Friday, April 25, 2014

Weekend reading

I've been meaning to post this for some time. It's an old book review (Helter Skelter) by The New Republic's William Crawford Woods that surveys the horror, mystery, and perverse fascination of the Manson Family murders. More specifically, Woods probes the link between the grisly killing spree and the '60s counterculture, exploring where at the outer limits of Peace, Love, and Rock 'n' Roll there might have been room for a deranged, bloodthirsty cult. It's a fascinating topic. Perhaps too much so.
It is harder now than it would have been in the '60s to imagine children dumb or drugged enough to be entranced by such a story. But Manson had an old con's skill (he had spent most of his life in prison—had even begged to be kept inside before being released for his final killing spree) at picking the members of his band: the girls were young, homeless, fanciful, at war with their parents—the boys were kept in line by being given the girls. In the moonlit desert, in the ready-made romance of the decaying Spahn Movie Ranch, they would sit adoringly around Charlie and hear him make promises of a future that would give them the power they'd never had, heal wounds that burned fresh daily. There were drugs, sex in constant splashes every which way, and all the other sticks and carrots that kept the kids in line. But there was something else in Manson that could turn them from borderline psychotics into psychopathic killers of unparalleled cruelty. Bugliosi admits it, but he cannot quite say what it is.
Most likely no one will ever be able to. Unlike Bugliosi I doubt Manson himself is in possession of his "formula." The element of the demonic, introduced here to supply the book's only missing note, is not something any pragmatic intelligence feels comfortable with, but one glance at the famous Life cover photo of Manson is almost enough to make disbelievers switch sides. (It's included in the exhaustive photo section of this book.) I don't think there's any possible doubt that Manson was a demon—not possessed by one, was one. His hellish history makes any appeal to a supernatural principle superfluous; but having both motive and motive force behind it, we are still shy of understanding. To come closer to that we must close in on the ideational undertow of helter-skelter, the art where Manson's twisted art originates.
It is in music. Manson was convinced that the Beatles were sending him coded messages in support of helter-skelter, particularly in the double "white album" released in 1968; he took the term from one of its songs. As family members testified at the trial, he had worked out with scholarly precision correlations between his murderous doctrine and virtually every line of every lyric; more than that he had searched beyond his origins in the Beatles to their origins in the Book of Revelations, where in the ninth chapter he found the "four angels" with "faces as the faces of men" but "hair as the hair of women"; even mention of their electric guitars ("breastplates of fire") and much else besides. There was word of a fifth angel, and the family knew who that had to be. One translation of Revelations calls him Exterminans.
Revelations 9. Is it chance that the Beatles song Manson liked best is called "Revolution 9"? Or that the Bible chapter ends, "Neither repented they of their murders, nor of their sorceries..."? And the song ends on the grunting of pigs, and machine-gun fire?

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