Baby boomers

Manson's Death One More Milepost in Waning Significance of Baby Boom Generation

Interest in the cult killer will ebb, just like the generation he claimed to represent.


So Charles Manson, the murderous, violent, demented cult killer, is dead at the age of 83. Buried with him is, likely, a cottage industry devoted to "the Family" that included best-selling books such as Helter Skelter, campy admirers of some of Charlie's girls such as filmmaker John Waters, and low-rated, quick-canceled TV police procedurals.

For all but true-crime enthusiasts and the few remaining Beach Boys fans, Manson had long ago effectively ceased to exist. Such it is and always will be: Notorious criminals whose foul acts might help explain their times get tapped out of meaning like a mine being played out of ore. Whatever wider significance one might have possibly gleaned from paying close attention to Manson's racist, paranoid delusions and the reaction of the square and countercultural America stopped mattering long ago. His death, like the pending sale of Rolling Stone and a hagiographic HBO documentary about that same magazine, is just one more sign that the baby boom generation's long turn in the spotlight is drawing to a close.

The 1969 killings that Manson masterminded were brutal, insane, unmotivated, and thus somehow perfectly of their time. Even more so was the trial of Manson, during which the defendant acted as his own attorney and repeatedly threatened the presiding judge before being condemned to death (a sentence ultimately overturned when the California Supreme Court banned executions). For me, the essential take on Manson remains Ed Sanders' The Family (1972), "the first complete, authoritative account of the career of Charles Manson," in the words of rock critic Robert Christgau. A poet and accidental (if short-lived) rock star by trade, Sanders casts Manson's bloody cult as "one of the culminations of America's public romance with the hippies." That Sanders was himself a card-carrying member of the cultural avant-garde makes his dogged shoe-leather reporting and moralizing far more powerful than that of the grandstanding prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi in Helter Skelter. If you pick up an old copy of The Family, make sure to get the first edition, before he was forced to redact information about The Process Church, a once-notorious New Age group originally suspected of the crimes (and which got a slight second wind when another insane killer, David Berkowitz, who committed the Son of Sam murders in the late 1970s, claimed that The Process Church was actually behind his own homicides).

But if you were "into" Manson or are a baby boomer, you probably know all this, right? Being versed in Mansonania is as much a boomer birthright as a deeper-than-average immersion in JFK assassination plots and residual belief in Erich von Daniken's Chariots of the Gods series. These are things that mattered greatly once to many, maybe most, people. They no longer do and will continue to matter less and less as time goes by.

Such it is with Rolling Stone, another cultural artifact of the late '60s, which is being sold by its founder, Jann Wenner, amid slumping interest not just in that particular magazine but in everything that baby boomers once cared about. (The indefensibly wrong 2014 story about a brutal gang rape at University of Virginia certainly helped push along the current sale by demolishing the publication's credibility.) The subject of Sticky Fingers, an immensely entertaining and negative new biography, Wenner is far more representative of leading edge baby boomers than Manson ever could be.

"At one time," [author Joe] Hagan writes, picking up a copy of Rolling Stone was "like holding a piece of hot shrapnel from the cultural explosion of the 1960s while it still glowed with feeling and meaning."

Rolling Stone hasn't been "hot" in years, of course, and picking the exact moment when it lost the pulse of America is a fun parlor game among longtime readers. When it forsook its original newsprint? When it moved to New York? When the neutron bomb of a movie Perfect, based on a Rolling Stone article and featuring Wenner himself, played in empty theaters? When P.J. O'Rourke left after a series of brilliant dispatches collected in Holidays in Hell? (For left-wingers, it might have been when the libertarian O'Rourke first fouled RS's nest.) When it stopped taking music seriously? When it failed to take punk as seriously as, say, Fleetwood Mac? It's a fun, endless game if you're into it—and more boring than fights over whether Jack Paar or Steve Allen was the better Tonight Show host or Signe Anderson was a better Jefferson Airplane vocalist than Grace Slick if you're not.

If most of the above makes little or no sense to you, consider yourself blessedly free of the ephemera of the recent past. "Forget the old ways, brother, all the old hatreds," counseled Matthias, the newscaster-turned-zombie-leader in The Omega Man (1971), a movie every bit as much of its time as Charlie Manson and Jann Wenner ever were. Learn from the past, mostly not to repeat (or in the case of Hollywood, remake) it thoughtlessly and stupidly. The diminishment of the baby boom clears space for younger people to—finally!—start filling roles long blocked, in business, the arts, and politics (2016 was, if nothing else, a battle among geriatric boomers fighting for one last stay in the Oval Office). Make the best of it, please.