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After Shock

Now that's he's grabbed your attention, Marilyn Manson is proving to be an artist of substance.

September 27, 1998|Robert Hilburn | Robert Hilburn, The Times' pop music critic

One of the joys of covering pop music all these years has been being able to choose my interview subjects--and I've used that freedom to focus on our most gifted and inspiring artists. We're talking Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Springsteen, Bono.

So what am I doing sitting across the table from Marilyn Manson?

Why take seriously a shock-rocker whose best-selling book proudly quotes Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) calling Manson's band perhaps "the sickest group ever promoted by a mainstream record company."

Why care about a provocateur who sells souvenir T-shirts proclaiming "Kill God . . . Kill Your Mom and Dad . . . Kill Yourself," and who is not beyond walking around on stage with a fake penis dangling from his shorts?

The answer: Manson may have spared no outrage in getting the pop world's attention, but now that he has it, he is demonstrating the talent and substance to warrant it.

He is a smart, articulate, fiercely ambitious figure who brings rebellion and imagination back to a rock 'n' roll world that has lost most of its spirit and star quality in recent years.

In one glorious 62-minute sweep, Manson's new "Mechanical Animals" album lifts the Ohio native from the mock, kid-stuff level of Alice Cooper and KISS to the more artful and liberating status of David Bowie, another highly theatrical and controversial figure, who in the '70s challenged sexual and social assumptions with a bold persona that was as captivating as his often thrilling music.

Like Bowie's "Diamond Dogs" and "Station to Station" albums, "Mechanical Animals" (which entered the sales chart last week at No. 1) is an icy work that explores the emotional shell of someone who has lost his purpose and soul, partly through his own fast-lane excesses.

In his book, "The Long Hard Road Out of Hell," Manson outlines some of his own supposed excesses so graphically that the volume stands as a rock 'n' roll version of "Dante's Inferno."

The incidents of nihilism and debauchery may not have been all that different from conduct linked in the rumor mill with such bands as the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, but they never set them forth in such ugly detail. Is it an accurate account, or a test of the public's gullibility?

Whatever, anxious parents can at least take comfort in the fact that the new album touches in part on the consequences of that behavior.

Manson, however, doesn't sound like a man who is going out of his way to calm the troubled waters during the interview. Rather than be defensive, he hurls a challenge at parents who were so worried about the impact of his music and ideas on their children that they tried last year to get his show banned.

Much of the outrage was sparked by what the band's manager claimed were bogus Internet postings--supposed "affidavits" from fans claiming Manson threw live animals into the audience and instructed fans to kill them as part of a satanic ritual, and that he also urged encouraged males in the crowd to rape women.

"To the people who are afraid of things like me, [the answer] is to raise your kids to be more intelligent," he says. "If you want the freedom to live in a world where you can see and read and hear what you want, then you also have to take the responsibility to teach your kids properly. . . . Because anyone who blames music for their kids' problems or for kids hurting themselves or others is kidding themselves.

"Every house that has a Marilyn Manson record probably also has a Bible and a history book and William Shakespeare's 'Romeo and Juliet.' If anything is taken out of context, it can cause damage. That's why you need to raise your kids to be smart. If I'm just a wake-up call to get you to talk to your kids more, then so be it."

In videos and on stage under bright lights, Marilyn Manson may look threatening to adults and thrilling to young fans, but he looks downright silly as he stands outside a Santa Monica Boulevard building in Hollywood, waiting in the late-afternoon sun to be buzzed inside for a photo session.

With his flaming red hair, frightfully trendy two-tone suit and towering platform shoes, Manson looks more like Foghorn Leghorn, the loquacious rooster in the old Looney Tunes cartoons, than a rock star.

An hour later, he looks even more out of place, this time in a spacious booth at Musso & Frank's, the famous old Hollywood Boulevard restaurant.

As waiters stroll past, straining to get a closer look at the customer who looks as if he just stepped off the set of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," Manson, 29, does his best to ignore it all.

You sense that you can get as much insight into Manson just watching him as listening to him.

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