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Watershed: The White Album

Fear. To Charlie, it was the source of awareness, of connection, of clarity. Wild animals live in a constant state of fear, he told us, and they don't miss anything in their environment; they achieve total awareness of what is around them and in the process are totally lacking in self-consciousness. That was how we should be.

Yet we should overcome our fear as well, push ourselves to its limits until nothing frightened us anymore. Later, in the summer and fall of 1969, we'd begin to live out this part of Manson's teaching-crawling through people's darkened houses as they slept, racing suicidally over mountain roads in dune buggies, spattering ourselves with blood and gore in orgies of death. But for now it was mostly talk.

It could also be a game. Charlie liked to walk up to people at Spahn and hand them a gun. "Go ahead," he'd tell them, "shoot me." When he was refused, Charlie would take back the gun and grin strangely: "Well, now I have the right to kill you."

Charlie never allowed calendars or clocks at Spahn - time meant nothing when you lived an eternal now-so it's hard to place events during that long summer and fall of our love trip. Days and weeks overlapped, the acid and the repetition folding time in on itself and losing particulars in the creases. Charlie still hoped to become a recording star; he kept writing songs and sometimes he would disappear for an evening, gone into Hollywood for a party with Gregg or some of the other industry people he'd met through Dennis Wilson. One night Gregg and Terry Melcher came out to the ranch and we all sat around a fire back behind the buildings and ate and smoked dope together and Charlie sang his songs with the girls. We knew what he meant when he sang:

A home is where you're happy, Not where you don't belong. Burn all your bridges, Leave your old self behind;
You can do what you want to do If you're strong in your mind.

This was our home, this was where we belonged-with Charlie. We were happy and, to our ears, Charlie's music was perfect, flawless, the girls' random harmonies blending into a oneness that was beauty itself. Terry didn't seem too impressed, though.

The broken-down bus had never managed to get back to the ranch, so sometime during that disjointed summer Charlie decided to send T. J. and me up to San Jose to try to get it repaired. Hitchhiking up the coast, we found out it wasn't just the heads and freaks and movie colony who had discovered acid-one truck driver who picked us up had enough LSD in his cab to turn on half the state. As we drove along, getting down into the drug, I suddenly took a cigarette and let it burn into the palm of my hand. I was fascinated by the way the skin scorched and blistered as the red-hot ash poked deeper and deeper. I felt absolutely no pain. As the stench of burning skin filled the cab I held up my branded stigma and showed it to the driver. "Hey," I grinned, "what d'ya think of that?" "Whatever turns you on," he answered. Middle America had gone through a few changes of its own.

After two trips north and countless hassles, we finally brought the bus back down to Spahn, picking up hitchhikers all along the way. We were Pied Pipers full of stories about love and acid and changes and the beautiful thing happening at the ranch. When we got back there was big news: Charlie had actually managed to talk Gregg Jakobson into arranging a one-day recording session for him at a little studio in the Valley. At last Charlie would get his chance, the destiny that was rightfully his. Now the music that all the young people heard would be his music and he would open up their minds just like he had ours; love would triumph and the old world of ego and separation would just fade away. Charlie was going to be a star; we were all certain it would only be a matter of months before his face was on the cover of Rolling Stone. Actually, it took him almost two years to make that cover and when he did it wasn't for his singing. The headline read: "Charles Manson . . . the Most Dangerous Man Alive."

The whole Family went down together for the taping and we brought all our instruments with us-guitars, drums, tams. We gathered around the mikes at Charlie's feet, singing with him just like we did in the evenings after dinner. "Cease to exist," we all sang. "Cease to exist, come say you love me." We knew we were part of something bigger than any album ever cut, bigger than Dennis Wilson and his overage Beach Boys had ever been, bigger even than the Beatles themselves, because this was more than just music. This was Charlie's message to the world; this was Charlie giving his soul to all the free children that were waiting for him whether they knew it or not. If the crew in the dinky little studio gave each other any cynical looks over this ragged band of hippies swaying back and forth and making up harmony as they went, we didn't notice.

During one of the breaks, Charlie started strumming his guitar and scat singing. At first it was just nonsense syllables: "Digh-de-day, digh-dow-doi, digh-tu-dai, de-tew-digh." Then slowly one phrase replaced all the others: "Digh-tew-day, dightew-day . . . ." Suddenly we realized he was singing, "Die today . . ." over and over, smiling to himself.

Weeks passed, then months, and we heard nothing more about Charlie's recording career-no more tapings, no contracts, no albums. A bitterness began to set in. If Charlie wasn't getting the recognition he deserved, it had to be because someone was cheating him out of it, because some one of those rich, fat-cat, music-industry hippies had betrayed his trust. By the next spring-after the Family trip had changed from love to Apocalypse, from ego death to real death and Helter Skelter-we'd have hard evidence of that betrayal. The Beach Boys released a new song, "Never Learn Not to Love," that was very similar to Charlie's "Cease to Exist." The lyric of the chorus was "Cease to resist," and Charlie never got a cent of royalties on his song. The Family noted bitterly that the Beach Boys had managed to turn the central theme of Charlie's message into a corny sex lyric. Once more Dennis Wilson had failed us-as had Gregg Jakobson, who with all his industry contacts and talk and enthusiasm hadn't been able to get any of his big-time friends interested in Charlie's music.

For some reason, the frustration slowly came to center on Terry Melcher, Doris Day's son, the record producer who'd been getting spiritual counsel from Dean Moorehouse until Dean was locked up in Ukiah on his acid bust. "How does it feel to be one of the beautiful people?" the Beatles had asked in one of their songs and Terry should have known-he had all the money and material things he could want and lived in the rambling ranch house on the hill in Benedict Canyon at 10050 Cielo Drive. Terry, Charlie told us, had made him some big promises and then never come through. Terry, Charlie said, didn't care about anything but money. After his first visit to the ranch to hear Charlie's music, Melcher had come up again with another producer who owned a mobile recording unit, apparently trying to push Charlie off on him. Charlie had given the guy some LSD and the trip had scared him so badly that we never saw him again. That was the last thing Terry ever did for us. Gradually, it seemed clearer and clearer, at least to us, that Terry Melcher was the one who had failed Charlie, who had led him along and then betrayed him, who had kept his music from the world.

There were other frustrations for Charlie as well. The girls, at least some of them, would never let themselves die, would never completely let go of their egos and their demands for his special love. More and more he'd lash out at them or withdraw into black silences. Some of the ranch hands were taking stories to old George Spahn, trying to turn him against Charlie and get him to throw us off the ranch. And Charlie's friends in Los Angeles started avoiding him; the Beverly Hills parties stopped.

By that fall it was obvious that Manson was ready for some kind of change, and when a young girl named Catherine Gillies joined the Family and started talking about an isolated ranch her grandmother owned in Death Valley, Charlie decided we should all go up and check it out. We filled up the bus with as much of our stuff as it would hold and started for the desert. The only food we had on the way was ten cases of canned chop suey that had gone bad. Every time someone opened one of the cans it would stink up the whole bus, but some people were hungry enough to eat the stuff anyway.

Catherine directed us down the road to within about five miles of Golar Wash, as far as the bus could go. We piled everything on our backs and started walking. When we reached the Wash-standing there in the blazing desert sun with all our gear dumped around us-the seven miles of rocks and gullies and dried-up waterfalls did not look very inviting, but Charlie said to move out, so we did.

We found the two ranches as I've already described them, and Charlie decided we would camp at the lower one, Myers, the one that belonged to Catherine's grandmother, since Barker Ranch above it looked as though someone used it fairly regularly. Myers Ranch lacked a lot of the comforts of Spahn, but Charlie seemed happier, more at peace, so that made us all feel better, too. Up in the desert, cut off from everything except the blazing sun and the dry hills and the acid and each other, it was even easier to let the past die, let everything you had been fade away like water vapor on the sand. It was a self-contained world as Spahn Ranch had never been, and up here it didn't seem to matter quite so much that our so-called friends in Hollywood had let us down. In the desert we could truly be one.

But Charles wasn't satisfied for long. Even though he'd gone to Arlene Barker, who owned the upper ranch, and done his number about being with the Beach Boys and given her the gold record and gotten permission for us to camp there, one day he announced we were leaving-all of us except Brooks Poston and a girl named Juanita. Juanita had come to the Family early in the summer, giving Charlie her Dodge van and most of a $10,000 inheritance. It was her money that had enabled us to finally pay to have the bus repaired and bring it back from San Jose. In fact, we'd done more than just repair it; we'd bought a lot of garish imported tapestries and hangings and incense pots-combined with silk sheets we'd ripped off from Dennis Wilson's house, mattresses that filled the whole back half of the thing (including my king-sized one from the Malibu house), and scrap furniture we'd collected to make a kind of living room in the front. All that made our bus a regular gypsy wagon, smells and colors and patterns everywhere.

And now it was back to the bus, Charlie announced; we were going to Sacramento to see "Candy Man," an ex-con friend of his. So we piled everything on our backs again and trekked the twelve miles down to the bus and headed out for the state capital.

I've never known exactly what Charlie was looking for during the aimless weeks we hung around Sacramento. People would drift in and out but no one new joined the Family. We'd visit some of Charlie's old friends for a while, then take off for a few days in the bus. It was as if Charlie were waiting for some kind of direction, something to happen. He still gave himself to us with his love and was the center of our life together as always-he was our life itself-but now he seemed to draw into himself sometimes. There seemed to be something going on in his head that he couldn't share with us. When a fellow whom Sadie had picked up fresh out of jail proceeded to infect her with some kind of skin disease (and through her, all the rest of us), Charlie was furious and decided it was time we went back to Spahn. Whatever it was he was after, he'd have to find it there, at the ranch where we'd had our best times together, close to the city and the music industry that had rejected him. Whatever he was waiting for would be there.

We got back to Spahn Ranch sometime in the third week of November. There was a letter waiting for me that had somehow gotten forwarded through several addresses to the ranch: I was ordered to report for an army physical in Los Angeles on December 2, my birthday. That crisp official notice seemed like a strange intrusion into my world. Squeaky had stayed behind with George and she had news, for us too: Gregg Jakobson was in jail on some kind of drug charge.

Charlie decided I should go to Terry Melcher and see if he would be willing to help bail Gregg out, even if he wouldn't do anything for us. I don't think Charlie was as much concerned about Gregg as he was still hanging on to the hope that somehow Jakobson would be able to do something for him professionally. At the time it didn't occur to me to ask him why he was sending me to Melcher. I just did what I was told. The next morning I hitchhiked into Beverly Hills and went to 10050 Cielo Drive for the second time. I pushed the gate button as I'd seen Dean do and wandered up to the back door. The driveway was fairly long and I took it slowly, listening to see if anybody was up yet. Ten months later, on that same driveway, I would kill a human being for the first time in my life-the first, but not the last.

The maid remembered me from my earlier visit with Dean and brought me into the kitchen. I was still pretty grubby from bumming around in the bus and while I sat there alone, waiting for her to get Terry, I felt out of place, over my head, especially when a glamorous star, who was living there with Terry at the time, walked in on me and demanded to know what I was doing there. Even after I mentioned Gregg it was obvious she didn't think I belonged in that kitchen.

Terry was friendlier, but I got the feeling he wasn't particularly interested in getting involved. He said it was Saturday and there was no way he could get his hands on any money. As his driver took me down to the bottom of the hill I thought how our Family would give their very lives for each other, but these people wouldn't even spoil their Saturday to help each other out. No wonder they'd treated Charlie so badly.

Hitchhiking back out to the ranch, my thoughts drifted from the plastic, pretty people like Terry (and the stars with whom he surrounded himself) to Charlie and all of us in his Family-all of us so tight, one without distinction. We shared everything-clothing, food, work, bodies-even shared one common soul. My mind drifted on until suddenly I was jolted by the realization that for the first time in what seemed like years, I was alone, by myself, not with Charlie or anyone else in the Family. There was just me, Charles Watson, standing on the curb with my thumb out in the bright November sunlight. There was something exhilarating about it. I couldn't explain why, but I suddenly felt incredibly free, with a sense of endless possibility. I could cross the street and hitch back into L.A.; I could get on a freeway and head back home if I felt like it; I could just sit down and bake in the sun. I'd forgotten what it was like to feel the freedom that being on your own, responsible to no one, can give you. But that was what I'd come to Los Angeles for in the first place, that kind of freedom. Why did I suddenly feel like I was just discovering it all over again?

I watched the cars going by, the people in them, a lot of them my own age. What did they have that I didn't? It was something I was losing, but what? What was it that made them look free and alive in a way I wasn't? Suddenly it hit me-they had lives of their own, they could choose, they had at least the illusion of self. I looked back over the past months, life in the Family at Spahn, in the desert, wandering around in the bus-all this talk about dying to yourself, killing your ego-I knew now there was nothing left of me, and for the first time that was a frightening thought. The terrible sense of confusion and disintegration that came with it was even worse.

Everything I'd been taking as gospel for eight months suddenly seemed bizarre and improbable. I didn't want to die; it couldn't be true life, this annihilation. Yet it had to be true, all of it. I'd experienced it as true. But, then, how could I say I'd experienced anything? I no longer existed, not in the sense that the people passing me on the street existed, had lives, made choices. Everything had seemed so certain, but now there was panic. What was happening to me?

When I got back to the ranch, I didn't say anything to anyone, but somewhere inside of me was a pounding, inescapable certainty: I was losing my mind. All the realities I'd known on the acid and all the things we'd shared in the Family were just madness. But they couldn't be madness. Charlie had given them to us and Charlie knew what was true; he loved me and he wouldn't lie to me. But could he be wrong? I didn't know what to believe.

I don't know if Charlie could sense what was going on inside me- it seemed he must be able to see it, the break, the disloyalty, the self pushing to life again-but later that afternoon he asked me to go to Topanga Canyon with him, a little place just off the Pacific Coast Highway where a guy we'd met while we were wandering around up north had a house. The two of us hardly spoke on the way there. I was spinning crazily inside, afraid to say anything, and Charlie seemed distracted, into himself, as he had been so much over the past month.

As I sank back on the pillows of a huge bed that hung on chains from the ceiling of the strange Topanga cabin-tall windows sweeping up to a pointed roof, oak trees smothering the place outside-I barely heard the conversation. I ate a couple of hash brownies as they were passed and tried to calm the racing in my head by leaning back and listening to the music, taking in the light sifting through the trees and tall windows and rocking gently in the suspended bed. I hadn't thought of my friend Richard Carson in a long time, but now his face kept forming in my mind. Maybe if I talked to him, maybe if I talked to someone who was outside of all this, who was free of it, I could clear up the conflict that was tearing my brain apart.

I knew there was a phone in the kitchen, and all I had to do was get up and go to it and call Rich. Charlie Manson didn't own me, Charlie Manson couldn't stop me-but a physical weight seemed to hold me down, press me into the cushions. Then the fellow we were visiting told Charlie he had a copy of the newest Beatles' album, just released, and asked if he had heard it. Charlie hadn't. He had always been obsessed with the Beatles, partly in admiration, partly, I think, in jealousy for the ultimate success and power that they represented in the rock world. The jacket was tossed around and I noticed it was solid white, the only title on it was simply THE BEATLES, in raised lettering that was almost invisible unless you angled it against the light. Charlie always got down into music, listening with a peculiar intensity, and he may have reached for the sheet of lyrics that came with the album at some point, but as the songs rolled over us-"Piggies," "Sexy Sadie," "Blackbird," "Revolution," "Helter Skelter"-I only half heard them and I was too busy with my own turmoil to notice much of Charlie's reaction to the music in what became known as the White Album.

Finally I went into the kitchen and called Rich. The first thing I blurted out was "Man, I think I'm going nuts." I tried to explain some of what had been going on, the changes in me, the way my self seemed to have evaporated in the flame of Charlie's strong personality. When Rich said he had to take his army physical the same time I did, I heard myself telling him to come and pick me up at a little store on the corner of Topanga and the highway in an hour. When I put down the receiver I couldn't believe what I'd done. But I had; I had decided to leave Charlie. I didn't even go back into the other room, I just opened the back door and headed for the highway. As I left, I heard one of the new Beatles' songs blasting out after me:

Look out helter skelter helter skelter
Helter skelter
Look out helter skelter She's coming down fast
Yes she is
Yes she is.

I had no idea that, as I ran away from him, Charlie had found what he'd been looking for these many months, maybe for his whole life.

"Helter Skelter . . . She's coming down fast . . . Yes she is!"

Chapter Eight Table of Content Chapter Ten

(Will You Die For Me? Copyright 1978, by Ray Hoekstra. Published by Cross Roads Publications, Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

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