“68½: Movies, Manson & Me” is the first book by Plankton Produktions. It’s available as a free download from Smashwords (click on link in the widget to your right) on Amazon Kindle (for 99p) and as a paperback, exclusively from Plankton Produktions (price negotiable, depending on postage costs). A mind-bending journey through the outer reaches of the late Sixties and Seventies, the drugs, the movies, the music and murders, it’s equal parts autobiography, paean to the cinema of the time, DIY guide for aspiring screen-writers, and inquiry into the nature of truth, fiction and memory. “A true genre-buster,” says Nick Gilbert (no relation).
READ CHAPTER 1 BELOW….
Sometime in the late 1960s (let’s say, for the sake of argument, it was the summer of ’68) I went to live with my aunt and uncle, and cousin Marc. At first it was a temporary arrangement. My parents had separated and my mother had gone to live the hippy life with her new man, Dave. Dave’s main contribution to the Age of Aquarius was to ‘liberate’ (i.e. shoplift) rucksacks-full of records from unsuspecting retailers on Bristol’s Park Street and Whiteladies Road. It was a more innocent time, and some of the more open-minded record shops would, it seems, turn a blind eye to a long-haired weirdo walking out of the store with an armful of new releases. Clearly he was going to listen to them in depth at home before deciding whether to part with his hard-earned DSS cheque. Thus did Dave “stick it to the man”, as we used to say.
This may or may not be true. Perhaps I am being unfair to Dave. I could ask him, of course. After my younger brother – Dave’s son – spent the best part of 20 years trying to track him down, he is now, it transpires, on Facebook, where he is a ‘friend’ of both my brother, Tamlin, and my mother, Jackie. But why let others’ memories get in the way of a good story? Dave Payne was the model for my own assault on consumer capitalism, when, ten years later, I embarked on an act of similar ‘liberation’ in one of Bristol’s few headshops, Medina (a headshop is a hippy shop, selling underground newspapers, incense and drug paraphernalia to ‘heads’, and very few of them exist anymore, except perhaps in Glastonbury, where they mainly sell crystals and dream-catchers.)
Apart from the inherent contradiction of sticking it to a headshop, it was an altogether less innocent time (Margaret Thatcher had just been elected) and the woman who ran the shop, in a superficially trusting way, leaving the upstairs record room unstaffed, nonetheless saw through my ruse of inserting more expensive second-hand records inside the sleeves of cheaper ones. Whether her wistful shake of the head was a response to my dishonesty, or disappointment in my choice of records, I’ll never know, but I feel the shame keenly to this day. What kind of part-time hippy was I, to try ripping off my own kind?
My memories of the ’60s are hazy, so I must have been there. Like all adults of a certain age who return to their childhood and give it a good sniff, I can come up with a random assortment of images and sensations. I remember lying in my bed in the attic bedroom of my parents’ fourth-floor flat at the bottom of Brandon Hill, seeing a wolf scratching persistently at the window (how Freudian is that?). I remember the naps we were forced to take after lunch in nursery school, and the blue blankets on our cots. I remember the rich, comforting tones of Boris Karloff reading the Tale of Henny Penny on record and being worried for all of them – Henny-Penny, Cocky-Locky, Ducky-Daddles, Goosey-Poosey, and Turkey-Lurkey – because the sky was going to fall on their heads, the calm urgency with which Karloff conveyed their predicament, the sly shenanigans of Foxy-Woxy.
I can recall a succession of houses, flats and bedsits in which I lived with my mum and our cat, My (so-named after the My Lai massacre – more about that later). I recall schools I ran away from; parties at which people with Afro hair looking like Jimi Hendrix talked to me kindly; an air of perpetual jollity, fuelled by marijuana and alcohol; and one night in particular when I sat in the midst of a mass of sleeping bodies, staring at the glowing embers of the fire as the party died. I remember also a Battle of Little Big Horn board game my mother gave me, with little plastic cavalrymen and ‘Indians’, or ‘Native Americans’ as they are now known, which probably explains why I like the film Little Big Man so much, and Leonard Cohen singing So Long, Marianne, and the German children’s book Shockheaded Peter with its dire warnings of playing with fire and sucking your thumb. Over it all, wafting like a blanket of incense, a smoke signal for the ’60s, lies the palpable cloud of the Beatles. Or rather, The Beatles, the record which comes after Sergeant Pepper in the Beatles canon, and which quickly became known to all and sundry as the White Album. That album came out in 1968 of course, the year after the Summer of Love. ’68 was harder, tougher, for all of us. The Vietnamese, the Czechs, the Mexicans, the Parisians, me. It was the Year of the Barricades; the Year of the Pig; the Tet offensive; the Prague Spring; les evenements de Mai; the Mexico City Olympics and its attendant massacre of troublesome students; the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy the war in Biafra (there’s a photograph of me, aged four, sitting in a bath, all skin and bone, looking “just like a Biafran refugee,” according to my aunt – it took me years to understand what she meant.) I can’t honestly say the White Album made much impression on its first release – Henny Penny was top of MY charts, while the major evenement of my life was the separation of my parents. I shuffled backwards and forwards for a few years between my mother and my aunt. Slowly, the arrangement with my aunt and uncle became permanent (for reasons which are as hazy as everything else) and the White Album assumed an almost sacred place in my life, the singalong soundtrack to nights around our precious, purpose-built valve amplifier, and countless road trips to Cornwall, Weymouth, Wales.
I admire people who can write about music. I admire people who can write about film. Basically, I admire people who can write, by which I mean write well, like Orwell, or Nabokov, and not just type, like Dan Brown or Jack Kerouac. Although I also admire people who can type properly. I can’t. I type two-fingered, like a vulture picking the eyes from a cadaver. Mind you, so did Dalton Trumbo, and he wrote Spartacus, and Papillon. The point is, à propos the White Album, that I could, at a push, just about list the songs, but that’s all. Otherwise, I can only say that we sang Back in the USSR (naturally enough for a Left-leaning household, although more New Left than Communist Party), we sang Bungalow Bill, we sang Rocky Raccoon, we even sang Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da. To this day Desmond has two barrows, one in the market place, the other in my heart. And yet the words of the songs meant – and mean – almost nothing to me. I had some vague notion that the Beatles were fond of Russian girls, and Rocky had found a Bible in his hotel room, but that was it. They didn’t form a coherent world for me. Not linguistically at least. The music, the melodies, snatches of lyric, were enough.
At more or less the same time a Californian gentleman, a man who in many superficial respects resembled my mother’s boyfriend Dave (long hair, beard, dope-smoking, at odds with the system), was also listening to the White Album and – in his squirming, toad-like mind – forming a semi-coherent world view from its wildly fractured songs. His name was Charles Manson. If Rocky Raccoon had been a petty criminal, if he had been unloved and felt keenly the rejection of society, the jackboot of indifference, allowed his ingrained racism to take over completely and then found a copy of the White Album in his hotel room, he too might have dipped into it and – like readers of the Bible down the ages – interpreted the songs in his own unique and ultimately murderous fashion, as Charles Manson did.
Manson’s life and mine became entwined when I discovered a copy of Vincent Bugliosi’s book Helter Skelter in my mum’s flat, towards the end of the ’70s. By this stage she was living in a semi-derelict Regency house that had once belonged to Waterloo veteran General Picton. The disused basement was a warren of rooms, each one full to the brim with dusty objects from various decades. There was what had once been a band rehearsal room, its walls covered in egg boxes for sound-proofing, and an old oven you could crawl into and stand up in (never mind Health and Safety!). A succession of work-shy drug dealers and Claimants’ Unionists passed through Picton Street, and it is, I suppose, to one of them I owe my passing obsession with Charlie Manson. Really, they were very nice on the whole. My worst experience was with a male friend of my mother who sent me to buy some milk and then told me off because I used the change to buy sweets for my little brother. On the other hand, the junkies who lived downstairs shared their baked potatoes with me when my mum went to the pub. Besides, I was no different: for much of my twenties I lived off the State while I tried, and failed, to be a writer.
Probably I had already heard Manson’s name mentioned, linked in some way to the film-maker (and original four-foot Pole you wouldn’t touch anybody with) Roman Polanski,, though not yet to the Beach Boys. My musical tastes were moving away from melodic pop and simple, exquisitely crafted songs, in the direction of rock. Heavy Rock. My aunt and uncle played their part, their Miles Davis, Cream and Zappa albums offering seductive, psychedelic cover art. I then joined my cousin, who was a year older than me, on a rite of passage into the likes of Hendrix, Hawkwind, Zeppelin, Floyd and (whisper it softly) Barclay James Harvest. By 1979 I was going on a regular basis to the Bristol Colston Hall to catch gigs by the likes of UFO, Judas Priest and Motörhead, and, in a parallel development, going – more often than not alone − to Bristol’s two art house cinemas, the Arnolfini and the Arts Centre, for late-night screenings of such counter-cultural gems as Easy Rider, Electra Glide in Blue and Medium Cool.
Yes, I loved films so much, I couldn’t wait to leave my faux-comprehensive with its grammar school traditions (the ‘house’ system beloved of Harry Potter fans, the separate stairs for boys and girls, Latin) and go to Filton Technical College, on the outskirts of Bristol, where I could do Film Studies, Sociology and Communication Studies, instead of proper A-Levels, although I also did English Literature, which is a proper A-level, the sort of thing real film-makers study, along with Philosophy. My secondary school had done everything they could to prevent me getting to Filton, passing them a damning report in which my numerous run-ins with authority were scrupulously recorded, and I remember the principal of Filton calling my aunt and saying they couldn’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, to which my aunt replied that I was ALREADY a silk purse, and slammed the phone down. Recognising my latent genius, they relented, and took me on. 1980 was looking good – I’d lost my virginity (technically speaking) and I was studying film.
Film Studies involved learning about the ‘auteur’ theory, the idea that certain directors – and only certain directors – can impose their singular vision on, can transcend, the flimsiest of material, regardless of script or studio interference, to say nothing of input from actors, cinematographers, editors or, for that matter, audience; a theory, in other words, which seems palpably absurd in a collaborative and commercial enterprise like film, but which we cling to nonetheless. We also learned about genre (in our case, detective movies, if I remember rightly, hence a lot of overlap with the auteurs we were studying, Polanski and Siegel). Also, for some reason (something we had done wrong?) we were forced to sit through Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad and the marginally better Providence. And Day for Night, or La Nuit Américaine to give it the proper, French title, although why shooting in daylight with a small exposure to make it look like night (which it never does) is called ’American Night‘ in French beats me. As with so much in this memoir, you can always look for further explanation online. Or do you want to be spoon-fed everything, like in a Steven Spielberg movie? Suffice to say, La Nuit Américaine left me with a lifelong hatred of Francois Truffaut and all ‘films about film-making’.
Roman Polanski, on the other hand, probably deserves the accolade of auteur, although since the 1980s it’s become harder and harder to see much evidence of authorship in his films. We watched every Polanski movie up to then, from Knife in the Water and Repulsion through Dance of the Vampires, Rosemary’s Baby, Macbeth (author, W. Shakespeare), Chinatown (author, R. Towne) and The Tenant, to his version of Tess of the D’Urbervilles (author, T. Hardy) which had just come out, and dovetailed nicely with English Literature, as we were studying the book. Incidentally, according to Tyler Coates (2015) Polanski was given Tess to read by his wife, the ill-fated Sharon Tate, and he dedicates the film to her.
I loved literature, but I wasn’t at this point a writer. Oh sure, I wrote. I wrote poems, for Carol Green, at the age of nine or thereabouts. Later, I wrote pen pal letters to young women in America with whom I hoped one day to have sexual intercourse. They didn’t share my taste in music and barely understood my sense of humour (or motives) but they tolerated me nonetheless. I wrote indulgent, self-pitying teenage stories, which I thought I had destroyed but which I now discover STILL EXIST and could yet be crowd-funded into publication if enough people were to demand it. But I never saw myself as a writer because − in the immortal words of the 1980s Biff cartoon character, who is lying in bed, nursing an apparent hangover − “all I really want to do is direct”. That way I could, like Roman Polanski, fuck my actresses. Somewhere along the way, while lying in my bed, I cooked up the idea of a film about the Manson murders, a film so absurd and far-fetched and essentially tasteless – because it would be a musical – that it could never be made. Documentaries about the Manson case had been done, and would continue to be done. Straight-faced, mock-serious dramas trading on the gruesome details of the crimes were to come. The only intelligent thing to do with Manson, I decided, was to seize the bull by the horns (the little big horns) and go for it, Ken Russell-style, into full-on shameless bad taste. In so doing once one could (maybe) arrive at the essence of the Truth, or at least a Truth, like the globe-trotting Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński, who never let fidelity to the facts get in the way of loftier ambitions. Now he’s dead, Kapuściński has been revealed as a bit of a fraud, who invented much of what he wrote about Africa, Asia and South America. This only raises him in my estimation. I always suspected it was bollocks, but it’s beautifully written bollocks.
Part of the Truth is that Manson and the Beatles were inseparable, at least in Manson’s amphibian mind (Finbar, my at times over-zealous proof-reader and editor, to whom I owe a huge debt of gratitude, suggested ‘batrachian mind’, until I pointed out to him that a batrachian is also an amphibian, and that very few of the very few readers of this book will know what a batrachian is, although now you do.) For Manson, the Beatles were the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the “men with hair like women”. The very title of the White Album spoke to Manson, the white supremacist. The song Helter Skelter spoke of the coming war between black and white, which the blacks would win. Manson and his Family would take refuge in a hole in the desert, and procreate, only emerging – all 144,000 of them − when the fighting was over, and the blacks discovered they couldn’t manage without the white man. Then, Manson and the Family would ride to the rescue, like the cavalry, on their dune buggies.
Another song on the album, Piggies, was self-explanatory, although for Manson piggies weren’t the police so much as rich ‘pigs’ like Sharon Tate (aka Mrs Roman Polanski), hairdresser to the stars Jay Sebring, heiress Alison Folger, Leno and Rosemary LaBianca (all killed), and the lucky ones who got away: Terry Melcher, Dennis Wilson, Steve McQueen. Rocky Raccoon referred to blacks (‘coons’) as did Blackbird. Then there were the songs which contained a deeper, hidden meaning. I Will contains the lines ‘Your song will fill the air / Sing it loud so I can hear you,’ which Manson took as a personal plea from the Beatles for him to make an album and communicate his message to the people (which he was already trying to do, without their encouragement). In Honey Pie the line ‘sail across the Atlantic to be where you belong’ meant the Beatles were publicly telling themselves (huh?) to join the Family in Death Valley. ‘I’m in love but I’m lazy,’ sings Paul, i.e. “I really want to join Charlie in Death Valley but, you know, those ocean voyages require so much effort.”
Realising that the Fab Four Horseman only needed a gentle push from the Son of God (Man’s Son) various family members sent telegrams and letters. They even rang, but the Beatles weren’t home. Just imagine – were it not for the inadequacy of transatlantic telecommunications, the final judgement day might have gone ahead as planned.
But then, when you think about it, Manson was only interpreting these songs in the very personal way that many of us interpret songs. Wonderwall can mean anything you want it to, and that is its genius. Mark E Smith of the Fall goes one step further, and sings lyrics which are quite deliberately barely intelligible, so the listener can make of them what they will. Sometimes, under the influence of LSD, we imagine that the song we are listening to contains uncannily personal lyrics aimed directly, and only, at us. I remember one trip when a friend – Nancy Moore, estranged daughter of celebrity chef Keith Floyd – begged me to change the music, because the singer – Phil Kline of little-known but brilliant New York No Wave band the Del-Byzanteens – was going to “lock you in your room”. It seems so long ago, Nancy, as Leonard Cohen would sing. Acid doesn’t erase the ego. It makes us utterly self-obsessed. We’re at one with the universe because we ARE the universe. When we return to our normal state of consciousness, we realise the absurdity of this impression. Manson, apparently, didn’t. He was too far gone.