Your Dying God: notes toward a theory of HOLY WOOD
by and (c) Paula O'Keefe (==angelynx==)
---first draft, Feb-Mar 2001
"We participate in tragedy. At comedy we only look."--Huxley
"I never really hated the One True God
But the God of the People I hated"
Which had been obvious from the start. Never mind what the fundies or Congress or even those know-it-all kids at the mall think, this band has always been fundamentally about death and celebrity - considered as one nation, indivisible. Their indelible and myriad bonds, their sexual symbiosis, the yin-yang spin in which each endlessly creates the other. It began with the very bandname: the dead star and the star killer, one an idol whose death elevated her to legend, one a nobody whose mere association with death has made him an icon (because it's only in the mass imagination, remember, that Charlie ever killed anybody at all). Everyone knows you sell the most records on the day you die; everyone knows the fastest way to fame is to kill someone famous. Or if you can't do that, kill a roomful of people. Anything that will get you on the nightly news. Oceans of ink have been spilled in discussion and argument, and still no one knows why people are like this. We just are. We deplore murder and carnage, but we can't shake our fascination with them, and it's none too certain that we really even try. We make household names of the very people who commit the crimes we say we hate; we don't love them, but we give them the spotlight, our undivided attention, and for some that's all the motivation they need. We feed them. And by feeding them we feed the next one in line.
Marilyn Manson has come to grips with this matter over and over in the course of four albums and unnumbered interviews, essays, and online messages. Accused of glorifying mass murderers, he pointed out time and again that it was exactly that glorification he intended to satirize and condemn. When fame did arrive, it made him a target. The Marilyn aspect ascended over the Manson, and he pondered his own vulnerability, whether someone might be hoping to gain instant stardom by shooting him down - or just hated him enough to think it justifiable. And we wondered, because it's our job to wonder. Did he dread that or privately hope for it? It's so easy, even seductive, to privately hope for death; it relieves you of so many worries about what to do next and whether you'll fail. And he knows full well - is a student of, really - how assassination in the public eye can make you an icon, an immortal, even a saint. To be sure, there are worse deaths. But it's a long road from the relative innocence of "Choklit Factory", in which Dahmer's factory is equated with Willy Wonka's (a dark enough place, indeed, but still one that doesn't exist), to the jornada del muerto that runs the length of Holy Wood.
What's it about, this? Level 1: The American love affair with guns; the death of the famous and the fame of death; the acceptance and commercialization of murder. Columbine. Level 2: Evolution, and de-evolution: how our obsession with death is dragging us back down the ladder; dehumanization and the disposal of our kids. Level 3: the ritual and magick of celebrity assassination: JFK, Jesus Christ and John Lennon.
Paradoxically it still carries that old rallying vibe of "your life's up to you, and you can do it, yes you can" - it makes you feel lazy-butt-kicked and newly brave - while at the same time it lies in the shadow of the valley of death, stalked by a terrible sense of fate and fatality. Sing the death song, kids; we've got no future, and we wanna be just like you.
And, as usual: Everything here that isn't a direct quote is strictly the opinion of the writer, and is offered, as always, subject to the possibility that she's dead wrong.
"godeatgod" - equates Kennedy with Christ, under a "sky as blue as a gunshot wound". "Dear god, do you want to tear your knuckles down [from the cross] and hold yourself/dear god, can you climb down off that tree/meat in the shape of a T [the T-shaped Tau cross, the cross of the tarot's Hanged Man - originally a tree lopped off at its first branches--is the traditional one on which a sacred king was ritually crucified]/ dear god, the paper says you were the king in the black limousine/Dear John, and all the king's men can't put your head together again". "Before the bullets/before the flies/before authorities take out my eyes" - the mechanisms of death draw in ritual death, conspiratorial death, the death that silences by intention. "dear god, if you were alive you know we'd kill you." He's warning the One against the danger and futility of incarnation; don't come down off that tree, don't be one of us if you know what's good for you. (Why "and hold yourself"? For comfort? In fear? )--Give it any thought and you'll know Jesus would cringe at what the thing that bears his name has become: but how and why did he die? Was it murder or suicide? Was it to fulfill the prophecies or did he even die at all? Yet he's the template for all celebrity death, for the eroticism of death, the "tortured half-naked man" who - as Manson points out - hangs in so many American homes. As does JFK, who has become a Poderoso, a "powerful one" or folk saint, on the altars of many a Mexican-American bruja.
Footnote #1: if you've never done any reading on the ritual aspects of the murder of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, there's a lot about this album you're not going to get at all. Maybe you should stop reading this for awhile and go do a web search on that; we'll still be here when you get back. Look for an essay called "King Kill 33" (this, among other things, will make clear to you why Manson as The Devil in this album's Tarot card set wears a Masonic apron); look for an old Phil Ochs song called "Crucifixion" (in fact, don't worry about that one - I've got it right here), read some stuff about Camelot and the Holy Grail. Go ahead; it'll do you good. I'll wait.
"the love song" -- "do you love your guns, god, government? FUCK YEAH!" --That's the love song that's killing us. "Got a crush on a pretty pistol". Mom and Dad may tell us not to get involved with it, but the promise and seduction of the gun who "tells me that I'm a pretty bullet" - useless, of course, without a gun - and "gonna be a star someday" - is too strong to resist. The allure of weapons for the powerless.
"The fight song" -- "I'm not a slave to a god who doesn't exist/and I'm not a slave to a world that doesn't give a shit." Classic MM themes of defiance and independence here, throwing back in its face the words of a world that said you'd never grow up to be a big rock star. But the rousing "fight! fight! fight!" chorus shows that this defiance is intended to inspire the kids, to combat the isolation and indifference they struggle with --"isolation is the oxygen mask you make your children breathe in to survive" --and give them something to reach for in a world where death goes on sale daily. And speaking of that...
"disposable teens" --"Say you want an evolution/the ape was a great big hit/you say you want a revolution, man, and I say that you're full of shit". The album's first overt Beatles reference --it even goes "yeah yeah yeah!" -- in a kickass rocker that confirms the cynicism of the Four's original "Revolution", in which they were no more convinced people really wanted change than Manson is now. Self-professed "ape of god" (a term sometimes used as a nickname of Satan, with "ape" in the sense of "imitator"; so the elegant pun brings in Satanic defiance plus the goal of the high magician, and the evolutionary theme) Manson confirms something I was pretty sure of: "I never really hated the one true god, but the god of the people I hated." Dogmatized organized religion, the enemy of evolution from Day One (can you say "Scopes monkey trial"? We can.) --, hand-in-hand with moms and dads to create this crumbling world of throwaway kids. --whose revenge is long overdue. "Don't be surprised when we destroy all of it," spits Manson. (But who is this aimed at? Whose desire for change and a new world does he doubt? Some of us speculated that it's at least partly pointed at those disappointing and disappointed members of his own audience who've dropped out at each step of this journey when it's proved too different from the previous one...)
"target audience" - certainly the best and bitterest pun in an album laced with them. And in such a pretty song. =) Confronting "all the old deceivers" with an unsympathetic catalog of their worst crimes and failures - the Kennedys, Booth, Oswald, Huxley, all of "your crucifixion commercials"-- Manson taunts them with the one they let get through ("you never checked the bag in my head for a bomb"), refuses to be ashamed of his life, and defends Shakespeare along with all the "young believers" and back-stabbed babies the above-named bankrupt elders have targeted. Wonderful stretching and twisting guitar riffs in this one and massive Sabbathy bass work by Twig.
Footnote #2: Aldous Huxley, staunch, acerbic and brilliant advocate of individual freedom and psychedelic intake, and author of the dystopian classic Brave New World, died on the same date as JFK - Nov. 22, 1963. His obituaries worldwide appeared in newspapers only on the following day, having been shoved aside by the death of someone even more famous....
"president dead" -"Give the pills time to work." Self-accepted martyrdom: "every night we are nailed into place...And we don't want to live forever/and we know that suffering is so much better.". Sounds like a shot at the newage spiritual marketplace, where the "incubated and jet-set...buy their tickets to find god". "getting high on violence, baby!"
"in the shadow of the valley of death" -- Babies squall in misery and the guitar strums softly and sadly. "Heaven wasn't made for me." Black this shadow, black indeed, the depths of self-doubt and dark despair, the feeling that all our brave and shiny commerce is just maggots dealing in shit. "sometimes I feel so worthless...sometimes I feel discarded...I wish that I was good enough," mourns Manson. And in the midst of the song's death litany - death is authority, death is the media, "death is our God" (the only capital-G God on the record) comes the strange pronouncement, "death is the Tarot." What does this mean? --trust me, will have MUCH more to say about the album's wealth of Tarot symbolism later on, but for now it should be enough to say that the cards selected - the album features interpretations of ten of the 22 trumps of the Major Arcana-offer a story of spiritual journey through magickal study culminating in submisssion to the divine will, self-immolation, in order to gain true wisdom. The purest sacrifice has always been the one that went consenting to death: the offering of oneself on the altar or the cross, as Odin and Jesus and Manson all know, has tremendous power.
"cruci-fiction in space" -- a massive, stamping track of daunting symbolic density; it deserves to be gone through line-by-line so bear with me. "-this is evolution: the monkey, the man, then the gun" - we're barely out of our primitive state: violence is thus inevitable: hell is other people. We must continue to evolve. "If Christ was in Texas/the hammer, the sickle, the only son" - again equating the Kennedy assassination with the Crucifixion and bringing in the emblems of Communism, Castro, Oswald; "the only son" --JC, certainly not multi-brothered JFK, so probably intended to make one think of John 3:16. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son..." Why? out of guilt? "This is your creation/the atom of Eden was a bomb" - this atom/Adam pun is blinding, suggesting no less than the seed of human destruction planted in the race's very creation. Brighter than a Thousand Sons. (Greater minds than mine have wondered if this is really the sort of thing an omniscient deity ought to do, especially if it was going to require the slaughter of an innocent lamb from the sacred bloodline to patch it up later.) "If Jack was the Baptist/we'd drink wine from his head" - JFK as John the Baptist, the forerunner and prophet of Christ, suggesting here a baptism of blood and wondering what exactly we all drew from his shattered skull. "I am a revolution/pull my knuckles down if I could" ( harking back to "godeatgod"); "I am a revelation/and I'm nailed to the Holy Wood." Whew. What does this mean? That he's/we're trapped in this pattern of sacrifice and punishment and implacable eye-for-an-eye atonement and outright red-eyed deathlust, which no prophet of change can withstand? That we're doomed to Give The People What They Want? Holy Wood/Hollywood: not so much Church and State as Church and state-of-mind, zeitgeist, the expectations of mass-produced fantasy. If we can't "pull our knuckles down" - which I think refers to outgrowing the ape state - we have no chance. (If I didn't know better I'd hazard the guess that Manson was here suggesting JFK's assassination - celebrity death, TV death, ritual king-slaying, mass-marketed canonization - was the prophecy of his own arrival; that in some sense Kennedy, killed 44 days and six years beore Manson would even be born, was the Baptist to Manson's Christ. But I think I know better.)
"a place in the dirt" - still in this spot. "Put me in the motorcade/put me in the death parade/dress me up and make me your dying god" --OK, now we're REALLY getting into it. Anyone with a stitch of comparative mythology knows that the Crucifixion is an old old story dressed up with Roman devices, that the tale of a sun god born at Midwinter, ritually slain and returned to life, had been told all over the world thousands of years before the rise of Xianity. --Manson, who's read all the right books, knows this full well, and pulls the assassination theme ("put me in the motorcade") back one step further from JFK and JC to the Dying God tradition that precedes them, connecting them in an unbroken line. (All we need now are some references to the Holy Grail, the Maimed King and the Waste Land, to deal a full-house hand of the whole Western Magickal Tradition. Not for nothing are the JFK years so indelibly associated with the legend of Camelot.) And he continues to equate all their stories as one: "Now we hold the 'ugly head'", he sings, "the Mary-whore is at the bed." The name "Kennedy" comes from the Gaelic Ceannaideach/Cinneidigh, "ugly head" or "wounded head" - prophetically enough. The Mary here would be the Magdalene, in popular iconography a reformed prostitute (though she was never in that trade), and widely supposed to have become Jesus' lover or even his wife. Her anointing him with expensive ointment was commented on by Jesus as a token of understanding that he was marked for death. (An avatar of the Goddess, she of course knew a born Dying God when she saw one.)
But Xianity took the form of this ancientest of stories and stripped it of all sense, taking away its soil and flesh and practical realism. Revolted by earthy paganism, it proclaimed that physical bodies were worthless filth, food and life were nonessential: what people really needed were pure souls, and they would provide a dying god whose death and consumption would give the people not food but absolution. Stingily, though, they decreed that he should die and rise but once (though he may be consumed over and over), lest he retain any connection to Earth and her seasons. And in reducing the oldest sacrificial concept in the human mind to an abstract, they also planted the seeds of body hatred, mortification, sexual shame, even ecological destruction, by devaluing all earthly life and its needs. We began to worship death. And we haven't stopped. "All god's children to be sent/to our perfect place in the sun/and the dirt" - our only "perfect place", our only approved contact with Earth, is the grave.
"the nobodies" - the spectre of Columbine raises its ugly little head. "We are nobodies/wanna be somebodies/when we're dead/they'll know just who we are". The all-American spectacle of fame through murder and media vulturism- "some children died the other day, we fed machines and then we prayed--you should have seen the ratings that day".
Footnote #4: Though the Jesus/JFK equation was probably already set as the crux of this album, I think it's safe to say that the April 20, 1999, shootings at Columbine High School gave it a tremendous push toward crystalization in the form we see here. Not only a textbook example of one of our uneasiest themes - how any two-bit loser can become an instant worldwide celebrity by killing either a roomful of people or just the right person - it also brought a number of other crucial points into sharp relief. We saw high school kids just as gear-locked into conformity and savage to the outsider as the worst of their elders; we saw the merciless, ravenous predation of the media and the fixation of the TV audience (yeah, I watched it for hours, and I bet you did too) on these victims of stupid tragedy; the panicked stampede in search of a scapegoat; the process, in short, by which you and I, who would never otherwise have heard of them, learned every detail about two screwed-up Nazi punks named Harris and Klebold and their bloody, self-canonizing revenge. And worst of all we saw the utter refusal of anyone's parents, any teacher, any grownup at all, to take the least responsibility for having raised their kids to equate death with glory. Turning on the victim, they blamed Goth culture, movies, comic books, and of course Marilyn Manson. The very "children" they're willing to strip the Constitution and the Bill of Rights to "protect" were branded monsters on the cover of TIME Magazine. It made great TV, and they couldn' t take their eyes off it, but of course no one actually approved of it, and needless to say, it wasn't their fault....
"the death song" - "we sing the death song, kids, because we've got no future, and we wanna be just like you." Hopelessness squared and underlined, on "an earth we made into hell," where heroes die, heaven is only a vague hope, and maybe even god would like to end it all. (over and over, here, the failure of the institutionalized god to offer anything of value; only the magician's personal relationship with god yields anything at all.)
"lamb of god" - if I had to offer just one song to tell you what this record is about, this stately, lovely and crying-sad piece would be it. "if you die when there's no one watching/then your ratings drop and you're forgotten/if they kill you on their TV/you're a martyr and a lamb of god." And that's such a damned shame. Traveling from "how Jack became sainted" to the assassination of John Lennon (the reference to "Lennon and the happy gun" points up the awful irony that death-by-bullet befell the man who wrote and sang the savage satire "Happiness is a Warm Gun"), Manson here instead of castigating the death'n'fame process simply and quietly grieves over it: his voice drops to a soft breaking whisper to sing "nothing's gonna change the world," another Lennon homage. Even the bitter aside about the value of the serial rights to crucifixion coverage (just imagine the ratings that would draw these days...) doesn't take the tenderness out of this one.
Footnote #5: "Happiness is a Warm Gun", "Revolution", and yup, even "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey", all come from the same Beatles record, 1969's influential and controversial "The Beatles", better known as the White Album. A presence in MM's music since just about Day 1 (check "Revelation #9", their version of the White Album's sonic collage "Revolution #9", all the way back on the B-side of "Lunchbox"; check the "Mother Inferior Got Her Gun" - from "Warm Gun"'s "Mother Superior jumped the gun"--mix of "Get Your Gunn"), it's most notorious as the set that Charlie Manson and his Dune Buggy Desert Attack Squad are supposed to have based their entire apocalyptica upon, Charlie allegedly (if you believe the "Helter Skelter" theory) convinced that the Fabs had coded the record full of secret messages about the Book of Revelations and impending racial warfare. (if this spiral gets any tighter, I'm gonna have trouble breathing in here...)
"born again" - "It doesn't take a rebel to sing along," sneers Manson in this slashing little number about mass-mind behavior and doing as the crowd does. Suck down the right drugs, buy feeble art in pretty frames, pretend you're in with the latest and coolest - same old shit. "I'm someone else, I'm someone new, I'm someone stupid just like you." In a line framed in quotes - usually to be read as a character voice in MM lyrics - he plays the brand-new-same-old star: "I'll burn down your disco/and take your heart away" - a play-threat of danger and pseudoviolence candy-wrapped in cheesy romance. Adam Kadmon, disheartened, castigates those who destroy the irreplaceable, reward mediocrity, and hardly seem able to tell the difference.
"burning flag" - "sell it out, buy it up, dumb it down - a good god is hard to find." A high-octane Motorhead-ish charger, scarred and embittered. "I'll join the crowd that wants to see me dead - right now I feel I belong for the first time," remarks Manson dryly. With a solid shot at America's simultaneous adoration and discarding of Our Kids ("Let's hear it for the kids/but nothing they say") the band once again raises the collective banner of Us and You vs. Them - "We are all just scarred and we're hating/ we are all just stars on your burning flag". For some reason reminds me of schooldays and the Pledge of Allegiance, with all its references to math and ABCs...
"coma black" - the "eden eye"reference seems to check William Blake's theories on vision, perception, observation, the structure of heaven and the eye (see diagram in the sleeve notes between Twiggy and the Tarot card of the Hierophant). Sounds almost as though it was meant for Mechanical Animals - maybe it's intended to hark forward to that one - with its sad, elegiac tone and references to the loss of heaven and the failure of love, plus this album's first visit from Coma White. Manson's obsession with unhealing wounds and the smallness and deformity of his own heart continues...
"valentine's day"/"the fall of adam"-"some of us are really born to die." In the shadow. The thunder rolls. "I wanna hear every one of you fuckers say you want a gun! Let me hear it!" Hero becomes haranguing demagogue; Adam Kadmon gives up on saving humankind and starts handing out artillery. It's all we deserve.
"king kill 33(degrees)" - shrill, chilling, NIN-ish hatesong delivered in an ice-cold whisper from the killer's perspective. He may not think much of Klebold and Harris but he sure as all hell knows how they felt. "You never accepted or treated me fair/blame me for what I believe and I wear/...but I have to show that you played a role/and I will destroy you with one simple hole...and I am not sorry/and I am not sorry/this is what you deserve." As Charlie said during his trial; as Manson said in the hidden track of ACSS. Always that indecision: should the one with the power to save us use it, or leave us to our fate? Do we deserve the savior's sacrifice? The sacred one dies for us, to ensure our survival; are we worth it?
"count to six and die"-Coma Black kisses the pistol and closes her eyes. Click. Russian roulette. We count to six; we'll never get to seven. And in the valley the fireworks, the celebration...
...Tarot essay in progress; comimg very soon (I swear).
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