Welcome to the third edition of Track Tales with Michael Primiani. Track Tales is a series in which we aim to highlight bands, albums and tracks that have a unique story surrounding their music. These stories can be funny, shocking or sad. Everyone loves a good song and a good story. We believe that this juxtaposition works to enhance the enjoyment and experience of both.
The year was 1968: springtime with summer in the air. In stark contrast to 1967’s Summer of Love, this spring air hit with anxiety and unease. The American counterculture movement previously dedicated to the Timothy Leary mantra of “turn on, tune in, drop out” were turning on their televisions and tuning into the horrors on the evening news. The first war presented live in Americans living rooms was raging in Vietnam, shocking a nation who wondered if a fight against “communism” was worth all the dead young men. Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis on the balcony of his hotel room, sparking race riots and the rise of the militant Black Power movements throughout the country. Democratic candidate Robert F. Kennedy, who shared the civil rights ideals of Martin Luther King and opposed the Vietnam War, would suffer a fate similar to that of his brother and be assassinated as well. The Age of Aquarius committed to peace and love couldn’t help but notice the blood in the water.
The biggest groups of the day made music that reflected the growing turbulence of the times. The Rolling Stones put out Beggars Banquet which featured the song “Sympathy for the Devil”, reminding us that darkness and evil live in all of us. The Doors put out Waiting for the Sun, featuring gothic synths and the wailing vocals of Jim Morrison singing bleak anthems of the period such as “Summer’s Almost Gone” and “The Unknown Soldier”. Even The Beatles ditched their psychedelic pop sound of the previous year’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour for the White Album – which featured songs about sex, drugs and violent revolution.
However, a group that remained rather true to their sunny pop origins in this darker era were The Beach Boys. Even though Brian Wilson was proving himself to be a genius of musical production and arrangement with the release of 1967’s Pet Sounds – the Beach Boys remained rather passive to the upheavals and chaos in the world around them. Insomuch as to declare on the album “I guess I just wasn’t made for these times”. Even if Brian was heading towards that realm, he was stifled by vocalist Mike Love wanting a return to form – out of date pop hitmakers about surfing, sunshine and hot rod cars. Their songs of the late 1960s, although way better produced than their former offerings, couldn’t get away from the cheery optimism of their early work. In the counterculture Woodstock heights of 1969, The Beach Boys were performing out of date bluesy love songs such as “Never Learn Not To Love” live on television. However, despite their commitment to California beach utopianism, the darkness of the late 1960s would seep into the world of The Beach Boys in a chance encounter by their drummer – Dennis Wilson.
“Never Learn Not To Love” performed on the Mike Douglas Show in 1969. Drummer Dennis Wilson is on lead vocals.
Contrary to his brothers (Carl and Brian), his cousin Mike Love and guitarist Al Jardine, Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson was trying to break into the counterculture of the times that his band was trying so hard to distance themselves from. Dennis had always been the wildcard of the group – partying, drinking and doing drugs more than the rest. Whether it was speedy sports cars, cliff diving, or surfing (Dennis was the only Beach Boy to actually surf and served as their surf culture consultant in the early days of lyric writing), Dennis was an adrenaline junkie constantly looking for ways to get his kicks and be subversive. In the spring of 1968, his penchant for recklessness was heightened by the divorce and departure of his wife and children from his life.
Dennis and Brian Wilson in 1968. Photo taken by Paul McCartney’s wife Linda McCartney.
All of this may explain why in the spring of 1968, Dennis decided to pick up two female hippie hitchhikers on the side of the road as he was driving through Malibu. The two girls, Ella Joe Bailey and Patricia Krenwinkel, flirted with Dennis, who ended up taking them both back to his mansion on Sunset Boulevard to have sex with him. Bailey and Krenwinkel told Dennis all about how they lived with a commune of other women in a defunct movie ranch that previously served as the filming location for Western TV shows including The Lone Ranger and Bonanza called Spahn Ranch. They told him how they had embodied the Timothy Leary mantra of dropping out of society and were led by a guru who preached sermons about free love, psychedelic drugs and anti-materialism. Dennis Wilson was hooked. He told them that he’d take them back to the ranch the next day to see their commune and to meet their leader – Charles Manson.
Patricia Krenwinkel and Ella Joe Bailey
Dennis arrived at Spahn Ranch the next day and was in no rush to leave. He met Charles Manson and the two men hit it off immediately. They smoked a joint and Manson showed Dennis a few chords on the guitar. Dennis was enamored by the highly persuasive Manson, the drugs at his disposal and the harem of hippie women that sat by his feet. He saw Manson as his direct connection to the counterculture movement surrounding him. According to the autobiography by former Manson Family member Dianne Lake, perhaps for some “wild company” or to “thumb his nose at his family”, Dennis asked Manson if he could bring a few of his girls to a Wilson family cookout on the Colorado River. Lake, Bailey and Nancy Pitman went with him and reported that the group received eye rolls and death stares from the Wilsons and their associates. Which was exactly the reaction Dennis was looking for.
An aerial shot of Spahn Movie Ranch, with mock storefronts intact that the Manson Family would call their home
Soon after the Manson Family crashed the Wilson’s jamboree, Dennis invited Charles Manson and a portion of the girls to live with him in his Sunset Boulevard mansion. Wilson gave the Manson Family free reign of his house, his food, his cars and his credit cards. In return, Charles Manson supplied Dennis Wilson with a seemingly endless supply of sex and psychedelic drugs. Manson would get the girls to strip naked on command and engage in group sex with himself and Dennis. One of these sessions was even recorded, and Dennis brought the tapes to a Beach Boys recording session to further freak out his already concerned family and bandmates. These orgies were halted when one of the girls contracted an STD and spread it to Dennis as well as the entire Manson Family. According to an anonymous Beach Boy in Rolling Stone, Dennis footed the largest STD bill in history – by spending over a thousand dollars in penicillin.
Besides the fact that he was one of the richest rock stars at the time, perhaps Manson’s anti-materialism rhetoric was responsible for Dennis’ frivolous generosity. To demonstrate their non-capitalistic ways of life, the group reportedly took Wilson’s burgundy Rolls Royce to a nearby grocery store and collected discarded food from the dumpsters. They returned to the house and made Dennis a cake with the “fresh strawberries” and fed it to him as if he was a Greek god. It’s no wonder Dennis couldn’t sense who the people really were that he was sharing his house with.
Dennis Wilson, who loved his cars.
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
At first, Charles Manson’s goal by getting into Dennis Wilson’s good graces by providing him with sex and drugs was simply a tradeoff for food and shelter. However, as he spent nights playing guitar and singing with Dennis, he became convinced that this connection to the Beach Boys could be his ticket to some rock stardom of his own. Prior to meeting Dennis, Manson had primarily used his songs and guitar chops for group activity and solidarity – having his followers sing backup on songs rife with his hippie philosophies. Dennis believed in Charles Manson. He believed in his philosophies and he believed in his music. He spoke all about how he would use the music industry connections at his disposal to kick start Manson’s music career. Manson took him at his word. And to Charles Manson, word was bond.
Charles Manson with a guitar in hand
Albert Foster/Mirrorpix/Getty Images
Dennis scheduled a recording for some of Manson’s songs at Brian Wilson’s house. Manson was nervous and had trouble getting into a groove. After Brian started to give suggestions to Manson on how to improve the track, Charles Manson started to become combative. As perhaps an intimidation tactic, Manson brandished a switchblade and began to pick his nails with it. The recording session collapsed and Manson stormed out of the house, grabbing his girls who were swimming in Brian Wilson’s pool before they even had a chance to dry off. According to Mike Love who happened to be there that day, the recording engineer (Stephen Desper) didn’t stop the recording because Charlie was impatient, combative or for the switchblade – he stopped it because Manson stunk so bad due to never showering.
Brian Wilson in the studio while recording Pet Sounds in 1966
Dennis’ next stop was the house of Doris Day’s son, producer Terry Melcher. Melcher was the producer of the Byrds and a friend of The Beach Boys. He lent some production and background vocals to Pet Sounds. Manson auditioned his music for Melcher, but Melcher had no interest in signing him. As Manson left Melcher’s house located at 10050 Cielo Drive, he was enraged and dejected. He would never forget this rejection. And the house where it happened.
10050 Cielo Drive, in Benedict Canyon, California
Charles Manson decided – “if I can’t get a song recorded, perhaps the Beach Boys could” and he penned the song “Cease to Exist” for the band. He presented it to Dennis as a song about submitting to love. His love. This was perhaps a thinly veiled warning that he would “cease to exist” if he didn’t. For whatever reason, Dennis decided to alter some of the lyrics and the song structure and present the song as his own to his bandmates. Specifically, he changed the lyric “cease to exist” to “cease to resist”. Perhaps echoing his inability to do so when it came to Charlie. He also changed the title.
This song was an out of date, bluesy love song called “Never Learn Not To Love” off their 1969 album – 20/20. It was performed live on the Mike Douglas Show. A Charles Manson song. Live on variety television. The rest of his bandmates wouldn’t find this out until years later.
The original “Cease to Exist” sung by Charles Manson himself
Even though Manson received a sum of cash and a motorcycle for the track, he was furious that Dennis Wilson changed his lyrics and title. According to Beach Boys collaborator Van Dyke Parks, Charles Manson visited Dennis while he was with Parks and presented him with a bullet. He reportedly said to Dennis – “Every time you look at [this bullet], I want you to think how nice it is your kids are still safe”. In response to this threat, Dennis Wilson “proceeded to beat the living sh$#t out of Charles Manson, reducing him to tears”.
By August of 1968, Dennis Wilson finally became exhausted with Manson and his followers bumming around his house and pilfering his food and utilities. All in, the group had cost Dennis tens of thousands of dollars. They maxed out his credit cards. They totaled an uninsured $21,000 Mercedes (half a million in today’s dollars) and wrecked one of his Ferraris. In response to all of this, Dennis – still the passive California surfer – simply decided to move houses without formally kicking the Manson Family out of the Sunset Boulevard house. He’d leave this duty to the authorities.
A young Dennis Wilson, on his drum kit
We all know how this story ends. Charles Manson and his followers returned to Spahn Ranch and began planning a gruesome attack on the Hollywood elite that would serve as the final blow to the 1960s era of peace and love. An era that was already on its last legs. On August 8, 1969, members of the Manson Family pulled up to Terry Melcher’s house at 10050 Cielo Drive. Except, Melcher had since moved out, and the house was now being leased by director Roman Polanski (who was in Europe on this particular evening) and his wife, actress Sharon Tate – who was pregnant with Polanski’s child. With the same hands that they fed Dennis Wilson strawberry cake, the Family murdered Sharon Tate, Brian Wilson’s hairdresser Jay Sebring, heiress to the Folgers coffee fortune Abigail Folger, friend of the house caretaker Steven Parent and aspiring screenwriter Wojciech Frykowski. Two nights later, the group – with the actual assistance of Manson – murdered supermarket executive Leno and his wife Rosemary LaBianca. Present at both of these murders was Patricia Krenwinkel – the girl that Dennis Wilson originally picked up on that fateful ride from Malibu.
Sharon Tate, in the doorway of 10050 Cielo Drive
Much speculation surrounds the question of why Terry Melcher’s former house was targeted and if the Manson Family expected Melcher to be there or not. According to crown prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, Charles Manson knew that Melcher had moved out. According to one of the main perpetrators of both crimes, Manson Family member Susan Atkins – 10050 Cielo Drive was chosen to “to instill fear into Terry Melcher because Terry had given us his word on a few things and never came through with them”. A plausible theory is that this was simply a house that Manson knew the layout of and had been stalking outside of it on a few occasions after the Melcher rejection. Brian Wilson states in his 2016 memoir that he had done so after Tate had moved in. Regardless, Melcher was mortified and sought psychiatric help for many years after the fact.
Terry Melcher (left) in his former 10050 Cielo Drive home
Despite the friendship of Dennis Wilson and Charles Manson fading after the summer of 1968, the ghost of Charles Manson and his murders are entrenched in the story of The Beach Boys. For a band that tried their best to avoid the darkness of the 1960s through California coast optimism, Charles Manson closed the shutters on their ever shining sun. His history is intertwined with theirs and through “Cease to Exist/Never Learn Not to Love”, his music stains their discography. Although he would never publicly talk about his former relationship with Manson, the “what-ifs” haunted Dennis Wilson. What if I didn’t pick up those girls in Malibu? What if I didn’t encourage Charlie’s music so much? What if I didn’t bring him to Terry’s place? According to Mike Love, Dennis “carried that guilt with him for the last 14 years of his life”. This guilt, among other issues, manifested itself into rampant substance abuse and reckless behavior that would follow Dennis throughout the 1970s to the point where the Beach Boy couldn’t swim any longer. On December 28, 1983 Dennis dove into Marina Del Rey while drunk and drowned. The Age of Aquarius, with blood in its waters.
Carlin, Peter Ames. Catch a Wave: The Rise, Fall & Redemption of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson. Emmaus: Rodale, 2006.
Sanders, Ed. The Family. Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2002.
Lake, Dianne, and Deborah Herman. Member of the Family: My Story of Charles Manson, Life inside His Cult, and the Darkness That Ended the Sixties. New York, NY: William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2017.
Love, Mike, and James S. Hirsch. Good Vibrations: My Life as a Beach Boy. New York: Blue Rider Press, 2016.
Nolan, Tom. “Beach Boys: A California Saga, Part II”. Rolling Stone, November 11, 1971.
Sanders, Ed. The Family. Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2002.
Timberg, Scott. “Drugs, Paranoia and a Creepy Charles Manson Connection: Why We’re Still Fascinated with the Dark Drama of the Beach Boys.” Salon, June 5, 2015.
Wilson, Brian, and Ben Greenman. I Am Brian Wilson: A Memoir. Toronto: Random House Canada, 2016.