Marilyn Manson: Alternative Cult Star

Interview by Neil Kulkarni
Melody Maker, Sep 20 1997

I never became an adult, I'm Peter Pan.

In an ersatz Berlin hotel lobby, I ask the seven-foot insect god before me what he's here for.

To undermine truth. To celebrate paradox.

Answer the question.

You tell me. It's the questions that matter, not the answers. It's the experiences you gain, the people you piss off, the people you entertain, the arguments you start. The energy of the contradictions, the debate, not any conclusions you might draw.

If you don't tell me the truth in five seconds I will never believe in rock'n'roll again.

Good. The truth is only relative to how many people believe it. If I want to discover the truth, I have to become more and more famous. I have to be the biggest star. Because the more people believe in what I have to say, the truer it is.

NK: That's why you're the last rock'n'roll star we have.
MM: "Yeah."

NK: That's why I reject you.
MM: "Are you sure?"

NK: Of course not.
MM: "Question answered."

Capitalism has made it this way
Old fashioned fascism will take it away
The Beautiful People

Marilyn Manson are mid-way through a Europe-wide tour by the time we hook up with them. Whereas in the US, Manson is a household name, an entertainment figure on the cover of in-store emags (thanks, in no small part to the idiotic condemnations of the religious right and the concurrent boost in fanbase) on the continent they're still playing to 2000 every night, still reaching virgin brains and suspicious minds. It's something Manson confesses to finding deflating and a little strange, a frustrating hurdle on the way to the world domination he predicts by the start of the new millennium.

Here in Germany, it's Rudolph Hess' birthday. On the Munich TV screen, shots of his grave, as ever permanently bedecked with flowers from all over the country, are intercut with shots of Jewish cemeteries daubed with Nazi graffiti. If the timing of our visit is unfortunate, then tonight's Marilyn Manson appearance has us even more worried. Not only are we in Bavaria, the hotbed of German right-wing extremism, but we're going to see a band, who for their show-stooper, wheel out a podium, a pseudo-fascist symbol and militaristic uniforms. Satire goes over boneheads, we could get fucking stomped here...

As it happens, food poisoning saves us. Manson is ill as hell, and the Munich gig is called off. We fly up to Berlin for the night, and the next day Manson is shaking my hand and swigging mineral water and putting none of my worries to rest...

MM: "It's a complicated part of the performance," he offers. "I'm satirising the fascism of politics, of religion, and most importantly the fascism of rock'n'roll. Whether people are realising that, or simply buzzing off the spectacle, isn't my concern. I'm thoroughly entertained by it as a massive piece of performance art. Because it has so many dimensions, because we're the polar opposite of Nazism, would be the first to be destroyed by it, and we're using that imagery against itself."

NK: You don't think you're normalising the unthinkable, normalising the inhuman?
MM: "Words and symbolism are only as powerful as you make them. Just looking at fascist imagery doesn't make it hateful."

NK: I disagree; I'd say fascist imagery is beyond artistic conceit. It's violent, and violating in the same way words like "nigger" and "faggot" are, it signals the end of interpretation.
MM: "But fascist imagery, whether blatant or subversive, exists in everything. Rock'n'roll, sport, politics, they all carry an element of it. Totalitarianism fascinates me because I see it everywhere. Everywhere you are told from birth to death that if you don't participate in various capitalist rituals, i.e. consumption/good behaviour/religious worship, you won't be accepted, loved or beautiful. That underlying suppression affects you and it's completely ignored."

NK: And your alternative?
MM: "Look, why do people want to be beautiful? To be loved, accepted, conquer their fear of exclusion. I finally realised after years of not being accepted - why not create your own standard and let other people be accepted or rejected by you? We've reversed the whole idea of the fascism of beauty and replaced it with our own standard. We destroyed it to create a new way."

NK: So all there is is role reversal rather than revolution, a temporary changing of the guard rather than torching the palace?
MM: "No, all there is is making people think for themselves. That's it. No answers. You make your choice. Fascism is precisely what I'm out to destroy but if people see our show and see fascism, it's in them already, it's a self discovery. And that's what we're here for, to make people think, enable self-discovery. I ain't here to condemn or condone. I'm here to go against the grain. I've transformed my world so that I am my own work of fiction, with no boundaries to what I can do, no limits. I'm saying anyone can do that. Anyone."

NK: Can we talk Nietzsche?
MM: "Sure."

NK: The dilemma in Nietzsche is that he says perspective is "the basic condition of life". That's a contradiction, of course, as it denies the objectivity that even saying that requires. The radical interpretation of the dilemma ids that he never really "defends" positions. He's engaged in a hyperbolic parody of philosophy for the purposes of totally undermining philosophy.
MM: "Absolutely."

NK: Similarly, Marilyn Manson aren't concerned with the truth. You're here to present a whole mess of alternative perspectives, on morality, sexuality, stardom and society, that are so contradictory to the "official" , you bring all those concepts crashing down around you.
MM: "That's the most insightful thing anyone has ever spent the time figuring out about us."

NK: And I think it's a bullshit way to go.
MM: "Explain."

NK: OK, I will. In order. Because if you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything. Your fans aren't living lives of constant critical awareness - they're hopelessly devoted to you, and like all disciples they've stopped thinking, they're simply marching to your step rather than the TV's...
MM: "Maybe, but wouldn't you rather they did that than submit to church, god and state? Just become ciphers, corporate shells of a right-wing morality? I think what we offer is the most life-affirming thing imaginable. Life is only worth living when you find something that gives you the energy and enjoyment of creative expression. Not too many people have it. Slavery was replaced by the work ethic. Now, if you don't have a job you're not allowed an opinion, you're considered sub-human. People are so trapped into the program, coupled with Christianity's idea of the afterlife, that they're more concerned with dying, preparing for the hereafter, than they are with life. They're finding excuses for not living while they're on earth. We show that living is all you're here for. Here, now."

NK: True, but instead of offering enough of a concrete moral framework to live that life by, you're just engaged in a childish inversion of the status quo. You may think that your star/serial killer name-conflations (Madonna Wayne Gacy, Twiggy Ramirez, Ginger Fish and, of course, Marilyn Manson) are cool, but Christ, John Wayne Gacy killed 37 innocent children and Charles Manson was a racist, misogynist cretin. Just 'cos kids get off on that, doesn't mean you should encourage it...
MM: "You're missing the point, and you're assuming I'm not aware of the multiple levels and contradictions of what we do. Don't you think there's a point to be made about rock'n'roll here? That it thrives on misogyny, that the spectacle of a show relies heavily on fascist undercurrents, that killers are rock'n'roll's heroes? We're jacking up the ante on rock'n'roll's nihilist impulses, we're taking it as far as we can. And for those that want to, they can see it as almost a polemic against rock'n'roll; even though it's the only form that has allowed me to take control of my life, even though it's still the most immediate, communicative art-form in the world."

NK: But there's nowhere for it to go in your hands other than further transgressions of convention.More filth, more obscenity...
MM: "Well, that's a really simplistic view of what we're about, and so long as I stay alive, there's always somewhere for it to go. 'Antichrist Superstar' (the last MM LP) was like falling from heaven. The next LP is about what happens when you hit the earth, where you go from there, how much more there is to be discovered. The underlying theme of all our music is ending judgement, speaking your mind, not caring about what the next guy thinks. It's about going beyond race, sex, sexuality. I want as many people, especially the kind of people who probably won't hear us, to experience our music. Quote-unquote 'normal' people can be treated like pariahs at our gigs and that sickens me. That's just creating an opposite version of what we're trying to destroy. We're not about monoliths and edifices, we're about exploring the ruins."

NK: How would you place yourself politically?
MM: "Some have said a 'right-wing liberal'. I just think I'm open-minded to all perspectives. I've got principles but I'm still able to listen and argue."

NK: Are you running scared of a galvanising political ideology? They don't have to mean entrapment. Socialism and anarchism sound right up your alley.
MM: "I spent such a long time in my life looking for an 'ism', or religion, to throw my weight behind. And by doing that I've become my own 'ism' for other people to believe in. That's what 'Antichrist Superstar' is about; everyone has a crown but someone has to be king. I'm trying to be the kind of leader who's the same as his followers, doesn't think he's better than everyone else. We're a club of non-joiners."

Gee, almost sounds cosy, don't it? It'd be tempting to leave it there, see MM as another band for losers, another rag-tag of vague rebellion for the mosh kids to huddle around, albeit smeared with lipstick and fetish threads. But later that night at the Berlin gig, it's evident something more is going on, something at once laughable, scarifying, inspiring and depressing. Cod-Nietzschean bullshit aside, Manson obviously takes his role seriously, really does see rock'n'roll as the confusion creating, existential crossroads he talks about in interview. You can tell by the way he's refusing medical attention from the two German paramedics looking over his blood-drenched body.

"Sign here," says the guy with the clipboard, clutching responsibility-releasing forms. Putting a hideously inadequate plaster over the hole in his side, Manson signs with a flourish, adding "to my Number One fan," smiling. Funny guy. He's lost a pint and a half at this point.

It's the hottest venue we've ever been to. Ever. Think of hell with the air conditioning backed up. Rammed to the rafters, Berlin's Huxley's club is the only place in town tonight that has signs of life, and pretty strange life it is too. A weird mix of indie kids, Scorpions fans and statuesque fetishists, we're copping the talent when MM's stage manager Tony takes us backstage and gives us each five backstage passes.

"Find girls," he grunts. "Give 'em passes. They've got to be attractive, with big tits. If they've got boyfriends, explain to them that he's got to fuck off." A writhing "satire" of rock'n'roll sexism, I suppose? We hand the passes out randomly, then make it to the sound desk for the gig.

Back-lit, gliding forward with an evil grin on his face, Manson is one of the most absorbed and absorbing performers I've ever seen. His lexicon of stage-flash is small (a droopy armed Pinocchio, a stilt-walking insect, a butt spreading Mapplethorpe fantasy) but immaculately realised, now wrapping his legs round the stand in lewd union, now smashing his chest to bloody bits with the mic, now swooping to his knees and taking it from both ends. The heat is getting nigh-on intolerable, on stage Manson collapses entirely, his sickness still nagging, his head on fire, mic-stand thrashed petulantly into the drum kit.

Then things get out of hand. Springing to his feet, grabbing a red wine bottle, Manson offers it to the crowd with an obscene leer, then smashes it on a monitor leaving a jagged splintered edge, the neck in his fist. As the band drive "Tourniquet" to ear-splitting depths, spinning the sound into a demented dervish, Manson finds an already-open and seeping downward gash on his chest , positions the bottle's glass fangs to it's right, and with an agonisingly slow digging motion gouges a seven-inch trough in his ribs that immediately begins to belch out blood at an alarming rate.

Falling to the ground, coming up for air looking like Carrie White Prom Queen, he starts to weave around the stage, a shower of O positive spilling out over the front row. Suddenly he drops from sight, the band playing on even harder, unsure of what's going on. Roadies storm the stage and desperately try to revive him to no avail. The crowd crane their necks to figure out if he's dead or not, as the lights cut out entirely. Ten seconds of pitch black confusion follow, in which soundman Shaun uses every expletive I've ever heard, and then the lights are thrown back on. The stage is trashed. The drums are kicked to shreds, keyboards are droning on the floor, guitars are stuck in holes in the speakers. The band have left the stage. Christ knows what happened in those 10 seconds but the gig is definitely over. And it's the most thrilling thing we've seen all year. The crowd go fucking berserk. Rock and fuckin' roll.

The gig, everyone agrees, is a triumph. Marilyn Manson, may be the biggest rock band in America, but Europe has, until now, remained unconvinced. Gigs like tonight will win it over, the new single"Tourniquet" (on "TOTP" soon!) should mop up any last stragglers. But in tonight's sweaty cramp you don't think of worldwide domination, your memory is a lot more focused and specific. No one here will forget that face, the face to the crowd before he slashed himself. Eyebrows raised, sneer wide and pouting, eyes wide and inviting. This is what you want, it said. You demand this of me, it insisted. It was a moment of confusion, of abandonment, of absolute freedom, a moment where rock'n'roll found itself looking dead into the eyes of its demanding followers, a moment that happened and thrilled you before you had a chance to make it sense of it, a split-frame of confrontation that forced you to admit the potency of rock music, and the horrors it relies on.

Backstage, a whole new freak-show is kicking off as the pimped fans crowd around in cooing veneration. We don't get to talk to the band that night, Manson preferring the unchallenging company of fawning fandom to any "challenging perspectives" he might have conned an interest in during the interview. That irks, but finally suggests the unpalatable truth. Marilyn Manson are a great rock'n'roll band, perhaps the only rock'n'roll band around to really achieve the levels of untrammelled degeneracy and extremity that the form demands.

And that's ultimately why I feel you have to reject them. Because, finally, it's it's dissatisfying, because the cartoon confines of rock music are unable to contain Manson's undoubted intelligence, an intelligence that crumbles under the brute simplicity of rock's moral universe, an intelligence that eventually has to lose itself in the dumb macho business of being in a band, man. Rock'n'roll's self-indulgent vanity reach their most thrilling zenith with Marilyn Manson. In many ways they could be seen as the last rock'n'roll band we need. The man is clearly the last star we have.

MM: "I've learned to make being a star part of my art, rather than as a result of it. And I've made being a star the most inflammatory, thought-provoking thing it can be," Manson tells me as we ride back to the hotel. "By going through so much chaos I'm getting more in control of my emotions and my life, enjoying everyday 'cos it might be my last."

NK: And where does injuring yourself fit in with that?
MM: "There's a certain pain I don't feel, a moment in art where you eventually have to let go of caring about yourself. It's taken me six years in this band to even find out who I am. Now that I have, the journey's only just beginning."

NK: You're still not answering questions, are you?
MM: "No. We raise them. That's the journey."

NK: I'm not coming along for the ride.
MM: "You sure?"

NK: Of course not.
MM: "Question answered."