I've often lived by a peculiar rule that if I'm record-shopping and I see artwork that captivates me in a section where music I enjoy resides, I will blindly purchase the album. I assume this rule is based on a feeling I got when I first laid eyes on Marilyn Manson's mainstream debut, Portrait of an American Family.
My mother and father had divorced a few years prior, and it was during the summer of 1995 that my sister and I went to spend some time with my dad in his one-bedroom Melrose apartment in Los Angeles. At the tender age of 10, I was starting to dip my toes into the shallow end of subculture and was deeply fascinated by my father's CD collection. It wasn't anything special: one of those black-laminate standing cases that housed about 50 or so CDs and spun around. There was a small section of this particular case that I would look at repeatedly, the main CD being Portrait... I can recall my first connection with the spine of the CD, the green writing perfectly placed against a black background and it sticking out distinctly in the revolving stand. What came next seems like an overwhelming wave of terror and intrigue. The same feeling you get when you initially lay eyes on a first crush. I pulled the spine of the case out and gazed upon the most horrific work of art my 10-year-old brain had ever stumbled upon. The cover to this record displays a claymation family, wrought in dysfunction and molded to epitomize the state of Middle America in its darkest form. I don't even know if I fully comprehended the play on the teenage boy "playing with his monkey" on the front until I was a bit older, but I was terrified, nonetheless. Upon opening it, the phrase "You cannot sedate / All the things you hate" glows in a child's handwritten neon blue around the CD. The booklet had crude drawings, spooky fonts and pictures of genderless miscreants being generally daunting in every pose.
I was hooked based on the aesthetic alone, but I knew that the album wasn't going to be very easy to be able to listen to, as I'm sure my dad was aware of the concepts and lyrical content and didn't want to have to discuss it with me. I devised a plan: I was going to hide my new portable CD walkman somewhere in the apartment and wait until the house was asleep to listen to it, because it was too scary not to inquire further. The next night, I executed what I thought was my most devious plot and popped the CD as quietly as possible into the discman. You have to understand: When you're 10, barely anything is discreet under your parent's watchful eyes, and so I thought I was a fucking sleuth cracking open the plastic and perfectly fidgeting the disc out of the jewel case it sat in without that pesky squeak that all of those things make when getting the CD out of them. The intro still haunts me to this day. The creaks and groans of nightmares topped with a speech from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, straight into the rhythmic pounding of toms in "Cake and Sodomy."
Every single song kept getting creepier and creepier and it actually took me two days to get through the whole CD because it would freak me out too much. There was nothing like this at the time. Nothing that I had ever been exposed to, musically, scared the living fucking shit out of me like this entire package. Between the art, the youthful exuberant snarls of Manson himself, the melodic noodling of Daisy Berkowitz in conjunction with Twiggy Ramirez' counter melody bass lines, the wildly petrifying samples punched in by Madonna Wayne Gacy, and the absolute battering of drums by Sara Lee Lucas — every single track was exactly what I was looking for in music and the perfect way for me to go back to my mom's place with a newly inflated sense of "fuck off" in my step.
Portrait... was way more than a record for me, though. The album started a fire in me that couldn't be put out. I couldn't relate to people who didn't look at that record as their version of The Bible (even though, at that young, I barely knew what any of the lyrics meant — I just knew they were taboo and that was cool with me). I didn't want to wear color anymore and I sure as fuck carried a Munsters lunchbox everywhere I went. (I still have that lunchbox — it's lined with leopard-print faux fur — and that phase only lasted a couple years, so give me a break.) Portrait... started a wave that not only resonated with 10-year-old me, but also really created a space for an entire movement of people who were disenfranchised with what they had been spoon-fed from musical generations before. This wasn't the Beatles or the Stones. It didn't have the polished pop of Depeche Mode, and it wasn't out of reach, like the deeper-cut industrial and metal of the current climate. It was meant to be a massive middle finger in the face of the world, and it worked. You got to watch the shift of millions of others coming to realize that being an outward blemish to normie society was now acceptable in its own way.
As the years went by, Manson continuously grew and grew as an artist and pretty quickly shed his quirky rock songs with childhood references dipped in poison for a much more direct cancer agitated by society. Albeit not my personal favorite Manson record, I find that I'll go back to Portrait... every once in a while, like looking at an old scrapbook. I am eternally thankful for it, as it truly set the wheels in motion for who I've grown to be. THIS IS YOUR WORLD IN WHICH WE GROW AND WE WILL GROW TO HATE YOU.