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Manson Shirt Brings O.C. Firm Notoriety : Fashion: Some decry the garment, but the two brothers behind it capitalize on the attention.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the credits of his just-released album, rock star Axl Rose thanks two Newport Beach entrepreneurs for their help--and that has landed all three of them in the bull’s-eye of controversy.

Through their surf-wear company, Zooport Riot Gear, brothers Dan and Richard Lemmons sell T-shirts bearing the icy glare of Charles Manson. Rose discovered the shirts in a Hollywood shop earlier this year and made them part of his uniform at Guns N’ Roses concerts. He then elevated Manson’s celebrity another notch, featuring a song written by the mass murderer on his band’s new album, “The Spaghetti Incident?”.

The albums and shirts have been widely condemned by law enforcement and victims’ rights groups for capitalizing on the 1969 slayings of actress Sharon Tate and eight others.

“These men are taking advantage of kids who don’t understand what Manson stands for or what he did,” said Stephen Kay, one of the key prosecutors in four “Manson family” trials. “They’re making a folk hero out of a cold-blooded murderer.”

The Lemmonses are unmoved by the criticism that their T-shirt has attracted. On the contrary, they revel in the free publicity--which they themselves solicited.

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When the story broke earlier this month that Guns N’ Roses had included a Manson song on its new album, the brothers contacted the Associated Press wire service to try to get a piece of the action. CNN, People Weekly and USA Today were soon knocking on their door.

“Take a look at this,” said Dan Lemmons, 39, proudly plugging in a videotape of his and his kid brother’s appearance last week on “CBS Morning News.” There they sit on national TV--scraggly long hair, sunglasses and the obligatory Manson T-shirts in place--stammering through a defense of their fashion statement.

“Charles Manson represents thumbing his nose at society,” Richard Lemmons, 35, says on the program, later allowing that “Manson is screwed up. We do this as a shirt because he has a cool face.”

The brothers vacillate between describing their Manson shirt as spoof or social commentary. The back of the shirt reads, “Charlie Don’t Surf"--a play on a phrase from the 1979 movie “Apocalypse Now” in which “Charlie” means the Viet Cong. Charlie Manson doesn’t surf either because he’s in prison. Get it?

Black humor aside, the Lemmonses maintain that Manson’s life sentence is unjustly harsh. He only masterminded the murders, they argue--his cult followers actually carried out the vicious slaughter. “He didn’t put a gun to those people’s heads,” Richard Lemmons said.

It was only right that the Lemmonses receive permission from Manson to market T-shirts created in his image, they said. Last year, the brothers wrote Manson at Corcoran State Prison in Fresno, offering him 10 cents per shirt in royalty payments.

Somewhat to their surprise, Manson returned their handwritten agreement, signed “C. Manson” and dated “today.”

Whether Manson will be the one to receive the money is in doubt.

Geffen Records, the West Hollywood label that releases Guns N’ Roses albums, was notified two weeks ago about a $500,000 judgment in 1971 against Manson on behalf of a victim’s son. Royalties from Manson’s song “Look at Your Game, Girl?"--$62,000 for every million copies sold--will go to Wojiciech (Voytek) Frykowski’s 35-year-old son, Bartek Frykowski, who lives in Warsaw, Poland.

Frykowski’s attorney has not yet contacted Zooport, but Dan Lemmons said he would have no problem abiding by the court’s order. “It’s neat that this guy in Poland is going to benefit,” he said.

The shirt retails for $17 at 160 stores, most of them in California. The brothers won’t reveal exactly how many have sold, giving only a range--more than 1,000 and fewer than 4,000. But the controversy can’t hurt, they figure. “All this does is fuel our sales,” Dan Lemmons said.

Nicole Bouffard, buyer and general manager of The Electric Chair in Huntington Beach, is unapologetic about including the T-shirts in the alternative clothing store’s inventory. “What offends one person won’t offend another,” she said. “I don’t particularly like it myself, although I think Charles Manson is an interesting person. But I know a lot of people who do like the shirt.”

Victims’ groups are angry about such attitudes. “It’s the typical ‘anything for a buck’ mentality,” said Steve Baker, executive director of the Sacramento-based Doris Tate Crime Victims Bureau, founded by Sharon Tate’s mother.

“You have to stop and think, would Axl Rose put this song on his album or would (Zooport) sell these T-shirts if not for the notoriety of Charles Manson?” said Baker, a retired San Diego police officer whose 16-year-old son was murdered. “Then you have to look at how Charles Manson got his notoriety.”

But Gilbert Geis, a professor emeritus in UC Irvine’s department of criminology, law and society, suggested that the shirt and the song should be treated as a child’s temper tantrum: Don’t acknowledge negative behavior.

“You’ve heard of conspicuous consumption?” Geis asked. “This is conspicuous corruption. It’s saying, ‘Look at me, I’m different.’ I don’t think kids who wear the T-shirt identify with Manson--it’s like dyeing your hair green. People are generally ignored in this society, and some will do anything to get attention.”

Geis views the marketing of Manson as a First Amendment right: “You pay a price to live in a free society--a lot of things we find morally objectionable we must tolerate.”

Dan and Richard Lemmons, both avid surfers, founded Zooport (a play on the name Newport) in 1986 after moving from Dallas to the West Coast.

Zooport, one of about a hundred small surf-wear makers in Orange County, got off to a slow start. During its first three years, the brothers lived out of their van. Now they reside in a Balboa Peninsula apartment that doubles as their company’s headquarters.

The dwelling looks like a cross between a college dorm and a warehouse. Furniture is scarce, overwhelmed by shirt-stuffed boxes. Walls are papered with posters of rock musicians sporting Zooport garb--including John Doe of the band X in Charles Manson attire, and Gin Blossom members in clown shirts.

Two years ago, the Lemmonses bought a 30-foot-long World War II amphibious vehicle from an arms dealer in Newport Beach. “You meet interesting people when you live on the streets,” Richard Lemmons said.

The vehicle has become familiar to Balboa residents. The Lemmonses frequently roll the huge vehicle--decorated with the contradictory slogans “Peace” and “Drop bombs, not drugs"--to surf-wear trade shows.

In fact, the brothers hold a number of paradoxical philosophies. They say they will donate some of the profits from their Manson T-shirts to the militant anti-abortion group Operation Rescue.

The Lemmonses say they are fundamentalist Christians who shun drugs, alcohol and cigarettes. They make a statement about drunk-driving deaths on a T-shirt that lists famous mass murderers, ending with “Jack Daniels.”

They seem prone to conspiracy theories: Manson’s followers set him up as the scapegoat. And the medical community hides the fact that AIDS is not caused by a virus but by an unsanitary “lifestyle.” They will settle down and and marry in the millennium, they say, when Jesus Christ returns to Earth.

As well as printing various designs on T-shirts, Zooport makes jackets, jeans and swim trunks. The brothers design the clothes, then contract out the work. Last year, their sales totaled about $95,000, they say. They’re hoping to close the books this year with much bigger revenue, thanks to Charles Manson and Axl Rose.

Rose, in a statement released Dec. 1, said, “I wore the T-shirt because a lot of people enjoy playing me as the bad guy and the crazy. There’s a real difference between Manson and myself, and that is, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ which I don’t. He’s a sick individual.”

Guns N’ Roses briefly considered pulling Manson’s song from future album copies, but band members said Tuesday that they changed their minds after learning that the royalties would not go to the convicted killer.

Rose exhibits the Manson T-shirt throughout a five-minute music video that debuted last weekend on MTV. In September, he invited the Lemmonses to the set while filming the video, which promotes the song “Estranged.”

“Have you ever seen a T-shirt so prominently displayed?” Dan Lemmons asked as he watched the video, clearly delighted by the plug.

The brothers have received critical mail and telephone calls. Their response, said Richard Lemmons: “If you don’t like the T-shirt, don’t buy it.”


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