To the god-fearing folk of middle America, Marilyn Manson is the antichrist. He sings about sex and death and teenage alienation. He drags naked girls around on dog leads and acts out the Nuremberg rally. He set fire to his drummer... but when rock's most provocative performer met Barbara Ellen, he was happiest talking about Mickey Mouse, monogamy and water colors
If ever a man had a reputation that went before him, it is Marilyn Manson. Since his 1996 breakthrough record, Antichrist Superstar, and the subsequent multi-million-selling album, 1998's Mechanical Animals, this most controversial of American rock stars, a self-proclaimed 'god of fuck', has built up a bulging back catalog of provocative public outrages. In 1999, Manson's notoriety went nuclear when two high-school boys, incorrectly presumed to be his followers, gunned down 12 of their classmates in Columbine, Colorado, with the result that Manson unfairly reaped the blame for 'inspiring' them.
However, even before that, Manson was the scourge of Middle America, in particular the Christian right. He mock-copulated and flagellated. He gave interviews citing Christ as 'the first great celebrity' and the crucifix as 'the greatest piece of merchandising that ever existed'. He simulated the Nuremberg rally on stage. Then there were those stories about Manson touring with toys stuffed with cocaine, setting fire to his then drummer, and, lest we forget, dragging naked girls around on stage on the ends of dog leads. (As detailed in his startlingly hardcore autobiography, The Long Hard Road Out of Hell, at least where groupies were concerned, Manson doesn't have the most spotless of records regarding women.) The Christian right responded by picketing his shows, some states banning him altogether.
Almost incidentally there was the music. For the most part, Manson's songs were (and are) shrieking goth-metal yowls of sex, death, alienation and defiance, with titles such as 'Cake and Sodomy', 'Scabs, Guns and Peanut Butter' and 'Disposable Teens'. Which was just how American teens liked it. Some of them adopted Manson's look, which can only be described as Ziggy Stardust meets Boris Karloff via Baby Jane. A white death mask with stringy hair, milky contact lenses and huge platform boots, with the occasional addition of 'man-boobs' and stilts, which elongated and distorted his lanky lurching frame to the point where he resembled some monstrous child-catcher.
To top it all, there was the satanism. While the Rolling Stones had sympathy for the devil, Manson seemed to be on first-name terms, or so his more hysterical detractors would have had you believe. But then, I say to Manson when we meet, he must have realized when he started that his fellow Americans would be ridiculously easy to wind up. He considers for a moment before replying, 'I looked at it more that America had a hole that Marilyn Manson needed to fill.' It seems that even in his worst moments post-Columbine, Manson never regretted his more extreme behavior: 'It's essential to be extreme in order for the reaction to be extreme. I provoke people because art's meant to be a question mark.'
We meet for the interview at Manson's London hotel. In his socks, Manson is tall, but in his platforms, he must hit 8ft. Then there's his look. Even when he's not performing, Manson always wears full slap. Today, his white face provides a flawless matt backdrop for sticky purple lips and jet-black hair scraped to one side, Adolf-style. His outfit is completed with black trousers, a tailored white shirt and a pair of sunglasses he never deigns to take off, though that's as offensive as it gets. As seems to be the way with performers who have outrageous public personas, in person, Manson is polite, articulate and at times slightly stiff, his voice never wavering from a slo-mo laconic drawl. It comes as no surprise when he tells me that he doesn't feel that confident, even now.
'I think one of the reasons I got on stage was because I have a hard time relating to people. It was a matter of being invisible as a kid. I didn't have to create an alter-ego, I had to create an ego because I didn't have anywhere I could be. That was part of the reason I created Marilyn Manson in the first place - to believe in something. I couldn't find Marilyn Manson in the world so I had to make him.'
Manson is here to talk about his new album, The Golden Age of Grotesque, which was inspired by 30s Berlin and Hollywood. 'The art that was created during the political upheaval transformed the spirit of what I was attempting with my record. It's not about going back in time, it's about bringing back the attitude.' The first single, 'mOBSCENE' is one of Manson's thumping nu-metal youth anthems. Another song 'Use Your Fist and Not Your Mouth' seems to be a statement on America's handling of the war in Iraq.
Manson says that this is coincidental: 'It's only because history repeats itself that a song like that can become relevant.' His actual position on the war is that it's 'unfortunate. No one wants to see people destroyed. But I don't feel that I can control what the government does. I don't feel that I can write a song about peace and protest and make any difference. But if America represents freedom and democracy then, as an artist, I can stand up and be dangerous and outspoken. I can create art that tests that democracy is working properly.' This may be the key to Manson. It's not really about music. He's more an instinctive psychosexual performance poet and, arguably, one of the finest sociopolitical commentators America ever had. Indeed, you wonder if pop music is a big enough canvas for Manson these days.
The night before we met, I'd attended a playback of The Golden Age of Grotesque at London's Rouge club, at which Manson performed briefly. It was also an opportunity to view his watercolours, which he exhibited in Los Angeles last year. Manson appears to have a Mickey Mouse motif going on these days, though this doesn't appear on the artwork for his album ('It wasn't Disney, it was fear of Disney').
However, looking at the paintings, the central themes seem to be death, decay, sex, deformity and more death, so no change there then. Manson has written about death often in his songs, now he is painting about it - does he think much about his own death?
'Not so much any more,' he says. 'I used to have extremely disturbing nightmares where I died. The way I look at things now is maybe more of a desperate celebration of life. I've found a balance between nihilism and living life to the fullest.
I create and think in terms of there being no tomorrow, treating each day as if it's my last and best alive. So, whether I'm painting, performing or just spending time with friends, it'd better be good - it might be the last time.'
Marilyn Manson was born Brian Warner on 5 January 1971, in Canton, Ohio. His parents were Hugh, a furniture salesman, and Barbara, a nurse. They sent Manson to a strict church school which proved to be the genesis for a lifetime of loathing for religious dogma. It was a troubled childhood, marred by illness, self-doubt and resentment. There was also his grandfather, a closet women's-underwear fetishist, and 'the ugliest, darkest, foulest, most depraved figure of my childhood'. Manson would spy on his grandfather masturbating in a basement full of toy trains, though these days he says he has more sympathy for him. 'People look at me like I looked at him, so it makes me not judge him the same way I did as a kid.' He also regrets the incident where he attempted to throttle his mother because he suspected she was having an affair. 'I was kind of a disturbed kid,' he drawls by way of understatement.
These days, Manson is close to his parents and has moved them to California, so that they can be near and he can financially support them. Would he like to be a father himself? There's a long pause. 'Possibly,' he says eventually. 'But only at a time when I could dedicate the proper attention it would need. It would be the ultimate art form to raise a child. That would be your immortality right there.' In the meantime, Manson has 'a beautiful morbid gift' from his girlfriend. 'It's an unborn child in a jar. I called it Ludwig Von Manson.' Would he call a real child that? 'Possibly. It's a lovely name.'
Manson is currently in a relationship with fetish performance artist Dita Von Teese, which he describes as 'exciting, interesting and complicated'. Before that, there was a broken engagement with Charmed actress Rose McGowan. 'In that period of my life, I was confused about what I wanted. I needed to find someone who was my best friend who I could trust. There are lots of issues in my life about trust. It makes it hard to believe in a relationship.' He needs to be in control? 'I used to feel that, but I saw the solution was just letting go. You have control if you let go. Otherwise it's like trying to contain a tornado.' Manson's girlfriends are one thing, his attitude to women in general quite another. One song on his new album, 'Slutgarden' seems to be a pastiche on misogyny. ('I'll pretend I want you for what's on the inside, but once I get inside I'll just want to get out.') Then, of course, there's all that stuff about dragging groupies around on dog leads.
Manson says that he doesn't think he has abused female fans. 'I couldn't victimise people because I am a victim myself in so many ways,' he says, adding slightly slyly, 'but not everything changes. There's still a great amount of excess in my life. And I have a girlfriend who likes to have interesting times.' Manson grins: 'I can't say I haven't seen her tying up a girl on the bus in bondage ropes. I can't say I haven't seen that.' Am I to understand that he believes in commitment but not monogamy?
'No, no, that's not correct at all,' he says. 'Monogamy goes hand in hand with loyalty and I'm a loyal person. Let's just say I like to enjoy life and I like to let other people be a part of it, too. If someone wants to have an interesting time they're guaranteed to have an interesting time if they're around me.'
Are men guaranteed this 'interesting time' too? 'Well, there's young boys - I sound like Michael Jackson now - these guys want to get on the bus. And I told them they can if they strip dance for the girls and they have. Not often though.' He shrugs. 'Why would you want to surround yourself with guys if you're not gay?'
Would all guys live like rock stars if they could? 'If they could, they would already be doing it,' he says. 'And I don't think people are doing it, even people who are musicians.' Manson says it's all about being decadent and dangerous. 'When I get together with other people after a show for example, I do things that I wouldn't normally do.' He smiles. 'Sometimes it can be performance art, sometimes it can be simply fooling around, things that your mother would be ashamed of. But usually it's just my way of enjoying the fact that I survived another day being Marilyn Manson.'
With all this talk of excess, it's inevitable there was an overdose and breakdown in 1996. 'I was just drinking too much, taking too many drugs, and not sleeping,' says Manson. 'It was a one-day event really.
An awakening of not letting myself be destroyed by my nihilistic outlook on life and finding a balance between decadence and self-destruction.' He never tried heroin. 'Even the fear didn't provide itself as a challenge.' You like more playful drugs? 'I like to be alive.' These days, he sticks to absinthe. 'A lot of great writers have been inspired by it. Absinthe tastes beautiful and produces a strong euphoria. It allows you to think like a child, without inhibitions. I don't rely on it for inspiration but, if I had to name a vice, that's my vice.' What about the satanism? Manson was made a reverend by the head of the Church of Satan, Anton LaVey, though when I ask him if he really does worship Lucifer, he bursts out laughing.
'The Church of Satan is a philosophy that had strong and interesting things I identified with, none of them very religious, more to do with being a person. People always see the hatred and satanism in what I do, and I always want to question whether they see it like that because it's in them. This interest they have, this fear they have.' I ask him if he finds it annoying that in America he's this big scary Antichrist, but to a lot of people over here he's first and foremost a goth?
'Well, I guess it's the birthplace for it,' he smiles. 'But you know, if I can drive people to a negative or a positive response to what I do, then I don't mind.' Does he mind being called Brian - I'd heard that he did?
'I don't actually look when people say it because I'm not used to hearing it,' he says. 'Whatever I do, whatever I say, I am Marilyn Manson now. I can't turn it off.'
By this time, there's no doubt in my mind that Manson is a raging egotist (I've never heard someone refer to himself in the third person so much). However, he's also bright, funny and unrepentant, which is probably why he's infuriated so many people over the years. 'I love being hated,' he once said. 'The people who hate you make it all worthwhile.' Manson always relished all the untrue rumours about him. Nor is he bothered when people are shocked by use of fascist imagery. 'I want to show that I'm not so stupid that I don't realise that rock music is as fascist as the things I'm against.' However, he did mind about the rumours that said he was responsible for inspiring Columbine.
The Columbine aftermath was painful for Manson. 'Not frightening, just frustrating.' After three months of media-lambasting and death threats, Manson roused himself, threatening to sue anybody who connected him with the case and stated his case in the Michael Moore documentary Bowling for Columbine. He also started work on his next album, 2000's Holy Wood, which contained a song about Columbine called 'The Nobodies' which, I'd say, is the most powerful song he's ever produced. The lowest point, says Manson, was performing at Denver's annual Ozzfest in 2001. 'I had to face the fact that I might not come out alive. I was warned and begged by everyone I know not to go, but it was something I had to do. I had to show the world and myself that I would die for what I do.' Was it really worth dying for? 'I can't live without it so I have no choice.' Did he feel like giving up?
'It was more that it made me question whether America was the right place for me, but I decided that now, more than ever, it was important for me to be in America. I'm very patriotic, in that I do all I do to make America a better, more interesting place to live.' Does he think America appreciates his efforts? 'No, but they will grow to.' He sniggers. 'Maybe after I'm gone.'
The interview seems to be over. One of Manson's people is bobbing about in the corridor, hurrying me up. Before I leave, I ask Manson if he ever thinks of those boys and what they did. 'I don't really dwell on it,' he says. 'But it was always a question in my mind. What was really going on in their heads?' Manson was disappointed that Bowling for Columbine didn't feature an interview with the killers' parents. 'If anybody should take responsibility, their parents should at least have something to say. I don't think anyone asked those questions. They didn't want to know. They just wanted to find one thing to blame it on.'
After Columbine, was a small part of him surprised not to blamed for 9-11? 'No, I don't think there was any way they could blame me for that. I did worry for a few moments about the sniper in Washington. He was leaving tarot cards and making all these comments about God and death, which were the subjects of my last record. I was surprised that I didn't get blamed for that.' Finally, I ask Manson if there's a danger that a cultural provocateur like himself could become redundant now that America has real bogeymen to deal with. He just shrugs: 'The Christian right had no business attaching themselves to dangerous art in the first instance. And my work is dangerous art - that's why it's so important to me. I could have become bored of music, but this record changed my opinion of it.' He continues. 'I feel more liberated than ever to do what I feel like doing. I have a more focused attitude but I'm still reckless, more reckless than ever.' Manson unravels his huge form up off the sofa and peers over for the last time through his sunglasses. 'Marilyn Manson is 10 years old, so that's how I'm going to behave!'
The Golden Age of Grotesque is released on 12 May.