And maybe his version of that psychotic moment is all Charlie wanted to say to the jury. He knew he was done for. He knew it the minute he saw Atkins with the blood-dripping knife after the Tate murders. It was inevitable, and maybe even bittersweet, because he would be going home. "Too much freedom is detrimental to the soul," he says. "I should not have been out there. It was too fast for me."
Manson always says time means nothing to him, that "in the hallways of always . . . I live a thousand years in a second, man," so, taking him at his word, today is the day in 1934 when he was born, to a 16-year-old girl in Cincinnati. He never had a dad he knew, and the only mom he knew was an irresponsible drunk. He was raised in juvenile halls and reform schools, and was given an adult education by inmates in prison, although not a very good one. He turned out to be a terrible criminal, an inept pimp, a lousy car thief, a ham-fisted burglar, a guy who got busted every time he broke the law. Before the murders, it was all quite pathetic and laughable, really, and if you throw that at Manson today, even he, after a moment of considered silence, will say, "OK, yeah, yeah, yeah. All right, I'll give you that one." And then he'll say, "But I'm not a person, have never been a person. I am an animal been raised a lifetime in cages." So much so that the child's game of thumb wrestling, he has never heard of it. "What's that?" he says, blinking. And that's his early history, all of it you need to know. You can imagine the rest of it. Just think the worst. Barely two decades of his long life spent as a free man.
These days, he's full of bluster about being as free in prison as anyplace else. "You're the one in prison, man." But on his 79th birthday, he calls me, the drawl in his voice low and distant, and says, "What do you think? Do you think this story will help me get out of here, only for a little while, before I go?" And right there is the human seam in Manson, split open and leaking, only for a little while, and it does kind of move your heart.
Better than anyone else, however, Manson has always understood that he doesn't belong in the outside world. Before he was released from prison in 1967, he told one of his jailers that he didn't want to go. But in 1971, at the end of his trial, with a death sentence looming, he still wanted to have his say before the jury, to mount the kind of defense only he could mount, and he feels Bugliosi somehow cheated him out of it by getting the court to deny his motion to be his own lawyer, and that's one of the things that still really frosts his kernels.
Today, inside the Corcoran visiting room, Star is wearing a paisley midi dress, looks very pretty, is very happy, while she busies herself with a paper towel, wiping clean a table of the sticky, smelly purple disinfectant that the prison uses. I'm glad Gray Wolf has lost his visiting privileges. He's kind of a control freak, glaring at Star with his big sunken eyes whenever she says something he doesn't like. I'm also not sure I like being around them both at the same time. They do whatever Charlie tells them to do, including carving X's into their foreheads. "Charlie gave us the honor of requesting that we cut our foreheads to make an X, 'for ATWA,'" Gray Wolf blogged, though how one correlates with the other is anyone's guess. Once, the three of us went to the redwoods together and tramped into a forest, where they stood near a cliff and kept beckoning me to come closer, come closer, the view is much better here, and all I could hear in the back of my mind was Charlie saying to me, "I'll take you. Put you in the grave. What're you going to do about that, jitterbug?" And, of course, it's not lost on me how much Star does look like a much prettier Susan Atkins, a.k.a. Sexy Sadie, who was the real nut job of the Manson Family. During her trial, she got on the stand and said, "[Sharon Tate] kept begging and pleading and pleading and begging and I got sick of listening to it, so I stabbed her. . . . How can [that] not be right when it's done with love?" And talking about the murders, Star says, "Sharon Tate wasn't a movie star. Even now, nobody's ever really heard of her, even though she supposedly got killed by Charlie Manson, the most famous guy in the world. And that's the only reason anybody knows who she is. And still nobody knows who the fuck she is."
Star looks up, and here is Charlie again, smiling his chipped-tooth, bad-dentures smile, with a pair of cool, yellow-tinted shades covering his eyes. He's pushing a wheelchair in front of him, using it for support, but it's probably all for show, part of some con against the system, because two minutes later, he's on his feet, doing the dragon-dance kung-fu thing he historically reserves for when the TV cameras are turned on.
He did it for Charlie Rose in 1986, Penny Daniels in 1987 and Geraldo Rivera in 1988. These were the golden years of his midlife media exposure. In interviews, he was a massive kinetic force, constantly parting his long, graying hair and fiddling with his beard, eyes all six-guns-a-blazing, rolling right over and owning some of his adversaries (Rivera was especially hapless), playing nice and thoughtful with others, and always raging with righteous indignation. He made for terrific TV. But after a booming, almost sexually aggressive chat with Diane Sawyer in 1994, the state of California banned the use of recording devices during prisoner interviews. This upsets Manson greatly. It's the reason why you haven't heard from him lately. He tends to sulk about it. The main reason is the dance, the big set piece in so many of his on-camera appearances. It's the dance, more even than words, that he believes can best communicate his true feelings, thoughts and ideas. Without it, what's the point of talking to the media? And it really is quite astounding to see, him moving into it now, arms and legs circling around in baroque curlicues, forming jagged-glass shapes and otherworldly patterns and whorls. What it all means, I don't know. But, boy, is he dexterous.
Star has a few things on her mind. For one, that Manson-memorabilia collector. "He's attacking us and saying someone's going to come to my home," she says.
Charlie folds his hands together. "Are you still going to target practice?"
"Good. If they're bullying you, they're afraid. They're just a bunch of Internet fat mouths," he says. Although, of course, he's never been on the Internet in his life. Or on a computer.
He uses his shirt sleeve to wipe some sleepy-winker rheum out of his eyes, then puts his hand on mine, runs his fingers along my fingers, up my wrist, and up my forearm. He squeezes it a few times and says, "Man, you're a soft dude," which I make a joke out of, telling him I don't go that way. He shrugs. "Sex to me is like going to the toilet. Whether it's a girl or not, it doesn't matter. I don't play that girl-guy shit. I'm not hung up in that game."
Then he nods at Star and says, "I can get inside her from out here, just got to go slow." He shakes his head and leans in on me, easing up close. "Well, you know what I'd really like to have? I'd like to have some real pussy. I'd like to have a little something to smoke. I'd like a good electric guitar. I'd like a good place to fart and shit. I'd like to have what you have." He's not threatening me, he's just saying, and it seems to be taking him back. "All the people sucking and fucking at the ranch, I couldn't turn any of them away. All I was looking for is some pussy and to play some music and dance. I took Susie off the bottom. Everyone said she's ugly, looks like a man. I said she's a beautiful piece of humanity. She paid me back. She hands me the bloody knife and says, 'I love you so much, I give you my life.' And Leslie, well, I boned her a few times. She had a big, fat old ugly, it was like sticking your dick out the window. Now that don't make her a bad person, but that's not what you want."
He scowls, in a mood, sitting with his legs open, his little round convict's belly hanging down in between.
"They all went out and killed, but, of course, I wouldn't do nothing," he goes on. "Do you expect me to go kill all those people? I was scared. I didn't want to go back to prison. Cockroaches do more for life than I do. I do . . . nothing." He stands up. "What a life, man. One great big fucking piece of shit."
I look at Star. Normally, I'd chalk this talk up to one of Charlie's well-established dodges, leading you one way, only to let you know he really means the opposite. But her mouth is open and she's letting loose all these little butterfly groans of concern.
He again brings up the conversation he had with Tex, where Tex wanted to know what to do. He's still on his feet, shoulders pulling back, blood and rage rising to his face. He's right there. "Don't ask me what to do!" he roars, punching the air. "One thing you don't want to do is step on me. You don't want to do that. Man, you know what to do. Do it!"
The guards look over, wait until he calms, then go back to the TV.
"See," he says, "there's no conspiracy in that." Maybe. But I can see now how he may have gotten his point across to Tex and told Tex what to do without having to come right out and tell him. It's in his sudden fury, in the buffeting, concussive roar of his voice, in the silent goading chatter of his expressive body, that dance of his, which can say more for him than words.
He sits back down. I ask him where that talk with Tex took place. He goes silent. In the past, he's said he wasn't at Spahn when Tex and the girls drove off, that he was in San Diego and spoke to Tex on the phone, not returning to the ranch until much later.
By way of reminder, Star scoots forward and says, "You were on the phone."
Charlie looks at her, then at me, then at the wall and says, "I don't know, which is what I say when I'm trying to get out of stuff."
He lets a moment go by. Smiles that half-man, half-devil smile of his.
"I'm lazy," he goes on. "Out there, you can get somebody else to do whatever you want done. I'll do whatever I can to not do anything. When I do nothing, I survive. I just don't want to take responsibility. The mistake I made is I didn't go with them. Tex was scared. A mama's boy. The second night went better, because I had a hand in it. In the situation, not the murders. No, man, I wasn't there for that. But, oh, they made a mess of it the first night. If I'd been there, it would have been a much better scene. I feel I should have did it. I'd have did it right. There's no doubt in my mind."
He nods his head. "Tex always did what I said. He didn't have to. He could skip on the highway and leave, but when he came to the ranch, he did what I said. He'd just seen the man – me – for the first time in his life, and he wanted to walk like it, talk like it. He wanted to be it. And there I was, in the gutter, man. And he was coming along, and he had a nice truck, and my mistake was, I let him into my world for that truck. I was real smart. It cost me 45 years for a damn Dodge pickup truck."
Just another miscalculation in a long line of miscalculations that, in the present case, started with the shooting of Lotsapoppa and the slashing of Gary Hinman and ends with him in prison for life, not only for the Tate-LaBianca killings, but also, along with Spahn regulars Bruce Davis and Steve "Clem" Grogan, for the murder of ranch hand Shorty Shea, about which he says, "Yup, we killed Shorty. Chopped him up into pieces. But I didn't do anything. It was Bruce and Clem, and Tex was there. Bruce didn't know how to fight, so I showed him how to fight and then seen what they did out the back window of a car when I went away. I wasn't there." It's funny how he's never around for anything. "Yeah," he says. "Isn't that odd?" Sometimes he can be so transparent, which makes him look like nothing more than a goofy, klutzy small-timer who made some bad decisions that led to more bad decisions that led to murder and who then got caught up in an ambitious DA's dream about a mastermind Svengali with demonic visions of world domination. Some crook, some outlaw, some gangster, some desperado, probably the worst ever.
Charlie's eyes roll around a little. He's going back even further now. "You see somebody fucking somebody in the ass, and they're looking at you, saying, 'This is what you want to do. You'd like this.' It makes you sick to your stomach to see, but then you end up doing that too. You see this shiny white ass and, oh, my goodness. You don't remember right then where you got the idea to do it, but you learn and you go through changes. I was 17. I asked this guy, 'Let me stick my peter in your butt.' He said no way. I picked a razor blade up off the shower floor and said, 'If we get caught, I'll tell them I made you do it.' So, he let me do it. But I don't know. Maybe he thought I was going to cut him. I didn't really even get it in but for a second or two and I came all over his butt."
This is the story of his life. And if that isn't an explanation of how it's gone from the very beginning, I don't know what is.
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