STORY: MATT ASHARE
The good news is that Marilyn Manson doesn’t go out of his way to dress, shall we say, provocatively for band rehearsals. In other words, his ass wasn’t hanging out of his trousers when he left for work earlier this evening. He saves those sorts of gestures for special occasions, like, you know, the MTV Video Awards. He may not be the Christian Coalition’s idea of a respectable citizen, but then again, neither is the current President of the United States. And that doesn’t appear to be hurting either of them at the polls.
The bad news is that I’ve been waiting three days for Manson to call. But, hell, he’s a busy guy. Anyway, it’s a little after 9p.m. Manson’s time, which is around midnight in my part of the country, and the singer who’s gotten under more people’s skin the past couple of years than he’d care to count is somewhat amused by the fact that I’ve opted to break the fiber-optic ice by asking what he’s got on over his. “It’s not as elaborate as what I would wear on stage or in a video or photo shoot,” he replies in the guarded deadpan that he’s cultivated for his many interactions with the media, a sort of reflective aloofness that belies the fact that he’s oh-so used to the Q&A routine. “But i don’t automatically turn into some normal guy that wears Dockers. My style, or whatever you want to call it, well there’s a volume knob for it I guess. Sometimes it’s up high, sometimes it’s down low, but it’s still kind of the same. I mean I wouldn’t wear something that I don’t like. So, yeah, I wore a plain pair of black leather pants and some shirt.”
There probably isn’t a question Manson hasn’t been asked in some form or another - everything from the meaning of life to what he had for breakfast - in marathon grilling sessions that would make a Kenneth Starr subpoena seem like a parking ticket. and yet he continues to make himself available because, as he so candidly admits, it’s an integral part of his art. “It’s all the same to me,” he’ll say. “The media is an element of what I do. A lot of people see it as a task, or something that they get abused or bothered by. But I see it as just another part of my life. I figured that if I wrote a book people would leave me alone. But I know it’s not going to go away.
In a decade that’s seen the very idea of the rock star blasted apart by bands and artists raised on the anti-celebrity gospel of punk, Marilyn Manson has emerged as the first of his kind: a larger-than-life sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll star ready, willing, and able to fate the end of the century in full make-up determined to march toward the 21st century in his own version of high-heeled boots leading an army of fans. It says a lot about the 90‘s and what these years have lacked that Manson has become such an object of fascination for the media, that his relatively straightforward artistic statements have become the subject of such frantic deep analyses. As rock stars must, he’s drawn inspiration primarily from the most universal of archetypes, from the scatologically obsessed vampire-boy of his early years (the Unholy Undead), to the Antichrist of Antichrist Superstar (Satan in S&M pants), to his latest creation, the Starman Omega (Major Tom with breasts), his most literal and modern metaphor yet.
“I was imagining Omega to be the most exaggerated extension of what the Antichrist Superstar was, everything that glam rock has ever been and then some,” says Manson. “To me glam rock has always meant a very sarcastic and over-the-top flamboyant image that was hiding something that was darker and more depressing underneath. That was always the irony of glam rock to me. A lot of people never really looked beneath that. Even in the ‘80‘s music there was that. To me, ‘70‘s glam rock went on to become the ‘80‘s new wave and there’s been a real void in the ‘90‘s since grunge music sort of put rock to sleep for a while. I’ve always been trying to bring it back as much as I could. I think the last great rock bands were Jane’s Addiction and Guns ‘N’ Roses. It’s been really quiet since then.. A lot of people approach it as a product, and I just want to remind people that it’s an art form. Because when there’s one band doing something it raises the standards for the rest of them. I think we’re on the brink of a great period of music after being in a really shitty one. I’d like to see people take music more seriously and be more involved as artists. I think rap music has been doing that, but that rock music has been kind of lazy in that regard.” Listen to Mechanical Animals and you’ll hear the obvious strains an allusions to the ghosts of glam-rock past, Marc Bolan, Mott The Hoople and, mainly, Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust. (Manson’s not the first former metalhead who talks way too much about drugs to pilfer this past: Stone Temple Pilot Scott Weiland was trying to pull and Aladdin Sane earlier this year until he got busted for putting his money where his mouth was in Alphabet City.) Read the lyrics to the album’s 14 tunes and you’ll hear a familiar story, that of the androgynous alien android undergoing a painful transformation of Earth, learning to be human, wrestling with the new sensations and emotions, seeing the corruption and hypocrisy of our world with unblinded eyes. It’s as if Manson began by reinventing himself as Bowie’s Major Tom, strung-out in heaven high hitting an all time low (“ A dead astronaut in space,” as Manson puts it in “Disassociative”), and then threw caution to the wind and decided to rewrite The Man Who Fell To Earth as a rock opera.
It’s a powerful story because it’s so simple. It’s been the basis for countless science fiction tales and at least half a dozen Star Trek episodes. film critic Pauline Kael summed up the appeal of The Man Who Fell To Earth this way: “the wilted solitary stranger who is better than we are and yet falls prey to out corrupt human estate can be said to represent everyone who feels misunderstood, everyone who feels sexually immature or “different,” everyone who has lost his way, everyone who has failed the holy family, and so the film is a gigantic launching pad for anything that viewers want to drift to. “Substitute” album for “film” and you’ve got Omega, the “wilted solitary stranger” discovering that he “don’t like the drugs but the drugs like [him]” ( to quote a song from the album), being cast unwittingly as the star of the Dope Show.
“I think that in making Mechanical Animals I just opened up to the idea that being everything that I set out to be on Antichrist Superstar includes having human elements and emotions that I didn’t count on,” Manson explains. “This record was easier to make physically, but emotionally it was a nightmare because I was experiencing empathy and wondering how other people feel and what they’re suffering. I never wanted to feel empathy. It’s a lot easier to feel alienated. It’s easier to be mechanical. It’s a challenge for me to try to be human. I’m at that point in my life where I’ve done everything; I’ve taken it to the extreme. Now the simplest thing, the easiest thing, is a real nightmare. I mean, Antichrist Superstar was driving toward and praying for this bigger than life thing, and this record is accepting and coming to terms with that thing.”
Of course, that “thing” included a fair amount of controversy that eventually snowballed beyond Manson’s control, as controversies are wont to do. Mechanical Animals may not be an actual retreat from that confrontational stance, but it certainly seems to have sidestepped Satanism in favor of a stance that may be less overtly offensive to god-fearing individuals.
“Well, I think Antichrist Superstar accomplished everything I set out to have it do,” Manson reflects. “It wasn’t just about the album, it was also about the reaction to it and the way it made people think, whether or not they liked it or even listened to it. Everyone in America was talking about it and I think that was important to stimulate ideas. It got people arguing - is this right, is this wrong? - and that’s what I wanted to do. I learned how seriously people take religion in America. That’s why it’s so important that I did what I did with that record, because I learned that people really do have a long way to go when it comes to thinking about different ideas when it comes to God. Because people were willing to react with violence and the way that they treated me proved all my points. We were trying to stand up for something that represented “judge not and love thy neighbor,” and some people completely disregarded that. Usually the people that I’m criticizing - particularly in America, where people lack a sense of irony - go on to prove the point. I don’t dislike America. I just like to look at things and talk about things that most people are too afraid to talk about. There needs to be someone who comes along every few years and reminds people that they should evaluate what they believe in.”
So now, it appears, Manson’s focus has shifted from the outside world of religion and politics to the inner realm of feelings and emotions. Right? “Whatever I do musically is always kind of a reflection of my personal life,” he responds. “Antichrist Superstar was a very cold and numb transformation and the result was a rebirth in some ways. Mechanical Animals is documenting the feeling coming back. This record is like me coming to terms with the pain and fear of being human for the first time. It’s not a regretful record, but it’s kind of living in a world that you don’t belong in for the first time.”
Later in our conversation, when Manson brings up the idea of the human soul, I mention a parable by the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick about a man who goes into hospital complaining of chest pain only to discover that he’s an android, which prompts Manson to remember his own thoughts on Dick’s work. “when I first started working on the record i was really into his book A Scanner Darkly. It made a lot of sense to me in terms of what was going on im my life. To me science fiction is just as valid as philosophy. I explored as much as I could with religion on Antichrist Superstar and I thing that I wanted to continue to explore the idea of God but with science on this record. I mean that’s what the record is expressing, the idea that in my transformation or my search for something - if you want to call it God, you can call it that - I found the human soul does exist, and the only way that you can find it is through your expression. That’s all you can contribute to the world. The idea of Mechanical Animals is that man makes himself more and more irrelevant with what he creates. You kind of have to remember where it all comes from. If machines someday replace men, they would realize that you cant replace the human soul, so they’d have to start manufacturing humans again.”
Whether or not Mechanical Animals effectively conveys any of those ideas, or achieves anything beyond creating Kael’s “launching pad” for each viewer/listener to project his or her own personal alienation fantasy on, will remain open to debate. But one issue that Mechanical Animals has settled rather convincingly is that Marilyn Manson can function effectively as a rock bank without the guiding hand of its former master Trent Reznor.
“I supposed because we had worked predominantly with Trent, and his particular style is to eschew rock ‘n’ roll, we hadn’t had much of a chance to be a real rock band,” Manson explains. “That was something that towards the end of Antichrist Superstar helped, or I guess contributed to our working relationship kind of dissolving. a lot of the things that I did on this record are things that I wanted to do on the last record and that we argued about. The songs on Mechanical Animals are supposed to evoke feeling so they had to have more skin and nerves in them.. It’s more of an organic record, a rock record, and that’s something we hadn’t really done before. But, I mean, I’m real proud of Antichrist Superstar and I think that Trent did a great job. I don’t think he did anything wrong. I just wanted to kind of expand more, because I’ve always felt that we were more of a rock band and I didn’t want to travel down the path of being an industrial group. That wasn’t my aim ever. I think that that type of sound represents one emotion and this record had to represent a lot more.”
“Different people are going to accept it on different terms. It’s a record that’s being treated differently than things that I’ve done in the past because musically it’s more in focus this time. I think what people are probably missing is that to me, this is the darkest record that we’ve done. And at times the songs that are pop, which are deliberately referential to songs that influenced me growing up - you know the glam rock sound that we incorporate - are the darkest most depressing ones. A lot of people miss the sarcasm in that. You know, fame can be so alienating and can be almost like childhood or highschool. In a way you can feel completely out of place. The ways I dealt with that on the record was with two distinct personalities - the very sarcastic, bombastic, over the top “Dope Show” satires, and the more painful, more hollow and more depressing songs like “Great Big White World.”
That bipolar thematic separation has made explicit in the Mechanical Animals CD booklet, one side of which features the androgynous innocent Manson and the lyrics to the disc’s more reflective/depressive material, while the other depicts the mechanical Omega and has lyrics to the disc’s more over-the-top tunes. “I’ ve always felt like “Why be one thing, which is what the rest of the world wants you to be, when you can be so many different things?” Manson postulates in answer to my question about his multiplying personalities. Which raises the issue Manson is most often asked to clear up: Does he distinguish between Marilyn Manson the person, and Marilyn Manson, the persona?
“The only way I know how to answer that is that there’s no time in my day that I’m not thinking the way I think or trying to create something. I don’t even know how to explain it because I don’t know what it would be like to have another life. I guess a lot of people will find it easier to classify me and understand me if they think that when I go home I’m somebody else. But there are plenty of different levels to my personality, and plenty of different vibes to the way I behave. And each has a specific purpose. But for me there’s not one that’s Marilyn Manson and one that’s not. It’s all the same. And Marilyn Manson to me is just another way of describing myself. It’s not another person. It’s just a name. I mean, maybe there was a reason to delineate between the two early on, but there’s no reason to anymore.”
None of which is going to keep Manson from exploiting the multiple facets of his person/persona on the tour that will begin, appropriately enough, just a few days before Halloween. “It’s kind of a three-part rock opera-style bombastic nonsense,” he says with an amused chuckle. “The first part kind of deals with stepping into the world for the first time and dealing with the feelings of alienation. The second one kind of deals with the pain and the over-exaggeration of rock stardom. And then of course it evolves into our old friend the Antichrist Superstar. It’s a longer show than last time because I think a lot of people were disappointed that we didn’t play longer last time. We had enough material but i couldn’t really tolerate myself for more than an hour and 15 minutes at a time, so I imagined that the crown felt that way too. I became too violent. I think I’ve learned to express my aggression in different ways. You know, something mellow can be more over the top than something that’s in your face. I think I’ve learned a more sophisticated way of doing what I do. But that remains to be seen. Some people might think that it sucks.”
You really think so?
“No. I’m being humble.”