"You know what? It was strange, because it wasn't exactly a disguise," Manson says via phone. "I don't think people really knew who I was. They just knew that I was a force to be reckoned with."
And then he pauses.
"Or they may have thought I was Michael Jackson."
As sinister as Manson might seem, he's not without a sense of humor. He's smart enough to occasionally poke fun at himself, to understand that Marilyn Manson is as much a caricature as an icon.
"I'm looking to bring back feeding Christians to the lions as a new reality TV program," he says. "Called Christian Survivor, by Marilyn Manson. I'm the new Julius Caesar. The networks would probably love it, because it involves religion, politics, and violence, and that's really what makes the world go around these days, unfortunately."
Since forming Marilyn Manson & the Spooky Kids in Florida a decade ago, Manson has gladly accepted the role of cultural scapegoat. Accompanied by a stage show that's always involved shock tactics (in the early days, he used props such as chainsaws, animals, and cages), Manson has left a trail of trashed hotel rooms and frightened parents in his wake. In 1994, he was banned from the Delta Center in Salt Lake City after destroying a copy of the Book of Mormon onstage. Then, in 1997, he was blamed for the suicide of a North Dakota teenager who killed himself after listening to Manson's Antichrist Superstar. Two years ago, he was lambasted in op-ed columns after it was revealed that the Columbine gunmen were Manson fans. The protests haven't stopped.
"They've gotten worse, I think," says Manson, who's on tour with Ozzfest. "It's definitely gone up a notch. There was a period when Eminem started taking a lot of heat. I think things lightened up on me a bit. But now every city has some councilman or church group that doesn't want me to come to town.
"I'm amused by it most of the time. It's a simple equation that doesn't surprise me. For them to look like the good guy, they've got to point out the bad guy, and that's the role that I've chosen to play. The reason for that is to say that the bad guy isn't always as bad as you think. Maybe he's just the smarter guy."
When Ozzfest rolled through Denver last month, tensions were particularly high. The day before the concert, more than 300 protesters gathered at the state capitol to present the 4,000 signatures they collected from people who wanted Manson to stay away. Onstage the next day, Manson read from a Bible and asked the audience, "Who is a worse influence, God or Marilyn Manson?" The audience, of course, responded by yelling "God!"
"It was something that was coming for a long time," Manson says. "We hadn't played there in four years. It was probably the best show we have ever done. The response was unbelievable and the support from the people who were lobbying to bring us there. It was important for me to go there and stand up and show that I wasn't going to be silenced. I wasn't going to be blamed for something that I didn't do. I wasn't scared, but I was hoping that there wouldn't be anything violent that would happen, either toward the band or toward the fans. I'm glad nothing like that happened."
Manson has always been confrontational. Born in Canton, Manson (who changed his name from Brian Warner after moving to Florida) had a complex relationship with Christianity from the start. He attended Canton's Heritage Christian School, and in 1984, when he was a teenager and the world didn't end as his Bible teacher had forewarned, Manson determined he would "bring it about myself in my own way." Realizing it was easy to cause trouble in "whitebread America," he began making cassette tapes filled with strange, silly songs he had written. ("There's one called 'Frogs Are in Style.' What it means I can't tell you. Even at an early age, my lyrics are hard to decipher," he says, laughing.) Even if he hadn't been raised in a strict Christian environment, Manson says he still would have found a way to deconstruct fundamentalist beliefs.
"I've always been the kid who says the thing that you're not supposed to say. Sooner or later, I would have picked up on whatever hypocrisy there would be that you see [while] growing up. There's not much to do, growing up in Canton. That's why music became the only link to the outside world. That was the way of escaping from your life or even from a small town. You go to a concert, and it makes you feel like you're part of something bigger. That's what drew me into music. I remember buying [Ozzy Osbourne's] Blizzard of Ozz on eight-track cassette, and my mom returned it to the store because she thought the money went to devil worshipers. You can see how the irony is thick on that one."
Manson says he's not a practicing satanist, although in 1994 he was ordained a priest in the late Simon LaVey's Church of Satan. "Satanism had qualities in it that appealed to me, but so did Buddhism, Judaism, and even Catholicism -- particularly the wine-drinking part," he says, making light of his association with LaVey. He says his ordination had more to do with the fact that he was LaVey's friend than an actual belief in Satan. But then, Manson always seems to find a way to twist religious ideologies for his own purposes.
"I think I've learned to understand the Bible and interpret it in a way that suits me," Manson says. "I think it's got great characters in it. Sometimes, I can identify with Christ, in that he was a rebel. Sometimes, I can identify with Lucifer, in that he wanted to be an individual and he wanted to be God himself. Sometimes, I can identify with Cain and Abel. There's a lot of different ways to look at the Bible. What people always forget is that it's paper. And no one can own the copyright on what God is. No group of people should be able to tell anyone what they should believe God is."
Manson appears ready to move on, at least in terms of his music. He says he's tired of the goth- and industrial-leaning music he's played ever since signing to Trent Reznor's Nothing Records in 1993. He's finished recording music for the soundtrack to From Hell, a forthcoming Hughes Brothers movie about Jack the Ripper, and wrote several pieces that sound like "19th-century funeral music." He also wrote one rock-oriented song that could be released as a single. Even it, he says, is atypical for him, in that it's "very beat-oriented" and suggestive of the new material the band is working on.
"I want to do something that's very, I suppose, animalistic in a way," he says of his next record. "Something that's less about philosophy and more about human nature. More about what people would consider to be dirty. I think I want to make a record that deals with people's fetishes."
Does that mean we'll get some insight into the twisted mind of Brian Warner, as opposed to the Manson alter ego? He's not telling.
"You know, people will say clothes make the man, or people will assume that if I'm different offstage, what I do onstage is merely an act," he says. "I think there's just a lot of different levels to my personality. I think Marilyn Manson is more about what I think than what I look like or how I act. I don't ever change the way I think."