In the second stab of a mini Marilyn fest – check out last month's’s foray into the bowels of a MM concert here – we go further back still, to 2003 and a moment of existential conundrum for man his mother knows as Brian but we know as, well, that weird bloke who looks like a Brian with a bad wig and some bondage gear.
(On a historical side note, when this story was published in the Sydney Morning Herald Marilyn/Brian, who had read it online before it hit the streets here, cancelled all his scheduled Australian media that day in a huff. Which seemed a bit precious. But who are we to judge?)
I AM THE GOD OF F …………….
So, you’ve declared yourself the God Of Fuck. Where to from there?
I mean, it’s not true what that ‘80s fluff said, that the only way is up. Short of calling yourself Vin Diesel you can’t get much higher than God Of Fuck surely.
Super Duper Deity Of Fuck? Really Powerful White Haired Bloke With Extra Special Powers Of Fuck?
It’s not working is it? Doesn’t have that ring to it. Face it, once you’ve given yourself that name the only way is down baby. Right?
But that’s where Mr Brian Warner, once of Florida, now of Los Angeles, finds himself. You may know him better as Marilyn Manson. Or as he prefers to be known these days, Manson. (First names are so passé don’t you know.)
Here’s the dilemma. After a decade in the schlock rock field Manson’s offended as many people as possible, become a recognisable figure even for those who last bought a record when Henry Mancini was cool, and has sold a lot of albums. More than anyone could have predicted for someone making albums that had the same metal-meets-synth rock-meets-goth horror elements as Nine Inch Nails but with less going for them.
As Manson said in an early song Little Horn: “the world spreads its legs for another star/the world shows its face for another scar.”
To be fair he did work his way up to this given he was merely a bad boy on 1989’s Meat Beat Cleaver Beat. And while 1995’s Smells Like Children had him as some Robert Helpmannesque Childcatcher, it wasn’t until 1996 that announced himself as the AntiChrist Superstar.
Now AntiChrist Superstar was a good moniker, able to offend the Christians, the pop writers and Andrew Lloyd-Webber in one go. And offended they were. Righteously so. Publicly so.
Not surprisingly sales of the Antichrist Superstar album went through the roof. Cause and effect? Marketing101 kiddies.
Even being lumbered with an absurd accusation of having incited the Columbine High School killers, merely because the wackos were Manson fans, didn’t put a dent in the sales machine. (And really, disturbed boys in high schools with access to guns is not exactly a small segment of American society is it? Some of them even like Britney Spears.)
But again the question, where to from here? And don’t tell me that while creating and now touring this year’s album The Golden Age Of Grotesque, that the issue hadn’t come up. It’s second year marketing after all.
“I’ll answer that in a different way,” Manson says after a little chuckle. “I was faced with the same artistic question when I sat down to make The Golden Age of Grotesque. At the beginning of the album I say ‘everything’s been said before, where do I go from here’. And it was a matter like the Dada artists found themselves: rather than looking at my art, my life and saying I’ve done this for 10 years, I’ve said and done everything what do I have left, I looked at it like I’m only 10 years old, I’ve just started, I haven’t hit puberty yet and Marilyn Manson is just a child. So the song itself answered that question and the album went from there.
“And that reflects my personal life because there’s no separation for me. And I enjoy that. The Golden Age Of Grotesque was really a declaration of me saying I’ve survived the world trying to beat me down, in more than one way, particularly with Columbine and all those things. And this is an area of expression for me and I’m going to make a soundtrack to it and that’s going to be this album. But that’s not even enough room to contain my imagination so I’m going to make these images, paint these paintings, make movies, make videos, I’m going to do performances and it’s all going to be what my life is about from now.”
Dada? You dress in bondage gear, wear pancake make-up and say poo bum and tit loudly to shock the grownups and that’s Dada? We’ll come back to the artistic heritage a bit later, but for now, let’s ponder the question why would anyone want to beat Brian down. Sure the songs may not be particularly attractive but they’re only songs. It’s not like he’s ripping limbs from nuns.
“Well I think, to quote myself, I’ve got a face that’s made for violence and porn,” he laughs. “I think it’s a matter of asserting myself as a villain by choice because I think the theatre is meant to hold up society’s taboos and smash them and molest and make people look at them in different ways. There are always going to be people uncomfortable with that because they’re uncomfortable with themselves. And I’ve found a strange sense of subtlety in making this record. So it is a surprise in some ways that people find what I do shocking. Only because the world to me is so much more shocking than anything I could create.
“It’s strange to me that something from the imagination that is grotesque, is more offensive to people than something in reality. No one’s censoring war, they’re censoring artists. And that’s where I found all the parallels between the artists of the Weimar Republic and what I’m doing. And I wanted that spirit to be a part of where I’m coming from.”
It is a little cheeky, if not disingenuous, to be surprised at the reaction when that reaction was exactly what was sought isn’t it? Wouldn’t he have been a failure if he had not earned the ire of priests, parents and politicians?
“It’s hard to go back and think about it that way because goals develop as you develop so if people had reacted in different ways to what I’d been doing I might have had different goals,” Manson says.
“I’ve always wanted to provoke people so maybe I could say I feel like I’ve succeeded in that I provoked certain groups of people so much that they’ve gone to extremes but I don’t know if I would have felt like I’d failed if I hadn’t seen them go to such extremes because I know I have made people think and that’s the least art should do.”
Again with the art. Manson is a painter, an artist whose work has been exhibited and purchased, most recently by Red Hot Chili Peppers’ bassist Flea, who paid more than $50,000. But he sees himself as more than a singer or painter. You could call him a whole body artist.
“It doesn’t mean I’m always creating something but it means Marilyn Manson isn’t about what I make or how I look it’s about my imagination and that’s something that doesn’t turn off,” he says. “I’m confronted by entertainment that has no artistic value and I’m confronted by art that has no entertainment value so I was very much challenged to show people that the two could exist and in a very exciting way.”
Right. Sure. Anyway, one defining characteristic of the Weimar artists, underlying the passions and extremities of art in that period was the sense of unreality that comes from having survived a war and thinking either it would all end soon or they could survive anything. Are we in a similar period now?
“Well that feeling was definitely there when I was writing the record and that parallel could be drawn,” Manson says. “My personal life and the way I collaborate with others, and I suppose the survival of the attacks on me by my own country, by politics and religion, both professionally and personally, and the possibility of even death made me look at things in a different way.
“It was a matter of shifting from nihilism to more of a reckless abandon that you described, let’s live like there’s no tomorrow. Which is very different from nihilism. Nihilism is begging for no tomorrow, this is expressing the possibility and enjoying it. It’s taking your anger and focusing it on decadence. That’s what I saw and what I felt and read about the people from that time and you know a lot of the actors and directors in Hollywood during the McCarthy period, the Marquis de Sade, Oscar Wilde, people who were persecuted for their imagination, nothing else.”
Oscar Wilde? Yes, chortling is allowed at this point.
One thing that all those artists he mentioned had in common was the use of humour as a weapon, from mocking to farce. Is it possible to separate humour from shock and from artistic expression in Marilyn Manson?? Could it work if you took one of those elements out?
“Well a lot of things that people thought shocking about what I do to me has always been humorous,” Manson says softly. “I’ve learnt to look at things differently; I want people to understand it differently. But making this record was a challenge to me, definitely after the reaction to what I said in [Michael Moore’s documentary] Bowling For Colombine. I needed to assert more of my personality that I’d hidden in previous albums. This album has more of my sarcasm, it has a smile on its face even if it’s bitter.
“But that doesn’t mean it’s any less reckless or angry, it doesn’t mean I’m toning down or calming down or settling down. People always want to assume that you can’t have one without the other but they forget I’m all about extremes. You can’t have extreme anger without extreme sense of humour. You can’t have extreme hate without extreme love. You only hate something because it’s threatening something else.”
Does the bulk of the Marilyn Manson audience – white boys with a pronounced lack of social skills if the media clichés are believed - see the subtlety in this or do they see and feel the heat and noise and the upraised middle finger and the unison shout of fuck you?
“I think a lot of times the mainstream media generalise about my fans, that they follow these lines,” he argues. “It’s an easy assumption to make but I don’t think it’s true.”
But you can’t assume, whatever kind of artist you are, that the subtleties of your art are understood when the obvious parts are eye catching.
“Some people might not hear the obvious thing I expected them to hear. If something could only be understood one way it would have no other dimension to it.”
It does seem bizarre that people assume that an artist must take responsibility not just for what they put out but how it’s interpreted.
“I stand by everything that I create. I don’t ever defend my art because my art is a defence of me personally. And I think that art is meant to be a question mark; never an answer. People find the answers for themselves and if people find an answer that the world thinks is wrong then that’s their responsibility, not the artist’s. And if it ever becomes the artist’s responsibility then art is dead.”
And not even the God Of Fuck can solve that presumably.