Their new concept album quickly went platinum, their stage show puts the glitz back into rock & roll, and their front man is deadly serious about his freaky alter ego
Be careful when you gossip: a little rumor can go a long way. Especially when the subject is Marilyn Manson.
"For a solid year, there was a rumor that I was going to commit suicide on Halloween," says Manson. He is sitting in a hot tub (yes, a hot tub!) in his hometown of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
"I started to think, 'Maybe I have to kill myself, maybe that's what I was supposed to do.' Then, when we were performing on Halloween, there was a bomb threat. I guess someone thought they would take care of the situation for me. It was one of those moments where chaos had control." He pauses, raises his tattoo-covered arm from the water and stares nervously through a pair of black wraparound sunglasses at the spa door. It opens a crack, then closes. No one enters. "Sometimes I wonder if I'm a character being written, or if I'm writing myself," Manson continues. "It's confusing."
Never has there been a rock star quite as complex as Marilyn Manson, frontman of the band of the same name. In the current landscape of reluctant rock stars, Manson is a complete anomaly: He craves spectacle, success and attention. And when it comes to the traditional rock-star lifestyle, he can outdo most of his contemporaries. Manson and his similarly pseudonymed band mates – bassist Twiggy Ramirez, drummer Ginger Fish, keyboardist Madonna Wayne Gacy and guitarist Zim Zum – have shat in Evan Dando's bathtub and, just last night, they coaxed Billy Corgan into snorting sea monkeys. When it comes to getting serious about his work, Manson is among the most eloquent and artful musicians. And among the most misunderstood. The rumor-hungry fans who see him as a living demon who's removed his own ribs and testicles know just as little about Manson as the detractors who dismiss him as a Halloween-costumed shock rocker riding on Trent Reznor's coattails. The people who work with Manson on tour aren't any more privy to his personality. They have to follow the rules – no smoking, no talking about sports, no disturbing Manson in the three hours before a show – and clean up after his occasional temper tantrums that have left dressing rooms destroyed and a drummer hospitalized. In past articles on his band, Manson has deliberately toyed with the truth and with his interviewers.
"It's part of the shell that I've always built up around myself," Manson says. "And it's only because what is inside is so vulnerable that the shell has to be so hard. That is the only reason."
In the week we spend together in Florida, Manson is determined to come clean on everything, to lay all the pieces of his life and his band's new album, Antichrist Superstar, on the table and see whether we can figure out how they fit together. He's doing a good job of revealing himself so far, because he's in a Jacuzzi at the local Holiday Inn. It was difficult for him to be here: He tried once and backed out because someone was already in the tub. He tried a second time and changed his mind because one of the garter-clad fans scouring the hotel for him had just walked by. Only when no one else was around did he finally strip down to his swim trunks and get into the tub. Though after about 10 minutes, he begins to feel sick. Maybe he doesn't really belong here.
"This is going to be an important piece of press," Manson says as we get started on the first of many conversations. "It's going to be a piece of history that I want people to look at when I'm gone, and maybe it'll help them understand what I was thinking at the time when I did this record. There's been so much press and so many people feeding this sensationalism – and that's all part of Marilyn Manson. But at the same time, I want people to know that I tried to explain it to them when they had a chance to listen."
It's not going to be an easy task, he insists: "I pity anybody who has to spend a day with me."
Manson uses a number of different metaphors to describe himself: a snake, an angel, an alien, the child snatcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. One of the most vivid ones is a Hydra, the nine-headed serpent of Greek mythology. This image is at the heart of Antichrist Superstar, which entered the Billboard album charts at No. 3, just below two beacons of the status quo, Celine Dion and Kenny G. Antichrist Superstar explores a transformation and metamorphosis – of a worm to an angel to a world-destroying demon; of a boy named Brian Warner to the performer Marilyn Manson to the icon Antichrist Superstar. The album begins with a brief glimpse of the end. And that is where we will begin.
A dream: A few years ago, I started having dreams and visions of the world being destroyed, and me being the only one left. It was like an ultimate retribution for all of the things that have happened to me growing up. One dream took place sometime in the future – it may even have been in Fort Lauderdale. Entertainment had gone to such an extreme that they had taken people and made them into zombies almost just for entertainment's sake. And I had this strange vision of these women who were completely brain dead – they were just dancing in cages, and their jaws were wired shut so that they wouldn't bite off the dicks of all these guys that were around them masturbating. It was a complete Sodom and Gomorrah. And then somehow I was there and I was like either presenting the whole event or performing in it or something. That was probably the first appearance of what will be Antichrist Superstar rearing its head.
Manson thinks that maybe on Halloween, Marilyn Manson really did die. Maybe he became Antichrist Superstar. It's a strange thing to say, but Manson takes his name very, very seriously.
Manson is now sitting in a Mexican restaurant in a mall; a cheesy mariachi band wanders from table to table. Wearing a black T-shirt and choke collar, he gazes intently straight ahead, one eye brown, the other sky blue and his hair jet black. He talks about time travel, about his ability to hurt others just by thinking about it, about destroying with his music what people see as their world. Each of his comments is greeted with skepticism, though he elaborates until you can almost see the sense in it. For instance, his Antichrist is not a seven-headed beast slaying saints left and right – he's a pop icon who encourages people to question the existence of God and believe in themselves.
In the middle of one of his explanations, Manson heaves a deep sigh. "I go through such drastic mood swings," he says, twirling a fork in his burrito. "Last night I was lying in bed, and I just wanted to kill myself. I was totally depressed. I don't know why. I just felt like I was alone. I'm in my hometown, and I've got nothing to show for it. No one to share anything with. Today I'm in a good mood. I can never figure it out."
A year ago, no one could have imagined that Marilyn Manson would be on the cover of Rolling Stone. When his band released its first album, Portrait of an American Family, on Trent Reznor's Nothing label, it was just a dinky industrial act that the Nine Inch Nails mastermind had stumbled across in Florida. After a second release, Smells Like Children, Marilyn Manson became a popular industrial band, thanks to a demonic version of the Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)." But it was still a joke band, a horror movie that kids could like because it scared their parents. Antichrist Superstar, recorded during eight months with Reznor in New Orleans, is an incredible leap of prowess, a technically, musically and lyrically sophisticated album. Dark, complex and beautiful, the album has established Marilyn Manson as a pop force to be reckoned with. Antichrist Superstar was almost the band's last blast, recorded under great duress as a result of masochistic experiments with sleep deprivation, drug abuse and dreams that Manson believed foresaw his future.
The dream that Manson describes above, in fact, became one of Antichrist Superstar's key songs, "Little Horn." Over death-metal guitar riffing, Manson screams the words: "Someone better get the dog to kick/Jaws wired shut to save the dick/Out of the bottomless pit comes the Little Horn/Little Horn is born . . . Everyone will suffer now." Little Horn, Manson explains, is the Antichrist.
"If you thought about it long enough," he says, "you could pose the question: Did Antichrist Superstar create Marilyn Manson as a vehicle for its rise to power? I really feel like where I'm at now is where there's no line between what's on the album and what's in reality. They work together, and one just feeds off the other. The album talks about us being the biggest rock band in the world, and that is going to happen."
The most bizarre sequence of events to take place during our talks occurs just after Manson makes this prediction. First, a large middle-aged gay man approaches the table. "Sorry, I don't mean to interrupt your lunch, but I was just reading about you in Details on the plane," he says. "Could I have your autograph?" Next, a boy of about 11 walks up to the table. He doesn't say anything: He just puts a napkin and a pen down in front of Manson and breaks into a wide, guilty smile. Then a college girl, about 21, sits next to Manson and flirtatiously whispers something into his ear. She settles for an autograph. After she leaves, a strapping man with a ponytail ambles over to the table. "I'm sorry to bother you," he says in broken English. "I'm from Peru. I love your album. I, too, am in a band. Maybe you come to Peru, and we can play together. Can I have your telephone number?"
Finally, our waitress informs Manson that management has decided to offer us dessert on the house. Before my very eyes, Marilyn Manson becomes Antichrist Superstar: His music has reached this incredibly diverse array of people. And he gets free dessert.
"I don't think I've ever been recognized this much in five minutes," he admits sheepishly. As the cavalcade of autograph seekers continues, Manson gets freaked out. "There's a really surreal woman back there," he says. "Look at her. She looks like a crazy Barbie doll or something. How does she fit into all this?"
Manson is in many ways a classic paranoiac: Everything he sees or hears seems connected in some foreboding way. "I feel like I've dreamed half of my life that hasn't happened yet, so a lot of times I'm going along, and I do stuff, and I know that I've done it," he says. "I have déjà vus more than I have regular experiences. If half of your day is a déjà vu, then you start to wonder, "What is real and what isn't?" Once you tap into a certain idea like that, a part of your mind really takes off, and you can lose control. If, 10 years ago, that element was 10 percent of my life, it's 90 percent now. So there's only 10 percent of a normal person left."
A dream: I had another dream this morning. I was on a farm with a bunch of people – I can't remember any of their faces. But my father pulled up in his car, and he had this weird tool that was partly a serrated-edge knife and something like a pair of pliers. He handed it to me and said, "Hide this." I put it in a bucket of ice, and then seconds later all these cops showed up, and they were searching for it. And they ended up taking me to this juvenile detention home, because I was still a teenager in the dream. They took a picture of me and they put it on this weird key ring and fastened it to my toe. And they stuck this metal tube in my ass and these two little electrodes on the side of my head and took me to this detention home where I had to lie on this steel examining table for hours.
If you were Marilyn Manson's parents, what would you call him? Would you call him Brian, the name you gave him when he was born? Or would you respect his wishes, try to understand that he thinks he's a different person and call him by the name he made up for himself that combines a dead Hollywood legend with an imprisoned cult leader?
His mother calls him Brian. His dad calls him Manson.
"I've referred to him as Manson ever since he's been with Nothing Records," says his father, Hugh. "It's called respect of the artist."
Mr. Warner, a furniture salesman by trade, has become a familiar sight at Manson shows, distinguishable by the fact that he's the only gray-haired gentleman walking around wearing a Marilyn Manson T-shirt.
Brian Warner was not reared in the kind of environment that one would expect of an Antichrist: His parents never divorced, and they did not abuse him. They trusted him, and they gave him every chance they could. "My parents were always allowing me to do whatever I wanted to do," Manson says. "They took me to my first Kiss concert."
Brian spent most of his childhood in Canton, Ohio, moving with his family to Fort Lauderdale when he was 18. His mother was a nurse; his dad a Vietnam veteran who had sprayed Agent Orange before Brian was born in 1969. As a result, Manson says, the government has hauled him and his father in for periodic medical and psychological tests.
"My father had a very violent temper, and he was never home," Manson remembers. "So I was kind of a mama's boy. But I had a weird relationship with my mom as a kid because it was kind of abusive – but on my part. I wish I could go back and change the way I treated my mom because I used to be really rude to her, and she didn't really have any kind of control over me."
Take note, kids: Your Marilyn Manson T-shirt with the slogan that says kill your parents is pure sarcasm. It's possible to be Public Enemy No. 1 of the American Family Association and still love your mother. In fact, the central theme of Manson's music - whether it's the continual cycle of rebirth on Antichrist Superstar or the loss of innocence explored on Smells Like Children - is growing pains. In conversation, Manson seems to pine for his existence before the corruption of maturity set in. His remarks are sprinkled with references to Peter Pan, Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Cat in the Hat; he says that he used to visit Disneyland on acid to regain that feeling of terror when everything seems larger than life.
"In many ways, I wish that I could start all over and once again appreciate the taboos," Manson says. "It would be great to be innocent again."
Yet as a child, Manson wanted nothing more than to peek behind the curtain. He grew up as the worm he sings about in his songs – he was sick three times with pneumonia – and longed for metamorphosis.
"From an early age, I wanted so much to see or experience something that wasn't normal," he says. "My mom used to tell me when I was a kid, 'If you curse at nighttime, the devil's going to come to you when you're sleeping.' I used to get excited because I really wanted it to happen. I was never afraid of what was under the bed. I wanted it. I wanted it more than anything. And I never got it. I just became it."
One of the most horrifying songs on Antichrist Superstar is "Kinderfeld," about an old man named Jack who sits, hands "cracked and dirty," nails like "beetle wings," playing with a train set. Jack was the name of Manson's grandfather, whom the singer claims used to masturbate while playing with toy trains. It's an image that has haunted Manson all his life.
"I first started having really vivid dreams as a kid around the same time when I was spying on my grandfather," he says. "I used to take pictures of naked women, and I would cut out just their sex organs. And I started having really violent dreams that I was doing that to real people. It freaked me out as a kid."
That period marked the end of peaceful sleep for the rest of Manson's life. Though he doesn't remember it, his mother says that when he was 8 or 9, someone broke into the family's house and tried to smother him with a pillow. Ever since, Manson has been unable to go to sleep without a TV on in the background.
Manson: Another thing that happened was, I found a coffee can across the street from my house in Ohio, at a butcher's, and there were all these flies around it. I opened it up, and it had an aborted fetus in it. My parents told me that it was just raw meat.
Me: Maybe that explains all the lines about pro-choice and aborted fetuses sticking to your ribs on Antichrist Superstar.
Manson: I've been fascinated with abortion. And maybe it goes as far back as that coffee can. But actually I've had to go through that experience, you know, with a girl. And it was real bad, too, because it was like four months into her being pregnant, and they had to do some real intense things where they induce labor. Very terrifying stuff. Actually, no one even knows about it.
Me: Your friends didn't know?
Me: Your parents didn't know?
Me: They will now.
Manson: That's OK. [Pauses] I haven't said when it happened. Although these are experiences that Manson often returns to, Brian Warner would probably never have become Marilyn Manson if his parents hadn't sent him away to a private Christian school in 1974. It was there that he learned how to deceive and manipulate the system.
"I'm glad I sent him to that school because of the educational value," his dad says now. "But if I knew the result would be the demise of morality that happened, I would never have done it." Not that Warner disapproves of his son's music: "At first the lyrics shocked me, but when you sit down and think of the true meaning behind it, he wants parents to raise their children right."
Manson recalls some of the things that affected him at the school. "They had these seminars where they'd tell you about the music you weren't supposed to be listening to," he says. "And they would play heavy-metal songs backward. And they'd show you pictures of the bands, and I was like, 'I like this. This is what I want.'
"I started going to the record store and buying, like, a W.A.S.P. record for seven bucks and then selling it for, like, 20 bucks to some kid whose parents wouldn't let him go to record stores," Manson continues. "We didn't have locks on our lockers because we were on the honor system, so later in the day I would go and steal the album back and keep it for myself. I didn't realize it at the time, but there's always been this underlying theme in the stuff that I do: It's teaching people not to be so stupid."
Manson began his foray into entertainment at 13, making cassettes for his friends and eventually selling them at school. They were full of strange skits, prank calls and songs about sexual fantasies, masturbation and passing gas. He still has one of those tapes, which he plays for his crew on his tour bus. He also started his own cartoon and humor magazine based on Mad. "I was always trying to do different things to entertain people," Manson says. "And at the same time, I think, I was, whether subconsciously or not, trying to get kicked out of school because I hated it so much."
We are driving through Fort Lauderdale, and Manson wants to show me some memorable sites, but he can't remember any. "I wish we were in Ohio," he says. "I'd show you the baseball diamond where I lost my virginity. It's kind of ironic because I hate sports. I was 16 when that happened."
If you talk to Manson when he isn't wearing his pancake makeup, you can almost see him as a teenager, a sort of gangly, chinless, pimple-flecked, suburban metalhead with a nose that's a little too big for his face. He gazes out the window at a flea market where a woman once refused to sell him a Jesus Christ tapestry and then started quoting Scripture at him as if he were a minion of the devil.
"You know, I had a bit of a misogynist period in my life," Manson suddenly says. "When I was back in public school during my senior year, there was this one girl that was, like, one of the most popular girls in school. I kept trying to go out with her because I was the most unpopular person in school. I finally got her to go out on a date with me, and I didn't know what to do. I wasn't even going to try and kiss her because I was afraid to do the wrong thing. So I brought her back to my parents' house, and they weren't home. She was, like, this pristine, popular girl, and the minute she got to my house, she had her clothes off and just, you know, wanted to fuck. Then the next day she didn't even talk to me. It was definitely a moment, like seeing my grandfather [masturbating], a moment of having my idea of what something was supposed to be destroyed."
A dream: I've always had these dreams about making a girl out of all these pieces of prosthetic limbs, and then taking my own hair and teeth that I saved from when I was a kid and very ritualistically creating this companion.
Dressed in a back brace and surgical bandages, Manson is onstage at Fort Lauderdale's Sunrise Theater, singing, "She's made of hair and bone and little teeth and things I cannot speak." The song is "Tourniquet," the direct result of his creation dream and one of the first numbers in a concert that takes the audience through the entire tale of Antichrist Superstar.
In some ways, Manson has already become the Dr. Frankenstein of "Tourniquet." He has created an audience that he has lost control of. Tonight's crowd is wild, ripping the entire front row of seats out of the theater and actually nailing Twiggy in the arm with a large piece of upholstery. One beefy kid in the front row keeps trying to challenge Manson to a fight. When someone throws a cigarette onstage, Manson jumps back with a start. After the show, Manson confesses that he thought the cigarette was an M-80 firework. At an earlier show, someone threw a scorpion onstage. Scorpions are one of the few things in God's world that Manson is scared of.
More troublesome is the heavy police presence inside the concert. The cops have one door barred and are videotaping the entire show, hoping for enough nudity or obscenity to justify an arrest. It wouldn't be the first time that's happened to Manson: The last time he performed in St. Petersburg, Fla., he was arrested for indecently exposing himself onstage. Before the police threw him in jail, they ridiculed him, warning him to remove his lip ring because somebody might tear it out while beating him up.
"The cops also made a big deal about a show where Marilyn put some guy's dick in his mouth onstage," says Twiggy after the show, his eyebrows shaved, eyelids streaked blue and lips painted purple. "But we've done much worse things than that. I had my 11-year-old brother onstage in one of the shows completely naked. It was like child pornography."
Twiggy's childhood wasn't quite as ordinary as Manson's: Twiggy claims that his father went crazy after a car accident and disappeared when his son was 6; his mother was a go-go dancer for the '70s power-rock group Mountain; and his aunt was a groupie who dated a Bee Gee or two. Twiggy and Manson met at a Florida mall, where they bonded over making crank calls to local stores and listening to Mötley Crüe, Twisted Sister and Dr. Hook. At the time, Manson had formed a band called Marilyn Manson and the Spooky Kids.
"The day I met him, I knew that we would work together," says Twiggy. "As the band gained popularity locally, I thought it was my place to either be in the band or destroy it."
Few people in this world are as close as Twiggy and Manson. "The only person I can relate to is Twiggy," says Manson, who has actually had a girlfriend for the past five years. "I've always felt ignored and starved in relationships. But it's especially true now. It would be hard to try to relate to someone who hasn't been in front of thousands of people screaming their name, or who hasn't been up for three days doing drugs and shit, or who hasn't had to go to sleep at night on their back because their entire chest was bleeding from broken glass."
Our conversation is interrupted by a roadie who says a kid outside is looking for Manson. The kid wants to give Manson his prosthetic leg. Manson has a collection of about 15 such limbs, which he takes with him on tour. The following night, the Manson family attends the Smashing Pumpkins' concert in Miami, where Billy Corgan pays them tribute by inserting a riff from Manson's "Beautiful People" into one of the Pumpkins' songs. Afterward, the two bands spend the night partying in South Beach. The next day at 2 p.m., I get a call from Manson: "I've got a throbbing headache. Somebody must have poisoned my drink because I don't remember drinking this much. I don't even know how I got home." Twiggy is wandering the halls of the hotel in a daze, waiting for his parents to pick him up. "Last night was crazy," Twiggy says. "I had this glow bracelet I was wrapping around my dick, and Marilyn was trying to stuff it into the tip. I think he ended up biting off the end and spraying the glow stuff all over the club."
Later in the afternoon, Manson wakes up for an interview in his hotel room. A silk-screened poster made by a fan hangs on the wall. It depicts Manson with a blue face and demon wings. On his dresser are a Monster Magnet CD, a Radiohead CD and a Gothic CD with a phone number written on it. It's Billy Corgan's pager number. "That was a stupid thing to do," Manson says. "Now he's going to get a lot of crank calls."
I feel obligated to ask Manson about some of the rumors that have floated around on the Internet about him: that Manson removed his ribs so he could give himself blow jobs, that he was a child actor on the shows Mr. Belvedere and The Wonder Years, that he died of a drug overdose in Phoenix. Not one is true. But everyone knew that anyway.
"I have people come up to me and ask me if they can cut me while I cut them, or if I can put out a cigarette on their face," Manson says. "I can understand that people are trying to make a first impression, but I think that a lot of people don't understand what Marilyn Manson is about."
So what is Marilyn Manson about?
"There are two things that Marilyn Manson has been designed to do," he says, playing with a jeweled Tibetan skull that's resting on his bed table. "It's been designed to speak to the people who understand it and to scare the people who don't. A lot of what I say to our fans is, "Stop worrying about trying to fit into the status quo of what is beautiful and what is politically correct. Believe in yourself and stick to what's right. If you wanna be like me, then be like yourself. It's the whole Nietzsche philosophy of you are your own God. That's why I debase myself in the concerts and tell people to spit on me. I'm saying to them, 'You are no different than me.'" The phone rings. It's Twiggy. The two make plans to see a movie with Billy Corgan that night. Manson finishes the call, apologizes for the stink in his room and goes on about his notoriety: "I think I'm starting to understand myself in my own way. As far as people go, I'd like to be able to say no or be able to turn women down. Or just be in a position where I don't need other people. I've felt for so many years that I was the person who always wanted to fit in. Now I'm in a position where I can be as misanthropic as I'd like to be. I don't know if it's my way of paying everyone back or if I'm just bitter."
Manson stands and walks to his suitcase. He shows me a series of photographs that were taken of himself in concert, then takes out a W.A.S.P. concert T-shirt and gives it to me as a souvenir. "Every once in a while, I'll step out on the balcony and think about jumping," he says. "I'll think, 'Is this the final thrill, because I'm numb to everything else?'"
He stops rifling through his belongings and reconsiders. "But I feel I have more to accomplish," he says. "I think I have a lot more in store that people really won't expect. I mean, besides the end of the world."