That's a real shocker

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?

The Manson of Antichrist Superstar was no musical giant (Manson admits that he only got into music when he couldn't get a rise from anyone in Fort Lauderdale with his open-mike poetry readings), but he registered with the masses because people sensed there was something genuinely scary about him. And if he was generally hopelessly derivative, occasionally he did manage to convey in sound how demented his worldview was. Check out Lester Bowie's whacked-out, brass-driven cover of Manson's hit "The Beautiful People" for a reminder of what a twisted piece of music it really is. Unlike his obvious inspiration Alice Cooper, who played his horror shtick for laughs, all the while guesting on Hollywood Squares and hanging out with Groucho Marx, Manson was at least as warped as his image suggested.

"I think things were worse offstage," he says. "I think I was kind of governed when I was onstage by the people that I employed and by the police and by local officials, and what I shared with an audience was far less than what I was doing in my personal life, which was much more dangerous. I guess I was just challenging myself and trying to embrace every element of decadence, I guess just to experience everything, to overcome it. It was either going to result in death or becoming something different, and fortunately I've become something different."

In becoming something different, though, Manson is no longer someone to be feared, and history suggests that when fear dissipates it can quickly mutate into ridicule. When Manson appeared on The Late Show a few months ago, David Letterman mercilessly mocked him in a manner that recalled the old Saturday Night Live skit where a group of superheroes can't resist taking the piss out of the useless Antman.

Manson's suddenly sluggish record sales haven't helped either, but he argues vehemently (or as close to vehemently as he argues anything) that his sales woes--and those of most rock bands--have been distorted in the press.

"I think the media has misused a lot of information that they've gotten in the past couple of years," he says. "They've created this perception that rock bands are doing worse now than ever, when in fact rock bands are probably doing just as good now as they ever have. I think at the pinnacle of the Rolling Stones' career, for them to have a gold record or a platinum record was a big deal. Now, if you don't have a platinum record in the first week, you're a failure all of a sudden.

"It's a silly perception, and I think it's kinda poisoned kids into thinking they're supposed to like something else. I'm just back to remind them that rock and roll is about so much more than all that bullshit. It's about the spirit of it, and the excitement of a big tour like this. I know that I'm definitely doing better than I did on my last record, so I only see that as being positive."

Whatever the state of Manson's career, his personal life seems to be on an upswing, with his recently announced engagement to actress Rose McGowan, star of the just-released Jawbreaker.

"I didn't look at [marriage] the way everybody else seems to look at it, 'cause for most people it probably represents settling down, becoming conventional," he says. "But I looked at it as I found someone I could finally believe in, and I just wanted to show that I had that level of respect and commitment. And I'm also a very romantic person. I think that's why I'm so dissatisfied with the world: I do want something better; I just don't ever see it happening."

Manson says that in Los Angeles (a town he describes as "much more conservative than most people imagine") he learned to balance both extremes of his namesakes, Marilyn Monroe and Charles Manson. He argues, though, that his emotional rebirth hasn't softened him. "I think it's made me more bitter than ever now. I feel like I've exposed a nerve, and more people want to stick their fingers in it. I can only imagine that my next album will be more hateful than anything I've ever done; whether it's just hating myself or everyone else I'm not sure."

Since moving to the Hollywood Hills, Manson has--for reasons that are unclear to him--befriended a succession of former child stars, including his new neighbor, Leif Garrett. He concedes that his notorious rep can often create undue tension in these situations.

"I've always genuinely respected and admired all those people, so when I meet 'em, I'm genuinely excited," he says. "But I think they think I'm being sarcastic, 'cause most people are sarcastic toward them. Sometimes I push it too far. I think Corey Feldman got a little bitter because of my sense of humor. If you can't laugh at yourself, who are you gonna laugh at? Especially when you're Corey Feldman. You've got nothing else to do but laugh at yourself."

In a tour-diary entry from The Long Hard Road Out of Hell, Manson strained to find an intellectual justification for his onstage flirtations with fascist and satanic imagery. He wrote that he wanted Americans "to realize they don't have to believe in something just because they've been told it all their lives. You can't have someone who's never had sex or drugs telling you it's wrong. Only through experience can you determine your own morality."

It's a persuasive theory, even though it probably has little to do with the attention-grabbing desires that fueled Manson back when he was Brian Warner in Fort Lauderdale. In any event, the inevitable question is where Manson can go from here, now that he has already gobbled down as much decadence as any stomach could hold. How does Marilyn Manson grow old? When confronted with the same dilemma, Alice Cooper donned golf pants and became a respectable pillar of Paradise Valley outside of Phoenix. Manson can't see himself making that move.

"I imagine myself being a bitter old man who sits on his back porch shooting birds," he says. "That's how my grandfather was. I don't see myself making any tearful recovery from the way I am now. I think for [Cooper], and people like him, it's more about giving up drugs and alcohol, because it was a problem, and replacing it with Christianity, which is much more of a problem.

"I don't see myself finding the Christian idea of God anytime soon. I think I've found my own version in different things, particularly in music. And I'm too violent for golf."

Marilyn Manson performs March 23 at Reunion Arena. Monster Magnet opens.

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Gilbert Garcia