After a lifetime of being an outsider, Marilyn Manson, born Brian Warner, is coming to terms with his past. In a frank and soul-searching interview, he talks to Carole Cadwalladr about the loss of his mother, growing up angry – and why he’s ready for fatherhood
The Marilyn Manson who emerges from the cuttings I read is a confusing, hard-to-pin-down figure. On the one hand he’s an American icon, a heavy metal rock’n’roll star who’s sold more than 50m albums. On the other he’s a middle-aged man who still hasn’t got over his goth stage. He’s an interesting and intelligent commentator on America’s twin obsessions of violence and celebrity (he was born Brian Warner; his name is a blend of Marilyn Monroe and the serial killer Charles Manson). And yet he’s also prone to writing the kind of songs you might expect from a narcissistic teenager with antisocial behaviour issues.
But then I suspect the point about Marilyn Manson is that you’re not meant to understand him. His core audience has always been disaffected adolescents: the lonely, the misunderstood, the alienated. If Morrissey had been American and had taken up satanism and lipstick and best friendship with Hunter S Thompson and Johnny Depp, he might occupy a cultural niche not that far off Manson’s.
He’s waiting in the gloom when I show up, sitting on a sofa in a completely darkened hotel room with the only light coming from a fake candle flickering on the coffee table. Of course vampiric gloom is a Marilyn Manson trademark. It’s actually more of a surprise when he says: “I don’t actually know why they’ve done this. I think they think I like it.” And when I lob him a straightforward first question about the collaborator on his new album, The Pale Emperor, he launches into a long-winded story about house hunting. “I had everything I owned in my whole life – except for my books – in storage. And I wanted to find a house, to really put my roots down in California, and I had been living out of a suitcase for three years or so. And so I went to look at houses and it was strange even for my own manager at the time. He was surprised to see me in the daylight, walking around.”
That doesn’t usually happen?
“It doesn’t usually happen. But I really wanted to flip my entire world upside down, have heaven upside down instead of hell. I just wanted to change things completely. To have that element of surprise.”
Given that he’s been wearing black make-up and milky contact lenses and hanging around in the dark for the best part of 20 years, this seems like a departure.
Have you ever felt trapped by your public persona?
“Absolutely. That’s why I wanted to quit making music, which led to exploring other avenues, like painting and acting – though that wasn’t the reason at the time. I think I was just bored with it. I didn’t want to be exactly what everyone expected me to be.”
He’s made rather a success of his second career as an actor, making his debut in David Lynch’s 1997 film Lost Highway. He is currently playing a white supremacist in the hit US TV show Sons of Anarchy. But the moment when he most reversed people’s views and expectations of him – certainly mine – was when he appeared in Michael Moore’s 2002 documentary Bowling for Columbine.
In the aftermath of the school shooting, Manson was blamed – by politicians, by the media, by what seemed like a witch hunt – for inciting Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris to violence. In fact they were fans of European metal bands like Rammstein, but Manson was the closest American equivalent and he became an outlet for the nation’s pain and confusion.
Moore interviewed him and I watched the clip on YouTube, and it’s still powerful. If you were to talk directly to the kids at Columbine and the people in that community, he asks him, what would you say to them right now?
“I wouldn’t say a single word to them,” says Manson. “I would listen to what they have to say. And that’s what no one did.”
It was a stand-out moment in the documentary. And yet the first song on his new album is called “Killing Strangers” and its lyrics read: “We’re killing strangers so we don’t kill the ones we love! We’ve got guns, we’ve got girls, we’ve got guns… We’re killing strangers so we don’t kill the ones we love! We’ve got guns, motherfuckers, better run! We’ve got guns, motherfuckers, better run!”
It seems a deliberate piece of provocation. It’s not even original. Fantasising about killing – himself, others, enemies, strangers, whatever – is another Marilyn Manson trademark and I’m wondering how to raise this when he starts telling me, in his circumlocutory way, about his mother’s death.
“I feel like the thing I’m best at is being the catalyst for change. But I felt like I needed to change myself.”
What brought that on?
“It was… like I say, I wanted to buy a house. And what brought that on was that right before I had to fly to Ohio and see my father because my mother died. On Mother’s Day – thanks, Mom. I think that was her way of letting go of my father and me.”
As a teenager Marilyn Manson had a fraught relationship with her, but in recent years she developed Alzheimer’s, and, he says: “I’d made my peace with her the year before, though she didn’t really know who I was.”
Then, a few months after her death, his father came to visit. “He drove from Ohio to California to my house that I had just got, which I wanted to make him proud. And there was a thing he asked me. He said… It was the first time I ever heard him cry – when he called me before I went to see this happen, take place, whatever. It’s hard to describe.”
You heard him cry?
“Yes, at the service for my mother. It was the first time. He was in Vietnam before I was born, and when he showed up at my house I had Apocalypse Now on the projector on my wall paused right there when he walked in, which was awkward. I didn’t plan that. He had just arrived. And he walked in and he saw this and said: ‘This brings up a lot of mixed emotions for me.’ And I said: ‘Good or bad?’ And he said: ‘Well, when people talk about post-traumatic stress syndrome I don’t think people understand that when you’ve killed so many people and then you have to come back to a normal world, it’s very difficult to adjust to it.’ And that’s when I said: ‘Dad, I think you’re going to want to hear this song, “Killing Strangers”.’ And I played that for him.”
Had he ever talked to you about this stuff before?
“Never. He’d never said that to me. He’d never talked about killing so many people and what it’s like when you’re coming home.”
It turns out Manson’s lyrics about killing, about killing strangers, are true in a literal way that even he hadn’t quite realised. His father did kill strangers. And Manson, and his mother, lived with the aftermath.
“I think that he was very, very good at what he did. In the same way as the character that Martin Sheen plays in Apocalypse Now. I think my father was selected to do a job. He entered the air force at 17 and you just don’t know what your life is going to be at that age. He never talked to me about it. He still hasn’t really spoken of it. I think it was after my mother’s passing that he felt it was a time where it was necessary to tell me: ‘This is who I really am.’ And I think he was selected for being good at what he did – and that was killing people.”
When you realise that he spent the first 18 years of his life in a household dominated by the after-effects of violence, Marilyn Manson and his music, his obsessions, his sense of alienation, his fascination with killing, his insistence on living outside the strictures of mainstream American society, suddenly makes much more sense. And if it’s a light-bulb moment for me understanding who he is and where’s he come from, it also seems to have been for him.
His father had told him not to write. And he went to journalism college anyway. “The first article I ever did,” he recalls, “was about Marilyn Manson, which I wrote as myself as Brian Warner, and that was in part why I had to have a pseudonym, a stage name. I was put in a situation where I was suddenly stuck with… where I had created a Frankenstein’s monster. There was Marilyn Manson, but there was no music yet. I created a fake world maybe because I didn’t like the one I was living in. But that’s what made me make music. I had to fill in the gaps I’d created.”
Do you think that you created a monster as a way of externalising the difficult feelings you couldn’t cope with? You, Brian, gave them all to Marilyn Manson?
He ponders this for a moment and then says: “Are you trying to mindfuck me?”
“Yes!” I say.
“Well, success! There’s the tip. So now we can go on to more cheerful things.”
Except we don’t. Because it turns out that Marilyn Manson is in the throes of what very much looks like a midlife crisis, or, at least, a midlife reflective moment precipitated by his mother’s death. It’s hard to know exactly when to take him seriously. In person, as he is in his song titles, he’s endlessly playful and teasing. But the two last songs on the album, “Cupid Carries a Gun” and “Odds of Even”, are “circle-of-life stuff”, he says, written after his mother had died.
MANSON has always been open about his difficult childhood. How he lashed out at his mother as a teenager. How he was sent to a Christian school he hated. How he was beaten up by other children who thought he was gay. How his grandfather was allegedly into bestiality. But he has not, to my knowledge, talked about the effect of the hows and whys of it. It reminds me of Sam Shepard, literary high priest of dysfunctional American families, who I once interviewed and who told me a very similar story of his father returning from the Second World War in trauma, unable to relate to his family, and the impact that the violence had on everyone else. For Shepard, violence and secrets and the American family are all of a piece.
And so it seems with Manson, too. “My father was working all the time. I had to become this homunculus of sorts for my mother. And then I wanted to get away from it. I became his placeholder. My mother would even call me by his name. And you’re full of testosterone and pissed off and you don’t want to be called your dad’s name, especially when you don’t even know where the fuck he is.”
It also seems less surprising that Marilyn Manson has continued to speak to, and articulate the concerns of, alienated young men. Though it seems like his mother’s death has released him from something. Has it made you think differently about parenthood, I ask him. The closest he’d got to having children before now has been a pickled foetus that he kept in his house and named Ludwig Von Manson.
Is it more circle-of-life stuff? “No, it’s more like passing on your legacy. You know, I’m the last man in the family, because I don’t have any siblings. So yeah, that is something that I actually have been thinking about. And I do think I would make… I’m the godfather to Johnny Depp’s daughter. He’s my best friend and I gave her her first set of high heels. Unfortunately she was in diapers when I gave them to her. It was awkward when I saw her 14 years later and Johnny’s like: ‘Hey this is Uncle Manson. He gave you your first pair of high heels and changed your diaper.’ That sounds really bad. But it was amazing.”
So you think it’s something you might like to do one day?
“Well, when your best friend is such a good father and has a similar lifestyle, it makes me think it would be nice to create life. I’d hate it to be a girl, though – because if it’s a girl then you have all the dicks in the world to worry about. If it’s a guy, it’s just one dick to worry about.”
Though being the mother of his future child is perhaps not everyone woman’s dream job, he was married briefly to Dita Von Teese, the burlesque artist, and subsequently had a relationship with the then 19-year-old Evan Rachel Wood, which ended in 2010. He does have a girlfriend now, he says, “but only because she is willing to do whatever it takes to be with me. I realised making this record that maybe I need to do the same thing because I did not take time to notice that it could come across as one-sided because I’m such a handful. But people know that about me.”
He is a handful. He has interesting things to say, but his talk is all over the shop. His stories are charged with symbolism and coincidence and, I suspect, hyperbole. He jumps from topic to topic and, especially, filmic reference to filmic reference. An ardent cinephile, he’s steeped in the language and history of film, and the visual imagery of the cinema seems as real to him as real life is to most people.
He’s currently in act three, he says, of his life. “I’m in the part of the film where it rains. That’s when you know trouble is coming.”
It’s just unclear what sort of trouble. He had death threats after Columbine, and severe depression after the ending of his relationships, and suicidal thoughts. He admits to feelings of revenge. “Maybe that goes back to me being the kid that got his ass beat so many times and no one stood up for me. But I didn’t stand up for myself either.” But he says he doesn’t seem to be “an angry person”.
He doesn’t. He seems like a 45-year-old man who’s only just realising certain things about himself. He tries to explain what it’s like performing in front of strangers. “It’s an impossible high to recreate. And maybe, I try to tell my father, it’s comparable to what he experienced. It’s very difficult to come off tour and come down from that. It does have an effect mentally, maybe even chemically.
“It’s not the same as going into combat, but it’s a way of bonding with my father. The idea of living in a different world. And coming home and feeling out of place.”
So you think you’re replicating what your father experienced?
“Not intentionally. But it is one way that we could relate. I’m living in a world that very few people live in, and when I go back to the regular world, I’m very much: ‘Hello, this is me.’”
This is Marilyn Manson. The son of a Vietnam vet or, as he corrects me, a “mass murderer”. He has always critiqued the way the media glamorises violence. And 25 years after Brian Warner created Marilyn Manson by yoking together the names of Marilyn Monroe and Charles Manson, he’s realised it’s perhaps a truer name for him than he’d ever realised. Because Vietnam has been airbrushed by Hollywood, romanticised in the films he loves. The thwop, thwop, thwop of the helicopters at the start of Apocalypse Now, a thrilling soundtrack. There’s a Marilyn Monroe glamour to it. And a Charles Mansonesque blood lust. And he is, quite literally, the offspring of that. Marilyn Manson, America’s true son.
The Pale Emperor is out on 19 January
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