Tell me, tell me, tell me your answer. You may be a lover, but you aint no dancer. Look out. Helter Skelter. She coming down fast.
-The Beatles, Helter Skelter.
By all accounts, 1969 was a year of tremendous upheaval.
Neil Armstrong made his famous moon landing. The gay rights movement officially took root. Ted Kennedy found himself embroiled in the infamous Chappaquiddick drowning scandal. First troops were withdrawn from Vietnam as protest marches became a regular occurrence in the nation's capital.
And sometime during the late hours of August 9th, in a picturesque L.A. rental property on Cielo Drive, five horrific murders took place, one of the most heinous and brutal crimes of the twentieth century. Hollywood was aghast.
Called to the scene the next morning by the maid's hysterical ramblings, police quickly discovered enchanting young actress Sharon Tate, eight months pregnant and awaiting the return of husband director Roman Polanski from abroad, savagely stabbed with evidence of hanging. Other victims included Folgers Coffee heiress Abigail Folger, her boyfriend Wojciech (Voyteck) Frykowski, and Sharon's ex fiance Jay Sebring (b. Thomas John Kummer), all house guests, as well as Steve Parent, an acquaintance of the property's caretaker William Garretson.
There was so much blood at the scene, police initially mistook Abigail's white nightgown for red. The killers took advantage of the ample supply, writing "PIG" in bold letters on the home's front door.
At the time, my limited comprehension of current events, pop culture, and the significance of that particular decade left me focusing on more mundane matters like the transition from grade school to junior high and whether boys were finding me attractive. Clueless about one of my all-time favorite bands, The Beatles, teetering on the brink of break-up, I had only vague inklings of distress in the State of California.
In June of that year, John Lennon and Yoko Ono staged their famous Canadian "bed in," a protest against the Vietnam War. The anthem of their political soiree, Give Peace A Chance, became a rallying cry against all wars to come. That was the first time any of the Fab Four had released a solo recording. In a way, that demonstration of peaceful activism was also an act of defiance and separation that heralded the beginning of the end.
In fact, many film makers symbolize that time period with The Doors song, The End, a nod to the end of life or relationships, depending upon what you believe. The end of a decade, The Beatles, and the Vietnam War symbolically all tied together, although in retrospect the latter two occurred some years later.
Right before it all unraveled, in the winter of 1968, The Beatles had released their legendary White Album, so dubbed because the front cover was completely blank with no writing other than the group's name. Rock and roll would never be the same.
The album was a cacophony of styles, genres, and sounds mixed together in such a way as to lull the unsuspecting into a state of complacency, then shake their very core with the next rendition. There was no rhyme or reason, no discernible theme. People played the album backwards, claiming to find hidden messages foretelling death and demise. Tales of the recording sessions include George running around with a flaming ashtray on top of his head and Ringo throwing drum sticks across the room. There's a cut of him complaining about bleeding fingers after numerous takes of a particular song.
Little did anyone know that song and another cut from the album, Revolution 9, would come to symbolize the chaos and horror of an insidious darkness unleashed on the City of Angels. In the summer of '69, the slaughter of Sharon Tate and friends weren't the only gruesome murders scaring the bejeebies out of locals. Only years later seeing the first release of the movie Helter Skelter did I come to realize the enormity of the atrocities that had taken place at Cielo Drive.
The Beatles' Helter Skelter is an emotionally raw juxtaposition of opposites. Do you/don't you. Get to the bottom/go back to the top. Coming down fast/I'm miles above. Charles Manson, the sociopathic ringleader of it all, believed these White Album lyrics spoke directly to him. Before exiting the related LaBianca murder scene, his devoted followers used their victims' blood to scrawl the misspelled song title across the kitchen refrigerator. Other blood references throughout the Tate/LaBianca properties appeared to refer to various songs from the album.
WARNING: The trailer of the re-enactment of those events is bloody, vile, and terrifying. Not suitable for children under age 13. Watch at your own risk.
In 1994, new owners demolished the Polanski/Tate rental property, replacing what remained with a towering modern structure overlooking Benedict Canyon. I can sympathize with their predicament. When an event that stands at the crossroads of history and pop takes place inside your residence, thrill seekers and ghost busters have a way of running ramrod.
Too much has been written, reported, and documented about the perpetrators of those crimes. Too much to go into detail here. Charles Manson and depraved members of the infamous "Manson Family" -- Tex Watson, Pat Krenwinkle, Susan Atkins, and Leslie Van Houten -- were tried, convicted and sentenced to die for their participation. Historians credit Linda Kasabian, another perpetrator acting as look-out during the Tate murders, for the eyewitness testimony she provided in exchange for immunity.
Significantly, it was Atkins who originally agreed to testify against Charlie and other Manson Family defendants. Prosecutors were only too happy to offer the deal to Kasabian when Atkins, who had previously admitted her involvement to a Grand Jury, declined to go forward at trial.
California's death penalty was subsequently ruled unconstitutional, commuting the sentences of one hundred seven death row inmates to "other than death." Manson Family inmates all got life with the possibility of parole, a spate of reprieve or living hell depending upon one's sense of justice.
Several months later, the California electorate amended their constitution to reinstate the death penalty; however, the new law could not be applied retroactively to any of those one hundred seven prisoners. That small window of time allowed Manson and his devotees of depravity to become subjects of fascination for generations to come. Had they been executed as originally sentenced, their story would not have been embellished with the insane byproducts of lengthy incarceration, nipping a bizarre developing cult following squarely in the bud.
Every three, five, or seven years, Manson Family parole hearings are the subject of tabloid fodder and wide speculation, i.e. will this be the year one of them rejoins society? This summer, Susan Atkins applied for a compassionate release, tearfully claiming she has done her time and has been rehabilitated. One of her legs has been amputated and she is reportedly dying of brain cancer. Her current husband whom she married in prison, also tearfully plead for her release. In 1993, her court appointed lawyer strongly advocated for parole, saying Susan had been rehabilitated over the years and deserved a second chance. Her current lawyer makes the same argument.
I've watched hours upon hours of interviews with Manson, Atkins, Kasabian, even a Maury Povich special where another man Atkins had married in prison claimed she had stabbed him in a possible fit of jealousy, allegedly on the fourth day of their jailhouse honeymoon. The same guy claims to have married forty-five different women so I have to take what he says with a grain of salt although, when he pulled up his shirt to reveal a long scar over a considerably large stomach, a wave of nausea rose in my throat.
In reflecting upon the summer of '69 for this article, I firmly believe all convicted Manson Family members should live out their days in captivity. It is only due to a fluke of justice that they remain alive today. Charles Manson functions with brain impulses so far removed from accepted societal norms, he could never be considered safe around the general populace.
As for Atkins and her fellow imprisoned "family" members, release would signal to a new generation of depraved devotees the possibility of committing the most heinous of crimes and living to see the outside of a prison cell. That, to me, would be incomprehensible, certainly not a message I would want to send to anyone with the slightest inclination of unleashing similar depths of evil again.
Thankfully, the California Parole Board agreed.
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