First comes the guitar — a disturbed and distorted riff plunging down frets into a devolved darkness. It is chased by savage, uncontrolled vocals and drowned by blistering drums. It is raw, it is raucous, it is vitriol. It is anarchy, mayhem, a new world order. It is a revelation, unveiling the interchangeable voice of a messiah and a murderer.
The Beatles in 1968.
The song is ‘Helter Skelter’, written by Paul McCartney, and performed by the Beatles on their eponymous LP, popularly known as the White Album. “‘Cuz I like noise,” is Paul McCartney’s succinct explanation behind the song. Yet one man’s interpretation of this song would send bloodcurdling chills down the spines of a peace- and pot-loving, flowering and deflowering, violence- and Vietnam-protesting generation.
The year is 1968. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famed dream for equality has ended with a bullet entering his cheek and piercing his spinal cord, before settling into his shoulder. Racial tensions between blacks and whites are inevitably high. In a farmhouse known as Myers Ranch near California’s Death Valley, a ‘Family’ has gathered. Charles Manson, a self-ordained messiah, is the father of this ‘Family’ of young, white, mostly-female Americans. He has a dream. A chimeric dream of a war between racist and non-racist whites that ends with black supremacy. He believed “that everything was gonna come down and the black man was going to rise”, according to Catherine Share, a former member of Manson’s Family.
Charles Manson in 1969.
This apocalyptic prophecy was rooted in coded songs from the White Album, through which Manson believed the Beatles connected to his spirit and established him as a new-age Jesus Christ. For example, ‘Blue Jay Way’, which begins with “A fog upon L.A./And my friends have lost their way”, was interpreted by Manson to mean that the Beatles were trying to find Manson, the messiah, but had lost their way. ‘Blackbird’ (“You were only waiting for this moment to arise”) was interpreted as the rise of the black man. ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun’ encouraged blacks to get guns and fight the whites. ‘Helter Skelter’ was the term used by Manson to describe the eventual apocalyptical explosion that was “coming down fast”.
By 1969, Manson was certain that Helter Skelter was swiftly approaching. He had also come to the conclusion that the black man couldn’t do anything without the white man showing him the way. Therefore, Manson and his family had to trigger the war by encouraging young, sexually-liberated white females to join the Family, thus depriving and frustrating the black man and causing him to break out in war against the whites. This would eventually lead to explosive retribution by the whites, which would lead to an internecine war between racist and non-racist whites. The white race would be exterminated, except for Manson and his Family who would be waiting in a secret city under the earth. After they had reached the “bottom”, they would “go back to the top of the slide”, or emerge from their underground city and rule the blacks.
However, the war didn’t break out as intensely as Manson predicted. The Family would have to resort to more extreme measures. Under Manson’s instructions, the Family ruthlessly murdered nine people, including Sharon Tate, the actress wife of director Roman Polanski. The Family wrote “Helter Skelter” on the walls with blood, trying to make it appear as if the murders had been committed by blacks and thus instigating a racial war. This did not happen. Manson was apprehended on December 1, 1969, and charged with murder and conspiracy and was eventually sentenced to death.
Here’s a parting thought for the decriers of the power of art: If the Beatles had not created the White Album, would the Charles Manson murders have happened? Tell me, go on, tell me the answer.