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The Boston Phoenix Space Oddity

Marilyn Manson becomes Major Tom

By Matt Ashare

SEPTEMBER 21, 1998:  Rock and roll is one of the last best bastions for the teen outcast, for damaged youth, for kids too smart to conform but not confident or worldly enough to see beyond three or four psychologically torturous years of high school. In the right time and place, under the right conditions, it represents an irresistible escape to a fantasy where the meek will indeed inherit the Earth. But it's a fantasy tied to a reality in which young misfits actually do grow up to be rich and powerful rock stars.

Marilyn Manson, the outcast formerly known as Brian Warner, was one of those kids. Read the first third of The Long Hard Road out of Hell, the Manson autobiography ghost-written by New York Times critic Neil Strauss, and you'll hear the largely unexceptional story of a boy who didn't fit in, who played Dungeons and Dragons instead of football, who saw through the flimsy hypocrisies of an organized religion that was forced upon him, and who dreamed of becoming a rock star, or at least playing one on TV. It's the anatomy of Manson's life and of his current appeal.

Perhaps because he was literally plucked out of nowhere (i.e., Florida) by Trent Reznor, Manson had a forum before he had much of a band. Oh, he had a group -- an Addams Family of sidekicks, each with his own starlet/serial killer stage name. But they hadn't yet figured out how to support Manson's shock schlock, so they were reduced to butchering other people's songs (Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams," Patti Smith's "Rock 'n' Roll Nigger," Screamin' Jay Hawkins's "I Put a Spell on You") and churning out B-grade horror/drug/sex/hate scenarios (not really songs) like "Kiddie Grinder," "Everlasting Cocksucker," and, my personal favorite, the spoken-word gem "May Cause Discoloration of the Urine or Feces." Indeed, until now Marilyn Manson's most compelling musical statement has been Antichrist Superstar, a concept album of gothic-industrial sleaze metal that sounds as if it had been pieced together by Reznor from digital scraps left on the cutting room floor from his own The Downward Spiral. Donald Wildmon's American Family Association (and other similar Moral Majority groups) made such a stink that Antichrist Superstar shot up to number three on the Billboard album chart and sold more than two million copies. Ah, the power of organized religion.

Apparently, Reznor was too much of an armchair antichrist for Manson, who really does want to be a superstar, so the two are no longer working together (though Manson remains on Reznor's nothing label). Instead, Manson's been kicking it in LA, getting laid, paid, and stoned (if the stories he tells are to be believed -- which I'm not necessarily recommending) and reinventing himself for wider consumption. Look closely at the artwork for his new Mechanical Animals (nothing/Interscope) and you'll see how far he's taken the transformation: the Night of the Living Dead Manson has been replaced by a mannequin-white, red-eyed alien of indeterminate gender identified in the inset as Omega. Elsewhere in the CD art, you'll find a reference to "Omega and the Mechanical Animals."

Ring any bells? Yes, Manson has torn a page directly out of the book of rock's most respected chameleon, David Bowie, refashioning himself and his band as a Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars for the late '90s. Never mind that Reznor got there first by planting passing references to Aladdin Sane on The Downward Spiral and then taking Bowie on the road with him a couple years ago. Or that Manson's not even the first rock personality this year who talks way too much about drugs (take 'em and shut up) to imagine himself as Major Tom: Stone Temple Pilot Scott Weiland tried it six months ago and got busted when the cops found him putting his money where his mouth was down in Alphabet City. Wham, bam, thank-you ma'm. But Manson had the eyes, or at least the contact lenses, for the job a long time ago. And he's much better at playing dress-up than Reznor or Weiland will ever be.

What's surprising, given their track record for almost nonexistent songwriting, is how well Marilyn Manson the band have adapted to their new role as the Spiders from Mars, and how artfully Marilyn Manson the singer manages to ape Bowie. Of course, there are precedents for the undead coming to life under Bowie's influence, most notably goth titans Bauhaus, who reached more people with their note-for-note cover of "Ziggy Stardust" than with all their other songs combined -- but made the mistake of doing such a good job on the song that most people probably thought they were hearing the Bowie original. Manson stays away from outright covers on Mechanical Animals in favor of a kind of ersatz Bowie that sometimes sounds more like Gary Numan behind the wheel, Peter Gabriel shocking the monkey, and a nightclubbing Iggy Pop. But the album's guiding referent -- its conceptual leitmotif if you will -- is Bowie's Major Tom, strung out in heaven high, hitting an all-time low.

"I dreamed I was a spaceman/Burned like a moth in a flame/And our world was so fucking gone," Manson sings against gothic synths and glam guitars with as much tortured android soul as he can muster on the disc's opening cut, "Great Big White World." That sets the apocalyptic tone for an album filled with the kind of dire pronouncements about dystopic futures that were popular in the nuclear days of the '70s and '80s, and with the sort of amusingly mixed metaphors that tend to undermine any sense of solemnity. "I can never get out of here/I don't want to just float in fear/A dead astronaut in space," he screams on the power ballad "Dissociative," as his Major Tom dream turns into some kind of predictable nightmare of interstellar purgatory.

Originally, Mechanical Animals was going to be produced by Smashing Pumpkin Billy Corgan, who's apparently become something of a good-natured Uncle Fester to Manson. But Corgan, whose influence can still be heard in the arena-sized existentialism of the melancholy "The Speed of Pain" (particularly in the way Manson clenches his voice bitterly around the line "The crack inside your fucking heart is me"), was too busy helping out his other controversial pen pal, Courtney Love, and tending to Pumpkin business. So Manson hooked up with producer Michael Beinhorn, whose success in cleaning up the sound of difficult bands is now, in light of his similar triumph on the new Hole CD, practically unparalleled in the history of rock production.

Mechanical Animals amounts to Manson's first fully developed musical statement, which presumably posed a challenge for his band, who were faced with having to write and play an album's worth of verse-chorus-verse tunes with things like hooks and melodies. When you consider how little practice they've had in the past (Antichrist's "Tourniquet" is perhaps the only Manson song that's stood on its own merits), it's actually remarkable how well guitarist Twiggy Ramirez (who also plays bass on the album and appears to have been the primary source for its musical settings), keyboardist Madonna Wayne Gacy, and drummer Ginger Fish have managed to frame Manson's new-found glam persona in the appropriate gothic-Bowie architecture, though I'm guessing they'd rather not know how much the shout-along chorus of "I Don't Like the Drugs (But the Drugs Like Me)" sounds like one of Def Leppard's Gary Glitter knockoffs.

All of which means that there's more meat on Manson's bones this time around, more musical substance to chew on. And that's a big relief because, let's face it, ever since Antichrist Superstar started drumming up controversy, Manson's garnered a whole lot of critical praise based mostly on the flimsy premise that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. In other words, we embraced Manson mostly because the American Family Association opposed him, because his T-shirts were banned in schools, because religious groups spread ridiculous rumors about his Satanic ways, and maybe because being a Reznor protégé gave him a certain artistic respectability. But it was getting time for Manson to deliver the goods.

Which is not to say that Mechanical Animals isn't without its flaws. Manson has largely abandoned Christian-baiting Satanism in favor of an equally entertaining kind of sci-fi atheism -- that of the starman imbued with the knowledge that there is no god. But his social commentary, if you want to call it that, is still pretty lame. In "I Don't Like the Drugs (But the Drugs Like Me)," for example, he unimaginatively looks down on "normal" people for their missionary sex, drug-tested sobriety, and talk-show confessions. And in "New Model No. 15" he offers predictable critiques of the modern man with silly salvos like "I've got nothing inside/Better in the head and in bed/At the office I can suck and smile." He doesn't feel much better, or offer anything deeper in the way of commentary, when it comes to his own fickle and shallow world, where "They love you when you're on all the covers/When you're not they love another." And the undertone of misogyny in "User Friendly" ("Use me when you want to come/I've bled just to have your touch/When I'm in you I want to die") is just plain weak.

But, hell, lowest-common-denominator controversy is what Manson's been buttering his bread with from the beginning. With Mechanical Animals the former teen outcast has simply found a more appetizing and satisfying way to serve it. The new, improved glam-rock Manson is silly, derivative, not quite as clever or complex as I'd like him to be. And yet, to borrow from Andy Rooney's sentiments on the Clinton crisis, I still kind of like him.

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