It's late evening at Marilyn Manson's Hollywood abode, and the scene in his dimly lit living room is disarmingly serene. Dressed from an earlier photo shoot in black slacks, white shirt, wide black tie and German schoolboy cap, the master of the house slouches low on a soft couch, sipping languorously from a large tumbler of milky green liquid. In his lap, a small white cat named Lily purrs contentedly. Although the flickering candles and lifelike taxidermy specimens that fill the room would distract even the most blasé feline, Lily only has eyes for Manson — at least until he doffs his schoolboy cap and replaces it with a cartoonishly large pair of Mickey Mouse ears. "Lily doesn't like it when the mouse is bigger than her," Manson says, chuckling as Lily squirms with obvious displeasure.
Gazing down from the mantlepiece upon this cozy domestic tableau is a vintage headshot of Mary Astor, a beautiful, raven-haired actress who was enormously popular in the Twenties and Thirties.
"This was her house," says Manson. "Her picture just kind of came with the place."
That Manson should reside in Mary Astor's former digs is oddly poetic. Not only has Manson long been fascinated with the "Golden Age" of Hollywood but Astor, like Manson, was no stranger to controversy. Although it's forgotten today, the actress' lurid divorce trial was the celebrity scandal of 1936. Details with her affair with screenwriter George S. Kaufman greatly titillated the American public, and she was denounced and defamed by various politicians and other self-appointed arbiters of morality, people who probably should have been more concerned with solving the problems of the country than with taking potshots at a popular entertainer. Sound familiar?
Ostracized to the point where her career was in jeopardy, Astor rehabilitated her image with standout performances in 1937's The Prisoner of Zenda and 1941's The Maltese Falcon. Again, the parallels are almost eerie: After continued harassment from pandering politicos and the Religious Right nearly destroyed Marilyn Manson's career, it took a film appearance — Manson's eloquent interview segment in Michael Moore's recent documentary, Bowling for Columbine — to make the world view him in a more sympathetic light.
"If I had a dime for every person who's come up to me in the past couple months and said, 'I really liked you in that movie,' I could pay for all my lawsuits right now," Manson says, laughing. "I have to thank it, because it's been very responsible for changing the climate of everything, particularly the music industry, towards Marilyn Manson as a musical entity. People are not looking at me in the same way they did before, and it's not from some cheap, sellout bullshit of me saying, 'Hey guys! It's all just an act! I don't really mean it…' It's not that at all. It's them realizing, 'This guy is an artist. He's saying and doing what he wants, and he's saying the same things we want to say.'"
If anything, The Golden Age of the Grotesque — Manson's latest album — should further capitalize on this new level of appreciation for all things Manson. Not only is Golden Age Manson's best record to date, it's also his most accessible. Sure, tracks like "Slutgarden," "(S)Aint" and "Para-Noir" positively drip with the pungent aroma of sex and decadence so familiar to Manson fans, but they're also front-loaded with the sort of visceral, impossible-to-miss hooks that would make everyone from your grandma to your mullet-headed cousin want to punch the air in pure rock ecstasy. Listening to "mOb Scene"'s naked cheerleader chat of "Be obscene! Be-be obscene, baby!," the head-on glam rock-jump blues collision of "Doll-Dagga Buzz-Buzz Ziggety-Zag," or the woozy cabaret dementia of the title cut, you just have to laugh: It's all so absurd, so gloriously over the top, so totally fucking entertaining. Which, according to Manson, is exactly the point.
"I'm not afraid to say I'm an entertainer," he says, speaking in a relaxed and thoughtful manner. "I think I've struggled with that over the years, because in some ways I thought that that meant I wasn't an artist. But making people entertained is the greatest art that there is, and I wanted to create a record that is the most accessible, commercial, easy-to-like album, without doing anything that I found compromising to my tastes. I have no doubt that this will reach a lot of people that my other records haven't. And that doesn't mean it's being better or worse than any of those records; it just means that I was lucky enough to benefit from a lot of possibly terrible experiences and use them to make something I think the world needs."
"Possibly terrible experiences?" Well, let's just say that, since 1999, Manson has endured enough shit to make any self-respecting individual want to assume a new identity and hightail it to Brazil. In addition to being wrongfully blamed for inspiring the Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colorado, he's also been hit with various lawsuits, gone through a very public breakup with actress Rose McGowan and witnessed the disappointing sales of 2000's Holy Wood — the latter if which led many to write off Manson for good.
Then came Ozzfest 2001. Performing alongside such radio-friendly acts as Linkin Park, Crazy Town and Papa Roach, Marilyn Manson stuck out like an erection in a convent. This wasn't a band that had come to play its TRL-approved hits and maybe move a few more units; this was a band that was channeling years of built-up stress, frustration and anger into one of the most incendiary live spectacles in recent memory. "People recognized the fact that Marilyn Manson as a band — and me as someone who was making a comeback, from an almost career-destroying witch hunt of Columbine — did not take shit from anybody, and kicked the living Christ out of everyone on that tour," Manson proudly recalls.
"We showed everybody what it was about, and I felt great about that — that made me feel like, 'You know what? If people didn't understand what I did on Holy Wood, it's OK, because I tried to make something that was dark and complicated, and it's not really important to me if everyone understood it.' That record was about exorcising demons for me. It was about survival, it was about not blowing my brains out, it was about not quitting and hiding in a closet. It was about being a survivor. It was something I had to do.
"Ozzfest gave me the courage and the confidence to go forward with something new. I knew that I had closed the door and finished what I was trying to say with [1996's] Antichrist Superstar, [1998's] Mechanical Animals and Holy Wood. So there was a bit of freedom there, a clean slate. But there was a catch: I had a best friend and longtime collaborator who wasn't feeling the same way."
The friend and collaborator he refers to is Twiggy Ramirez. Manson's bassist and running buddy since the band's early days. Ramirez left the Manson family in early 2002; Manson remains publicly vague about the specifics of Twiggy's departure, but it seems pretty clear that it amounted to the usual "artistic differences."
"It's very unfortunate that I couldn't keep my original band together the way it was," says the singer. "But at the same time, it's never been a band in that sense. It's always been about keeping people together with me that believe in what I want to do. And I didn't want anything that was going to be created to suffer from any sort of doubt, fear, lack of inspiration, or lack of courage. So I moved forward, made a big change. It was like getting a blood transfusion for the band, and I think people will hear that on the record."
The band (which includes drummer Ginger Fish, keyboardist M.W. Gacy and guitarist John 5) didn't need to look far for Twiggy's replacement. Tim Skold, formerly of industrial rockers KMFDM, was already slated to produce The Golden Age of the Grotesque, and he slipped into the bass spot easily. (Skold had also previously collaborated with Manson on a cover of Soft Cell's "Tainted Love" for the Not Another Teen Movie soundtrack). With Skold installed in the band, material for The Golden Age of the Grotesque came together quickly and plentifully, beginning with the thunderous and self-explanatory "This Is the New Shit." The album's sound is totally contemporary, but its essence is rooted in a variety of radical artistic movements from the late 19th and early 20th centuries: The crowd-pleasing grotesqueries of Weimar-era cabaret, Parisian burlesque and American vaudeville; the flamboyant wit of Dandyism; the provocative imagery of Surrealism; and, most of all, the childlike absurdity of Dada.
"A lot of the album was inspired by the idea of Dada, which was the complete anti-art aesthetic of not conforming to what people expected," Manson explains. "It's very juvenile — sometimes that's what's bad about it, and sometimes that's what's good about it. But during the process of the record, we did things purely for our own amusement, and purely to fuck with people." For The Golden Age of the Grotesque, Manson's Dadaist approach included arming a blindfolded John 5 with unfamiliar, out-of-tune guitars to create the unhinged solo on "Para-Noir," and presenting a record company A&R man with the record's "new single," which turned out to be a 30-minute, digitally jumbled monologue.
Like a lot of his heroes from the turn of that last century, Manson has fallen under the spell of absinthe, a particularly potent alcoholic beverage made with the mildly poisonous plant wormwood, which has been illegal in America for decades. "Everyone knows my history with decadence and all forms of drugs and alcohol, and every illegal practice that exists," he says, wryly. "But part of it was, I guess, embracing the spirit of some of the writers and painters I really admire. And part of it was just stumbling across an outside force that you don't need to rely on but will sometimes make you see things in a way that you wouldn't have looked at before, because you were too afraid to, or because you were too uptight or thinking too hard. So absinthe was really just something that broke down that wall; it was about taking away the border between the stage and the audience and not knowing which part of it was the show.
"I don't ever want people to think that I rely on drugs or alcohol, or any sort of depressant or stimulant to be inspired as an artist. I just find that sometimes it's a lubricant, to make the coitus not to be interruptus." He laughs. "And just as much as I was in the 10th grade, I'm the kid that likes to do the thing that they're not allowed to do. And so of course absinthe is going to appeal to me. It's not to be cool, or to be shocking — it's just a thrill. And that kind of ties in with the record: This record, to me, is kind of like shoplifting, or like fucking some dirty whore that you just met without a rubber. It's the exhilaration and fear of, 'Shit, I might have just ruined my whole life!' or 'I'm gonna be in jail!' or whatever it is, put into an artistic context."
But though the "Green Faerie" of absinthe perches gaily upon Manson's shoulder, she's not the main woman in his life. That distinction belongs to the gorgeous fetish model and burlesque performer Dita Von Teese, who Manson describes as "a really positive influence on me." The first time he saw Dita, he says, he was awestruck by her appearance. "I thought, She looks like she stepped out of a cartoon, or a pinup, or the Playboy that I snuck out of my grandpa's house when I was a child. Ironically enough, she recently was in Playboy, and it was like everything had come full circle." He laughs. "You know, I can't go into the bathroom and masturbate to the Playboy when my girlfriend's on the cover and she's waiting in the bedroom. So that's very odd…
"We're so alike in the way that we believe in what we do. I mean, she is so independent and so dedicated to what she does; she makes all of her own things and is so particular about her performance. She has the same sense of humor as me. And then, at the same time, we're completely different. It's a once-in-a-lifetime-type relationship. I guess, for once, I'm happy in that part of my life. There's always going to be something that tortures you, no matter what kind of success you obtain, but I feel like I have someone there that I can count on to stick by me, and that's important for anybody."
Perhaps it's a cheesy thing to say, but Marilyn Manson actually seems to be in a very good place right now. Creatively, he's certainly firing on all cylinders: He plays the part of a pre-op transsexual club singer in the upcoming film Party Monster, he's scoring the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and he's been collaborating with controversial Austrian artist Gottfried Helnwein on a variety of visual projects, including the cover art for The Golden Age of the Grotesque. And then there was his first art show, which took place in Hollywood in October 2002, where his evocative watercolor paintings pleasantly surprised fans and critics alike.
"It was really cool for me to be able do to an art show," he says. "I never expected, or wanted, people to see my paintings. I did it purely as something to relax, or maybe therapeutic, maybe out of boredom. It was something that, if I couldn't be creative in music, I would do it some other way.
"I've discovered that being an artist, and having art as your way of life — you know, the dandy aesthetic — is the only way I can live," he says, stirring some more water into his absinthe glass. "It's what makes me exist. I always have to be doing something, whether it's taking pictures, or being photographed, or painting pictures or painting a room. I don'' care what it is; I can't be lazy. And I'd love to — I'd love to sleep more, I'd love to take a day off, I'd love to be sitting back and watching a movie right now. But even the interview is an important part of art, because you''e speaking to people about what you do."
Ultimately, though, it all comes back to the music. "This will be the thing I'm remembered for the most," he says of his new album and upcoming tour. "People often ask me, 'What do you want to be remembered for the most?' And I usually say, 'I don't care, because as long as they remember you, it doesn't matter.' But I know that The Golden Age of the Grotesque is more than a record; it is what it says it is — it's the dawn of a new era of entertainment.
"This is where I begin. It's my prime; I haven't started yet. I just now figured out how to unzip my zipper." He smiles. "So get ready to suck my dick. It's on!"