Manson Family Values

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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."

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Greg Baker