Wake up America! Right-Wing punching bag Marilyn Manson has returned with a crazed new album, a racy new girlfriend and a first-rate taxidermy collection. But can he still scare the bejesus out of grownups like he used to? " Are you an idiot?" Manson snaps. " I’m the first Eminem!"
If there is one rock star you can count on to own a 150–year old, seven-foot-tall human skeleton with the skull of an antelope, it’s Marilyn Manson. Once the property of occultist Aleister Crowley’s lodge, the bones now sprawl in a chair at the entrance to Manson’s attic. "I refer to him as Ernie," Manson says. "I don’t know why." Lily, Manson’s white cat, likes to curl up in Ernie’s rib cage and go to sleep.
Manson is showing Blender his helter-skelter, five-story house in the Hollywood Hills with the brisk efficiency of a Ripley’s Believe It or Not tour guide. His voice is low and soft, and his face, apart from the occasional flicker of amusement, is as still as a mask. He gently suggests that we restrict our tour to the upper floors, because his girlfriend of three years, burlesque dancer and pinup Dita Von Teese, is entertaining a friend below.
Manson’s home, a white, Spanish-style building previously owned by early-Hollywood actress Mary Astor, bulges with religious iconography and haunting artwork, including his own watercolor of JonBenet Ramsey. On the dining room table sits a Ouija board – a gift, Manson says with mild embarrassment, from Johnny Depp. Entertaining the living room, Blender almost steps on a bearskin rug with the head (and gaping jaws) attached. Manson likes animals, especially the dead kind. There’s a baboon by the chaise lounge, a raven over the mantelpiece and, draped over an armchair, a deeply unsettling jacket made from the skins of conjoined twin lambs.
"When I was a kid my dog died, so I guess I wanted to get pets that were permanent," Manson explains matter-of-factly. "I have a lovely cat now, but if she dies before I do, I’ll probably her stuffed."
Manson is dressed in what he calls his bad-schoolboy look: white shirt, black trousers, black-thick-soled boots, a black tie almost as wide as his waist and a gray army cap, titled at a jaunty angle. As usual, his face is painted white and his lips dark red. His trademark contact lens stares blankly from his left eye. All of this is disconcerting for about five minutes- after which Manson just seems like a polite, funny host with eccentric tastes.
Unless he’s been hiding all his Pottery Barn purchases, Manson lives exactly as you hope he would. Maybe this is why it annoys him when people assume he has two identities: the ghoulish folk-devil Marilyn Manson on-camera and plain old Brian Warner at home.
"The minute anybody says to me, "I don’t like you for Marilyn Manson; I like you for who you are,’ then that person is absolutely wrong, because that’s who I am," he says. "Being Marilyn Manson is what I do – just as much as making a record is. That’s why people create parodies of me or take shots at me or sue me. It’s because that’s what I am."
People don’t hate Marilyn Manson like they used to. Religious groups and moralizing politicians joined forces against him as soon as he released his breakthrough second album, 1996’s Antichrist Superstar. Then, after the epochal events of April 20, 1999, at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, it seemed as if most of America hated him. Two years later, when he played his first show in Colorado after the shootings, he received so many death threats that a squad of undercover police officers had to follow him around all day.
That same afternoon, though, he recorded an interview for Michael Moore’s documentary Bowling for Columbine, which has since been nominated for an Oscar. His smart, articulate performance won him many admirers and finally laid to rest the absurd notion that a rock star could be held responsible for the Columbine shootings. Even so, Manson is ambivalent about the response.
"What I said in the film, I’ve since the beginning of the band," he says. "People say, ‘Wow, I’m surprised how well-spoken you are.’ It’s like me saying, ‘Wow, I’m surprised that you don’t smell like dog shit.’"
So much for the public’s hate. A more pressing question might be whether people love Marilyn Manson the way they used to. His last two albums, 1998’s Mechanical Animals and 2000’s Holywood (In the Shadow of the Valley of Death), both sold disappointingly. At the same time, Eminem, another notorious MM, became the moral majority’s nemesis. Manson’s bogeyman stock plummeted. The Onion ran a mock newspaper story headlined MARILYN MANSON NOW GOING DOOR-TO-DOOR TRYING TO SHOCK PEOPLE.
At age 34, Manson is seen less as an evil pied piper leading kids of America into Babylon and more as a well respected commentator and polymath. He exhibited some of his watercolors in a Hollywood gallery this September and can be seen playing a transvestite alongside Macaulay Culkin in the upcoming movie Party Monster. He also has plans to write and direct his own feature-length debut. Where does all that leave his music?
Manson will have an answer for this question- later. First, he wants to play Blender his new record, The Golden Age of Grotesque. "We’ll listen to it and you’ll say it’s shit, and I’ll send my baboons after you," he says, pressing play.
Even by Manson’s standards, Golden Age is a thrilling over-the-top piece of work. Influenced by the excess of 1930’s vaudeville and the decadence of Weimar Germany, it is frantic with Manson’s libertine ideas about entertainment, ego, sex and violence. It’s also dementedly catchy, and the language hyperventilates along side his music. One song is called "Doll-Dagga Buzz-Buzz Ziggety-Zag." The video for another, "mOBSCENE," Manson says, will feature a troupe of dancing girls and an elephant.
While the album plays, Manson interjects with track-by-track explanations, sips absinthe and scribbles on a pad. When it’s finished, he turns the pad around to reveal a sketch of Blender looking like an extra from Schindler’s List and clutching a grinning mouth in one hand. "I thought you were very serious, but then you started smiling," he explains.
Manson plays games, but he doesn’t really twist the knife. If he was cruel in the past- and various accounts suggest he had his moments – he seems to have softened. He can be shamelessly pretentious, too, but he’s charming enough to get away with it.
"Shock was never my goal," he explains. "It’s too juvenile. Anyone can be shocking. But to be provocative, yes. To be controversial, yes. There’s a point behind it."
Did you see the story in the Onion?
"Yes, I’m amused by it, but it’s as cheap a shot as blaming me for violence. Someone was stupid enough to ask me, ‘So, you’re acting now- do you consider yourself the next Eminem?’ Are you an idiot? I’m the first Eminem."
Four years ago Marilyn Manson locked himself away in a room for three months and wrote a novel that nobody, not even Manson himself, has read since.
"It’s a very traditional orphic tragedy, like Romeo and Juliet," he says. "The main character was inspired by a girl in my life, and the ending isn’t a happy one- the ending wasn’t a happy one."
Manson never calls the girl in question-actress Rose McGowen-by her name, just as he refers to Dita Von Teese only as "my girlfriend." He’s not explicit about what happened with McGowen, but it sounds messy:" Let’s just say that I was a rock star, and that’s not what she was interested in."
Manson first saw Von Teese at a vintage-clothing expedition in 1997, but they didn’t properly meet until three years later. There wasn’t much time between the two relationships. "I wouldn’t say I traded in one for the other, because it wouldn’t be an even trade, but I made a strong stance in my life," he says.
You’re a serial monogamist, aren’t you?
"I’m a very codependent person. I guess I was a mama’s boy."
There have been other changes in Manson’s life. Six months into the recording of the new album, his good friend and longtime bassist, Twiggy Ramirez, left the band. Manson replaced him with Tim Skold, from industrial veterans KMFDM.
With no disrespect to Twiggy, [his departure] helped the record, because it freed us from alot of things I felt tied down to," Manson offers. "You have to understand that it’s my vision, and the people in the band aren’t agreeing because they’re in the band; they’re sharing the vision. People will say it won’t be the same with this lineup. It’s not meant to be the same. It’s meant to be better."
While talk of his former bandmate gets him down, he visibly brightens when he’s talking about Von Teese: discussing how at red carpet events she looks more like a Hollywood star than the Hollywood stars do; how she’ll always give him an honest opinion; and, yes, how she was Playboy’s cover girl last September.
" I grew up stealing my grandfather’s Playboy magazines, so to have my girlfriend in Playboy is nothing to be ashamed of. I don’t let my Dad look at it, but I’m sure he does anyway."
The longer Blender talks to Manson, the warmer and frank he becomes. He appears content with the people around him. He takes fewer drugs: "I don’t always answer the phone when they call," he says with a faint chuckle. He even talks about having children. "I like kids; kids like me. I’m like a clown to them. I would love to have a kid one day."
He won’t be a family man quite yet, though. He still has grand designs. He still wants to change the world. And, of course, he still wants to entertain.
"I’m a shy person," he says. "I don’t like being around people, but I don’t like being alone – so the way I found to deal with it was by entertaining people. And entertaining people sometimes is also pissing them off. It gives them something to complain about, and it creates new jobs and new comity's and new collection plates to pass around to help stop terrible things like me."
On our way out, Manson shows Blender his hat rack. There’s a Charlie Chaplin bowler, a Russian hat and a Nazi officer’s cap (minus the swastika). He picks up a fedora.
"This used to be my incognito hat," he says. "I left a movie theatre once and a large group of fat girls yelled, ‘It’s Michael Jackson!’" His mouth crinkles in amusement. "That’s the strangest thing I’ve ever been called."