Helter Skelter sign sparks community debate

The sign for the Helter Skelter Lounge on Poulsbo
The sign for the Helter Skelter Lounge on Poulsbo's Viking Avenue has drawn criticism for its use of Charles Manson's image.
— image credit: Richard D. Oxley / North Kitsap Herald

POULSBO — Some residents are asking a Viking Avenue bar to change its signage, saying the use of an image of a cult leader responsible for several murders is offensive.

One resident equates the sign to “hate speech.”

“I wouldn’t dare go into a bar with Charles Manson’s face on it,” said Amber McIntosh, referring to the sign for Poulsbo’s Helter Skelter Lounge.

“Helter Skelter alone is fine,” McIntosh said. “With Manson’s image on it, it’s his (version of) ‘Helter Skelter.’ I think it’s racist and in bad taste.”

More than 40 people are involved in an online conversation about the sign, debating whether it is racist or a pop culture homage.

McIntosh sparked the conversation when she wrote a letter that was published in the Nov. 28 Herald (“Keep it classy, Poulsbo"). He letter warned: “good luck getting reputable businesses to revitalize the area if they think the town is full of neo-Nazis and everyone has white hoods in their closet.”

Lounge owner Joe Boyle said he was surprised when the letter was published, though, not because of McIntosh’s opinion.

“I knew I would hear something when I put (the sign) up,” Boyle said. “It’s surprising it took so long.”

The Helter Skelter Lounge has served drinks and music for nearly two years. Boyle said the Beatles are his favorite band, so when he decided to open a bar with an emphasis on music, he wanted it to bear a connection to them.

“To be quite honest, I’m a business man and something that is going to be remembered is far better than something you forget,” he said. “’Revolution 9’ was my first choice (for a name) because I like that song. But I didn’t think anyone would get it.”

Boyle said that he then settled on “Helter Skelter,” a more well-known song.

“And I figured I throw the whole story together,” he said. “People don’t leave the wolf out of the story in ‘Little Red Riding Hood.’”

The wolf, in this case, is Manson. The cult leader believed Beatles songs were coded with white supremacist ideals. The 1969 song “Helter Skelter,” to Manson, was really about an unavoidable race war. Manson believed his family of white followers would survive the apocalyptic battle and subjugate the surviving non-white races.

Manson’s prophecy didn’t pan out, however, after he ordered his followers to murder Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, and actress Sharon Tate and others in 1969. Manson and several of his followers were arrested. He remains in jail to this day.

“I wasn’t alive when it happened, but I know what Manson’s interpretation of ‘Helter Skelter’ was, and it’s racist,” McIntosh said.

Inspired by McIntosh’s letter, Poulsbo resident Lydia Sigo decided to take up the issue online.

“I had wanted to go in there (in the past) with some of my friends, but the sign made me not want to go. It offends me,” Sigo said. “When I saw the letter, I said, ‘Somebody else feels this way, too.’”

Sigo engaged Boyle via Facebook on Dec. 13. The online conversation went rounds between Sigo and Boyle. The two failed to find common ground. Boyle argued that music is at the core of his business, which accepts all people. Sigo disagreed. Boyle then published the entire email thread on Helter Skelter’s Facebook page.

“She kept saying that she didn’t say certain things. I was like, whatever,” Boyle said about posting the thread.

When the conversion between Boyle and Sigo went online, it sparked a much wider debate across social media. Both Sigo and Boyle received online support from their respective supporters.

Of those involved in the community conversation, some say the bar is the best in town and write of its laid-back atmosphere. Others stressed the connection between the imagery on the sign to Manson’s racist views.

Sigo said she also received hate mail as a result.

“They said negative things, making assumptions,” Sigo said. “They were calling some names.

“I don’t like all the drama that went along with our Facebook exchange. I would love to see them replace their sign, and that other people in the community would say that they would come in for a beer if they took the sign down.”

McIntosh, who has never met Sigo, agrees.

“I don’t have any ill feelings toward (Helter Skelter). I want to see the business do well and I think the business can do better without the image on there,” McIntosh said. “That area of Viking Avenue needs some help and (the sign) makes the entire area look worse than it is.”

McIntosh brought the matter up with the city, but was told that the sign is considered free speech, she said.

“I don’t think it’s free speech, it is hate speech,” McIntosh said. “It’s incendiary.”

Boyle maintains that the bar has no racist angle.

“It’s not a hatred thing or a white supremacy thing,” Boyle said. “I feel like everybody is entitled to their opinion. If they don’t like it, they don’t have to come by.”

“We’re a super mellow bar,” he added. “I’ve put a lot of money into it. It’s a very nice bar. It’s got a lot of classy features to it.”

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