Marilyn Manson's Holy Wood is stained with the blood of Columbine, JFK and - in the face of mounting death threats - perhaps his own.
Only the tiniest ray of late-afternoon sun penetrates the office where Marilyn Manson has agreed to meet. The Venetian blinds are shut and the overhead lights turned off in the offices of Posthuman Entertainment, a new venture that promises to be the seat of the dark one's music and movie empire. The macabre darkness recasts a room where framed platinum CDs dot the walls and an MTV award props up some books atop a file cabinet. With the stage set, Manson enters, clad entirely in black, of course, with dark sunglasses shielding his eyes from my gaze. He keeps the sunglasses on throughout the conversation and as much as I try to be blase, sitting in the sitting in the dark trying to peer through those glasses to The Antichrist beneath is constantly unsettling. With the stage properly set, his surprisingly slight frame, black nail polish and high-pitched, almost whiny conversational voice seem much grander, more imposing.
Manson has been coolly prepping himself for war, leading the artillery of his new album, Holy Wood (In The Valley Of The Shadow Of Death) [Nothing], which promises to rain shrapnel on the right-wing enemy camp. Just thinking about the rage and frustration that gave birth to the album takes Manson back well over a year, to a time when it seemed his Antichrist act might fail him, those dark days after Columbine, when moralists pointed to his music as inspiration for the killings. Protesters descended upon Manson's spring '99 concerts as if they were revival meetings. In Colorado and Nevada, politicians demanded the cancellation of shows. Iowa's Liberal Democratic Senator Tom Harkin said only bad parents would let their children attend a Manson concert. The outcry continued even after Manson canceled the tour midstream under post-Columbine pressure. Last summer, testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee about disturbingly violent stage antics prompted Senator Joseph Lieberman, the Dems' VP candidate, to declare Manson the sickest act ever promoted by a mainstream record company.
Never mind that Littleton's Kiebold and Harris actually hated Manson's music. And never mind that the killers' actual ties to Columbine's pathetic little circle of goths, the Trenchcoat Mafia, were tenuous at best. When kids are lying dead in as nice a neighbourhood as you might ever find, someone's got to be at fault. Rumours said the killers were Manson fans and the media found a scapegoat for slaughter.
"I didn't leave the house for three months." remembers Manson about the post-Columbine period.
"And that's not a figure of speech. And most of that time was spent in my attic, which I turned into my writing isolation chamber. I was just trying to decide what I wanted to do. Was it worth trying to put my heart and soul into an album if I was going to be treated so brutally and unjustly by religious people and the media?"
This battle isn't new to Manson: it's been a thorn in his crown since childhood, when little Brian Warner, the misfit nerd of Clinton, Ohio's Heritage Christian School, was busted and persecuted for distributing his home-brewed Stupid zine, which mock-advertised bondage aids with accompanying sketched diagrams. Manson and his adversaries have kept up the grudge match ever since: Warner becomes Manson, consecrates his music to the devil, and the morality police hound him with death threats, hate letters, calls for censorship and album-burning.
Columbine, however, was different. Today, the memory of that time still crackles in Manson's nasal voice:-
"We (the band) were united against the whole world. Other people will never know how poorly we were treated. On Antichrist Superstar I enjoyed being vilified or being a scapegoat. But in this situation, when you're being blamed for something that has as many people's emotions wrapped up in it. It's not a winning battle you can fight. I couldn't even go to a restaurant without someone looking at me like they hated my guts, like they wanted me dead or I was responsible for something I didn't do."
Being Marilyn Manson, the most intense of rock stars, he didn't spend his hibernation merely brooding, but studying, reading Jewish mysticism, alchemy, the history of the Tarot, whatever he could get his hands on to help him figure out where he was going. After three months he flew down from his attic with the capping stone of his vision, the third piece of The Triptych that began with the hard, industrial rage of Antichrist Superstar and journeyed upward into the more melodic, ironic vision of Mechanical Animals. Holy Wood brings together and ties off the two albums, musically and thematically.
The album, like its predecessors, combines ideas of fame, violence, religion and pop culture into a good melange of metaphor through the album's hero, Adam Kadmon, the first man on Earth.
"Holy Wood is kind of a parable of an innocent that was up to a world that doesn't accept him." explains Manson.
"He wants to be part of the grass that's on the other side of the fence with the bigger, more beautiful things that he doesn't feel part of. And when he becomes a part of that finally he finds out that the greener grass on the other side is the same grass that's been treating him like a weed. And that makes him bitter and manifests in revolution. But Adam's revolution does not overthrow this world like he thinks it will. His idea becomes another product and they take him and turn him into something he wasn't."
The album's story, like that on Antichrist and Mechanical Animals, is told through a progression of angry and complex songs, drawn out in extended metaphors and allusions to the many elements at play in Manson's mind. The album's title, for example, refers not just to the Hollywood sign, Manson explains, but also 'the tree of knowledge that Adam took the first fruit from when he fell out of paradise, the wood that Christ was crucified on, the wood that (Lee Harvey) Oswald's rifle is made from and the wood that so many coffins are made of."
Like his imagery, Manson's answer to his critics unfolds in multi-tiered metaphors that don't just shout, 'It's not my fault!' but shoot back with a dark and distressing portrait of the world Manson sees, the one he fights against, in which religion, politics and the media combine to glorify violence in a way more disturbing than any Marilyn Manson album.
Holy Wood offers plenty of cannon fodder for hasty critics: "Sing the death song kids/Because we've got no future/And we wanna be just like you' (from The Death Song). Cruci-fiction In Space refers, among other things, to the Kennedy assassination: "If Christ was in Texas/The hammer, the sickle, the only son/If Jack was the Baptist/We would drink wine from his head"
Manson walks straight back into the firestorm that almost consumed him last year with lyrics that offer no quarter to those who say he revels in violence. The Nobodies, set in a mournful, elegiac dirge, will likely be read as a tribute to the murderers of Columbine: Today I'm dirty and I want to be pretty/Tomorrow I know I'm just dirt/We are the nobodies/We wanna be somebodies/When we're dead/They'll know just who we are."
This, of course, would be missing the point, the one Manson formed up in the attic, his head swirling with images of slain teens, Tarot cards, slaughtered presidents, his old persecutors and the media's blind feeding frenzy.
"I've really just pointed the finger back at people who were pointing the finger at me. Or snapped their finger off and stuck it up their ass."
The point, he explains like a committed but weary teacher, is not to glorify violence, but to depict a society drenched in blood.
"I make references to the Zapruder film (of the Kennedy assassination) being the most important movie ever made in modern times. And the irony that anyone could complain about violence in films and entertainment when that was shown on the news. Growing up, I saw it so many times, and I've never seen anything so violent in my life. And that's reality. To me, Kennedy was a second Christ because he died and enough people were watching, and so you become a martyr. I think the image of Christ hanging on the cross not only makes him the first real celebrity, the first real icon, but it is also one of the most sexual images ever."
Manson wanted to inflict his theosophical tale upon the world in a hail of fire and brimstone, planning not only to record an album of Holy Wood, but to also turn it into a movie. He talked with New Line Cinema about producing the script, which he described as 'a parable about man's desire to destroy himself in a world where violence is a religion and everyone is a star." - no doubt just what Hollywood wanted to hear.
It soon became clear, however, that Hollywood was not going to be able to cut a deal with the devil. Producers would not fund Manson's Holy Wood in the pure, complete form that he felt he needed to get his message out, to fire back with all his pure and unabated fury.
"There were a lot of people interested in working on it but there weren't a lot of people interested in doing it on my terms. People would have watered down what I thought was as strong story, had a lot of strong important religious, political and philosophical points in it that I thought had to be said. So instead, I decided to put the movie on the back burner."
While Manson is stingy with details about his industry talks (still undoubtedly coveting a film career down the road), it is not hard to imagine why the staid, unimaginative film industry wasn't eager to write a multi-million dollar check to a self-styled Satan wanting to fight back against the Columbine-crazed morality police with a 'parable' of assassination and violence in America's celebrity culture. One can imagine the discussions of the development of Adam, Manson's hero:-
Film Exec: "So this Adam, when he becomes this, er, Antichrist - we're having some problems seeing him as sympathetic. Do you suppose we could write in a love interest? Maybe a childhood sweetheart who can see through to the real Adam?"
Manson: "He's having an intense love relationship with .9mm high powered rifle."
Film Exec: "Right. We're going to have to take another look here and get back to you."
He then turned the screenplay into a novel, a medium where no one could mess with his vision. The book, which fleshes out the story told on the album, is scheduled to be released simultaneously by Regan Books.
On the album front, though, there was no companion. The rage, the isolation, as well as the need to top where he had been pushed Manson and the band into a frenzy of writing, recording and mixing, collaborating and experimenting like they'd never done before, he says. They hooked up in an old mansion in Laurel Canyon, the former home of magician Harry Houdini (Manson is inspired by spooky old locales), and started jamming. Working through the rage, Manson and the band tapped into something deep and 'we wrote like we'd never written before and it felt like we were more a band than ever.
"I think in making this record I was operating on a subconscious level most of the time because I had lived with and embedded all these ideas into myself over the years. So I didn't have to sit down and think about the metaphors. I didn't have to sit down and think about how this tied into that, that this melody re-occurred 10 songs later in a different key. It just came naturally because this record felt more right and more a part of the band than anything I've ever done."
Befitting the feelings that inspired it, the music recalls the loud, angry screeching of Antichrist. But Holy Wood is no head-banging industrial rant. Building on the glam sound of Mechanical Animals, the songs use techno themes and acoustic instruments and have a poppy sweetness to them, providing as much rich texture as adrenaline. Explaining how he worked his way up to Holy Wood, Manson says, "I think there's elements of Antichrist that were very strong. I think that's probably just because of the rage and dissonance. It lacked a certain element of melody that was more focused on Mechanical Animals, where the rage and dissonance were put on the back burner. On this album, there was a definite need for rage and dissonance because that was being felt by everyone. And there was the knowledge of melody and the desire to make songs that were beautiful in every way, whether it would be even in their sheer ugliness that they were beautiful."
So what happens now, when all that dissonance and rage are released onto the battlefield? Will he, like the characters on his records, find that the revolution has been bought out and walk away? Kill off Marilyn Manson and become Brian Warner again? Will his critics take the bait and rejoin the battle here at the life-and-death level? Or having hit him with their best shot, have they moved on in search of a new whipping boy?
Manson himself champs at the bit. After a year, his day to fire back is at hand. Ominously, in an interview where he has talked openly about assassination, about an album whose hero, his own alter-ego, he compares to Jesus Christ, JFK and John Lennon, Manson talks about the threats that have been made on his life.
"Right-wing Christians tend to bring the most death threats, but I stopped being afraid of dying a long time ago, so they can bring on whatever they want."
He pauses, and through the dark glasses I feel him fixing me with a hard gaze, blank and pitiless as the sun.
"I can't wait to count the death threats. I'm looking forward to it. I don't care, I'm going to do what I'm doing to do and I'm not going to stop unless someone really stops me."