The Untold Story Of The Creepy Charles Manson Song In Once Upon A Time In Hollywood
The first time we glimpse Charles Manson’s female followers in Quentin Tarantino’s long-awaited Manson Family epic, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, they don’t exactly seem murderous. They look sweet and innocent — a crew of barefoot hippie girls scavenging around a dumpster for food. They are giggling, and they are singing together, à cappella. It’s an odd song. It sounds like a children’s nursery rhyme, which is what I assumed it to be the first time I saw the film. It’s not.
Unlike many of the ’60s pop gems Tarantino lifted out of semi-obscurity for his kaleidoscopic love letter to 1969 and Manson Family lore, this track won’t be familiar to most Boomer-aged viewers. That’s because it’s a Charles Manson original. Titled “I’ll Never Say Never To Always,” it appears as a 39-second ditty on Manson’s 1970 album, Lie: The Love And Terror Cult, sung by young women with angelic voices. (Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, who is memorably played by Dakota Fanning, is one of the Manson girls credited with backup vocals on this album.) The film’s rendition is clearly modeled after this recording: fast, cheery, high-pitched. There is audible giggling. And despite how asinine the cult leader’s lyrics are (“it seems largely to be composed of rhythmic phrases learned from Manson,” noted arwulf arwulf in an AllMusic review), I’ll admit the song has a certain childlike charm to it.
The song does not appear anywhere on the movie’s sprawling soundtrack, which makes sense. For one thing, the producers probably don’t want to give off the impression of promoting Manson’s musical works. For another, nobody wants to listen to this creepy-ass hippie twaddle in between veritable mid-sixties jams like Roy Head’s “Treat Her Right” and Vanilla Fudge’s searing seven-minute cover of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.” Plus, the song as it appears in the film is not a preexisting recording; as far as I can tell, it’s sung by the actors.
In an interview with Variety, Tarantino’s longtime music supervisor, Mary Ramos, confirmed that it’s a real Manson song. “And just to let you know, because even considering using that, we wanted to … find out what happens if this is used, where the money goes,” Ramos emphasized. “And there was a trust set up for the victims, and no one even associated with the Mansons and the Manson family makes money off of that song.”
It’s common knowledge that, in addition to his sick Beatles fixation, Manson was an aspiring singer-songwriter. Before the brutal murders of Sharon Tate and others, he sought fame via more artistic means. He was not exactly good. As the critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote in 2017, “Manson was at best a musical mediocrity, a guy who could maybe string together a dippy melody but usually would just strum in hopes that he’d conjure a song.” Yet casual Once Upon A Time viewers may not know that he hobnobbed with rock royalty (including Neil Young, who was impressed by him) and even landed a song on the Beach Boys album 20/20, which was heavily revised and renamed “Never Learn Not to Love.” That achievement stemmed from Manson’s oddball friendship with Dennis Wilson, whose house Manson and his women commandeered and crashed at for months. (Before the murders, Manson wrecked this friendship by behaving like a nutcase and threatening the Beach Boy with bullets.)
Though Manson himself gets surprisingly little screen time in Once Upon A Time, the film is littered with subtle references to his musical “career.” In one ominous scene, he lurks outside Tate’s house and, when greeted by Jay Sebring, says he’s looking for Terry Melcher. Melcher, of course, was the powerful record producer who snubbed Manson after auditioning him and who previously lived in the house at 10050 Cielo Drive. That encounter really happened — before the murders, Manson visited the house asking for Melcher and came face-to-face with Tate. And the scene where fictional Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) picks up a hitchhiking Manson girl is likely inspired by the real-life anecdote in which Wilson picked up Ella Jo Bailey and future murderer Patricia Krenwinkel.
It is also true that the Manson women sang the cult leader’s own songs. They “sang his lyrics as they scavenged for food in dumpsters; they harmonized with Manson around the campfire at Spahn Ranch,” Jim DeRogatis wrote in a recent New Yorker piece. If you watch ABC’s 1994 TV special on the cult, there is haunting footage of the Manson Family reveling in a druggy fog at the ranch circa 1969. The song that plays over the clip? “I’ll Never Say Never To Always.”
The song was not formally released until 1970, after the Tate murders, when a guy named Phil Kaufman, who’d befriended Manson during a previous prison stint, arranged to release his album on a nothing label called Awareness Records. “[Manson] was very anxious for his music to be heard,” Kaufman has said. And though the material had been recorded as early as 1967, the record’s packaging — which spoofs a Life Magazine cover — clearly intended to cash in on Manson’s newfound infamy. (A folkier version of “I’ll Never Say Never To Always,” with some jaunty acoustic strumming, surfaced on The Family Jams, a separate album recorded by Manson’s followers in 1970.)
Kaufman is now 84 years old. Three years after releasing Manson’s album, he famously stole Gram Parsons’ body and set it on fire in Joshua Tree in accordance with Parsons’ wishes. I emailed Kaufman to ask whether I could interview him about Manson’s album. He sent me a one-word reply from an AOL email address: “No.” (That’s the whole email.) It is one of the most blunt interview rejections I’ve ever received, and I respect that.
Meanwhile, the story of “I’ll Never Say Never to Always” grew even weirder when Crispin Glover inexplicably covered it on his 1989 album The Big Problem ≠ The Solution. The Solution = Let It Be. If you have not heard this album, let me assure you that it is the most aggressively bizarre album ever released by a major Hollywood actor. There is a novelty song about clowns that rhymes “ground,” “sound,” “around,” “clown,” “frown,” “mound,” and “hound” all within its first 30 seconds. There is a whacked out cover of “These Boots Are Made for Walkin'” in which Glover sounds “like a dude on poppers doing karaoke after getting punched in the face,” to quote a remarkably accurate review from The Awl. And, amidst this chaos, we get the actor’s take on the Manson tune. Glover layers his voice in an antiseptic falsetto and leans into the song’s macabre appeal. It sounds like a schoolgirl chorus from hell.
I emailed Glover to ask why on earth he chose to cover Manson’s song. He did not respond. But it’s worth noting that by the late ’80s, a dark fascination with Manson had become pervasive in underground music circles. Sonic Youth’s “Death Valley ’69” and the Flaming Lips’ “Charlie Manson Blues” epitomized this fixation. 1989 was also the same year Marilyn Manson formed his eponymous band, solidifying his obsession with Manson lore by adopting the cult leader’s last name (the “Marilyn” comes from Marilyn Monroe). A few years later, when Guns N’ Roses covered a different Manson track on 1993’s “The Spaghetti Incident?”, Sharon Tate’s own sister was outraged enough to call for a boycott of Geffen Records.
More recently, “I’ll Never Say Never To Always” was used in a 2018 episode of the Netflix horror series Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina. It’s a suitably spooky context — Sabrina encounters the song being sung in choir class at a witch academy. Yet this rendition of the song incorporates such pleasing harmonies that the average viewer would never suspect it was written by one of the last century’s most infamous murderers.
Since my second viewing of Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, the song has been stuck in my head constantly. Listening to it gives me an icky feeling, knowing that Manson probably would have been thrilled by the idea that his music lives on after his death. I was surprised to find that the whole album is on Spotify, considering the streaming service has made a big show of removing alleged abusers like R. Kelly from playlists. And then relieved to remember that Manson isn’t around to bask in the attention or receive hypothetical 15-cent royalty checks from Spotify.
If Glover gets some dough for his weirdo novelty album, though, that’s good with me.