Rebel smell – Time’s up for shock rockers

Is it time for rock and roll rebels to face the music? GARY STEEL fuses his 1990s Marilyn Manson interview with musings on shock rock.

He’s an honorary member of the Church of Satan. His stage act includes self-mutilation, lewd sexual acts, and occasionally, loss of life for hapless beasts.

He’s known as “the God of Fuck!” and he’s coming this way.

Three months ago actor Evan Rachel Wood (13, True Blood, Mildred Pierce, Westworld) appeared in a completely different role in the documentary miniseries Phoenix Rising. Fans of the luminous Wood were aware of her penchant for performing difficult, often extreme roles, but Phoenix Rising was more upsetting than any of her other film or television appearances.

In its two epic episodes, Wood alleges that she was abused, raped on film and held captive by Brian Warner aka Marilyn Manson during their on-again/off-again relationship between 2006 and 2010. Prevented by the Statute of Limitations from filing charges against Warner, it feels as though the film attempts to serve the dual purpose of allowing Wood to publically come out with her previously closely guarded and horrific secrets and to pressure Warner into admitting to the abuse, and facing up to his alleged addiction and mental health issues.

Outrageous Florida shock-rocker Marilyn Manson brings his controversial band of the same name to Auckland this month for a show that has brought censorship pressure across America from parents and Christian groups.

“It just inspires me to try harder,” croaks Manson. “We’ve had extreme protesting from right-wing Christian and political groups. They’ve all tried to stop us from playing, and they’ve only succeeded in making us stronger.

“Love and hate are equally powerful emotions, so as much as they hate us, our fans love us. The best thing for them to be is apathetic, but they’re too ignorant to realise that.”

The miniseries has some issues too, and it’s not helped by the structural conceits of its well-manicured confessional scenes or the lingering feeling that Wood – as we know – is a great actor. But, as anyone from the #metoo generation might rightly point out, it would be churlish to get stuck on minor details and vague doubts when dealing with such serious allegations.

Regardless of the truth or otherwise of Wood’s story, I’m surprised that it hasn’t prompted a rethink about the role of so-called rock and roll rebels and whether it’s time their near 60-year reign skids to a timely end.

Born Brian Warner, Manson’s fundamental Christian upbringing and his exposure to his grandfather’s perversion – allegedly jerking off to porno movies while playing with his train set – motivated the youth to undergo a personality transformation.

Reacting to the hypocrisy he saw in his circumstances, Warner renamed himself Marilyn (after the sex Goddess idol) Manson (after the notorious psycho-killer), and fashioned a weird and perverse visual image around the new name.

Now 27, Manson has lived with his creation for more than a decade, and his group has followed suit. Each member has a monicker that conflicts star icon with serial killer: MW Gacy, Ginger Fish and Twiggy Ramirez.

Since the “teenager” was invented in the 1950s and along with it the callow Johnny in The Wild One (“What are you rebelling against, Johnny?” “What have you got?”) and the hormonally-charged youths in Rebel Without A Cause, we’ve had an on-again/off-again romance with rebellion.

Before the ‘50s, each successive generation wasn’t so far removed from the previous generation and dutifully followed in the parents’ footsteps. Rock and roll changed all that, and the seismic shift in culture and politics during the ‘60s meant that when I was growing up in the late ‘60s and ‘70s the generation gap felt vast. I felt no connection to the nostalgic World War II lullabies of Vera Lynn or the safe crooning of Bing Crosby, while even The Beatles were a step too far for my parents. My generation trampled all over everything my parents held dear.

With their potent horror imagery and music equal parts Nine Inch Nails-style hard, industrial-edged rock and glam and gothic-influenced, the group have found a fervent audience in disaffected young males who respond to the similar nihilism of groups like Tool and Korn.

For all the band’s shock value, it doesn’t take much digging to reveal the individual Marilyn Manson as a dress-up freak who happens to have his own moral agenda. Shucks, he even cares.

As a boomer (yeah, really sorry about that) I still love a lot of the incredible music (not to mention visual art and films) made in the ‘60s and ‘70s. At the same time, the perpetuation of the “rebel” myth is downright dangerous, and it surprises me that while film industry moguls are being exposed for their inexcusable behaviour, by and large rockers got away with it.

Those that survived, of course. While sexual improprieties have taken the lion’s share of recent news coverage, self-destruction has always been writ large in rock and roll mythology, together with the idea that the use and abuse of drugs and alcohol is really cool. How many young fans got hooked on heroin after hearing ‘Waiting For The Man’ and falling for Lou Reed’s heroin chic pose?

Manson describes the nihilism as “half of my personality”, and says the need young people have to express their nihilism is “a chemical disorder”.

“When they reach a certain age, they feel a sense of helplessness, and I think your mind is taught to react with nihilism. It’s a part of every person’s character development, everyone’s evolution.

“I think it’s probably the most healthy thing they could do, because if you didn’t have music or film or books… as an outlet, you would have more Jeffrey Dalmers, more Ted Bundys.

Factions in rock music are ultimately spurious, but different genres and styles with their own aesthetics provide fans with something to identify with, and what’s cool to one fan will be death by dweebishness for another. The ongoing problem is the cross-generational urge to outrage, which morphs and mutates over time but seldom turns into anything constructive.

We know that young males in particular, with their surging hormonal drive, need an outlet. We see the unfortunate side effects of pent-up hormonal aggression in the carnage on our roads and in emergency wards on the weekends. At its best, a rock gig can fulfil the physical need to get your ya-ya’s out, something that in tribal culture would be fulfilled within the strict criteria of set ceremonies but in modern society lacks boundaries.

We know that the innate aggression of youth can turn into a suicidal urge (or worse, a homicidal rage) if left unchecked and channelled wrongly. What happens when a young person comes across and identifies with an act like Marilyn Manson, which is upfront in denouncing accepted societal values? On the one hand, the music does its job as an aggression outlet. On the other, it passes on the values that the artist espouses. In Marilyn Manson’s case, as he claims in my 1997 interview, he’s openly attacking mainstream values and promoting alternative ways of thinking and living.

“My fans see that I’m a person that’s seen and done a lot of things, and has experienced a lot of the same problems that they’re having, and they see that I’ve used it to my advantage. Maybe that gives them motivation and hope.”

Identification for Manson was equal parts visual and philosophical. “I’ve always been a fan of cinema as well as music, and I think that images are just as important as the sound you’re giving. I’ve always looked at my body as another form of expression. Since I was a kid my Mum would catch me wearing her makeup or wearing Halloween masks at the wrong time of the year.”

Personally, I’ve always loved the idea of transgressive and extreme art and music. It can be healthy for new generations to challenge the accepted norms. I love the fact that in 2022 the so-called millennials are taking on governments over climate change, for instance.

In art and music, however, things can get rather murky. In 1965 it felt revolutionary for The Who to sing “I hope I die before I get old!” (‘My Generation’) over their aggressive head-banging chords, but within 12 years of that landmark, Throbbing Gristle were inventing a very dark genre dubbed ‘industrial’ which would make The Who sound rather naïve by comparison. TG was infamous for a confrontational live act featuring disturbing pornographic footage and photographs of Nazi concentration camps.

Lesser-known than the imitative acts they spawned, the group’s leader, Genesis P-Orridge, ultimately continued his transgressive journey with extreme body modification. In Throbbing Gristle’s wake were groups like SPK, Ministry, Front 242, Skinny Puppy and in New Zealand Fetus Productions, who showed old autopsy footage at their concerts. The most internationally famous industrial group, however, was Trent Reznor’s Nine Inch Nails, whose musical and aesthetic influence still persists. In essence, Marilyn Manson were like a chip off that block – like NIN shorn of its musical intelligence and reduced to outrage as entertainment.

Tellingly, Manson names his favourite books as Frederick Nietzsche’s Antichrist, Dr Seuss’s Cat In The Hat, Roald Dahl’s Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, and Anton La Vey’s Devil’s Notebook. Oh, and The Bible!

“It’s something I spent a lot of time learning when I was a kid, and ended up realising that Christianity was more oppressing than it was liberating, so it wasn’t really for me.”

Mind you, it’s obvious from my interview that Brian Warner is no dummy. It’s healthy to challenge mainstream thinking and he makes some very good points. I might phrase it differently, but we’re talking about an individual rebelling against very conservative so-called Christian values.

It never occurred to me that he really considered himself to be the anti-Christ. That just seemed like a promotional tool to me. But in the wake of Phoenix Rising, I couldn’t help feeling somehow implicated as a journalist who took part in my own small way in promoting Marilyn Manson back in 1997.

But doesn’t Christianity teach great ideas like compassion and empathy? Isn’t that what separates us from animals?

“Guilt is what separates us from animals, and I think that’s a big fault of Christianity.

“Maybe we ARE animals, and maybe ideas like compassion, guilt and empathy are faults, and maybe sins are virtues. Animals are pure, because they don’t make apologies, and I think in the apologies is where you get the hypocrisy.

“It seems like a good idea to love everybody, but if you do it really cheapens the value of love.”

Clearly, there’s a big difference between having unconventional ideas and carrying them out with no thought of the impact they have on others. Prince, for instance, once said that he thought it would be great if people had sex with strangers in public – instant fornication gratification. It was an idea of freeing ourselves up, ridding ourselves of inhibitions and grabbing life. But it never happened.

Rock stars with their hordes of dedicated fans are very powerful figures. With that power comes a massive responsibility. The privilege is easily abused. It’s easy in a concert setting to see just how a powerful performer can mould a crowd, and it’s as true as it ever was that absolute power corrupts absolutely. We see the fawning support of their celebrity heroes on social media; a phenomenon that can have harsh consequences for anyone that goes against their favourite star.

As an advocate of social Darwinism, Manson says the only really valued attribute is intelligence. “I pick my friends by what they have to contribute. I think artists and writers and anybody that has an opinion and cares enough to speak their mind is intelligent.”

At times Manson looks like the demonic cousin of a character from a Dr Seuss book, with his exaggerated lipstick and strange postures, but he sees himself as the Antichrist.

His group’s latest album, Anti-Christ Superstar, is “about searching for something to believe in, going through relationships, religion, sex, drugs, nihilism, power, and in the end it’s fine, you can only believe in yourself.”

The word “apocalypse” gets bandied about a lot on the record. What can he mean? The end of the world?

“The apocalypse I’m looking for is on a mental level. Of course, there are times when I’d love to see a physical destruction of the world in some of my more hopeless moods. But the apocalypse that I would most like to see is almost a positive one because it’s a killing off of the old ways, a getting rid of the idea of God or the mainstream. Believing in yourself, throwing away these old crutches.

“To me, the idea of an antichrist is about individuality and personality. Christ is really just a figure for all of those things to oppress us.

“People seem to be brainwashed into thinking a certain way, but I think what they really need is to have their brains WASHED, and sometimes music and art is the only way you can do that.”

It gets complicated, however, when a musician lives an outlaw life and everyone around them seemingly has the same values. When drugs and alcohol and endless partying enter the picture, what is reality? If Brian Warner really did believe that he was the anti-Christ and “the God of fuck”, then what was stopping him from doing whatever he wanted to anyone he wanted to? Where are the anti-Christ’s boundaries? I’m making no assumptions about his guilt or otherwise. While the court of law is far from perfect as a mechanism of justice, I’d rather put my faith in that than a “he said/she said” scenario conducted in public and on television.

But isn’t Christ the ultimate figure of rebellion?

“I think Jesus Christ was the very first rock star. And Anti-Christ Superstar is the very last one.”

Amen.

 

* Gary Steel’s Marilyn Manson story was originally published on 9 March 1997. Phoenix Rising is available to view on Neon in NZ.

One Comment

  1. Insightful on every level. Not least that rebellion is often necessary in every field of art and culture. That said, just about every piece of enduring wisdom I have ever heard or read was said by someone way before my time. Including my parents.
    In my view, Manson, and so many others of his kind, were guilty of ‘Pull your pants down creativity’. Shock tactics designed to get a reaction under the guise of creativity. A lot of that goes on. Seems he may taken that to a darker interpretation.

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