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By Michael E. Miller
In November 1996, New York Times reporter and rock critic Neil Strauss crawled into the hot tub at a Holiday Inn in Fort Lauderdale with desperate-to-shock rocker Marilyn Manson. Strauss was there to write an article for Rolling Stone, and Manson was ready to take full advantage of the opportunity. "This is going to be an important piece of press," Manson told Strauss.
The resulting Rolling Stone cover story did indeed change both men's lives: It marked the apex of Manson's emergence as one of the most notorious musicians of the '90s and an enthusiastic bogeyman for the Right. Strauss, meanwhile, went on to become Manson's business partner and the coauthor/mythmaker behind his just-released autobiography, The Long Hard Road out of Hell.
A hot tub isn't Robert Johnson's legendary crossroads, and despite his well-crafted image, Manson isn't Satan. But Strauss seems to have sold his soul to the self-proclaimed "Antichrist Superstar." In the last fourteen months, the young writer has served as a virtual one-man hype machine for the garish star. Between the first cover story and the publication of the book, he did a follow-up news story for Rolling Stone and wrote seventeen pieces mentioning Manson in The New York Times. Seven of those pieces were significant news stories portraying the singer as a crusader for free speech.
Somewhere along the way, Manson and Strauss landed a big-money deal with Regan Books, the new Harper-Collins imprint started by Judith Regan, the woman behind Howard Stern's best-selling Private Parts. The Long Hard Road out of Hell was excerpted as the cover story in the February 1998 edition of Spin. (The New York Post excerpted the book as well.)
Two sources familiar with the book deal say that Strauss earned an advance of $200,000 for the work, and he presumably has a cut of the royalties for every copy sold. Strauss has refused to grant an interview about his dealings with Manson. In a brief fax, the writer called the $200,000 figure "very inaccurate and grossly overestimated." But he declined to say how much he did earn.
Did Strauss fall prey to a serious conflict of interest, keeping Manson in the headlines of the country's most influential newspaper at the same time that he had a lucrative financial arrangement with the artist? The question is more important than pondering whether the mascaraed Manson really belongs to the Church of Satan, or whether he actually had some ribs removed so that he can fellate himself. But it has received much less attention.
"Entertainment writers, just like reporters who cover politics and business, ought to play by a set of ethical rules, and those rules should include not writing about anyone that you have a financial arrangement with," says Howard Kurtz, the media critic at the Washington Post. "This is pretty basic journalism, and the fact that you're covering rock music or baseball or some other far-flung field doesn't exempt you from those minimum nutritional requirements of journalism. To me it crosses the line when you're actually in business with the person."
A native of Chicago, Strauss moved to Manhattan in the early '90s and started his career by freelancing for publications including the New York Press, Egg, and Option. His first book was a collection of academic writings about radio called Radiotext(e) (Semiotext(e)/Autonomedia). Before long he became a favorite rock writer at the Village Voice, distinguishing himself as a dogged reporter by breaking stories for the weekly's music news column, "Rockbeat." That led to a position as a contract writer for The New York Times, working under another Voice graduate, head rock critic Jon Pareles.
Strauss became a full-time staffer at the Times about two years ago. In mid-'97 the wiry, late-twentysomething writer became the paper's man on the pop beat in Los Angeles, positioned to challenge Los Angeles Times music-business reporter Chuck Philips. "Neil's posting to L.A. is to beef up the paper's music-business coverage with an L.A. angle," Pareles says.
The work Strauss did for the Times while in New York includes some of the most substantive rock journalism of the last decade. Among his most memorable efforts were a piece that charted how the majority of the tickets at many New York club shows are purchased in advance for press and industry insiders (thus shutting out the paying fans) and numerous stories covering the censorial policies of such chain stores as Wal-Mart and Kmart, which refuse to sell albums that carry parental warning stickers.
Through it all Strauss has contributed to both Rolling Stone and Spin. He is one of only two or three writers able to move with impunity between the two fierce competitors, and his features command two dollars a word and more. In contrast to his relatively sober newspaper stories, his magazine work tends toward glib, attitude-laden stories in which he is a prominent character hanging out with his subjects. He got drunk with Soul Asylum's Dave Pirner. He busted a move on stage with Beck. Then he met the former Brian Warner of Canton, Ohio.
Manson moved from Canton to Fort Lauderdale while in his early teens. It was there and in the clubs of Miami that he transformed himself from a nerdy metalhead into a calculating goth-rocker. He found his future band mates among the black-clad suburbanites who hung out at the Coral Square Mall, the Button South, and Miami's Kitchen Club. Chapter 8 of The Long Hard Road out of Hell depicts Manson as an ambitious, heartless Svengali, preying on his bandmates' insecurities and manipulating their dysfunctional personalities. Like all the book's chapters, it ends with Manson coming out on top: "Brad was as good as dead, Nancy was as good as dead, and my morality was as good as dead. Marilyn Manson was finally on its way to becoming the band I wanted it to be."