By Greg Maki
My introduction to Marilyn Manson came Dec. 6, 1994. About two months past my 15th birthday, I was in the company of my dad and older brother Jeff to see Nine Inch Nails at the Baltimore Arena. Remember, this was the year of The Downward Spiral and “Closer,” the year a mud-covered performance stole the show at Woodstock. The fervor surrounding Trent Reznor was never greater—before or after this period. I had no clue who the opening acts were to be that night, and I didn’t care. I was there to see Nine Inch Nails, which had become something of an obsession to me in the months prior.
Twenty to 30 minutes before the start time listed on my ticket, the house lights went down and a disembodied voice introduced the first act as “Satan’s favorite band.” I remember little of the music this band played that night, but the visuals are still strong in my mind. It was something out of a childhood nightmare. Symbols of innocence—giant candy canes and lollipops littering the stage—took on a demented feel. The men onstage—if they were men at all—looked like ghouls that had crawled out of the nearest graveyard with the aim of finding their next meal among the audience.
Though I had been raised on rock music, I had neither seen nor imagined anything like Marilyn Manson. I was shaken by the sight, and I could not get it out of my head, even after the awe-inspiring performance by Nine Inch Nails that followed later that night.
A few weeks later, Jeff received Manson’s major label debut, Portrait of an American Family, as a Christmas gift (which seems strangely appropriate, does it not?). I listened to it once and had to have a copy of my own. I was still buying cassettes then (remember those?), and our local music store, Sight & Sounds, had to place a special order so I could buy it there. Complicating matters further, the store would not sell any product with a “parental advisory” sticker on it to any under 18, so I had to have my mom with me when I made the purchase.
Portrait of an American Family, the first release on Trent Reznor’s Nothing Records imprint, was unleashed on an unsuspecting public July 19, 1994. The band formed about five years earlier in south Florida, originally under the name Marilyn Manson and the Spooky Kids, and consisted of Daisy Berkowitz on guitar, Twiggy Ramirez on bass, Madonna Wayne Gacy on keyboards, Sara Lee Lucas on drums and the eponymous frontman, credited simply as “Mr. Manson.” (It should be noted that Ramirez joined the band after the album was finished; Brad Stewart, aka Gidget Gein, played the bass tracks on the recording.) Reznor did more than give the band an opportunity; he and Manson share the album’s production credit, and he’s also listed as “executive producer.”
Though the music and image certainly captured my attention, what struck me most those years ago was the attitude. Here was a band with something to say and subtlety be damned. I never cut myself, painted my fingernails or wore black eyeliner, but I felt like Manson spoke to me, giving a voice to a general malaise and frustration with the world that every teenager feels at some point. “I wasn’t born with enough middle fingers” is a line from Antichrist Superstar (1996), but it seems to be a perfect summation of Portrait of American Family.
Manson described his intent in a 1995 interview with Empyrean Magazine, reprinted in his 1998 autobiography, The Long Hard Road out of Hell: “… I wanted to address the hypocrisy of talk show America, how morals are worn as a badge to make you look good and how it’s so much easier to talk about your beliefs than to live up to them.
“I was very much wrapped up in the concept that as kids growing up, a lot of the things that we’re presented with have deeper meanings than our parents would like us to see, like Willy Wonka and the Brothers Grimm. So what I was trying to point out was that when our parents hide the truth from us, it’s more damaging than if they were to expose us to things like Marilyn Manson in the first place. My point was that in this way I’m an anti-hero.”
Though Manson went on to write extensively about his romantic life on Eat Me, Drink Me (2007), Portrait feels like his most personal record to me. It’s full of songs inspired by his childhood (“Lunchbox,” “Wrapped in Plastic”) and others about the beliefs that shaped him into the man he became (“Cake and Sodomy,” “Get Your Gunn”).
Listening to Portrait now, more than 16 years after its release, is like traveling back in time, to when Manson was controversial and threatening, to when his music was considered metal and to when Manson was a band rather than a solo act with a rotating cast of supporting characters. Musically, this is practically garage rock compared to Manson’s subsequent recordings. Filled with guitar-driven hard rock/metal songs, it’s very much the Daisy Berkowitz show, which is unsurprising considering he co-founded the band with Manson. Listening to the album from start to finish recently for the first time in several years, I found I had forgotten how percussive and rhythmic the recording is, another quality that sets it apart from much of Manson’s discography. There are keyboards, as well, but by all accounts, Madonna Wayne Gacy’s ability to play his instrument was rudimentary at best, so they are not nearly as prominent here as they are on future albums. Samples are maybe more prevalent here than on any other Manson album and come from a wide range of sources, including Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, John Waters’ Pink Flamingos, Poltergeist II and serial killer Richard Ramirez. Manson never has been confused with a great singer, but his vocals are particularly raw here; he spends about half the album shouting. The songs are bit simplistic in nature and sound the way they do because that is the best this group of people could do at the time. But that is huge factor in why it is so good. There is purity in that, honesty you rarely find after a band has tasted success.
What happened next: Marilyn Manson toured for about two years behind Portrait of American Family, spending roughly half that time supporting Nine Inch Nails and half headlining small clubs. The three singles/videos from the album—“Get Your Gunn,” “Lunchbox” and “Dope Hat”—received little airplay, and it took a cover of the Eurhythmics’ 1980s hit “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” from the 1995 EP Smells Like Children, to break Manson into the mainstream. That opened the door for what remains Manson’s most enduring song, “The Beautiful People,” from 1996’s career milestone, Antichrist Superstar.
The band that recorded Portrait did not last long. Bassist Brad Stewart was kicked out before its release due to a nasty heroin habit. It was an addiction he continued to battle, and he eventually succumbed to it, dying of an overdose in 2008.
Drummer Sara Lee Lucas quit in early 1995 after Manson set his drums on fire—while he was still playing them—during the second-to-last show of the band’s headlining tour. The parting seems to have been mutual, as Manson had nothing complimentary to write about Lucas’s skills in his book. (His replacement, Ginger Fish, is still Manson’s drummer today.)
Manson and guitarist Daisy Berkowitz never saw eye to eye musically, and their partnership seemed to be one of convenience more than anything else. Their creative differences came to a head during the making of Antichrist Superstar, when the sound started moving from guitar rock to more of an industrial style, and he was asked to leave before the album was finished. (Twiggy Ramirez played most of the guitar parts on the record.)
Keyboardist Madonna Wayne Gacy stuck with Manson until 2007, then, after his departure, sued him for unpaid earnings. Lucas and Berkowitz had done the same previously, but Gacy’s lawsuit came with accusations that Manson had spent the band’s earnings on all manner of bizarre items. Like the two previous lawsuits, this one was settled out of court.
Portrait of an American Family started a wild ride that has included two No. 1 albums, five top 10 albums, sold-out concerts all over the world, lawsuits, death threats, protests, (irresponsible) accusations of inspiring the Columbine High School killings and, more recently, tabloid-fodder engagements and breakups. Manson has continued making music throughout, having released seven full-length studio albums as I write this in October 2010. But the spark that ignited him in the early days has been largely missing since Holy Wood (In the Shadow of the Valley of Death) (2000). With Twiggy back in the fold (he rejoined in 2008 after a six-year absence) and one disappointing album out of the way (The High End of Low), I’m hopeful he and Manson can rediscover some of that old magic. If they can elicit even a fraction of the excitement from me that Portrait, Antichrist Superstar, Mechanical Animals (1998) and Holy Wood did, they will have done something special.
No matter what Marilyn Manson is today, for about 10 years starting in 1994, there was not a more compelling figure in rock music.