On April 4, 1968 (the day Martin Luther King was gunned down in
I spent a week on the beach, alone. Then, early one morning, on the spur of the moment, I decided to hitchhike into Big
It was a beautiful spread, built on five acres of ground with a year-round stream at one end of the property and a developed fifty-gallon-a-minute spring (with gravity-flow plumbing) on the other. There were a spacious garden area, a weather-tight poultry house, and an abundance of usable building materials; sawn and stacked lumber, pipe fittings, sheet metal, nails, screws, tools of all kinds, a hand plow, and a beat-up engineless Model-T Ford which sat in the middle of the yard.
For the next three months I lived alone on the place, enjoying the natural beauty and solitude. The plump, green hillsides were scattered with oak and pine set against a backdrop of blooming wildflowers. The salt air was invigorating. White gulls soared in daily from the beach, circling and sailing the skies alongside hawks and vultures. I felt like a king living high on the hillside, completely divorced from the vicissitudes and traumas of the outside world – the chaos of
Then, just two weeks before Kevin was due back, Ray got in a hassle with his wife, Letti, and asked to move in with me; since Ray was Kevin's close friend, I didn’t have a much choice in the matter. Things worked out for a day or two, until Letti started charging up to the house to cuss and fume and threaten Ray with a lawsuit. She was a big, full-breasted, bawdy gal from the
Late one night she got drunk and started banging on our front door. Ray and I were in bed. He was snoring and didn't wake up; but I did. I could hear her shouting: "Ray, goddamnit… Ray, open the door… You prick! You asshole with ears… I heard what you told the lawyer. I heard what you said, you shit-for-brains motherfucker!" I woke Ray and told him to get his ass out there and tend to his wife before she broke down the door. Meanwhile, Wiley was barking and she was calling him names. "Hey," she shouted at us, "I'll make dog-salad air conditioning out of that canine if you sic him on me." That's when I looked out the window and, in the glow of the porch light, saw that Letti was toting a twelve-gauge shotgun.
"What the hell is with you, anyway, damnit!" I heard Ray mutter as he stepped out the door. They yammered at each other for about twenty minutes; then Ray came in and said he was walking her back to the house. "All she needs, Paul, is a good screwin'. … I'll be back."
The next morning. Just before dawn, I climbed the hill to a vantage point from which I could look down on the highway. Sitting there reminded me of my spot in Topanga canyon, and I thought about what my next move would be. Across the ravine I spotted Ray trudging toward Kevin's barn carrying a bucket. He was feeding the animals and collecting eggs. He's already moved back to Kevin's; said his old lady had called her brother, who was coming in from
I smoked a joint and watched the gulls glide across the sky, embedded there like flecks of jewelry. I wondered why there were so many cars on the highway that day, then remembered it was the Fourth of July. I watched the sun come up, and went back to the cabin and wrote Kevin a letter. I thanked him and told him I was splitting. Despite his problems with Letti, I knew Ray would take good care of the place. Then I packed my stuff, said good-bye to Ray, and started south.
By noon I was standing on the corner of
"Hey, far-out!" Brenda smiled. "It's you… uh…"
"Yeah, Paul, right!" She brushed the hair from her face as Snake leaned forward to let me into the back. There were several stacks of produce and caned foods on the seat. I set them on the floor and took off my pack.
"Been shopping, huh?"
"We just go down and clean out the trash behind those big supermarkets in the valley… those pigs throw away all kinds of good stuff… look at it, all fresh food… help yourself to some apricots." She eased back onto the highway. Snake smiled at me.
"Where have you been, anyway?"'
I briefly recounted my adventures in
"We're living up at Spahn's Ranch now," Brenda enthused. "It's a trippy place… beautiful, away from everything. Ever been there?"
I shook my head at her sparkling green eyes in the rearview mirror.
"Why don't you come up and say hi to Charlie?"
I didn't think much about seeing Charlie. Nut I had nowhere else to go.
"Sure," I said. "Why not?"
We drove up
They both giggled. I let it slide, thinking it some sort of inside joke.
It was hot, bright, and smoggy, yet the drive revitalized me as the wind poured through Snake's window. I was still slightly spaced-out after leaving the mountains so abruptly, particularly after the comically bizarre episode the night before with Letti and Ray. I had no clue what my next move would be as I gazed out at the ocher-colored foothills; I did know that my first priority was to get laid. I'd heard about Spahn's Ranch, remembered friends at various times going there to ride horseback. I knew it used to be a set for
We took a back road off
As we drove slowly beside the battered boardwalk of the "town," Brenda pointed out the movie sets – Longhorn Saloon, Rock City Café, an undertaking parlor, the jail, the tack room – and out behind these structures, the house of the owner, a half-blind eighty-two-year-old man named George Smith, whom Snake called a "real cutie." In fact, George was sitting outside his house in the sunlight in a rocking chair as we drove by in a cloud of dust. Father down the road (about a quarter of a mile off to the left), sequestered behind a stand of eucalyptus trees, was the main ranch house. "George is renting it now to a bunch of hippies," Brenda said. "They're not with Charlie," Snake added. "Just kids George lets hang around." I spotted some of the "kids" sitting outside the house playing music. I was tempted to join them, but the girls insisted on taking me back to what they called "the outlaw shacks," where the Family was then staying: two small dilapidated redwood structures within a stone's throw of the main ranch house.
We were approaching the shacks when down the ravine came a group of riders (a man, a woman, and several seven- or eight-year-old children) trotting at a good clip toward the road. We waved at them and the kid grinned and waved back. One of the boys jerked a toy six-gun from his holster, aiming at us as we passed them. I played like I was hit before firing back in mock retaliation with my index finger. Moments later we skidded to a stop beside a battered green pickup truck.
Before we were out of the car, the door of the shack opened and I looked up to see Charlie,
"Hey, man, what's happening?" He bounded off the porch. "Long time no see…um…Paul, right?"
"Paul Watkins." We clasped hands hippie-style. Again it stuck to me that Charlie and I were close in size.
"You're lookin' good, man. What kind of gig you into these days?"
I repeated the story I'd told Brenda and Snake, while the girls carried the sacks of groceries into the house.
"Hey, dig it." Charlie spun the keys. "We have to split for a while…but we'll be right back. Stick around, huh?"
"Far-out. Snake's gonna be here…if you need anything. Hey we can play some music when I get back." He hoped into the cab of the truck and honked the horn. Moments later, Brenda, Squeaky, and
It must have been about two in the afternoon when Charlie split. I went back into the shack to leave my gear and get my horn. It all looked pretty familiar, probably from shoot-outs I'd seen that had been filmed in the same dwelling. The furniture had been cleared out; the floor reminded me of Jay's living room that night in March: wall-to-wall mattresses, blankets, and sleeping bags – one big communal bed. Snake told me that Katie, Sadie, Mary, Ella, and Stephanie had gone to Mendocino but would be back soon. Bruce Davis, she said, had "gone on his own trip."
I talked to Snake a while, then took my horn and walked down the road toward the ranch house and the sound of music – two guitars and a harmonica. It was hot and dusty, the air pungent with the smell of fresh horseshit along the roadside. There were a dozen or more hippie kids – guys and girls – still congregated in a circle under a stand of eucalyptus, smoking dope and jamming when a joined them. It was a friendly scene and I got down with the music, feeling good doing sounds with a group after three months of solos and solitude.
Later I rolled a joint and hiked up a rock on the hillside overlooking the ranch. The air was fresher up there, and I detected the aroma of coffee being brewed. Across the ravine on another slope I saw two of the Spahn Ranch wranglers herding a dozen or more mares toward the ravine. I waved but they didn't see me. I peeled off my shirt and began to ponder my options. I really didn't know what my next move would be: Maybe head back to Big Sure again, after my trial; or set out to find Black Beard; or go back to school to please my folks. None of these ideas appealed to me. I finished off the joint, and then stood up to take a piss. That's when I spotted Snake at the foot of the hill, strolling aimlessly, it appeared, beneath the eucalyptus trees. From time to time she glanced up at me and smiled. She'd changed her clothes. Standing in the sunlight, her body was silhouetted inside a silky yellow summer dress. While I didn't know it at the time, I would later learn that Charlie had left her behind to seduce me.
Charlie had met her there and talked her parents into letting her join him. At fourteen she was a veteran of acid trips and orgies. Only later would I learn how strong a hold Charlie had on her. But before the beginning I felt a sole kinship to Snake. I was aware of a deep sensitivity and visceral toughness that would sustain her through experiences which might well have shattered the average person. My bond with her was to remain a strong one.
When she started down the trail toward the creek, I followed her. We spent the rest of the afternoon making love in the sunshine on a grassy knoll just a few feet from the creek bed.
It was dusk by the time we wondered back to the outlaw shacks. Charlie and the other girls were sitting outside on the porch. Charlie was playing the guitar, making up songs. He grinned when he saw us and flicked the hair from his eyes. When Snake went into the house, Charlie followed her. Moments later he returned and asked if I wanted to take a ride with him into
"Hey, man, dig it…Snake made a dandy report on you…says you make love real good." He beamed. His face was animated, full of color, his eyes bright and energized.
"Does she tell you everything?"
Charlie hooted. "Hey, she's one of my girls." He pulled some dark glasses from the visor and put them on. "You like her?"
I said I liked her, and Charlie gave me a roguish grin before slapping me paternally on the knee.
We boogied out to the
Charlie eased the truck into the right lane. "You know, man," he said, "you ought to move in with us a while."
"I got some things to do…a few other trips."
"What you got to do? Hey…I ain't trying to pry…a man should never put his business in the street – but the point is, there's nothing to do, dig?"
"Got a court hearing coming up…the I may go up to Big Sur…I had a nice little scene up there…I'm not sure yet…"
"Look, we have our own little scene at Spahn's. You're welcome to stay if you want to. Everything is there. Mostly what we have is a lot of love. It's my love and I give it to you…like if you’ve been on the road and want a place to hang out for a while, rest up, you got people who love you." He spit out the window. "You got some troubles with the man, hey, I can help you out there. Where cops, lawyers, and jerk-off judges are concerned, I'm an expert…Mainly with the hear, you just mostly play dumb, dig…play it by ear…just slide right along with their greasy, pig-power games. The pigs aren't really bad, man. Mainly they're just dumb. So you play a little dumber and they suddenly think they're smart. That's pretty much how it is: the dumber they think you are, the better they feel, the more they let you slide."
Listening to Charlie was a trip. Few people I've known could ever compete with Charles Manson when it came to lying down a rap – winding one sentence on top of another from some infinite unfathomable coil of associations. His train of thoughts had roots in a sea of theory and experiences, and while the logic was never precise – invariably shot through with a non sequiturs and bizarre anecdotes – the flow was always spontaneous and compelling, all the more intriguing because the paradox of his personality was built right into the dialogue: a blend of jocular machismo on the one hand, and a kind of soothing spiritual wisdom on the other. It blew my mind.
We were driving down Sunset Boulevard toward Bel Air. Charlie was still talking: "Ya see, I have five girls coming back this week from up north. I'm going to need some help. That's a lot of women to care for, dig?...What I mean is, they gotta be fucked, regular. That's just the way it is. You can say whatever you want, but that's the trip. But if you love them, man, they'll take care of you: feed you, bleed you, clothe you…Stand by you down the line. They'll make you strong and you'll make them strong, you dig? It's survival, that's all. The more a woman submits, the stronger she is. The stronger she is, the stronger you are. If you got women who'll stand by your trip, Paul…well, then you have a good scene…it's like money in the bank. Hey, I could use your help, man…
"Look, you want to make a trip to Big Sur, we'll all go with you…just pile in the big bus and boogie up there. Our scene is mobile…I just leave a couple of girls with George. If it's happening at
It was not a difficult decision to make. I like Charlie. And I definitely liked the harem he had going at Spahn's. It intrigued me: how did he do it? Certainly at no time in my life would I ever have so many women available to me. At eighteen, I could handle it. I guess that's what Charlie figured. I was convinced too, in those days, that a person lived best when he flowed with the events and circumstances of the moment. By being on the road at the right time, I had managed to live like a king in the mountains of
Some of what he said smacked of sermons I'd heard as a kid; some of it, at times, sounded pompous. But the core of it was fundamental to what I believed, and somehow Charlie's music, his unpretentiousness, his smallness, his past, his humility, his general funkiness, made it all palatable. I had yet to see the other side of the coin.
In retrospect, I realize to that our being about the same size played a substantial role, not only in the beginning but later on. Being five-foot-five in a macho world of six-footers was never easy. It's a bit like being a racial minority, being literally "looked down upon." There is a definite camaraderie among small men, and there's no questions, where Charlie was concerned, they got the benefit of the doubt. He had clearly paid his own dues in that regard; he had, in fact, survived seventeen years in concrete jungles behind bars and walls, using his brain to accomplish what his brawn was clearly incapable of. Because of my size – my parents wanted me to become a jockey (two of my uncles had ridden winners in the Kentucky Derby) – I did not pose a threat to Charlie physically. Perhaps because of this, we came to share an intimacy that was unique within the family. At the time I was eighteen, he was thirty-four – old for the hippie world. I believe he saw in me (standing before him eye-to-eye) the epitome of the enthusiastic flower child. At an unconscious level, perhaps, I became his mirror, reflecting the emergence of the flower child in him, the emergence of his own long-stifled love. Though I noted an urgency in his request that disturbed me slightly, I dismissed it, not realizing that part of what I sensed was my own intuitive apprehension – of what, I had no idea.
By the time we turned into Dennis Wilson's sprawling estate and parked the pickup behind Dennis' Rolls-Royce, I had agreed to spend at least the rest of the summer with the Family.COPYRIGHT PAUL WATKINS AND GUILLERMO SOLEDAD