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Charles Manson’s Musical Ambitions

“Kids respond to music,” Charles Manson told the Rolling Stone reporters David Dalton and David Felton in a famous interview conducted a few months after the horrifying Manson Family murders, which took place on August 8-9, 1969. “They can hear it, they’re not so conditioned they can’t feel it. Music seldom gets to grownups. It gets through to the young mind that’s still open.” Amid a wave of renewed interest in Manson, prompted by the fiftieth anniversary of his crimes and Quentin Tarantino’s film “Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood,” many still wonder how a scruffy, charismatic grifter who spent half his life in prison managed to attract dozens of followers, most of them young women, eager to do his psychopathic bidding. Manson had three primary lures: LSD, sex, and music. But music, and its power to unite a community of outsiders and misfits, remains the least-examined weapon in his arsenal.

Manson learned to play guitar in the federal pen, when he was serving time for various offenses. He was taught by Alvin (Creepy) Karpis, a member of a Depression-era gang run by Ma Barker. By the time Manson emerged as a nascent cult leader, in San Francisco, during the Summer of Love, he’d become a prolific songwriter. He bound his Family together with group sex and psychedelic drug trips, the relinquishing of possessions and ties to the “straight” world, the transgressive thrill of “creepy crawling” (sneaking into wealthy homes to rearrange the furniture and commit minor thefts), and his songs. The Family sang his lyrics as they scavenged for food in dumpsters; they harmonized with Manson around the campfire at Spahn Ranch; and they eventually crooned the songs in their cells while serving life sentences.

Manson’s music garners little consideration in

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