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By Kurt B. Reighley
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1998 Kurt B. Reighley
All rights reserved.
ONCE UPON A TIME, long before the name Marilyn Manson sent shivers (of glee or revulsion, take your pick) up the spines of the world, a young couple lived twenty-five miles south of Akron, in the suburban dale of Canton, Ohio (pop. 84,161), in a bungalow located at 1420 NE Thirty-fifth Street. Hugh A. Warner was employed as a carpet salesman, and his wife Barbara was a licensed nurse. Potentially perfect parental material. And sure enough, on January 5, 1969, Barbara brought their only child, a son, into the world.
Despite his parents' best intentions, the wonder years of young Brian H. Warner didn't necessarily fall into Leave It to Beaver territory. "As a kid, I resented my father 'cause he wasn't around a lot," he would admit years later in an interview for huH magazine. Hugh also exhibited a violent temper, although Brian never claims to have been physically abused by his parents. Eventually, the father/son relationship would deepen, but at the time Brian couldn't always appreciate why his father behaved as he did.
One of several disturbing factors Brian would point to time and again when recalling his youth was that, as a soldier in the Vietnam War, his father had been sprayed with Agent Orange. This herbicide (including the contaminant dioxin) was used by the U.S. Army between 1965 and 1970 as a highly effective means of removing forest cover and destroying enemy crops. In subsequent years, however, a significant number of birth defects were detected in children of Vietnamese families who'd been exposed to Agent Orange; later, returning American veterans also began reporting high incidences of cancer and birth defects.
The government launched a variety of studies to examine the veracity of these claims and analyze the results. Both Hugh and Brian took part in one such research project. "At an early age I had to go to a lot of government testing to see if anything was wrong with me," he told huH. But no specific conclusions regarding a correlation between Agent Orange and any ill health — mental or physical — in the men of the Warner family were ever reached. Findings supported the government's claim that no link existed between exposure to Agent Orange and the aforementioned conditions (although in 1984, a new ten-year study, the Agent Orange Project, set about reexamining the controversy); many scientists feel that the neuropsychological effects of exposure to such herbicides are minimal (with the exception of Hodgkin's disease). Regardless, the testing presumably exerted an influence on Brian's developing psyche, sowing the seeds of distrust of political leaders that would continue to flourish.
As a result of his father's frequent absence, Brian stuck closer to Barbara. But she didn't exactly keep him tied to her apron strings. "I had a weird relationship with my mom as a kid because it was kind of abusive — but on my part," he admitted in Rolling Stone. "I wish I could go back and change the way I treated my mom because I used to be really rude to her, and she didn't really have any kind of control over me."
In 1974, the Warners elected to enroll Brian at Heritage Christian School, a private Catholic institution, rather than his local public elementary one. The family wasn't especially religious; they simply wanted to provide Brian with the best education possible. They couldn't have imagined the impact his prolonged tenure under Christian tutelage, which continued until tenth grade, would have on his life. "I'm glad I sent him to that school because of the educational value," Hugh once admitted in Rolling Stone. "But if I knew the result would be the demise of the rest of his morality that happened, I would never have done it."
From the outset, Brian was unhappy. "I cried a lot because I didn't want to be there," he admitted to future crony Veronica Kirchoff. "I didn't like to take naps, and I used to get in fights with all the girls." Yet he wasn't completely oblivious of his studies. "I received a good education, but in everything, even in math courses, they inserted morals and religious oppression," said Brian to Alternative Press. "Obviously that was the point of the school. That wasn't really the point of my parents sending me there — they wanted me to get a good education, but I received all of this extra baggage along with it."
Day in, day out, his teachers reiterated the wrath of God and the imminent Second Coming. "If I have to think back and pick the thing that I was afraid of the most, it was the end of the world, it was the coming of the apocalypse and the Antichrist. That was something that I stayed up every night and crying and just being completely afraid of." He fully recognized that, in the eyes of God and the world, he was a sinner, and therefore damned to hell if he didn't repent and beg forgiveness. But that's what made things worse: "I liked being a sinner."
With the end of the world (and probably algebra, too) weighing heavy on his mind, the release of sleep rarely came easily to Brian. And according to Barbara, a thwarted break-in at the family home when Brian was eight or nine, during the course of which the intruder attempted using a pillow to smother the child in his slumber, compounded this condition. Although the victim claims he doesn't remember the incident at all (and the conventional rule in first aid is that brain damage sets in within fifteen minutes of oxygen deprivation), even subconscious recollection of the incident was undoubtedly troubling to the boy. Eventually, he developed a habit of dozing off with the television on as a remedy for his fear of turning out the lights, a practice that he continues to this day.
His displeasure with the harsh realities of daily life and bleak future drove Brian further into his imagination. "From an early age, I wanted so much to see or experience something that wasn't normal," he said in Rolling Stone. His mother would try to discourage him from cursing by warning that the devil would come for him in his sleep. Brian waited up for him like other youngsters keep a vigil for Santa Claus. "I used to get excited because I really wanted it to happen. I was never afraid of what was under the bed. I wanted it. I wanted it more than anything."
Not surprisingly, he began to develop a penchant for fantasy that manifested itself in a variety of ways, including a fascination with role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. Contrasted with the heady consequences of the Second Coming of Christ, the cutthroat world of wizards, knights, and demons offered some welcome release. But his imagination didn't stop there. "Escapism was what it was about for me, because I didn't really like, and wasn't, the person that I wanted to be in the real world. So I was the person I wanted to be in my own head."
The person he had to be in the halls at school, however, wasn't nearly so fantastic. Like all students, Brian had to wear a uniform, keep his hair cut short, and was adamantly discouraged from listening to "the devil's music," rock and roll. But the authorities' efforts to enforce that last stricture only pointed him in the very direction from which they sought to avert him. "All the music that I found was through sermons on 'These Are the Things You Shouldn't Listen To.'" David Bowie was derided for promoting deviant sexuality; KISS, Alice Cooper, and Black Sabbath fell under fire for their presumed allegiance to Satan; like many others, Electric Light Orchestra and Black Oak Arkansas were held up as examples of the evils of backward masking (the subtleties of which, in retrospect, seemed to have shaped his aesthetic).
"And they'd show you pictures of the bands," he recalled in Rolling Stone, "and I was like, 'I like this. This is what I want.'"
That passion for rock music didn't help his popularity on any front. At school, his teachers punished him for his listening habits. "One time we got to bring our own music to sing and I brought AC/DC's Highway to Hell," he told Details. "I got kicked out of class." And although his parents even drove him to his first KISS concert ("My dad dressed up like KISS"), the senior Warners apparently weren't entirely devoid of reservations concerning their son's listening habits. "When I first bought Piece of Mind, my mother tried to return it because she thought it was too Satanic," he told Guitar World. "She took it back to the record store because she didn't want me to listen to it." Rest assured, Mrs. Warner, that although Iron Maiden has sung about the Antichrist, they aren't practicing Satanists.
Since he couldn't fit in with his classmates at Heritage, he tried to mix with the public school students, who assumed that, because of where he was enrolled, he was a spoiled sissy. To compound the situation, Brian was a skinny kid, thus making him an easy target. Plus he was prone to illness; in addition to multiple bouts with pneumonia, he also told Guitar School that he'd had polyps removed from his rectum (à la former president Ronald Reagan). "I had to have my urethra enlarged because the hole through which I urinate wasn't large enough to accommodate the stream I was projecting," he continued. "I had an allergic reaction to antibiotics once and I almost died."
Fortunately, other kids at Heritage didn't enjoy such permissive home environments, and enterprising Brian saw an opportunity in their predicament. "I started going to the record store and buying, like a W.A.S.P. record for seven bucks, and selling it for, like, twenty bucks to some kid whose parents wouldn't let him go to record stores," he told Rolling Stone. But his mischief didn't end there. Since the students were on an honor system, and didn't actually have locks on their lockers, he'd return later in the day to where his customer had stashed the record and reclaim it, knowing full well they couldn't confront him with the trespass unless they incriminated themselves.
But Brian wasn't looking toward a career in music sales. Inspired by his heroes, he knew there were bigger fish to fry. "As a kid, I always thought, 'What am I gonna be when I grow up?'" he recalls. "And I knew what I wanted to be was an actor or a singer, a writer or an entertainer. I didn't want to have a real job, where I had to work at manual labor." He made his first steps in that direction by recording tapes of original material at home and selling them to his classmates. The programs were a bizarre mix of crank calls, twisted comedy, and songs on such pertinent topics as farts, jerking off, and assorted sexual fantasies. He also began penning his own primitive cartoon humor zine, inspired by titles like Mad and Cracked.
The sexual content on Brian's cassette jams undoubtedly seemed advanced considering his age and popularity. According to one anecdote he's shared occasionally, that might be due in part to being pressured by another, older boy to engage in "prison games" while still around the age of eight. Brian had a next-door neighbor who was twelve or thirteen at the time. In the afternoons, Brian would go over to watch the Japanese sci-fi television show Ultraman. "One day, he told me, 'Let's play like we're in prison, and we're stranded, and take off all your clothes.' We took off all of our clothes, and we're in this closet, and he's molesting me. It may have been more of a harmless childhood thing. I went home and I told my parents, and they didn't believe it, wouldn't acknowledge it, said that I was lying," Brian told Seconds.
But mostly children act out what they learn at home. Our hero might not have been afraid of whatever bogeymen lurked under his bed, but the monster in his grandparents' basement would be a primary bugbear for the rest of his life.
* * *
THE DETAILS CHANGE EVERY time he recounts the story now, but the composite version goes something like this. Brian's paternal grandfather Jack, a truck driver, had cancer, and as a consequence had undergone a tracheotomy. "He couldn't speak, just kind of barked in gravelly grunts," he told Jon Pecorelli in Alternative Press. "He spent most of his time in the basement where he had these train sets and what we discovered when we were about twelve is that whenever he'd turn the trains on he was always masturbating, heavily, to all these real extreme fetish mags, like enema mags and gay porno." Alternate versions of this tale expand Grandpa Jack's collection of accoutrements to include "bestiality porn and dildos and women's lingerie."
This was essentially his formal introduction to sex, and though it wouldn't completely take shape for a while, his overall impression was very different from the version represented in the pages of Penthouse or Playboy. "To me, sex was ugly and still is — [it's] about fucking pigs and putting douche bags up your ass," he shared in Paper. Not that he considered these gruesome associations particularly negative, but he knew they didn't fall within the carefully prescribed parameters of normal adolescent desire.
The impact of his discovery manifested itself in several ways. "I used to take pictures of naked women, and I would cut out just their sex organs," he told Rolling Stone. "And I started having really violent dreams that I was doing that to real people."
Fortunately, Brian's initial forays into the mysteries of sex were as normal as those of most teenagers. According to Details, he'd procured his first smooch from "a minister's daughter named Jill Tucker who had whitish blond hair and buckteeth. I liked her a lot, but even in the third grade I saw that her being a minister's daughter would prove a problem for me."
Then at age sixteen, one October night our hero and a girl named Rita, "drunk on half a quart of Jim Beam whiskey" he'd stolen from his grandmother and hidden in a KISS thermos, snuck out under cover of darkness on to a baseball diamond. "And very similar to the scene in Fast Times at Ridgemont High where Jennifer Jason Leigh loses her virginity, so did I — in a fumbling attempt that lasted all of 30 seconds," he wrote in — of all things — a review of the Tom Petty boxed set for huH (it seems the song "American Girl" from 1976's Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers kept going through his head). Years later, he confessed to Rolling Stone he found the setting "kind of ironic, because I hate sports." (It is fair to assume then that Brian rarely visited the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Canton's biggest tourist attraction.)
Another important discovery he made around this time was the world of illicit drugs. "I went over to this kid's house to stay for the weekend and his brother pulled up in a GTO," he recalls. "He got out of the car and he instantly started firing off a pistol into the sky, which I knew meant that I was in for an interesting weekend. He had this special party room that was real dark with Lava lamps and all these posters of Grim Reapers and skulls. He broke out a bong and we started smoking marijuana while listening to Ozzy Osbourne. Then he talked me into drinking the bongwater. I got sick for like a week."
Meanwhile, he was reaching the end of his rope with Catholic school. The scheduled date for Armageddon had passed with nary a fanfare, and it was becoming apparent to Brian that the emperor wore no clothes. "The turning point was [when] they were preaching a lot of doom to the kids in the school around 1984, and saying it was gonna be the end of the world. The Antichrist was coming ... electronic sensors in grocery stores were gonna be used to read the number of the beast off of kids' hands, and so on and so forth. And when 1985 came around, and I stopped having nightmares because I was terrified to fall asleep every night, I realized that I was being lied to, and that there was no reason to be buying into this, and I started searching for other truths, reading a lot, experiencing life. Experiencing everything that I was told not to. Because I wanted to know why they were trying to keep me away from it.
"Growing up I was always interested in finding out the other side of the story; why people don't like things," he shared in Flipside. "I always kind of gravitated to things that people don't like. I want to find out why they don't like them, because I know people don't like me and that doesn't necessarily mean that I'm a bad person. It's all according to your perspective."
Excerpted from Marilyn Manson by Kurt B. Reighley. Copyright © 1998 Kurt B. Reighley. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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