The man who once corrupted America's youth can now be found sipping absinthe and hiding out at home.
"I don't like bathrooms," Marilyn Manson says. He has returned to the sofa, where he sits with his legs crossed languorously beneath a couple of baboon heads that are mounted on the wall. The long drapes of his living room ar closed, the lamps give off a honeyed rathskeller glow, and some kind of jitterbuggy music is wisping up from the unseen chambers of his house in the Hollywood Hills. Manson is explaining that he has a habit of flushing the toilet at the exact moment he starts to piss into it. "I hate people hearing me go to the bathroom," he says in a low, slow voice that carries a touch of Jim Morrison and a few flakes of charred larynx. "I do it even when people aren't around. I can't help it."
If it's curious to hear such prudery from the guy who fronts what Senator Joe Lieberman once deemed "perhaps the sickest group ever promoted by a mainstream record company," consider the bathroom itself, which is spotless and bright bright blue and full of vintage pictures of rosy-cheeked pinup girls who might've drawn an appreciative wink from another crusading Senator Joe--McCarthy. "My girlfriend painted that bathroom," Manson says. "It's got a woman's touch."
It's pretty, this lair of sthe self-proclaimed Antichrist Superstar. Quiet, too, espescially now that the lynch mobs have gone home and the legislators have found new villains to get frothed up about. The house once belonged to Mary Astor, an actress whose star rose during the heyday of silent films; from the outside it looks like a little cottage, but it's bigger than you think. There's a balcony where two dachshunds, Eva and Greta, are barking and scurrying under the stars. Manson steps outside and gestures toward a deep, leafy gully where his koi pond and his studio are tucked away. "There's no view of the city because I didn't want to feel like I was anywhere in particular," he says. "I like being secluded."
Inside, he and his girlfriend, the curvaceous and oft-corseted fetish model Dita Von Teese, have decorated the place in what you might call High Morbid Baroque. Around the fireplace there are skulls and candles; on the wall, brains halved and fixed on plaques. "I love the golden era of Hollywood," Manson says. "If you were to walk into this room, it would be completely not out of the ordinary in the 1930s. Everybody had their trophy room. When I was a kid, all my pets always died, so I became obsessed with taxidermy." There's a stuffed pelican, a couple of peacocks, a wild board, a raven--"Not a crow," he says.
In fact, the living room could pass for Dr. Caligari's Museum of Transgressive Art. Prominently displayed on one wall is Epiphany 1 (Adoration of the Magi), a signed lithograph by Gottfried Helnwein that depics what looks like a baptism attended by Nazi officers; by the front door sits Homunculus, a Joachim Luetke sculpture of a baby whos hands are chicken feet and whose lower body tapers off like a caterpillar's. If it's German and it makes you squirm, Manson likes it.
Actually, that's the idea behind his new album, The Golden Age of Grotesque. Manson says it was inspired by the Weimar Republic, by the boom in art and burlesque in Berlin that preceded Hitler's march to power. (Which means he's got to be the only performer in history to bring together Christopher Isherwood and Iron Maiden.) That indie-film directors Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey recently cast Manson as a Teutonic drag queen in their movie Party Monster, and they were struct by both his skill as an actor ("The guy is a comic genius," Barbato says) and the depth of his database. "We're doing this film about whether Hitler was gay," Barbato says, "and Manson would send us a list of books that he thought we should check out. I mean, we started using him as a resource for other projects of ours." Get Manson going about The Golden Age of Grotesque and it's only a few seconds before he's dropping references to Expressionism and Dada and film noir, to Fellini, Dali, Gaudi, Nietzsche, Jung, Freud, and, not unexpectedly, the Marqus de Sade.
"All this imagery was piling in from all directions," he says. "A lot of times I would say 'I want a song that sounds like elephants and Rockettes.' Or 'I want a song that sounds like a burning piano.'" At his fingertips is a goblet of absinthe, which is illegal in the United States; at his feet lies a brown bear rug, which is illegal in California. "I was very vague and evasive with the record company," he goes on. "I would give them recordings of me talking to my cat. I would say, 'This is the single,' and they'd laugh, 'Yeah, ha ha, that's funny. But really, where is it?'"
It's true about the cat. One night when he was feeling melancholy, Manson recorded a suicide note in the presence of his cat, Lilywhite. He delivered it in a German accent, like Christina, the drag queen he plays in Party Monster. There are nights like that in Marilyn Manson's private biosphere. He might stay awake in the attic until 4 A.M., writing or painting with his Alice in Wonderland watercolor set; when he gets up in the afternoon, he might have fruit or a Whopper from Burger King for breakfast.
This evening, the contact lens in his left eye looks like a cornflower-blue disc shucked from the face of a Madame Alexander doll; without it, Manson would be more or less unmasked. His face isn't smeared with that familiar layer of evil-harlequin white. He's wearing a black short-sleeved rockabilly-style shirt that shows off a carnival of tattoos on his arms. His hair is black and hand-chopped under a gray infantryman's cap, and he walks stiffly, with a kind of Frankenstein creak, as if he's got splints tied to his legs. "This is JonBenet Ramsey as Sleeping Beauty," he says as he pulls out a watercolor of a girl with beet-red lips and blue eyes and a drowned gaze. Sometimes the way Manson paints surprised people.
There was a sense from the record company that we might go out on the town tonight, that Manson occasionally likes to ramble over to the mall to catch a late movie. Hey, Chicago just won the Best Picture Oscar, and it's got that whole seedy-cabaret vibe, so...maybe vee can to go zee it, yah? "I saw Chicago," Manson says. Another surprise. "I liked the songs. I bought the soundtrack." But no, no, we'll just stay here. "I don't like to go anywhere. I don't like to leave the house," he says. "I'm supposed to go somewhere tonight but I don't want to go." Eventually he gets up to go to the bathroom again. Only a flush will be audible, of course.
"Strangely enough, on tour I often urinate on the floor," he says. "Like an animal."
Let's pause, amid these delecate surroundings, for a Whitman's Sampler of words and phrases plucked at random from the musical and literary efforts of the man who used to go by the name Brian Warner:
Phlegm, slime, grease, gelatinous crust, scrotum, sewage, putrid, fetid, rats, maggots, vomit, stench.
Shall we continue? Okay. "The back of his neck always reminded me of foreskin."..."a shower of cow brains, chicken livers and pig intestines from a disemboweled donkey"..."I turned my head away, too late to keep from imagining the white pus squeezing out of his yellow wrinkled penis like the insides of a squashed cockroach." ... "He is the angel with the scabbed wings / Hard-drug face, want to powder his nose / He will deflower the freshest crop / Dry up all the wombs with his rock and roll sores."
Could it be that Joe Lieberman was ... kind of right? Back around 1998, after Marilyn Manson had blitzkrieged the marketplace with the albums Antichrist Superstar and Mechanical Animals, along with his anatomically, satanically, scatologically ripe autobiography The Long Hard Road out of Hell, it was worth asking how much farther the dude could rally go. When he was done giving us the old razzle-dazzle, would there be any orifices left unprobed? Would there be any heresy or profanity or filth or smut left over for the next generation of sonic infidels? What kind of songs do you write after you have horrified America to the max? The opening lines of The Golden Age of Grotesque suggest that Manson himself has spent a few nights in that attic wondering whether the grotesque hasn't already witnessed it's golden age: "Everything has been said before / Nothing left to say anymore."
Once the devil has painted himself into a very black corner, how does he find a way out? "My urine is paint thinner," Manson insists. "By drinking enough absinthe you can piss the paint away."
Thanks largely to Michael Moore's documentary Bowling for Columbine, in which he defended himself with disarming logic and grace, Manson is, at 34, taking a spin through that old American ritual of career rehabilitation. The Bohemian Gentleman routine only reinforces that--the absinthe, the watercolors, the swing music, the nice house, the fondness for Chicago. "He's in the business of show and in a very clever way," Barbato says. "So much of what he's doing, he's doing with such a big wink." In the end even a gargoyle is part of the church. The house is sort of an unholy relic itself, having seen its share of rock-and-roll depravity long before the latest midnight rambler moved in. It's where the Rolling Stones lived while they were recording Let It Bleed. Watch the film Cocksucker Blues and you'll see Keith Richards shooting up at the very mantel where a tiny framed portrait of Mary Astor is now perched on a ledge, near the raven.
There have been other inhabitants too. "It's kind of an obvious joke," Manson says, "But this house is definitely haunted. I mean, there's always strange noises of people running up and down the stairs." Tonight it happens to be Von Teese who's on the steps--barefoot, gorgeous, a Goth-glam princess in what looks like a black-and-white sundress. "Hi, honey," Manson says as she floats downstairs.
"I've always been very obsessed with the illusion or archetype of what women should look like. Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable and Bettie Page and Greta Garbo," he says. "Seeing a girl who looks like she stepped out of one of those photographs was what really appealed to me." He's not one to dispute the notion that having a romantic relationship with Marilyn Manson must be something of a complicated enterprise. "People will become my friend or companion, knowing full well who I am and what I'm about," he says. "And the minute anybody starts to think or, God forbid, say, 'I don't like you for Marilyn Manson. I like you for who you are,' that is the worst thing you could say to me. Because this is who I am. You've just made it clear that you don't understand me. I was lucky enough to find a girl, Dita, who accepts, understands, and likes me for who I am." His previous girlfriend, actress Rose McGowan, wore what looked like a badminton net when she accompanied Manson to the MTV Video Music Awards in 1998, but she seems now to have retreated into the angora-sweatered bosom of the mainstream. "I've been in relationships, particularly the last one I was in, where I was made to feel that parts of what I do and who I am were either not fashionably hip or politically correct or whatever the case might be," Manson says. "People who get involved with me in any capacity need to realize that I'm married to what I do. I can't be idle." Which is why so much of his time is spent here, with the cat and the dogs and the books and the art, reading, writing, painting, listening, looking, thinking.
It's late and Manson is getting hungry. "I don't eat much, because I always forget to," he says. "But I did want to go to dinner tonight, and I may still. I want to go with my girlfriend. I want a lobster. I want a big lobster. I want a $500 lobster. It's terrible to spend that kind of money, but I worked for it." On the other hand, he can always stay in.