Cease to Exist: Charles Manson, Dennis Wilson and the Death of Flower Power

Written by Fay Marsden 

California. Surfing. Summer. Flower power hippies on the beach. These are images one would perhaps conjure when thinking about The Beach Boys. The band is most known for their 1966 release Pet Sounds, including songs such as ‘God Only Knows’ and ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’. With their matching outfits, harmonies and music videos with girls in bikinis pretending to surf, they maintained a saccharine and upbeat style throughout their musical career. One would therefore understandably be confused when told they were linked to the serial killer Charles Manson, who was the leader of the cult known as the ‘Manson Family.’ It gets more intriguing than this. One of their songs was written by him, and this song was a contributory factor that provoked the Manson Family’s serial killings.

The frighteningly coercive song ‘Never Learn Not to Love’ (1969) was written by Manson, who initially had entitled it ‘Cease to Exist’. Mark Dillon has described the song as a ‘Family recruitment jingle,’ which rings true when noting these particular lyrics:

‘Cease to resist, come and say you love me

Give up your world, come on and be with me’

‘My life is yours

And you can have my world’

‘Submission is a gift, give it to your lover’

Glancing at these lyrics without knowing of Manson’s involvement with them, it would be tempting to consider it an outdated love song; troubling (the connotations of ‘cease to resist’ and ‘submission is a gift’ are particularly worrying), but, ultimately, a song of its time. However, given Manson’s penmanship of these lyrics, the song becomes even more sinister.

In order to understand why The Beach Boys released such a troublesome song it is vital to examine the friendship between Manson and the band’s drummer, Dennis Wilson. Wilson was known for his heavy drug use and, his subscription to the typical ‘free love’ lifestyle of 1960s youth culture. In the spring of 1968, Wilson brought two female hitchhikers back to his mansion in Los Angeles. Unbeknownst to him, they were members of the Family – a group of men and women who worshipped Manson as a kind of spiritual leader or guru, as well as a father. Manson himself believed that his Family was the perfect grouping of white, disenfranchised and rejected children of America. Many of them had been abandoned by their parents and were ultimately vulnerable and easily led. Manson gave them an outlet to live a free love, ‘hippy’ lifestyle, without having to conform to other societal rules. One could go so far as to label them a consequence of the new movements of the 1960s: an increasing emphasis on free love, an obsession with pop culture, and the flourishing of spiritualism outside of religion. Scientology for example, whilst not founded in the 1960s, gained huge traction in this period.

Wilson befriended Manson and his Family, and moved them into his home for a few months, where they lived their ideal spiritual communal lifestyle. In exchange for access to Manson’s female members, Wilson shared all that he owned with the Family. It was through this burgeoning friendship that Manson revealed to Wilson that he wished to be a successful musician. He was obsessed with the flourishing pop culture of the 1960s, most famously with The Beatles, whose song ‘Helter Skelter’ (1968) was interpreted by Manson as a call for an inevitable race war in the United States, when it was actually about a children’s fairground ride. With Wilson being a member of one of the most popular bands in the US at the time, he attempted to use Wilson’s musical connections to get a record deal. His goal was to spread his message universally. Wilson got in contact with Terry Melcher – the producer of The Byrds – to try and forge this record deal; yet, nothing came of it. Melcher claimed that Manson had no idea of how the music industry worked, and was not impressed with his style. Manson took this incredibly personally.

         Meanwhile, Dennis was becoming increasingly disillusioned with Manson. The Family had taken almost $100,000 from him, and he was becoming suspicious of their lifestyle. He managed to get the Family to move out of his home in late 1968, and they moved on to new things. This was not the end of his connection with Manson, however. In February 1969, The Beach Boys released their album 20/20, which featured a song that Manson had written. Dennis had appropriated the song, changed the lyrics slightly, and retitled it ‘Never Learn Not to Love’ instead of ‘Cease to Exist.’ The song was credited solely to Dennis Wilson. Given that Manson had intended all of his own songs to be used to put forward his message, he was furious. Mike Love, fellow Beach Boys member, has claimed that he was completely unaware of Manson’s involvement in the song. Manson, however, would never forget about this betrayal. He demanded money from Dennis, and left a chilling warning for him, threatening him and claiming that he knew where he and his children lived. In an unsettling interview with Manson in 1994, he claims ‘I gave Dennis Wilson a bullet didn’t I? I gave him a bullet because he… he changed the words to my song.’ Needless to say, Wilson was terrified, and along with Melcher, he fled from LA.

         In the meantime, the Family were preparing for their Helter Skelter race war. They accumulated guns, money and weaponry to take this battle to the streets. The civil rights movement of the 1960s and freedoms that black people had gained in this period inevitably had a backlash – especially from people like those of the Manson Family, the self-proclaimed rejects of America. It is no surprise that they took Manson’s word of an impending racial war. This war never came. Instead, they embarked on a series of incredibly violent, ritualistic and racially motivated murders. On 9 August 1969, they broke into Terry Mulcher’s old house, (at the time being rented to Roman Polanski and his wife, actress and model Sharon Tate), and murdered five people, including Tate. The next day, they killed again. Leno and Rosemary LaBianca were murdered in their home, with ‘death to pigs’ and ‘helter skelter’ written on the walls of their house. This was no doubt a reference to the racial war they intended to provoke. Charles Manson has repeatedly put the blame for these murders on Terry Melcher’s door – he rejected him for a record deal and refused to spread the message of Manson, and so he had to spread it himself.

         According to Dennis Wilson’s friends and bandmates, the situation with Charles Manson scarred him. He felt personally responsible – through appropriating Manson’s song – for the murders; as did Melcher for turning him down. It has been argued that the Manson Family murders of late 1969 ultimately ended the era of flower power and ‘hippy’ youth culture. Manson’s cult was essentially founded from the movements of this period – free love, spiritualism, and an obsession with the music industry and pop culture. The huge publicity of these violent and ritualistic murders led to public awareness of how these cultural elements could be twisted to become something sinister, violent and mind-altering. Essentially, people began to turn away from these movements of youth culture. Perhaps the era was so radically new, innovative and exciting, the only way for it to end was for the new ideals to merge into something horrific that would bring it crashing down.

         For a more detailed analysis on Dennis Wilson’s relationship with Charles Manson, there is an excellent documentary called ‘Cease to Exist’ which goes into detail about all aspects of the Manson Family and how it was intrinsically linked with pop culture.

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