"I'm very much opposed to Christian fascism and people listening to everything Christianity has to say," expounds vocalist, lyricist, and bandleader Marilyn Manson. "But what if everybody listened to everything I have to say? On a couple of different levels, I think it obviously would be better, but at the same time, what I tell people is to be yourself and not be me."
Such is the burden of a would-be rock-and-roll icon.
The music of onetime Fort Lauderdale resident Marilyn Manson and his band of the same name is a potent and transgressive cocktail full of childhood nightmares, rock-and-roll idolatry, TV talk-show trash, and circuslike atmospherics that aims to shoot down conventions by eliciting scary feelings and shocking thoughts. Their songs, first showcased nationally on 1994's Portrait of an American Family (released on Nothing, the label run by nine inch nails guru Trent Reznor), are built on a musical platform of catchy hard-rock hooks, heavy-metal guitar churn, spooky synth lines, and magnetic rhythms interwoven with sound effects and samples. The band's image is an amalgam of everything considered vile and wicked by America's Christian right: from the bandmembers' monikers, which combine famous-femme first names with the surnames of noted serial killers, to their increasingly complex forays into androgyny and Manson's association with the Church of Satan.
Now, almost two years after the release of Portrait, comes Smells Like Children, a fifteen-track collection that contains some well-chosen cover versions of others' songs, plus new renditions of songs from Portrait, all of it held together by a soundscape of surrealistic snippets. Smells Like Children should serve to further the band's notorious reputation, with its themes of fantasy and reality and the use and abuse of drugs, people, food, the media, and just about everything else. While Manson and his band may strike some as a sick joke, they remain a musical force to be reckoned with A a force that goes beyond the group's penchant for toting kitschy Seventies lunch boxes and wearing smeared lipstick. The group's music would appear to lend voice to a legion of disenfranchised youth, providing an outlet for their alienation and anger.
And this disturbs a lot of people, particularly parents, church leaders, and concert promoters who have heard about the band's outrageous A in some cases illegal A stage antics. (In the past, Manson has spit on security guards in New Jersey; ripped up a Mormon bible during a show in Salt Lake City; and, at a November 1994 concert at the Miami Arena with nine inch nails, simulated fellatio with a male sex slave.) On-stage the reed-thin, ghostly pale Manson writhes and contorts like a gothic Pinocchio, with a satanic force pulling the strings. But Manson is in control, and he understands -- perhaps even welcomes with open, tattooed arms -- the controversy generated by his band. Not only does it advance their career and earn them notoriety, but it also makes them feel that their message is getting across.
"Censorship is absolutely necessary," Manson states during a recent telephone interview from Fayetteville, North Carolina, a stop on the band's current tour. "I don't necessarily agree with it, but you can't have [controversy] without [censorship]. I think people like me wouldn't be as extreme as they are if there weren't things trying to hold them back. I don't expect everyone to understand what I have to say -- I'm saying things because I have to say them -- and there is no universal truth or universal message I can give to everybody. I just hope people can get out of it whatever they can get and go as deep as they want. I like to show people their fears and hope they understand them, because I like understanding my fears."
Creating a soundtrack that brings those fears to the surface is the band's objective on Children. The opening cut, "Hands of Small Children," sounds as if it has been lifted from a horror movie, with the distorted cries of babies melting into the bass line of the following track, "Diary of a Dope Fiend," one of two reworkings of the hard-rocking and primal "Dope Hat" from Portrait included here. Even more anguished and over-the-top than the original, "Diary of a Dope Fiend" sets the tone for the disc and finds Manson playing the role of a macabre Willy Wonka, leading listeners through his factory of malevolent creations. Other reinterpreted tracks include "Kiddie Grinder," an industrial remix of Portrait's "Organ Grinder," and "Everlasting Cocksucker," an atmospheric remake of the first album's "Cake and Sodomy."
Even better are three cover tunes: a sexually charged remake of Screamin' Jay Hawkins's "I Put a Spell on You" that is even more harrowing than Diamanda Galas's version from a few years back; an appropriately gutsy rendition of Patti Smith's "Rock and Roll Nigger"; and a creepy, grinding remake of Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)." MM's take on the latter song replaces the original's delicate synth melody with foreboding bass lines and chugging power riffs; Manson's throaty vocals bring new resonance to the lyrics. "The idea to record the three covers started with 'Sweet Dreams,'" Manson explains. "I thought that song and 'Dope Hat' both touched on the idea of use and abuse, and we started to develop a bit of a theme. And with the remix of 'Organ Grinder,' which also deals with childhood and abuse, things started to tie together with that theme running through it."
Sonically and thematically, Smells Like Children serves as both a supplement to Portrait and as a transition between that album and the as-yet-unrecorded Antichrist Superstar, which the band will begin making early next year. "It is a bit of a bridge between what has been and what will be," Manson says, "because on Portrait things were always full throttle. There was nothing dynamically laid-back [on Portrait] in the way that we did on Smells Like Children, while on the next record there are a lot of those [laid-back] dynamics."
One curious track on Children, "White Trash," is a remake of "Cake and Sodomy" performed not by the band but by acoustic artist Tony Wiggins, who recently helped the band find some, uh, new ways to expand their boundaries. "The new record originally started out with a recording I had made over the past year with Wiggins," Manson states. "I met him last year while we were on tour with Danzig. He is a very dangerous person because he has no fear of the repercussions of his actions. He's very reckless and tends to be an exciting person to be around. He and I had gotten together on this human studies project, you could call it, in which he would tie people up and have them confess things to me."
The recording Manson originally intended to open Children with was that of a girl asking Wiggins to beat and choke her to near-death. But to Manson's dismay, Time-Warner -- the company that currently distributes Nothing -- did not want to handle the disc if the track was included, for fear of some manner of legal action. "They felt there was possibly a felony being committed, and without the clearance of everyone whose voice was on the recordings, they couldn't be sure exactly what had happened," says Manson. The punch line came when Time-Warner accidentally printed up several thousand copies of the record in its original version, then sent them out as advance copies. Although they were pulled from circulation, Manson points out the version is now being widely bootlegged. (Florida audiences might have the opportunity to see the dangerous Wiggins perform his politically incorrect, acoustic Southern-folk rock in person as an opening act on the Marilyn Manson tour, which rolls into Fort Lauderdale this Saturday and Sunday.)
Also featured in the pair of shows will be tunes slated for the upcoming album, which Manson says will point the band in new aural directions. "If anybody thought we crossed all the lines and said all that had to be said on Portrait, that's not the case," he asserts. "Musically, it's more aggressive in many ways, and less aggressive in many ways. It's more commercial, and completely uncommercial in many ways. It really digs into the positive and negative aspects of Marilyn Manson more, and shows both sides more than we've done in the past. Smells Like Children is a good transition. To me, at the point when we put it out, I thought one of the more shocking things I could do was to do a cover of a song like 'Sweet Dreams' or 'I Put a Spell on You,' because it was just very out of context for me. There are different ways of testing the boundaries without breaking the law."
For Manson -- who was raised in Ohio as a devout Christian, attended a private school where he was beaten up a lot by other kids, and was recently ordained as an honorary reverend of the Church of Satan by celebrated San Francisco satanist Anton LaVey -- testing the boundaries is not an act but a way to work out his aggression and air his philosophies. "Marilyn Manson, besides being our band and what I feel inside, is anyone who identifies with our music. I'm almost like a spokesperson for a generation of kids who are lost because they aren't allowed to be themselves. There's a real lack of icons and rock stars in music today; everything is very safe and bland, in easy-to-swallow caplets. Rock and roll has always been about causing a stir and saying something; even Jerry Lee Lewis used to set his piano on fire and fuck his thirteen-year-old cousin. When I was growing up, people who I was inspired by were David Bowie, Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop, KISS, Black Sabbath, and all these bands that were bigger than life. That's the way I learned about music, so it's not surprising to me or to anyone who knew me as a kid that that's what I would want to bring back to the music."
However, unlike the man whose surname he's borrowed, Manson insists he doesn't want to create a cult around himself. "Sometimes kids come up to me dressed like me or made up like me, and I let them know that's not the point," he notes. "The point is be yourself and do what makes you happy. I think that if we have a society or group of people that are individuals, it would be the polar opposite of fascism A very un-Christian, even satanic, if you will. There is a fine line, and it's a burden on my shoulders."
Marilyn Manson the group originated in 1990 in the bowels of Fort Lauderdale when front man Manson met guitarist Daisy Berkowitz. A former journalist, Manson wrote poetry and had participated in many local open-mike nights, but he'd never thought about joining a band until he heard some of Berkowitz's demos. Keyboardist Madonna Wayne Gacy, bassist Gidget Gein, and drummer Sara Lee Lucas rounded out the band's original lineup. (Gein left the band around the time they recorded their first album, allegedly owing to a heroin problem, and was replaced by current bassist Twiggy Ramirez. Drummer Ginger Fish recently took over from Sara Lee Lucas, who quit abruptly at the end of the band's last tour after Manson set his drums on fire in protest of Lucas's timekeeping abilities.)
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Initially, I was out to shock people," contends Manson. "We were created in an era of 2 Live Crew, and I really wanted to test the boundaries more than anything and find out exactly how far you could go. As we grew as a band, I learned to do what I like to do. Some of those things are shocking, some of them aren't, but in the end I did what made me happy. It's not that I'm always looking to shock people, but it seems to me that in the age we live in, if things don't hit you in the face, I don't think people pay attention."
The band will close its 70-date tour (which began in mid-September) in January; they then plan to start recording Antichrist Superstar. This tour will make two straight years on the road for the Mansons (following stints with NIN, Voodoo Monster Machine, and Danzig). "We're kind of homeless at this point," says Manson, alluding to the fact that the band moved from their most recent base in New Orleans at the beginning of their current tour. They still consider Fort Lauderdale home, he adds, even though after two arrests (for simulating sex on-stage in Jacksonville and for indecent exposure in Miami), Manson doubts that he should or could live in the Sunshine State. "One more arrest," he mutters, "and my home will be jail."
Wherever his home is, Manson will no doubt continue to ponder the big questions and filter the answers through his music. "People are always feeling bad and never thinking about themselves," opines the brooding front man. "If everybody thought about preserving themselves, then there wouldn't be so much junk. I think it's important to try to bring about a strong society, but I just don't know whether to help preserve it or to further its destruction, push that fast-forward button to Armageddon. It's the question I'm faced with every day: Should I help, or should I help destroy?"
Marilyn Manson performs with Clutch on Saturday, December 16, and Sunday, December 17, at the Edge, 200 W Broward Blvd, Ft Lauderdale; 525-9333. Tickets cost $14. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.