I’ve always had a weird fascination with Charles Manson. Like I lot of people, I guess. If you made a list of the 10 most famous living people on the planet, I wouldn’t be surprised if Manson made that list. 45 years after the Sharon Tate murders there’s still an enduring, world-wide fascination with Charles Manson. Manson has become almost a cartoon character of evil. America’s favorite monster.
When I was 17 in 1974, senior year of high school, I first became fascinated with Charles Manson. It was like an off-shoot of my general fascination with all things LSD. I had a little bookshelf that was built into the head-board of my bed in my bedroom. And I kept it well-stocked with books related to psychedelics drugs.
There was “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” of course, which featured Ken Kesey as sort of the prototype psychedelic hero — the pioneer and space-cowboy explorer of inner space. And I had a Beatles bio paperback, circa Sgt Pepper, with color photos of the Beatles decked out in their “psychedelic clothes” and Paul talking about how LSD had helped him to see God, and how acid might be a universal cure-all that would end poverty and war and shit if only the square politicians would start turning on. And, of course, I had “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas,” Hunter S. Thompson’s madcap vision of the psychedelic experience. And I had a bunch of Kurt Vonnegut novels, who was like a psychedelic father-figure (his son Mark Vonnegut would live out the classic ’60s hippie trip, starting a commune and grooving on many acid trips until he finally ended up in the nut ward). Even my sports books had turned psychedelic. There was “North Dallas 40” by Peter Gent, one of the first acid-dropping NFL football stars. And the NBA basketball star Phil Jackson started out the first chapter of his jock bio, “Maverick,” with a story about how an acid trip had changed his life (for the better, natch).
But one day, quietly, my parents slipped a copy of “Helter Skelter” by Vincent Bugliosi into my collection of books. They never mentioned it to me directly. But I could sort of tell what their unstated message was: “We can see where you’re headed with the drugs and the street scene and the psychedelic hippie shit. So you might want to check out where that path could lead you.”
Of course I was fascinated with “Helter Skelter” and would read it many times from cover-to-cover. And when I was tripping on acid I would some times vividly imagine what those kids in the Manson Family had experienced. On acid you could understand exactly how those kids had been transformed. For psychedelic drugs do open up your head in a way. But they leave your head exposed to be filled with whatever happens to be going around. Nature abhors a vacuum after all. And that goes for all that blank space in your noggin’, too.
Later, in the 1980s, one of my best friends would become good friends with this wispy little Berkeley hippie chick named Angel Star who used to be in the Manson Family in the late-’60s. Angel Star was in her 30s by that point, and every now and then she would talk about Charles Manson. She claimed she had gotten out of the Family before the killings started. But I was never so sure about that.
And Angel Star was just Charlie’s type. Small, girl-ish, waif-like, with the long, straight hippie-hair parted in the middle. It’s weird how so many of the Manson girls were the exact same type. And it was the “Children of the Damned” aspect that I think was such a big part of Manson’s enduring fascination. That these cute and seemingly innocent (and sexy) teenage girls could be capable of such monstrous acts.
I always wanted to ask Angel Star about Manson. In retrospect I regret I didn’t. But I could tell she didn’t want to go there. It wasn’t something she was eager for other people to know about. And I respected that. Because it marked her in a way. Almost as if it X-ed her out of society, even though she hadn’t literally carved one on her forehead.
To this day, I’ll still occasionally see Angel Star wandering around the streets of Bekeley. Often dressed in rags, and sometimes pushing a shopping cart and listlessly scrounging around in garbage cans on Shattuck Avenue. Always alone. Always silent. She’s in her 6os now and looks a bit haggard, even as she’s still retained some of her girl-ish demeanor. She looks almost like an ancient, grizzled, little girl. And I’ll sometimes think of how many different lives Charles Manson ruined. And it’s almost mind-boggling.
There was another guy that used to hang out on Telegraph Avenue for a bit around 10 years ago. Young, hippie-looking guy, dark brown hair, beard, probably in his mid-30s. Used to hang out on the sidewalk outside the Caffe Med, usually alone, never seemed to talk to anyone. Always dressed in black clothes and was usually barefoot. Nothing particular distinctive about him, except that he always wore a black top-hat. And every now and then he’d take his hat off and you could see he had an X carved in his forehead. Whenever I would see that guy hanging out on the Ave, I always got a strange feeling. It was like seeing this haunted specter from the past, hovering silently over the scene. And maybe a specter of the future, too. Last I heard, Charles Manson was still alive and well. And still had an enduring appeal.