HOW "PORTRAIT OF AN AMERICAN FAMILY" CHANGED MY LIFE
[and other Marilyn Manson adventures]

(c) paula o'keefe/angelynx 1997
Prelude: In which we gaze dubiously upon the face of destiny...

.....well, actually, it didn't. Change my life, that is. Not all by itself.

I wonder what percentage of Marilyn Manson fans didn't fall for them upon hearing their first LP? One in five? More than that? The fan stories I've heard have been about evenly divided between people whose MM adventure began with Portrait, with MTV, and with setting off one 1994 night to see Nine Inch Nails. It's a pretty wide split.

So it doesn't feel all that traitorous to confess that POAAF did not knock my head off. And it really didn't. At the time I was a dedicated ambient-noise post-Goth whose primary listening matter was Sonic Youth and Fields of the Nephilim, with a heavy seasoning of Lycia, Deep Forest, and Sisters of Mercy (original and clones). I wanted beauty and density and mystery in a sound, distance, a sense of something strange and faraway. The last thing I was interested in was a loud, vulgar, metal-edged hard rock band, especially with a dead-eye focus on the ills and crimes of American society. And I will be honest with you, mein kleinekinder -when I first heard Marilyn Manson, that's exactly all I heard. Yawn, she said to herself as the Get Your Gunn video showed on MTV, another noise band with an attitude. Another shock band about the evil influence of the media. Transvestism, Satanism, rotten parents and twisted babies, the corrupting blue glare of the cathode screen, we're-only-as-sick-as-the- world-that-made-us. Been there, seen it, done that, somebody change the channel...

Sorry. But I grew up on Alice Cooper and the Stooges and I really did think I'd seen it all before. No denying the resemblance, after all. And living within close range of Washington D.C., drug crime and murder capital of the Southeast, I did feel as if I already got more than my fair dose of fucked-up all-American reality just catching the PM news. ANYway. ---I first heard all of POAAF in the car, courtesy of roomie/fellow Planetcom Muse EVB, the real heroine of this adventure. I heard it once and then a LOT more times - when EVB falls for something it stays in the CD changer for weeks on end - and I resisted. For weeks on end.

But...on the other hand, I grew up on Alice and Iggy because I loved them, and still do. And I love Bowie, and Marc Bolan, and pure electric dynamism, star quality and star attitude. None of which you find much of in the cool shadowy world of ambient Gothic. That old siren call of rock'n'roll, as full of wonder-what and irresistible adventure as a late-night train whistle, began to get to me. OK, OK, she muttered to herself on the twelfth or fifteenth playing; it's got something. It's still too loud and violent and it's still too crude (paula angelynx, remember, had been listening for years to bands who rarely if ever said "fuck"), but it's got something..

It was Dope Hat that finally breached my defenses. I remember speaking up from the back seat to grudgingly ask "What's this song?" There was such goofy charm to it, something bent and blackly funny about the long-legged stride of the bassline, the dramatic flourish of the ending, the vocal style - and it did have style and wasn't afraid to show it. What were these lyrics about, anyway? Having a Serious Drug Problem, or the performer's relationship to his audience, or some similarity between the two?...

I gave in; I was finally curious. When we got home I read the whole lyric sheet. Several times. And what I found out was something a lot of you probably knew way before I did. There was a sharp, functional intelligence at work in there, and it seemed to have had (or be having) one hellaweird childhood. Caving in skulls with its lunchbox, soaking up scary stuff like Willy Wonka, obediently cleaning its plate in an atmosphere drenched with guilt and terror. That sharp mind was old enough now to stare down all daddies and all authority without mercy or fear; it was through with fear; it was back for revenge.

(Incidentally, at this time I had never seen an episode of any Sid and Marty Krofft TV show. I remembered Willy Wonka quite well thank you, but the Great Hoodoo and I were strangers. When Nickelodeon, showing uncanny foresight, altered that situation - and my internal chemical balance - with its mindbending 'Pufapalooza' marathon, I realized I'd been handed an important piece of the puzzle.)

Well, ordinarily nothing's more likely to hook me than intelligent lyrics. But I wasn't hooked. Still too dark and violent for my taste. I tentatively established which one of them was which - especially which one was writing those lyrics - and struck a guarded truce with the weird kid's weird record. But it might have gone no further than that if they hadn't played in Washington on - o, fateful date - February 14th, 1995.

This part of the story we've all told many times. EVB - who was their only enthusiastic fan of us three, but still hadn't seen them play - excitedly enlisted a dubious Coyote as sidekick; they went, they came home wildly excited, they went again as soon as they could. (The classic pattern for Manson converts, I was soon to realize.) They came home from the band's 2/25/95 Philadelphia gig raving like maniacs, getting me out of bed at 3AM to tell me how utterly headfuckingly amazing it had been and how imperative it was that I see them as soon as possible. OK OK, grumbled sleepy angelynx, impressed despite herself by such raves. Next time you go see em I'll go too. And that was of course March 9th, 1995, at Ziggy's in North Carolina, a tale I've told and told again, a night in which everything changed. Everything.

Suffice it to say that the next day I entered a long relationship with Portrait of an American Family. I'd readily agree with anyone who says it seems out of character for me. It's still the only thing in its basic bracket that I listen to. Then again, it may be the only thing of its kind.

Feature Presentation: "Little surprises around every corner but nothing dangerous.--
I think."

"Prelude (The Family Trip)"-- The first thing you hear is dripping water, and a voice singing so softly that it barely rises up from the bottom of the headphones. (Headphones are definitely recommended to get all the angles and surprises of this creation, by the way. If you've never listened to POAAF with phones on, there may be as much as one-third of it you haven't ever heard.) When I realized, several lines later, what it was singing, it was with a delighted shock of recognition.... The presence of Willy Wonka's strange little soliloquy here, y'see, has a tang for me it may not have for you. Back when my sister and I were teenagers, she spent a year or so as a Bible-toting Jesus Freak, and she and her fellow disciples adored this movie. According to them, it was a Christian allegory; Willy is Jesus, and the tests the kids face are the traps of sin we must navigate to win our way to the Kingdom of Heaven, represented by the Chocolate Factory. Sinners fall by the wayside, but the poor, meek, and virtuous clear every hurdle and are welcomed into their blessed reward by the Lord himself. (I tell ya, it was sickening to listen to them coo. Put me off wanting to see the flick for years.) So to hear it here, representing the polar opposite viewpoint, is particularly refreshing.

Cake And Sodomy"-- The soft voice, almost smothered in screams and chants of "faster faster!" rises to a quiet snarl to a shout to a rant, then hisses "Stop the boat," and BANG we're plunged into dense layers of sound: tribal drumming, bass, a sampled voice chanting "--white trash! White white white white trash!" Guitar squeals and oscillates, then rears back and lunges; another sample snaps "Go on and smile, ya cunt," and then the song proper starts. Phew! Talk about fair warning that you're heading into unmapped territory. All the way through this you'll have that feeling of things lurking just out of sight, sounds you don't quite hear, shapes and glimpses crowding claustrophobically close. I can't think of another record so crammed with stuff, quotes, effects, references. Manson's voice is distorted, filtered, doubled and trebled, changing from line to line, then comes back in full roar. "Virgins sold in qualtity/ herded by heredity/redneck burnout Midwest mind/'who said date rape isn't kind?'" A pissed-off smartass kid rant, this one, fed up to here but full of little clevernesses like "Bible belt round Anglo waste." There's something so teenaged about the phrasing: "Yeah, right, great, if you're so good/'splain the shit-stains on your face!" And the "this'll shock 'em" punky defiance of that chorus! One of the earlier Spooky Kids songs and you can sorta tell.... I love the guitar in this one, ringing out and twisting into weird colorful shapes, and I love how the last word "kind" echoes off into the right speaker, loops round the back of your head and comes back up as "porno" into the left speaker to start the next verse...

"Lunchbox"-- "Next motherfucker's gonna get my metal!" (angelynx shakes her head and sighs...) Gotta love this riff, one of Daisy's most distinctive creations. An anxious mom in the left speaker declares, "It's just one more way that Satan strangles our society," Arthur Brown in the right speaker declaims "I BRING YOU -" (a tight little in-joke retort, since the whole of Brown's line is "I am the God of Hellfire and I bring you fire!" - as you can hear after the first verse), and in comes that thick anaconda coil of guitar and bass. A quick ratatat of drumfire and on we plow with the band's great anthem of kid revenge and triumph. Gotta love, too, how Manson varies his phrasing for effect, singing "Got my lunchbox and I'm armed real well" first doubletime then spacing the words out deliberately. Another unforgettable chorus, powered by Gidget's ominous rev of bass. Dig how menacing they sound as they surge through that "next motherfucker's gonna get my metal next motherfucker - pow pow pow! Pow pow pow!" bridge, the dense bass and guitar just thrumming with pent-up meanness, cymbals clashing and Manson sounding mad as a whacked hornets' nest. Hell no, I'm not crossing this guy when he's got his lunchbox. (Check that long-armed windmill swing he demonstrates in the video, yike, skulls would crunch like eggshells.)

"Organ Grinder"---Oooh. Sinister organ winds up in the left speaker, there's a croaking reversed voice (Manson's ol' pal the Child-Catcher), a surge and then powerhouse drumming and that huge discordant chime. The first song I ever saw them play live, the one that sawed off the top of my skull, so it's hard for me to be objective about it. "I am the face of piss and shit and sugar" - poor shockable little me, I was still working to deal with this sort of thing. --More of that imaginative vocal phrasing, Manson switching from rounded drawl to staccato in midline - "What I waant, what I waant, is-just-yr-CHIL-dren" - that big riff again and another superhook chorus (can these guys write choruses or what?!). One of my most prized moments at a Manson show came inside this chorus, though I don't remember where I was: I was on some barricade somewhere, singing as hard as I could, and it suddenly hit me like high voltage that it was completely true. Here IS my real head; I was exactly where I wanted to be, wearing and doing exactly what I liked best with my favorite people, this was the real and true me. What a blast. --Got all those signature lines too: "I hate what I have become to avoid what I hated being", "I wear this fuckin' mask because you cannot handle me"...

"Cyclops"--A lesser favorite. Yeah, I appreciate it, it's got sensible things to say about the media conditioning of women and all, but it just goes thud. Really unmemorable by me. Nifty solo, but for me it's always been just the bridge between Organ Grinder and the nonpareil...

"Dope Hat"--!!! Yes yes YES! What's not to love? For me, THE signature track of POAAF. Sassy bassline, a virtuoso performance of weird slides and harmonics from Daisy, Sonic-the-Hedgehog-in-Mystic-Cave theme on the synth, split-second timing, one of the Rev's most fun vocals and it's even got the Great HooDoo! Irresistibly braiding together the Kroffts' lysergically weird "Lidsville" and some insights into the nature of the addictive personality, Dope Hat is a total trip. Debate as to its exact subject has always been lively - drug addiction? The mindless need to be entertained (itself a drug of sorts)? The symbiotic need of the performer for an audience and vice versa? All that at once: struggle of the hooked performer to balance his drug addiction against his need to perform and the audience's blindness to his reality? (Hi, Gidge.)-- It can be all of that and more, as Joel would have said. I'll never understand why this wasn't a mega-huge radio hit (was the title too scary?)-- it's darkly funny, super-friendly in its bent way, and positively glitters with energy and unique personality. And that chorus! Favorite quasi-subliminal: the voice that sneers "kill yourself, kill yourself, kill yr mom and dad...I'm gonna kill you, I'm gonna kill you..." under the guitar bridge.

"Get Your Gunn"--"Goddamn your righteous hand!" Man, what a line! Another of those characteristic Berkowitz riffs, slippery and elastic, paired with a honking-sax keyboard construct and punchy bass. Manson lays on the sinister an inch thick here, hissing and slithering over the vocal then belting the choruses in a hoarse roar. More recently written than most of its trackmates and it really shows in the political, doctrinaire lyrics that even quote Anton LaVey ("goodguy badges" is his phrase). "Goddamn, praise the Lawwwd, goddamn..." -Another much interpreted song. My take on it is that though it's inspired by the murder of abortionist Dr.Gunn, it's not directly about him or his work, and is more directly a statement by Manson of his outside, join-no-faction status. (I personally take "the housewife I will beat/the pro-life I will kill" to signify that though he's doing a song about the assassination of an abortion doctor, he's neither a pro-choice feminist nor an anti-abortion vigilante, and in fact could be anti-both.) In fact, you could hardly do better than those first two verses for a concise summation of the MM mission. "I eat innocent meat" and "what you won't do I will,"-- I am what you don't dare be, or as he once said "I'm going to do exactly what you're afraid I will"; but "I bash myself to sleep, I scar myself you see, I wish I wasn't me" - the life of such a monster is clawed by unending self-loathing, doubt and pain. Stretches the rebel stance into another dimension by suggesting that Manson didn't really choose to be such an outsider, but is so deformed and twisted a soul that there is nowhere he'd fit. "Want me to save the world/I'm just a little girl..." ---Love the total brute bass from Gidget on this one, and the indelible visual memory of Manson punctuating the "get your gunn, get your gunn" chorus with a neck-cracking sideways snap of the head on each beat. And don't miss the amazing guitar massacre behind Manson's voice the last time the "pseudomorals work real well" verse comes up - a shredding pandaemonium of agonized squeals and shrills that sounds as if Daisy's handed his poor axe over to witchhunters. Yow.

"Wrapped In Plastic"-- Ah, he used to make an memorable onstage entrance to this one; tapelooped screams would reverberate, the bass would begin that long, doomridden the-monster-walks throb, and out he would creep through the red light and clouds of swirling smoke, a long spidery thing all dripping hair and staring eyes, looking like something escaped through a crack in the Netherworld walls. That nimbly tricky riff would start up, Manson would crack himself in the ribs stunningly hard with the mike stand, Sara would come down BLAM with both sticks and off they go...and how better to open a set, with "Come into our home, won't you stay?" --Manson's Twin Peaks homage (remember the poor cop who found Laura Palmer's corpse? "She's dead! - wrapped in plastic!"), with the Little Man's weird laughter as punctuation and the lyric reeking, like Lynch's universe, of weird corruption beneath a supposedly all-American surface. Abuse and incest, prostitution, death, dark guilty secrets. "Fear of the beast is calling it near, creating what we're hating..." --Insanely intricate work from Daisy slides into the creepiest bridge on the LP: guitar chiming as innocently as a churchbell while Manson stretches his voice into a rubbery, panting croak of hideous lechery - "Wash away sin, take off your skin, the righteous papa wears the yellowest grin"...eeeeesh...a li'l' girl's worst nightmare. (From which self-proclaimed little girl Marilyn breaks loose with a damn sensible "I wanna go now!") --As worthy and exact a tribute as Dope Hat, and like it partaking of the spirit of the show itself. (I've even heard it suggested that Manson bears some resemblance, in his worse moments, to the series' murderous evil entity, Bob.)

"Dogma"-- (If I'm not mistaken, that sample at the beginning --before, "Come on, I want you to meet my friends"-- says "I guess I need to talk to Manson." I wonder what movie it's from.) And speaking of friends, this is an old friend from the demo days, then called Strange Same Dogma but always about locked-down thinking and religious persecution. Took me awhile to get used to this one - I didn't care what viewpoint he was coming from, I couldn't stand there and sing "burn the witches" for any reason. However, "It's sung from the witches' point of view," explains the Reverend, and the defiant chorus does bear that out. (Interestingly enough, SSD included a verse that seemed to condemn traditional ceremonial magic just as strongly as any other hidebound belief system - "Levi, Crowley, Golden Dawn, strange same dogma on and on" --it's no longer here.) A simple, straight-ahead charge that kicks like a steel-toed Doc when played live. --BTW, that's Mink Stole as Connie Marble (from the John Waters flick "Desperate Living") yelling "Burn, you fuckers!"

"Sweet Tooth"-- The great-lost-Portrait-track, loved by many fans but almost never played live, this slow-paced tale of malign love may have gone with Brad/Gidget when he went (it's the only track on POAAF that Daisy B. had no hand in writing). The bass-driven melody pushes an unnerving lyric of dominance and fear: "I make the faces that make you cry...I want you more when you're afraid of me". (In the verse it's connected to the chorus so that it almost sounds like "I want you more when you're afraid of my/disease, disease..." Could this be a clue?) Not much to say about this one - it's too slow and too creepy, I've never liked it. People can speculate about the royalties if they like, but I'd say it's been kept out of the live set simply because it would drag the pace to a crawl.

"Snake Eyes and Sissies"-- Hey, just refuse to trust anybody who doesn't love this one, it's that great. An out-and-out brag, sung in a wonderfully snide drawl, it's got vehicular homicide -- "runyadownwithoutaTWITCH!" hisses the Rev-- mayhem with common household objects, and a downright arrogant claim to the Devil's hand. "My afternoon's remote control," sings our TV addict, "daydream milk and genocide (--what a delectable phrase, wrapping up all of an American afternoon on the tube: news shows and game shows, plastic fantasies of wealth and vivid scenes of sudden death around the globe, with maybe a little self-stimulation to stave off the mind-killing boredom of it all...), tranquility with broken knees, silly putty enemies." A worldful of lies, enforced conformity and fuss about nothing passes across his screen, and he spits at it. "What I got I got for free, middle-finger technology," he jeers, "snake eyes for sissies." (Best guess: "snake eyes" is when your dice come up ones, right? Practically worthless? He's already mentioned dice so I think that's our metaphor...so, maybe "snake eyes for sissies" = "weaklings get nothing", you have to push and grab and just take to get what you want, and fuck em if they don't like it. I'd bet you a lolly that "sissy" does *not* equal "faggot" in this case...) --Another tasty bit of vocal pacing here that I wish'd been in the live set: "What's yours is mine, yours is mine, told-you-fuck-er-yours-is-mine--" I'd love to've heard him sing it that way but live it always became a yell of "Told you, fucker!" Ah well, it's on the CD to enjoy anytime. ---My own favorite, I think, of the more recent stuff on POAAF.

"My Monkey"-- The one pinched from Charlie M's Mechanical Man (and I suppose that's the least he deserves from the Rev and crew). Never liked it much, but do enjoy the warped carnival feel of the music, and that trademark bridge "We are our own wicked gods..with little G's and big dicks..." Worth it just for the sheer perversity of listening to a little kid read these lyrics, actually. But it's just a breather before the thunderkiss that is...

"Misery Machine"-- The unstoppable, full-power, total helldrive that ends the LP and is the only true climax to their live set, capable of lashing battered and exhausted fans to final heights of frenzy with its sheer Satanic intensity. Spiked through and through with diabolical imagery it rides a road bathed in blood to the Abbey of Thelema, Aleister Crowley's legendary academy of the magickal arts, where the watchword was " Do what thou wilt' shall be the whole of the Law." Do your True Will; work with total honesty; no polite conformities or kidding yourself allowed; know what you truly want and go for it with no holding back. (--They can go read in Uncle Al's library if they really want to, but I tell ya kids, if this band doesn't already know its True Will I'm a two-bit fortuneteller.) Building through the bridge with monumental Godzillan power to the Rev's first inauguration and a headlong screaming finale, it's scary and titanic, a song I hope they keep in their set till the end of the world.

As you see I did come to an agreement with it after all....


(Footnote to apply to the future: "inaugurate" comes from the Latin inaugurare, to take omens: hence, to consecrate; to begin or initiate with proper ceremony. From augur, to foretell, divine, read omens and signs.)


...go back to my Manson page.
...go on to my ACS piece, Worms With Angel Wings.
...go on to my MA piece, The Omega and the Alpha.