Manson, Unmasked

Today he's America's Antichrist Superstar. But just a few years ago, in South Florida, Brian Warner was clawing his way to the top.

My earliest interactions with Manson, I'm afraid to admit, consisted of me foisting my band's demos, fliers, and stickers on him, trying to turn a cordial acquaintance into a "connection." Fortunately for all concerned, I dropped the Earnest Underground Rocker thing in mid-1993, concentrating instead on the Cub Reporter thing.

I'm trying to remember if I called him Brian back then. You know, in the dozens of conversations we've had over the years, I usually didn't call him anything. Maybe "Manson" a couple of times, and "Brian" at least once: I introduced him to a friend as "Brian" before a 1995 show at the Edge.

How did I greet him when I'd run into him in the cramped, black-light intimacy of Squeeze, his usual haunt? I can't recall. Thing was, if I called him "Brian," I felt as if I were trying to make myself seem cool. But every time I called him "Manson" I felt silly, an accomplice in this big-ass hoax he was pulling on everybody.

As it happens that hoax has become reality, so I'll stick with Manson from here on out. Besides, now that I don't have any kind of personal relationship with him anymore -- his publicist verily scoffed at the notion of an interview for this story -- I tend to think of him as Marilyn Manson anyway.

If there's any sort of distinction I can claim in the arc of Manson's career, it's that I was the first writer to convince an editor that Marilyn Manson was poised to explode into the nation's pop-culture consciousness. Back in June 1994, I argued that Manson's melange of alt-metal crunch, '70s kitsch, and "dimestore Satanism" (as I called it) would strike a power chord with disaffected youth far beyond South Florida. It wasn't such a stroke of genius. Anyone who'd seen the rapt adoration in the mascara-caked eyes of the "Lunchbox Girls" at Denny's could have figured it out, too.

At the time I wrote the piece, Marilyn Manson had just become the first band to sign to Nothing Records, the company started by Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor. The band's debut record on Nothing didn't sell too well, but Manson's friendship with Reznor led to a slew of Manson/Nails double bills. Manson had already bewitched thousands of sickly, gothic teens nationwide by the time the band scored its breakthrough hit with a 1995 cover of the Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams."

Catapulted to the top of the charts by a remake, Marilyn Manson made the most of the opportunity. "'Sweet Dreams' was like the cheese that lured the mouse into the trap, and now we're going to snap its neck," he told me shortly after the release of the 1996 album Antichrist Superstar.

That record's strong performance (it debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard charts) finally proved his thesis: If you dumb down LaVey and Nietzsche and smear them with enough ghoulish greasepaint, they'll speak to something deep within the soul of alienated suburban white kids.

Parents recoiled, rock critics deconstructed Manson's hellish vision as derivative dreck, and the kids just kept on buying. The cover of Rolling Stone, a succession of MTV "Buzz Clips" ("The Beautiful People," "Tourniquet," "The Man That You Fear"), a book deal, and massive record sales followed.

I, meanwhile, toiled in relative obscurity as an ink-stained wretch. To be honest I didn't give much thought to Marilyn Manson (or Brian Warner, for that matter). I felt a quiet smugness in having recognized his potential early on. And we had friends in common. But that was about it.

This past October a reporter for the online music magazine SonicNet called me for a comment about Marilyn Manson's evolution. It was the first time I'd given Manson or his band any serious thought in at least a year. I offered my cyberpeer a couple of quotes, which came off long-winded and pedantic when I read them later.

What I failed to convey in that conversation, though, is just how complex a character Manson was, even at the beginning: an intensely ambitious, manipulative, brilliant, desperate guy who seemed eager to parlay his personal demons into a cultural persona.

Manson is unquestionably a huge talent. It's just that the vast majority of his talents have nothing to do with music. What this 30-year-old former Broward Community College student has done is conceive and execute one of the shrewdest marketing campaigns ever perpetrated in music-industry history.

It was a work in progress when we used to speak regularly; he talked freely about his lust for fame and schemes for achieving it. Was he sincere? Put it this way: He sincerely wanted to be famous, and he sincerely had a kind of fucked-up suburban life, and he sincerely used that experience, or exaggerated extrapolations of it, to appeal to legions of other fucked-up kids.

Music was the ostensible product, so he surrounded himself with competent players from the start. He wasn't one of them; he taught himself to kinda play guitar, and he can find his way around mixing boards and drum machines, but he's not really a musician.

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