By ANTHONY DeCURTIS
Published: August 1, 2009
SPEAKING about the 40th anniversary of Woodstock, Arlo Guthrie
recently asked, "How many other events from 1969 are we still talking
about?" Plenty, as it turns out, and for reasons far more compelling
than inexhaustible boomer nostalgia. By any measure, the last year of
the '60s was crammed with events, Woodstock among them, that have
lived on as symbolic battlegrounds in the culture wars that have
dominated our country's politics since then.
Do you perceive the Apollo 11 moon landing as a triumph of cold war
America's technological might, or as the "Oh, wow" first journey to
places "where no man has gone before"? Was the death of Mary Jo
Kopechne at Chappaquiddick a tragic accident that ultimately and
unfortunately put out of reach the presidential ambitions of an
idealistic young senator from Massachusetts? Or was it the most
egregious consequence of the Kennedy family's long chronicle of
recklessness and self-indulgence? Your answers to those questions
most likely reflect your place on the political spectrum.
It is the event that took place just a week before Woodstock,
however, that stands as the festival's dark shadow, a frightening
rebuke of the peace, love and granola good vibes that are being
celebrated this month. On Aug. 8 and 9, members of the so-called
Manson Family slaughtered seven people at the Los Angeles homes of
the pregnant actress Sharon Tate and Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. Even
after all this time, it's hard to comprehend how the shimmering apex
of countercultural values that Woodstock represents could coexist so
closely with their most horrifying nadir.
But that's what those days were like. Dramatic, even monumental
events whipped by so quickly that their meaning often seemed
impossible to determine, and it could be that they have grown more
complex over time. In a 1987 interview the singer Jackson Browne
described how, as a 20-year-old on the Los Angeles music scene, he
had heard about the "sexually free" inhabitants of Charles Manson's
commune on the Spahn Ranch and the sense of "tribal unity" there.
"Yeah, let's go out there," he thought, before being warned off by
Terry Melcher, a music producer who Mr. Manson, an aspiring
songwriter, hoped would land him a record deal. Mr. Manson also was
friendly for a time with Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys, who
recorded one of his songs. (And the beat goes on. Just last week, The
New York Post reported that Mr. Manson, now 74, had contacted the
producer Phil Spector both men currently reside in the California
State Prison in Corcoran for help with his music.)
"I knew Charlie Manson," Neil Young remarked in a recent documentary.
He goes on to describe how he discussed Mr. Manson's songwriting with
an executive at his record label, Reprise. "This guy, you know, he's
good," Mr. Young recalled saying. "He's just a little out of control."
Rightly or wrongly, "out of control" was a term that many members of
the group President Richard M. Nixon would soon define as the "silent
majority" might have applied to the counterculture, the citizens of
Woodstock Nation included. Nixon had taken office in 1969 partly on
the strength of a law-and-order platform; at the tumultuous 1968
Democratic National Convention in Chicago, people on the left may
have seen a brutal "police riot," but there were conservative viewers
who saw young people running wild and deserving any tear-gassing or
billy-clubbing they got.
No doubt Mr. Manson was far more a product of the American penal
institutions, where he had spent nearly half his life at the time of
his arrest for the Tate-LaBianca slayings, than the counterculture.
But their long hair, communal lifestyle and hippie-ish garb made him
and his crew look the part, and their anti-establishment rhetoric
(scrawling "pig" on the front door of Ms. Tate's house in her own
blood, to cite just one grisly example) sealed the connection in the
That the killers were viewed as heroes by the extreme wing of young
revolutionaries hardly helped matters. "Offing those rich pigs with
their own forks and knives, and then eating a meal in the same room,
far out! The Weathermen dig Charles Manson," declared Bernardine
Dohrn, now a law professor and the wife of the activist Bill Ayers,
at a convention of the Students for a Democratic Society. (Mr. Ayers
has asserted that his wife's statement was, in part, meant to be humorous.)
Nixon, needless to say, was savvy enough to exploit such links,
however clumsy his efforts might have seemed. During the trial of the
Manson defendants, Nixon spoke before a group of law enforcement
officials and accused the media of making Mr. Manson a "glamorous
figure." He went on to describe Mr. Manson as "guilty, directly or
indirectly, of eight murders." (There had been another killing the
That a sitting president would issue a verdict on an open case
provoked outrage and his comments were back in the news recently
when President Obama commented on the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr.
No slouch at manipulation himself, Mr. Manson, hoping for a mistrial,
smuggled into the courtroom a newspaper blaring the headline "Manson
Guilty, Nixon Declares" and flashed it in front of the jury.
So, indeed, Woodstock is not the only event to remember from 1969.
"It was the ugly side of the Maharishi," Mr. Young concluded,
comparing Mr. Manson's allure to that of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi,
the Indian guru who enchanted the Beatles and other prominent
musicians. "There's this one side, the nice flowers and white robes
and everything. And then there's something that looks a lot like it,
but just isn't it at all." And there's the brilliant "new dawn," in
the words of the Jefferson Airplane singer Grace Slick, that
Woodstock epitomized in all its tie-dye glory, as well as the
terrifying undercurrents that "tribal unity" may sometimes conceal.