Sex, Lies And Gasoline
Highlights Of The Latest Tell-Alls By Cher And Marilyn Manson.
By James DiGiovanna
DECEMBER 14, 1998:
The Long Hard Road Out Of Hell, by Marilyn Manson and Neil Strauss (Regan Books/Harper Collins). Cloth, $24.
The First Time, by Jeff Coplon, with Cher (Simon Schuster). Cloth, $25.
THE BEST PART of the colder months is of course the joyous holiday season, wherein we put on our most disturbing outfits and force strangers to feed us toxically colored sweets. Unfortunately, this is quickly followed by the post-holiday let-down season, marked as it is by the despondent overconsumption of turkey, and pathetic attempts at cheering oneself by spending too much money on unwanted presents for unlovable relatives.
Well, what better way to extend your post-Halloween creepy feeling than with these two celebrity bios. The first is from Marilyn Manson, who re-invigorated the world of shock-rock by introducing colored contact lenses to the amusing get-ups that had made Kiss and Alice Cooper such beloved figures in nursery schools around the country. The other is from one-named warbler Cher, who, in spite her obvious battles with literacy, has managed to tell an entire book to co-author Jeff Coplon.
Perhaps the real surprise here is not the childish semi-prose of Cher's latest autobio, but the fact that Manson's (with co-author Neil Strauss) is actually quite good. Most celebrities "write" their autobiographies as auto-hagiographies, or at least extended love letters to themselves (I think Phil Donahue started this trend...check out his treacly and egregious Donahue: My Own Story...handy when you're low on emetics).
Manson, on the other hand, is incredibly open about portraying himself as a loser, a young nerd, a cry-baby and a morally questionable character. He doesn't glamorize this behavior, he's just terribly honest about the stupid things he's done. He's even clear on how easily manipulated he's been, and doesn't use this as an excuse to blame others for his troubles, unlike so many of the "recovery" based biographies. He's even capable of distinguishing when his drug taking was a mistake and when it was fun or enlightening. You don't see an even handed approach on that issue every day; most of the time it's either anti-drug fanaticism or simple-minded pro-hemp activism.
As you would expect, The Long Hard Road Out of Hell begins with Manson's childhood. There are, however, many ways to recollect one's salad days: Currently, a tale of victimization at the hands of dysfunctional families is the popular trope; not long ago, rose-tinted images of pre-suburban bliss colored the recollections of many of these stories. Manson tries another take entirely: He remembers the images that hinted most strongly at just how disgusting, creepy and unwell the world could be. These are not so much events wherein he was harmed or wronged (although those are included), but rather images of perversion and abnormality.
The opening image is of a young Manson (then called Brian Warner) slipping into the first ring of a Dantean underworld:
Hell to me was my grandfather's cellar. It stank like a public toilet, and was just as filthy. The dank concrete floor was littered with empty beer cans and everything was coated with a film of grease that probably hadn't been wiped since my father was a boy...Dangling unconcealed from the wall was a faded red enema bag...to its right was a warped white medicine cabinet, inside of which were a dozen old boxes of generic, mail-order condoms on the verge of disintegration; a full, rusted can of feminine-deodorant spray; a handful of latex finger cots that doctors use for rectal exams; and a Friar Tuck toy that popped a boner when its head was pushed in.
Young Manson, trapped in this cellar, is later confronted with the image of his aged grandfather masturbating while wheezing through a spittle-covered tracheotomy tube.
And yet...this book isn't just about grossing out the reader; rather, these opening sections do explore an area of childhood seldom looked at with much distance or subtle interest--children's fascination with the grotesque. This is perhaps one of the strongest interests of the young, as so many of our earliest and most suppressed (but not repressed) memories are of seeing what we were not supposed to see: the hidden porno magazines, playing "doctor" with other kids, the first time we saw a dead animal. The opening chapters cover this with a subtle insight, illustrating the mesmerizing and disquieting effect such images can have on the young. This alone gives the book interest far beyond its status as a celebrity's story.
Manson goes on into his teen years, where tales of rejected affection (a much less original topic, no doubt) are covered in a way that brings forth the rage and resentment that would motivate a young nerd-boy like Brian Warner to become an ebulliently excessive and abusive rock star. Manson never presents his sins as pardonable, only explicable, and he seems to consistently take responsibility for the nastiest things that his teen-self did. In one section, he relates how he planned to kill a young woman who was harassing him after he dumped her. Frustrated at her ability to cancel his band's shows and spread damaging rumors about him, he went to her house with several cans of gasoline, intending to burn it to the ground. Luckily, he was spotted by too many people and had to give up the scheme; but his telling of it is full of the kind of rage and embarrassing failure that strike a chord in the reader at the expense of the writer's dignity. That kind of move seems to me far more courageous than the tales of survival that trumpet the power of the human spirit in overcoming adversity.
On the other hand, it should be pointed out that Manson is something of an asshole. No big surprise there, but when he admits to degrading and humiliating some of his groupies the stories are not pretty. Oddly, he seems to feel bad about it, especially if the people he's debasing seem to him to be losers: He can't help relating to their situation, what with his loser adolescence. In fact, he himself winds up the butt of a cruel rock-and-roll joke at the hands of his idol, Trent Reznor, when Reznor's hired goons cover Manson with condiments and leave him in the middle of a dangerous downtown area half-dressed and penniless.
Somehow, in spite of these rock-n-roll hijinks and his penchant for glam-rock attire, Manson manages to sound thoughtful and articulate, even when he's discussing post-concert groupie enema contests.
Cher's book, au contraire, is so stupid as to at least give up a few yuks, though not much more. One imagines that her co-author would provide a great deal of help, but the bite-sized sections of The First Time read like they were written for a fourth-grade English assignment. Cher's at her best when she waxes political in the section entitled "My First Allergic Reaction to Republicans." Here, she makes the insightful comment that Jackie Kennedy was much better looking than Mamie Eisenhower. How could anyone vote for Nixon, wonders Cher, when he was so "creepy" and his wife was "pinchy-faced"? Indeed, if Cher had been running CNN during the last election, she may well have been able to point out some of the atrocious clothing that went completely unnoticed by Bernard Shaw.
She also, of course, discusses her first sexual experience (at age 14). And her first sexual experience with a "Mook." And her first sexual experiences with Sonny. And her first sexual experience with a "bad boy." And her first one after her divorce. But don't get excited: Her kindergarten prose hardly makes for one-handed reading.
Cher finishes with a long section (seven pages, which is about seven times longer than any of the other sections) on Sonny's death. It seems contrived, inserted only so that the last line of the book could be, "And I remember thinking this is not good-bye" (italics in original).
Somehow, in spite of the sweet tone of her book, Cher comes off as more manipulative and amoral than Marilyn Manson, who at least has the capacity to express a story that engenders sympathy in the reader. But then again, one could argue that Manson is man enough to fist audience members on stage, whereas Cher hides behind those slinky fishnet body suits and Academy Awards statues. Still, with Manson looking more like Cher everyday, it's only a matter of time before they team up and produce a sweet little song called, "The First Time I Fisted An Italian-American Senator." Rock and roll awaits the moment.
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