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[whitespace] Marilyn Manson and Band
Photograph by Perou

Into the Mind of Marilyn

In 'Holy Wood (In the Shadow of the Valley of Death)' Marilyn Manson proves, once again, that in art and rock nothing is sacred.

What a relief.

By Sarah Quelland

I can still vividly remember the first time I saw and heard Marilyn Manson. The year was 1994 and, having escaped from college, I was spending a quiet weekend at home in Monterey. Watching TV well into the wee hours of the morning, flipping between some silly B-movie on USA's Up All Night! and MTV, my remote control landed on Manson's "Dope Hat" video. The chances of that occurring were infinitesimally small. For one thing, I rarely watched television, and MTV, obsessed at the time with the huge commercial success of less volatile bands like Smashing Pumpkins and the Cranberries, only ran this largely unpopular, paranormal video a handful of times.

I WAS READY FOR SOMETHING new in my life. Rebounding from failed expectations with other bands, discouraged by the unexciting direction music seemed to be heading in general and disappointed with the self-important anti-rock star attitudes, I'd been retreating for months into the tried-and-true classic sounds of the Doors, the Beatles, Janis Joplin and Led Zeppelin.

But that night, through bleary insomniac eyes, I witnessed this stringy rock demon and his colorful band of misfits offering the perfect antidote. It was in the form of "Dope Hat," a twisted, hallucinogenic take on the boat ride scene in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, from the band's 1994 album Portrait of an American Family. I just couldn't resist this wicked kiddie carnival and its twisted industrial-rock soundtrack.

When I heard Marilyn Manson was performing on Nine Inch Nails' 1994 Self Destruct tour with the Jim Rose Circus, I immediately bought my ticket to the Oakland date. But in a cruel twist of fate, I became dreadfully ill and ended up in the emergency room the night before the concert. Unable to catch the show, I sold my ticket to a friend, who didn't even manage to get there in time to see Marilyn Manson perform.

It wasn't until 1995, when Marilyn Manson came to the Warfield in San Francisco to open for Danzig that I finally saw the band live. From then on, I caught every concert I could--from small venues like the Edge in Palo Alto and the Trocadero Transfer in San Francisco (two clubs that don't exist anymore) to the two-night headlining return to the Warfield, to the Rock Is Dead tour at the Cow Palace last year.

And when Manson plays the San Jose State Event Center on Jan. 8, I plan on being one of the first in line.

"Why?" seems to be the $64,000 question without an acceptable answer. I can only say I have only two favorite performers in life--at one end of the spectrum is country legend Willie Nelson and at the other is Marilyn Manson--and there's absolutely nothing like seeing them live.

Aside from the music itself, I related to Manson's discontent with society and his rage against conformity, censorship and hypocritical thinking. To me, he is a person who stands up for all the freaks and geeks who have been tormented, persecuted and alienated for their inability or lack of desire to fit into the box. He has remained fearless and risk-taking. Plus, I'll admit, during an era when music was so dull and drab, I loved the shock factor, and I didn't care that he initially patterned himself after Alice Cooper and Kiss.

I found his position that there's a fine line between entertainers and mass murderers--the theory behind the band's paradoxical name--fascinating. I respected the way he scrutinized and manipulated the system. More than that, I was impressed by his ability to script himself into the role of a big rock star through a combination of skill and savvy determination.

MARILYN MANSON'S most significant and complicated work to date, the just-released Holy Wood is a virtual manifesto set to music. Holy Wood (Nothing/Interscope), serves as a prequel to the band's trilogy, which works backward to Mechanical Animals and concludes with Antichrist Superstar. In this confrontational album Manson explores the concepts of evolution and revolution and links between media martyrs Jesus Christ, John F. Kennedy and John Lennon by focusing on various alchemical, political, cultural, historical, mythological and Biblical themes.

Musically, the band (vocalist Manson, bassist Twiggy Ramirez, keyboardist Madonna Wayne Gacy, drummer Ginger Fish and guitarist John 5) steps away from the subversive love-it or hate-it David Bowie-styled glam-pop of Mechanical Animals to return to its more aggressive, industrial roots. The result is a highly intelligent, well-structured album that's destined to stir up more than a little controversy.

The most striking element on Holy Wood is Manson's dark fascination with the Kennedy assassination. This isn't the first time Manson has demonstrated an interest in Kennedy. The video for "Coma White" (from Mechanical Animals) stars Manson as Kennedy and his fiancée, Rose McGowan, as Jackie in a melodramatic re-enactment of the assassination.

Manson has also expressed his belief that the Abraham Zapruder footage of Kennedy's assassination is one of the most violent films in American history. On "Posthuman" (from Mechanical Animals), he delivers the searing words, "She's got eyes like Zapruder and a mouth like heroin/She wants me to be perfect like Kennedy."

Holy Wood's "Godeatgod," "Cruci-Fiction in Space," "A Place in the Dirt" and "The Fall of Adam" all address that gruesome day in Dallas. The lyrics to "The Lamb of God," make explicit one of Manson's primary observations on how the media create martyrs: "There was Christ in the metal shell/There was blood on the pavement/The camera will make you god/That's how Jack became sainted."

Still, while Manson seems to identify with Kennedy and other media martyrs, there's no real sense of sympathy in his lyrics. On "The Lamb of God," he goes on to examine the power of the media by suggesting, "If you die when there's no one watching/then your ratings drop, and you're forgotten/but if they kill you on their TV/you're a martyr and a lamb of god."

Manson also brings Aldous Huxley--who died the same day that Kennedy was assassinated (Nov. 22, 1963)--into the equation on "Target Audience (Narcissus Narcosis)," one of the most poetic songs on the album. In this song, Manson unapologetically rails against the "old deceivers": "Am I sorry you killed the Kennedys and Huxley too?/ But I'm sorry Shakespeare was your scapegoat, and your apple's sticking into my throat/Sorry your Sunday smiles are rusty nails and your crucifixion commercials failed."

Continuing in the Kennedy vein, the militant Ministry-styled "King Kill 33°" is titled after an in-depth analysis by James Shelby Downard and Michael A. Hoffman II that speculates on the Masonic symbolism of the Kennedy assasination. The rare tract (which can be purchased online at www.hoffman-info.com) seems to be the work of conspiracy analysts with vast references to sorcery, mysticism, rituals and the science of names.

The work says that the 33rd degree is the highest in Freemasonry and that Kennedy was killed only 10 miles from the 33rd degree of latitude. It also states that "it is a prime tenet of Masonry that its assassins come in threes," disputing the lone gunman theory. It goes on to say "Something died in the American people on November 22, 1963--call it idealism, innocence or the quest for moral excellence." This statement proposes that in only one day, American society took a dramatic turn for the worse, a concept that likely struck Manson's fancy.

"King Kill 33°" suggests that in alchemy--a subject that Manson has been studying--the "Killing of the King" was symbolized by a crucified snake on a tau cross, a T-shaped cross like the one on which Jesus was crucified. The inside of Holy Wood's cover is lined with tarot cards, and the Magician card reveals Manson holding a variation of that very image with a snake wrapped around an image of Christ on a crucifix.

Part of Manson's goal with this album was to create an industrial version of the Beatles' White Album. The idea came to him after he began making connections between Altamont and Woodstock '99; between the Charles Manson murders and the Columbine High School shootings; and other relevant correlations between today and what he views as the troubled times of the late '60s.

Marilyn Manson
Photograph by Scott Lechner

Dope Show: A theatrical Marilyn Manson reaches out to his fans at the Cow Palace on last year's Rock is Dead tour.

IT'S EASY TO DRAW comparisons between Holy Wood and the White Album. The Beatles two-disc recording addressed guns and violence on "Rocky Raccoon" ("Rocky had come equipped with a gun/ to shoot off the legs of his rival") and "The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill" ("The children asked him if to kill was not a sin"), and took a nonconformist stance against the establishment on "Piggies."

Then there is the more obvious "Helter Skelter," which has become virtually synonymous with the Charles Manson murders; "Revolution 1" with its political themes of evolution and revolution; and the sadly ironic "Happiness Is a Warm Gun," which John Lennon sings, "I know no one can do me no harm/because happiness is a warm gun."

Manson offers subtle references to Lennon by appropriating from "Revolution 1" on Holy Wood's catchy first single, "Disposable Teens" ("You say you wanted evolution, the ape was a great big hit/you say you want a revolution man, and I say that you're full of shit") and "Across the Universe" on "The Lamb of God" when he laments, "nothing's going to change the world."

He's more overt when he sings about Lennon's assassination: "There was Lennon in the happy gun/there were words on the pavement/we were looking for the lamb of God/we were looking for Mark David [Chapman]" ("The Lamb of God").

Just as the White Album was thought to play a role in the Charles Manson murders, Marilyn Manson was scapegoated by the media for the Columbine massacre (it should be noted that after reporters recklessly splashed about Manson's supposed connection to the killings, the evidence indicated that those students didn't even listen to Marilyn Manson's music).

In a sense reacting to those false accusations and the pain they caused, the cover of Holy Wood depicts a jawless Manson nailed to a crucifix, duly appropriate on an album focused so heavily on media martyrs.

Kmart, Target and Wal-Mart aren't selling the disc because it bears the parental advisory sticker, and Manson has not released an edited version. Retail outlets Circuit City and Best Buy are carrying the album, but Circuit City is putting the album on shelves with alternative cover art and Best Buy is using alternative cover art for its advertising purposes.

Manson explains on his website, www.marilynmanson.net, "The irony is that my point of the photo on the album was to show people that the crucifixion of Christ is, indeed, a violent image. In fact, the picture itself is composed of a statue of Jesus taken from a place of worship. My jaw is missing as a symbol of this very kind of censorship."

Manson's fairly heretical views on organized religion are often met with disapproval, but as he explains in "Disposable Teens," "I never really hated one true god, but the god of the people I hated." He has theorized that Jesus was the first celebrity and that he was ultimately sacrificed for his revolutionary beliefs.

To the Catholic League and its president, William Donohue, who reportedly condemned Manson and called for a boycott of Holy Wood, saying, "It is Christianity that [Manson] hates, and it is Catholicism that he hates most of all. ... This guy is at war with Christ," on his website Manson responded, "I can't possibly be at war with Christ, because your religion killed him and what he stood for. But if you want to be at war with me ... bring it on."

Manson scorns hypocritical holy rollers on the scathing "'President Dead'," which seems to explore the similarities between government and religion. He observes, "Incubated and jet-set, the bitter thinkers buy their ticket to go find god like a piggy in a fair" and notes, "Every night we are nailed into place, and every night, we just can't seem to ever remember the reason why."

After serving as the sacrificial lamb and receiving more death threats than usual in the Columbine aftermath, Manson canceled concerts and retreated to his home in the Hollywood hills. There, he used his three-month seclusion to reflect on and conceptualize Holy Wood.

Only one song, "The Nobodies," blatantly addresses the Columbine incident. Probably the least complex song on the album, it is also the most chilling since Columbine is still so rooted in this country's immediate consciousness. Manson grieves, "We are the nobodies/wanna be somebodies/when we're dead, they'll know just who we are," and rages, "Some children died the other day/We fed machines and then we prayed/puked up and down in morbid faith/You should have seen the ratings that day."

While the 19-track opus was written in Manson's house--the same house where the Rolling Stones were said to have written Let It Bleed--most of the recording was done in a mansion that once belonged to escape artist Harry Houdini, a mansion that's said to be haunted. Produced by Manson and Dave Sardy, with programming and synthesizers provided by Bon Harris of Nitzer Ebb, the potent album deftly juxtaposes strength with vulnerability and hope with futility.

Keeping the trilogy in mind, the wistful "Coma Black a) eden eye b) the apple of discord" is the dark flipside of Mechanical Animals' "Coma White" and the thick guitar riffs on "Disposable Teens" and "Burning Flag" refer back to Antichrist Superstar's "The Beautiful People," tying the albums together. Throughout Holy Wood is the distorted noise of fireworks exploding, people celebrating, babies crying, flies buzzing and ominous gun sounds.

To add to the complexity, there's an abstract character named Adam Kadmon that threads through the apocalyptic Holy Wood. Significant in the Cabala, there Kadmon is described as the archetype for humanity, a holy cosmic entity and the first Adam from which every soul is descended.

One could postulate, then, that the protagonist in Marilyn Manson's intricate, esoteric trilogy began as Kadmon, a paradox of humanity and divinity and the master human who was broken up into individual humans in an event known as the Fall.

Realizing that he couldn't be part of this "perfect" world that rejected him, or save a world that never wanted to be saved, Kadmon morphed into Mechanical Animals' vacuous alien character Omega, a numb, shallow, doped-up shadow of his formerly brilliant spirit. That is, until the end of the album, when he finds his "Coma White," the thing he needs to make himself whole.

With a newfound strength, he takes charge of his life and mutates from a worm into the Antichrist Superstar--a self-realized hierophant who takes the shape of a fallen angel patterned after Lucifer--before discovering he has become nothing more than the disconsolate "Man That You Fear" at the album's conclusion ("Pray your life was just a dream/the world in my hands, there's no one left to hear you scream/there's no one left for you").

Or not. It's all subjective and open to interpretation because the story is so elaborate, as is the question as to whether or not the suicidal hero lives or dies at the end of Holy Wood on the last track, "Count to Six and Die (the vacuum of infinite space encompassing)" after the fifth pull of the trigger.

It surprises me that more people don't recognize the genius I see in Marilyn Manson, but in my circle of friends, family and colleagues, not one person is affected as deeply as I am by his stimulating theatrics and controversial ideas. It worries my mom a little that I'm so drawn to him, and my dad calls him a "weirdo" (though he recognizes that many people felt the same about Elvis).

While my friends living in the Bible Belt buy into the silly rumors--that he worships Satan; conducts animal sacrifices onstage; had his ribs removed so he could perform fellatio on himself; is a hermaphrodite; got breast implants; and played Paul on The Wonder Years--most of my friends in the Bay Area remain indifferent.

Thus, it is generally in the company of one that I feel free to let my hair down, crank up the music and allow myself to be a fan.

Manson has gone through many phases over the years, evolving from his spooky Portrait of an American Family days when he proclaimed himself "The God of Fuck" on "Cake and Sodomy," asked his fans to spit on him from the audience and cut himself onstage, to the transitional darkness he projected during Antichrist Superstar, to the stylized Hollywood gloss of his Mechanical Animals incarnation, to the strong, confident figure who has emerged with Holy Wood. (Not to mention the chicanery of the Smells Like Children EP, released in 1995 and designed to hoodwink unsuspecting consumers into purchasing the bizarre disk of remixes and covers on the basis of its sinister version of the Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)"--worked like a charm.)

Manson appears to be taking his cues from Madonna by reinventing the band every year or so. The latest design of this compelling performance artist is one of his boldest yet.

Interestingly, the cover of Holy Wood is also a cropped version of Manson's tarot card of the Hanged Man which is described as the card of the turning point. One could surmise that this album, the conclusion of the trilogy, serves as a turning point for Marilyn Manson, a notion given further credence by bassist Twiggy Ramirez on page 116 in the January 2001 issue of Guitar World, where he's quoted as saying, "I think we're gonna reinvent ourselves again after this record."

While some would say Manson is the definitive rock star, his philosophical and intellectual workings have become increasingly difficult for the layman to comprehend. Perhaps the corresponding book, also titled Holy Wood and due out sometime next year, will shed more light on Manson's true intentions, inspirations and motivations.

Even without the complicated plot structure of this daunting trilogy, this remarkable album should prove once and for all that Marilyn Manson, the man and the band, is much more than just a schlocky shock-rock act.


Marilyn Manson's 'Guns, God and Government' tour hits the San Jose State Event Center on Jan. 8, 2001, with Godhead supporting. Tickets are $28.50 and available at all Tickets.com outlets or by calling 408.998.2277.

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From the December 14-20, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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