There are only two things worth doing if you are male, over 30 and not a famous rock star or actor. The first is to become a hanger-on to a famous rock star or actor. The second is to start a cult that wants to kill famous rock stars and actors. If you're just off the bus and you're looking for a piece of the action, these are the only two ways to go.
I'm going to try the parasitic approach to this place first, I decide, as the City of Angels thuds under the wheels of my 747. If that doesn't work, I plan to grab a copy of Helter Skelter and some ammo and head for the desert.
In preparation for my meeting with Marilyn Manson, I've just finished his autobiography, The Long Hard Road Out Of Hell. Satanic rituals, cocaine abuse, potty games - it seems much of the hell he refers to in the title is self-created. I have no problem with that. Good art is born on suffering, and in this age of unprecedented prosperity, it is often neccessary to create your own. At the very end of the book there's a journal entry that is of interest to HIGH TIMES readers. It goes:-
"May 29, 1997, Paris, I talked to Snoop Doggy Dogg today. Well, I'm not sure if you could really call it talked because I could hardly understand a word he was saying. But I think what he was trying to communicate was that he wanted to work with me in some sort of capacity and something involving marijuana."
The plane unloads its human cargo, and I make the obligatory jog to the car rental agency. I sign for my Nissan, getting as much insurance as I can get for the thing. I'm expecting a lot of shit to go down and I sure as hell ain't gonna pay for it.
Interscope, Marilyn's record company, puts me up in a hotel on Sunset Boulevard. From my balcony, I have a good view of the side-street hooking action that got Hugh Grant in so much trouble. In the corner of the room there's a wet bar full of alcohol I don't have to pay for. I'm sitting in the lap of luxury, sipping whiskey and watching a pimp on the street slap one of his whores to the ground. This town in disgusting and I'm here for a week.
I'm to met Manson, sans band, at the headquarters of Posthuman, his management company, on Santa Monica Boulevard. The occasion is the release of Holy Wood (In The Shadow Of The Valley Of Death), the third part of the musical trilogy he started with Antichrist Superstar followed by Mechanical Animals.
Musically, the album takes a few steps back from the melodic precipice of the Bowie-inpired Mechanical Animals and returns to the abrasive industrial damage of Antichrist Superstar. Coinciding with the release of Holy Wood will be a novel of the same name that Manson wrote in the attic of his Hollywood mansion in a period of hermitage that followed the Columbine shootings, and his subsequent blame for the event in the media.
The offices of Manson's management compay and fledging record label exist in a nondescript building. If I told you in was the headquarters of some new Internet startup group, you'd have no reason to disbelieve me. It's a deliberatere ruse, I figure, Satan's not afraid to dress down if it furthurs the master plan.
I sit and wait for a few minutes in a dark roo, then Manson makes his entrance. Everything touching his body is black - his leather pants, button-down shirt, platform boots, and the shades he does not remove for the entire interview. Classic, I think. I dont care what anybody says, a rock star without cool clothes is just a jock with an identity crisis.
Manson exudes a warm arrogance that puts you at ease, but does not allow you to feel anything approaching comfortable. My only two icebreakers in this kind of situation are the weather and the news. I ask him what he thinks of Joe Lieberman - who has called Marilyn Manson "the sickest group ever promoted by a mainstream record company" - getting the Democratic vice-presidential nomination.
"Well he's come out against me," Manson says.
"So has Dick Cheney - so both sides hate me. The Democrats are probably a lot safer to deal with than the Republicans, in the sense that they're talking a lot of things to in their platform to try and get elected. When it comes down to it, the Democratic judges that really make the decisions are probably more art-friendly than the Republican ones."
Ironically Manson was quoted in Talk Magazine, claiming "I'd pick Bush,"
Lieberman was also partially responsible for associating Manson with the Columbine shootings, where two misguided high-school students from a Denver suburb decided to make history by blowing away their classmates and then themselves on April 20, 1999. Blaming Marilyn for this event is kind of like blaming Sam Carr's Labrador for the David Berkowitz slayings, but this is an election year, and if you don't have a soundbite to offer us when our ugly hidden truths to the surface, we don't want you in office.
"Your new album seems like a response to the Columbine shootings." I conclude.
"How come whenever a kid offs himself or a few of his classmates and has one of your records in his collection, you get the heat?"
"Well there are a couple of levels to that," he explains.
"For anyone who has a Marilyn Manson CD, they have a Bible in their house and they also have the news to watch. And the other thing I address on this record is that kids nowadays grow up and you're meant to feel worthless for the most part until you're old enough to vote or become a consume - whether that's consuming the media or religion or politics, or just the general fear that's trying to be sold. In turn, if you feel like you're worthless, you're gonna treat other people like they're worthless too."
"Do you feel any empathy for these kids who get picked on and react, rather than through art or something creative, through violence?"
"That's the ironic part. Everyone who wants to attack me is trying to say they're defending young people and trying to save their morals and things like that, but I think artists and people like myself, especially in music, are the only thing that is being directed to those people. So that's what's most ironic: I think I have more empathy for kids that the people who are supposedly trying to protect them."
"Is there a positive message in your music?" I ask.
"Absolutely. There is a message of rebirth and transformation, and rather than trying to fit into other people's standards, creating your own."
That brings us to Holy Wood, the album. Using Hollywood as a metaphor for a modern-day myth that no human can ever live up to, and Death Valley as a symbolic refuge for the disenfranchised. Manson spins an autobiographical tale about a young outcast, Adam, who goes from a nobody to a superstar revolutionary overnight. Once he enters Hollywood's pearly gates, his hopes of insurrection are compromised as he realizes he has become what he was fighting against. "That was I tried to do in the beginning," Manson offers.
"to change what was around me instead of changing myself. And now. I don't know if I'm in a better place or a worse place, but at least I'm in a different place."
Manson began as Brian Warner, troubled student at the Heritage Christian School in Canton, Ohio. From there you can pretty much count the transformations - from high school heavy metal geek to South Florida journalist, from up-and-coming goth-rocker to the Marilyn Manson who hit the headlines in zombie makeup, women's clothing and trademark white contact lens. The metamorphisis did not end there, however.
Manson is sharp enough to know that the record-buying public has the attention span of a gnat, and an artist who relies as much on camp and theatre as he does has to reinvent himself with every album. Mechanical Animals brought us Omega, a parody of a fucked-out glam-rock superstar, and Holy Wood gives us Adam, a musical revolutionary, equal parts Charles Manson and Che Guevara.
"How did living in Hollywood for the past three years influence this album?" I inquire.
"There's a real darkness to this town," he says.
"I definetly had a chip on my shoulder while making this record. In one way it's defending Hollywood, and in another way it's attacking it for not being brave enough. I live in the house the Stones used when they made Let It Bleed. It's the house in the beginning of [the movie] Cocksucker Blues. That was a real inspiration. The end of the 60's became something I was really obsessed with on this album. I think it was because of the Stones being blamed for Altamont and the Manson murders were a lot like Columbine. The same media coverage. That's why I started getting into The Beatles' White Album more and more, because it was the first record that was blamed for some sort of crime or associated with it. I felt like this had to be our White Album.
Don't worry, there's no "Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da" on Holy Wood. The connection between the two albums is more metaphorical. There are references to John Lennon and Mark David Chapman and, of course, the original Beatles-obsessed killer Charles Manson. He attributes some of the lyrics in the song Born Again to him. And then there's the whole Death Valley thing.
"Have you ever been contacted by The Family?" I ask.
"No," he replies.
"I have always been supportive [of Charles Manson]. I think he's a political prisoner. I've never supported what happened, but at the same time I think it's important to consider the fact that we were in the middle of the Vietnam War and most people, including my father who fought in it, couldn't tell you what it stood for and why they did it. The Manson family, in their mind, were waging war. They were going to war against Hollywood, because they hated this town and what it stood for. And they believed it. Both are wrong - killing is killing, whether it's in war or whatever it's for."
Manson has talked often and openly about his drug use, which in a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde sort of way also represents transformation. I ask him if drugs are a useful tool in the creative process.
"There are times when I've wanted to be clearheaded when I'm creating something and there are times when I've wanted to let my subconscious do the work for me," he says.
"Making this record, the two drugs that were most inspirational were Soma and absinthe.
Soma is a sacred plant that was used to produce ecstatic visions by the Aryans of India and Persia circa 1500 B.C. There are 120 different hymns devoted to it in the Big Veda, the oldest complete religious text known to man. The actual plant reffered to has never been identified for certain, so I'm wondering what kind of Hollywood super-dealer Manson knows that can get his hands on this mythical substance.
"Some manufacturer trademarked the name," he explains.
"It's sort of a muscle relaxant."
I ask him about absinthe, the anise-flavored aperitif popularized by French artists in the second half of the 19th century. Absinthe's illicit secret ingredient, is said to have fueled the hallucinations of painters Edgar Deges and Vincent Van Gogh, and poets Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud.
"In The Bible, wormwood was supposed to be a plant that grew in the path exiting the Garden of Eden, a posion that God sent down to punish mankind," claims Manson.
"I thought it was something I should try. There is something nice to the ritual as well," he adds.
"Making the album, there were a lot of rituals - whether it was something as simple as absinthe, or just achieving a mindset that took you out of the regular world so that you can concentrate on what you were creating. We took a lot of field trips out of Death Valley just to try to imprint the feeling of the desert into our minds, so when we were writing the songs and trying to capture that feeling it was not being forged, it was real."
"Did you have any particularly spooky moments out of Death Valley?"
"I think all of them were." he says.
"We created this myth of desert bears. We convinced everyone who was with us to watch out for desert bears. I don't believe there are desert bears. Absinthe can create desert bears..."
"Reading your book, it seemed to me that you fed creatively on the negative energy that came from drugs like cocaine and acid. Do you get good ideas at your low points?"
"Maybe not while in them, but thinking about them, looking back on them. I try to have much more of a different balance in my life now when it comes to drugs."
"What about pot?"
"I rarely smoke pot, but while making this album there was the occasional joint, and it was a different experience. It made me... I'm not really sure what it made me, because it's such an alien drug to me. I think I started with hard drugs and worked my way back down to the easier ones, but I liked it. I may qualify as a pot smoker now."
Seizing the moment, I ask if he wants to burn one.
"Yeah, sure. Might as well. For HIGH TIMES."
I pull out my plastic little baggie and take a giant step toward my goal of becoming one of Manson's freeloading drug buddies.
"Did you fly in with that?" He asks as I crush up some New York City hydro.
"I had it in my boot the whole way." I confess.
"I always get searched in Customs," Manson says, "I never carry drugs on me. It would just be stupid, because I get a hard time. I'm friends with Hunter Thompson, and he's out of his mind when it comes to challenging the boundaries of the law, but successful, believe it or not."
Manson has pretty specific ideas about the way people should and shouldn't take drugs. Handling him the spliff, I ask if he can give an example of someone he thinks is a bad drug user.
"I hate people who try to hide when they're doing drugs." he says.
"Like, they don't want to tell their girlfriends. I meet a lot of supposed rock stars that have secret lives. I remeber when we first toured with KoRn, the singer [Jonathan Davis] wasn't allowed to hang with out with us because he had some sort of crystal-meth problem. We attacked him and fed him drugs every day so he was unable to perform. And then, while they were on stage, we urinated on their catering."
"I know you're busy nowadays," I say, aiming my drugbuddy pitch at the smoking visage across from me, "but if there's any other chance to get together and talk in an atmosphere that's not just the two of us in an office..."
"Are you going back to New York?" he cuts me off.
"I'll be here for the rest of the week," I counter.
"Maybe I can invite you by for a drink of absinthe." he suggests.
"That would be cool," I say as nonchalantly as possible.
"Maybe Wednesday or Thursday," he says.
"I'll give you a call if I'm not too swamped."
An invitation to the inner sactum with the unspoken promise of mayhem and debauchery! I can scarcely contain my enthusiasm as we part company. I could just see it now - me, Manson, Tom Arnold sitting around a pile of hard drugs telling Charlie Sheen stories.
So as not to seem overanxious. I sit patiently for a few days and await his call. The only problem with that is... well, he doesn't call. Maybe he wants me to show a little initiative, so I phone his management company and explain that I have a date with their client. They politely promise to relay my message. After a few hours with no word , I call again and I'm told they're doing the best that they can for me, that they want to see it happen too. I wait, then I call over and over for the rest of the night with no avail.
The hookers down on Sunset look like sex-weary ants from my balcony. The lights shimmer in the west, the air smells like a parking garage. I begin to realize that this extravagant lifestyle I've become accustomed to is going to end very soon. I'm as much a whore as any one of them, sitting around drinking corporate whiskey until the act which is required of me has been completed.
I know Manson expects more from me. My mission suddenly becomes clear, if I can't be Manson's Kato Kaelin, I'll be his Charles "Tex" Watson, whether he likes it or not.
From here on, my life, my future, my career - all of it makes a beeline for the desert.
I settle my bill. the concierge runs to open the door for me and I just feel sorry for him. When I get set up, I plan to drop him a line. I want him to know that in the desert, the only doors that need to be open are in your mind.
I take one last Travis Bickle-eyed look at the scum floating up and down Sunset, then head east to a place that is immune to Hollywood's comproises, a place where a person can sit and comune with like-minded souls in an atmosphere of brotherhood and love. It's called the Barker Ranch, in the heart of Death Valley, the last known refuge of the Manson family.
I listen to Holy Wood as I drive east on I-10. Slowly, it all comes clear - why I was called out here by Manson, why he's not calling me back and what exactly I should do about it. It's all in the lyrics. Like in A Place in the Dirt where Manson directs me to drive out to the desert and await his next command.
"We are damned and we are dead
All god's clildren to be sent
To our perfect place in the sun
And in the dirt"
My plan is simple. I'll hang around the more tourist-friendly spots in Death Valley, talking to backpackers and flashing my HIGH TIMES credentials. When the moment is right, I'll persuade a few road-weary travelers to come back to the Barker Ranch, where they can enjoy a cup of herbal tea in an atmosphere devoid of the prying eyes of federal agents and other non-believers.
From there it's just a matter of getting a few thousand micrograms of hysergic acid diethylamide into their systems and to convince them that their true mission in life is to take back this land by any means neccessary, by the name of Marilyn Manson and all his associates. If the Christians could convince a third of the world that the son of Yahweh was a carpenter with a handful of nails, I could persuade a dozen or so drifters that God is a guy from Ohio with a $10 contact lens and a good publicist. Then it's just a matter of sticking a pin on one of those movie-star maps they sell on Sunset and we'll be ready for the history books.
There's only one hotel worth mentioning in Death Valley - the Furnace Creek Inn. I manage to catch last call at the bar, and strike up a conversation with two skinheads on the lam due to some legal transgression involving crystal meth, a revoked driver's license and a violent act they do not explain in detail. Not only are they psyched to hit Charles Manson's last free home, but they have a but they have a brand new Ford truck that they think will go the distance. We share a joint behind the bar and I explain that I'm not cool with any sort of racial prejudice. They tell me not to worry, they gave all that stuff up a year ago.
Following a map I found in a vintage copy of Ed Sanders' The Family, we arrive at an abandoned room named Ballarat. We pass an industrial-sized satellite dish, then come to a scattered bunch of wooden shacks that look like they might buckle beneath the weight of the moonlight. Just before I'm convinced that this place might be completely deserted, I find a skinny drifter who apparantly the only soul living in the place. He looks at me strange and I hope I didn't stumble upon some psychopath's meth lab by mistake. He's cautiously friendly, and tells me that there's no way we are gonna make it up Goler Wash in our truck. I tell him if Charlie got a schoolbus up there, we have a chance. He shrugs his shoulders like I'm not the first person who's said that to him. I ask him to mail these notes back to HIGH TIMES and for $20 he does not refuse.
The sun is rising over Death Valley's jagged landscape. Snakes and scorpions are retiring from the night's hunt to their underground sanctuaries. A lone coyote lifts his leg and pisses on the desert sand, oblivious to the fact that 200 miles to the west, people with ties to the entertainment industry are selling the ground upon which it stands.
A sharp whistle penetrates the air and a man who asked me not to mention his name says we're ready to move on.