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He goes by the name of Mr. Manson. He's the lead singer of Marilyn Manson, a Florida-based shock-rock act. Mr. Manson has tattoos, piercings, a startling pair of eyes and discolored, misshapen teeth. His songs are rhythmic rants against anything even approaching societal norms. He'll sometimes perform those songs wearing nothing but a G-string and a 14-inch artificial penis. He was recently arrested after allegedly taking the stage wearing nothing at all.
Shocking? Well, sure.
"Shock value is the vehicle through which I educate people," Mr. Manson says by phone from Florida, a safe enough distance. "It's a way to expose people to their fears and things that they find taboo, so that they can better understand them. In a world where there's so much thrown in your face, something has to be shocking to make a point."
Manson's made his point in the past with stage props like bloody animal organs (cow hearts are a specialty), shredded Bibles and naked women hanging from crosses. Lyrically, Manson leans toward sentiments like "I am the God of Fuck" and the even more intriguing "I do a crooked little dance with my funny little monkey."
"People wouldn't care about what we say or how we say it if they didn't care about the music first," Manson says. "I always keep that in mind. And I always know that the music is the most important thing."
Marilyn Manson's music is an upside-down cross between industrial clamor and pseudo-Sabbath punch. The band started out four years ago as Marilyn Manson and the Spooky Kids, a loose aggregation made up of four guys and a drum machine. In time, Manson and guitarist Daisy Berkowitz (that's Mr. Berkowitz to you) hardened the band's sound and refined the roster, settling on a Ministrylike muse with the colorful assistance of bassist Twiggy Ramirez, keyboard player Madonna Wayne Gacy and drummer Sara Lee Lucas. All men, by the way.
Manson's vision for Marilyn Manson is rooted in the band's name. Indeed, Manson used to call himself Marilyn Manson before separating himself from the title role to better emphasize the group.
"Before we started," he says, "I'd spent a lot of time watching talk shows and reading Hollywood Babylon-type books. Charles Manson and Marilyn Monroe stood out as the most important and memorable people from the Sixties. And I thought putting those two names together made a very strong dichotomy and a very important balance that represented my personality at the time.
"Plus," he adds, "the name Marilyn Manson flowed phonetically. It made a lot of sense to me."
Manson says he's always found perfect sense in the yin and yang of human nature. Especially in the kind of curious male-female balance that prompts names like Twiggy, Madonna and Sara Lee in Manson's male bandmates.
"I think I'm very, very schizophrenic between male and female," Manson says. "I'm a paradox. I like things in that gray area, but at the same time, I like things that are very solid and extreme on either side. It's almost like my personality dictates the way I might look on any given day."
Manson's personality was shaped, in large part, by his years as a young Christian schoolkid in Ohio. Manson was sent to a private academy so he could get a good education. What he got, he says, were pious teachers and abusive classmates. He blames--and credits--the school's relentless restraints for making him the man-woman he is today.
"The atmosphere was that individuality and free thinking were a bad thing," Manson says. "And so in those situations, when you finally get a chance to think for yourself, you go crazy a little bit. You explode. I've gone to greater extremes to express myself than maybe I would have if I'd had a better opportunity as a kid."
Sometimes those extremes overwhelm what Manson's trying to express. But sit him down without his music and his makeup. Listen to him talk about concepts like free will and responsibility. What you get is a bright, clear-thinking guy--who just happens to fondle sheep entrails when he sings.
"I think anybody who would like the freedom to be an individual also has to bear the burden of responsibility," Manson says. "That's something I'm willing to do and it's something I encourage all people to do. If you want to have the freedom to listen to what you want to, and to see what you want to see, and say what you want to say, then you're gonna have to take the responsibility of accepting the consequences of your actions."
So does that mean this libertarian holds himself accountable should some kid take seriously an MM song like "Lunchbox," with its schoolyard fantasy of shooting bullets at bullies? Manson says no. He figures if a kid listens, say, to a Judas Priest record and then kills himself, that's not Judas Priest's fault. The responsibility, says Manson, is the kid's. Manson contends that if parents raise their little darlings to be idiots, then the little darlings will end up doing idiotic things.
"In America," says Manson, "people always want to protect you from yourself. They always want to put the blame on someone else because no one wants to clean up after themselves. I try to encourage strong-minded people. I think through exposing kids to reality, they have a better chance of dealing with reality. If you try and hide reality from them and give them a caffeine-free America, then when they get out in the real world, they're gonna choke on it."