Manson Family Values

"Everything I say is a lie" -- that's some semantic conundrum. If everything I say is a lie, and I say everything I say is a lie, then that's the truth, so everything I say can't be a lie, so it's not the truth. Reality can be tricky like that, and folks such as Sartre, Nietzsche, and Anton LaVey long ago wrestled these human notions to the philosophical ground. Or at least they tried to. Now it's Marilyn Manson's turn.

For those from, say, Oklahoma, it should be noted that Marilyn Manson is a five-piece, South Florida-based rock and roll band, formed four years ago by a guy named Brian, now known as Mr. Manson (he dropped the first name Marilyn to avoid confusion with the band name), and soon to be known around the nation. "We are a symptom of your Christian America, the biggest Satan of all" announces the one-page "bio" that accompanies the group's debut CD, Portrait of an American Family (Nothing/Interscope). "I wrote that flyer," Mr. Manson, a one-time journalist, says, "as an instant quote-puller, for those who can't get an interview."

The flyer says plenty ("It's too late to take it all back. This is your world in which we grow and we will grow to hate you.") but the CD says more. It begins with a horror-movie style narrative that's almost goofy except for an ominous water-drop punctuation blending into a mob-rage loop-de-loop that would make fine background for Shirley Jackson's famous story The Lottery. It ends with an incessantly ringing telephone, which represents the true evil of modern American society.

In between are an odd dozen amazing tunes weaving together something of a story that one could interpret as representing the decline of the American family. There are more than enough hooks to make such literary interpretations unnecessary, the most monstrous coming in the first single, "Get Your Gunn," with its nifty "goddamn/ooop/goddamn" chorus. (A video of the tune should begin airing on MTV's Headbanger's Ball this week. Mr. Manson says there was a "big hassle" over the word goddamn. The group's radio-edit version was also troublesome. "They wanted the word God bleeped," Manson explains, "which is assbackward because damn is the cussword.")

Locals will find many of the selections familiar, though not in such refined form. "Cake and Sodomy" is even more irresistibly delicious here; "Misery Machine" still rushes headlong down Highway 666; "Dope Hat" remains the ultimate metaphor representing the connection between rock star and ringmaster ("My big-top tricks will always make you happy/But we all know the hat is wearing me"). And there's much more of this potent celebration of anguish. Truly a portrait of American families.

As clear and high-octane as the songs are, the actual CD packaging seems just as essential to the band's message agenda. Its construction proves prima facie that much thought and inspiration went into the project. The cover, for example, depicts a papier-mƒche four-piece family (their hair is real) constructed by Manson during downtime at Criteria, where the band conducted initial recording sessions. It's spooky, kids.

Before any of this is mistaken for child's play, consider that Mr. Manson has come to understand the fundamental rule of fiction writing: Be true to yourself. And he also knows that his elaborate packaging works. "It's either that we're upfront about it, or that we have the music to back it up," he says. "It's a pretty strong musical backbone, it can stand on its own. Everything else is to help people enjoy the music, but also, anything we do, it has to make me happy. If it makes other people happy, I can have a career out of it. It's all only as fake or real as you want it to be."

They always call these things "a culmination," but in this case there is no more apt description. Early demos -- 1990's big black bus in particular -- revealed that the band, then known as Marilyn Manson and the Spooky Kids, possessed some real musical ability and plenty of interesting ideas, most involving sound effects and tape loops. (That old cassette also ends with the sound of a telephone ringing.) But the overall effect wasn't nearly as powerful as the outfit's grinding, inventive, engrossing live sound. Even performances that didn't feature naked women nailed to a cross, a child in a cage, or bloody animal body parts were impressive and memorable.

The concept -- and concept is critical to Marilyn Manson -- was still a bit vague. Much was made about the androgynous aspect of the members' monikers -- the others also use a femme first name combined with a serial-killer surname -- and the fact that the band members had a thing for kitschy Seventies lunch boxes.

With Portrait, however, the various elements that make MM so entertaining fell into place. It is truly the "culmination" of four years' work. It is a remarkable piece, with an involving story line, what they used to call a "concept album." The band's elaborate stage shows already have been taken on the road during a brief tour as openers for Nine Inch Nails; at the end of the summer a more extensive tour (55 dates, including some in Canada) begins. Late last month the band won the top honor at the Slammies, Florida's most prestigious hard-rock awards, by copping Band of the Year. For the second year in a row. And thanks to this release, the obsession of critics and fans with Marilyn's lunch boxes and other gimmickry should come to an end.

Once you hear Portrait, it all starts to make sense.
"The big difference," Mr. Manson says, "is that we put some money into it to make it sound good. It's 48-track as opposed to 4-track." The big difference is that MM has been given the chance to expose themselves in a different way than pulling off their trousers during live shows.

That wasn't easy. "I had a tough Christmas," says the divine Mr. M. The band's very first bass player had quit after the group's very first show (he went on to become vocalist for another South Florida success story, the recently signed Collapsing Lungs) four years ago. This past Christmas the group's second bass player, Gidget Gein, made an unhappy exit, replaced by Twiggy Ramirez, formerly of Amboog-a-lard, a move that caused some harsh words between the Amboogies and the Manson clan. (It's Gein's bass that's heard on the CD, and he co-wrote some of the music.) Another holiday gift: MM learned that their label deal was in trouble.

The group -- rounded out by Daisy Berkowitz on guitar, Madonna Wayne Gacy on keys, and Sara Lee Lucas on drums -- had entered Criteria one year ago to begin the album project. Mr. Manson and his cohorts weren't happy with the results they were getting, feeling their sound was being smoothed and polished, losing its bite and edge. "I thought, This really sucks," Manson says. "So I played it for Trent, and he thought it sucked." Trent is Trent Reznor, head Nine Inch Nail and the man who signed MM to his label, Nothing.

"Trent and I said we know what this is supposed to sound like," Manson continues. "So we went to L.A. and spent seven weeks redoing, fixing, sometimes starting from scratch. That was our band's first experience in a real studio on a project this big. We didn't know what to expect. It was fifteen-hour days, with a team -- Trent, Alan Moulder, Sean Beavan, and me -- bringing out the sound."

Happy ending? Not in this America. "Yes, we have some tales of woe when it comes to censorship," Mr. Manson remarks. "In January, when the album was finished, it was presented to Interscope." Interscope typically distributes Nothing releases through the Atlantic Records network. Once the Interscope brain trust got a dose of the Mansons, however, it was declared that the trucks weren't going anywhere with this. "They flipped out," the vocalist says. "I think the Axl Rose/Charles Manson thing panicked them. The heat came from the name of our band. They apparently hadn't looked into it very carefully, and they had this knee-jerk reaction to what we're about."

Manson's management, the TCA Group, immediately began shopping the record to other distributors. Before an alternative deal was worked out, Interscope had a change of heart, and two days ago Portrait was serviced to retail. "They changed their minds for whatever reasons," recounts Mr. Manson. "We went back because that's where we wanted to be. It was just a misunderstanding. Me, personally, I think it was Guns N' Roses [covering a Charles Manson song on The Spaghetti Incident? album] and that they'd be hearing from Sharon Tate's sister. I guess we're happy. They're really behind it."

There was one more obstacle. "As the CD was on the presses being made," Mr. M. recalls, "the quality control people at Time-Warner made us take out two photos that the labels were okay with." One of the snapshots Manson wanted on the CD's sleeve was a portrait of himself naked. "When I was six years old," he says. "That was when Burt Reynolds had posed for Playgirl. My mom thought it'd be funny to have me do that pose, lying on a couch. It's only sick if you have a sick mind. It was innocent. But they told me it would qualify as child pornography in twenty states. The other picture was of my shrine to an ex-girlfriend. There were these bloody Polaroids of a mutilated girl. They wanted to know where they came from, afraid they represented some kind of crime, and that they'd be sued later."

The compromise was slightly painful, but also edifying. "I was a little pissed off," Manson says. "I really wanted those photos in there, it meant something to me. But you also have to work within the limitations of the law. This is part of me finding out what my boundaries are so I can work to keep pushing the boundaries until they get bigger and bigger. There're twenty states that wouldn't carry it. What's the point in having something cool if no one can buy it?"

Much of what makes Marilyn Manson so cool in the Nineties is strikingly similar to what made Alice Cooper so cool in the Seventies. Back then it was jarring enough to hear what was definitely a man singing on a record by someone named Alice. Today the Mansons take that a logical step forward with their ingenue-savage monikers. There weren't too many parents around back then encouraging their kids to crank up "Eighteen," "School's Out," or "No More Mr. Nice Guy." A similar parental reaction to "Cake and Sodomy" (with lyrics that begin "I am the god of fuck/Virgins sold in quantity, herded by heredity") can be expected. (Manson says he became a fan of Cooper's later in life, that he likes Alice's first three albums, and he admits that "in spirit we're doing the same thing -- everything parents hate about rock and roll.")

So far critics have been fairly well-behaved in their analyses of the Manson attack, though now that the entire CD is available everywhere -- even Oklahoma! -- the cretins should be crawling out of their holes any minute. The protectors of our children, the families of various victims, the people who throw the rocks in Shirley Jackson's short story -- Mr. Manson and his familial cohorts are prepared for the worst.

The Mansons are young, mostly mid-twenties, so one has to wonder how Mr. Manson and his bandmates will view their work 30 years from now. "I'm kind of looking forward to being a parent," Mr. M offers. "I'd like to approach it differently than people do in the Nineties. If you tell kids the truth right off the bat, they'll be able to make up their minds for themselves and realize what will hurt them and what won't. I'd tell them, 'Don't have sex because you could get pregnant and get a disease' instead of saying, 'Sex is wrong and you'll go to hell.'

"It's the same with drugs or anything else. Another debate we get into is people ask me if we're adding to the dilemma for kids, because kids communicate through music, and we have a strong message. I say I'm trying to let kids take on the responsibility of being a better listener, to be able to interpret things on an intelligent level. We should raise kids so they can listen to [Body Count's]'Cop Killer' or our stuff and be able to not kill themselves or kill someone else. Unless that's what they want to do. Then they have to take the responsibility.

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Greg Baker