Drifting and striding, in Hollywood and elsewhere, with Geoff Nicholson - author of The Lost Art of Walking, and Walking in Ruins withcholson, author of Toff Nidrifting and stomping withcholson, author of The Lost Art of Walking, considers the narrower and wider shores of obsessive pedestrianism.
Showing posts with label LaBianca Murders. Show all posts
Showing posts with label LaBianca Murders. Show all posts

Tuesday, April 14, 2015


I always feel ambivalent about visiting the sites of murders, death houses, scenes of long ago violent crimes.  Partly it’s because of my inherent squeamishness.  If there actually is some remaining malevolent aura there, I’d rather not be around it.  And just as important, I don’t want to revel in and be entertained by the deaths of others, nor to make light of pain, whether that of victims or survivors. 

Yet I know one can protest too much about these things. There’s no denying the frisson that comes with walking through, say, Dealey Plaza in Dallas, or for that matter past the Bloody Tower in London.  I think the frisson is imaginative rather than supernatural, but nonetheless real for that.  One way or another a kind of shamanism is involved, raising the spirits of the dead, but equally a kind of dubious tourism is involved too

I don’t feel a whole let less ambivalent, though in a different way, about visiting the homes where my “heroes” once lived, even if I seem to have done plenty of it.  In recent years I’ve found myself visiting JG Ballard’s house in Shepperton, HG Wells’s in Woking, Raymond Chandler’s many Los Angeles homes. 

Of course when I say “visiting” I simply mean that I walked down the street and stood around outside the building.  I don’t go in for knocking on doors to interview the current inhabitants, although I know some who do.  My friend Anthony Miller, aka the Dark Sage of Sawtelle, recounts disturbing the tenants of Thomas Pynchon’s old apartment in Manhattan Beach, and found the occupant, a surferish dude, amazingly hospitable.  He invited him and let him look around.  A Swiss film crew had been there not long before, the one that made Thomas Pynchon: A Journey Into the Mind of P.

The objection here is not that it’s intrusive, but rather that it’s no big deal.  These are homes much like any other.  Everybody lives somewhere, lives don’t vary nearly as much as some people like to think, and houses and appartments are not always totally fascinating.  And in my experience there’s seldom any kind of lingering aura, even if there may occasionally be a plaque.

Having said all that, and with all my reservations, when I recently connected a couple of dots of information than had been floating in my head for a while, and realized that the childhood home of Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, was in the same street where the Manson murders of Leno and Rosemary LaBianco took place, well, you couldn’t call yourself a psychogeographer if you didn’t take a walk down that street, could you?

Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band were really the first act that completely excited me in my difficult but dull youth.  They seemed subversive, poetic, avant-garde, extremely cool – all the things I wanted to be.  These days it seems to me that there were times when Beefheart put rather too much effort into buffing his image as the unschooled, sui generis genius born out of nothing, but I’ve had a few decades to think about that.  At the time the freaky image was part of the attraction, and no doubt in some sense necessary for the grand project. 

Of course we also tended to think he was some crazy guy straight out of the Mojave desert: we knew that he came from Lancaster where he was best friends, later less so, with Frank Zappa.  But before he was a desert rat he lived in Los Angeles, at 3467 Waverly Drive, in the northeast corner of Los Feliz, a thoroughly pleasant suburban enclave right below Griffith Park; a great place to bring up kids then and now, you might think.

We also know that while he was at that address he was schooled, at least to the extent of attending art classes at the Griffith Park Zoo, where he was taught by a Portuguese artist named Agostinho Rodrigues.  When he was 10 years old Little Don Vliet (he wasn’t even van Vliet at that time, much less the Captain) won first prize in a 1951 sculpture competition run by the parks and recreation department, and made it into the local paper with his model of a polar bear.  The contest was monthly, and I don’t know how big the class it was, so winning it may not have been the greatest honor, though his polar bear looks just fine.

There are a few pictures of the lad from this period but I’ve never seen any of the family’s house, so I don’t know if the current 3467 Waverly Drive looks anything like the way it did back in 1951.  As far as that goes, I don’t know whether Don’s parents had the whole house or just part of it.  I’d assume the latter.  In the current configuration 3467 is the right half of the house, 3469 is the left half, and I think there are more than two dwellings in there.  When you peer round the side it looks as though the building’s been extended to make a small apartment block, though I’d guess the changes have been made post-1951.  

Waverley Drive is a long street but the young Don surely walked its length, in which case he’d have gone right past the LaBianca house.  At that time it would have been owned by the previous LaBianca generation, Antonio, who founded Gateway Markets and the State Wholesale Grocery Company.  It wasn’t till 1968 that the son Leon, who by then was running the family business,  bought the house from his mother and moved in with Rosemary his second wife. 

Photographs of the couple suggest they weren’t much influenced by alternative culture, but Lord knows there were some divergent energies abroad in Los Angeles at the time.  Even in this quiet suburban enclave, the LaBiancas’ neighbor, one Harold True, had thrown an “LSD party”, and some of the Manson family attended.  The day after they’d committed the Tate murders up on Cielo Drive, Manson instructed his followers to kill again.  They might easily have selected a different house and different victims, and if things had played out just a little differently the LaBiancas wouldn’t even have been home.  They they’d been to pick up Rosemary’s daughter Suzanne from Lake Isabella and had thought of staying there overnight but decided to come back late Saturday night rather than the following morning.

Manson had found the Tate killings needlessly chaotic, and to show his followers how it was done, he went into the house and tied up the LaBiancas with the minimum of fuss, so that the killings could be done in a nice orderly fashion.  I’ve done my best not to become a Manson obsessive, but if you need a full account of the events, I reckon Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter is still the best.

Photographs from the time show the La Bianca house to have been remarkably accessible and vulnerable – a long straight driveway, no gates, the house visible and inviting at the top of the hill, yet a fair way from the street.

Some things are noticeably different at the house these days; the street number’s been changed for one thing, though that’s hardly bought them much privacy.  There’s now a gate across the entrance to the property, and you can see that a large separate garage with a second curving driveway has been built between the house and the street, at the very least providing protection from prying eyes, though not inevitably from Google. 

It still looks like a very nice house in a very nice neighborhood.  Would I personally want to live in it, given its history?  I suppose not, but if there price was right; everything’s negotiable. 

Charles Manson famously said to an interviewer:

My eyes are cameras. My mind is tuned to more television channels than exist in your world. And it suffers no censorship. Through it, I have a world and the universe as my own. So...know that only a body is in prison. At my will, I walk your streets and am right out there among you.

Captain Beefheart once sang:

my baby walked just like she did
walking on hard-boiled eggs with a --
there's a --she can steal them 
oh, I ain't blue no more, I saidlord,

Words to live by.