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He sounds like any musician over the phone, like any burnt-to-a-crisp rock star who spent the previous night burning down the shed. He is, by turns, thoughtful and distracted, animated and weary. He crunches on a cup full of ice as he contemplates his answers, which are never inarticulate and are, on occasion, even glib and silly. Over the phone, this man--Antichrist superstar, androgynous destroyer, enemy of the state, Lucifer in Revlon--could be anyone: any guy in a band, any bored millionaire doing a little pre-show P.R., any dude you rode bikes with during your childhood summers. The distance of a phone line that stretches from Denver, where he performed one night earlier despite death threats and calls for boycotts, to Dallas creates the necessary, if small and surprising illusion. Marilyn Manson--when heard but not seen, when stripped of makeup and contact lenses and self-inflicted scars and his traveling flea circus--is just another, y'know, dude.
He is no longer the most hated man in music; Eminem gets more play on Joe Lieberman's CD player these days. Manson's album releases are no longer seen as signs of the forthcoming apocalypse; he might as well have distributed last year's Holy Wood (in the valley of the shadow of death) direct to cut-out and used-CD bins. He no longer shows up on MTV or The 700 Club. But he would insist he likes it in the shadows--better to sneak up on people. The devil is merely in hibernation.
Only a few hours before this interview, Manson--the man, the band--had performed at Denver's Mile High Stadium as part of Ozzfest, headlined by Black Sabbath. The show marked the first time Marilyn Manson had performed in the Denver area since Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris gunned down 15 and wounded 23 classmates at Columbine High School in April 1999. The band had been scheduled to perform at nearby Red Rocks shortly after the shooting, but canceled--too much negative press, too many bad vibes. And Klebold and Harris weren't even Manson fans--too poppy for their tastes, in fact.
This time, he wouldn't back down. This time, the performance was to climax in chaos, with picketers surrounding the stadium and Manson onstage reading from the Bible--a revival of the fittest, good facing down evil in a battle for the teen-age souls. But the night went off like any other: Only 35 protesters, more or less, showed up, and Manson gave a show like any other. He briefly read from the Bible (the crowd, said one colleague, showed little interest in his sermon), then introduced "The Fight Song" off Holy by exhorting the crowd to beat up "every priest that said we were going to hell...I want to hear you scream 'Fight!'" The audience of 24,000 did as they were told. There, there, you good little automatons.
"I wasn't shot, so other than that, everything was OK," Manson says of the Denver show, with a small laugh.
Then, word came the morning of this chat that Manson had agreed to meet with the man who most wanted to keep the band out of Denver: youth pastor Jason Janz, leader of a group called Citizens for Peace and Respect, whose Web site takes Manson's lyrics out of context in order to, ahem, prove that the former Brian Warner promotes, among other things, hate, death, violence, suicide, drugs and "the attitudes and actions of the Columbine killers." As it turns out, the dialogue was at Manson's invitation--but the meeting, he says, will only take place at Janz's expense and at Manson's convenience.
"If that jackass wants to pay and come to L.A. when we're done with the tour, he can come and talk all day long," Manson says. And what, exactly, would Marilyn have to gain from the experience? "It would amuse me to show him I know more about the Bible than he does. That's about it, really. It's a matter of me making a point to say that, 'I'm willing to hear your opinion, even if you're not willing to hear mine.' It was a challenge."
Take pity on Marilyn Manson. Really. It can't be easy being Brian Warner, who's too often forced to defend himself against things he hasn't even done or said. He's rock and roll's best scapegoat--a freak in mismatched contact lenses, Alice Cooper with a real agenda, a musician who's rarely ever given credit for the brilliant noise that makes him relevant in the first place ("The Fight Song," in fact, smells like Blur's "Song 2"--hardly the soundtrack of the apocalypse). When he began the band more than a decade ago, he couldn't play an instrument at all; Marilyn Manson ("The Magickal Music Band," as it was briefly...well, never really known) came into being simply because the then-music journalist-cum-frustrated poet simply got tired of being on the wrong side of the interview. He interviewed Debbie Harry, the Red Hot Chili Peppers; he wrote bios for Yngwie Malmsteen and other "metal assholes," as he wrote in his 1998 autobiography The Long Hard Road Out of Hell. But none of his subjects was more interesting than the dark thoughts in his own head, so Warner, with no visible talent or training, took the stage and let it bleed.
Later, he would say he never thought of himself as a musician, at least not early on. He fancied himself an artist--someone who isn't limited to music in terms of expression. Warner knew only that in order to get his point across--or through the heads of young record buyers--he had to create a persona larger than life. And larger than death. He envisioned Marilyn as a creature who hated everything, including himself; he thought of Marilyn as a short story come to life, a tale with an unhappy ending that climaxes with the destruction of the brainwashed--the suckers. Warner created Marilyn not out of thin air--he's but an amalgam of tattered old posters that once adorned an outsider's bedroom walls--but made him somehow scarier than any of his predecessors. Maybe that's because he's somehow more real, more relevant: If the cute innocent in all those old photos of Brian Warner could become the Antichrist superstar, who's to say it couldn't happen (indeed, isn't happening) to your kids?
"I think I just realized the first time out that I had some sort of element to my personality that people could identify with, and that made me feel obligated to expand on that and to keep doing it," he says. "As a kid, I always tried to entertain people, whether I was goofing around or drawing cartoons or dressing up in Halloween costumes at the wrong time of the year or whatever the case was. There's always been a bit of a desire to entertain people. That was my way to communicate, because normally I have more of a difficult time talking to people or being around other people. I'm usually quiet and keep to myself...
"I knew I had to be bigger-than-life from the beginning, because it's the way that I saw things growing up in the examples and icons I had in front of me, even people I didn't relate to, like Michael Jackson and Madonna or other people like Bowie or Prince or Kiss or Alice Cooper--any of the bands that were real rock stars. I knew that if I was going to do anything, I had to do it like that and even better if I could, because that was the only way I wanted to do it. It was also probably part of me being a journalist for a short amount of time and seeing a real lack of that at the time. When we started our band, it was in the midst of grunge being created and the anti-star era, where people were shrugging off any sort of celebrity idea. It wasn't a desire just for me to be famous; it was just a desire for me to be the biggest and loudest thing that I could be. I felt like nobody was giving me the answers that I wanted to hear, so I had to get on the other side of the interview and give those interviews that I wanted to hear."
Manson's image has always obscured the music like a 100-foot-tall brick wall; he expected that, maybe even demanded it. And so he doesn't mind when fans or writers rarely talk about the music to focus more on the lyrics, which so often are taken out of context and emblazoned on protesters' picket signs. For a while, though, we talk about why, for Holy Wood, he chose as its producer Dave Sardy, whose own band Barkmarket could make a machine-metal symphony out of the beating of trash cans and the plucking of barbed wire. Theirs is a production team made in hell: To Manson's message of destruction and eventual redemption (there is indeed optimism to be found in his portrait of doom and despair), Sardy gives substance--their sound is solid, a brick wall or a fist or a sharpened knife.
It's a long hard road from the early Manson sound found on Portrait of an American Family or its follow-up EP Smells Like Children, which offered little more than carny-tent scares and horror-show metal--Alice Cooper for Nine Inch Nails fans, at best. Even 1996's Antichrist Superstar pales next to 1998's glam (if not downright glamorous) Mechanical Animals, which was Bowie as performed by Barbie; the albums get better, even as the noise surrounding them only grows, as if to drown out the music and messages contained on each record.
Not long ago, even Manson thought the din had become too overwhelming; he had become what he wanted--a celebrity, damned near a martyr (or a damned martyr)--and found himself trying to decide if it was worth it. He wore a target (or maybe that was just a self-inflicted wound trying to heal); he feared for his life. And so he holed up in his Los Angeles home, climbing into the attic with religious texts and totems. He ditched the genderless Omega character of Mechanical Albums and returned even more full-throttle than before until he resembled a corpse, rotten and decayed. It was the Resurrection: Marilyn, back from the grave dug for him by the Religious Right, politicians and anyone else looking to ride his coattails to re-election. After briefly considering pulling a disappearing act, he returned so in-your-face you can smell yesterday's lunch.
"The choice [of disappearing] was definitely put in front of me," he says. "Ironically, that's what Antichrist Superstar had kind of predicted and set forth--that some day I would be in this great position of power, and I would be famous for being everything America could possibly hate, and I would be forced to decide, 'Will I let this destroy me and what I'm about, or will I destroy it myself and overcome it and become something stronger?' So by finishing what I started with Antichrist Superstar by writing Holy Wood, it closed the whole circle. I had to live out my own nightmare that I created, and that was probably the hardest thing, but it did what I wanted it to do--it made me a stronger person through the whole thing. It definitely was something where I took what was a bad thing and made it into something good...
"I just think it's hard to decide whether the story was being written or it was writing me along the way, but I think it was inevitable, sort of out of my hands, that I would have to learn the lesson that there would really be no point in doing what I do if there wasn't some sort of hope in it. If it was only nihilism and only darkness, then there would be no point to keep doing it. I had done it all, I said what I had to say, I'd be finished with it. So I think just as a person, I had to really discover what I was reaching for."
The question of just what he was reaching for has no simple answer. It has something to do with saving the world by destroying it--or pretending to, anyway. It has something to do with giving voice to "The Nobodies" and "Disposable Teens" and "Target Audience" of which he sings on Holy Wood; in a medium filled with false prophets making mad profits (Fred Durst is angry only that you're not giving him more of your allowance), Manson's the closest thing to a cleric. And it has something to do with offering hope in a hopeless world; after all, no true nihilist chooses music as a form of expression, if only because what fool would take the time to learn how to play an instrument if he thought the end was nigh? Seems like a waste of time. And so he is savior as well as annihilator--the optimistic death merchant who can't decide whether to save you from or shove you down the abyss.
"Savior and destroyer are one in the same, as much as I think the character of Christ and the character of Lucifer are very similar in a strange way," he says. "They're two halves of something. If you look at the symbolism in the Bible, you can't create without destroying something, and that's the basis for Marilyn Manson, I guess."
It would seem, then, the inevitable and final question is a simple one: What have the last five years given him--this Antichrist, this superstar, this devil in a codpiece and mascara. He is quick to answer, quicker to laugh.
"A headache," says Brian Warner, son of Hugh and Barb and self-proclaimed God of Fuck. "I've learned that you grow up and you have a sense of idealism and you think this world's really screwed up, and I wanna be the guy that's gonna change it. You learn that the revolution is not gonna happen. It's not gonna work. You can't change the world. You can only change yourself."