“I thought he was very unique. He really had something crazy, something great.” How meeting infamous cult leader Charles Manson inspired Neil Young to write a song so dark that his own bandmates refused to play it live for almost 30 years

Neil Young, Charles Manson
(Image credit: Michael Putland/Getty Images | Albert Foster/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)

Well, I hear that Laurel Canyon is full of famous stars / But I hate them worse than lepers and I'll kill them in their cars...”

As song-closing lyrics go, the final couplet on Neil Young's Revolution Blues are certainly striking... even more so if you know that the song was inspired by Young's encounters with infamous American cult leader Charles Manson.  

Manson died on November 19, 2017, 46 years into a life sentence handed down to him for seven counts of first-degree murder and one count of conspiracy to commit murder, in relation to the brutal killings carried out by members of his cult, the Manson Family, in the summer of 1969. But as Neil Young revealed in a 1985 interview with Musician magazine's Bill Flanagan, he only knew Manson as an aspiring musician who had already made friendships and connections on the Californian music scene. 

“I met him through [The Beach Boys'] Dennis Wilson,” Young told Flanagan. “He wanted to make records. He wanted me to introduce him to [record executive] Mo Ostin at Reprise.”

“He had this kind of music that no one was doing. He would sit down with the guitar and start playing and make up stuff, different every time, it just kept comin' out, comin' out, comin' out. Then he would stop and you would never hear that one again. Musically I thought he was very unique. I thought he really had something crazy, something great. He was like a living poet. It was always coming out.

“He was very intense,” Young continued. I met him two or three times. I don't know why he did what he did. But I think he was very frustrated in not being able to get it, and he blamed somebody... I remember there was a lot of energy whenever he was around. And he was different. You can tell he's different. All you have to do is look at him. Once you've seen him you can never forget him.”

Young told Flanagan that Revolution Blues on his 1974 album, On The Beach, was inspired by “Living in LA. Knowing Manson.” Lyrics such as “Well, we live in a trailer at the edge of town / You never see us 'cause we don't come around / We got 25 rifles just to keep the population down” so spooked David Crosby, who played guitar on the track, and members of Crazy Horse, that it was all-but-retired from Young's live sets after 1987.

“Man, they didn't know if they wanted to stand on the same stage as me when I was doin' it,” Young told NME writer Nick Kent. “I was goin', 'It's just a fuckin' song. What's the big deal? It's about culture. It's about what's really happening.”

Revolution Blues was dug out of the vaults in 2016, when Young toured with the Promise of the Real. The performance you can see below, filmed by a fan at the close of a show at Whitewater Amphitheater in Canyon Lake, Texas, on April 26, 2016, was Young's first performance of the song in almost 30 years.

For reasons never explained, the lyric “We got 25 rifles just to keep the population down” was changed to “We got 27 rifles...”

Revolution Blues - Live - Rare - Neil Young & the Promise of the Real - YouTube Revolution Blues - Live - Rare - Neil Young & the Promise of the Real - YouTube
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Paul Brannigan
Contributing Editor, Louder

A music writer since 1993, formerly Editor of Kerrang! and Planet Rock magazine (RIP), Paul Brannigan is a Contributing Editor to Louder. Having previously written books on Lemmy, Dave Grohl (the Sunday Times best-seller This Is A Call) and Metallica (Birth School Metallica Death, co-authored with Ian Winwood), his Eddie Van Halen biography (Eruption in the UK, Unchained in the US) emerged in 2021. He has written for Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q, hung out with Fugazi at Dischord House, flown on Ozzy Osbourne's private jet, played Angus Young's Gibson SG, and interviewed everyone from Aerosmith and Beastie Boys to Young Gods and ZZ Top. Born in the North of Ireland, Brannigan lives in North London and supports The Arsenal.