Animal Magnetism - Apocalyptic Couch Talk With Marilyn Manson
by Tom Lanham
First appeared in BAM magazine, 2/26/99
"No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream."
- Shirley Jackson, The Haunting Of Hill House
As it's prone to doing from time to time - call it an affirmation thing - Tinseltown was throwing another lavish party for its party-craving own a couple of weeks ago. Quite a fete. All the right hors d'oeuvres. Star-studded guest list. And the Hollywood Athletic Club, all swathed in team-spirit streamers like a high school gym on prom night. The perfect post-premiere setting for hotshot young director Darren Stein's grim-humored new flick Jawbreaker. Naturally, the film's key players were on-hand, including the gorgeous Rose McGowan, who chews up the scenery as a Heathers-y high school bitch who accidentally offs the most popular girl in class. Sure, heads turned, flashbulbs supernovaed when she came strolling into the bash; after paying her dues in several smaller, but similarly-wicked parts, McGowan was finally on her way to coveted top-billing status, to being the toast of fickle Tinseltown.
But it was the actress' date for the evening who drew the biggest gasps, aroused the most envious stares. Everyone knew that McGowan was seeing mascaraed shock-rock king Marilyn Manson; few probably expected him to show up for such a glittery non-pop function. Manson, however, had wanted to closely study his Jawbreaker cameo (almost unrecognizable, he portrays a grimy one-night stand and, yes, gets to simulate sex with his missus on-screen) and also show faithful-beau support. And you could liken his arrival to that of a huge, glint-eyed raven touching down on a telephone wire full of chittering sparrows - even if he drops by just to chew the fat on Bill Maher's Politically Incorrect joust-a-thon, feathers somehow always seem to get ruffled when this fuchsia-maned megastar is around. Not that ravens worry too much about said sparrows, but the movie shindig did give the fairly unflappable artist a few moments' pause.
The night, Manson grumbles, quickly turned "claustrophobic," and taught him a valuable lesson. "I think that I'm down to the point where I've realized why I feel comfortable performing in front of a lot of people," he says. "It's because I don't feel comfortable associating with a lot of people. It's agoraphobia, I guess - I get real panicky around a lot of people." This recurring theme of alienation, isolation, he says, runs through several glam-vampy tracks on his latest Mechanical Animals exercise. "And what I probably like least is that, despite the fact that I'm very welcomed and accepted because of my fame, I don't think that I'm liked or understood in any way. It's one of these things like E.T. or Edward Scissorhands, where everyone's in awe, but not sure how to understand it. And the minute that thing begins to confuse them, they wanna destroy it, because they really don't get it and it scares them. So it's kind of a weird road for me to walk on."
Sparrows, then, would delight in not only the demise of that threatening raven, but - in true Hollywood style - its resurrection several months later. That's the way the fame game works, sighs its most notorious contestant, the man who's returned rock music to its Kiss-glorious pedestal while simultaneously sending a creepy shiver up the spines of wholesome parents. Quoth the raven, what a bore. "It's all very Christlike, in a way - the media likes to see me fall," he faux-blasphemes. "When something really small and inconsequential happens to me, they make more of a big deal about it than if it happened to someone else." Take Mechanical Animals, for instance. Creatively, he believes, it's a quantum leap forward from his previous industrial-strength, Nietzsche-themed Antichrist Superstar. The disc, Manson's third, also debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard chart, and "has sold more copies in five months than it took us two years to sell on the last album. But the media's on this big kick about rock music's not doing that well. I just think people would like to see me fail because they're afraid or insulted by my openness, or just my outspoken intelligence, the fact that I call the shots how they are. I think the same thing happens with Howard Stern - people like to see him fall, as well."
It's easy enough to spot the sensationalism - it's all outrageously documented in Manson's The Long Hard Road Out of Hell autobiography, which kicks off with the boy born Brian Warner in backwater Canton, Ohio stumbling upon his grandfather secretly whacking away in the basement. He and his teen pal watch with a mixture of horror and fascination, and the book - as far as twisted vice and sensual pleasures go - is one racy bobsled run downhill from there, leaving nothing to the imagination. Fact or fiction? Manson isn't saying. As Tenet Number 94 in Balthasar Gracian's centuries-old The Art of Worldly Wisdom states: "The wise person does not allow his knowledge and abilities to be sounded to the bottom, if he desires to be honored by all - He allows you to know him but not to comprehend him."
The cover of Mechanical Animals features Manson adopting a new, more vulnerable persona, via a fleshy bodysuit he also tried out on the recent MTV Video Music Awards - that of an amorphous, asexual android from the stars dubbed Omega. But Manson in person is another animal entirely. In fact, if cheetahs could walk on their hind legs, they would not only resemble the elastic-limbed, long-framed fellow, but echo his regal feline stride as well. He thuds around his manager's Hollywood Hills home in black leather trousers, an ocelot-dappled black lycra shirt and imposing leather boots boasting six-inch heels. Spooky skull 'n' spider web tattoos peek from beneath his long sleeves, but his trademark colored-contact-lensed eyes are masked behind a goggle-huge pair of gold Chanel shades. The hair-parted on the side in Jennifer Aniston shag doesn't live up to Mechanical expectations; only a few streaks of magenta remain, and the rest is mousy brown. Catlike again, he curls up on a comfy couch, with a picture-window view of decadent, smog-basted Los Angeles to his right. And the 30-year-old speaks slowly, deliberately, measuring his thoughts carefully before dispensing them in concise conceptual capsules.
Warner created the alter ego for himself nearly a decade ago, when he was living in Florida and toying with rock journalism. It's now a place, a whole persona, in which to hide. Shirley Jackson was right - it isn't easy for a thinking organism to coexist with absolute reality. Sipping a Diet Coke, Manson considers this for a minute. He was just offered a villainous role in a remake of House on Haunted Hill (shooting at the same time as a new translation of Jackson's eerier Haunting of Hill House); too predictable to be the bad guy, he decided. That's filmdom's reality. "There's this theory that primitive man assumes that everything around him is alive," Manson finally murmurs. "And the smarter you get, the more evolved you get, the more you believe that you're the only thing that's important. But because I like to look at things from a child's point of view, I think everything has a life to it, and I don't think man is necessarily more important. That's why ideas like good and evil are only manufactured by man to try and justify that he has more of a soul than everything around him."
Following this theory, one arrives at a foregone conclusion: Mankind, in its we-are-gods, deny-food-to-other-species arrogance, is most likely headed for an ignoble end. "That's absolutely true," affirms Manson. "I think that human nature is a desire for, or always pushing toward, destruction. Man has created the idea of heaven and hell; man has created apocalypse - no other species has. So, if there will be an end of the world, it's something we brought upon ourselves." He can't stifle a droll snicker. "That's what we do. That's what we do best, is just destroy ourselves. Man is pretentious to think he's the final chapter of evolution; man, just like dinosaurs, will eventually become extinct, and man's creations will take over for us. All the things we've made will have an exegesis of sorts, and they'll be smart enough to realize that they don't need us anymore.
"But the one glimmer of hope that I asserted on Mechanical Animals - because I was considering all these ideas - is that the only thing that does make us special is the fact that I believe we do have a soul, and that's where our creativity comes from." Most folks, Manson adds, ignore that part of themselves, shut down to its urgent signals. "Most people, by the standard dictionary definition, are androids. There's no reason to envision a sci-fi world of people with metal inside of them - already, people that walk around look like human beings, but they don't act like it. They don't express any kind of creativity, they don't show any emotions - they've dumbed themselves down with drugs, with television, with religion. So this album, for me, was about trying to discover what it means to be human for the first time."
Taking on religion with '96's Antichrist Superstar initially proved disastrous for the iconoclast. Taking cues from Nietzche's Thus Spake Zarathustra, Manson's morality play of a free-thinking superman who transcends black-and-white Christianity via "will to power" - and its tandem over-the-top roadshow - elicited bomb threats, concert bannings and countless picketings/protests from a head-in-the-sand religious right. Backed by the ACLU, Manson took his case to court and won; reneging New Jersey promoters were ordered to keep him on the bill.
Mechanical Animals - couched in the crunching glitter-era riff/melodies of bassist/guitarist Twiggy Ramirez, keyboardist M.W. Gacy, drummer Ginger Fish and added axeman John5 - lets its creator emote in charismatic, Bowie-droned blasts. (Co-produced with Michael Beinhorn, the project is also a very tangible departure from former overseer/Nothing mogul Trent Reznor.) Moving to superficial LA, where he painted his songwriting room a nullifying white, Manson culled cathartic color from within.
In a spectral processional, Coma White, the singer frowns down on drug excesses; the stomping I Don't Like the Drugs (But the Drugs Like Me) finds him approaching the issue from a cool-to-be-in-rehab angle. The hooks are huge, quasi-goth, like vintage Sisters of Mercy. And Manson spends the rest of his hour-plus dissertation - in User Friendly, New Model No. 15, and the dirge-y The Dope Show - recoiling from suntanned, cellular-swinging SoCal society like a vampire shrinks from daylight. It isn't easy to put into words, Manson admits. But he gamely tries: "Antichrist Superstar was about shedding my emotions and attacking my fears and putting myself as close to death as possible, either to kill myself or become something stronger." He starts shaking his head, as if to say, "Wrong, wrong, wrong." "What I got to at the end of the road was, having all that power and realizing that it takes more strength to know you have that power and to not use it. The most godlike that you can be is to have the ability to destroy, but to show empathy, show emotion for the first time."
In John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness, there's an unusual motif, a single scratchy image beamed throughout of a sinister caped figure; you can't put your finger on exactly why, but the transmission is exceptionally terrifying. Manson adores the film, loves the idea of flickering suggestion. That's what he aims for, in both song and video, he says. "I'm mostly inspired by my dreams, and it's so hard to translate those that often it's always in hints. Strangely enough," he chuckles, "people think that what I do is shocking and over-the-top. But I actually try and be subtle, because if you just hint at something, it opens up your mind to it. That's why if you just have an image that insinuates some sort of symbolism, it's almost like a book. I don't like to spell things out - it makes things too easy. I like to make people think. And the best images come from your own imagination - I can't show someone what they're afraid of, but I can hint at it and allow them to find it for themselves."
Manson is currently scripting a screenplay based on his Mechanical Animals imagery; he'll also star in the vehicle. And what he can't jettison from his system via words or music, he commits to canvas. Along with gold and platinum albums, several of his peacock-hued paintings are scattered across his manager's living room. They're portraits, mostly, and composed of such stark tones and imagery, they make John Wayne Gacy's evil clowns look like kindergarten innocence. Speaking of violent brush strokes gets Manson off on another tangent, of how social Darwinism is directly applicable to art these days. "If you don't have the strength to survive as the world keeps growing and changing," he harrumphs, "you'll be forgotten, you'll be sucked up. That's why we're in a true test of time, where someone who's far better than me at what I do, a band that's far musically superior to us, may never succeed, because they may not have the creativity or the willpower just to do it. It takes more than just talent now. In fact, talent is probably the last factor in success nowadays. The most talentless actors are the ones who are successful; the most mediocre ones don't challenge anyone." That's why he's fallen for - and just proposed to - McGowan: Like himself, she's got more character and intellect than this robotic world is prepared for.
Did someone say preparations? Is the world truly ready for the current Marilyn Manson juggernaut, which teams our loquacious Lothario with perhaps his only peer in the upstart department, Courtney Love and Hole? At first, Manson didn't think Love was dedicated to rock; he changed his mind. "I think she still has balls," he assesses. "We don't agree on hardly anything; we like to argue - I mean, what better for a tour? Plus, I also wanted to remind her - because she is quite a celebrity - that Marilyn Manson is the only real rock band that's out there. And I think we needed to show her a few things."
Across the room sits the flame-dreadlocked Ramirez. For the past hour, he's been tinkering with a computer, trying to fuck up pal Dave Navarro's web site any way he can. Proudly, he proffers semi-porn pictures of himself that somehow wrangled their way into this month's Honcho. Manson cackles with image-manipulating glee. It's all about the culture of irony, he suggests. "People have such a grand perception of what I'm like, that I can do something completely the opposite and it confuses and surprises them. So I think that as long as I feel creative, I can always evolve into something else."
No need for him to be cryptic. "If I wanted to do something really outrageous," he smirks, with catlike cunning, "I think it'd be wearing some biker shorts and a Hard Rock Cafe t-shirt. I'm in a strange enough position where if I do something that most people consider normal it'd seem completely out of place. As long you don't take yourself so seriously that you can't have a sense of humor about who you are, then irony can be your best friend."
And with that, Manson and Twiggy shamble outside to a sensible little compact and actually manage to fold their rubbery bodies inside. A so-long wave, a quick toot on the horn, and the raven speeds off back down the hill. Back down into sparrowland.
Marilyn Manson play with Hole March 10 at the Cow Palace.
© 1999 Tom Lanham