LOS ANGELES - Hate magnet Marilyn Manson happily serves as America's poster child for evil, but he's not willing to take the rap for Columbine.
A favorite whipping boy for parents and politicians, Manson and his confrontational music became easy targets after the massacre in April 1999 at the Colorado high school, where two teen boys killed 12 classmates and a teacher before turning their guns on themselves. We later learned that the killers were not Manson fans, but that didn't stop media speculation and renewed calls for music censorship.
Columbine underscored Manson's pet observation (one that inspired his stage name) that "there's a real fine line between entertainers and mass murderers," he says.
"America has created an environment through the media where people know they can get their picture on the cover of Time or Newsweek by doing something outrageous, either as an artist or by hurting someone. They will always put the killer on the cover before they put the victim, because it's more dramatic for them to help sell fear."
Disputing the notion that violent art leads to violent acts, Manson says: "You can't blame people's behavior on books, music, film and video games, which are important outlets for emotions. Growing up, I always escaped to music if things got too hard to deal with. When you take away the things people identify with, you create these little time bombs that eventually explode. People feel smothered when they aren't heard."
The lanky and soft-spoken Manson, sporting shades, black garb and none of his trademark war paint, is sequestered in his Sunset Boulevard headquarters in a Spartan room with drawn blinds and no lights, save the tape recorder's glowing red dot.
In this sinister setting, he expounds: "Art, by nature, has to be evil because it challenges the status quo and what the mainstream defines as beautiful or moral or ideal. I wanted to represent chaos, the simple upheaval of everyday regimens and routines that trap people. That's a war I'm always willing to fight. Columbine wasn't my war to fight. It was a wake-up call that said, 'You're not listening to your kids.' I was no more guilty than any other person in America."
Though unfazed by rumors that have ranged from sordid to silly that he sacrificed animals, worshiped Satan, got breast implants, portrayed Paul on The Wonder Years and had ribs removed so he could perform oral sex on himself, Manson was stunned by the unrelenting media attacks after Columbine. Distressed by a flurry of death threats, he canceled shows and finally retreated, locking himself in an attic for three months to write Holy Wood, his fifth studio album. It's also the title of a novel due early next year.
He did not retreat philosophically. Recorded in an L.A. house once occupied by Harry Houdini, the 19-track Holy Wood is a prequel to 1996's goth-industrial Antichrist Superstar and 1998's glam-rock Mechanical Animals. It explores violence, death, religion and societal decay with snarling fury and explicit detail.
"I've got a crush on a pretty pistol," he croons in The Love Song. In Godeatgod, he sings, "Dear God, if you were alive, you know we'd kill you." A haunting line in The Nobodies seems to conjure Columbine: "We are the nobodies, we wanna be somebodies/When we're dead, they'll know just who we are." Elsewhere, Manson exults, "Let's sing the death song, kids!"
Predictably, some chain stores have banned the album or concealed its cover (a crucified Manson with a missing jaw). With scattered exceptions, critics are impressed.
The dark concept album is "the hateful huckster's most potent effort yet" (Entertainment Weekly), "the religiously offensive manifesto Manson promised" (Revolver), "smart, powerful and guaranteed to give parents nightmares" (Music365.com), and "by far the best thing Manson has ever set his warped mind to" (NME).
In his dual study of evolution and revolution, Manson turns to Christian figures and parables to convey the struggle of a naive protagonist seeking the world's acceptance.
"You're fighting to fit in, and you realize when you get there that the people around you are the same ones who held you down and humiliated you," says Manson.
"You've finally arrived, but that bite from the apple of knowledge is bitter and causes a resentment that turns into revolution. Starting a band was my revolution."
Holy Wood's autobiographical saga draws parallels between Manson and John F. Kennedy, John Lennon and Jesus Christ, the device most likely to irk his detractors.
"In some ways, I've remained this Peter Pan, trapped by my desire to live in my imagination rather than within the standards people impose," says the Ohio native, 31, raised in the Episcopal Church and force-fed biblical passages that gave him nightmares about the Apocalypse.
"The story is very traditional, very symbolic and inspired, strangely enough, by The Bible. I look at Christ as a revolutionary and the first celebrity, someone who had dangerous ideas, was ultimately sacrificed and became merchandised into a necklace or something to hang on the wall."
Manson asserts that, despite the advance of civilization, mankind remains determined to destroy itself. And contrary to the views of Manson loathers William Bennett and Joe Lieberman, entertainment is not a catalyst in this doomsday scenario. Cain had no slasher films to persuade him to kill Abel, he notes.
Likewise, no Hollywood release rivals the horror in Abraham Zapruder's home movie of the JFK assassination. Violent content on the rise? Manson scoffs, "We're not feeding people to lions for entertainment anymore. The times aren't more violent, they're just more televised."
His marilynmanson.com asks, "Is adult entertainment killing our children, or is killing our children entertaining adults?"
Manson's status as pop-culture provocateur and musical terrorist makes him an outcast among fans of bubblegum and frat rock, chart juggernauts that may not make room for the artist AOL.com users voted "scariest celebrity."
First single Disposable Teens got a warm reception on the radio, and concert tickets are going fast: An L.A. show sold out in 12 minutes. Still, Holy Wood risks plummeting into the abyss between the polar trends of teen pop and rap-rock.
"It's my job to carve a place for it," Manson says.
"Everything now is fashionably loud and angry. This album has genuine emotion that I needed to vent. I tried to create something that's heavy and yet has some irony and intelligence. There may be a thirst for that now. People are probably a bit over saturated by this generic hip-hop/metal that's been rehashed for the past two years. It's a sad time in music, almost like disco, in that there's no need for lyrics because they're not talking about anything."
Though Manson continues to inflame moral watchdogs, he may be losing currency with youth, says Alan Light, editor of SPIN, which dismissively compares Holy Wood to "a seventh James Bond movie without any new gadgets."
"In light of Eminem and, before that, the ascension of hip-hop, Manson and all those representatives of alt-rock torment and rage started to feel very hollow," Light says.
"Kids feel like it's shtick, very show biz and calculated."
While Manson shrugs off charges of nihilism and wickedness, he bristles at the implication that he's a schlock 'n' shock poseur.
"I've always had a desire to be provocative and to make people think, but it wouldn't be any challenge for me just to be shocking," he says.
"That is where it begins for me, not where it stops. And I could be much more shocking. I think I've adopted a sense of subtlety. I don't sit around wondering how I can make myself even stranger to the world. I've simply evolved into the monster I created, and I'm quite happy with it."
Rock's self-proclaimed demon seed borders on conventional in ways that might surprise fans and foes alike. He's engaged to actress Rose McGowan, devoted to dogs Bug and Fester, and speaks frequently to his parents. He's politically conservative and disdainful of crusades to feed children abroad or free foreign prisoners when U.S. needs should come first. What offends this entertainment radical and champion of free expression?
"Bleeding-heart liberals," he sniffs.
"I find them very insincere, especially in Hollywood. Those are the people I would like to punch in the face the most. I guess a lot of people would find me more right wing than left wing, although I find myself in both wings. That's what lets me fly."