One of the joys of covering pop music all these years has been being able to choose my interview subjects--and I've used that freedom to focus on our most gifted and inspiring artists. We're talking Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Springsteen, Bono.
So what am I doing sitting across the table from Marilyn Manson?
Why take seriously a shock-rocker whose best-selling book proudly quotes Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) calling Manson's band perhaps "the sickest group ever promoted by a mainstream record company."
Why care about a provocateur who sells souvenir T-shirts proclaiming "Kill God . . . Kill Your Mom and Dad . . . Kill Yourself," and who is not beyond walking around on stage with a fake penis dangling from his shorts?
The answer: Manson may have spared no outrage in getting the pop world's attention, but now that he has it, he is demonstrating the talent and substance to warrant it.
He is a smart, articulate, fiercely ambitious figure who brings rebellion and imagination back to a rock 'n' roll world that has lost most of its spirit and star quality in recent years.
In one glorious 62-minute sweep, Manson's new "Mechanical Animals" album lifts the Ohio native from the mock, kid-stuff level of Alice Cooper and KISS to the more artful and liberating status of David Bowie, another highly theatrical and controversial figure, who in the '70s challenged sexual and social assumptions with a bold persona that was as captivating as his often thrilling music.
Like Bowie's "Diamond Dogs" and "Station to Station" albums, "Mechanical Animals" (which entered the sales chart last week at No. 1) is an icy work that explores the emotional shell of someone who has lost his purpose and soul, partly through his own fast-lane excesses.
In his book, "The Long Hard Road Out of Hell," Manson outlines some of his own supposed excesses so graphically that the volume stands as a rock 'n' roll version of "Dante's Inferno."
The incidents of nihilism and debauchery may not have been all that different from conduct linked in the rumor mill with such bands as the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, but they never set them forth in such ugly detail. Is it an accurate account, or a test of the public's gullibility?
Whatever, anxious parents can at least take comfort in the fact that the new album touches in part on the consequences of that behavior.
Manson, however, doesn't sound like a man who is going out of his way to calm the troubled waters during the interview. Rather than be defensive, he hurls a challenge at parents who were so worried about the impact of his music and ideas on their children that they tried last year to get his show banned.
Much of the outrage was sparked by what the band's manager claimed were bogus Internet postings--supposed "affidavits" from fans claiming Manson threw live animals into the audience and instructed fans to kill them as part of a satanic ritual, and that he also urged encouraged males in the crowd to rape women.
"To the people who are afraid of things like me, [the answer] is to raise your kids to be more intelligent," he says. "If you want the freedom to live in a world where you can see and read and hear what you want, then you also have to take the responsibility to teach your kids properly. . . . Because anyone who blames music for their kids' problems or for kids hurting themselves or others is kidding themselves.
"Every house that has a Marilyn Manson record probably also has a Bible and a history book and William Shakespeare's 'Romeo and Juliet.' If anything is taken out of context, it can cause damage. That's why you need to raise your kids to be smart. If I'm just a wake-up call to get you to talk to your kids more, then so be it."
In videos and on stage under bright lights, Marilyn Manson may look threatening to adults and thrilling to young fans, but he looks downright silly as he stands outside a Santa Monica Boulevard building in Hollywood, waiting in the late-afternoon sun to be buzzed inside for a photo session.
With his flaming red hair, frightfully trendy two-tone suit and towering platform shoes, Manson looks more like Foghorn Leghorn, the loquacious rooster in the old Looney Tunes cartoons, than a rock star.
An hour later, he looks even more out of place, this time in a spacious booth at Musso & Frank's, the famous old Hollywood Boulevard restaurant.
As waiters stroll past, straining to get a closer look at the customer who looks as if he just stepped off the set of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," Manson, 29, does his best to ignore it all.
You sense that you can get as much insight into Manson just watching him as listening to him.
He's not blessed with a classic rock star face--neither the brooding good looks of a Jim Morrison nor the renegade chic of Axl Rose. Instead, he looks like the nerd in school who is still trying to gain attention by dressing up outrageously. He even dubbed himself "the worm" in moments in "Antichrist Superstar," the 1996 album that sold nearly 1.5 million copies.
Watching him, you can imagine the isolation he says he felt as a youngster in Canton, Ohio--a kid out of place at every turn. He says that he felt so repressed during the 10 years he spent at a conservative Christian school that he explored every forbidden fruit, including sex and drugs, once he got into a position of stardom and power.
Though his detractors often miss it, Manson has a sense of humor.
He studies the menu for a couple of minutes, but can't seem to find anything among the fancy salads or chef's delicacies.
"I'll have a grilled cheese sandwich," he says, chuckling at his choice. "It's just my white trash Ohio roots."
What you see mostly, however, are his intensity and drive--both in how he prepares for the photo session earlier in the day, and in his long, detailed answers to questions at the restaurant.
It's that drive that struck Tony Ciulla about Manson. Ciulla now manages the rocker, but he was simply an executive at Trent Reznor's Nothing Records in the early '90s when the label signed Manson's fledgling band.
"The initial impression wasn't what you'd expect after seeing the band on stage," Ciulla recalls. "He was soft-spoken, real intelligent, very introspective and focused . . . very focused. He knew exactly what he wanted to do. There was no sense of hype about it. He was very matter of fact about what he wanted to do, and very confident. He made you believe too."
One of the few predictable things about movie fan Marilyn Manson is that David Lynch is one of his favorite directors. He was fascinated as a youngster with the juxtaposition of innocence and ugliness in Lynch's most celebrated film.
"I saw 'Blue Velvet' when it first came out and I identified with it," Manson says. "I had this normal, average Ohio family, but yet I had this grandfather who seemed very abnormal to me at the time."
The sex habits of Manson's grandfather form a key scene in Manson's book, though he's a little vague on just how much of that passage and some others in the book are based in cold fact.
"You can't really draw lines between what's real and what's not real," he says. "I don't draw lines like that even between when I dream something and what happens in real life. Either way, it means as much to me.
"I don't think I can fit into the mold of other artists who came before me . . . where you can say, 'It's just Alice Cooper, it's an act' or 'It's just KISS putting on makeup.' I've been inspired by these people all my life, but I've taken things to my own level. It's not easy to try to categorize it."
What we do know for sure about Manson is that he was born Brian Hugh Warner on Jan. 5, 1969, the only child in what he describes as a middle-class family. His father was a furniture salesman, his mom a nurse. Unlike so many other '90s rock stars, he doesn't have a complaint about his parents. There are no accounts of child abuse or neglect.
Indeed, he says his parents cared enough about him to save money to send him to the private Christian school. It wasn't that they were all that religious, he says, but they wanted him to have the best possible education and they thought he'd get it there.
The youngster resented a lot of the school's rules, including having to keep his hair a certain length and wear a uniform. But the real rebellion was over ideas. He felt he was being molded rather than allowed to express his individuality and creativity. The showdown was over music.
Manson doesn't recall paying all that much attention to music before that point, other than hearing his mom's Elvis Presley records. But it intrigued him when school authorities began holding seminars to warn of the evils of rock 'n' roll.
"They kind of drove me to listen to the music because I wanted to know what was so wrong with it, and I liked what I heard," he says. "'Music eventually became the only escape for me, something to turn to when everything else seemed terrible."
Eventually, Manson says, he caused enough trouble at the school to get expelled, and he spent his final two years of high school at the public school.
It was there that he discovered he had a talent for writing. At first, it was short stories and poems. Eventually, he tried rock journalism. It was his first step toward a music career.
Manson's move into rock 'n' roll began in the late '80s after he moved with his parents to Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. He tried writing a few rock articles for some local publications, but soon decided he had better ideas than the bands he was writing about.
He hated the grunge movement's anti-stardom mentality.
"To me, the last great rock band was Guns N' Roses," he says, sipping a 7-Up. "I liked Nirvana, but I didn't like the way that the grunge movement was sold by record companies and the media . . . the idea that music is more honest or sincere if there is no image behind it. That's the thinking that put it in the state rock is in now. It's almost as bad as it was in the disco era in the '70s, everything is so disposable."
Taking his name from a beloved movie star and a mass murderer, Manson set out from the beginning to create sparks. For his music and stage show, he drew from a remarkably wide range of influences--pornography, horror films, Satanism. The only thing they had in common was that they were all forbidden items of youth--which meant they would be threatening to parents.
"Because Marilyn Manson is a paradox, the reaction has always been extreme," he says. "We pissed a lot of people off and a lot of people loved it. It was a relief from the boredom. That's the way it has been and probably will always be. Everything I express comes from the same place . . . taking the opposites and putting them together."
Manson's extremism was enough to catch the eye of Reznor, whose Nine Inch Nails was itself one of the most controversial and successful rock groups of the '90s.
By the time Manson was opening for Nine Inch Nails in 1994, the show seemed just a civic protest away from pay dirt.
And sure enough, the outfit hit the fan soon after the release of "Antichrist Superstar," a twist on Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Jesus Christ Superstar." Instead of an uplifting story of salvation, "Antichrist" was a dark tale of Armageddon. Along with reports that he ripped pages from the Bible on stage, it was enough to cause some conservative religious groups to protest the tour.
After candlelight vigils and bomb threats at some venues, Manson started finding it difficult to get booked in some cities. He went to court last year to force officials at New Jersey's Meadowlands complex to carry through with a planned music festival that included Manson. City officials in Richmond, Va., who had similarly banned the group, allowed Manson's concert after the American Civil Liberties Union threatened legal action.
To outsiders, all the uproar looked like a dream come true for a band that traffics in controversy.
Manager Ciulla, however, says it was a stressful time that could have severely damaged the band if the group hadn't fought back in court.
"There was probably a two-month period there where the level of hysteria and misinformation was so out of control that I was genuinely concerned [about the band's career]," he says in a separate interview.
"If we hadn't fought back, I think there would have been the domino effect. What I was worried about was that if the opponents of the band said they don't want the band in the city, they might then say we also don't want the record in the stores."
At the same time Manson was fighting for the right to go on stage, he was caught up in the pressures and excesses of the rock lifestyle.
After the tour, he moved to Los Angeles and began what he describes as a lot of soul-searching about his direction and his music. The result is the more artful, embracing tone of the new album--complete with a chic cover photo of Manson as an androgynous, nude figure. The idea was that this grotesque bogey man was showing vulnerability.
Some cynics would say the new album, with its accessible glam-rock textures that frequently echo Bowie's '70s work, is simply an attempt to reach beyond the young, mostly male audience that was attracted by his hard-core images and dark, Gothic, death-rock sound. The more mainstream approach might also be a way of declaring a truce with the authorities who put up roadblocks for his tour.
Whatever the motivation, "Mechanical Animals" has a sonic appeal and depth that were not apparent on Manson's earlier albums.
Manson gives some credit for his new musical openness to his friend Billy Corgan, leader of the Smashing Pumpkins.
"The difference between Billy and me is he thinks like a musician, not an artist, while I think like an artist, not a musician. That's what I tried to lend him. . . . [The idea that] an artist isn't limited to music in terms of expression. You express yourself in everything you do. . . . The way you look, the things you say, everything you touch. . . .
"In turn, he encouraged me to be more expressive in music. That's why this album is more musical. In some ways, the safest thing would have been to just repeat myself, but I wasn't interested in a retake."
There are references to drugs in several places in the album, but--parents, note--not always in a particularly glamorous way. The current single "The Dope Show" is a sarcastic indictment of the trendy Hollywood scene and of allowing drugs, or any other obsession, to overpower you.
In another song, "Great Big White World," Manson seems to be saluting Bowie's "Space Oddity"--taking the role of a man in space looking down on an alien society. The difference is that this is "Space Oddity" without the innocence.
"I wrote that song in my house looking down on Hollywood," he says. "I had painted the room I was in entirely white, even the furniture . . . and it kind of represented the void inside . . . the feeling of no emotion. I was trying to fill it with music and that's what this record is. . . . Me filling that void.
"The color white comes up on the album a lot. It kind of represents to me the numbness I had. That numbness is manifested in drugs, that numbness is manifested in all the people who want to suck the life out of you when you become a pop star. It's manifested in your self-doubt. To me, the record feels almost bedridden . . . almost like a hospital diary because it's almost like me healing myself."
Confession or career make-over?
Either way, it's good to have someone back in rock who gives you something to think about.
Manson says his life is better these days.
He's in a steady relationship with actress Rose McGowan that he says has helped open him up emotionally.
He's also got the respect of the rock community.
"When he was opening for Trent Reznor a few years ago, his show seemed to be fueled by sensation," says Lars Ulrich of Metallica. "And with anything that is fueled by sensation, you have to let the dust settle and see if there is anything really there. With Manson, it turns out there is. He's a smart guy and I respect him."
Manson, who begins an intensive U.S. tour late next month, is even thinking about turning one of the songs on the new album into a full-scale Hollywood movie.
Near the end of the interview, Manson talks of being a role model.
"I hope to inspire them," he says, when asked if he felt any responsibility to his fans. "I don't think that anyone can ever provide you with an answer. I don't think anyone ever gave me an answer in my life. But people have inspired me to find my own answers, and that's what I'd like to do for people.
"I am trying to say something that in the end is positive. A lot of people view it as negative, but I think kids understand it. I think they see me trying to stand up for myself, and that helps them realize that they should do the same in their own lives."
Robert Hilburn, The Times' pop music critic, can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org