Friday, September 7, 2012

All in the Family

In the latest issue of Uncut magazine there is a profile of The Fugs, a counter-culture band that in the Sixties satirized just about anything held sacred. When the counter-culture itself started to turn more ugly and violent towards the end of the decade, Ed Sanders decided to write about it in a book (The Family) about Charles Manson and his murderous hippie family. Not a joke to be found anywhere within its pages.

There Will Be Blood: Ed Sanders' The Family

author Ed Sanders.
Is it any wonder that Los Angeles is known as the City of Lost Angels? Writer Nathanael West (Day of the Locust) once wrote that the people of L.A. “were stirred by the promise of miracles and then only to violence.” Los Angeles has always been a pop enigma, a paradoxical paradise, where Annie Hall would be seduced from Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer in his hit comedy. Crime novelist Raymond Chandler would deposit his incorruptible white knight detective Philip Marlowe into this completely corruptible milieu. Sell-outs could bask in the sun after making shady deals under palm trees. The warm hedonism once celebrated by The Beach Boys would one day also intersect with the apocalyptic horrors of Manson’s Family.

There have been a number of books on the Manson murders and how they (along with the violence at the 1969 Altamont rock festival) brought the utopian hopes of the ‘60s to a bloody conclusion. But there are none more chilling, observant, and chock full of insights than Ed Sanders’ The Family. Originally written in 1971, Sanders had been an active participant in the ‘60s counter-culture through his poetry and involvement in the satirical folk band, The Fugs. His book explains with shocking clarity how a psychopathic petty criminal, who had spent many years in San Quentin, could organize a group of middle-class disciples to commit horrific acts of violence. In The Family, Manson is portrayed as the shadow Maharishi Yogi, living out the darker implications of the communal lifestyle being celebrated in the hippie communities. When he justified his crimes by saying that they were inspired by certain songs on The Beatles’ White Album, it wasn’t just the psychotic ravings of a paranoid. The White Album did have its shadow side. There were elements of the music that reflected both the beginnings of the break-up of The Beatles, a band that had nurtured the utopian hopes of the hippies, as well as the violent upheavals happening around the world when the record came out in the fall of 1968.

Just listen to the album. Although inspired by Chuck Berry’s wonderfully ironic “Back in the USA,” “Back in the USSR” significantly reflected the grimness of Soviet tanks rolling through Czechoslovakia earlier in the year. The splendid doo-wop of “Happiness is a Warm Gun” couldn’t be removed from the assassinations that year of both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. (“Happiness is a Warm Gun” would soon even overshadow the murder of the song’s author in the 1980.) “Revolution 1” and “Revolution 9” detailed the violent political upheaval happening internationally. “Savoy Truffle” may have been a trifling George Harrison track about Eric Clapton’s obsession with chocolates, but the song is about tooth decay and the possibility of having one’s teeth yanked out. In “Piggies,” Harrison joked about the bourgeoisie clutching their forks and knives, but Manson would hear that song as an endorsement to gather those same implements and use them on the Hollywood bourgeoisie he despised. (It's also hideously ironic that a knife would be plunged into Harrison years later by a psychotic fan who heard voices saying that the ex-Beatle must die.) Then, of course, there's “Helter Skelter,” which is the loudest piece of rock & roll The Beatles ever produced. This exciting song about pure romantic lust was instead for Manson a calling card for slaughter.

It would be foolish and wrong-headed to suggest that The Beatles’ White Album was responsible for Manson. But as joyful in its musical diversity as The White Album is, many of its songs couldn’t escape their darker sides – and Manson acted, like a deranged version of the obsessed Beatles fan on what he thought they meant. Ed Sanders’ The Family doesn’t provide those particular details on The Beatles. (I tried to in my book Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles’ Utopian Dream.) But The Family clearly reflects the conditions that gave rise to those crimes and how a hippie drug culture, that was once perceived as harmlessly benign, could soon become murderous. Only Sanders could have provided the disturbing undercurrent of the story. Here was someone who looked at Manson and saw a darker reflection of himself. Rock critic Robert Christgau, who reviewed The Family for The New York Times back in 1971, immediately saw the link:

“It was a natural step for Sanders to concern himself with Manson, one of the culminations of America's public romance with the hippies. Like Manson, Sanders was into sex, dope, the occult and the downfall of straight society. Both his Fugs monologues and Shards of God were full of references to jelly orgies, titanic mind-warps and arcane rituals. Of course, many of these references were ironic, overstated metaphors that weren't intended literally. But metaphors have content – Sanders really does believe in expanded sexuality, sacramental and recreational psychedelics, and non-rationalistic modes of knowing--and irony is a sophisticated tool. What could Sanders do when a would-be groupie actually brought a jar of jelly to a Fugs concert – send her back for the Skippy? Such misunderstandings are inevitable when avant-gardism is transformed into a mass movement. This is a liability that long-haired criminals like Charlie Manson and who knows how many other punk charismatics can exploit.”

Sharon Tate
The liability within the metaphor that Manson exploited in Ed Sanders, he also exploited in The Beatles. Last summer, a photo-op was held at Abbey Road Studios in London to commemorate the 40th Anniversary of the cover photo of The Beatles’ last studio album, Abbey Road. That date, August 9th, was also the day the Manson Family massacred Sharon Tate and company on Cielo Drive.

- originally published on May 11, 2010 in Critics at Large.

--Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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