The 1970s were no doubt a particularly scary and bizarre period in American history, but even against the various horrors and oddities -- the Zodiac Killer, macrame handbags, et al. -- Alice Cooper managed to stand out from the rest. The son of a Mormon preacher, Cooper (ne Vincent Furnier) combined ghoulish lyrical imagery ("Dead Babies") and a flair for high theatrics (excessive mascara; fun with guillotines) to outrage the morally upright and sell millions of albums. To the general citizenry, he was the musical embodiment of Evil, accused of everything from causing a teen suicide (way before such accusations were trendy) to killing chickens onstage (which he did, but only unintentionally). In 1976, he took time out to put his tale on paper, resulting in Me, Alice: The Autobiography of Alice Cooper. Surprisingly enough (or maybe not), Cooper did much to debunk his public image in said tome. Oh, sure, there were the details on debased groupies and trashed hotel rooms, but he also likened his onstage persona to "a Marvel comic book character." Furthermore, he insisted that "Golf is my passion ... [t]hat's what Alice Cooper fantasizes about, not killing chickens." Suddenly, those appearances on Hollywood Squares made a lot more sense.
Who knows how many trees have perished in the name of the lowly rock autobiography, the pulp eaters of publishing, existing only to gratify the egos of the eardrum-rupturing, narcissistic troglodytes who populate the pop charts. Too many, no doubt, but it's easy to see why rockers are tempted into such an endeavor. Besides another stack of royalty checks, the world of autobiography promises stars an opportunity to set personal matters straight, expound on important Issues, and prove that they're capable of doing something beyond crafting simplistic riffs and second-grade-level lyrics -- like hiring ghostwriters to transcribe their ramblings and assemble them into something resembling coherence.
Given the obsessive detail -- the cat-eye contacts, the sculpted music videos -- that has gone into crafting Marilyn Manson's image as America's three-in-one musical bogeyman, threat to Christianity, and vilified champion of individualism, we should have all expected that a volume by, about, and starring the '90s' version of Alice Cooper, Marilyn Manson (with Marilyn Manson pictures in it!), would hit the shelves of America's bookstores sooner than later. Sure, it might be presumptuous to foist that apologia upon the public a mere year-and-a-half after entering the spotlight, but what the hell -- fame is a capricious mistress, and today's potential best-seller is tomorrow's sure-fire clearance item. The Long Hard Road Out of Hell isn't a bad read at all -- it's at least twice as engaging as Antichrist Superstar, Manson's 1996 breakthrough third album. The book, co-written by Neil Strauss (a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone, Spin, and the New York Times), is broken up, like Antichrist Superstar, into three main sections that chronicle the transformation of Manson from Midwest Everykid to nationally reviled/worshipped Symbol of Evil.
As told by Manson through Strauss, the tale is part The Great Gatsby, part The Metamorphosis. The first section, titled "When I Was a Worm" (read: "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Geek"), explores Manson's previous life as Brian Warner, a sickly, Dungeons & Dragons-playing, Dio-obsessed nobody growing up in the not terribly bustling hamlet of Canton, Ohio. Apparently, young Master Warner wasn't a particularly popular kid ("No one wanted to be friends with a squirrely, long-haired guy with a rash-covered neck poking out of his Judas Priest jersey," he pouts at one point), and was about as well-liked by the faculty of Christian Heritage School as Manson is now by the Religious Right baddies. Even then, Manson swears, he bucked the tyranny of Christianity, selling heavy metal records and candy -- both considered contraband at Christian Heritage -- to the student body at a considerable markup. (Of course, such details also illuminate the fact that as a preteen he already possessed the entrepreneurial streak that would later serve him quite well: Hucksters, unlike Antichrists, are apparently born, not made.) At the same time, the fire-and-brimstone sermons drummed into him on a daily basis were having a profound effect.
"I was constantly haunted by dreams and worries about what would happen if I found out who the Antichrist was," Strauss, er, Manson writes. "What if I already had the mark of the beast somewhere on me -- underneath my scalp or on my ass where I couldn't see it? What if the Antichrist was me?"
Two-hundred-and-fifty pages later, after a recounting of, among other things, early dabblings in the occult, various loves and losses, the rise above the Fort Lauderdale (where his family eventually relocated to) goth scene, and the arduous recording of Antichrist Superstar, Manson answers his own question. We finally get an entirely reborn Manson, finally granted his so richly deserved fame, brandishing a Nietzschean trigger finger and a sense of self-esteem that an airplane hangar couldn't contain. "Everything and everyone who had tried to beat the album down had only made it stronger, more powerful and more effective. The album had entered the pop charts at number three, and now I was bigger than rock clubs, rock cocaine and feel-good rock ... bigger than anyone who has ever worked out and bigger than most of the musicians I used to idolize. To some people, I was even bigger than Satan."
Three cheers for the Horatio Alger of Satanism! Of course, dirt is a central component to the rock autobiography, and Manson delivers it with a mighty shovel in Long Road. We read of his grandfather's basement, where Old Jack Warner stored his bestiality photos and a Vaseline-encrusted dildo, where the codger masturbated to the electric rhythm of his train set. We're told of Manson rebuffing Red Hot Chili Peppers/Jane's Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro's offer of a blow job, and of the author himself administering fellatio to Nine Inch Nails guitarist Robin Finck. There are enough references to cocaine binges to make Scarface look like a propaganda film for the Partnership for a Drug-Free America.
If there's a sense of humor hiding behind Manson's pallid death mask, he hasn't yet developed the Alice Cooperian ability to admit it. Which, in the end, makes The Long Hard Road not quite long enough; it's a tale well told, but it still feels like there's some essential ground left uncovered. Manson really wants us to believe that he's got the mark of the beast on his ass (a point dozens of groupies could verify, but I'll only take my fact-checking duties so far). Then again, Manson, at 28, still has time to embrace his inner golfer and hit the game show circuit. Judging from the gruesome sketches that he includes in his book, he'd probably clean up on Pictionary.