In November 1996, New York Times reporter and rock critic Neil Strauss crawled into the hot tub at a Holiday Inn in Fort Lauderdale with desperate-to-shock rocker Marilyn Manson. Strauss was writing an article for Rolling Stone, and Manson was ready to take full advantage of the opportunity. "This is going to be an important piece of press," he told Strauss.
The resulting cover story did indeed change both men's lives. It legitimized Manson's emergence as one of the most notorious entertainers of the 90s and an enthusiastic bogeyman for the right. Strauss, meanwhile, went on to become Manson's business partner, coauthoring his new autobiography, The Long Hard Road out of Hell.
A hot tub isn't Robert Johnson's legendary crossroads, and despite his well-crafted image, Manson isn't Satan. But Strauss seems to have sold his soul to the self-proclaimed Antichrist Superstar. Over the last 14 months, the 29-year-old writer has served as a virtual one-man hype machine for the garish goth star. Between the first cover story and the publication of the book, he did a follow-up news piece for Rolling Stone and wrote 17 articles that mentioned Manson for the New York Times. Seven of those portrayed the singer as a crusader for free speech.
Somewhere along the way, Manson and Strauss landed a deal with Regan Books, the Harper Collins imprint started by Judith Regan, who was also behind Howard Stern's Private Parts. The Long Hard Road out of Hell was excerpted as the cover story for the February 1998 issue of Spin; the New York Post excerpted the book as well.
Two sources familiar with the book deal say Strauss earned an advance of $200,000 for his work, and presumably he gets a cut of the royalties. But Strauss has refused to grant an interview about his dealings with Manson. In a brief fax the writer called that figure "very inaccurate and grossly overestimated" and declined to say how much he did earn.
Be it $2 or $2 million, though, what Strauss got paid isn't the issue. The issue is that he got paid anything at all by Manson and then continued to keep the artist in the headlines of the country's most influential newspaper. Why Strauss and his editors decided not to see this as a conflict of interest is a much more important question than whether Manson really had some ribs removed so he could fellate himself, yet it has received far less attention.
A native of Chicago, Strauss moved to Manhattan in the early 90s and began by freelancing for publications that included the New York Press, Egg, and Option. He coedited a collection of academic writings about radio called Radiotext(e), published in 1993 by Autonomedia, a small press out of Brooklyn. Before long, he became a favored rock writer at the Village Voice, distinguishing himself as a dogged reporter by breaking stories for the weekly's music-news column, "Rockbeat." That led to a contract with the New York Times, working under another Voice alumnus, head rock critic Jon Pareles. Strauss became a full-time staffer at the Times about two years ago. In mid-'97 he became the paper's man on the pop beat in Los Angeles, positioned to challenge Los Angeles Times music-business reporter Chuck Philips.
The work Strauss did for the Times while in New York includes some of the most substantive rock journalism of the last decade. Among his most memorable efforts was a piece that charted how the majority of seats at many New York club shows are purchased in advance for press and industry insiders; he also wrote numerous stories about the censorious policies of chain stores like Wal-Mart and KMart.
Through it all, Strauss has contributed to both Rolling Stone and Spin. He is one of only two or three writers able to move with impunity between the two fierce competitors, and his features command those magazines' top rates. In contrast to his relatively sober newspaper work, they tend toward the glib and gonzo; Strauss is often a prominent character in his own stories. He'd gotten drunk with Soul Asylum's Dave Pirner. He'd busted a move onstage with Beck. Then he met the former Brian Warner of Canton, Ohio.
"It's funny because for the past two years, [guitarist] Twiggy [Ramirez] and I have listened to Dr. Hook's 'Cover of the Rolling Stone' ritualistically, as if maybe it would actually land us in the magazine," Manson writes in a tour diary included in The Long Hard Road out of Hell. "And strangely enough, that interview came today. I'm not sure if the writer was gay or not, so I did most of the interview in the hot tub to either confuse or excite him. I think it did both."
Strauss in fact was extremely excited about Manson: "Never has there been a rock star quite as complex as Marilyn Manson," he gushed in the second paragraph of the Rolling Stone profile--a line that has the same hyperbolic quality as Jon Landau's infamous "I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen." Landau went on to become Springsteen's manager.
Strauss was apparently so excited he neglected to do the same kind of reporting that would have been expected of him at the Times. Midway through the article, he describes a Manson concert he attended: "The cops have one door barred and are videotaping the entire show, hoping for enough nudity or obscenity to justify an arrest," he writes. "It wouldn't be the first time that's happened to Manson. The last time he performed in St. Petersburg, Florida, he was arrested for indecently exposing himself onstage. Before the police threw him in jail, they ridiculed him, warning him to remove his lip ring because somebody might tear it out while beating him up."
Tim Roche and Eric Deggans, two reporters at the St. Petersburg Times, read the Rolling Stone story and followed it up. They discovered that Manson was never arrested in Saint Pete. What's more, the pair reported, "police had planned to take a video camera to the concerts November 13 and 14, but before the show started, the officers were called away to respond to disturbances [elsewhere] in the city."
The Long Hard Road out of Hell changes the city of arrest to Jacksonville, and a police spokesman for the city confirms that Manson was busted there in 1994. Nonetheless, the book carries a disclaimer: "To protect the innocent, many of the names and identifying features of individuals in this book have been changed and several characters are composites." Strauss never steps forward in the book to clarify this blurred line between reality and embellishment. That may not be expected of a hired coauthor, but a reporter is bound to investigate and confirm facts. And the line between cowriter and reporter is clouded by the book's jacket, which prominently mentions Strauss's employment at Rolling Stone and the Times. The Antichrist Superstar invokes the names of these journalistic institutions to lend credibility to his version of his life story.
Strauss is happy with the results. "I had the option to take my name off it if I wasn't happy with the way it came out, and it ended up so much better than I could have hoped, as suspenseful and well-structured as a novel," he posted on the "Ask Neil Strauss" message board of the Times's America Online site.
In a sidebar accompanying the Spin excerpt, Manson (who also declined to be interviewed for this piece) gives more details about the pair's working relationship. "[The book] was mostly dictated," the singer says. "I would tell Neil Strauss stories, because I don't have the patience or skill to write them down myself. I'm sure in a month or so I'll deny things I've said and attribute them to drug use or coercion by Neil."
In fact, it wasn't long before Manson was denying things. On MTV News, the rocker claimed that Spin had fabricated quotes in the seemingly innocuous sidebar, which was just a small part of eight pages of free publicity for his book. "These are not the questions I was asked, and not the answers I would give to those particular questions," Manson railed. A Spin spokesman says the magazine stands behind its story and has tapes of Manson saying exactly what was quoted.
The incident illustrates the extent to which Manson--who claims to have interviewed the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Debbie Harry, and Nine Inch Nails as an aspiring rock writer himself--is a control freak who wants to call the shots when it comes to what is printed about him. And it raises questions about how much Strauss had to tailor what he wrote to please his subject. Which, again, a coauthor has every right to do--provided he doesn't continue covering his subject as a reporter.
A business reporter who profited from an autobiography of Bill Gates would probably not be allowed to continue covering Microsoft, and a political writer who collaborated on a book with Newt Gingrich would probably be pulled off the Gingrich beat to avoid even the appearance of conflict of interest. And Strauss, says Pareles, "is now disqualified forever from writing any critical endorsements of Manson."
But the senior critic has no problem with Strauss writing further news stories about Manson. Pareles notes that Times TV critic Bill Carter, who wrote The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, and the Network Battle for the Night, continues to cover the talk-show hosts. But Carter's book was an independent work of reporting, and he was not involved in a financial relationship with his subjects. Strauss's role in The Long Hard Road out of Hell was to edit and rewrite Manson's anecdotes to make them more compelling. In joining with Manson this way he abdicated all pretense of objectivity. Given that, news stories should be doubly off-limits, since they ostensibly require a reporter to approach his topic with a blank slate.
Exactly how many times Strauss has written about Manson in the Times since getting the book contract depends on whose version of the contract's timetable you believe. Attempts to get Strauss's side of the story were mostly unsuccessful. When I first requested an interview with him through Regan Books, the publicist said he "doesn't want to be a spokesman for Marilyn Manson," but that he could be reached at the New York Times's LA bureau for questions about his role as coauthor. Strauss called back the next day, sounding frantic. "Have you called my publicist?" he asked. Yes. Do you want to do the interview now? "No, I have to call my publicist, then I'll call you right back," he said. He never did.
The publicist later requested that the questions be sent via fax so she could forward them to Strauss. I sent two pages of detailed queries; he sent back a two-paragraph fax.
"As for your conflict of interest accusations, the book was first mentioned to me in August 1997 and a contract was first presented to me in October," Strauss wrote. "In the time since August, I haven't written any articles, reviews or otherwise on Marilyn Manson in any publication whatsoever. Regarding any other pieces written for the New York Times that touched on or involved Manson, upon submitting each story I reminded my editors about the book and they checked with their superiors for potential conflict of interest. Every instance was approved."
A source familiar with the book deal contradicts Strauss, saying that it was in the works as early as March 1997. That date appears more realistic: Strauss took several weeks off from the Times in August and went on the road with Manson. According to transcripts in the book he had already made seven tapes by August 9, so it's likely that there were discussions about his coauthorship well before then. But even by Strauss's own chronology, he wrote two significant Manson-related news stories for the Times well after he got the contract.
A November 17 column addressed Kansas senator Sam Brownback's hearings into rock lyrics, focusing on testimony from a father who blamed his son's suicide on Manson's music. The father wasn't quoted, but Manson was: "I think it's bad that they exploit parents who say that their kids have been injured because of music," he said. "That's far more despicable than anything I could do." And in a December 1 news story headlined "R-Rated Rock Concerts? Marilyn Manson and Mom?" Strauss reported that "in an attempt to save their businesses from complaining parents, restrictive legislation and increased police scrutiny, concert hall operators are considering a rating system for performances similar to those used for movies, television shows and recordings," and that this consideration stemmed from reaction to Manson's last tour.
In the months since the piece ran, no one has taken concrete steps to institute a rating system, and major players in the industry do not believe it will ever happen. The legislation is essentially the pipe dream of two conservative state legislators, one in Michigan and one in South Carolina. But because the story ran in the venerable New York Times, it (and thus Manson's involvement) was given considerable weight, with Rolling Stone and daily newspapers across the country following up on it.
Pareles says the Times has tough standards for avoiding conflict of interest, and that Strauss always met them.
"Basically, Neil did pretty much everything by the book," the senior critic says. "He didn't do anything endorsing Manson, really. He wrote about Manson in news stories because Manson was a news maker.
"Whenever Neil covered Manson, he asked [the paper] not to put a picture in, which would sort of pop Manson out of the story as the most important part," he says. "The concert-ratings story did have a Manson picture, but he asked them not to and they overruled him."
Stories like the ratings piece continue to bolster Manson's controversial public image--which, in turn, bolsters the appeal of his autobiography. Pareles confesses that he hasn't read The Long Hard Road out of Hell. It's unlikely that higher-ranking editors at the old gray lady have read it either, but it would be interesting to hear what they thought of the behavior Strauss chronicles.
After an opening scene in which Manson recalls watching his cross-dressing grandfather masturbate to pictures of bestiality, he recounts his own exploits, including burning off a groupie's pubic hair with a cigarette lighter, playing a game with his band that involves spitting into a groupie's asshole, forcing numerous groupies to "confess their sins" while strapped to a homemade torture device, yanking on still another groupie's clit ring before shoving his thumb up her rectum, and generally mistreating one or more women per page.
The centerpiece of the book is, appropriately enough, chapter 13. Strauss presents it as a straight Q and A with Manson, who brags at length about an incident in a Miami recording studio involving a deaf groupie named Alyssa--a pseudonym that's close to her real name, according to a source who knows her. The girl likes metal because she can feel the vibrations of the music, and she is thrilled to be invited into Manson's lair. Once there, she is stripped to her boots and covered in raw meat.
At this point Strauss interjects, "We could call this chapter 'Meating the Fans.'"
"I was also thinking of 'Meat and Greet,'" Manson replies.
"That's good," says Strauss. "Go on."
Next, Alyssa is sodomized by guitarist Twiggy Ramirez and keyboardist Madonna Wayne Gacy with their dicks taped together, fucked by Gacy, peed on by Manson and Twiggy, and joined in the shower by guitarist Daisy Berkowitz. For good measure Manson tosses a dead salmon into the stall, a modern analogue to the infamous shark incident in Stephen Davis's Led Zeppelin biography, Hammer of the Gods.
A reporter might have balanced Manson's account with the girl's side of the story. (Manson paints her as a willing participant.) A cultural critic might have ventured an opinion about what such behavior means. Strauss does neither. Instead, he abets Manson in what the singer describes as a "science project" designed to "see if a white band that wasn't rap could get away with acts far more offensive and illicit than 2 Live Crew's dirty rhymes." In the midst of a six-city book tour, Manson told the Chicago Tribune that he'd be disappointed if government and religious officials stopped attacking him.
"I wouldn't know what to do with myself while on tour," he said. "I'd have to start playing checkers. I expect my next tour to be just as bad as the last one, though I think people are going to have to find something new to hate eventually."
Strauss has reportedly been hanging out with Manson around LA quite a bit in recent months, and a longtime friend has heard him boast of the amount of "primo pussy" he's been getting. He attended Manson's New York book signing earlier this month and told Village Voice gossip columnist Michael Musto that "I definitely got a lot more than I expected [from writing the book]. I probably realized this in Marilyn's hotel one morning at 4 AM wearing a blonde wig and staring at a bottle of wine, two unidentifiable blue pills, and a nose-hair trimmer."
Strauss declined to comment about his personal relationship with Manson for this story. "As for anything else that occurred during the making of the autobiography, I'll leave it up to your very active imagination," he said in his fax.
If Strauss's mission on the west coast is to challenge the LA Times's Philips, he has so far fallen short. The LA paper published one of the most explosive music-news stories of the year on February 22, the result of a monthlong investigation by Philips (who refuses even free albums and concert tickets) and Times staffer Michael Hiltzik. Just days before the Grammys, the story detailed charges that the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, the Santa Monica organization that sponsors the awards, has given only 10 percent of the money its charitable arm MusiCares has raised to the intended recipients, while organization president Michael Greene has been earning $757,000 annually and pushing major labels to release his own solo album.
As of last Sunday, Strauss had yet to write even a follow-up report on the NARAS controversy in the New York Times. The weekend the LA paper ran its expose he was in Hawaii covering a Pearl Jam concert for Rolling Stone. But even though they got scooped, Strauss's editors at the Times can perhaps find some consolation in their own pages: The Long Hard Road out of Hell debuted at number 12 on the paper's best-seller list, and for the past three weeks, it's been perched at number 6.
The Long Hard Road out of Hell by Marilyn Manson with Neil Strauss, Regan Books, $24.
Jim DeRogatis is the pop-music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Floria Sigismodi photo/ Martha Grenon image manipulation/ Victor Thompson.