THE OBSERVER • THE LIFE AND LOVES OF A HE-DEVIL
He's best known in Britain as the red-lipped, milky-eyed performer who is single-handedly keeping goth culture alive (or at least undead). But in America he's feared as the Satan-worshipper who inspired Columbine. So which is he? Marilyn Manson talks sex, death and make-up with Polly Vernon.
Marilyn Manson sits in semi-darkness and profound air-conditioned chilliness, in a suite in London's otherwise bright and temperate Metropolitan Hotel. He has made his room as tomb-like as he can, for two reasons: 1) It allows Manson to wear head-to-toe leather, even though it's an unseasonably warm week in April (outside, the streets of London are filled with breezy, Cornetto-eating young things who swish around in slips of summer dresses, flashing limbs coated in Johnson's Holiday Skin); and 2) It builds on Manson's undead, crypt-frequenting myth. It makes people physically uncomfortable in his presence. It makes them shiver.
He is talking about his new album, which he's in the UK to promote. It's called EAT ME, DRINK ME, and it has recurring motifs: death, the devil, mutilation and vampires, mainly.
"I've always thought that association, with the romanticism of vampires, was a bit too obvious a fit for me," he's saying.
His voice is low, halting and purposely monotonous. It's got so much bass in it that it actually makes your ribcage reverberate. Manson's a wordy, circuitous talker; his sentences are rammed with goth-y rhetoric, he's very oblique. He's trying to tell me something, but I'm not quite sure what.
"But a vampire is only something that can be killed by stabbing it through the heart," he says.
"And that... I guess, that's my weakness."
Being stabbed through the heart is your weakness?
Do you mean, er, that love can destroy you?
"Yes. No. But also a vampire is a character that's only at night-time, and ultimately... er, preys on young women. And drinks blood. This idea of consuming someone, whether it's literal or a metaphor, is quite romantic..."
Marilyn Manson is not scary. He should be. He wears all the trappings of scariness; scariness is his currency. There's his look - he's a long, thin, crone-like streak of goth, with overdyed black hair, geisha-white foundation and bloodred lipstick; he wears contact lenses that turn his eyes a milky, sinister shade of nothing.
His interior-design ethic is similarly informed: he famously filled his Hollywood mansion with knick-knacks of supreme ghoulishness - a jacket made from the skin of conjoined lambs, Nazi uniforms, the foetus of an unborn child (which Manson christened Ludwig Von Manson, because he thinks 'it's a lovely name').
There's his art, his act - his wailing, theatrical paeans to death and obscenity, which are called things like Smells Like Children and Angel With The Scabbed Wings and (UK bonus track and my own particular fave) Baboon Rape Party.
There's his videos, which are crammed with (simulated, I think) dark sex acts, suicide and bleeding; and his stage shows, one of which featured the routine leashing and debasement of a particularly slavish fan.
There's his assumed name - a merging of Marilyn Monroe and Charles Manson - with its overtones of death and victim and blackest, bleakest celebrity. (He's actually called Brian Warner. Only his mother calls him that now.)
And most of all, there's his reputation. Marilyn Manson's spent the past decade or so routinely (effortlessly, even) shocking the socks off conservative, Christian, right-wing America. In the US he's been vilified as a Satan-worshipping, animal-sacrificing, bisexual corrupter of the youth; he's been banned from performing in several states. He's the US's self-styled 'god of fuck'. It all reached a nadir in 1999, when he was blamed for inspiring the Columbine shootings (this is pertinent - we meet 48 hours after news of the campus shooting at Virginia Tech breaks). Manson plays out differently in the UK, where the campness of goths inspires amused affection in the non-goth faction of the public. Indeed, if your teenager starts listening to Manson and dying its hair super-black, there's some cause for celebration. Such introspection and obsession with miserable poetry can lead to stonking exam results.
But no, I'm not scared of Marilyn Manson. Maybe it's because he's 38 years old and it's hard to be truly dangerous when you're middle aged. Or maybe it's because, in the flesh, he doesn't exude any kind of menace. One on one, Manson's calm and self-contained, and sort of benign. I'd been told he's charming - but charm suggests a considered smoothness. What Manson is, in fact, is sweet.
"You," he says, as I settle myself on to his mini sofa, "are the first person to sit right next to me."
What does that tell you, I ask.
"That you're smart," he says.
Maybe he's a little charming after all.
He's had a tough year. Even in the grand scheme of his darkness, things grew very dark indeed for Manson through 2006. EAT ME, DRINK ME might seem like just another 11-song romp through sixth-formish angsts and obsessions. It features songs called Just A Car Crash Away and also Mutilation Is The Sincerest Form Of Flattery and... oh, you get the idea. But Manson says it's more than that.
"It's why I'm here now," he says.
"I don't think that I would... [long pause] exist, if it weren't for this record."
"Really. I haven't... left my house in a year. I shut myself, literally, out of being with people, and I think I... no, I wouldn't exist without this record."
You mean, you wouldn't exist as in: you'd have killed yourself?
"To me, it was worse than wanting to die. I didn't want to live. When you want to die, you at least have a goal. You're aiming for something. It's not a good goal, but at least you want something. And you've got anger and fear, but at least you're feeling something. But I wasn't afraid, I didn't have fear, I didn't care and I didn't have hope."
That sounds like full-throttle depression.
"Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And depression's something that people would... probably assume I've always had an element of it in me. But I know that I've never f... f... I was going to say "felt", but I don't know how I "felt"... I didn't have any feeling - it's a void. But this record, it's a cliche, but this record saved me..."
So you were going to kill yourself?
"Well... yeah, I think that's probably definitely what would have happened."
It isn't hard to guess what triggered Manson's descent into despair. In December last year, Manson's wife, the burlesque performer Dita Von Teese, filed for divorce. Their marriage had lasted about a year (they got hitched in December 2005, at midnight in a gothic mansion in Tipperary); it followed a four-year relationship. A lot of people were surprised and dismayed by the news. The couple had had good celebrity symmetry. Dita and Marilyn were the Posh and Becks of alternative popular culture. Their alabaster skins and black hair and mutual fondness for bright lipsticks; the suggestion of a flagrant and decadent sex life.
Von Teese has blamed Manson for the demise of their marriage - she cites his alleged infidelities, his 'demons' and the influence of 'Mommie Dearest', Manson's troubled mother. Manson, meanwhile, blames his depression on the marriage.
"Yes, it has an inconvenient, unfortunate parallel to - you know - getting married," he says.
"I think they ultimately have to be associated. I don't think that the relationship was... something to blame... as much as the, just the, the cliches of marriage. Being expected to change. Change who you are. I started to feel - and maybe this is only how I perceived it, or it's what my ex-wife genuinely expected of me - but to have to change who I am because suddenly I'm supposed to be more responsible or adult or to have to apologise for who I am... It just ultimately wasn't what I was prepared for."
So the conventions of marriage crushed what had been a healthy relationship?
"Yeah. That and the unfortunate coincidence that her career was really taking off. And I wasn't able to give up what I'm doing and follow her; like she did for me, in the beginning. But I never knew I was... going to be expected to do that. Sacrifice to me is something you do without expecting something in return."
He pauses. I wonder if, to Manson, sacrifice might actually be something other people are supposed to do for him; and I'm about to ask, then he releases the kind of torrent of bitterness and pain that only comes from someone mired in the hell of divorce, so I don't.
"So to be expected... to... I guess be judged on how much you love someone by... if you don't do... what they did for you... because they did it for you. It got to a point where, where, I didn't know how to win, I didn't know how to explain... to somebody... that I don't... love... me. So for you to think that if I loved you I would change, or I would not be depressed, or I would want to... you know... give up my work for a moment, when I didn't think of it as work... what you create and who you are has to be the same, or both of them die. So that's what almost happened. My creativity died and I nearly died."
Did he feel betrayed by the way marriage changed his relationship with Dita?
"That was one of the initial emotional confusions and responses. I felt that I was stupid, that I was taken advantage of. At first. But I wasn't, I wasn't taken advantage of. I realised that."
Is there any good way to divorce?
"I think that somebody's always going to suffer more. And I'd think I hurt her more. But only because she didn't understand the amount of pain I went through before it became apparent to her. She didn't understand that my idea of the relationship was suffering for longer than she knew. And so when things ended equally between us, she might have assumed that I didn't care. Not realising that I had been experiencing it for much longer."
That's a very female way to work things through.
"So I'm a girl? You're saying I'm a girl?"
Marilyn Manson laughs; easily, and with feeling. It's unexpected, and lovely.
Like all celebrities, Marilyn Manson is something of a cliche. His psychology is transparent. Brian Warner was a geeky, unfortunate, awkward child, and so he was marginalised by other children. He was sickly, he was lonely. His parents sent him to a strict and religious school, where he developed a major antipathy toward religious dogma - a theme that recurs in his music.
He had a difficult relationship with his mother - who, he's realised recently, "is not just crazy, as I thought she was as a youngster, but is actually mentally ill in a way that's been a big burden on my mind; and also in a way that is hereditary..." - who he tried to strangle when he suspected her of being unfaithful to his father.
His grandfather, whom he described in 2000 [Module Edit - 1998] in his autobiography, The Long Hard Road Out Of Hell, as "the ugliest, darkest, foulest, most depraved figure of my childhood", lived with them; Warner discovered that he secretly wore women's underwear, and that he used to masturbate in the family basement while surrounded by toy trains. Brian Warner, perhaps inevitably, became a self-harming, self-absorbed teenager.
He was born physically unexceptional, so he made himself look exceptional with make-up. He believed himself to be insignificant, so he became a rock star and ensured that millions of people would love him or at least take notice of him.
"I think one of the reasons I got on stage was because I have a hard time relating to people," he has said in the past.
"It was a matter of being invisible as a kid. I didn't have to create an alter-ego, I had to create an ego."
Following some fits and starts and changes to the line-up in the band (he once set fire to his drummer), he secured a record deal. In 1996, he scored his breakthrough moment with his album Antichrist Superstar. In 1998, Mechanical Animals sold multiple millions and Manson was officially big time.
Fame, infamy, breakdowns, overdoses, high drama, a broken relationship from yet another raven-haired, red-lipped beauty (actress Rose McGowan) followed; as did the bother over Columbine.
On which: has anyone blamed him for the Virginia Tech shootings yet?
"Not as far as I know. But I wouldn't be surprised if I was blamed. You know, it all seems very manufactured to me."
In what way?
"In the way that there's candlelight vigils, but I haven't seen anyone crying. Not one single person crying. Someone said to me yesterday: I'm sure you're full of mixed emotions. And I'm not, really. I don't really care. I don't know anyone involved in it. If you lose emotion, and you gain it back, you realise that hate and love are very important to distribute properly. So I'm not going to waste any kind of emotion on things that aren't related to me. It doesn't mean that you have to be insensitive or cold, or have no sort of empathy. It just means that when you do have an emotion, make it extreme."
For as long as he's been famous, he's been associated with high decadence. Outré sex, hedonism and hard drugs have seemed like integral parts of the Manson experience, as well as major preoccupations creatively. He has regularly simulated sex on stage; he once said (of Dita Von Teese): "I can't say I haven't seen her tying up a girl on the bus in bondage ropes. I can't say I haven't seen that."
Is he still sexually decadent?
"Right now?" He laughs.
"Yeah, er, I don't consider myself to be as... open as people might consider me to be. I'm a little more shy. I think that's why you become extroverted, when you're a little bit more shy about who you are. Especially you know, in sexual, er, terms. So I wouldn't say there's a lot of sexual decadence around me."
That's disappointing. How about more general decadence?
"Er, well, in the fact that I can order caviar and throw it away. That's decadent, isn't it? I did it last night! The record company ...#8594; ...#8592; was paying, though." He giggles.
"And there was sex involved, and I guess that's decadence."
Marilyn Manson has fallen in love again, with actor Evan Rachel Wood. She supported him through much of his depression ("although," he says carefully, in a way that makes me suspect clarity on such things might be important in terms of the divorce wranglings, "she wasn't my girlfriend at that time") and she served as a creative sounding board through much of the writing of EAT ME, DRINK ME. She is mindlessly beautiful - in an interesting way. Oh - and she is 19 years old.
Is he really in love?
"Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely!" Furthermore, he had no issue with falling in love, after his marriage failed.
"It's actually easy for me, because it didn't make me cynical. My current relationship gives me the ability to realise where I've always gone wrong in my life, not just in my divorce. To realise I was always thinking: I wish that my life could be like the movies, like Bonnie And Clyde or The Hunger or Harold And Maude. And... it can be! It maybe just takes somebody else who is as fearless as you. It takes a person who will not hesitate."
To attain... movie love?
"Yeah. Because now, my only definition of romance is that somebody has to be willing to hold hands and jump off the cliff with you. At that point, you don't want to die any more."
Movie love, I imagine, is more easily attained with someone as, well, young as Evan Rachel Wood.
"Yes," he says.
"I think that it helps to match my emotional immaturity. I am always going to be fundamentally immature. As someone being... being Marilyn Manson, I shouldn't be expected to grow up in a conventional way"
This might also explain why he's drinking absinthe at one in the afternoon - and furthermore, why he maintains (with sixth-former logic) that absinthe does not inhibit his faculties, or his creativity, unlike other alcohols, "which I despise".
Sometimes, Marilyn Manson seems like a man in make-up, with a major midlife crisis. A man - furthermore - who doesn't recognise his midlife crisis as such, because he considers himself creatively superior and thus immune to middle age. It would be easy to dismiss him. He talks a lot of nonsense, and his conversation - like his lyrics - sometimes overflows with the kind of rhetoric and flawed sentiment that doesn't stand up to close inspection. Yet I like him. He's funny. He's not beyond laughing at himself (he talks cheerfully about the time Evan Rachel Wood rocked up at his house in heart-shaped sunglasses, "like in the Kubrick Lolita poster"; I ask if he's ever tried drugs or therapy for his depression, and he tells me, "Drugs are therapeutic", and giggles).
He has occasional moments of something approaching self-awareness. Even his pretensions - which are manifold and enormous in scale - are somewhat innocent and authentic. Whimsical sixth-form pretensions, basically.
Plus he's got really great skin - you've got to admire that. What's his secret?
"Make your body a place where germs are afraid to live."
We share make-up tips.
"I like Shiseido and Nars," he says.
"And I liked Mac for a long time, but I thought they might bar me, because my ex-wife is modelling for them now. But they didn't."
They can't stop you buying it, I say.
"Oh, I refuse to buy it! I want it free."
He doesn't take his make-up off before bed. Ugh, I say. He laughs.
"I have to shave, because I am a man - whatever you may think; but that's about the only thing I do that disturbs my make-up."
I tell him I like his lipstick. He says he'll find out the colour.
"It's not my usual. For years I was wearing a very specific wine colour. But this one is my more masculine lipstick, I think. Ha ha!"
Eventually, one of his gothed-up helpers comes into the room and taps me on the elbow because my time is almost up. I get two last questions, though.
Is he happy?
He pauses. It is a loaded question for a goth of his stature. An awful lot of fans depend on him not being happy.
"For the most part, yeah. More so than I was a year ago. And definitely more than I was 10 years ago. I feel, like, being in a position where I simply have no reason to apologise for just being myself, and where I don't have to make what I do an apology for me, or a defence of who I am."
And does he ever talk to Dita?
"Not recently, but um... yup. I mostly just get yelled at for things that I can't change, and don't want to change any more. No. That's not a fair characterisation of what, um..."
He breaks off. Marilyn Manson looks at me through the treble barrier of milky-eyed contact lenses and sunglasses and the gloom of the hotel room. And then he giggles, naughtily.
"But it is pretty true! Ha ha!"