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Rock journalist, pickup artist, and best-selling author Neil Strauss has cultivated quite a personality of his own during a career of figuring out -- and writing eloquently about -- the minds of many musicians and celebrities. A prolific writer and reporter with umpteen publications in Rolling Stone and the New York Times from the start of his career, Strauss reached a new plateau when Marilyn Manson got a book deal and chose him to ghost-write his autobiography, The Long Hard Road Out of Hell. Released in 1998, the book was Strauss' first of many successes and paved the way for his best-known work, 2005's The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists.
do remember my first weekend out with Marilyn Manson writing the book," Strauss told County Grind recently by phone.
"Not as a journalist but a member of the circus. There were three times during
writing the book where I was sure that I was close to death or in
dangerous situations. In retrospect, those stupid human tricks are great
memories -- many of which have been captured on video."
Sadly, Strauss did not send along any of these video trophies, but he did agree to answer some questions regarding his time with Manson, which overlapped heavily with the October 8 release of Antichrist Superstar 15 years ago. Below is our conversation.
County Grind: Aside from the vivid basement opener, "Either someone at Budweiser was a genius or the mushrooms had kicked in" is my favorite line (of many) in The Long Hard Road Out of Hell. What is your favorite moment/passage?
Neil Strauss: My favorite line from the book is "If every cigarette you smoke takes 15 minutes off your life, every game of Dungeons and Dragons you play takes 15 days off losing your virginity." I also liked the "Rules" section. We wrote them as we went along. He'd call me long distance from Brazil and say, "Add one more thing to the rules for cheating -- it's not cheating if she has a tattoo with you on it; it's just common courtesy to have sex with her."
What was the process like?
It was an immersive process. I went on the road with them. There's two ways to write a book. One way is to do interviews and talk with people, and the other is to immerse yourself in their lives. You try to see the world through their eyes and pick up little stories and lines on the fly and see the things that are important to them and meaningful to them. I did this by complete immersion in his world, literally. I'd be writing my column for the New York Times after waking up on their couch or something.
Marilyn Manson book was arguably your biggest professional project to date. When
did you know you were going to write this book, and how did working
with him help/hurt your career?
Rolling Stone assigned me to do a story on him, and I was kinda cynical about the Manson thing. I said I would do it because this guy's a phony and a fake and has gotten to the goth-rock stuff so late. I didn't really understand him. I just went thinking I was going to write this snide, journalistic piece. The thing about writing is that you're open to the reality of the situation. Even with your preconceived notions, you look at the facts. The fact was that he was a really interesting, really intelligent artist who wasn't necessarily into goth rock or industrial. He was more into metal. I wrote a very positive story about him and received flack from my peers. Down the line, when he got a book deal, he remembered the story, and the book editor came to me. Some people thought that I shouldn't have been positive about him, but you don't write to please your peers. You write to tell the truth as you see it.
Some folks did enjoy the book, though.
Obviously the book did really well, and I was really happy with it. It taught me a lot about writing and the publishing process. We worked closely on it. There were parts that he wrote directly himself, and he'd call me with a phrase he wanted to use from wherever the fuck he was and say, "I like this metaphor, like 'blades of grass squished brown by the lawn chair furniture' -- can we get that in there somewhere?" It was cool to have someone who enjoyed the writing because he used to be a writer and a journalist himself.
Manson comes off as a control freak. Is that the case?
Not at all. He was anything but a control freak. I don't think I would have done it if he was a control freak. It was a really great collaboration. I don't think there was any part of the book that he changed, censored, or tried to control. I would tell you if it was true. I think he's an artist with a vision, and since we shared the same vision, that wouldn't even be a word I'd think of using.
What did you have in common?
It was a funny sort of relationship. For me, I had never gotten this close to someone I had written about. Being on the inside and seeing what the world is really like, instead of the journalist's perspective. It was having a better understanding of being a rock star when your fame is just starting to crest and you're getting really popular, how you deal with that and how the system around you deals with that. We both moved to L.A. at about the same time, so I got to watch all of the sycophants and various people all attach themselves to him. It was a really cool odyssey and a lot of fun.
What, if any, pickup artistry insight did you gain from your time getting to know Manson?
I think the main thing was his saying -- which I tell guys when they're learning The Game -- "Act like a rock star and people will treat you like a rock star." If you act and look the part, you will become the part. That's something that I carried into The Game stuff and teach guys. Before he was a rock star, he would look and act like one, and people would assume that he was one.
it bother you that Manson wrote in his diary (which was subsequently
included in the autobiography) that he thought you were gay following
your Rolling Stone cover interview?
I knew it was just him being funny. If anything, his personality is like the high school bully. Even though he had his share of being picked on, he has that personality. I've even seen it with other rock stars -- being in this teasing, bullying role. That's his sense of humor.
is the legacy of Antichrist Superstar for you? How does it rank among
his albums and among all albums of the mid-'90s?
Antichrist has really stood the test of time as a great classic concept album. It's a special place in his career where he went from being known to being a household name. There's a certain freedom you have in creating that album that you'll never have again. Now everbody's watching, and you're conscious of your celebrity status. Which is why there's Holy Wood and even some of the songs on Mechanical Animals. "They love you when you're on all the covers/When you're not, then they love another." Here is the metamorphosis album, conceptually and artistically. It brought his career to that perfect point.
And within the mid-'90s?
Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails, as well, weren't really part of a trend. They got by on their merits alone. They weren't tied to another cultural meme that was happening. If you made the biggest gangsta rap album now, would it still be as big as the biggest gangsta rap album in that era? Culturally at the time, pop always needs a bogeyman to scare the kids. It was Marilyn Manson at that time with Antichrist, and Eminem became the next one. There's always someone that the culture is demonizing. This album made Manson that person.
you later interviewed Lady Gaga, was there anything that reminded you
of your interactions with Marilyn Manson from that time?
Lady Gaga is equal parts Marilyn Manson and Madonna. There's so much in common between Gaga and Manson, even the way they look a little bit. It's ridiculous. Because of the idioms and forms she used, she was able to get further on a populist level than Manson was because of the idioms and forms he used.
asked Twiggy Ramirez what he'd be doing in 15 years not long after Antichrist
was released in your book. His response was, "I think everyone is going
to be dead." Does it come as a surprise that he was wrong?
Twiggy has really progressed. I've seen very few people change and grow as much as Twiggy has. He used to just be a weirdo in the corner lighting his pubic hair on fire. Now he's a guy you can have an intellectual conversation with. Probably if he had kept living the life he was living at the time, he would be dead. I have no doubt in my mind. His career has been fascinating in itself, as well as his growth as a person.
you still in touch with Marilyn Manson, and how do you feel about the
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person he has become now 15 years after Antichrist's release?
Yeah. I saw Twiggy two days ago. I think he's proven himself in a number of ways. In Bowling for Columbine, he proved that he knows the right, better answer. That one moment, that one little line, that changed the cultural perception of him. That's the right fucking answer. He's ridiculously smart, a great artist, and an amazing painter and visual artist. In addition to being a musician, a director, in addition to being a writer -- he has a fiction book that I think is yet to be published. He's a freakin' great actor in that club kids movie, Party Monster. He's one of those guys who's both blessed and cursed with being talented in so many different forms. If he didn't come through in the music, he would've come through as a painter or an actor.