International Press
September 29, 2007
The Australian
Antonella Gambotto-Burke
Whom do you hate?
MARILYN Manson's unheated Californian pile features mounted baboon heads; a lithograph, Epiphany 1 (Adoration of the Magi) by Austrian artist Gottfried Helnwein, depicting the baptism of a Nazi Christ (Helnwein also shot the cover of Manson's fifth album, The Golden Age of Grotesque); and a Joachim Luetke sculpture Homunculus (a baby with chicken feet for hands and the lower body of a caterpillar). On a table, the anonymous aborted fetus in formaldehyde given to him as "a beautiful morbid gift" by his ex-wife, burlesque diva Dita von Teese.
The Golden Age
Misinterpreted by observers as a wry take on his spiritual corruption, the decor is, in fact, a canvas of self-loathing: Manson's self-perception is that of a malevolent baboon, a beast present, if only nominally, in his house and work.
These psychological ruptures have been lucrative. The 38-year-old self-anointed "God of F..k" is, in fact, a disciplined and driven entrepreneur. Two of his albums hit No1 on the US charts, four achieved platinum status, another four made gold. His first album in four years, Eat Me, Drink Me, debuted in the top 10 and his autobiography, The Long Hard Road Out of Hell, was a New York Times bestseller. Prototype 35 of his absinthe, the wonderfully named Mansinthe, has sold out despite being priced at close to $1000 a bottle. His first three concerts on this side of the world next month have also sold out. Phantasmagoria: The Visions of Lewis Carroll, the upcoming film Manson wrote and scored and will direct and star in, will feature his girlfriend of 10 months, actor Evan Rachel Wood, as well as model Lily Cole and Tilda Swinton.
Now deep into his Rape of the World Tour (his Australian promoter, Michael Coppel, wisely did not use the title on promotional material), Manson is put through to me from Lincoln, Nebraska. He is, in many respects, a surprise. The lugubrious monotone he affects becomes almost girlish in curiosity; he giggles easily, is prompt to reply, charming and whimsical in his pretensions. Later I discover that this is not an unusual experience for a female interviewer; Manson's public relations skills are superb. He saves his belligerence, serial-killer analogies and Schadenfreude for men.
"Christians," he once said, "are some of the greatest Satanists because they've managed to pull off such an amazing scam that it's almost respectable." Almost everything he has done and said has been designed to arouse the ire of the Christian Right. This is, of course, merely transference of the ire he felt for his Episcopalian mother; religion was just the fall guy.
"I agree with you," he says slowly.
The lack of detail about his mother in his otherwise outrageously revealing autobiography is striking. He writes that he attempted to choke her, spat at her and hit her. Suspecting her of infidelity to his emotionally dislocated Vietnam vet father, he hurled a heavy perfume bottle at her face and permanently scarred her. "She still has a scar, which has served as her constant reminder never to have another child," he writes.
Manson's violence towards his mother -- a violence prodigious in its emotional intensity and exploited for commercial gain -- seems to gnaw at him. Born Brian Warner, Manson chose the promiscuous, submissive, sweetly pill-dazzled Marilyn Monroe and violent psychopath Charles Manson as the primary parental influences of his public persona, an interesting Freudian reflection of Hugh and Barb Warner of Canton, Ohio.
In his early days as Marilyn Manson, he designed flyers with "Beat Up Your Mom Music" scrawled at the bottom; the EP, Smells Like Children, includes a recording of his mother discussing pills with her mother as the song May Cause Discoloration of the Urine or Feces (also released as part of the soundscape of Revelation #9); and in his book, the little he says about her is mostly disparaging. "She just cried," he writes of her response to his cruelty, "and I never felt sorry for her."
He pauses when I ask him about it. "It's hard for me now to really talk about my mother."
So he doesn't want to discuss the issue?
"My mum was a little off of her head at times. I don't remember what she did so much; more that she was very neurotic. I feel like she projected her hypochondria on me. I was always sick as a kid but don't know how much of it was her wanting me to be sick to not ever let go of me in a Munchausen (syndrome) sort of way. She would often call me by my father's name and then sometimes call me by her father's name." While his mother slowly slipped into psychosis in 2006, Manson's marriage to von Teese also slipped away. The two enjoyed a five-year relationship before marrying in 2005, years during which von Teese tied up girls as he watched, was asked by him to expose her breasts to strangers and brought home porn actor friends. He remains convinced that marriage ruined everything. Manson wanted to stay up all night snorting cocaine, sipping absinthe, watching television and dabbling with watercolours; von Teese wanted him to grow up.
She claims he reacted by beginning an affair with Wood, whom he had met at a party at Hollywood's Chateau Marmont; he claims Wood was merely the angel who restored his will to live after he and von Teese separated. The chronology is not academic; lawyers were involved and Manson requested that all claims for spousal support be blocked. He launched into publicity for Eat Me, Drink Me (named for the labels on the transformative properties in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland), armed with a litany of complaints. "I was no longer supposed to be a rock star," he told Spin music magazine. "I came out of this naked, a featherless bird. I was completely destroyed psychologically. I had no soul left."
Manson has mellowed about von Teese or realised the potential for costly damage to his image. He contradicts previous comments about being "yelled at for things that I can't change, and don't want to change" and melodramatic accusations of soul-sucking that von Teese has since clarified as cocaine-fuelled. Manson's substance abuse is widely documented and also cited by von Teese as one of the reasons she left. "I don't want him to die," she said recently. One would think his history with cocaine would be a sufficient deterrent. He overdosed in 1996. In 2002, a wrongful death suit was filed against him by Maria St John for allegedly supplying her 28-year-old daughter Jennifer Syme, Keanu Reeves's partner and the mother of his stillborn daughter, with cocaine, then encouraging her to drive while incapacitated. Syme died after ploughing into three parked cars.
Says Manson: "I've tried to make it so there's nothing anybody can hold me to or any way that anyone can humiliate me. I do it on my own terms. I've tried to make myself the villain from the beginning, so there's nowhere to go but up."
The Teutonic imprint on Manson's work and aesthetic, though, has less defensible overtones. The Helnwein obergruppenfuhrer party; that fascist fetish for impeccable aesthetics; the disgust for tenderness; that dichotomy between professional courtesy and brutality towards perceived inferiors (his mother, say); his desperation to be the Nietzschean Ubermensch (superman) that would impress his angry, absent, militaristic and probably racist father. Then there was the handbag he bought von Teese (Eva Braun's), and his collection of SS typewriters, swastika wall tiles and matching custom-made rugs for his home library, not to mention the Nazi government coat hangers once owned by Hitler.
"The Nazi attraction was simply something that ... " He cautiously pauses, then says: "I did a lot of research when making The Golden Age of Grotesque because I felt that America was mirroring that time in Berlin of great artistic output and also of great censorship. My fascination has never been with so much the government side of Nazi Germany but with the birth of expressionism. I made a logo for The Golden Age of Grotesque that was very evocative of Nazi imagery and people said: 'You can't release that in Germany!' And I said: 'Well, that's exactly what the Nazis would have done!' I'm not trying to celebrate anything; I'm trying to make an artistic statement."
The artistic statement argument smells like hypocrisy. On one hand, Manson exploits the grief and humiliation of millions in his profitable pursuit of notoriety; on the other, he curls up like a snail when his own grief and humiliation is explored. Then there is his lifelong abhorrence of censorship to consider: at one point, he even suggested that there was a need for censorship "because there need to be boundaries in order to cross the boundaries". Far from being a pernicious challenge to artistic freedom, I point out, censorship of, say, pornography is often about human rights violations. Thirteen million lives across the world are destroyed through sexual slavery to produce what is, in essence, stress relief.
Manson pauses at the mention of pornography. "I wasn't so much into a lot of the decadence element of the Weimar Republic," he flubs, "as much as just the concept of people for the first time crossing the line as to how art was made. Up until a certain period, people would only paint what they saw, not what they could imagine."
His explanation is claptrap. El Greco existed centuries before expressionism; he was, in fact, one of its precursors. And as for imaginative art, Hieronymus Bosch is only one of the many who pre-dated the expressionists. But Nietzsche presented expressionism as the bulwark of Dionysian impulse against "rigid and menacing" Apollonian structures in The Birth of Tragedy, so Manson adopted it.
Manson's philosophy is pocked by similar inconsistencies. Recognising his teenage audience's frustration with imposed limitations, he presents himself as their flawed liberator, hawking philosophical freedom and trading in the iconography of the forbidden: drugs, porn, Satanism. His 2002 tour was called Guns, God and Government, presenting history's supposedly greatest forces of oppression as an unholy trinity. Yet much of our world is oppressed by criminals subsidised by drugs and porn, I remark, both promoted by him as liberating forces.
"I find it strange that you think that I'm such a supporter of, or so fascinated by, pornography because I don't even watch it for the most part," he chides.
"I mean, I've commented on things, and there are a lot of sexual elements in everything I do, but as far as pornography goes, I don't really find a great purpose for it. I was exposed to it early on and maybe that turned my stomach for it. Make it known that that's not my thing."
Ignoring his insincerity, I point out that drugs are equally pernicious. Every time you and those like you use cocaine, I say, people in the Second and Third worlds are further oppressed through torture, murder and the denial of civil liberties. How can you reconcile yourself with that when you claim to embody liberty? Or do you only believe in liberty for people like yourself?
For the first time, Manson audibly cools. "I don't think something like that ever crosses my mind," he murmurs. "I've tried to really make my life a little bit simpler."
Simple for you, perhaps, I say, but not so simple for them.
"My vice is absinthe. I don't know so much about its repercussions."
The repercussions of First World drug use are pretty serious, I say.
"I know that!" he cries, annoyed. Then, avoiding the topics of hypocrisy and European imperialism altogether: "I don't find absinthe to be so much of an alcohol as much as this thing that fits in between all of the different places. I don't really like drunkenness; I don't find it to be very beneficial creatively. But absinthe, I think, suits me."
Marilyn Manson plays Festival Hall, Melbourne, October 5 (sold out); Hordern Pavilion, Sydney, October 6 (sold out); the Entertainment Centre, Brisbane, October 8; Thebarton Theatre, Adelaide, October 11 (sold out); Challenge Stadium, Perth, October 13.
The Golden Age, Weeping Officer (Marilyn Manson)
photograph, 2003, 200 x 130 cm / 78 x 51''

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