Yes, it is true. I did once have supper at the Spahn Ranch, with the infamous Charlie Manson and his family. It happened this in this way:
At one period, in the late sixties, I was pretty good friends with Dennis Wilson, of the Beach Boys. Together with my good friend David Dalton – who was one of the original contributing writers for Rolling Stone magazine, in the late ‘60’s – we would often visit Dennis in his beautiful little Benedict Canyon English cottage, in the foothills of Beverly Hills. What I’ll always remember about Dennis’ house is that there was no furniture, well, next to none. The furnishings in the big beamed living room consisted of a grand piano a big cane chair, hanging from a beam on a length of chain and some pillows on the hardwood floor.
One day, as we sat on pillows on the dark-stained oak floor, he told me that he had a friend, a songwriter friend that needed my help, as a producer. At that time, it appeared that Dennis was giving this friend, Charlie Manson, money and apparently, on occasion, even loaning him his Ferrari sports car. He had met Charlie when he was living on Sunset Boulevard and, according to him, caught the gonorrhea from one of (or both – he wasn’t sure!) two girls that Charlie had set him up with. Dennis had Charlie phone me and, after talking for about 20 minutes, Charlie invited me out to were he was staying, the Spahn Ranch in the Agoura Hills, for dinner and to hear his music.
The Spahn Ranch, which at one time had been the Paramount Ranch, was an old movie ranch were countless hundreds of westerns had been filmed over the years. Following Charlie’s directions, I drove up Highway 101 to the Topanga Canyon exit and turned left at Santa Susanna Pass Road, which took me up into the hills. The movie ranch property – 500 or so acres had originally belonged to William S. Hart, one of the first great Western movie stars who started his career as a Shakespearian actor. I made the trip out there, early one evening, in my little Mini Cooper ‘S’ accompanied by a girlfriend, Tanya Slonicki, a young aspiring photographic model. After an extremely rough and bumpy journey down a well-worn dirt road (the Mini Cooper ‘S’ only had 12” wheels!) we came upon the garage area of the old ranch house. Several young men were working on what appeared to be Volkswagen/Dune Buggies, in front of the garage, and there were several Volkswagen engines laying around on old army blankets.
The large living room of the ranch-style house seemed to be the center of activity with two fabric covered beds serving as day couches. After some brief introductions, I sat on one of them and Charlie sat next to me. Opposite us sat Charles “Tex” Watson, playing an acoustic guitar. Some of the ”flower children” of the Manson Family sat on the floor around us, while others just stood around, all of them joining in on the choruses as the songs were sung. The young girls had nicknames like Marnie (Patricia “Katie” Krenwinkel ), Snake, Yeller, Squeaky, Snake and Ouish (Ruth Ann Morehouse). One girl – Catherine Share (aka Gypsy) I’ve since found out – had a baby in a carrier on her back and played a violin. This was happening, simultaneously, as supper was being prepared, in the kitchen, by a few of the other girls.
The songs weren’t that bad, really. No instant hits or anything: Nice simple melodies that, with some work in the studio, could have come out quite decently, I remember thinking. Which was exactly the way that Dennis had described Charlie’s songs to me, when he first told me about him .
Supper was great – consisting of a stew of some kind followed by a fruit salad in a huge bowl, covered in fresh cream. Charlie told Tanya and me that most of the food was ‘donated’ by various supermarkets in the Woodland Hills/Topanga area. Slightly damaged or outdated fruit and vegetables and a dented canned goods being the main offerings. It appeared that the Manson “flower children” would make garbage runs to many of the supermarkets in the area and they would rummage through the dumpsters behind the various stores looking for out-dated food and damaged tinned goods et cetera. He said that Dennis had even made a couple of food runs with them.
After the meal we smoked a few joints and settled down for a comfortable talk. We discussed everything from music to religion to philosophy. The conversation was, for the most part, between Charlie and me with his followers sitting around us, mostly listening. Charlie had some strange, although not overly crazy ideas about things. Nothing that you could put your finger on, at least. Strangely, it happened that whenever Charlie would make a point about something, some of his young followers would say “Right on, Charlie! You tell him.” or other such unnecessary asides.
It was starting to get late, and before we left and it got too dark, Charlie said that he wanted to show me around what was left of the Spahn Ranch’s main ‘movie’ street set, which had been featured in many western movies. Leaving Tanya at the ranch house, we walked down a long-abandoned street of false store fronts and I took the opportunity to ask him what all that silly stuff with the kids and their “Right on’s!” and such, was about? He said, somewhat offhandedly, not to take any notice as they were just his children… nowhere to go…his followers and he was, “like…their king!” Those words, at the time had no real import as the true impact of them would not become apparent until months later and the horrific Tate/La Bianca murders that were committed by them. Plus, back then, living in a commune was not all that uncommon, especially in the remote hills of Southern California. I had only been to one such place before and was more curious than anything else about the carefree life-style, and all it’s living on the edge/free-love implications, that these young people had chosen for themselves. Charlie asked me if I wanted to stay the night, there at the ranch. He said that he’d like to ‘ball’ the girl that I was with and that I could, in turn, ball any girls that caught my eye. I quickly said no, remembering what Dennis had told me about catching the clap off the girls that Charlie had set him up with, when they’d first met.
Unbeknownst to anyone at the time, they had apparently already murdered the custodian of the ranch, Donald “Shorty” Shea, who was also an actor and movie stuntman, burying him somewhere on the property. If I’d have known all these things beforehand, I surely would have declined Charlie’s dinner invitation, without thinking twice. As it was, I had a chance to spend an evening with someone who, in the space of a few short months was to become one of America’s most notorious mass murderers.
A few days later, Charlie and several of his followers came down to Mystic Records, my studio which was on Selmer and Vine, in the center of Hollywood. He liked the studio a lot, mainly because there were several couches in the various offices and lounge. He said that this was great because they could stay at the studio – camp out – until the mood took them and then they could record. My business partner, Doug Moody, wisely told me after they’d left that this wasn’t going to happen as we were running a business, not a “crash pad”. So, nothing became of the proposed project and the horrific events that followed forever squashed any chances of it happening.
People have asked me if I sensed anything, you know, demonic madness, craziness or even a hint of murder in the air? No, none of that. I didn’t sense anything except perhaps Charlie’s obvious intelligence and his undeniable and charismatic hold over his young “flower children” followers.
© 2004 Christopher Huston