Marilyn Manson: His satanic majesty

He's the man America loves to hate. His lifestyle and his music have been blamed for most of the country's moral ills. But does Marilyn Manson actually have something important to say? Fiona Sturges takes a deep breath and finds out

Monday 21 April 2003 00:00 BST

It's a warm April day and the sun is shining, but the curtains are drawn in Marilyn Manson's hotel suite. I can hear Manson shuffling about in the next room, though he's clearly not ready to come in yet. What's he doing in there? Touching up his make-up, perhaps, or eviscerating dead bodies? I can't recall ever being this nervous before an interview. "Let's just say he doesn't suffer fools," his publicist tells me when I ask what to expect. Great. What if he hates me? I wonder if he'd like me more if I had worn black.

Not so much a musician as what marketing executives might call a "phenomenon", Marilyn Manson is the most infamous icon of his generation. Rock music's reigning anti-hero, he boasts a life spent in subversion. Nearly a decade into his career, rumours of devil worship, animal mutilation and sexual deviancy continue to abound, stories that on the surface at least are upheld by his aesthetic – cadaverous make-up, S&M clothing, extensive tattoos. Perhaps the least remarkable thing about Manson is his music – industrial-strength metal with toxic vocals about guns, violence, Satan and the apocalypse – although that hasn't stopped disaffected youths from buying his albums by the million.

After what seems like several lifetimes, Manson eventually emerges. Tall, lean and dressed in black, he's every bit as imposing as his photographs suggest. Behind the sunglasses, I can just make out the intense eyebrowless eyes. Manson may have successfully turned legions of teenagers into grubby Goths, but he's immaculately turned out. His lipstick is fastidiously applied, his clothes perfectly pressed. For a man reputed to be on nodding terms with the devil, he's also unnervingly courteous. He shakes my hand, apologises for keeping me waiting and asks if I'd like any refreshment – a glass of mineral water or some fruit, perhaps. So far, so good, then.

In the US, Manson has stood accused by politicians, religious leaders and parents of corrupting their children and contributing to society's moral decline. His most consistently vociferous critic, the senator Joe Lieberman, famously described Manson and his band as "perhaps the sickest group ever promoted by a mainstream record company". The singer's grotesque appearance, and his contempt for religious and political conservatism, has turned him into an emblem for all that is evil and un-American. Of course, Manson isn't the first to stand accused of such crimes. However, where some have claimed that records such as The Beatles' "White Album" contain subliminal messages of immorality, there's nothing so subtle about Manson. This is a performer who encourages his fans to chant "kill God" at his gigs.

"I think America requires art to always ask questions of government, religion or social situations," he explains in a croaky drawl. "I get criticised for being unpatriotic, but I believe that the most patriotic thing I can do right now is be an artist who pushes and tests to make sure that democracy's functioning properly. That's what we're fighting to represent as a band, that it's important to have freedom of expression and to make America a place worth fighting for. This is not me being heroic, it's to make sure that I have the freedom to express myself and be who I want to be."

This freedom of expression came under serious jeopardy after the Columbine High School killings in 1999, when two boys from Littleton, Colorado shot and killed 12 of their classmates and a teacher before turning their guns on themselves. In the media frenzy that ensued, Manson was held directly responsible. He became a scapegoat, a buffer for the blind fear suddenly felt by American parents towards their children. As it turned out, the killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold weren't even Manson fans – indeed, they professed to dislike him and his music.

"It was because we weren't at a time of war and there was no identifiable villain," Manson sighs. "I had asserted myself as an artist who would challenge popular notions of right and wrong. I do and say what I want, and people are scared by that. Pointing the finger at me was inevitable."

In the weeks following the killings, Manson refused to defend himself, despite lucrative offers from newspapers, magazines and television shows. It wasn't until the following year that he formulated his response, an intelligent and impassioned article in Rolling Stone magazine outlining his views on the religious establishment, the government and the media. Last year he also took on his critics in Michael Moore's Oscar-winning documentary Bowling For Columbine, revealing himself as a perceptive social and political observer as well as a victim of US hypocrisy.

"I think that film gave me a voice and opened me up to a wider audience," he reflects. "People who hadn't heard my music seemed to sit up and listen. I would say that that particular battle has been won now, although that's not to say that there won't be more to come."

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Manson continues to relish his role as the thorn in the side of the Establishment, and it's a position that he takes extremely seriously. He views himself primarily as an artist, a living, breathing work in progress created both to entertain the masses and needle right-wing Americans.

"I'm an abstract negative, never coming to a complete formation," he declares puzzlingly. But where does the reality of Marilyn Manson end and the fiction begin? "I created him to have a personality because I didn't feel like I had one when I was younger," he says. "I don't bother to define what's reality and fiction when they work so perfectly together."

Over the course of his career, Manson's proved himself both as an expert media manipulator and a consummate rock star, although he denies using shock tactics as a means to sell records.

"I'd be a lot richer if this was a genius marketing ploy," he says. "There is poetry in business and commerce, but what I do is far too dangerous to be mainstream. Art should exist inside entertainment to keep it from being lazy and shallow. I don't think I've ever tried to scare people or shock people. I try to be provocative. Success for me is being able to do the things that I want to do. I would still have the same enthusiasm and outlook if I hadn't sold any records."

Manson was born Brian Warner in a small suburb of Canton, Ohio in 1969. His father was a helicopter mechanic in Vietnam, and was part of the covert group assigned to drop Agent Orange, a highly toxic herbicide, over the country. As a result, throughout his childhood Manson and his father were subjected to yearly physical and psychological examinations by the government in case of side effects.

It was during these early years in Canton that Manson was first introduced to the dark side of human nature. In the opening chapter of his highly entertaining, if sporadically horrifying autobiography, The Long Hard Road Out of Hell, he recalls regular visits with his cousin Chad to his grandparents' house nearby. The pair would sneak downstairs into their grandfather's cellar, where they would find sex toys, grubby latex gloves, pornographic magazines and drawerfuls of women's underwear.

Another formative experience was his time at the Heritage Christian School in Canton. It was here, he says, that he developed a vehement distrust for religious authority. For years he tried to get expelled, leaving dildos stolen from his grandfather's cellar in his teacher's desk and distributing home-made magazines filled with pornographic cartoons and smutty stories. He also did a roaring trade in bootleg cassettes. Manson would record copies of Kiss and W.A.S.P albums and sell them to his classmates for up to $20 (£13), before stealing them back from their lockers during class. Would he be the person he is today had he not attended a Christian school?

"Probably not," he answers. "Ignorance can be bliss, and there would be no reason to feel the fear that I did. Me becoming what I was afraid of was the easiest way to not be afraid anymore. Now I have different fears – fear of the people who don't like what I do, fear of war, fear of the music industry. But I believe great music and art comes when you spit in the face of fear."

Though he was never expelled, Manson finally switched schools when the family moved to Fort Lauderdale in Florida. The next two years passed by in a haze of sex, alcohol and heavy metal. When he left school he began sending macabre short stories and poems to Night Terrors magazine, and even did a stint as a journalist at the rock magazine The 25th Parallel, conducting interviews with Debbie Harry, Malcolm McLaren and Trent Reznor, the singer in the industrial rock group Nine Inch Nails.

Frustrated by the lack of response to his writing, he decided to start a band. They called themselves Marilyn Manson & The Spooky Kids. "I wanted a name that encapsulated all I stood for," he explains. "The name signified the union of two opposing celebrities – one a martyr, the other a killer."

The group quickly gathered a reputation for their outrageous live performances. Manson would regularly drag a girl named Nancy across the stage on the end of a leash, beating her and simulating sex. Pigs' intestines, livers and chickens' feet would be thrown into the crowd, causing the fans to slip and crash into one another while dancing. In Jacksonville, Florida, Manson was arrested for the first time for allegedly exposing himself on stage. "As a performer, I wanted to be the loudest, most persistent alarm clock I could be," he writes in his autobiography. "There didn't seem like any other way to snap society out of its Christianity and media-induced coma." Manson would further stir up the fury of his adversaries by gleefully declaring himself a Satanist, despite the fact that in his book he states: "I'm not, and never have been, a spokesperson for Satanism. It's simply part of what I believe in, along with Dr Seuss, Dr Hook, Nietzsche and the Bible..."

In 1993, the band signed to Reznor's Nothing label and released Portrait Of An American Family. With characteristic bad taste, the album was produced in Reznor's home, the house where Sharon Tate was murdered by the Charles Manson gang. The next year yielded an EP entitled Smells Like Children, and the group had their first hit with a suitably apocalyptic version of the Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)". The ensuing tour descended into chaos as the band indulged in all the usual rock'n'roll diversions – booze, drugs and groupies – and ended with the singer in hospital following an accidental drug overdose.

"It was necessary for me to experience all of that," says Manson blankly. "I've learnt about the extremes I have to go to in order to feel things. People who criticise me for my drug-taking and sexual depravity are people who have no experience of drugs and sex. But I've done all that. I'm talking from a position of knowledge."

Clearly, in his eyes, his experiences afford him a moral superiority over his detractors and by the release of the album Antichrist Superstar in 1996 Manson had sealed his position as middle America's worst nightmare, gathering as much devotion as opprobrium. In his book he talks about two girls who would regularly turn up with the words "Marilyn" and "Manson" etched into their chests with razor blades. The irony of a performer who encourages his fans to question received truths and think for themselves, yet inspires such sheep-like devotion, isn't lost on Manson.

"There is irony in everything that I do," he states. "But that's the beauty of art and music in general. You make something that works on different levels, some people take it at surface value, while others go deeper for what they need."

The band's next tour heralded more outrage and obscenity. Along with the usual simulated sex, self-mutilation and flagellation, Manson could be found dressed in a Nazi uniform, performing on a pulpit draped in pseudo-fascist banners and tearing up Bibles before excitable crowds. Not surprisingly, US Christian groups went into paroxysms, picketing gigs and lobbying the state authorities to ban the shows. The hysteria reached fever pitch in Texas, when a man wearing a Marilyn Manson T-shirt was arrested en route to a gig. Manson continued his tirade against middle America with 1998's Mechanical Animals. However, in the following year, as post-Columbine fever took hold, he was forced to cut back his live performances for fear of reprisals against his band and crew.

Although Manson's stage antics are already the stuff of legend, he claims that there are those who still invent stories in an attempt to put a stop to his shows.

"In Rome last year I was arrested because someone said that I tore off my genitals and threw them into the crowd," he says with discernible glee. "They demanded that I unbutton my trousers and show them that they were still there. I said, 'Be my guest.' They couldn't arrest me for wearing the Pope's outfit on stage, so they had to find another excuse. It was pretty lame."

I wonder what Manson will be doing in 30 years time. Will he be shuffling around his Los Angeles mansion in his slippers and yelling at his children, à la Ozzy Osbourne? Or is it possible he'll tread the same path as Alice Cooper by finding God, playing golf and opening a chain of burger bars?

"I'm not sure if I want to be around in 30 years," he replies. "Right now I want to live and create like there's no tomorrow. I want to produce every piece of art, whether it's a performance or an album, like it's my last. And in three decades time? I will be exactly where I decide to be. I don't think anything or anyone can dictate what I will be doing then, except my own imagination."

The album 'The Golden Age of Grotesque' is released on 12 May

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