Recently, I attended a performance by Marilyn Manson at the Grove of Anaheim, a moderately sized venue located a scant few blocks from the famous tumor on the face of Orange County known as Disneyland. I’ve already seen Manson live about ten or eleven times; I own all of his albums, have provided his staggeringly terrible absinthe (Mansinthe) at parties in lieu of the more common bottle of wine, I once drove for two hours to meet him in person for 30 seconds (he was very upbeat and friendly), and my copy of his excellent autobiography, The Long Hard Road Out Of Hell, has disintegrated due to overuse. Suffice it to say, I grew up loving Marilyn Manson. I’ve always been a huge fan.
For those not in the know: “Marilyn Manson” is technically the name of a band, formed in Florida in 1989. However, when most people refer to “Marilyn Manson” they are referring to the individual once known as Brian Warner, who is the front man and only consistent member of that band. The man himself is a freakish looking number, and he accentuates this freakishness by wearing so much makeup that the cast of Ron Howard’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas would tell him to take it easy. In his appearance, as well as his attitude, he resembles the great pharaoh of Ancient Egypt: Akhenaten, the heretic king, father of the more famous King Tut. Akhenaten struck down the worship of the old gods and was outlawed for it after his death. Manson hopefully won’t be outlawed, but he’s done what he can to strike at the heart of ancient traditions himself.
I used to drag myself to every show of his that I could get to, regardless of the cost or inconvenience, however I hadn’t been to see him for several years at the time of this concert. The reasons for that are numerous: chief among them the fact that during the past few years of my own life, I found it difficult to care about anything at all, much less music. Much much less mediocre music, which unfortunately Manson’s last couple albums have turned out to be (in my opinion). His last record, Born Villain, was one I couldn’t really get into at all despite my best efforts; his two before that had a few catchy tracks but largely were missing the social element that I thought made him great. What’s more, Manson is very old now (44, or about 86 in rock star years) and the manic energy that once pervaded his legendary live shows has begun to subside.
Then of course there’s the question of whether he’s still relevant to pop culture at all; when his signature (and to date still his best) album, Antichrist Superstar, was released in 1996, it was a very different climate here in the United States. 1996 was before the rise to prominence of Eminem; before Mel Gibson made torturing Jesus popular again; and Lady Gaga was but a 10 year old little boy. What Manson was doing with that record has now been rendered excessively mainstream by those aforementioned creators.
What I’m saying is: a large part of Manson’s shtick was centered on shock and controversy, however none of his horrific techniques would mean much today. He attacked religion when people were a little more testy about that. He cursed up a storm and depicted extreme violence; but today no one blinks when that gets you into the Top 40. He performed with callous disregard for the boundaries of gender and good taste, wearing makeup, cutting himself with broken bottles, and performing (apparently unsimulated) fellatio upon his bandmates on stage. He wore insane costumes and those ignorant to his work spread increasingly ridiculous rumors about him, such as that he’d had surgery to remove his ribs such that he could pleasure himself orally (not true, although the true stories of his adventures are almost as outlandish.) He’s technically a Reverend in Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan, but that’s more due to the late Dr. LaVey’s respect for him than his actual interest in any form of Satanism.
My favorite story of his comes from his autobiography, where he describes filling a pinata with festering animal guts and hanging it above his audience during a show. The audience, of course, started to beat upon and bash the swinging, viscera filled party favor. Rather than encourage this, Manson begged them not to, applying Wonka-esque reverse psychology. He said there would be consequences and then watched joyfully as the concertgoers attacked the pinata anyway and covered themselves in disgusting dead animal goo. That’s the genius of Marilyn Manson.
Now this is not to say that Manson was a wholly original artist in his heyday, nor was he the most extreme artist performing by a very significant margin. Far from either one, actually. He always wore his musical influences on his sweaty vinyl sleeve, the most prominent and obvious of these being Alice Cooper, David Bowie and Trent Reznor. And while his antics were nutty, he had nothing on the really crazy musicians like GG Allin and Varg Vikernes, who make Marilyn at his most insane look like Mr. Rogers at a festival of hugs. Before his death, GG Allin created some truly offensive lyrics I won’t even quote here, and was known for eating his own feces (really), threatening to murder his audience, and rolling in broken glass on stage. Varg Vikernes, one of the fathers of black metal, played base with the band Mayhem. He’s known for his neo-Nazi leanings (he refers to Satanist Anton LaVey as “The Jew”) and for burning historic churches in his homeland of Norway. Also: he was recently released from a 16-year prison term for stabbing his bandmate best friend Euronymous to death with a blunt pocket knife to the skull. I’m endlessly fascinated by musician stories, especially really crazy musician stories, so Vikernes and Allin mesmerize me with their ultraviolent lunacy. Maybe I’ll write something up on them someday. But I digress.
Back to Manson: He wasn’t the first of his kind, he hasn’t been the last, and while a large part of his draw was based on shock, he wasn’t even that shocking in the nineties if you compare him to the true whack-jobs of that genre. So what’s his appeal? I postulate that it’s simply that he was a great artist; not a really original one, not a particularly evil one, but just plain good at what he did. He stunned non-fans with his erudition when interviewed for the hilariously corpulent Michael Moore’s anti-gun movie Bowling For Columbine (he was blamed by certain parties for the Columbine shooting, even though the perpetrators actively disliked his music). Manson is smart; and he’s an expert at marketing himself.
Is he still good? Well, as I mentioned already, his last few albums did nothing for me. The last time I saw him live, I thought he looked fat (for him: he’d been known for being skeletally thin and now looks almost normal). He moved more slowly; he forgot lyrics, he didn’t roar and bolt about like I’d remembered him doing. Everyone has off nights, but this happened more than once. Looking back, I think this had less to do with his age and more to do with the fact that the last shows I watched of his were mostly co-headlining with Slayer. Slayer is a wonderful, glorious band, but Manson does not mesh with them, and his hardcore fans do not mesh with their hardcore fans. So when he went up, many Slayer fans would leave; others would yell frankly mean things at the poor fellow as he tried to do his job. He must have felt that as a performer; it must have hurt his performances.
As for me, my taste in music evolved, I gained my own share of weight, and I dealt with personal issues that made attending concerts and listening to albums the last things on my mind. So Manson and I parted ways for a number of years. I skipped a fair number of his shows when he came by, something high-school me would never have done. I ignored the tour he did with one Mr. Robert Zombie (whom I also love; but they apparently didn’t love each other). Nevertheless lately I finally find myself having energy and wanting to do things again; and what do you know? Manson was in town. I bought my ticket well in advance, knowing that if I didn’t, I would probably just end up not bothering to go.
When the day of the show came, I found myself apathetic to the idea of it. I found myself more worried about being up too late than excited about throwing on the old top hat and meeting my fellow freaks. I worried about the cost of gas; about parking; but I didn’t think about the show. Not a good sign. Nevertheless anything worth doing is worth doing well, so I put on my Luciferean-George-Washington concert outfit and got my ass to the Grove. I showed up about 45 minutes after the official start, missing most of the opening band “The Butcher Babies”. They didn’t seem very good, so I wasn’t really concerned about not seeing them.
I headed down to the Pit. There was a time when I loved to mosh; to jump around and shove everyone until I got knocked down, then get up and shove people some more. I didn’t really want to deal with it this time, but I wanted to be relatively close to the stage. I stood and waited for almost an hour, making the occasional half-hearted attempt at conversation with the black clad music nerds. Finally the lights went down, and the familiar silhouette of Marilyn Manson appeared behind a sheer purple curtain and the crowd roared. I confess that I did feel a twinge of excitement at that moment, although it mostly went away when I realized the song he opened with was one I didn’t know at all. There’s another thing that would never have happened a decade ago.
I stood staring at the stage, with the fans writhing around me like some evil snake pit. I remained motionless myself, still not finding it in me to enjoy this ruckus. I could be home reading right now, I thought, as my crotch was collaterally grinded upon by some bearded, beanied douchebag’s ass.
Manson was singing his classic ”King Kill 33″ in a black vest and jeans. Then, suddenly, he was fully decked out as a crimson Pope, stabbing a beer can with a knife-shaped microphone. I wondered how he’d made the costume change so quickly- and that was it! That’s the magic I came to see. Finally I relaxed into the flow of things, thinking about the show, and how I’d love Marilyn Manson to be elected as the new pope, and not worrying about parking, or gas, or Beanie McDouche’s buttcrack. I was having fun!
Manson cracked macabre jokes with the audience, claimed to be drinking moonshine out of his water bottle, dashed about manically and physically attacked his bandmates, humped a podium, and did wonderful justice to his old hits. I finally allowed myself to absorb the audience’s energy; I jumped and sang along, and respectfully declined the offers of marijuana cigarettes that were being passed around. Manson was just as great as I remembered him, and knowing that, despite the fact that we were both much older, brought a tear to my blood-red contact lense.
I had a blast seeing Manson live. When he seemed to be nearing the end of his set, I realized I should probably slip out so I could drive away before everyone else and not have to deal with a traffic jam. Then the familiar thundering drum beats of The Beautiful People began, and I realized that there was no way in hell I was missing this, no matter how long it meant I’d have to sit in gridlock.
The crowd lost it; in the chaos, I was able to discreetly but forcefully shove Beanie McDouche into the mosh pit. My heart warmed as he was trampled by the frenzied concertgoers, the look on his bearded face betraying pure surprise. Then I hopped into the pit myself. I looked up at my old friend, who was also lost in the cathartic, unholy violence of the night and was beating the everloving crap out of his long-suffering, stonefaced guitarist.
Thank you, Marilyn. You’ve still got it. And so do I.