Graded on a Curve:
The Beach Boys, “Bluebirds Over the Mountain” b/w “Never Learn Not to Love”

Existence is unutterably strange. It’s a fact. The world is filled with miracles and marvels and inexplicable occurrences that defy all rational explanation and that stand, in fact, as rebukes to the very conception of rationality itself. Take the 45 rpm record I hold metaphorically before me. Soon I will place it on my metaphorical record player. It’s by a band called The Beach Boys. Perhaps you’ve heard of them. Boy, could they sing!

But I’m not here to write about the baroque vocal skills of the band that gave us “Good Vibrations,” or how the Beach Boys gradually shed their squeaky-clean image to become hirsute, coke-snorting, acid-gobbling hippies. I’m here to talk about their choice in covers; specifically in the case of the metaphorical single that is now playing on my record player. The A-side of the 1968 single, entitled “Bluebirds Over the Mountain,” was written and recorded by rockabilly artist Ersel Hickey in 1957. The B-side is entitled “Never Learn Not to Love,” and is a blatant (as in he took everything from soup to nuts) Dennis Wilson steal of “Cease to Exist,” a song written by one Charles Milles Manson, of swastika carved on forehead and Tate/LaBianca murder spree fame. Both tunes ended up on The Beach Boy’s 1969 LP 20/20.

The BB’s cover of “Bluebirds Over the Mountain”—which Brian Johnston brought to the band—is a calypso flavored rock tune of the tamest sort, and not exactly what I would call either catchy or hit material. Mike Love, Carl Wilson, and Johnston all sing, with Love handling lead vocals on the verses and bridge and Wilson and Johnston sharing lead vocals on the choruses, but they lack spunk, and seem to be merely going through the motions. (Check out “Heroes and Villains” and “Sloop John B” for some real vocals.) Indeed, the best thing about the mediocre “Bluebirds” is the guitar work of ringer Ed Carter, a former member of R&B band The Shufflers turned member of the Beach Boys’ backing band, which also included great Daryl Dragon, who was later promoted to captain of Captain and Tennille.

As for “Cease to Exist/Never Learn Not to Love,” Dennis Wilson wouldn’t have been so cavalier in ripping off Manson had he known that Charlie and his makeshift family of “garbage people” were capable of committing a series of savage murders. But the Manson Family constitutes a classic case of 20/20 hindsight. Everybody wants to know, what were the Beach Boys doing hanging with a spree killer and maniac? When the truth is that while a few folks saw “the Wizard” as spooky, a manipulative ex-con, and a sociopath, there were plenty of others who saw him as a living example of art brut, a musical diamond in the rough, and even a sage. But nobody I’ve ever heard or read about predicted that The Manson Family was capable of cold-blooded killing.

Indeed, Dennis Wilson was so tight with Charlie—and erotically enticed by the Manson Girls and their “sure, why not?” attitude towards sex—he invited the Family to move into his house at 14400 Sunset Boulevard; not a wise move, but once again we’re looking at the Manson Family through the spectrum of what they would become, not what they were in 1968. No one saw Manson as a killer; he was, rather, the charismatic jailhouse philosopher who uttered LSD-inspired koans like, “No sense makes sense”; the wildly flailing dancer who according to legend could clear the dance floor of the Whisky a Go Go in minutes; and the freak-folk songwriter of no small talent about whom Neil Young (who wrote “Revolution Blues” about the Manson Family, only to have pussy C, pussy S, and pussy N refuse to play it live on their 1974 reunion tour) said could be a star had he been able to put a band together like the one Dylan put together for “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” But, he was careful to add, that was never going to happen. because Manson was just too plain nuts.

Nuts or no, Manson finally caught a break when Phil Kaufman—one of the guys who stole Gram Parsons’ corpse and burned it in California’s Joshua Tree National Park—produced a series of sessions with that would be released in March 1970 as Lie: The Love and Terror Cult.

Why Dennis Wilson, who saw to it that The Beach Boys recorded “Cease to Exist”—following a change of title, some reworking of the lyrics (“Cease to exist” became “Cease to resist”), and a shift away from Manson’s bluesier take on the song—to help Manson get a toehold in the muz biz, only to perform an about-face and deny Manson a songwriting credit (and the monies that came with it) remains a mystery.

In any event, “Never Learn Not to Love” is a catchy tune, which opens with, well, I’m not sure what it is. A Hammond organ on which the volume is being slowly turned up? One deranged and heavily distorted guitar? Oh, who cares? What’s important is that “Never Learn Not to Love” boasts a cool melody, great backing vocals by Carl Wilson, and one hyperactive tambourine. Dennis Wilson does a great job on lead vocals, and why it wasn’t chosen as the A-Side instead of “Bluebirds Over the Mountain” is beyond me. In fact, I can count half-dozen tunes on 20/20 that would have made a better single than “Bluebirds.”

And what’s the oddest thing? Just this: Manson’s take is actually superior to The Beach Boys’ cover. Manson’s vocals are good, and always comes as a surprise if you’ve never heard them—you expect a tattered, raw, and raggedy voice, with a touch of lunatic rage, but what you get is a smooth-voiced folk singer, circa 1962. Manson was no rocker; he was a coffeehouse singer, and would have fit right in at The Kettle of Fish.

Slow and bluesy, the only players on “Cease to Exist” are Manson on vocals and acoustic guitar and Bobby Beausoleil—former actor in the satanic films of Kenneth Anger, one-time member of Arthur Lee’s pre-Love folk-rock band The Grass Roots, and future murderer of music teacher Gary Hinman—throwing in some impressive Buffalo Springfield-accented licks on electric guitar. This stripped-down approach gives the song an impressive lo-fi immediacy that is a million miles away from the Beach Boys’ treatment. Lie sounds like it was produced in one of the dilapidated buildings (the saloon, perhaps) on Spahn Movie Ranch, the abandoned film set that the Manson Family called home when they weren’t holed up at the virtually inaccessible Barker Ranch in Death Valley. In fact, however, the LP was recorded at various studios around Los Angeles.

What’s the moral of the story? I’ll be damned if I know. I’m not so certain there is a story. Or a moral. Perhaps it’s that, back in the Year of Our Lord 1969, there were heroes and villains just like in The Beach Boys’ song. The only problem was telling them apart. If you took acid you were a Brother, and Wizard Charlie and his Family took shitloads of acid. A Beach Boys/Manson connection seems far-fetched, but as Lou Reed once sang, “Those were different times,” and everybody had to learn their lesson about Aquarian unity the hard way.

Take Dennis Wilson. He let the Manson Family stay at his home, and they repaid him by making off with anything that wasn’t nailed down, including his gold records. It finally got so bad that Wilson, who was catching glimpses of Manson’s dark side, paranoia, and ire, simply packed up what he needed and took off, in effect abandoning his home to his guests, rather than risking Manson’s wrath by giving said guests the bum’s rush. So much for good vibrations.

Nobody but perhaps Manson knew it, but “Cease to Exist” was moving from the realm of the metaphysical to the literal, and “Helter Skelter,” which would leave blisters on everybody’s fingers, was coming down. And soon there would be bloody messages on the doors and appliances of 10050 Cielo Drive and 3301 Waverly Drive, messages that would make Manson a star at last. Which is not, I suspect, what Joni Mitchell had in mind when sang about the “star-making machinery.”

Then again, like they always say, any publicity is good publicity, and the murderous Manson is a rock star to some, and will be until the day he dies in prison. And why? Because, street smart as he was, Manson was dumb enough to try to read secret messages into the songs on the Beatles’ White Album, whose only real secret message is there are no secret messages in the White Album. That said, “Helter Skelter” is still one damn good song. Best thing the Beatles ever did.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B-

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