Coming to the Canyon

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(Pictured: record producer Terry Melcher, at left, with Denny Doherty, Cass Elliott, and John Phillips, plus record mogul Lou Adler.)

I’ve recently read a book called Creepy Crawling: Charles Manson and the Many Lives of America’s Most Infamous Family by Jeffrey Melnick. It’s only peripherally about the 1969 Tate-La Bianca murders, and much more about how Manson and his “family” were perceived at that time, and their impact on the culture in the years since.

I was particularly interested in Manson’s connections with three young men who called themselves the Golden Penetrators. Dennis Wilson was one of the Beach Boys; Terry Melcher, son of actress Doris Day, was a successful record producer; Gregg Jakobson was Wilson’s songwriting partner. They called themselves the Golden Penetrators for exactly the reason you would expect them to, as young, handsome and rich men in the garden of earthly delights that was Los Angeles in the last half of the 1960s.

The canyons of LA—Laurel, Benedict, Topanga and others—were the place to be for movie stars, musicians, and those who aspired to be one or the other, and the Golden Penetrators lived in the heart of that scene. Many in the canyons opened their homes to people who had come to town with showbiz dreams. Part of it was fashionable hippie-era selflessness, but part of it was precisely the opposite. The Golden Penetrators frequently took sexual advantage of young women seeking acting or singing careers. (This was often a two-way street, however. Record producer Kim Fowley, who took advantage himself, said many young women came with their eyes open: “Hi, folk-rock musicians! I’ll clean your house and fuck you and I’m vegetarian and I can make you macrobiotic stuff as you’re shooting heroin.”) Aspiring musicians like Manson could provide songwriting ideas or inspiration, as Manson did for Wilson. If they turned out to have real talent, they would need help navigating the record business—and would pay a commission or royalties to those who could provide it.

And so it came to pass that both Dennis Wilson and Terry Melcher ended up with members of the Manson family living in their houses, and eventually outstaying their welcome.

Manson may have been a kindred spirit of the freaks, as that term was defined in the late 60s, but his musical dreams were straighter. He did not want to break rules and go his own idiosyncratic way, like canyon resident Frank Zappa (with whom Manson once tried to connect). Instead, he wanted to be part of Melcher’s scene, which included the Mamas and the Papas, the Byrds, and other canyon-based folk-rockers. Melcher eventually realized that Manson didn’t have talent enough to make it (although others disagreed, including Neil Young). And that’s where the trouble began.

At the time of the Tate-La Bianca murders, the media tossed around multiple potential motives, including a drug deal gone wrong and hippie rituals gone mad, as well as the idea that the killings had something to do with Terry Melcher. Melcher and his girlfriend, Candice Bergen, had recently moved out of the Benedict Canyon house occupied by Sharon Tate, and it was speculated that Manson may have intended Melcher to be the victim.

After the murders in August 1969 and the arrest of the Manson family that December, the canyon scene changed. Melnick says, “A major effect of the killings was to draw a much firmer border between the freaks and the famous.” People whose houses had always been open to hippie visitors installed deadbolt locks and barred their windows. Nobody wanted to take in strangers who might turn around and slaughter them.

Melnick goes even further, noting that the music made by denizens of the canyon changed, too. The scene described by the Mamas and the Papas three years earlier, in “Twelve-Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon),” was no longer something to celebrate; instead, the new model was Graham Nash singing to Joni Mitchell in “Our House.” Melnick says of “Our House,” “The secure private home has replaced the dream of porous boundaries. The freaks have been sent on their way.”

The stuff about the music business is but a small part of Creepy Crawling. The book makes clear that even though Manson is dead and his family a part of history, (though three convicted in the Tate-La Bianca case are still alive in prison), they remain an influential force in American culture today, just as they’ve been across the half-century since their famous crime.

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3 thoughts on “Coming to the Canyon

  1. mackdaddyg

    Sounds like an interesting read! Thanks for the heads up. I’ll keep an eye out for that book.

    No disrespect meant to Neil Young, but after hearing some of Manson’s stuff, I’m not quite sure what anybody saw in his music. Pretty mediocre stuff at best.

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