Some believe that people are basically good. Or, as Rush put it in their song Second Nature, "Folks are basically decent, conventional wisdom would say."
But there are those who think humans aren't all so nice. Or, to quote a different song, Diamond Head's Am I Evil: "Am I Evil? Yes I am. I am man".
Marilyn Manson would sing both. Well, the lead singer of the band that shares his name probably wouldn't sing either tune - though he did just buy Rush's Moving Pictures. But the man (who, for the sake of clarity, will henceforth be known as Manson, while the bands both halves) could sing either lyrics with conviction. If he felt like it
"Good and evil is the balance that makes a person." Mr. Manson explains in a careful voice that, at times, sounds like The X-Files' David Duchovny.
"It's often that people are afraid to accept and experience both sides. But that's when you really run into problems with society because it's the self-denial and the hypocrisy that weakens everything. If people would just accept and see how the two things work together, they'd just be happier.
"People have the potential to be good," he continues, "But man as an animal is, by nature, evil because - if you want to subscribe to the Christian mythology of it all... it's the whole Garden Of Eden, man chose the wrong path. It's part of being imperfect, part of being flawed, and that's what makes you a human being. So, you can say people are innately bad or innately good, but you can't look at that as derogatory because that's what makes you a human."
It's a familiar topic for both the man and the band, as they've been known to make some people scream like they're Grandpa Simpson in the episode with the evil Krusty Doll 'That band's evil I tells you, evil, EEEEVVAAAALLL!!'
Their songs are trashy, gothic, bombastic, and loaded with samples and keyboard effects, like a techno-friendly Alice Cooper if he were moodier, more sadistic, and meant every word he said.
And their lyrics are, well, let's just say that Clive Barker and Dennis Miller hopped up on goofballs couldn't do any better. On their debut, Portrait Of An American Family, Manson declared himself to be 'The God Of Fuck', and then announced that it was 'time for cake and sodomy' (which is not quite breakfast, not quite lunch, but it comes with a slice of cantaloupe at the end. You don't get quite what you would at breakfast, but you get a good meal. No wait, that's brunch).
The guys also look evil. Clad in S&M-looking regalia, Manson's lanky, pale body, and missing eyebrows make him look like a cross between Jack in The Nightmare Before Christmas and 'Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice'.
"In Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, there is a character called the Child Catcher" Manson says, "He used his sense of smell to hunt down kids and kidnap them, and that was something that scared me when I was little. But when I got older, people said, 'You really look like the Child Catcher' - I had become what I was afraid of."
The other guys share Manson's penchant for applied-outside-the-lines make-up and restrained fashion. They even share his labeling techniques, as their names also combine icons from the world of entertainment and mass murder. Marilyn Manson - Marilyn Monroe + Charles Manson, bassist Twiggy Ramirez - Richard 'The Night Stalker' Ramirez + the '60s precursor to Kate Moss, keyboard player Madonna Wayne Gacy - the material girl + John Wayne Gacy (Manson owns some of his paintings), new guitarist Zim Zum, who takes his name from an ancient religious reference, replaced Daisy Berkowitz (do the math), while drummer Ginger Fish - porno star Ginger Lynn + Abe Vigoda's character on Barney Miller. I think.
Not that it matters, the perception of both Marilyn Mansons as agents of evil goes beyond their music, their look, on how they sign autographs ("Thanks for coming. Charles Bukowski"). Manson himself has indulged in such stage antics as cutting himself with broken bottles, wagging a rubber shlong (which, by definition, is longer than a penis), and encouraging everyone to spit on him. Though, he admits, they usually miss. He's admitted to smoking human bones, posed in a hardcore sex mag, and gave some guy a blow job on stage.
That his parents were in the audience for that last one didn't seem to matter.
"I don't think they understand everything I do." he says almost sadly, as if he really wants them to.
"But they listened to the new album and it was something they really liked, where in the past they appreciated what I was doing but were like, 'Couldn't you make something nicer that I could listen to?'"
So Manson is evil, yadda, yadda, yadda. Except that he's a nice guy. Sitting in the New Orleans house he's been renting for the last five months, in a room lit only by three candles and the electronic glow of a TV with the sound off, he generously shares his wine, a 1994 Cabernet Sauvignon, dry but subtle (or, as Manson puts it, "Shitty"). He repeatedly asks if his guests need or want anything, and even when he playfully shoots one of them the middle finger, it's with an almost child-like grin, as if some little kid in him is singing, "ha had, I'm being bad, I'm being bad."
"I would do anything for my friends and the people I love," he says.
"Now, I don't pass out good will openly to just anybody; I don't abide by the Christian value of 'Love Thy Neighbor', because I think that waters down the value of love. If you love everybody, it really has no meaning. But I'm a good friend and I'm very loyal."
Still, the 'evil' tag continues to hang on him and the band, as if it cannot be removed under penalty of law.
"When people hear 'Marilyn Manson'," he says, "they don't want to talk about Marilyn Monroe, they want to talk about Charles Manson."
But it's this very dichotomy that makes the man as well as the band, especially since the man is the band. I think. "It's a weird circumstance." Manson admits, a bit unsure himself.
"It's a band, but it's me. It's almost as mystifying as the Holy Trinity, where it's three but it's one. Aside from myself, our keyboard player is the only remaining original member, because I always thought it was necessary that everybody I work with is a part of and believing the things that I'm trying to relate.
"That's really where the breakdown came between us and our former guitarist." he adds, speaking of Berkowitz. "He and I wrote most of the first album together, but when it came to doing this new one, I didn't want to write the same thing again, I wanted to explore different ideas musically, and I wanted to tap into stuff that no one was really thinking bout. But he didn't really believe in it, and it made me feel that the unit wasn't as strong as it could be."
Dichotomy is an important issue with Manson (as if his name weren't indication enough). It's been a theme throughout his work, but never so much as on their new album, Antichrist Superstar, a semi[autobiographical rock opera of sorts that tells a tale of rebirth, spiritual and personal. A major step forward, the album is far more mature and fully realized than either their debut or the EP Smells Like Children (which has remixes, instrumentals, and that cover of Sweet Dreams).
Superstar also has less of the 'we will, we will, shock you' mentality that dominated Marilyn Manson's early work. Instead, the songs - particularly the lyrics and the samples - almost seem to have a sense of purpose.
"What we've done with this album," Manson declares, "and I think quite successfully, is create a musical ritual that would bring about the Apocalypse.
"But the thing is," he adds, perhaps sensing that his house guest is about to stab him with those sacred knives in The Omen, "people look at the Apocalypse as the world being destroyed, but I look at it on a different level. For me, the idea of Antichrist is an unspoken knowledge that every person has; it's just the denial of god and the acceptance of yourself as a powerful entity that can make their own decisions. It's not someone with a 666 on their head who's going to burn down the world."
While we gently lay the knives back down on the table, Manson continues, adding that the ideas in Superstar may have come from somewhere else.
"Over the past year," he says, "I've tried to transcribe or interpret my dreams and put them down musically. I heard this album as finished. I heard it in dreams I had, and I heard these songs and I knew exactly what it was going to be when it was done. And that's what it is now. It was like the revelations of John The Baptist or something."
Some would consider such talk to be blasphemous (or an indication that Manson should stop eating spicy food before he goes to bed). Especially when you consider that Manson's not only a member of the Satanic Religion but he's also a Reverend.
It should be explained (and we'll understand if you don't believe us) that the Satanic Religion is not about worshipping the devil, celebrating evil, or sacrificing virgins. ("If I'm not mistaken," Manson says, "It was Christianity that came up with human sacrifices.") Rather, they look at Lucifer's exile from Heaven as a story of someone who chose to be an individual instead of mindlessly following the norm. As they see it, Satan was a rebel who wasn't necessarily up to no good.
"It's a metaphor, really." Manson says of the belief system, which is based on the books The Satanic Bible and The Satanic Rituals by Anton LaVey.
"But I don't want people to misconceive me as a spokesperson for the Church of Satan. The writings of Anton LaVey led me to come out of my shell and inspired me in many ways. But I'm my own person, and I don't subscribe to any one ideal. It's just a balance for where I find other inspirations, anything from Hebrew Kabbalism to Dr. Seuss. It's all input for me. I consider it one of many qualifications, like being in the Boy Scouts. Though I didn't do very good at that, I didn't get any of those badges."
Not that that's a surprise. But then, it's hard to imagine Manson as a kid, let alone a Boy Scout, though he does have a certain childlike sense of mischief and a closet full of vintage lunchboxes (and a Grimace doll, a Mr. T action figure...). When asked to describe himself as a five-year-old, Manson pauses a moment.
"I don't remember exactly. I was a little skinny kid, and nobody really liked me, so I was always doing my own thing. And I was a scared kid, a lot of times. I was always afraid to go to sleep without the lights on, so I developed a habit of sleeping with the TV on. And I still do - it's not out of being afraid, it's just a habit."
"I do remember that when I was 12 I started playing Dungeons & Dragons," he continues, conjuring an image of a lanky, pale teenager with missing eyebrows, rolling a twelve-sided die to see how much damage his battle axe will do to an elf.
"Escapism was what it was about for me. I didn't really like and wasn't the person that I wanted to be in the real world, so I was the person I wanted to be in my own head."
The person who he was in the real world happened to be named Brian... something (sorry, forgot to ask). It's a name he's neither afraid of nor ashamed of, though he neither introduces himself with it nor refers to himself with it. ("Hi, I'm Brian... something")
"Six years ago," he explains, "when Marilyn Manson came out, it was on several different levels. It was to kind of shed the skin of my past, so there's symbolism there. But it was also the idea that show business is so phony that I wanted to pick a name that was as fake as it could be. That way, it would be more real than anything else because it acknowledges itself as being fake. Marilyn Monroe itself was a fake name, and Charles Manson was not his born name either, so I thought that was an exciting irony for me."
Which doesn't mean that Manson's a schizophrenic. And it's not that, as some legends say, he thinks someone will be able to take away his magic powers if they found out his real name. It's not even like Alice Cooper, who used to be Alice full-time, and now is a golf-loving father who assumes the character of Alice Cooper onstage. Manson doesn't become Brian... something when he goes home at night.
"If at first the name Marilyn Manson was a creation for me to escape what I didn't want to be any more," he explains, "it is now something that has consumed me and I find no escape from. That's not to say I don't like that, but it's something that... if Marilyn Manson is a show, then everything in my life is a show because it's all the time for me and that's the way I like it."
As if it weren't difficult enough to keep straight, Manson further complicates the name game when he says, "making this album, I went through a lot of transformations and this other personality of Antichrist Superstar has also come into my life. It's kind of this name I gave for the less tolerant, nihilistic element of my personality."
The emergence of this other personality, this Antichrist Superstar, was not a simple thing. One does not pop down to the Quick-E-Mart and ask Apu for a new personality. As Manson admits, "We experimented in pain, we experimented in narcotics, Hebrew Kabbalism, numerology has become very important on the new album - when you look at it very carefully people can read into a lot of the numbers and the symbols."
But Manson wasn't trying to conjure another personality up, just so he could have yet another name to answer to. The pain, the drugs, the spicy foods before sleep were all an attempt to tap into something deeper, an attempt to get back to the dreams where he had heard the album. As he explains, "I wanted to get into dreams and areas of my subconscious that you normally can't get at by just sitting around and thinking."
All of which is interesting, in a masochistic/'Is this necessary' kind of way. But since Manson insists that Antichrist Superstar is beyond certain musical capabilities that we have presently, one has to ask whether the band used the pain, drugs, and spicy foods to remember the songs in Manson's dreams, or to get to a place where they could recreate them.
"I think it was both," the man answers, "But I don't really know. I don't know if I really dreamed those songs, or if those songs dreamed me, or if they were something form the future or something I wrote a long time ago. There's no real clear definition between what has happened and what will happen when you open your mind and you let yourself be on a different level of... awareness."
It is this very kind of awareness that Marilyn Manson are hoping to pass along with Antichrist Superstar, an awakening of the individual within.
"I think every time people listen to this new album, maybe God will be destroyed in their heads and they'll become themselves and go through the same transformation I did, where you are a worm and you become something that's much stronger."
Which, at least in Manson's eyes, is not a call for the burning of churches.
"People are going to do what they want to do," he says, "people are going to interpret things how they want. But part of what I try and say in everything is to be a responsible individual. If you want to be your own god and you want to be yourself, then you have to take responsibility for all your actions. That's why I'm willing to go to jail when I break the law. I'm not going to sit there and fight and say, 'NO, I'm an artist - I deserve to do what I want'. It's against the law and you have to deal with that, and people can't be ignorant of that.
"But people aren't going to buy Antichrist Superstar and the next day burn down churches." he adds.
"That's not the way it's going to happen. It's just a change of heart. Besides, there are more appropriate ways to attack Christian morality than burning down a church - that's pretty juvenile."
Which might calm some fears, but others are still going to call it blasphemy. Though, as Manson insists, "I don't care if something's good or bad or if it's Christian or anti-Christian - I want something that's strong, something that believes in itself."
The irony is that even if Manson were evil, even if the wine he served were human blood, even if he had used his house guests for pate and their bones to bake his bread, there'd still be people who wouldn't believe it. For while some scream 'Evil' like Grandpa Simpson, others laugh at him like he's some kind of clown. Like he's here to amuse you. They think everything he does is just some act, and that the moment he's alone he changes into t-shirt and jeans and breathes a big sigh of relief, "Thank god that's over. What time is Family Matters on?"
But Manson is, for better or worse, an honest to goodness strange fellow. His latest hobby is collecting medical items, which is why he has a pile of prosthetic limbs and an S&M looking back brace. He also has a dog with two names, Lydia and Walter, "It's a girl dog," he says, "but I wanted a boy dog. So I sometimes call her Walter."
So the idea that Manson and the band are faking it like Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally is completely ridiculous.
But not really.
"It's a gimmick of a gimmick," Manson says.
"It's a parody of a parody. And anybody who thinks I'm blind to that, that I'm not intelligent enough to see that, they're missing the point more than they think I'm missing the point. That's the funny part of it, when people say, 'Marilyn Manson is a gimmick'. It's a mockery of gimmickry in itself."
"Besides," he adds, "if I wanted a gimmick that would make me successful, I'd be like Hootie & The Blowfish or Pearl Jam because they're very easy to swallow."
Being easy to swallow, though, isn't what Marilyn Manson is all about.
"It's about a celebration of life," Manson declares, "living life to its fullest because you may not be around the next day to do so."
They're about being yourself, being an individual, about exposing what's wrong with our society. And sometimes that means celebrating the darker side of American life.
"America should be proud of Marilyn Manson," Manson once said in an interview with the 'zine Seconds, "because it is very responsible for us."
Which isn't exactly right, since in Manson's idea of a perfect world, there wouldn't have to be a Marilyn Manson, they would be no problems for Marilyn Manson to rail against, complain about, throw things at.
"In the world that I envision, Marilyn Manson isn't necessary," he admits.
"But that's not the world we live in."
"Look, with all the seriousness and the grim outlook for the future," he says, "I do enjoy doing what I do, and I do enjoy who am, so in no way am I ever complaining about having to accept this role. In the end, it is music, and it is for people's entertainment, and it is to be enjoyed, and it is to inspire people to do their own thing and be creative in their own way. If someone listens to our music and it makes them creative, that makes me happier than anything."