Music Journalist Legs McNeil Talks New Book on Charles Manson and the Dark Side of Late-'60s 'Free Love'

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Charles Manson

Cult leader and convicted killer Charles Manson, who died on Sunday (Nov. 19) at the age of 83, built his own perverse mythology upon a foundation of occultism, race war conspiracy theories and, ultimately, murder. Yet in spite of his heinous actions, many of the reports surrounding Manson are inaccurate, the result of grotesque folklore being passed down through generations until it was accepted as fact.

Music journalist Legs McNeil -- who co-authored 1996’s groundbreaking Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk with Gillian McCain -- hopes to change that. For 20 years, he and McCain have been working on a book that documents the late-‘60s California music scene and Manson’s role in it, tentatively titled 69 -- though McNeil grouses, “We might change the title because I think that asshole Quentin Tarantino just stole it.”

There’s no lack of Manson reading material already on the market -- Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry’s 1974 book Helter Skelter remains the bestselling true crime book of all time. But over the past 20 years, McNeil and McCain have interviewed every possible person connected to the Manson Family murders, several of whom have never spoken on record before.

McNeil recently spoke to Billboard about his painstaking reporting process, the broken ideals of the late-‘60s California music scene and Manson’s gruesome, enduring legacy in popular culture.

When did you start working on this project?

Gil and I did the first interview in 1998, two years after the hardback of Please Kill Me came out.

What drew you to Manson in the first place?

For us, it was, “How do people go from peace and love to murder and mayhem?” That was kind of like, “Wait a minute.” A lot of the story has not been told. I mean, Bugliosi was just getting fiction, and he wrote about it in such spacious terms -- murder and death, zombies, but they weren’t on drugs, but they were on drugs, but not when the murders took place. It was like, “Wait a minute, we’re not getting the whole story here.”

So we went back, and for the last 20 years, we’ve been contacting people who have never talked to anybody, ever. We didn’t know what the story was. Gillian and I just both knew we weren’t getting the whole thing, and we needed to go back and talk to everybody.

Did you ever talk to Manson?

No... But you know what, Charlie’s just redundant, if nothing else. Charlie was redundant. It was all about how he’d been in prison all his life and he didn’t do it. Charlie’s full of shit. He’ll tell you whatever you wanna hear. And you know what, there’s a lot of stuff out there for Charlie to talk, and we have everything that anyone in the Manson Family has ever said in a courtroom or a parole hearing. You know, because it’s an oral history, you just need lots and lots of transcripts. And we have all those. So it’s not like Charlie’s gonna say it better to us. 

Talking to people who have never spoken on record is probably more illuminating anyway.

Charlie’s the least interesting part of the story. It’s kind of the girls’ story. It’s basically how these women survived the ‘60s, or didn’t survive the ‘60s. I mean, basically, it’s a story about acid and pedophilia.

Manson did so many disgusting things, perhaps people somewhat overlooked his rampant misogyny.

Every girl we’ve talked to has been beaten up by Charlie at some point. Every girl. It wasn’t just one or two. He beat up everybody. Also, you couldn’t leave. You had no options. It’s not like you could go and check into a hotel and run away. These girls had no options. And Leslie Van Houten thought she was gonna get killed if she didn’t commit the LaBianca murders. That’s kind of an important point.

When you found out Charlie was sick, did that impact your writing or reporting?

No, we just knew we had to get this thing done, and we’re almost finished now. We knew he was sick. We knew he was gonna die. But we’ve been working on deadlines for the last four years now.

Do you have a release date?

No, not at all. Because it’s an oral history, we didn’t know what we were doing for most of the time. Also, it’s a very complicated story. Charlie gets out of jail by Long Beach and then goes to San Francisco. Then he’s traveling back and forth. But we have to track and we have to explain it so you understand. We basically have to walk you through the '60s, ‘cause you really can’t tell anyone. You’ve got to show them. And they’ve got to be really involved in the story. But the great thing about oral histories is the immediacy of the first-person narrative.

How do you cut through all the misinformation surrounding Manson?

Basically what you do is you just sit down and go, “I heard it was this way. Is this right or wrong?” And they usually go, “That’s bullshit, man. What happened was...” Just ask the questions.

So much of the history gets heavily glossed over in reports.

A lot of these people didn’t talk because it’s been so mythologized, and people have gotten the story so wrong. What we have to do is show from ’67 to the end of ’68 as being kind of groovy and fun and going along with the rest of the counterculture, and we have to show the change.

Plenty of rock musicians have covered Manson songs throughout the years and worn his shirts onstage. What’s your take on his enduring legacy in popular culture?

He became the ultimate Boogeyman. During the ‘80s, during sweeps week, whenever somebody wanted to up their ratings, they’d go and interview Charlie and he’d act like a crazy nut. They’d get their footage and show him with a swastika on his forehead, and their ratings would improve. So he’s still the epitome of everything evil in the world. Whenever there’s a joke, “What do you think you are, Charlie Manson?”

But what do I think of it personally? Well, that’s what’s gonna happen when you become this iconic vision of evil. And Charlie knew what his audience was. He was playing to them. He wanted to get those 5,000 letters a week in fan mail.

He played up his own character, just as musicians like Marilyn Manson later did when they invoked his image.

And I think some of the musicians thought, “Hey, I like his music.” Some of Charlie’s music was not bad. They referred to him as a failed musician, which is not really the truth. I mean, he got songs on Beach Boys records. There’s Dennis [Wilson] performing one of his songs on The Mike Douglas Show. He was not this no-talent scumbag. He was a scumbag, but he was not this no-talent guy who got depressed and failed at the music industry, which is why he killed all these people.

How has your perception of Charles Manson’s place in history shifted while working on this project?

That’s a good question. I don’t know ‘cause I’m still in it, and we’re just finishing it now, so maybe that’s a question to ask in a couple years, when I can actually walk away.

So it’s all still gestating right now?

We know what we’re doing, finally. With oral histories you don’t know what you’re doing for so long. I think if you read this book, you’re gonna realize why there had to be a women’s movement in the early ‘70s. Women in the ‘60s didn’t have many options open to them. Free love was kind of just this invention made by guys so they could get laid. 


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