My curiosity was first raised when my stepbrother, over Thanksgiving dish-drying duties, informed me with fire in his temples that he hated Marilyn Manson. It seems that Manson has made destroying Christianity part of his musical ambition. Some of my best friends are Christians, but I try to keep a periodic dose of violent secularism on hand to steer me through those stormy periods when American society seems pathetic and predictable. (This comes in especially handy just after presidential elections.) My exposure to the music of Marilyn Manson had left me wondering how a spastic twentysomething doing banal, obvious covers of Eurythmics songs could be of any consequence to a 2,000-year-old religion. So, it was with a mixture of both bloodthirst and skepticism that I approached the show last week.
Making my way through the sold-out hall it was impossible not to notice the enormous amount of makeup, white in particular, smeared upon the faces of the novices. Men, women, and children of all shapes and sizes sported intricate cosmetic masks designed to make them appear not only dead, as in most cases, but in the more extreme examples, rotten. The cumulative effect of all this death was positive: I felt alive. So, it seemed, did most of the audience. Smiles were abundant, despite the drawn-on frowns and grimaces.
(At the risk of belaboring the point, a high percentage of the audience looked as if they had shambled en masse out of a sci-fi movie punk club, like the one Juliette Lewis performs at in Strange Days. The kind of club I previously believed was just too silly to ever really exist. Think Barb Wire. Think Tuff Turf.)
L7 took the stage and commenced a set that would begin by receiving a tepid response and end getting an only slightly more enthused one. As much as I'd love to see them get their due, L7 just can't excite a large hall like they can a small one. Their hypnotic brand of dirt rock suited itself remarkably well to the club circuit, but with original bassist Jennifer Finch gone, even new material could not lift the band over the obstacles of a sound that has been played by the same people for too long.
Part of L7's problem may have been a tour-born knowledge of the maniacal adulation that Marilyn Manson would command as soon as their smoky shadows flickered across the backlighting. The people directly in front of me immedi-ately began to pogo and headbang with a zealous intensity and did not let up until after the show's close. (My companion and I had a lively discussion later as to whether or not it's OK to mosh anywhere other than in the mosh pit. I was in favor of it until my foot got squarshed. Now I'm a bitter, squarshed-footed anti-mosher.)
Marilyn Manson the singer and Marilyn Manson the band are similar but different. MM the band is competent but almost completely uninteresting, despite layers of white death-paint and frocks. MM the singer has moderate vocal skills, but as a performer possesses a riveting presence. He is ugly, but has traveled along the beauty wheel in the wrong direction so far that he's much closer to sexy than would seem possible. His movements onstage are studied, frenetic, and well-executed. His voice can suggest the shriek of padless brake drums or evoke a strange mixture of Alice Cooper and the bald guy from Midnight Oil. Never once in the set did he lose his magnetism.
Manson began the show dressed in a shroudlike ensemble consisting of garters, corset, and jockstrap, looking like a cross between Frank N. Furter, the Mummy, and the Mad Hatter. The cathedral-themed backdrop of stained glass and angels-on-pikes seemed appropriate enough for an Antichrist, but just once I'd like to see a heretic with some truly original imagery. Later in the show the cathedral was replaced with red, white, and black neo-fascist regalia, and again I felt cheated. The most chilling, if predictable, moment of the show occurred when Manson emerged from a lectern re-costumed in military style to fists pumping in unison. It was another cinematic moment, this time brought to you by Alan Parker.
The thing that impressed me again and again about Marilyn Manson, singular and plural, was the sincere energy given to even the most tired shtick. That's what ultimately made the show rock so "hard" -- not the industrial metal beat, not the noisy keyboards, but the absolute commitment given to every song, every piece of staging (both props and choreography) that had been done 50 times since Bowie/Alice/Iggy/Specimen/Skinny Puppy. It was all being performed as if none of that had ever taken place. And it didn't matter if you knew better or not, because never once did they let loose a knowing wink or smirk that said, "Well, it's silly, but isn't it a gas?" Marilyn Manson meant every middle finger he flipped and every blasphemy he spat, even if modern Christianity has absolutely nothing to fear from a lanky, wet rat in a G-string.
The perfect rock stars are the ones at whom we can hurl our desires and have them not only stick but come back at us amplified. There are many times, for many people, when hatred of mainstream society (Christian, Capitalist, Conservative) is a defining facet of personality. Marilyn Manson is here for them, and anyone else who needs a strong shot of anti-social behavior bracketed safely within timeworn rock tradition.