of the most gruesome murders in American history occurred on this date, today and tomorrow, in 1969. And, the name given for the event by the madman who orchestrated the crimes came from a song by The Beatles, thus creating an odd juxtaposition between music, pop culture…and killing.

“Helter Skelter” was the term Charles Manson used for the carnage committed on this date 40 years ago. On that night, four members of the Manson “family” entered the home formerly occupied by Terry Melcher, an American musician and producer, and also the son of actress Doris Day. (Melcher, coincidentally, was also dating actress Candice Bergen at the time.) There, they encountered four inhabitants living in the Melcher home—one of them Sharon Tate, an actress and wife of film director Roman Polanski, who was away in London on a film project. Tate was eight-and-a-half months pregnant.

The four Manson family members set about brutally stabbing and slaughtering the four and used Tate’s blood to write “Pig” on the front door.

The next evening the slaughters continued, this time at the residence of Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary. LaBianca was a supermarket executive and lived in the Los Feliz section of Los Angeles.

Manson accompanied five other family members to the LaBianca home and participated in the murders, which were every bit as brutal and indescribable as the prior evening’s. And, once again, Manson family members left a calling card—words written in the victims’ blood throughout the home, including the term "helter skelter."

Manson was originally given the death sentence but that was changed to a life sentence when California overturned the death penalty. He remains incarcerated and in March of this year his photograph was released by the California corrections department. His hairline is receding, his remaining hair is gray and a swastika tattoo could be seen on his head. Manson is now 74.

“Helter Skelter” was used by Manson as a term describing what he thought would be an apocalyptic war between whites and blacks. He interpreted The Beatles lyrics from this song on their highly publicized—and scrutinized—White Album, so named for the lack of title and white packaging of the double album. It later was used as the title of a book by Vincent Bugliosi detailing the murders which was turned into a television documentary in 1976.

The gruesome nature of Manson’s crimes and the cult-like quality of his followers, combined with the star power of his victims, made him a popular culture icon. While most were repulsed by the crimes, others like Guns N Roses and Marilyn Manson recorded music written by Manson. He had relationships with artists like Dennis Wilson of The Beach Boys before it became apparent that he was a deranged madman.

The public was captivated by the family, the crimes and this self-professed “devil.” It was repulsion combined with fascination. That repulsion was perhaps best captured by Bono’s introduction of U2’s take on “Helter Skelter” on their live album, Rattle and Hum. Bono can be heard on the album saying, “Charles Manson stole this song from The Beatles. We’re stealing it back.”

Bugliosi was recently asked about the killings in an interview conducted for Newsweek magazine. He said, "In Los Angeles, it (1969) was a time of relative innocence. I've heard many people say that prior to these murders, there were areas of the city where folks literally did not lock their doors at night. That ended with the Tate-LaBianca murders. The killings were so terribly brutal and savage, 169 stab wounds, seven gunshot wounds. They appeared to be random, with no discernible conventional motive. That induced a lot of fear throughout the city of Los Angeles, particularly in Bel Air and Beverly Hills, the heart of the movie colony, where the Tate murders happened. Names were dropped from guest lists. Parties were canceled. No one knew if the killers were among them. Overnight, the sale of guns and guard dogs rose dramatically."

Author Joan Didion wrote, in her book on the time, The White Album, "...the 60's ended abruptly on August 9, 1969."

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