Before the 2000s, when everyone suddenly knew everything thanks to computers in your pocket, it was believed there were people in the world who could solve all your problems, gurus who had an innate understanding of the intangible machinations of the universe and could explain them to you. You know, cult leaders. The '60s and '70s were the heyday of Hollywood cults, when a handsome guy with a three-foot-long beard and a set of white robes could invite you into his bungalow to change the world. While people mostly think of cult members as townies with nothing going on in their lives, there were a few cults in Hollywood that landed a big fish or two.
Los Angeles offers the promise of endless summer and the possibility of making all your dreams come true, but it’s also filled with the harsh realities of what happens when your dreams wither and die. That atmosphere breeds desperation. People look for some way to give life meaning. Enter cults.
Celebrities don't join cults often, but when they do, it's incredibly strange.
If you look at the life of Charles Manson starting around when he left prison in 1967 and made his way across California, it's obvious he was making things up as he went along. He spent most of his life up to that point trying to survive by criminal means while hopping in and out of prison. By the time he brought his "family" of strung-out hippies to Los Angeles, Manson decided what he really needed was a record contract.
Rather than pursue a career as a musician via the traditional route of writing songs and playing shows, he used a contact from a prison friend to connect with music industry figures and get recording sessions at various Hollywood studios. He also strong-armed famous friends into listening to his tunes, sold a few songs to well-known bands (including the Beach Boys), and nearly landed a recording contract. But he was ultimately rejected by studios and producers, probably because of his weird behavior.
Neil Young apparently didn't care about all that. When he met Manson at a party thrown by Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson, he likely saw a compatriot in him. Both were weird, scruffy guys with an affinity for rambling acoustic jams. In Young's memoir, he claims he even tried to get Manson a deal:
I asked him if he had a recording contract. He told me he didn’t yet, but he wanted to make records. I told Mo Ostin at Reprise about him, and recommended that Reprise check him out... Shortly afterward, the Sharon Tate-La Bianca murders happened, and Charlie Manson’s name was known around the world.
Young reiterates the notion that Manson had no real master plan in his assessment of the cult leader's music: "His songs were off-the-cuff things he made up as he went along, and they were never the same twice in a row."
Of course, this doesn't mean that Young was part of Manson's cult or condoned its actions - only that he too was briefly charmed by the cult leader.
From 1969 to 1974, Father Yod and his Source Family owned and operated The Source restaurant on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, an all-natural vegetarian joint rooted in the "dietary wisdom found in the teachings of Jesus Christ as revealed through the Essene Gospels of Peace." When they weren't serving alfalfa sprouts and mashed yeast, the Source Family ran a graphic design agency and performed in a psychedelic band, YaHo Wa 13. The community was run by a man, Father Yod, who wore crisp white suits and drove around town in a Rolls Royce.
Father Yod had 14 wives, and was allegedly a former Marine, stuntman, and jiu-jitsu master. He also killed at least two people, one in a justifiable homicide, the other in a manslaughter. After the cult left LA and moved to Hawaii in 1974, Father Yod died crashing a hang glider into the beach.
In the heyday of The Source, John Lennon, Warren Beatty, and Marlon Brando were dining regularly at the restaurant, along with other celebs. The degree to which Lennon was or wasn't involved with The Source Family and Father Yod remains unclear, but it's known for certain that he frequented the restaurant and most likely saw Ya Ho Wa 13 live, as they played there regularly.
Everyone can agree Charles Manson is crazy. But he understood he needed celebrities by his side to gain clout in Los Angeles. Throughout his relatively short run of cult-leading and songwriting in the late '60s, Manson used the women in his Family as sexual bargaining chips to get what he wanted, whether it be a place to stay or a record contract.
This is where Dennis Wilson enters the picture. The Beach Boys drummer met Manson when he picked up two of his followers who were hitchhiking, and brought them back to his place to hang out. These women soon introduced Wilson to Manson, who appeared unexpectedly at Wilson's home one night with a school bus full of groovy babes. This seemed fine to Dennis Wilson.
In a 1968 article titled "Dennis Wilson: I Live With 17 Girls,” the drummer talked about hanging out with Manson and his harem of swinging hippy women. His words are equal parts cliché and horrifying:
I told them [the girls] about our involvement with the Maharishi and they told me they too had a guru, a guy named Charlie who’d recently come out of jail after 12 years. He drifted into crime, but when I met him I found he had great musical ideas. We’re writing together now. He’s dumb, in some ways, but I accept his approach and have learnt from him.
After hearing Manson's songs, Wilson introduced him to Terry Melcher, record producer and son of Doris Day, who Manson grew to hate because Melcher wouldn't help Manson become a rock star. Shortly after a failed recording session, Melcher's home was the scene of the tragic Tate murders - Manson instructed his followers to go to Melcher's house and kill everyone there, not realizing Melcher had recently leased the house to Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski.
Of the cults covered here, the Children of God (or Family International, Family of Love, etc) is perhaps the most terrifying. It began in the late 1960s as a hippy modernization of the Christian faith but quickly morphed into an international cult in which followers were encouraged to have sex not only with strangers, to bring them into the church, but with their own children. When the cult's leader, David Berg, passed in 1994, Berg's wife, Karen "Maria" Zerby, took over and changed the name of the group.
A lot of celebrities grew up in the cult: Christopher Owens from the band Girls, actor Rose McGowan (whose father headed the Italian branch), and Joaquin and River Phoenix. Born in 1974, Joaquin Phoenix is a year older than Karen Zerby's son, Ricky Rodriguez, who murdered his long-time handler over childhood sexual abuse then committed suicide.
Phoenix finds it annoying that everyone wants to talk about CoG. In an interview, he said:
When people bring up Children of God, there's always something vaguely accusatory about it. It's guilt by association. I think it was really innocent on my parents' part. They really believed, but I don’t think most people see it that way. I've always thought that was strange and unfair.
Phoenix's parents left the cult when their sons were young after the cult pushed them to use "flirty fishing" to recruit new members.