The freak-out changed my relationship to Charlie once again, though its impact, at the time, was more unconscious than conscious. While Charlie blamed the Family and the “uptight” vibes at the ranch for the craziness which erupted, claiming that he had no need to go through such “insanity” just because we did (thereby justifying his own quick and convenient departure), it was clear that he had failed to confront his own uncertainties and fears. He had violated his cardinal rule: “No one splits during an acid trip.” In the meantime, I had unwittingly assumed leadership, moving from a role of passive submission to one of self-assertion. Both the choking scene and the freak-out were experiences I had learned from. I owed that to Charlie, or at least I believed I did. Charlie, on the other hand, had grown increasingly more frustrated, first because the Family scene was not coming together as he envisioned, and second because of his failure to sell his music. He was divided within himself; on the one hand he wanted a spiritual, communal life with the Family, with “nothing to do but make love.” On the other hand, he sought success as a commercial entertainer, and wanted to influence the world with his music. We all believed the trip to the desert would resolve things. Charlie urged us to psyche up for the desert. We did; most of us anyway. All but Kim. For Kim the freak-out proved a violent and impassioned swan song. Shortly thereafter, he left the Family. Two days after his departure, the bus returned from
After completely rebuilding the engine, we bought new heavy-duty batteries, rewired the electrical system, and rigged up large adjustable outside mirrors. We loaded the cabinets with spare parts, tools, and an abundance of dried foods. The girls redecorated the interior, painting the dashboard and replacing the curtains. As we worked, Charlie’s mood became buoyant. Cappy had described her grandmother’s ranch as a veritable paradise of orchards, vineyards, and magical beauty, a place where we might realize our spiritual goals and truly come together. Soon, everyone was sharing Charlie’s enthusiasm. When word got out that we were leaving, the wranglers began coming around to inspect what we’d done to the bus. Benny shuffled in one afternoon, sipping some Jack Daniels: “Looks like a friggin’ whorehouse,” he quipped, removing his hat. “Cops are gonna shit if they pull you over and peek in here.” He had a point; the interior was lavish to the extreme: a two-room salon with plush carpets, pillows, satin curtains, a low-hanging tassel-studded headliner, a gas stove, and a new refrigerator. We were ready.
On the afternoon of October 31, 1968, I observed Charlie sitting on the hillside above the ranch, smoking a cigarette. I waved at him and he waved back. Minutes later – it must have been about four P.M. – he came down from the hill and sauntered into the ranch house, grinning. “Let’s git out of here!” In less than an hour everything was packed and loaded: mattresses, blankets, clothes, musical instruments, food supplies, five cases of zuzus, a kilo of grass, and fifty tabs of acid. We all boarded the bus and Charlie fired up the engine.
Charlie headed along the boardwalk, honking at Randy Star, who was ambling across the road carrying a saddle. “Keep a tight asshole, cowboy,” Charlie shouted out the window. If Randy heard him, he didn’t let on. We swerved to the left and bounced on down the rutted driveway along the corral gate toward Santa Susana Pass. That’s when I spotted a jack-o’-lantern perched on top of a fencepost and realized it was Halloween.
We camped the first night in a canyon somewhere in
He took a sip. “Out here,” he said, swallowing, “we got breathing room… it’s alive. The sun can get to you and there ain’t no hassles with cowboy motherfuckers and city rats. Look beyond that ridge… the way those clouds are… looks like
When we got to
Catherine Gilles was seventeen, and slightly overweight, with a cute pixielike face and short flaxen hair. From the very beginning, she exhibited a strong commitment to the Family scene. Charlie liked her. In time, she would become one of Charlie’s most capable and sequacious followers – even after he was convicted of the murders.
“What exactly did you tell your grandmother?” Charlie wanted to know.
“I just said me and some friends were going to come up and stay at the ranch.”
“But you didn’t say how many, right?”
“I just said some girls and me, mostly.”
“What if she gets nosy and sends someone up to check?”
“Any other places up there?”
“There’s the Barker ranch.”
“What’s the story on that?”
“I don’t think anyone’s there… I’m not sure.”
“It doesn’t matter… we’ll check it out. Hey” – Charlie grinned, putting his arm around Cappy – “this is God’s country out here, you know it.”
“Hey, Paul, why don’t you sing that song of yours about the crazy women in
Juan snapped his fingers. “Yes, I like dat song bery moch too.”
Clem tossed me the guitar. Everone clapped. Glancing at their faces, it was hard to imagine the freakout ever happened. Sadie sat near the rear of the bus nursing Zezos; Pooh Bear was asleep. Juan lay sprawled out of the floor, a languorous grin on his face, his stetson pulled over his eyes, a toothpick dangling from his mouth. The others sat huddled together beneath the satin canopy: Clem, Brooks, T.J., Ella, Stephanie, Ouisch, Bo, Juanita, Katie,
I am just a stranger here/ I come from down the road
I did not come to ask you all to help me share my load
I came to sing my songs for you
And to tell you where I’ve been
And maybe share a little time before I’m gone again
I was born in
My mother she was beautiful/ my father worked the stage
But I could not seem to go along with all they had in mind
So at the tender age of fourteen years, I left their house behind
Oh, I was free to put to sea and it was nineteen and sixty-two
So I went down a-fishin’ tuna in the waters of
Oh, the sun it was so hot down there, it drove the women all insane
And soon the salt of the seven seas was flowin’ in my veins
Now, I’ve seen the wall in
And I’ve heard it said that freedom is just a ramblin’ at the mouth
Yes, your masterminds and their dividin’ lines, why they’re just a passin’ trend
‘Cause freedom is a song of spirit, written on the wind…
It was late afternoon by the time we drove through Ballarat – a one-store outpost in the middle of the valley floor. From there we proceeded south, deeper into the valley toward
Finally, we arrived at a plateau at the base of the canyon and parked beside the remains of an old ranch house. Only the foundations were visible. On the ground, scattered amidst the decomposition, were rotted jeep tires, hubcaps, scraps of bleached canvas, and several whiskey bottles.
“I don’t think we better take the bus up Golar,” Cappy said, standing beside Charlie. “It’s too rocky.”
“Yeah, looks like one mean-ass drive,” Charlie concurred, gazing up the wash. “We’ll park here and hike in. How long’s it take to get up there?”
“Two hours, maybe three… if it doesn’t get dark on us.”
So the first of many treks up
At the top of the wash, we proceeded along a narrow road behind Cappy. She pointed out the Barker ranch off to the right – a low-slung dwelling secluded behind a stand of windblown cottonwoods and fronted by a grape vineyard. But we didn’t stop to check it out; instead, we trudged another quarter mile to the Meyers ranch. Cappy had not exaggerated; the surrounding property was lush with vegetation: salt cedar, tamarisk, fig, cottonwood, willow, and apple trees, and behind the house, a rolling expanse of vineyards and wildflowers. The ranch house itself was small and unpretentious, with a fair-sized living room (fifteen by thirty), a fireplace, two small bedrooms, a tiny kitchen, and an outdoor bathroom just off the back porch. The foundations of the house were made of narrow-gauge railroad ties, taken years before from a defunct Epsom-salts mine, then plastered over with stucco. It was a rustic, cozy little place and we moved right in and built a fire before gathering around to eat zuzus and canned fruit cocktail. By nine P.M. everyone was asleep.
The following morning we were all up at dawn. The girls made hotcakes and a huge vat of coffee and we sat around the fire eating, while Charlie divided us into the scouting parties. All morning we hiked the roads and trails through the mountains above the property. I went with Clem, Sadie, and Snake. Around noon we hiked to a promontory which towered over the ranch, and from which, to our right, we could look out upon the floor of
Death Valley actually forms but one part of the Great Basin of the
Shortly after noon that first day, everyone gathered at the top of
Charlie was still paranoid about staying at the Meyers place with so many people, particularly since Cappy’s grandmother was under the impression they were all girls. When he asked old Bob if he thought we might move into the Barker place, the old geezer said he thought so, but that it might be a good idea, “jes’ for the record,” to speak with the owner, Ma Barker, who lived down the valley at Indian Springs. Charlie agreed, and the next morning he and I hiked back down the wash and drove to Indian Springs to talk to Ma Barker.
We found her easily enough in a small, weather-tight cabin surrounded by a flaccid chain-link fence. She lived alone most of the time and that morning was seated on her front porch dozing with a newspaper in her lap. Charlie wasted no time in laying his rap on the gray-haired, grizzled old gal.
“It’s like Paul and me are musicians… you know; we done some music with the Beach Boys – and now we need solitude to do our music, get our own gig together. Up there on that mountain at your ranch… well, it’s about as pretty a place to compose music as I’ve ever seen… right, Paul? And if we get lucky and sell some stuff, who knows, we might all get rich.”
The old woman nodded, rocking back and forth in her chair, her eyes half-closed; a scrawny Siamese cat purred at her feet. Like George Spahn, she looked listless and torpid, but she hadn’t missed a thing. She said she was more than willing to let us stay at the ranch so long as we kept her place in order and “fixed what needed fixin’.”
“Why sure,” she said as we were leaving. “That’s fine… you just take care of my property and do some good songs… that’ll be fine.”
Charlie thanked her again and gave her a Beach Boys’ gold record; then we split back down the
During Charlies’ rap with Ma Barker, I’d picked up the
I mentioned the article to Charlie as we drove through the valley toward
“Dig it, man,” Charlie said, gesturing with one hand while steering the bus with the other. “This shit can’t go on forever with blackie… pretty soon he’s gonna revolt and start kickin’ whitey’s ass. I’ve seen it buildin’ up for years. It was bad enough at Watts and San Francisco, but now that they wasted that jive-ass Martin Luther… well, that’s, a heavy number, man. I mean, you gotta figure whitey’s karma’s gotta turn one of these days… it’s just a matter of time. The heavy dudes, though, are the Muslims. I’ve seen those cats in jail. They sit back real stoic like and watch and stay cool, you know. But they’ll be the ones who bring the shit down. Yeah, it’s gonna come down hard… a full-on war. And when it does, we’re gonna be glad we’re out here.
“The trouble with blackie is, he wants to fuck all the white women… turn all the white babies brown.” Charlie jettisoned the empty can out the window. “That brings a lot of shit his way. I mean, it was never meant that the races get mixed; that’s what fucks everything up. That’s what makes whitey mad. But it won’t do any good, ‘cause it’s blackie’s turn. His day, you know. Hey man, we don’t want any part of that. It would destroy our whole scene.”
I didn’t pay too much attention to Charlie’s racial rap; it sounded pretty farfetched. I knew he didn’t like blacks. But with the exception of an occasional offhand slur or an old prison joke, he never really said much about “blackie.” I never dreamed that in time the notion of a racial war between “blackie” and “whitey” would become the core of Helter-Skelter.
It was dark by the time we got back to
COPYRIGHT PAUL WATKINS AND GUILLERMO SOLEDAD