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Thursday, April 13, 2006
Short Bits 2: Charles Manson and the Beach Boys
From the mailbox:
"Did Charles Manson really write a song for the Beach Boys?"
Answer: It wasn't written for the Beach Boys, but "Never Learn Not To Love" (on the Beach Boys' 20/20 album) was indeed written by Charles Manson, and for a brief time in 1968, about a year before the Tate-LaBianca murders, Manson and Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson were acquaintances.
While the passage of time has diminished the irony, the juxtaposition of the Beach Boys, America's cleancut "fun" band and Charles Manson, the symbolic epitome of evil and the dark side, was a particularly jarring one.
Charles Manson was released from prison in 1967 after spending more than half of his life locked up in various institutions for a variety of schemes, from juvenile delinquency to fraud to car theft to pimping.
In prison, Manson wasn't ignorant of music; he befriended Alvin "Old Creepy" Karpis of the Ma Barker gang, who taught him guitar. Another inmate, Phil Kaufman, gave him a contact name of someone at Universal Studios in Hollywood; years later, Kaufman would make news for hijacking the body of Gram Parsons and cremating it in the Joshua Tree desert. Manson developed something of an obsession with the Beatles, claiming he could come on twice as big, if given the chance, Karpis once noted.
The world Manson entered was one that didn't exist when he was incarcerated; like many hardened criminals in 1967, Manson made a beeline for San Francisco, where the Summer of Love was in full blossom, offering the hype of LSD and free love and rock stardom to anybody with long hair. It was in and around San Francisco in late 1967 where Manson met and befriended his first "followers"; he came across as a wizened guru at a time when there were several gurus on every block.
Eventually, Manson relocated to Los Angeles and began following up on the music leads he had acquired. He networked himself relentlessly, making contacts at parties and clubs, trying to make things happen. His efforts were successful; he met Dennis Wilson, who gave him studio time in Brian Wilson's studio. Neil Young encountered him, and recalled "He had this kind of music that nobody else was doing. I thought he really had something crazy, something great. He was like a living poet." John Phillips of the Mamas and Papas was less impressed; when urged by hippie friends to record Manson, Phillips quipped "I'd just shudder every time. I'd say no, I think I'll pass."
Nothing came of the studio recordings; Manson was uncomfortable and irritable in the studio, and refused the sound engineers' requests to record his tracks solo, and overdub his "family" rather than bringing them all into the studio at once.
One of the songs Manson would play was called "Cease to Exist"; Dennis Wilson dug it enough that he convinced the Beach Boys to record it. Manson's original lyrics are:
Pretty girl, pretty, pretty girl
Cease to Exist
Just come and say you love me
Give up your world
C'mon you can see
I'm your kind, I'm your kind
You can see
Walk on, walk on
I love you pretty girl
My life is yours and
You can have my world
Never had a lesson
I ever learned
But I know we all get our turn
I love you
Submission is a gift
Go on, give it to your brother
Love and understanding is for one another
I'm your kind, I'm your kind
I'm your mind
I'm your brother
I never had a lesson I ever learned
But I know we all get our turn
And I love you
Never learned not to love you
I never learned
While it is typical of a 1968-era "love your brother" style lyric, it also contains hints of some of Manson's brainwash raps; submission is a gift, cease to exist (give up your ego), I'm your mind.
The Beach Boys' version changed the key phrase to "cease to resist", but otherwise left the lyrics and melody essentially unchanged. Dennis Wilson sings lead vocal, a rarity, and the Beach Boys supply their famous group harmonies and dense production. There's an ominous intensity to the recording; even divorced from Manson, it conveys a vaguely sinister edge, with its tribal rhythm and hypnotic chants.
The song was originally released as the B-side to the 45 "Bluebirds Over The Mountain" on Capitol records in November 1968.
In the summer of 1968, Manson had been crashing at Dennis Wilson's mansion all the time; Wilson tolerated it at first because Manson always had plenty of girls and drugs with him. However, over time, Manson and his entourage had pretty much run Wilson out of his own house as well as given him the clap and given away all his stuff; perhaps in an effort to get Manson out of his life, he put him in touch with Terry Melcher, producer of the Byrds, who had worked with the Beach Boys on Pet Sounds and with John Phillips as an organizer of the Monterey Pop Festival.
By this time, Manson and his freak-followers were already embarked on the prolonged paranoid acid-and-the-Bible freakout scene that ultimately led them to the "Helter Skelter" murders; having relocated to the more rural Spahn Movie Ranch, near Chatsworth on the edge of L.A. In early 1969, several months before the murders, Melcher sent some sound engineers out to record Manson in his element; solo with acoustic guitar at his commune with his hippie chicks as backup singers. Film was also shot for a documentary on the free loving Mansonites, but subsequent events changed the tenor of the film.
Manson's songs were duly recorded, but at the end of the day, Melcher remained unimpressed; Manson's growing reputation as unpredictable and scary may well have turned him off as well. The tapes and film sat in the can until after the murders; both were released in 1970 while Manson was on trial; the album as LIE on ESP records, and the film as Manson. A version of "Cease to Exist" appears on LIE.
"Never Learn Not To Love" doesn't bear Manson's name as a songwriting credit; instead credit is given to Dennis Wilson. Manson, who owed Wilson money for trashing his house, was given a small cash payment in exchange for the credit.
The song itself remains one of those interesting little nuggets of rock lore; a point where several disparate worlds converged in one place and mayhem ensued. The only clue to what was to come was an obscure B-side by a fading harmony group with an ominous lilt.
Listen to the Beach Boys: Never Learn Not To Love (1968)
Listen to Charles Manson: Cease To Exist (1969)
Watch the Beach Boys: Never Learn Not To Love (1968)