Marilyn Manson Hangs Up Another Persona
By John Wiederhorn
The lounge of Encore Studios in Los Angeles is tidy enough to placate the fastidious Felix Unger. Two VCRs are stacked in a corner rack, and none of the neatly piled films beside them are rated any more severely than PG-13. On a yellow metal table near the kitchen, a box of Ritz crackers sits beside a plate of muffins and an unwrapped fruit basket. And inside a large refrigerator, Starbucks Frappucinos keep company with two liter bottles of Pepsi. It's the kind of all-American setting that Norman Rockwell used to yearn for. And if it wasn't for the clamor coming from next door, you'd never know that Marilyn Manson, the darkest rock group to hit the pop charts in decades, is holed up in the recording room, adding the finishing touches to its new nothing/Interscope album, Mechanical Animals.
Suddenly the noise stops, and the door opens. Out steps the intimidating Manson (real name Brian Warner) clad in black creepers, black jeans and a pink, collared see-through shirt. His round nipples and colorful tattoos are clearly visible and his red, fiery dyed hair offsets his pale, makeup-free complexion. The room is only modestly lit, but he sports dark shades with egg-shaped lenses, which he never removes. Even so, he immediately flicks off two of the three overhead lights, then twists the rod of the half-shut venetian blinds until they're completely closed.
The gesture is as cartoonish as the band's T-shirts, which have sported slogans like "Kill Your Parents" and "I Am the God of Fuck," but in its own way, it's undeniably effective. Marilyn Manson is all about making an impression -- to reach both the lowest common denominator and the highest by being as wickedly irreverent as shock rock DJ Howard Stern. In the past, Marilyn Manson has been compared to Alice Cooper, and there's no question that Cooper's theatrical presentation and macabre stage antics have rubbed off on Manson like blood from a knife blade. But while Cooper strictly aims to entertain, Manson wants to provoke and inspire.
"What I really hope to do in my music is to influence other people to be creative," says Manson in a soft, gravelly voice, sinking into a gray Naugahyde couch and rubbing reflexively at his stubby chin. "People don't realize it, but everything I do is aimed at creativity, even if it's just for art's sake in an Oscar Wilde sense or an Andy Warhol sense. I see the whole world as a science project, and I love to share ideas with other people because that's the only thing I get fulfillment from. Anybody who has any bit of awareness or any bit of intelligence is going to be unhappy in a world like this, and the only way you can express it is to create things."
Manson must be pretty unhappy then, because he's constantly crafting and constructing. When he's not touring, he's writing songs. When he's not writing, he's painting. When he's not painting, he's creating perverse, living art by drinking, drugging and engaging in acts of depravity and degradation that might have made professional masochist Bob Flanagan flinch. In the past, Manson has filmed porno movies on his tour bus, and tied up, interrogated and even tortured fans. Onstage he's regularly slashed his chest open with a broken bottle and encouraged audience members to spit on him. These days, he seeks other avenues of decadent stimulation.
"I don't ever repeat anything that I ever do in my life, but I still have extreme tendencies," he says. "I just find as many different ways to express them as I can. Most recently, I've been creating pop art by putting people like Corey Feldman and Leif Garrett together and having them sing karaoke. That, to me, is equally as offensive as peeing on a deaf girl and covering her with lunch meat [an act described in vivid detail in Manson's best-selling autobiography The Long Hard Road Out of Hell]."
Such antics have helped earmark Manson as both a target of God-fearing conservatives and a spokesman for lefty liberals supporting free speech. After Marilyn Manson's multiplatinum second album Antichrist Superstar was released in 1996, outraged parents strived to ban the band from playing gigs, fearing their impressionable children would tattoo and pierce their bodies or run off and join a Satanic cult. Many small-town politicians and televangelists, seeing an opportunity to gain support with the age old "family values" campaign, lashed out against the new Satan. "This is perhaps the sickest group ever promoted by a mainstream record company," growled Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut. Pat Robertson, who founded the Christian program 700 Club, was even more severe. "I think it's time that people protest all over the nation. This thing is the most degrading. It incites people to murder, to rape."
Soon groups like the American Family Organization were fabricating stories of depravity and debauchery, claiming that the band forces its audience to kill chickens, dogs and cats before it will perform; distributes cocaine to the crowd; masturbates and performs anal sex onstage; sodomizes children; and keeps tortured runaways in cages. Because of all the controversy, many of the band's shows have been picketed and some canceled. A complete Ozzfest performance in New Jersey was even nixed until Ozzy Osbourne and Manson took the concert organizers to court and won on First Amendment grounds. "All those accusations against us were completely absurd and they made me realize to what lengths some people will go to silence something they don't believe in," says Manson. "I don't think I'm ever going to become something everyone accepts. There's always going to be people who hate me. But at the same time, I'm part of pop culture, and I'm a household name. It's a good feeling to have everyone know who you are.
"I did encourage people to dislike me," he admits. "I've always provoked people because I've found it's almost like dynamite fishing. If you're a bomb and you just keep exploding, usually the smart people come forward, and the other ones get destroyed or left behind."
Die-hard Manson followers will be pleased to know that their messiahs are still as explosive and confrontational as they were in the daze of Antichrist Superstar. "We've recently discovered these things called Real Dolls, which we're really into at the moment," says Manson sidekick/bassist Twiggy Ramirez (real name Jeordie White) later that evening. "Real Dolls are these fuck dolls made out of silicone, and they cost like $5,000. They're scary because they look so real. They have three openings, and you can pick the hair color, eye color, body type, skin tone and pubic hair style. I'd love to get one and have it sit in a chair in my house just doing nothing. It would probably be like a lot of girls I know, anyhow. But when Leif Garrett comes over, he can play with her."
As titillating as these silicone playthings may have been in the creation of Mechanical Animals, several other major occurrences in Manson's life significantly impacted the tone and intensity of the group's new record: he wrote his aforementioned autobiography, he moved to Hollywood and he fell in love. As a result, Mechanical Animals isn't nearly as scathing or hostile as the band's past work. Instead of seeking inspiration from death metal, industrial noise, hatred and self-loathing, as on Antichrist Superstar, Manson aimed to create a more celebratory, emotionally diverse album. So he and his bandmates reached back to '70s glam, one of rock's most flashy and indulgent periods, and embellished the glittery sonic rainbow with a miasma of chirping, grinding and whizzing industrial samples. The first single Dope Show throbs to a stark, sleazy rhythm, with writhing guitars wriggling in and out of dense, buzzing power chords; Rock is Dead lashes like a cat-o'-nine-tails, courtesy of a decadent, surging guitar riff that sounds like a cross between T. Rex and the Sweet; I Don't Like the Drugs (But the Drugs Like Me) is an obvious homage to David Bowie's star-struck, poppy single Fame; and Disassociative is a sprawling ballad that's both galactic and mournfully grounded.
"Mechanical Animals comes from the standpoint that we're the only people in the world with feelings rather than the only people without," says Manson. "In that sense, it's almost the polar opposite of Antichrist Superstar. I think a lot of people will think this is a sad record, or a depressing one at times, but at other times it's very cocksure and cynical. That's just the way my personality is, and I've tried to just lay it all out there without sounding too much like I should be on the Lilith Fair."
Abrupt musical shifts are often greeted warmly by critics as signs of artistic growth, but for many bands that have turned about-face (Metallica, Smashing Pumpkins, U2), such moves have amounted to commercial suicide. Manson doesn't worry about fans being confused. He welcomes it. "I hope the record will be misunderstood by people expecting another Antichrist Superstar because confusion only creates knowledge," he says. "A lot of people misunderstood Antichrist Superstar and I think they learned a lot from it. I don't think I've changed my voice so drastically that people won't be able to relate to this album. I think they might even relate to it more. I'm not concerned with being a sell-out. I'd be happy if they started making Muzak versions of our songs and played them in elevators so more people in middle America would be exposed to it."
the long, hard road out of hell
When Manson decided to write his autobiography in 1997, he had no idea what he was in for. Initially, he wanted the wife of Anton LaVey, the deceased founder of the First Church of Satan, to co-author the book. But when that proved unfeasible, he settled on Neil Strauss, the New York Times staff writer who had written a cover story on Manson in Rolling Stone the previous year. Manson says he hoped the book would dispel many of the rumors about him, while informing readers about some of his real life traumas and perversions. "At the time there was so much confusion about what my background was like and what my show was really like," he says. "People wondered if I had been on The Wonder Years or not, and whether I had a rib removed or not. I kind of wanted to set the record straight, and at the same time, as a former writer, it gave me a chance to exercise a talent that I had put away for a while."
The resulting book offered very little insight into the band's sound or musical approach, but it overflowed with titillating and twisted vignettes that made the Led Zeppelin epoch Hammer of the Gods look about as decadent as a Boyz II Men biography. There were so many anecdotes about drug sniffing, groupie banging, overdosing, devil worshipping and attempted murder, in fact, that many critics wondered if Manson and Strauss hadn't sat down with a bag of coke and a couple of bottles of booze and fabricated the whole thing over a few sleepless nights.
"It's funny, because I had to change a lot of the names for legal reasons, but the more outlandish things in the book are all very true," insists Manson. "It's mostly just some of the simpler, more everyday things were altered."
"A lot of the more fucked up stuff that's happened didn't even make it into the book," adds Ramirez, who is alternately depicted in the tome stealing grave headstones, sleeping with Courtney Love, smoking human bone fragments and taping his penis to his keyboardist's. "We'll save all the really juicy stuff for the sequel."
The Long Hard Road out of Hell, published by Harpercollins, reached number three on the New York Times non-fiction best-seller list, yet another in a series of victories for Manson. But for the singer, the most rewarding aspects weren't the sales figures or royalty checks. They were the kernels of insight the book provided into his own contorted personality. It seems all the pain, humiliation, violence, self-immolation and eroticism opened a door into the artist's psyche that he thought was permanently rusted shut. "Writing a book really gets a lot out of your system," he explains. "Afterwards I felt almost like a kid again. Before I did it, I really had no feelings about anything, and suddenly everything was over-sensitized, and the simplest, little things in life became far more painful and far more enjoyable."
Thematically, Mechanical Animals is largely driven by Manson's leaking well of sensitivity. Instead of screaming with vitriolic rage, the singer sounds desperate, anguished, even suicidal, as if he's finally realized that someone as dysfunctional as himself can never fit in regardless of how popular he becomes. At times he's resentful, as in Dope Show, where he proclaims, "They love you when you're on all the covers/When you're gone they love another." Elsewhere, he seems overwhelmed by the events that surround him: "I'm as fake as a wedding cake" he moans in New Model #15; "We write a song in space like we're already dead and gone/Your world is killing me," he exclaims in Disassociative.
"I don't think I really had anything to lash out about and be upset about this time," he says. "This record is much more contemplative. I'm just not concerned right now with politics or religion, and I don't care what people are doing or thinking. I only care what I'm doing and thinking.
"It's strange," he continues, fiddling with his sunglasses. "Having such strong emotions for the first time really makes you feel like you've ended up on someone else's planet and the atmosphere doesn't really agree with you. It's a constant struggle trying to cope with that. At times it is invigorating because everyone is interested in who I am and what I'm doing. But it can be just as depressing because people turn around and try to destroy you because they don't understand you. I tend to go through some pretty intense mood swings. I guess that's the first sign of manic depression."
hooray for hollywood
Near the end of The Long Hard Road out of Hell, Manson writes, "I had to shed my skin, purge my emotions and experience every extreme... But in trying everything, all I discovered was that I didn't need any of it. From that point, there was nowhere to go but to the grave -- or to become more human." Many people in search of their more sensitive side migrate to the mountains, the desert or at least some peaceful, God-fearing rural community, but Manson isn't most people. In fact, Manson hates most people, and expects the worst from them, a point he reiterates throughout Mechanical Animals. "People are monkeys, but they're not stupid," he states. "Man is way too smart, and that's why we're all destroying ourselves. We're going to continually create things like the computer that make ourselves and the individual less and less important until we're not capable of doing anything anymore by ourselves. I've always felt that when you deal with people you should start on that bottom. That's what Marilyn Manson has always been about -- being the worst you can possibly be because that way you really only have up to go from there. If you have high expectations for mankind, you're only going to be disappointed."
So, where did Manson go last October to "become more human?" Why, Los Angeles, of course, the most artificial, superficial and depraved city this side of Babylon. Such perversity rotates Manson's warped world. "I always seem to exist in the most unlikely places," he says. "Out of the most conservative environment, I was at my most decadent. And now in a place like this that's so extremely fake, I find that I can become more real. I think I just thrive on the idea of being different than what's around me. That's just something I've always grown up doing."
Manson, however, wasn't strictly attracted by the hedonism and artificiality of Hollywood. There was something else: hope, desperation, broken dreams -- the same elements that make a city like Las Vegas so intriguing. "In a lot of ways, Hollywood is like one big movie set," summarizes Manson. "There are a few stars, but most people are extras and outcasts. There's a really hollow, depressing feeling here which is really fascinating and inspiring. I actually found that I could relate to the plastic surgery victims and failed actors more than the big celebrities."
Mechanical Animals clearly reflects the dichotomy of Los Angeles, a city that flaunts its porn industry as much as its respected art community. Often, the record is bleak, sometimes it's despairing, but it's also frequently euphoric and giddily exhibitionist. "Being here, I'm fueled by so many different things," enthuses Manson. "I feel like I can keep my life a lot more balanced than before. I can be as sober as I want to be or I can outdrink Frank Sinatra or Jim Morrison. I can do more drugs than Andy Gibb, and I can still get up in the morning and look better than all four Spice Girls."
Over the years since 1989, when Marilyn Manson was first conceived in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., naysayers have argued that Manson is not a skilled musician, and that every step of his career has been guided, first by executive producer and former friend Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, and now by producer Michael Beinhorn, who has manned the hit machine for other top charting acts including Hole, Soundgarden and Soul Asylum. What these critics fail to realize is that Mechanical Animals changed little between the time it was written (in a mere 14 days) and recorded (in an equally short period of time). More importantly, skeptics overlook the fact that Manson isn't exactly striving to be a great singer. "I was born to be a rock star plain and simple, and I'm just striving to be the best one that I can," he says. "We're in an era now where rock music is gradually becoming extinct, and I think it's important for me to ensure that it survives with personality and attitude. The only rock music that exists right now is so mediocre. It isn't doing what the people that created the music form intended it to do. I don't think anyone is saying anything that John Lennon did or causing the same reactions as Alice Cooper or David Bowie. I think those people and Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley would probably be ashamed of a lot of the bands they've influenced. And rock music is too important to be only used as fodder for sampling."
In addition to being an outlet for his personal demons and indulgences, Manson considers Mechanical Animals a wake-up call to a brain-dead community. Moreover, he believes that the album will single-handedly induce boring alterna-rockers to inject some drama, danger and sexuality into their craft. "I'll be the first one to go out there on the record and say I feel very confident that this album will put rock'n'roll back on the map," he boasts.
the drugs don't hurt, the love don't work
Marilyn Manson may have vision, drive and intelligence, but the band is still driven by rock star stereotypes. After a few minutes in their presence, you get the feeling that if the Rolling Stones, Alice Cooper, Beatles, Bowie, Aerosmith and just about every other stadium rocker had been teetotalers in their prime, Manson would be playing canasta and watching foreign films instead of popping pills and snorting himself into oblivion. Naturally, drugs featured prominently in the making of Mechanical Animals, as evidenced by songs like The Dope Show, I Don't Like the Drugs and Last Day on Earth. Recreational pharmaceuticals were also prevalent in the creation of Antichrist Superstar, but back then they were being primarily used to cope, not escape.
"The problem with Antichrist Superstar was I was put in a position where I was made very unsure of myself," says Manson. "I was questioning everything I did because no one had any confidence in what I was doing and I was taking so many drugs to ease that misery and frustration. It's only when you're in that weak frame of mind that drugs can really hurt you. If you're a competent drug user then there's nothing to fear. No drugs were sought out of depression or confusion this time because I was very sure about what I was doing. They were just sought out of enjoyment or decadence. This record was written on drugs about drugs, and it will likely be performed on drugs as well."
Abruptly, Manson is interrupted by his manager, and he leaves the room for a few minutes to check the sound of a mix. The song is the album's closer Coma White, a bleak number which begins with an undistorted guitar arpeggio, a straightforward beat and the lyrics, "There's something cold and blank behind the smile/... You were from a perfect world, a world that threw me away." The "you" from the "perfect world" is likely Manson's current girlfriend, actress Rose McGowan (Scream), whom he started dating shortly after moving to Los Angeles. Although Manson won't go into any details about the relationship, he says it's mutually monogamous, and that he's definitely in love. However, he says their union hasn't quelled his cynicism.
"Maybe I'm happier, but I'm not more happy to be alive or grateful that the sun is shining or anything as silly as that," he says. "In some ways Mechanical Animals is a metaphor for my whole situation. It's about being trapped between two worlds, and part of that includes being delusional about love and not knowing if it's real. Right now, my attention is focused on one person, but that doesn't change the way I feel about the rest of the world."
The declaration of faithfulness will likely crush the ocean of disaffected teenage girls who hold Manson as a Bacchanalian sex symbol -- especially the ones who have begged Manson to extinguish cigarettes on their faces or watch as they carve his name into their arms and chests. "That kind of behavior seems strange, but that's just part of being a teenager," shrugs Manson. "Because you say or do something, that doesn't define your whole personality. When you're stuck in a situation where you're around someone you have so many expectations for, you say or do things you normally wouldn't do. I don't think that's any way to define what America's youth is about. I think they're very smart, and a lot of times, I think they're just trying to push people's buttons as I am, and they know that pisses off their parents as much as I piss off their parents."
Manson's relationship with McGowan may be only skin deep, as suggested by lines like, "I'm not in love but I'm gonna fuck you till somebody better comes along" (User Friendly), but Manson, who is depicted with breasts on the cover of Mechanical Animals, suggests his biological clock is ticking away, and, like the creature in Aliens, he will eventually spawn. "It's not out of the question that I'll have children," he says, smirking slightly. "I kind of feel like I'm raising everybody in a strange, detached sense, anyhow. My fans make me feel as young as they are. We share the same spirit and I share their outlook on life."
Indeed, Manson's relationship with his teenage fans is symbiotic. They feed off his power and extremism, and he off their innocence and youthful exuberance. "I really wish I could be in the same place that they are, and have the same problems they have," he says. "I spent so much of my life trying to grow up, and now I'm just trying to get back to where I started from. I understand youth, so I think I'd make a great father."
Any child rearing tips?
"You should have to pass an IQ test before you breed," he concludes. "You have to take a driving test to operate vehicles and an SAT test to get into college. So why don't you have to take some sort of test before you give birth to children? When I become president, that's the first rule I will institute."