That's a real shocker

Marilyn Manson saved himself from a life of decadence. Now he thinks he can save rock and roll.

A year ago, there was no special connection between Marilyn Manson and Courtney Love, unless you count the fact that both were famous for being infamous. They weren't really friends (though Manson has claimed that Love did have a brief, raunchy fling with his guitarist Twiggy Ramirez), and their musical sensibilities had next to nothing in common. Manson, a Fort Lauderdale, Florida, geek who was an adolescent card-carrying member of the KISS army, loved rock at its most bombastic and theatrical. Love--despite her weakness for Stevie Nicks--favored more of a low-rent, plug-in-and-play approach.

But over the last several months, these two rock-and-roll misfits have become inextricably linked. For one thing, Love's band Hole released its latest album, Celebrity Skin, a week before Manson unveiled his Mechanical Animals. Though the albums don't sound much alike, they share the production work of Michael Beinhorn, and they both seem to document--however cryptically--the artists' ambivalence about the glittery superficiality of Los Angeles.

More than any of these factors, though, the reason Manson and Love have been linked is that their album releases came at a time when old-fashioned, guitar-based rock seemed to be in danger of flatlining both commercially and artistically. Manson and Love were somewhat unrealistically expected to stab the ailing beast with an adrenaline shot to the heart.

No one could live up to those expectations, so it's hardly a surprise that both albums have been painted as flops, although Celebrity Skin's sales have rebounded in recent weeks. Mechanical Animals, though, has been a somewhat stranger case. After opening atop the Billboard Top 200 and garnering by far the best reviews of Manson's career, the album quickly plummeted, and it's currently getting outsold by the likes of Built To Spill and Steve Earle and the Del McCoury Band.

Maybe it was a shared desperation, or simply a perverse sense of humor, that convinced these two icons to tour together, but whatever the motivation, it seemed certain to generate a string of manufactured feuds. Before the bands had played a single show together, Manson blasted Love in print, saying she never gave him the time of day before he became famous (hardly the most shocking accusation ever leveled at the widow Cobain). The two sides mended fences at an Australian warmup show, but Manson admits the vibe was still a bit testy. (Indeed, just last Sunday, from the stage of the Great Western Forum in Los Angeles, Love announced Hole was quitting the tour. She claimed the band was offended by Manson's burning-cross gimmickry and pronounced Manson "evil.")

"It was pretty explosive, but enjoyable nonetheless," he says of the Australian stop. "There was some fireworks between me and Courtney. There's a competitive element, more on her part. I don't feel the need to compete with anybody. But all in all, I think it kinda set the tone for what our tour is gonna be like. It'll be pretty unpredictable, which is mainly the reason why we're doing it.

"I thought about it, and the only band in the world I didn't want to tour with was Hole. Then I thought about it some more, and I realized that's the best reason to do it. I kind of enjoy the challenge. And just as a fan of music, if I went to see a show, that would be everything I wanted."

Before Sunday's announcement that Hole was leaving the tour, Manson was quick to note that although Hole and his band were billed as co-headliners, in actual fact Hole would open every show of the tour, which he described as "the only chance to save true rock and roll." He acknowledged that "Courtney is a very famous celebrity," but added that "as far as the bands go, Marilyn Manson definitely has a greater following live than Hole. But we're two very different types of bands, and I don't think it would be in her best interests to go on after us. It'd be pretty anti-climactic." There goes that problem.

Much has been made of Manson's recent emotional awakening. In his 1998 autobiography (co-written with Neil Strauss), The Long Hard Road Out of Hell, he depicts himself as a lifelong victim of phoniness and hypocrisy. He contends that years of fear-mongering Christian-school education, as well as a series of betrayals by girlfriends, rendered him numb, unable to engage himself emotionally in any situation. The party line on Manson is that after taking himself to the brink of insanity with drugs, self-mutilation and sexual depravity on the 1996-'97 tour for his phenomenally successful album, Antichrist Superstar, Manson moved to Los Angeles and rediscovered his touchy-feely side.

That may be the case, but in conversation, Manson maintains the flat speaking tone that made him famous. He speaks softly and slowly, always unfailingly candid and cooperative, but conveying a sense that he's somehow superior to the idea of getting excited or angry about anything.

Similarly, while Mechanical Animals is the most musical offering in a noisy, tuneless career, it's hardly the artistic breakthrough that some critics have suggested. Manson softens the rootless, metal-industrial hybrid of his first three albums and sings for the first time, albeit in a monstrously affected voice borrowed from Aladdin Sane-era David Bowie. He's the man with somewhat puzzling gender traits who fell to earth and landed in L.A. in a gold lame jumpsuit. No, wait--he's Omega, a campy rock star corrupted by his power. Who would know the difference, and does anyone really care?

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