There seems little point in rehashing Marilyn Manson’s history, as is the temptation when one discusses such a controversial cultural figure.
Reviled by some, revered by others, admired as much by lovers of the dark arts as by ideological sympathizers who might never be caught dead playing his albums, Manson has become much more than a guy who can make grinding, gruesomely growling music under titles like “The Golden Age of Grotesque” and “Holy Wood (In the Valley of the Shadow of Death).”
Widely known for his creepy visage more than anything he has created—rarely has such a pop pariah ever been so vehemently rebuked without consideration for the purpose of his work—the demon who emerged in the mid-‘90s as the “Antichrist Superstar” is now an evil entity whose somewhat self-manufactured mythology grows more storied every year. He’s become a cult icon not unlike the legendary Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan and an idol of Manson’s. (“Manson is the most revered Satanist, second only to my grandfather,” Stanton LaVey told Spin earlier this year.)
Missed all the gory (some might say suspect) details? Read his eye-opening 1999 memoir, “The Long Road Out of Hell,” co-authored by rock scribe Neil Strauss. Born Brian Warner into an alienating world of perversion and religious imprinting that had the opposite effect—it drove him from, not toward, God—Manson’s sordid saga reveals a once-tortured, now-empowered individual who walks it like he talks it no matter what anti-Manson crusaders think. Even (or should that be especially?) out of the limelight, he starkly illustrates just how much ghoulish forebears like Alice Cooper and the so-called Prince of Darkness himself, Ozzy Osbourne, have become horror-show caricatures.
Yet failing to walk it like Manson talks it is precisely what went wrong in the four years since “Grotesque.” During that time, Manson—no one with half a brain calls him Marilyn or by his real name—settled deeply into a relationship with burlesque queen Dita Von Teese, who, arriving after Manson’s time with actress Rose McGowan, appeared to be his twisted soulmate.
After six years together, they married—and almost immediately, Manson says, Von Teese expected him to change. His vampiric hours, his drug use and absinthe consumption, perhaps most vitally his philosophy of self-preservation through fiercely independent thinking and creative transformation—she’d have preferred he put all that away and be a more normal husband.
And for a brief time Manson slowly felt himself conforming. “I started to feel bad about being me,” he told me in his gravelly but gentle voice during a phone chat a few weeks ago. “I started to feel like I had to turn me off somehow, to prove that I fit into this convention I know now didn’t suit me properly.”
I asked for clarity: “You mean marriage?”
“Yeah. Well, the execution of marriage. I don’t necessarily think I couldn’t be married again. I think that I assumed—and it was me projecting my idea of romance onto Dita—that she believed in things the same way I did. I think we got to a point where she was feeling like, `Well, I assumed you would eventually grow out of this.’ And I’m saying, `But this is me.’ My marriage started to transform into something that was too concerned with the rest of the world, with how it would get portrayed in Vogue magazine—and that sort of thing was exactly what I had fought hard to stand against. But I got lost between love and belief in myself. I didn’t know who I was supposed to be anymore.”
“I’m absolutely not looking for someone who agrees with me about everything,” Manson quickly adds, “or someone who wants to please me by believing what I believe. But I need the same dark romantic yearning. I had been watching all these movies, like `True Romance’ and `Harold and Maude’ and `The Hunger’ and `Bonnie and Clyde,’ and I started wondering where that sort of feeling had gone. I thought that was where I was at in my life, and I couldn’t understand why I didn’t feel that same fearlessness.”
He regained it, however, via two life-altering vehicles: Evan Rachel Wood, the pretty, preternatural actress from “Thirteen” and the coming “Across the Universe,” who at 19 is half Manson’s age; and the rejuvenating new album “Eat Me, Drink Me,” very likely the most crucial work of Manson’s career.
Initially despairing but ultimately hopeful (as hopeful as a guy who concludes “You and I and the Devil Make 3” will ever be), the disc was in part inspired by research into Lewis Carroll that Manson had done for a screenplay, over which he and Wood first bonded. A more sonically accessible work than he has issued since the industrial glam of 1998’s “Mechanical Animals,” the grittily gloomy album is drowned in veiled references to both the split from Von Teese (“If I Was Your Vampire,” “Just a Car Crash Away”) and discovering his new muse Wood, for whom he wrote “Putting Holes in Happiness” and “Heart-Shaped Glasses (When the Heart Guides the Hand).”
Yet Manson, who insists the only song directly about Von Teese is the anguished “Red Carpet Grave,” says he wasn’t aiming to make a divorce album. “I hear people say that and I feel it’s a crippling factor, in a long-term sense. It’s more universally human than that. And the disintegration of that relationship was only a catalyst. The legal divorce part happened after the record was done, in a way.”
Manson says he’s still surprised the album got made—he had been stymied for months by a complete shutdown of creativity. The breakthrough came partly through confessional immediacy, his discovery that random thoughts he’d jot down in letters or text messages were purer samplings of his mind than forced efforts at songwriting had produced. They could be repurposed into song lyrics.
“And I realized I needed to make this sort of album to communicate with people around me. In one sense this record could have been the songs that saved a failing relationship, but it ended up being songs that saved a failing person.”
Admittedly needy, Manson says he found it hard to believe in himself when Von Teese didn’t. “For me the key to longevity—and immortality, in a sense—has to do with transformation. But at the time my idea of being a chameleon—like Bowie, like Prince, like Madonna, like all the people who have really influenced me—started to get mixed up in my head. So I ran away from myself and fell prey to the scrutiny I had always avoided, because I felt no reason for anyone to believe in me. And I really need to have a reason.”
Enter Wood—“and then the album also wound up being these songs that established a new, stronger, for the first time real relationship that had that sense of romance I wanted. I think you can literally hear the process of me being resurrected, as dramatic as that sounds. It’s not a stance. I can totally hear that.”
Now fully reborn (if that’s the right word), his resolve firmer than ever, Manson has set out to reclaim and rebuff his rusting throne as shock-rocker supreme via a co-headlining tour with another of Satan’s favorite bands, Slayer.
The tour, Manson says, “is a natural because the one thing we share in common is this extreme, brutal dedication to saying and doing what we want and not backing down. ... Plus, we’ve put together the most theatrical show we’ve done. Bring some fire and brimstone back into rock `n’ roll. ...
“At least we’re keeping rock `n’ roll evil.”