Interview:Miami Times interviews Marilyn Manson
Manson: The Early Years
What was Brian Warner like before he became a parent's worst nightmare? Ambitious, petty, shrewd, desperate - and prone to puking.
by Ted B. Kissell
Not so long ago the international rock star Marilyn Manson played local dives such as the now-defunct Plus Five in Davie. Launched in 1990 as Marilyn Manson and the Spooky Kids, the band evolved from an obscure novelty act with adolescent stage names to a wildly popular novelty act with adolescent stage names. Along the way the group honed its songwriting, stage show, and vision. It also dropped the "Spooky Kids" appendage fairly early on, and became known solely by the nom de shock of its vocalist.
My story begins late one night in 1993. The erstwhile Spooky Kids have packed up their toys after a Plus Five gig and gone home. Marilyn Manson himself, at this point still mostly called Brian Warner by his friends, has adjourned to the nearest Denny´s. He pulls up in his red Honda Civic hatchback and stalks past the serried ranks of Mother Butler pies. Pallid and rapier-thin, his lank black hair still damp with sweat, Brian glides over to the big round table in the corner, where his assembled sycophants cede unto him the seat of honor on a curved Naugahyde banquette.
Well, that´s not true. We´re not all sycophants. A couple of people here are actually his pals. And although I´m not within that tight circle, I´m friends with his actual friends. I´ve also interviewed him for a couple of local-music articles, and Brian and I have gotten along pretty well when we´ve talked. Acquaintances, I guess. There´s one other nonfawner at the table, a guy named Mike, who just loves local bands and goes to shows all the time. This night he´s drunker than usual and amuses himself by unscrewing the top of the salt shaker, pouring the salt into his mouth, and spewing puffs of it at passing busboys.
But the other dozen clustered around Brian in some unintended parody of the Last Supper? Unabashed toadies, gussied up in black, with splashes of fuchsia or lime-green hair dye. A couple of them are carrying lunchboxes, an homage to the Marilyn Manson song of that name. And all are hanging on Brian´s every word.
He doesn´t have that much to say. Although he looks like Alice Cooper, his onstage energy is more reminiscent of Iggy Pop. And he seems to have really overdone it tonight. He does manage to order a grilled cheese sandwich and fries from the waitress (who does a good job of keeping a straight face before this freak show). The waitress hasn´t been gone five minutes when Brian´s color shifts from pale to translucent. "Oh, man," he groans. "I´m going to puke."
With that he ducks under the table, slithers around the shins of his acolytes, and darts to the restroom. A couple of minutes later the waitress plunks down his sandwich, just in time for Brian to emerge from the loo, crawl back to his seat, and tear into his food.
"What is this, a Roman vomitorium?," I jest. "Maybe you should have that in your contract. Wherever you play, they have to set up a trough backstage."
Manson turns his angular face toward me as he chews a seasoned fry. "I´ve been thinking about what kind of riders we should get," he says, referring to the perks concert venues provide for bands. "How about four live chickens, five black candles, a pickled fetus...." He chuckles softly.
Funny thing about this guy: The harder he tries to shock, the more tedious he becomes. Still, the kids seem to like it. They titter dutifully, each and every one of them.
The longest conversations I ever had with Mr. M. Brian Warner-Manson were during our interviews for a 1994 cover story in XS magazine. My previous and subsequent contacts with him were mostly a byproduct of his mentoring relationship with my then-girlfriend´s band, Jack Off Jill. We´d see each other at now-defunct Broward County clubs like Squeeze and The Edge, or I´d run into him while the band was rehearsing at its warehouse in Pompano Beach. And I´d give him a call when I needed a snappy quote to liven up my music column.
Opinions about him varied among the locals in those early years. The effect he´d had on the wardrobe of area teens had begun to engender the kind of parental outrage that would eventually become a nationwide phenomenon. (Especially controversial was one Marilyn Manson T-shirt that exhorted followers to "Kill Your Parents... Kill God... Kill Yourself." Loads of fun at parties!) Many of his peers in the music scene had, by the time of his band´s signing to a major label in 1994, decried their success as a victory of style over substance. And the band´s style, almost without exception, sprung from the mind of Brian, a sickly, skinny kid who got beat up a lot at a Christian elementary school in Ohio. He listened to Kiss, read Anton LaVey and Friedrich Nietzsche, watched talk shows all day, and kept striving to create a band whose entire existence was a work of commercially viable performance art.
I harbored my own rock-and-roll fantasies at one point, though my goals were more modest (signing with an indie label, touring in a van, visions of Minutemen and Meat Puppets dancing in my head). I even tried to seek Manson´s help in promoting my remarkably unpopular postpunk outfit.
My earliest interactions with Manson, I´m afraid to admit, consisted of me foisting my band´s demos, flyers, and stickers on him, trying to turn a cordial acquaintance into a "connection." Fortunately for all concerned I dropped the Earnest Underground Rocker thing in mid-1993, concentrating instead on the Cub Reporter thing.
I´m trying to remember if I called him Brian back then. You know, in the dozens of conversations we´ve had over the years, I usually didn´t call him anything. Maybe Manson a couple of times, and Brian at least once: I introduced him to a friend as Brian before a 1995 show at The Edge.
How did I greet him when I´d run into him in the cramped, black-light intimacy of Squeeze, his usual haunt? I can´t recall. Thing was, if I called him Brian, I felt as if I were trying to make myself seem cool. But every time I called him Manson I felt silly, an accomplice in this big-ass hoax he was pulling on everybody.
As it happens that hoax has become reality, so I´ll stick with Manson from here on out. Besides, now that I don´t have any kind of personal relationship with him anymore - his publicist verily scoffed at the notion of an interview for this story — I tend to think of him as Marilyn Manson anyway.
If there´s any sort of distinction I can claim in the arc of Manson´s career, it´s that I was the first writer to convince an editor that Marilyn Manson was poised to explode into the nation´s pop-culture consciousness. Back in June 1994 I argued that Manson´s mélange of alt-metal crunch, Seventies kitsch, and "dimestore Satanism" (as I called it) would strike a power chord with disaffected youth far beyond South Florida. It wasn´t such a stroke of genius. Anyone who´d seen the rapt adoration in the mascara-caked eyes of the "Lunchbox Girls" at the Denny´s could have figured it out, too.
At the time I wrote the piece, Marilyn Manson had just become the first band to sign to Nothing Records, the company started by nine inch nails mastermind Trent Reznor. The band´s debut record on Nothing didn´t sell too well, but Manson´s friendship with Reznor led to a slew of Manson/nails double bills. Manson had already bewitched thousands of sickly, gothic teens nationwide by the time the band scored its breakthrough hit with a 1995 cover of the Eurythmics´ Sweet Dreams.
Catapulted to the top of the charts by a remake, Marilyn Manson made the most of the opportunity. "Sweet Dreams was like the cheese that lured the mouse into the trap, and now we´re going to snap its neck," he told me shortly after the release of the 1996 album Antichrist Superstar.
That record´s strong performance (it debuted at number three on the Billboard charts) finally proved his thesis: If you dumb down LaVey and Nietzsche and smear them with enough ghoulish greasepaint, they´ll speak to something deep within the soul of alienated suburban white kids.
Parents recoiled, rock critics deconstructed Manson´s hellish vision as derivative dreck, and the kids just kept on buying. The cover of Rolling Stone, a succession of MTV Buzz Clips (The Beautiful People, Tourniquet, The Man That You Fear), a book deal, and massive record sales followed.
I, meanwhile, toiled in relative obscurity as an ink-stained wretch. To be honest I didn´t give much thought to Marilyn Manson (or Brian Warner, for that matter). I felt a quiet smugness in having recognized his potential early on. And we had friends in common. But that was about it.
This past October a reporter for the online music magazine SonicNet called me for a comment about Marilyn Manson´s evolution. It was the first time I´d given Manson or his band any serious thought in at least a year. I offered my cyberpeer a couple of quotes, which came off long-winded and pedantic when I read them later.
What I failed to convey in that conversation, though, is just how complex a character Manson was, even at the beginning: an intensely ambitious, manipulative, brilliant, desperate guy who seemed eager to parlay his personal demons into a cultural persona.
Manson is unquestionably a huge talent. It´s just that the vast majority of his talents has nothing to do with music. What this 30-year-old former Broward Community College student has done is conceive and execute one of the shrewdest marketing campaigns ever perpetrated in music-industry history.
It was a work in progress when we used to speak regularly; he talked freely about his lust for fame and schemes for achieving it. Was he sincere? Put it this way: He sincerely wanted to be famous, and he sincerely had a kind of fucked-up suburban life, and he sincerely used that experience, or exaggerated extrapolations of it, to appeal to legions of other fucked-up kids.
Music was the ostensible product, so he surrounded himself with competent players from the start. He wasn´t one of them; he taught himself to kinda play guitar, and he can find his way around mixing boards and drum machines, but he´s not really a musician.
But he never wanted to be a musician. He wanted to be a big rock-and-rolllllll star. There´s a difference.
The videotape is rolling. The overhead lights are dimmed in a cramped photo studio. Manson stands before a TV monitor, arms folded, and turns his narrow face with its aquiline nose, tiny mouth, and weak chin toward the cathode glow. A monster leers back at him: stringy black hair, eyes like lifeless white marbles, teeth smeared with black wax. The creature onscreen growls and seethes and fills the entire damn box. Behold the God of Fuck. Behold Marilyn Manson. Behold a skinny dude with pretty basic stage makeup.
Manson´s girlfriend Missi (now ex-) is also here. She´s tall, thin, very pale. Pretty in a bored-yet-predatory sort of way, she is downplaying her looks today: a black pullover and blue jeans, a torrent of black hair reaching below her shoulder blades. The tattoos and the Betty Page bangs would come later.
Manson is taller and thinner, maybe six feet three in his combat boots, but not quite as pale (no makeup). He´s outfitted in what, for him, serve as civvies: black jeans and boots, a long-sleeve black T-shirt bearing the band´s "The Satanic Army" logo (in the style of the Salvation Army insignia). The group´s varied catalogue of merchandise, for which Manson formed a company called Satan´s Bakesale, is perhaps his favorite means of self-expression offstage.
It´s May 1994 and my magazine´s photographer is shooting pictures of the TV screen with Manson´s image on it because the singer won´t pose for us. Like most publicity-related matters, this choice was his. He doesn´t explain why, but I have a theory: Our photographer is our photographer, who might want to pose him in a way that might not project quite the perfect image of Manson or his band. Plus our photographer ain´t exactly Annie Leibovitz.
Instead his New York publicists are sending us a selection of shots both from live performances and from the photo sessions they´d done for the cover and interior art of the first record, Portrait of an American Family, which is currently being mixed. These shots will become the lead art for the story, supplemented by shots from the videotape, and a closeup of Manson´s Kiss lunchbox, both of which he has brought today.
"Hey," Manson says, as I walk into the room.
"Hey, man, how´s it going?"
"Okay. The label had a problem with some of the album art, though."
Manson reaches into a black folder and pulls out a mockup of the proposed CD insert. He unfolds it, revealing lyric text, line drawings, credits, thank-yous, and an arrangement of tiny Polaroid photos. "They didn´t like the Polaroids too much."
Squinting, I note what appear to be shots of a naked woman splashed with blood. "They draw the line at snuff photos, huh?"
"They wouldn´t let me use this, either," Manson says in disgust. He shows me another panel featuring a photo of a little boy, maybe five years old, naked but unharmed, sitting on a brown couch and staring guilelessly into the camera. "This photo counts as child pornography in, like, Oklahoma or something. So it´s out."
"Who´s the kid?"
Manson´s tiny mouth corkscrews into a smirk. "Me."
Another day, another Denny´s. It´s May 1994 and Manson and I are sitting at a table sipping Cokes in the mostly empty family restaurant on Federal Highway just north of Sunrise Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale. This time we´re alone, and we´re working. As I scribble in my notebook, he outlines Marilyn Manson´s plan for world domination. It has a lot to do with people hating him.
"What good would Marilyn Manson be if no one hated Marilyn Manson?," he queries, already evincing a tendency to talk about himself in the third person. He´s wearing a close-fitting red shirt with long black sleeves, covering, as he usually does in public, the intertwining tattoos of black flames, grinning devils, skulls, eyeballs, pentagrams, and triple-six dice running up and down each arm. We´re at ease, chatting away.
In this conversation especially, I begin to notice that, despite his contention that the line between Brian Warner and Marilyn Manson doesn´t really exist, he is able to view the band and himself with some critical distance.
His onstage persona, I tell him, sometimes reminds me of a carnival barker, beckoning to slightly squeamish onlookers. His eyebrows arch slightly and he tucks a stray black lock behind his ear. "Yeah," Manson says as he mulls this notion. "Yeah, I´m inviting people in to see the freak show: Come on in and see the freaks! And then I pull back the curtain and it´s a mirror." He´s wearing a little half-smile now, pleased with the image.
In the coming months Manson will recycle some version of this "freak show" line in interviews with Alternative Press and Spin. Doing press, after all, is crucial to the plan, and Manson gets better and better with practice. Almost without exception, it is Manson alone giving the interviews. It´s always been his vision, and he trusts no one else, not even his bandmates, to give voice to the vision.
Here´s what´s always struck me about the coverage of Marilyn Manson: Nearly every writer who pens any sort of tidbit about the guy feels compelled to inform the reader that he has met the Antichrist, and the Antichrist´s real name is Brian Warner. Funny, huh? Dylan is Dylan, Bowie is Bowie, Sting is Sting, Madonna is Madonna. But Manson is Warner.
Why must journalists always use this particular rock star´s given name? I suppose it´s because Sting doesn´t give the impression that, when he goes home at night, he stops being Sting. Nor, we sense, does Iggy Pop bar the doors of his hacienda and sigh, "Whew, now I can get back to being James Osterberg." The Manson thing is so much more than a stage name; it´s such an obvious, self-conscious (and annoying) construct it´s difficult to accept that a person could be like this all the time.
When I wrote that 1994 cover story, I made it through the whole bloody thing without once mentioning Manson´s real name. Or his then-bandmates Scott, Steven, or Freddie.
For this I took a ration of shit from an editor. "This story is about this image, this band, this concept this guy is selling," I successfully countered. "His real name doesn´t matter."
I don´t want to be disingenuous here, though. The truth is that Manson asked me not to use his real name. I mentioned that he lived with his folks, but as he requested, did not disclose that they lived in a comfortable townhouse in west Boca Raton. I told myself that I had made these sacrifices to preserve access.
Would Manson have given me access if I´d stuck to my guns? Probably. But I just didn´t have the heart, or the gumption, or whatever, to push it. When we dealt with each other as rock journalist and aspiring rock star, we did this sort of delicate dance. We were kind of friends and we respected each other, but Manson was always a bit wary because he knew he couldn´t completely control me. He could try to influence me, but in the end I was going to write whatever I wanted. And at that point, before the band had even released its first album, every bit of press was vital.
The budding love-hate relationship with the press that started with us, by the way, is now in full bloom on a much larger scale. Craig Marks, editor of Spin, alleges that Manson had his goons rough him up at a November concert. He also asserts that the reason two Manson bodyguards pushed him up against a wall and grabbed his throat while Manson yelled, "I can kill you!" was that Manson was upset his band would not be the exclusive subject of the magazine´s January 1999 cover.
A subsequent response to these allegations on the official Marilyn Manson Website didn´t mention a physical altercation, noting only Manson´s disappointment with the magazine´s "immature business behavior," and his intention never to work with Spin again.