Shortly before 11am on Tuesday 20 April 1999 two teenage boys walked through the doors of Columbine High School and while their fellow students were in class they planted duffel bags filled with bombs in the cafeteria. Less than twenty minutes later the corridors began to fill as break time commenced but at 11:19am the relative silence of the hallways was shattered by the first of many gunshots, these initial bullets claiming the life of seventeen-year-old Rachel Scott while she sat enjoying her lunch on the grass outside. Confusion soon turned to mass panic as the two assailants, both brandishing an assortment of guns and explosives, opened fire upon their classmates and faculty without mercy as adults and children alike desperately searched for shelter.
Both of the perpetrators, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, were just a few weeks from their graduation but had been the alleged victims of bullying, documenting their increasing hostility against the world around them in a series of journals and recordings that were discovered by the authorities shortly after the horrific event. ‘By approximately 12:08pm Harris had taken his own life after placing a gun in his mouth and pulling the trigger,’ explained author Katie Marsico in her book The Columbine High School Massacre. ‘Forty-nine minutes after they had first started shooting the Columbine killers themselves lay lifeless, leaving behind thirteen dead, twenty-three injured and a legacy of questions about school violence that continued to haunt the nation more than a decade later.’ With the public demanding answers the authorities were under pressure to find a single figure that could take the blame. And that person was Marilyn Manson.
By April 1999 Marilyn Manson had defied all expectations by breaking into the mainstream. Despite having courted controversy ever since the release of his debut album half a decade earlier, the commercial success of his latest offering Mechanical Animals and his publicised relationship with actress Rose McGowan had allowed Hollywood to reluctantly embrace the self-proclaimed ‘God of fuck’ and even those critics who had despised his prior work would admit that the third time was a charm. The glam-infused record, which clearly owed a debt to David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust persona, had proved more accessible than the first two albums and its lead single The Dope Show would become his biggest hit to date. And yet just a couple of years prior Manson was the most feared man in America.
Much like Alice Cooper before him, Manson had become the poster child for corruption and debauchery but he only had himself to blame. Ever since the early days of Marilyn Manson and the Spooky Kids, the artist formally known as Brian Warner had revelled in notoriety and challenging his audiences with a cocktail of Grand Guignol theatrics and shock rock anthems that explored society’s unhealthy obsession with sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. And while he would gain moderate exposure following the release of his first album it would be its follow-up, 1996’s Antichrist Superstar, that would first bring him to the attention of the world.
His overnight success would take America by surprise and soon his shows would be met by protests and media coverage, this controversy only further fuelling his reputation. With a stage name that not only encapsulated the beauty of a Hollywood icon but also the evil of a convicted cult leader, Marilyn Manson represented the juxtaposition that exists in everyone, a notion that many were unwilling to accept. As a result, 1997’s Dead to the World Tour and the following year’s series of shows in support of Mechanical Animals would be met with hostility. According to the New York Times, not only had bomb threats been reported at certain venues but one school in the band’s home state of Florida had threatened to expel any students that attended their shows. To the people of America, Manson had become a very real threat.
Manson had already instigated controversy through interviews and music videos
Barely two days after the incident that took place at Columbine the media had begun to reference the gothic subculture and Manson in particular. While German industrial metal group KMFDM would also be named by the press, whose latest record Adios had the misfortune of being released on the same day as the massacre, Manson had already instigated controversy through interviews and music videos and so had inadvertently made himself the ideal target. Both Manson and KMFDM vocalist Sascha Konietzko would release statements offering their condolences to the victims and their families but as the media witch-hunt began to grow and Manson would be accused of inciting violence he retreated from the public eye.
‘I didn’t leave my house for three months,’ he told CMJ New Music Monthly a year later. ‘And that’s not a figure of speech. And most of that time was spent in my attic, which I turned into my writing isolation chamber. I was just trying to decide what I wanted to do. Was it worth trying to put my heart and soul into an album if I was just going to be treated so brutally and unjustly by religious people and the media? Other people will never know how poorly we were treated. On Antichrist Superstar I enjoyed being vilified or being a scapegoat. But in this situation, when you’re being blamed for something that has so many people’s emotions wrapped up in it, it’s not a winning battle you can fight.’
Despite Manson’s self-imposed exile, his label would release a single less than two months later that, while taken from Mechanical Animals, was intended to promote the recent science fiction motion picture The Matrix. With its protagonists sporting black trench-coats in much the same way as Harris and Klebold had on the day of the murders the press would soon draw comparisons to the action movie, providing the public with another target to direct their anger towards as the two teenagers responsible had taken their own lives and so could not answer for their actions. With its parent album having told the story of an alien being known as Omega being forced into a new life as the latest rock ‘n’ roll sensation, Rock Is Dead was a commentary on the scaremongering that protesters had created outside his shows and how the concept of being shocked by art is all in the imagination.
By the time of its release in the summer of 1999 the American government had already taken the first step to challenge the entertainment industry on its offensive and potentially dangerous content. Much like with Tipper Gore’s moral watchdog committee the PMRC fourteen years earlier, a senate hearing took place on 4 May with once again the focus on the harmful effect that violence and sex in the media has on children. While most representatives of the music, movie and gaming industries would decline an invitation to attend, those present would discuss the potential threat of Marilyn Manson and modern music in general. Even President Bill Clinton spoke out in a statement immediately after the shooting in which he highlighted how parents should protect their children from violent images.
Ten days after the release of Rock Is Dead, Manson finally broke his silence when he published an article in Rolling Stone that expressed his thoughts and feelings on the tragedy and the way that the media had reacted as the dust settled. ‘A lot of people forget or never realise that I started my band as a criticism of these very issues of despair and hypocrisy,’ he stated in his piece entitled Columbine: Whose Fault Is It? ‘The name Marilyn Manson has never celebrated the sad fact that America puts killers on the cover of Time magazine, giving them as much notoriety as our favourite movie stars. From Jesse James to Charles Manson, the media, since its inception, have turned criminals into folk heroes. They just created two new ones when they plastered those dip-shits Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris’ pictures on the front of every magazine.’
As a mark of respect and due to rising pressure from the public, Manson decided to cancel the last five dates of his North American tour along with an earlier show in Denver, which at only fifteen miles from Columbine could have resulted in protests and even riots. Not every group would remain so considerate to the feelings of a community in mourning as less than two weeks later the National Rifle Association held a pro-gun rally in the city. Despite a reported seven thousand protesters outside of the hotel where the convention took place, its president, Hollywood legend Charlton Heston, took to the stage and uttered his group’s infamous motto, ‘From my cold dead hands!’ After reading a letter to the crowd from Wellington Webb, the mayor of Denver, he then commended his fellow members for showing the courage to attend, despite protests from the crowd outside, some of whom were relatives of the victims of the Columbine killing spree.
One debate that would arise in the wake of the murders was that of gun control, one that many felt challenged their constitutional right under the Second Amendment. But the media would soon decide that the lyrical content of Marilyn Manson’s work was far more relevant to the motives behind Harris and Klebold’s actions. ‘When you’re making something aggressive and you need to get a point across, if you’re angry, sometimes profanity’s necessary,’ he explained to Fox News presenter Bill O’Reilly when asked whether his penchant for shock and controversy was necessary. ‘It’s better to use a curse word than to hurt somebody else, I find.’
Even as he remained the focal point of the post-Columbine media debate, Manson had already turned his attention for what action his eponymous group should take next. With each album they had reinvented both their image and sound, from the psychedelic carnival rock of 1994’s Portrait of An American Family to the glam pop rock of Mechanical Animals, but after the hostility and accusations that he had faced in recent months it soon became clear that their next record would be far removed from the radio friendly appeal of their last release and would serve more as Manson’s unapologetic response to his critics. In keeping with both of his last efforts his next album would be based around a narrative, although this time the concept had been conceived in the form of a story and screenplay, with the album serving as its accompanying soundtrack.
By August 1999 he had already announced that their next album would be entitled In the Shadow of the Valley of Death and that this would serve as a companion piece to a proposed feature film called Marilyn Manson’s Holy Wood. To help bring their music project to fruition he had recruited the services of Barkmarket frontman Dave Sardy, who throughout the nineties had produced records for such artists as Slayer and Vision of Disorder, while further contributions would come from former Nitzer Ebb multi-instrumentalist Bon Harris. With Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor having helped to define the Marilyn Manson sound on their first two albums, the band had sought the guidance of Soundgarden and Hole veteran Michael Beinhorn for the pop sound of Mechanical Animals, but with their new venture they wanted to return to a heavier sound for what they considered a declaration of war against their accusers.
The character I personified was more of a satire
‘The character of Omega has been disposed of, as he was a ruse to lure commercial mall-goers into the web of destruction that I’ve always planned since the beginning,’ Manson explained in a video posted on the band’s official website, in which he revealed that their last album had been an attempt to break into the mainstream so they could ostensibly attack it from the inside, the fake pompous celebrity world that he had mocked so effectively with The Dope Show. ‘That’s not to say any of the songs on Mechanical Animals were not sincere. Those were all great songs that I loved very much. The character I personified was more of a satire that people misinterpreted as reality.’
Another recurring tradition that would occur between albums would be the line-up change, with Manson replacing his guitarist for almost every release. With founding member Daisy Berkowitz having left the group during the making of Antichrist Superstar he would soon be replaced by newcomer Zim Zum, the first member not to adopt the beauty/killer moniker that had become the Marilyn Manson trademark. By the time that they commenced touring Mechanical Animals the role of guitarist had now been taken by John 5. This would, however, lend each album its own unique style as despite having to conform to the band’s tried-and-tested format each guitarist has brought their own influences and method of playing that has inevitably had an impact on the music.
With Marilyn Manson having already gained something of a reputation through their live shows and off-stage antics John 5 was well aware of what he would be subjecting himself to when he was approached in 1998 to join the group. ‘I’d heard all the horror stories. ‘Oh gosh, this is going to happen. That’s going to happen.’ And you know what?’ he said to Kerrang! ‘Not only did those things happen but they happened on a much grander scale than I’d ever imagined. It was definitely gruelling. After every show the parties would all be in my room. So I’d have forty girls in my room, which I wasn’t complaining about. Manson’s crew would come in and they’d order up all my movies and drink up my mini-bar and having girls pee on my bed. Every night it was like that. It wasn’t just once in a while. It was every fucking night!’
While John 5 would prove to be the latest in an ever-revolving production line of guitarists, Manson was once again accompanied by the sole remaining original member, keyboardist Madonna Wayne Gacy, while bassist Twiggy Ramirez and drummer Ginger Fish had joined the outfit by the time that the Smells Like Children EP had been released in the autumn of 1995. Due to the regular change in personnel, Manson’s closest collaborator had become Ramirez, who had often taken on the role of guitarist during recording sessions, but due to their appetite for narcotics and debauchery they would often prove to be a negative influence on each other, as Manson had documented in his 1998 memoir The Long Hard Road Out of Hell.
The album that Manson had intended to be the successor to the platinum-selling Mechanical Animals had first been conceived prior to the massacre at Columbine and had originated as a story, with its basic concept having formed before the release of Antichrist Superstar. Once again he would embody the protagonist of the tale, this time not as the alien rock star Omega but instead a naïve young man called Adam Kadman, himself named after a character in Jewish mysticism who was believed to be the first man that ever existed, similar to Adam and Eve in the Book of Genesis. The narrative of Holy Wood would document his seduction and ultimate corruption at the hands of a shallow and sleazy society that was somewhat reminiscent of Hollywood.
‘The whole story, if you take it from the beginning, is parallel to my own but just told in metaphors and different symbols that I thought other people could draw from,’ he told Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk. ‘It’s about being innocent and naïve, much like Adam was in Paradise before they fall from grace. And seeing something like Hollywood, which I used as a metaphor to represent what people think is the perfect world and it’s about wanting, your whole life, to fit into this world that doesn’t think you belong, that doesn’t like you, that beats you down every step of the way, fighting and fighting and fighting and finally getting there; everyone around you are the same people who kept you down in the first place. So you automatically hate everyone around you. You resent them for making you become part of this game, you don’t realise you were buying it.’
Describing the story as Andy Warhol’s worst nightmare, Manson would further elaborate on the narrative in an interview with Metal Edge where he would declare President John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1963, as a modern day Jesus Christ. Thus, several of the songs that were written for the soundtrack to Holy Wood referenced the former commander-in-chief and his death that was captured on film for the entire world to see. In Eyehategod he would declare, ‘Dear God, the paper says you were a King in the black limousine. Dear John and all the King’s men can’t put your head together again.’ In another track, Target Audience (Narcissus Narcosis), he would state, ‘Am I sorry you killed the Kennedys?’ There would be further references to the president in A Place in the Dirt and, perhaps most explicitly, President Dead.
‘Holy Wood is a kind of parable of an innocent that was up in a world that doesn’t accept him,’ he would further elaborate in a later interview. ‘He wants to be part of the grass that’s on the other side of the fence with the bigger, more beautiful things that he doesn’t feel part of. And when he comes a part of that finally he finds out that the greener grass on the other side is the same grass that’s been treating him like a weed. And that makes him bitter and manifests in revolution. But Adam’s revolution does not overthrow this world like he thinks it will. His idea becomes another product and they take him and turn him into something he wasn’t.’
Thematically the story for Holy Wood shared many similarities with its two most recent predecessors, particularly Mechanical Animals’ statement on the absurdity of celebrity worship and Antichrist Superstar’s metamorphosis of its protagonist and the apocalypse that this character would attempt to create as the story reaches its conclusion. Manson has stated that all three albums form a trilogy, with Holy Wood serving as the first instalment and the triptych culminating with the nightmarish events of Antichrist Superstar. Manson had revealed that the ending to the story would be one of tragedy and this would be apparent with the song The Fall of Adam, in which he sang, ‘The Abraham Lincoln town cars arrive to dispose of our King and Queen.’
As his concept began to grow Manson engaged in negotiations with New Line Cinema, a studio that had first made a name for itself in the eighties with the slasher franchise A Nightmare on Elm Street, to develop his story into a feature film. To help transform his ideas into a fully-formed screenplay Manson collaborated with television producer Robert Parigi, whose prior credits included Tales from the Crypt and the short-lived science fiction series Dark Skies. With girlfriend McGowan having agreed to lend her name to the project, Manson had reached out to cult filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, best known for his surreal classic El Topo, to help bring his vision to the big screen.
People would have watered down what I thought was a strong story
‘I’m at that point in my career where I wanted to make this film and I’m also making this new record, where I really examine suffering and where celebrities and Hollywood all kind of relate to each other. And that’s very American,’ he told MTV in late 1999 but soon creative differences with the studio would bring the project to a standstill. ‘There’s a lot of people interested in working on it but there weren’t a lot of people interested in doing it on my terms,’ he would reveal months later. ‘People would have watered down what I thought was a strong story, had a lot of strong important points in it that I thought had to be said. So instead I decided to put the movie on the back-burner.’
During the recording of Portrait of An American Family in 1993 the band had spent some time with Reznor at 10050 Cielo Drive in Beverly Hills where, a quarter of a century earlier, members of Charles Manson’s ‘Family’ had slaughtered Hollywood star Sharon Tate and several of her friends. Reznor had set up a studio in the mansion and recorded The Downward Spiral, the second full-length album from Nine Inch Nails and so would invite Manson to work on his own record in the infamous house. Several years had passed since the haunting experience and now the group had relocated to another mansion in Laurel Canyon to work on their new album album, this time a house allegedly once owned by the legendary escape artist Harry Houdini.
‘We wrote all the stuff in Manson’s house. Then we moved into Houdini’s mansion and recorded all the live stuff,’ explained Ramirez to Guitar World. ‘The Houdini house was pretty creepy. I always heard rumours, ‘Okay, the house is haunted.’ You say, ‘Yeah, right!’ But when you get there you kinda get the feeling that something’s going on. I think there were some murders there. And, I don’t know if I believe this, but I heard somebody used to give abortions in that house. So maybe there’s a bunch of unborn dead baby ghosts in there.’ Meanwhile, as the music was recorded at the mansion, Manson opted to capture his vocals at his home studio in the Hollywood hills, in which he would explore such relevant themes as gun control and society’s obsession with celebrities.
As Manson highlighted during an interview with NME, 1999 had certain echoes of 1969, with significant events that occurred at the end of the sixties seeming to have been repeated in a loose fashion thirty years later. Whereas the free love generation came to an end with the Manson Family murders that took place in August 1969, the horror of high school violence would shock America to its core in the aftermath of the Columbine massacre. The Altamont Speedway Free Festival had been an attempt to capture the zeitgeist of the recent Woodstock but when the Rolling Stones took to the stage on 6 November 1969 an increasingly violent crowd would result in the tragic death of eighteen-year-old Meredith Hunter, while three decades later the ill-fated Woodstock ’99 would become notorious for several violent incidents and even reports of sexual assault.
‘I definitely had a chip on my shoulder while making this record,’ Manson confessed to High Times. ‘In one way it’s defending Hollywood and in another it’s attacking it for not being brave enough. I live in the house the Stones used when they made Let It Bleed. In the house in the beginning of Cocksucker Blues. That was an important inspiration. The end of the sixties became something I was really obsessed with on this album. I think it was because of the Stones being blamed for Altamont and the Manson murders were a lot like Columbine. The same media coverage. That’s why I started getting into the White Album more and more, because it was the first record that was blamed for some sort of crime or associated with it. I felt like this had to be our White Album.’
Despite promotional material announcing that it would see the light of day on 24 October 2000, Holy Wood (In the Shadow of the Valley of Death) was finally released through Interscope and Reznor’s own label Nothing on 14 November and while there had been some debate as to whether The Fight Song or Disposable Teens would be chosen as the lead single it would be the latter that had been unleashed upon the world one week earlier. A commentary of teenage rebellion against oppressive authority figures, many read the song as a statement on the Columbine shooting, particularly as the album would be littered with references to gun violence and America’s fascination with weapons.
Marilyn Manson has never been about belonging in the mainstream, even when fashioning albums such as Mechanical Animals that seemed designed for mass consumption and it is this contradiction that has often resulted in critics remaining divided on the merits of his music. And while Holy Wood would receive a more positive response than most of his work, opinions would always be as contradictory as the artist they are reviewing. ‘Holy Wood won’t win over any converts but its creator’s commitment to fighting back at a society hell-bent on martyring him makes the self-indulgence universal. There’s a little Manson in all of us. Or there should be,’ stated Barry Walters of Rolling Stone.
‘Marilyn Manson has referred to his band’s latest release as their version of the White Album,’ commenced Charlotte Robinson’s review of the album for Pop Matters. ‘At nineteen tracks and nearly seventy minutes, Holy Wood may rival the Beatles‘ most intriguing record in sheer bulk but it’s hardly comparable in composition. The Beatles classic is sprawling, schizophrenic, rarely coherent and reveals its creators’ disillusionment with the sixties and each other through its artistic disarray; Manson’s latest, on the other hand, is a very calculated concept album intended as a statement on violence in modern society and the role that the media and Manson himself have played in it.’
Taking the raw industrial metal of Antichrist Superstar and the glam rock of Mechanical Animals, Holy Wood could be described as a Marilyn Manson greatest hits as it would take the best elements of both albums to create something that, while reaching the expectations of what was desired from a Manson album, at its heart was a tragedy. Whether it’s the doomed protagonist of the narrative or the horrifying true event that inspired it, Holy Wood would make for an uncomfortable experience and served as a statement against those detractors that had accused him of inciting violence. In the years since its release it would not only be the majority of fans that would label Holy Wood as their favourite Marilyn Manson album but also the singer himself, describing it as his most personal and confessional record.
If Mechanical Animals had been about the absurdity of celebrity worship and Antichrist Superstar had depicted the rise of a monster then Holy Wood would prove to be a culmination of these themes, the exploration of how a fame-obsessed society creates its own demons. ‘If you die and enough people are watching then you became a martyr, you become a hero, you become well-known,’ declared Manson on the O’Reilly Factor in 2001. ‘So when you have things like Columbine and you have these kids that are angry and they have something to say and no one is listening, the media sends a message that says if you do something loud enough and it gets our attention then you will be famous for it.’