A Lovely Chat With the ‘God of F--k’: Why Marilyn Manson Is Still Here (and Why We Haven’t Asked Him to Leave)Hell, etc.
Under normal circumstances, the only part of a Marilyn Manson album promotion cycle worth caring about is the promotion. In the past, even Manson seemed to understand this. He once dubbed himself the “God of Fuck”; he could’ve gone with the “God of Carefully Considered Artistry,” but he opted for the “truth in advertising” route.
First and foremost, Manson is an all-time great interview subject, and the latest round of Marilyn Manson articles has only added to that legacy. In Rolling Stone, there was the bit about having sex on “Beaver Mountain,” an abortionist’s chair at his home that Manson once covered with a beaver rug gifted by Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. In Details, he discussed a recent red-carpet encounter with Courtney Love’s vagina that Manson likened to a prison assault. To seemingly every reporter within earshot, Manson has talked about his friendship with Johnny Depp, a weirdly lifelike Tim Burton character that once passed for human in films.
As a talker, Manson remains an unparalleled master of grotesque absurdity. As a musician, however, he hasn’t been relevant since the tail end of the ’90s alternative rock boom. But his latest record, The Pale Emperor, is different. Here’s a sentence I never thought I’d type in 2015: I like the new Marilyn Manson record. It’s true. My god, WTF, it’s really true. Working in collaboration with Tyler Bates, a music producer and composer best known for scoring films like Guardians of the Galaxy and The Devil’s Rejects, Manson aggressively works his raspy, caterwauling vocals against expansive, bluesy glam rock that doesn’t skimp on catchy riffs or big, dumb drum fills. He sounds positively (negatively?) energized.
If The Pale Emperor isn’t the best record Manson has made, it is arguably the most inviting for neophytes, mixing smart (or “smart”) with silly (as in sillllllllllly!!) in the precisely right amounts. He seemed suitably proud when I reached him by phone last week at his Beverly Hills hotel room.
“I think that this record is my payback in the Mephistopheles/Faustian story. I felt like I heard” — knocks on a table — “on my door. I didn’t want to answer it,” Manson said. “There was a time when, metaphorically, you sold your soul to become a rock star. I think that I stopped paying for a couple years, [or] I didn’t pay up as much as I should have. This record was my payment to him, saying, ‘Check is through now, motherfucker.’ This is payment due, plus interest.”
What’s it like to talk to Marilyn Manson? All of the clichés you’ve heard before apply: He’s articulate! He’s funny! He sounds like a Frank Miller comic. (“I’m the third act,” he said. “I’m the person that bends the rules. The hero is just a straight line, but the villain is always the guy who’s willing to do things passionately because he wants to do it.”) Less publicized is Manson’s tendency to wander. He’s a regular farmhouse cat, that Marilyn Manson. In conversation, he’s all over the place, delivering a deadpan dribble of literary references, one-liners, rock trivia, canned patter that I recognized from other recent interviews, and scattered chestnuts of spontaneous one-of-a-kind insight.
When talking about the record, Manson referenced Robert Johnson, Heliogabalus,1 Bonnie and Clyde, and Natural Born Killers. At one point, unprovoked and apropos of nothing, he declared, “If I’m ever found dead, and you don’t see a lot of other dead people around me, then someone killed me. That’s pretty much what I tell everyone.”
Manson’s publicist warned me about all of this shortly before the interview. But apparently I didn’t take it as seriously as I should have, as I began by wishing Manson a belated happy birthday. (He turned 46 on January 5.) This was (part of) his response:
It’s very difficult for me to determine time, so birthdays are strange for me because it’s really just a matter of, “Do you wear a watch or have a calendar?” And those [things] don’t make sense to me. It’s odd that we live in an era where people don’t really use normal clocks with hands on them. Or write cursive, because texting has sort of eliminated the tradition of a handwritten letter. I looked at my handwriting recently from when I was younger because my father — who recently visited me before my birthday — brought me my first grade to third grade report cards. And my cursive was really immaculate. I can’t even read my handwriting now. It’s just like hieroglyphics and gibberish. Sometimes it’s hard for me to decipher my own handwriting because sometimes my brain is working faster than my hand can write it down. And I think that also, it’s just more of … For some reason in my head I don’t think of it as … I’m not writing it down for someone else, I’m writing it for me, but then I read it the next day and I can’t read it. So, it’s kind of a real fuck-over for me.
It was 1 p.m. where Manson was when we spoke. The scheduled interview time surprised me because part of Manson’s mythos is that he keeps vampire hours; 1 p.m. for Manson is supposed to be like 3 a.m. in regular-person time. But lately Manson has made significant changes to his lifestyle, which include waking and sleeping on more or less the same schedule as us normals. It started when Manson was cast as white supremacist Ron Tully for the final season of Sons of Anarchy, a “dream gig” that required showing up for work around the time he would usually go to bed. Manson found that working in daylight suited him. Believe it or not, given the confusion earlier over the concept of calendars, Manson is thinking more clearly these days.
“I had, for probably the past seven or eight years, thought that 3 to 4 a.m. was my best functioning creative time,” he said. “But what I realized was that that’s the time when my brain’s firing off the most elaborate ideas, but I can’t really grab them. It’s almost like the Jean Cocteau book, Opium, where it talks about being addicted to opium. Which was not the case for me, but in a sense, drinking absinthe is very similar, where it fucks with your temporal lobe. I would have a lot of ideas, and couldn’t gather them all in at once. They were all just there — sort of nebulous, sort of flowing around.
“When I started recording this record, I would get up, I’d go running somewhere — not from the police — but I was just running. And I was anxious to go to the studio,” he said. “So I would go there around 4 p.m., rather than being dragged there at 3 a.m. I found out after recording a few songs that I didn’t have that 3 a.m. circus going around in my head.”
This “back to basics” approach translates to the album. On The Pale Emperor, “I felt like I was resurrecting my own … not career, but myself as a person,” Manson said. In the studio, Manson and Bates tried to make it sound as live as possible. They sat across from each other — Manson singing, Bates playing guitar. Much of the album was done in first takes.
Contrary to what you might assume, Manson isn’t deluded about his place in the world. He knows his recording career isn’t what it once was. Manson’s pop-culture capital topped out with the platinum-selling double-shot of 1996’s Antichrist Superstar and 1998’s Mechanical Animals, which debuted at no. 1 on the Billboard Albums Chart. After that, Manson’s star fell, though he still had a big enough audience for his next two LPs to go gold. Occasionally Manson reappeared in the mainstream as either a surprisingly trenchant social commentator (most famously in 2002’s Bowling for Columbine) or as a surprisingly prolific love interest to actresses (Rose McGowan, Evan Rachel Wood) and models (Dita Von Teese, to whom he was married from 2005 to ’07.) It was enough to keep his name alive in magazines, though just barely. In 2009, his longtime label, Interscope, finally dropped him, and his next record, 2012’s Born Villain, was largely ignored.
But now Manson is back with his best music in years and an astonishingly robust media profile. He’s sort of been everywhere lately. If it seems odd that people are still talking about Marilyn Manson, consider that nobody is trying to take over his lane. Alice Cooper and Ozzy Osbourne were around when Manson emerged in the mid-’90s for about as long as Manson has been around now. He was the last link in a chain that’s been left to rust.
The unique strain of rock stardom that Manson represents — the untouchable exhibitionist, the lunatic who is eternally uninhibited and yet fundamentally mysterious — appears to have been neutralized in the 21st century. Kanye West has approximated it at times in his career. (He came closest during his Yeezus phase.) Lana Del Rey seemed poised to embody this archetype before she plainly rejected it.2 Something is missing: Whether it’s the imagination to pull it off or the endurance to sustain a persona amid the nonstop bullshit-athon that is social media, nobody is tapping Manson on the shoulder and telling him to step aside. Like it or not, we’re stuck with him.
Manson, unsurprisingly, is a devotee of the Doors, and The Pale Emperor echoes how that band reformulated its juju in the latter part of its career. I would liken the album specifically to the Doors’ 1971 LP, L.A. Woman, a rambling barstool vamp that careers darkly between camp and druggy majesty in a Mansonesque manner. On Pale Emperor tracks like “Warship My Wreck,” Manson seems to mimic Jim Morrison’s debauched howls, while “The Mephistopheles of Los Angeles” and “Third Day of a Seven Day Binge” ape Morrison’s self-destructive self-aggrandizement.
During the interview, Manson brought up the Doors before I did, calling Morrison “my whole inspiration” back when he first started writing poetry as a teenager. Later in life, Manson plugged into keyboardist Ray Manzarek and guitarist Robby Krieger; the trio jammed on some Doors songs in 2012, giving Manson serious Lizard King vibes.
“They just went with me,” he said. “That’s what they did with Jim because he was chaos and they were the tornado, and they just had to go with it. They didn’t really have any choice.”
Chaos and tornadoes. Marilyn Manson and the Doors. A million eye rolls couldn’t begin to adequately register the incredulity such things inspire. But if I’m being honest, I can’t be totally cynical about this. I like rock mythology. The ridiculousness makes me giddy. I get off on larger-than-life pomposity. I happily huff fumes of scorchingly hot air. I own L.A. Woman on CD and vinyl.
Manson emits enough hot air to power a fleet of zeppelins, so I didn’t have much time to ask about what is, in my view, his most interesting work: the 1998 memoir The Long Hard Road Out of Hell. One of the great “tawdry” rock books, The Long Hard Road reads like an Oliver Stone adaptation of Hammer of the Gods,3 taking all the tropes of rock exposés — the excessive drug use, the gross-out groupie debauchery, the studio-bound infighting — and pushing them to bizarre, sickening, and compulsively readable extremes.
Some aspects of The Long Hard Road are cringeworthy, such as its depiction of women, which is inexcusably misogynistic. The book’s most infamous chapter, “Meating the Fans/Meat and Greet,” describes an encounter with a deaf female admirer named Alyssa who has sex with several band members and is subsequently covered in meat and urinated on. That Alyssa appears to consent to and even enjoy this treatment doesn’t make the chapter any less unseemly.
But as Manson observes early in the book, if you act like a rock star, people will think you’re a rock star. Most rock memoirs are put out by musicians in the twilight of their careers, but The Long Hard Road was published right when Manson reached critical mass. The book was pivotal in building Manson’s mystique, which was as derivative of rock history as his music was. Viewed charitably, the Alyssa chapter unfolds like a performance-art remake of Led Zeppelin’s “mud shark” incident,4 though that likely gives Manson too much credit for acting like (to quote Trent Reznor) “a dopey clown.”
Elsewhere in The Long Hard Road, Manson’s decadent-bogeyman act is more charming, like when he drolly denies being a Satanist (“It’s simply part of what I believe in, along with Dr. Seuss, Dr. Hook, Nietzsche, and the Bible”) or when he demonstrates a knack for the casually lurid aside. After an anecdote about writing a review of a Jane’s Addiction concert for his college newspaper, he writes: “Even more unforeseeable was the fact that many years later I would be in a Los Angeles hotel room trying to keep Jane’s Addiction’s guitarist, Dave Navarro, from giving me a blowjob as we sniffed drugs together.”
“I was approached by Judith Regan to write an autobiography before I was famous,” Manson explained. “I just [released] ‘Sweet Dreams.’ ‘The Beautiful People’ wasn’t even on TV when I was approached for this. It was a very Ziggy Stardust move, to write an autobiography when you’re not even famous. And it makes you famous. That was hilarious to me.”
A rock critic named Neil Strauss was hired to help Manson finish the book. Strauss later became a well-known character himself, first for cowriting the ultimate “tawdry” rock book, Mötley Crüe’s The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band, and then for authoring the best-selling “seduction community” tome, 2005’s The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists. Strauss presently runs Stylelife, a self-described “academy” that promises to unleash the confident studs trapped inside the souls of insecure men.
Strauss was just a nebbish writer for the New York Times and Rolling Stone when he moved in with Manson and became his professional chronicler. When we spoke, Strauss mentioned a new book he’s writing with one of the most scandalous figures in pop music from the past 25 years. (He didn’t want the person’s identity revealed on the record, though if I told you, you’d want to read it.) For this sort of project, “you really have to embed,” Strauss insisted, “versus these people who maybe talk to someone for 20 hours on the phone and then write a book. Those aren’t the books that become iconic.”
“There were times when I was waking up on his couch and writing a New York Times review that I had due from his kitchen,” he said. “I had just moved to L.A., he had just moved to L.A., and I was just constantly with those guys. Not just on tour but basically at their house. There was no part of the house I didn’t see. I think that helps the book. You can’t just do a book with interviews. The best stories might come out at 3 a.m. and they’re all high on drugs and talking about some experience they had, and you’re like, ‘Yes, OK.’ And you pull out your recorder.”
Manson might have been Strauss’s subject, but he was also, in a sense, a colleague. Manson was actively involved in writing The Long Hard Road — for most rock memoirs, a ghost writer interviews the musician and shapes it into a narrative — and the book’s jokey misanthropy clearly derives from his sensibility. The Long Hard Road was merely the latest iteration of Manson’s ongoing self-invention: As he reveals in the book, Manson wrote the first-ever newspaper story about his band under his real name, Brian Warner.
In his dealings with the rock press, Manson never lost his instincts as a writer. He knows what journalists want, and how to stage-manage it.
“Yeah, he for sure knows the game,” Strauss said. “I remember because I met him for a Rolling Stone interview, and it began with sitting us in a hot tub. He purposely called [my] room that night and said, ‘Let’s meet in the hot tub,’ because he knew that he wanted to give me a good story. In a hot tub with the Antichrist, he knew that’s a great Rolling Stone hook.”
Looking back on the book, Manson seemed resentful that he didn’t get to write it himself. “Let’s just put it this way: I ended up writing three [New York Times] reviews for Neil Strauss because he wasn’t capable of doing it based on his condition,” he said. “And all I did was just rewrite things that I wrote in my college newspaper.” (Through his assistant via email, Strauss denied this. “That sounds like Manson being Manson. No one has ever written a word of any of my reviews.”)
The most fascinating thing about Marilyn Manson is wondering to what degree he manipulates his life for the future benefit of his interviewers. Like, when he’s having sex in an old abortionist’s chair, is he (consciously or not) doing it for the inevitable pull quote in Rolling Stone? Either way, I’m going to assume that what Manson says happened really did happen, because the alternative is so much less fun.
“It’s like Dalí said, ‘I am surrealism.’ I said, ‘I am cocaine.’ I don’t do cocaine. I … Whatever, the point is that … Everything I do is just because I wanna do it, and I wanna have fun doing it before the whole shit-house goes up in flames, to quote Jim Morrison.”
Fair enough. Marilyn Manson is cocaine. Marilyn Manson also gets up and goes to bed like you and me. Marilyn Manson is still crazy. Marilyn Manson has grown up. Marilyn Manson is whatever you need him to be, even now, even after all this time. Perhaps he’s still here because Manson keeps finding new ways to write himself back into the story.
“I don’t think that for me, as a person, that there’s a real strong line between fiction and reality,” he said before hanging up. “I don’t really want there to be one.”