A classic piece of television history is Marilyn Manson’s 1997 appearance on Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher. As part of the promotion of Antichrist Superstar, Marilyn (born Brian Warner and raised in Canton, Ohio) appears on the same episode as The Brady Bunch’s Florence Henderson, right-wing radio host and convicted Watergate conspirator G. Gordon Liddy, and rapper, activist and self-proclaimed Christian Lakita Garth. Liddy interrupts Bill Maher before he even asks his first question and says, “I want to protest something… Now, here you’ve got a guy [i.e., Manson], as far as I know, has never been busted for impersonating a human being or anything. And I’ve got nine felonies for which I am totally unrepellent [sic], and he is supposed to be the bad guy. What’s going on? Where are the standards in this country?” To which Marilyn replies, “It’s the lipstick. If we put some lipstick on him, I think everything will change.”
Those who have a problem with Marilyn’s views on sexuality and religion, people who need a church or a Bible to do their thinking for them, would do themselves a favor by listening to the perceived opposition the way Barnum & Bailey might improve their three-ring ensemble by learning from the Cirque du Soleil down the street. The metaphor goes further than just the competing circus across town. Risk-takers are risk-takers, and there will always be the followers who chime in from the safety of their ringside seats. Followers feel inclined to define themselves by choosing one fearless leader over another — despite the blind spot that people rarely see: the only devil that can damn you is the devil within you.
No one out there is a threat, except those crazy people with guns who think some people out there are threats. You’d think that years of lipstick and gender-bending would have quieted the upset by now. Poised between two extremes of American culture — Marilyn Monroe and Charles Manson — Marilyn himself seems to be caught on the edge between extreme concepts: love and fear.
In a career spanning more than two decades, Marilyn Manson at the very least pushes beyond the box of “it’s my turn for royal rockness” posturing. Imagine the early influences of the band, picture its lead singer listening to a lot of records (what else is there to do in Canton, Ohio?) with drive and ambition, mixing what he loved in a new way, throwing off what was oppressive. And while he was not Elvis, he brought the smarts of pushing the edge of comfort to the new industrial-goth-glam, and obviously is a thinking man, revealing his familiarity with classic literature and sharing the questions with his audience rather than giving them all the answers.
I’d be more likely to be baptized in icewater than be in the audience at one of Marilyn Manson’s stadium shows. I hate crowds, I avoid post-encore parking gridlocks, and the noise of collective fandom makes me want to lock myself in a room with ’70s movie classics to calm me down. But to see Marilyn Manson out of context in any of the many interviews with him (lots are available on Youtube), having to hold his own alongside people who have nothing in common with him, to observe his poise and calm, quickly earned my respect. Marilyn expresses his thoughtfulness in a myriad of ways — rock stardom being only the best paid of them.
Marilyn Manson’s ninth studio album is called Pale Emperor. The opening track “Killing Strangers” shows the band in top form. Marilyn croons, “We’re killing strangers so we don’t kill the ones that we love/We got guns, we got guns, motherfuckers better run” with all the pleasing invisible harmonics of the right kind of distortion, along with a sonically satisfying anthemic feel. Drummer Gil Sharone brings on a heavy in-the-pocket swing that shows us from the first get-go that they’re a rock band who knows what the fuck they’re doing. The guitars come in bendy and expressive and it’s a relief to listen to the life in a track that was confidently left alone and not overthought or overwrought. The bass part, with the distortion up on the amp, is the kind of bass part the teenager in you wishes you were playing.
“Deep Six” stays true to fist-pumping stadium-rock, but listening to it I suddenly pictured a kid singing along to the Cure, Patti Smith and the Smiths all in one afternoon, and turning the volume to 11 in a rehearsal room. Sample lyric: “You want to know what Zeus said to Narcissus?/’You better watch yourself’” (As you remember from Greek mythology, Zeus was god of the sky, lightning and thunder, and justice, and Narcissus couldn’t part with the beauty of his own reflection in the pool, and drowned in his own self-obsession.)
I like the vulnerability of the opening lines in “The Mephistopheles of Los Angeles”: “I don’t know if I cannot open up, I’ve been opened enough/ I don’t know if I can open up, I’m not a birthday present.” I remember Mephistopheles from reading Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe in high school. Is he corrupting or is he the companion to those who already feel hopelessly wounded? Like I said, the only devil that can damn you is the devil within you.
“Slave Only Dreams to Be King” has a lot to be mined in it. It starts with a recording of a man with a southern accent (actor Walton Goggins, Jr.) reciting from “As a Man Thinketh,” an early 20th-century essay by English author and poet James Allen:
The human Will, that force unseen,
The offspring of a deathless Soul,
Can hew a way to any goal,
Though walls of granite intervene.
Be not impatient in delay,
But wait as one who understands;
When spirit rises and commands,
The gods are ready to obey.
Atop a groove reminiscent of ’70s get-the-party-going Gary Glitter, the conversational lead vocal swaggers in full goth-glamerama regalia. In the chorus, Marilyn sings, “There were men of brand-new parents didn’t know it yet/So we chanted work, work, work/but they didn’t know they were dead”; the song ends with a line from which a new world can be woven: “You are what you beat.”
Which brings me to “Cupid Carries a Gun.” Manson’s new collaborator Tyler Bates maintains a hypnotic mid-tempo groove on guitar and bass, but the song might have worked better for me if it had been framed as a third-party narrative instead of the singer putting himself in the story. The title is great but the lyrics sound like the outpourings of a Repressed Christian Upbringing, with metaphors of sex and religion prematurely sowing its seed like a hormonal 16-year-old on his first night on the town. I had a hard time with lines like “She… laid as still as a Bible” and “Keep your halo tight” while he sings to “Better pray for hell, not hallelujah.” It never hits me right when you’re identifying with the persona of a singer who has earned your trust, and then they sing from the point of view of someone you don’t want to hang around with, such as the mindless accomplice to a woman’s lack of presence or consciousness about her body. I realize that actors pretend to be lots of different people, but I want a singer to be consistent in their point of view. Marilyn’s views on the Bible are way more appealing when he’s not lost in in a sex-zombie stupor, like when he said on the Maher show, “I like it [the Bible] as a book. Just like I like The Cat in the Hat.”
What I most love about Marilyn are the things he says that are not necessarily in his songs. Maybe it took rock stardom for people to listen, but I’m a fan of the way he mixes the elements of our culture the way a painter mixes colors. Maybe he’s cracked the Fibonacci sequence of lipstick, maybe he’s just a cool, smart dude too insecure to sit invisibly in a corner and not be the life of the party. But Marilyn Manson’s madness has a golden touch, and he has a way with pulling the pin of a grenade that dangles over our complacency, and it makes me interested in what he’s going to offer up from his music, acting and paintings yet to come.