America Is Doomed / Books

Cease to Exist: Jack Skelley’s “Dennis Wilson and Charlie Manson”

“Topanga’s hot today, Manson’s in the air,” sings Lana Del Rey in the second verse of her song “Heroin” on Lust for Life. And who doesn’t sense Charles Manson, his acid-headed Family, and the echoing terror of the Tate-LaBianca murders in these sweltering and wildfire-choked days of early August? These murders that occurred from August 8-10, 1969 would, along with other ideals-shattering events like Altamont, irreparably shake the country awake from its California Dreamin’, destroying hopes of peace freak utopia and ushering in decades upon decades of capitalistic trickle-down Boomer narcissism, of which we’re clearly still trapped.

It’s no surprise that our Lady of California Lana Del Rey would evoke that small, wild-eyed, and stinky (any description of Manson seems to mention his peculiar aroma) cult leader figure. Despite the real blood-soaked horror and tragedy of the murders, Manson and those that got, both deliberately and inadvertently, sucked into his lunatic fringe orbit belong to a particular part of America’s mythology. As much as the American imaginary is all hung up on the legend of the American dream, there’s also a dark underbelly of violence, death, destruction, group psychosis, and bonkers religiosity that lies underneath the sea to shining sea promise. Manson, the Family, and the California outliers involved in his Pig-scrawled mania somehow have come to represent that undertow. And perhaps nobody embodies the act of going under completely–quite literally in the end–than Beach Boy burn-out Dennis Wilson. Always is always forever, as they say.

It’s this relationship between Charles Manson and Dennis Wilson—the dune-buggy and weapons-hoarding dark to the Beach Boys’, at least aural, sun-kissed coastal light—that writer Jack Skelley, along with sublime illustrations by Brian Walsby, mines in his delightfully deranged chapbook Dennis Wilson and Charlie Manson. Now, in many respects, the connection between the Beach Boys’ good vibrations and the Manson Family’s undeniably bad ones seems like a shocking clash. How could the golden glow of “Kokomo” go together with the filth of “Garbage Dump”? However, these two distinctly Southern Californian cultural touchstones are less of a stark juxtaposition than they seem. Like much wholesome Americana, the Beach Boys’ self-created sonic Pacific paradise was, as Skelley writes, “forged in a crucible of pain” with a history of abuse, mental illness, alcoholism, drug use, and perhaps, knowing much more about the Manson Family’s homicidal tendencies than they let on.

For those of you who aren’t ghouls perversely fascinated with the Manson Family and their place as a driving force in American culture like I am, it’s worth noting that the—I guess you could say—friendship between Dennis Wilson and Charles Manson likely set the events in motion for the murders in early August 1969. Dennis Wilson met the Family in the Spring of 1968 after twice picking up Family members Ella Jo Bailey and Patricia Krenwinkel hitchhiking. After hearing them prattle on about their guru, Dennis Wilson returned home one night to discover, well, a surprise. As Vincent Bugliosi writes in Helter Skelter:

“When he pulled into the driveway, a strange man stepped out of his back door. Wilson, frightened, asked, ‘Are you going to hurt me?’ The man said, ‘Do I look like I’m going to hurt you, brother?’ He then dropped to his knees and kissed Wilson’s feet—obviously one of Charlie’s favorite routines. When Manson ushered Wilson into his own home, he discovered he had about a dozen uninvited house guests, nearly all of them girls.”

Instead of shooing them away or calling the cops, Dennis did what anyone in California in the 1960s would do: Let them stay indefinably! Things were different back then! In fact, Dennis was so proud of his new roommates that he appeared in Record Mirror with the perfectly pulp headline: “I Live With 17 Girls.”

Well, after a while, this new living situation got a little old. Bugliosi writes:

“The experience, Dennis later estimated, cost him about $100,000. Besides Manson’s constantly hitting him for money, Clem demolished Wilson’s uninsured $21,000 Mercedes-Benz by plowing it into a mountain on the approach to Spahn Ranch; The Family appropriated Wilson’s wardrobe, and just about everything else in sight; and several times Wilson found it necessary to take the whole Family to his Beverly Hills doctor for penicillin shots. ‘It was probably the largest gonorrhea bill in history,’ Dennis admitted. Wilson even gave Manson nine or ten of the Beach Boys’ gold records and paid to have Sadie’s teeth fixed.”

Rather than booting them out himself, Wilson hightailed it out of his own house, leaving his manager to do the dirty eviction work. However, not before encouraging Manson’s showbiz delusions by recording with him (the sessions have been lost since Dennis felt “the vibrations connected with them didn’t belong on this earth”) and introducing him to Doris Day’s son and record producer Terry Melcher who lived, at that time, at 10050 Cielo Drive where Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski would soon rent. In fact, Wilson once took Manson to 10050 Cielo Drive when dropping Melcher off one night. Whoops. An even bigger misstep that would fuel Manson’s anti-industry psychosis was the Beach Boys’ choice to record Manson’s song “Cease to Exist” as a B-side to “Bluebirds Over the Mountain.” With a changed title “Never Learn Not To Love,” which would also appear on the Beach Boys’ album 20/20, released months before the Tate-LaBianca murders, the song appeared without Manson’s songwriting credit and with lyrics that were altered from Manson’s death drive to “cease to resist,” a swan dive into romantic love. Thankfully, though, they kept the memorable line: “Submission is a gift…” As one can imagine, though, Manson was still not happy.

Through a mix of narrative prose and poetry, Skelley’s Dennis Wilson and Charlie Manson reimagines this history through suitably psychedelic imagery. Written in a feverish Gonzo style reminiscent of Hunter S. Thompson’s drug frenzies, as well as Tom Wolfe’s exclamatory Merry Prankster exposé The Electric Kool-aid Acid Test (which derived a lot from Thompson himself), the chapbook reflects the manic highs and the lurid lows of the acid tested times. For instance, the chapbook begins, as anything related to the Manson Family or the Beach Boys should, with a trip. “His toes are 10 inches long,” writes Skelley. “Baby snakes squirming on shag carpet. Pulsing. Thickening. Pulsing.” Later in this same chapter, entitled “Sexy Sadie,” Skelley narrates Wilson’s aforementioned initial meeting with Manson and the Family, transforming it into an intoxicating euphoric daydream:

“Dennis found the house and pool burbling with nymphs. One by one, they too kneeled and kissed his feet.

‘I love you, Dennis.’

‘I love you, Dennis!’

‘Dennis, I love you so much!’

Into the summer his house, food, cars and clothes went to Charlie. In return, the surf-satyr frolicked at will with narcodelic naiads.”

The narrator queries in the same chapter while describing Wilson’s “swimming pool…shaped like the state of California…”: “Who could have a bad trip here?” Clearly, the only response is Wilson, as Skelley expertly traces Wilson’s fifteen-year bad trip from his first run-in with “The Wizard” to Wilson’s descent into alcoholism and domestic drama and eventually, his boozy drowning off of the dock in Marina Del Rey, while diving for treasures—i.e. his ex-wife’s belongings that he tossed off his boat into the drink three years earlier.

Dennis Wilson and Charlie Manson isn’t written by a pedestrian Manson or Beach Boys-dabbler, but a true obsessive (thank god!). He unquestionably knows his stuff with references to Manson Family member Susan Atkins (aka Sadie)’s previous life as a stripper (“Body of a stripper…which is what she was pre-Charlie. She came with a repertoire of pervy delights, eager to escalate his every fetish.”), hidden references to “Cease to Exist”/”Never Learn Not To Love” (“Come in, closer, closer, closer…”), Wilson’s numerous car crashes (“Ask anyone who lived near the beach: They’ll know someone who got in a crash with Dennis Wilson”), and Dennis’s brother Brian’s LSD-sparked descent into obesity, bathrobes, and mental illness (“Sure, that morning at his piano Brian had shimmered out the modulating intro to ‘California Girls,’ then the entire song in one day. Then Pet Sounds, a suite of bittersweet chamber-pop laced with acid influence, then Smile, a majestic cut-up monument, weaving deeper than the Beatles could dream, but cast before a world that wanted car songs…and left unfinished. Brian spun out of orbit and stopped writing”).

Charlie, Sadie, and Dennis (illustration by Brian Walsby from Jack Skelley’s “Dennis Wilson and Charlie Manson”)

Though relatively short, Skelley’s chapbook successfully depicts how the doomed connection between Manson and Wilson would envelop and destroy nearly everyone and everything in its orbit. This includes the entire Golden State idealism of the West Coast, reflected in the hallucinatory vibrancy of Walsby’s illustrations. Every section includes the addresses of each incident, from Dennis’s home at 14400 Sunset Boulevard to Brian’s Bel Air estate at 10452 Bellagio Road to, of course, 10050 Cielo Drive, and finally, Basin C-1100 in Marina Del Rey, better known as “Dennis’s last stop before Kokomo” as Lana Del Rey sings in “The Greatest.” By creating a map of both Charlie and Dennis’s fateful interactions, Skelley allows the narrative to transcend a mere dangerous relationship between two individuals to this history becoming embedded and etched permanently into the landscape of Southern California. As Skelley writes, “The bad vibes flow from Blue Jay Way to Marina Del Rey.”

While the prose sections work to move the narrative forward, adding historical weight, Dennis Wilson and Charlie Manson hits its joyfully sordid ecstatic apex with its two poems—“Rise” and “Beach Boys Villanelle”—that turn Charlie and Dennis, respectively, into mythic and religious figures. The first, “Rise,” is dated as Spring 1969 when Manson spoke to 10050 Cielo Drive’s owner Rudi Altobelli months before the Tate-LaBianca murders. Never losing sight of Dennis’s impact on Manson’s knowledge of 10050 Cielo Drive, it begins:

“I am called Jesus, I am called the Buddha, I am called Big Boolabog.
I was a stranger and you did not invite me in.
Dennis Dummy Wilson took me here with Terry Piggy Melcher.
I see these hills, this house I slip inside.”

A psychotic invocation of the rage Manson would unleash on the world, the poem heralds the coming of his and his followers’ Helter Skelter wrath through a nightmarish combination of pregnant Sharon Tate, William Blake’s The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun, The Beatles, Revelations, and Manson’s own unhinged dogma, filled with bottomless pits and picking through garbage. In one section, Skelley writes:

“Four Angels, Four Living Beings, will rise.
Faces of men with hair of women, and breastplates of fire.
Their shields glitter guitars with eyes that surround.
Locust and beetles with the sting of scorpions
Prepared for battle, they trumpet broken wings
To domino Reagan and Nixon and the rest to ruin.
One third of heaven’s stars are coming down fast
To fall like a red rubber ball of reckoning.”

Here, Skelley could be referencing a number of figures as the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse: The Beatles whose White Album deeply influenced Manson’s cracked doctrine, the Beach Boys in certain incarnations, or the four Manson Family members—Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Linda Kasabian—who would creepy-crawl into 10050 Cielo Drive during the night of August 8/9, killing nearly everyone on the property, with the exception of the property’s caretaker William Garretson. Maybe it’s all of the above. Nevertheless, each one had some impact on the reckoning that would usher in or, at the very least, maintain the eras of both Reagan and Nixon.

If “Rise” is a maniacal call to madness and murder, the epilogue remix “Beach Boys Villanelle” is a much more somber tribute to Wilson after he drowns in Marina Del Rey with visions of “all the women” (“The circles of their lips overlap and eyes glow round under cascades of hair, then blur back into one”). With the repeated lines “Diving off a dock of darkened memories” and “He plunged into the drink and never surfaced,” Skelley constructs “Beach Boys Villanelle” as a final eulogy as Wilson sinks deeper into alcohol, drugs, the Manson Family, the Pacific, and the void. In its elegiac tones and evocation of the Beach Boys’ abusive beginnings (“A father with one eye and a son with one ear”), “Beach Boys Villanelle” transforms Wilson’s history into a near Shakespearean or Greek tragedy. Coupled with “Rise”’s disturbed religiosity and the fate that seemingly brought both Charlie and Dennis together, these two poems, as well as the chapbook as a whole, seems to straddle the line between fiction and fact, myth and reality, legend and truth.

Now, Skelley isn’t the only one fascinated with this lurid Los Angeles lore. Though films from Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood to the Hilary Duff vehicle The Haunting of Sharon Tate have attempted to revise the homicidal hijinks of the Manson Family, photographer Zoe Crosher’s series LA-Like: Transgressing the Pacific perhaps best captures this bizarre balance between truth and untruth in Southern California. Crosher photographs locations where both celebrities and fictional characters have disappeared, from Aimee Semple McPherson to Norman Maine in A Star Is Born, at approximately the same time of day of their disappearance. Naturally, Crosher chose to include the time and place where Dennis “plunged into the drink and never surfaced.” The photograph “Where Dennis Wilson Disappeared at Marina Del Rey” portrays a jumble of equipment found at any dock hung above the dark Pacific. This isn’t the romantic desolation of the beach on Catalina Island where starlet Natalie Wood vanished. Instead, its mundane industrial aesthetic somehow makes the scene even more morbid and haunting. Rather than going out on a big wave (Dennis was the only Beach Boy that actually surfed), he faded away in the relatively shallow abyss.

Zoe Crosher, Transgressing the Pacific: Where Dennis Wilson Disappeared in Marina Del Rey from the series LA-Like, 2008, Fujiflex archival print, 40″x40″ (© Zoe Crosher)

In an interview with Carmen Winant in Daily Serving, Crosher explains, “…Los Angeles has a unique and specific relationship to fiction—truth and imagination are easily conflated here—so I am particularly interested in how I can use documentary photography to the same end.” Later in the same interview, she articulates a theme that traverses her work as “a kind of impossibility of knowing.” Likewise, Jack Skelley’s Dennis Wilson and Charlie Manson inhabits this same curious impossibility of knowing, related to Los Angeles’ relationship to fiction.

However, even beyond artistic and literary entanglements with the Family and their circle, nothing quite about Manson, or Wilson for that matter, can be definitively understood. You just have to read Tom O’Neill (with Dan Piepenbring)’s riveting Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties to witness this. Did Vincent Bugliosi inflate the importance of the Helter Skelter philosophy, both in the courtroom and in his bestselling book? Did Wilson and Terry Melcher, as well as many others in that Hollywood set, know exactly who committed those murders in early August as the authorities continued to bungle the investigation for months? Did Manson have some connection to federal law enforcement, resulting in his frequent release from police custody?

We may never know. And perhaps that’s okay as we continually find ourselves returning to this history/myth, which, in its opacity, still symbolizes the violent undercurrent that flows below the surface of America, threatening to pull us under.

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