Ecstasy of influence: Bowie via Manson

Marilyn Manson - Mechanical Animals (1998)

I first got to know about Elmore Leonard through Quentin Tarantino – on that note, Tarantino introduced me to a whole raft of pop culture curios – and I started digging into Norse mythology after Marvel Comics planted a seed in my brain thanks to their version of Thor.

Lovecraft swam into my purview during my teenage years – though I would delve into his stories much later, again – motivated by this initial, delayed spur – through the likes of Metallica and Cradle of Filth, and Lord Dunsany I read after finding out that actually, both Lovecraft and my former literary hero JRR Tolkien were influenced by him.

One of the joys of delving into the DNA of your favourite creative people is finding out, once you crack that shell, what lies beneath. Everyone is influenced by someone else, and this hall of mirrors is what arguably characterises our relentlessly postmodern age. (Should that be post-post-postmodern? I’m not an English undergrad anymore, which frankly means I’m past caring.)

In the case of the late David Bowie, it was Marilyn Manson who did it for me – specifically, the Marilyn Manson of the androgynous Mechanical Animals era.

Now of course, I had known who Bowie was long before my friend Herman loaned me a bootleg tape of the said Manson album (come to that, I of course knew who Manson was before that talismanic tape too). Family lore has it that my aunt and father went out to buy the latest Bowie LP to reach Serbia during a respite from the hospital as my mother was getting ready to give birth to me, even – and I’m sure that same record was spun in my presence after I eventually popped out into the world on that fateful May day in 1985.

But I think I first started to gain an understanding of what Bowie was “about” thanks to Manson’s very deliberate and openly acknowledged cribbing from Bowie during that comparatively brief chapter in “the God of Fuck’s” career.

I wouldn’t really be able to talk about the technical make-up of the songs in Mechanical Animals, so I doubt that I’d be able to construct much of a formal argument in favour of why these songs ‘worked’ on me the way they did.

But neither was it a case of being transfixed by the superficial aspects of Manson’s project, dazzling and sort-of* subversive as they may have been in the pop-culture mainstream at the time. And I say this at the risk of discounting just how mind-blowing it was to me to watch Manson’s performance of The Beautiful People – taken from Antichrist Superstar, the album previous to Mechanical Animals – at the MTV Video Music Awards back in 1997 (I was twelve). It still gives me a thrill of sadistic pleasure to remember the cut-aways to the likes of Sean Combs apparently scandalized by Manson’s bare-bottomed, fascist-attired attack on MTV glamour culture. The hypocrisy of someone like Combs taking apparent offense at Manson still strikes me as telling, in a “gotcha” kind of way.

But Mechanical Animals was certainly a ‘softer’ beast, and its immersive qualities are what seduced me. Beyond the obvious, catchy charms of The Dope Show and I Don’t Like the Drugs (But the Drugs Like Me), songs like The Last Day on Earth and my personal favourite, Coma White, transported me somewhere alien but strangely calming.

The electronic wash that characterises the album still gives me a sense of something cold but meditative, and it’s all helped along by the androgynous surrogate – ‘Omega’ – that Manson created for the purpose of the album. As I would later learn, creating an artistic persona, particularly an androgynous one of this kind, was cribbed from Bowie, who admittedly trumps Manson on this front – not only because he ‘got their first’ but also because he had a far clearer vision about when to adopt these personalities and when to drop them**.

But at the time, it introduced me to the concept of, well, the concept album. Not only that, but the concept album as propped up by an invented personality the performer deliberately took on. In short, the idea of music as storytelling, which has resonated with me ever since.

It’s this echo of Bowie that I’ve carried with me ever since. Of course I’ve listened to Bowie since that time too, though not, I must admit, with the kind of visceral fan-like fervour the teenage me bestowed upon Marilyn Manson.

That’s another thing about influences. You can be introduced to artists askance. Simply put, it wouldn’t have made much sense to me to force myself to listen to Bowie at the time. I was into hard rock and heavy metal, and Manson was a more palatable jumping point into the Bowie milieu for me at that point. This is, of course, the problem with recommending essential works to people with the kind of evangelical zeal we reserve for the very best. We tend to forget that everyone’s on their own journey, and telling them that you HAVE to read/watch/listen to this at that point in their life makes little sense.

If you’re meant to reach it, you’ll reach it. In the meantime you can follow the breadcrumbs you recognise.

*I think I opted for ‘sort-of’ partly because I know Bowie did all this before

**Manson’s dithering post-Holywood career is a testament to this… compare it to how Bowie, despite some flailing years of his own, remained so much in control that he even recorded a final album as a farewell

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Soundtrack to a speculative action scene

1. Your job is to try not to think of Dredd, but think of something more fragile and immersive.

2. We’re going deeper and wider, and the horror is closing in.

3. Running, jumping. But no fancy parkour. Stylised flames (you have no idea where they came from) just about lick an army of weaponised motorbikes. You notice the giant octopus from the edge of your vision.

4. This is what passes for romance in this world – or at least at this point in time. You recognise the threat and, hands trembling and sweat pouring in FFWD streaks, you try to formulate a plan.

5. Is it a plan of escape, or attack?

6. The moment of hesitation. Death or glory? Whatever the case, this is the point at which we – the sadistic, baying audience – get to revel in the beautiful, dark maw of what’s chasing you. The Gothic, blissful evil that’s more powerful than you could ever have imagined.

7. You have a power, a weapon – whatever. It could be an army of tanks or an armada or a hive of mind-controlled killer bats. Whatever – you’re channelling it, and you’re winning.

8. But for how long?

9. What happened? What’s the outcome? Somebody’s calling, which means somebody is alive. Will they live to fight another day?

Uneven but good | Bone Tomahawk

BONE TOMAHAWK

Broken: Patrick Wilson, Kurt Russell, Richard Jenkins and Matthew Fox

Bone Tomahawk is an odd film. But its strangeness sneaks up on you rather than announcing itself straight to your face.

Ostensibly a Western with a fairly straightforward rescue narrative, the fact that it’s something of a genre mash-up (the other ingredient being a sparse but disturbing sprinkling of body horror) is actually not its most significant feature.

Rather, this is down to how the characters – each of them grizzled veterans of some variety – are shaped.

Particularly in the case of the frail, elderly and bumbling deputy sheriff Chicory (Richard Jenkins), this often comes in tangential bits of dialogue. On this front, writer-director S. Craig Zahler, also a novelist, is like a more sincere, less showy Tarantino. This isn’t a showcase for actors to hypnotise you with acerbic, incantatory language – it’s a showcase for actors to depict the pained, distracted nature of a group of people who are in way over their heads.

trog

‘Troglodytes’: Things take a nasty turn when our heroes meet a pack of cannibals

In fact, another Western that also stars Kurt Russell – Bone Tomahawk’s hero figure – has been directed by Quentin Tarantino himself, and reached cinemas mere months after Bone Tomahawk appeared.

But I have a feeling that, for all its seemingly throwaway mini-monologues and its abrupt shifts in tone, Bone Tomahawk will be the one that sticks with me.

How Star Wars is like Christmas | Holiday nostalgia

Star-Wars-Force-Awakens

The force awakened come Christmas time. Coincidence? I think not.

My happy places are: Valletta in various moods and times; Sliema at twilight and for lone, spontaneous walks; Attard-Balzan-Rabat for indelible memories and undeniable, cosy beauty and, perhaps topping it all, the childhood fairyland that thankfully remains much the same, Banja Vrujci.

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Banja Vrujci

These places and others are what leave an impression – what reminds me of the raw matter that is true happiness and how it can continue to spread when “recollected in tranquility”.

And in many ways this is how the Christmas period functioned, for me. It’s not a family tradition and latterly it’s become little more than an annoyance for various reasons, but at least it gives me the perfect excuse to eschew all else – intellectual and otherwise – and my quiet little place amid everybody else’s celebratory din helps me to remember all the things that are important to me.

These often come in the form of memories, of course. What we cherry-pick from our past is a very important indicator of what remains important to us.

As I suspect is the case with most people, I’ve been placing quite a bit of stock on my ambitions of late. But such a relentless focus on them means fatigue sets in quick and fast.

So I’ve come to appreciate Christmas – most especially Christmas Day itself – as a kind of oasis.

Just as human beings have the misfortune of being animals saddled with the puzzling gift of self-consciousness – with all its problems – this also means that with enough self-awareness and emotional balance, we can fabricate things about ourselves, to ourselves, for our benefit.

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Speaking of nostalgia, and variants of it… I really enjoyed the new Star Wars movie. Star Wars, too, is a lot like Christmas (or is it Christmas that’s a lot like Star Wars?).

Because just like Christmas, the franchise is a stark reminder of the pervasive power of capitalism – how it truly has the entire world in its grip, how it appropriates all stories and pieties into its gaping maw to further perpetuate a relentless desire for consumption.

The Christmas story is put aside in favour of “the gift economy” and our expectations for the holiday are calibrated to ‘spend and receive’ – in the same way as our beloved Star Wars characters are intrinsically wended to a film production and distribution model that views the movie and its merchandising as basically interchangeable.

But like Christmas, Star Wars still means a lot of things to a lot of people.
The saga – now in its seventh ‘episode’ – may be suspect in its method of delivery, but what it stimulates in people can’t be denied either.

It’s lovable alongside the cynical nature of its (internal or external?) dynamics, not despite of them.

Of course none of this is ‘natural’, and neither is it self-evident. Like the very act of writing an ‘essay’ – etymologically referring to the process of working things out – all of this is built out of opinions and perceptions chiseled out across time – and it’s entirely open to scrutiny.

But we can choose the fabrications that work the best for us – applying the usual caveat that this is a power we should try use for good and not ill.

But the decision to release The Force Awakens during Christmastime strikes me as a very shrewd fabrication indeed.

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Party at Chez Reljic

New Year’s Eve, in fact, carries more weight for me and my family. This is partly down to national habits – it’s the big blowout celebration of the season in Serbia, gift-giving and all – and family habits too: my sister and I now carry the baton of organising a party each year.

The day after, dazed if not hungover while munching on leftovers, often tends to be an emotionally woozy time.

In more recent years, revisiting the apartment we grew up in to host the party has come with an edge of melancholy. Gentrification means that it’ll soon be beyond my father’s price range (he still rents there) and all of our memories of the place will remain just that.

It’s another reminder of just how important it is to keep mindful of the things that matter. Memories will never be solid, but you should work hard to make them as solid as possible.

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Have a great 2016, all.