The Thin White Puke
by Sean Plummer
A number one album? Dating Rose McGowan? What more could Marilyn Manson possibly want? Except maybe a hot meal and a sunlamp?
"I split myself in half on Antichrist Superstar and now I'm trying to put myself back together."
Los Angeles - Ben Stiller is short. Shorter than me, anyway - and that's short. I make this discovery upon arriving back at my hotel, the Sunset Marquee, after an evening of carousing in the City of Angels. The bar at the Sunset is loaded with celebrities. As my party stumbles out to the patio, I pass Stiller (talking to someone considerably taller than himself), Marilyn Manson bassist Twiggy Ramirez (all dolled up from a photoshoot for Guitar Player magazine), and pianist rocker Ben Folds (drinking alone at the bar).
I bring up Stiller's height (or lack thereof) for a reason. You would not think the comedian was short by watching his movies. There's Something About Mary, Permanent Midnight, Reality Bites: looks tall enough to me. But creating illusions and selling them is Hollywood's business, and business is good.
Which brings me to the subject of this story: Marilyn Manson. For Manson is the most skilled rock star since David Bowie to create his own fictions and sell them to the public. Through his lyrics, his music, his videos, and his interviews, Marilyn Manson has created a personal mythology on a creative par with the work of the ancient Greeks.
It's a story Manson (with journalist Neil Strauss) told with considerable wit and flair in his autobiography. The Long Hard Out Of Hell recounts Manson's first 28 years in titillating and morbid detail: his childhood (as Brian Warner) in suburban Canton, Ohio; his adolescence in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and subsequent rebirth as M. Manson; his friendship with Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey; the drug-fueled creation of the Antichrist Superstar album; his decaying friendship with that record's producer, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails; up to and including the controversial Dead To The World tour (which was dogged with false allegations of rape, torture, puppy sacrifice and other assorted mendacities), which cemented Manson's status as Public Enemy Number One in the minds of parents and public officials everywhere.
And that was just the start...
The next chapter in this ongoing tale begins on a sunny Tuesday in Los Angeles. Manson's Canadian record company rep, Tyson, greets me at the hotel registration desk by telling me he was this close (thumb and forefinger are held within millimetres of each other) to having to send me straight home. Circumstances are vague, but apparently Manson was upset by someone on Sunday and cancelled all his press that day. To compound Tyson's problems, yesterday's MuchMusic and MusiquePlus interviews were postponed. So he has to squeeze all our interviews into a single day, and he has no idea how much time he has available. And the coup de grace? Word from Manson's handlers is that he's not in a good mood. (Manson mood reports are frequent this day.)
I'm told we're in a hurry, so I grab my hotel key, pass by someone I think is Harry Dean Stanton (think Adrienne Barbeau's boyfriend Brain inEscape From New York) and go upstairs to stow my bags. I race back downstairs and we all pile into a cab. I'm told the Stanton look-alike was actually Alice Cooper. I take this as a good omen. The interviews will go down at The Argyle, a plush, art-deco hotel where rooms go for $1,700 (U.S.) a night. The Argyle is owned by MTV, which has commandeered several floors to film set-ups for the upcoming MTV Video Awards. As we enter our suite, Tyson tells us Manson is currently filing with host Ben Stiller on another floor. Some heartening news: Manson is now in a good mood.
I look out the window onto downtown Los Angeles as we wait. Villas dot the Hollywood hills, each with its own satellite dish. Porsh cars line the streets, but I fail to spot any pedestrians. It appears people really don't walk in L.A. after all. Tony Ciulla, Manson's manager, enters and greets us. Tony is serious but friendly. He tells us the MTV filming will take awhile so he's brought us the rough cut of Manson's new video.
The Dope Show was filmed by Paul Hunter, best known for his work with Mase and Mariah Carey. The video depicts Manson as an androgynous, small-breasted alien, just as he appears on the cover of the Mechanical Animals, the band's new album. Manson's friend, actor Billy Zane, shows up in a cameo. It's a flashy, arty, weirdly beautiful clip. We all look at MuchMusic's Kim Clarke Champniss for his reaction. He suspects Much will have problems with it. (Two days later, Much plays the clip pretty much as is; their only change is to bleep out the word "queers.")
An hour later, Manson arrives. Let me rephrase that: Manson makes his entrance. He is accompanied by Ciulla, a hairstylist and a make-up artist, and enters the room cautiously, as if testing the atmosphere to make sure it's not poisonous. Gone is the funereal garb he wore during our last talk two and a half years ago. Today, Manson's hair is dyed a brilliant red, his eyes hidden by huge, cheap sunglasses. His thin frame is covered by a long-sleeved T-shirt with tiger markings, his endless legs encased in red leather pants and platform boots.
Despite the fact that the man is well over six feet tall, there is something oddly delicate about Manson. He reminds me of a daddy-longlegs: menacing yet beautiful, and (perhaps) easily squished. I get the impression a leg might come off if I grabbed him and he tried to run.
Much and MusiquePlus have their way with Manson, and then it's my turn. We greet one another, and I remind him of our last interview, when we discussed our mutual love of an obscure, surreal horror film calledBegotten. He nods his head in vague recognition. Feeling slightly less intimidated, I decide to address the ready-made controversies surrounding Mechanical Animals straightaway:
Why is your guitarist Zim Zum no longer with the band?
He was fired. Nothing personal. It was purely from the standpoint that when we went to start rehearsing, he didn't know the material, which I took as an insult. Because if you've been in the band for a year and a half, you think you would know the songs. It was really that simple. I mean, we still remain friends, but I needed someone I could rely on and he wasn't the one.
And how did you hook up with his replacement, John Lowery? Through his work with Rob Halford's band Two?
No. I wasn't fond of Two. He originally wanted to audition for Antichrist Superstar, but had missed the deadline and had been in touch with my manager. So it was fortunate that things worked out in the end, because I guess he was kind of always meant to be.
Has he been christened with a new stage name yet?
He's just simply John5 because he's the fifth person that we've hired. (smiles) In the future, everyone will have numbers instead of names.
You're getting grief from a number of retailers here in the U.S. who won't stock Mechanical Animals because of the cover art. Did you think about the possible consequences when you put the packaging together?
No. I mean, when I heard that there was going to be a problem, I didn't really care either way. They can cover it up if they want to, but I'm not going to change the artwork for anyone.
Do you thrive on that kind of adversity?
I don't mind it, but I don't think that I thrive on it. I think this record isn't as confrontational as Antichrist Superstar. But I think it'll be more provocative in that it deals with things more personal, and people don't expect that from me.
There it is: the hook. When it comes to the press, Manson comes prepared. He was a music journalist himself, so he knows writers like a story to tell. So, ladies and gentleman, in Marilyn Manson's own words, here is the story behind Mechanical Animals.
"Antichrist Superstar was almost alluding to a fall from grace. AndMechanical Animals is more (about) what happens when you hit the ground. It's (about) trying to find emotions, trying to have empathy, trying to fit into the world. And as I started to repair myself (after the Dead To The World tour), I started to see the world as being more and more just mechanical animals looking and acting like human beings.
"All these people were saying that what I do is so wrong, and they didn't really have the souls that I felt I had now gained. This record's more of a dystopia, a kind of an end-of-the-world, where we find ourselves (record); mankind being less and less significant, that all of our creations have made us irrelevant, that eventually our cell phones will talk for us and our computers will come up with our own ideas for us - and that's kind of the sad ending that could happen to us. Although I think machines, no matter how fast or how smart that they become, they'll finally realize that you can't duplicate the human soul.
"I don't think that it's a very political record or that I'm trying to change people's views so much as I did on Antichrist Superstar. This record I think is more about finding something in all of the ugliness, finding your feelings, finding something to make the world worth saving. It's almost from a saviour's point of view, and Antichrist was more from the destructor's point of view."
So what do you see in the world worth saving?
"I suppose when you start to feel something - you start to experience love or experience pain or experience anything at all - that it's not the same as when you saw the world completely numb. So maybe now there's a reason for wanting to stop what you've set in motion. But now it's kind of too late, and that's the tragic point of view that the album comes from. It's almost an end of the world love story. I split myself in half on Antichrist Superstar, and now I'm trying to put myself back together. And as I do, I see that there's kind of no hope. So it's kind of a doomed man's point of view."
"What sets us apart from machines is that we have a soul."
So mankind is distancing itself from its own humanity as the millenium approaches.
"I think that's how mankind is going to destroy himself," Manson says. "Antichrist Superstar was talking about the Apocalypse as a personal one. And now I think that that's how we've set it in motion, by making more things that make ourselves irrelevant, not focusing on what actually makes us people. What sets us apart from machines or sets us apart from insects is that we have a soul, and that's what we're meant to express. And the less that we express it, the more we've killed ourselves."
Do you think that religion, which is essentially concerned with maintaining or saving the soul, is doing the opposite job?
"Well, yeah. It talks about the soul a lot, but I think that it just really suppresses it. Or, if anything, it buys our soul from us by putting faith in something else other than yourself. You're just selling your soul out. They seem to be so concerned with us selling our soul to the devil that I think the only reason that they're concerned with that is because they want our soul. (laughs) They want to buy it!"
Mechanical Animals is a better record than Antichrist Superstar. The songs are more fully realized, the production is less cluttered, and Manson's lyrics - always smarter than he's given credit for - are both intelligible and intelligent. Some of the credit (or blame, depending on your perspective) for this newfound interest in songcraft can be ascribed to the producer, Michael Beinhorn (Soundgarden), the man responsible for one of the other most anticipated albums of 1998: Hole's Celebrity Skin.
Manson wrote the entire album and demoed much of it at his house in Laurel Canyon, and wanted to "translate it in a grand, bombastic rock sense in the tradition of Queen and David Bowie." Beinhorn's name came up. "I thought he was kind of well-known for making records like that, so that's why I recruited him. This album, in its sound and conception, was all very focused from the beginning, something I had known that I wanted to do, and just sat down and started doing it."
Coincidentally, the other Svengali behind the Hole album, Manson's friend Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins, also played his part in the creation of Mechanical Animals. But Corgan's influence, Manson maintains, was "more from just a friendship point of view. He never actually got to work on the album. But he really encouraged me to take more chances musically."
The third catalyst for the new sound was the abscence of Trent Reznor.Mechanical Animals is the first Marilyn Manson record the Nine Inch Nails frontman has not been involved with. It is unclear exactly what the state of Manson's once-close friendship with Reznor is in. But his abscence has allowed Manson to indulge in some of the more familiar tropes upon which rock & roll is built, without burying them under layers of distortion.
"I think maybe that that was discouraged a lot on Antichrist Superstarbecause of the producer," Manson admits. "But I'm not afraid to be rock & roll because I think that's me. And this record is just a little bit more rock & roll than what we've done in the past."
But is it glam, Marilyn? Manson is reluctant to pigeonhole himself. "I think we kind of started out glam," he says of his band. "I think things deteriorated into a much uglier version of glam."
He says this of the more obvious such moments on Mechanical Animals: "I think it's still, in its 'rockness,' being sarcastic at some points. Some of the songs are intentionally making homages to songs of the past. Like Rock Is Dead, for example, is kind of a mish-mash of - and is inspired by - a lot of great glam rock anthems. I think it's just that this record was more personal and had a lot more dynamics lyrically, and the music had to suit that. It really couldn't be expressed in such a destructive and dissonant way, it had to have elements of beauty in it, as well as darkness. It couldn't be so... (long pause) aggro as Antichrist Superstar."
That's not to say that it was any less difficult to make. "Physically, it was easier but emotionally it was more difficult. Because in the past, physically, I put myself though a lot of pain; emotionally, I was very numb. And it was exactly the opposite on this record."
Can you elaborate?
"It was much more isolated and much more depressing making this record. It was written on top of the Hollywood Hills, looking down on the city, and the emptiness which ensues from that. And the mentions of 'white' in The Great Big White World are a reflection of that emptiness."
That song, I note, is ripe for misinterpretation.
He shrugs. "Well, if someone sees something ugly, it's in their own mind. If I say the word 'queers' in The Dope Show - which has no reference to homosexuality - if people see that as hateful, then I think that's in their own perception. If I say the word 'white' and all of a sudden that's racist then that's (reflective of) feelings that people have. You could pick any word and make it ugly depending on the context. And I think in my context, I'm not lashing out against anybody."
One final note. As I wait in the bedroom with Tyson and Tony for Manson to finish his final interview, the manager's phone rings. He's on the line with Rolling Stone magazine, and he's obviously displeased. He hangs up and I ask him what that was all about. He explains that Manson is shooting the cover for Rolling Stone the next day. Apparently one of photographer Marc Seliger's "concepts" is to dress Manson up as an Egyptian mummy. Ciulla has warned the magazine that Manson isn't into that whole gothic thing anymore. If he shows up and they try to dress him up like a spooky mummy, his client is going to walk.
But Manson doesn't walk. On page 13 of RS #797, there's Manson, swathed in bandages, reclining in a golden sarcophagus. There's nothing gothic about the shot. Manson's make-up is more reminiscent of Elizabeth Taylor's Cleopatra than Christopher Lee's Kharis The Mummy. In fact, he looks kind of beautiful.
Hey, if Hollywood can make Ben Stiller seem tall, they should be able to make the Antichrist Superstar look pretty, too.