How did it take The Smashing Pumpkins and Marilyn Manson this long to go on tour together?
I mean, you look at Marilyn Manson’s The-Face-That-Launched-A-Thousand-Hot-Topics aesthetic, and The Smashing Pumpkins’ penchant for goth-y imagery that surfaced around 1998, and you’d think someone would start calling venue managers. But, that’s not the case, and now that elder-state alternative bands are sharing audiences more than they’re competing for them, a joint tour makes more sense than before.
Of course, I wasn’t really thinking about this when I bought a ticket. It was a lot more holyshitmyfavoritebandandMarilynMansonIguessiscomingtomytownandIshouldprobablygo. This hasn’t really come up on the site, but somewhere in my junior year of high school, I got in deep with The Smashing Pumpkins, and to this day, they remain my sole favorite band. I love all sorts of other cooler and smarter artists, but for whatever reason, the band led (and more or less defined) by a strident, bald, and perennially uncool Midwesterner is my long running favorite. So, I threw on my Zero T-shirt and Chucks, and a friend of mine and I made our way to the Riverbend amphitheater on the banks of the Ohio River.
But, to get to the bald man, I had to spend some time with the pale man.
Honestly, I figured Marilyn Manson would be an added novelty at best and a tolerated gimmick at worst when I bought the ticket. His stuff’s familiar enough to me that I figured outright boredom wouldn’t be an issue (you listen to enough Nine Inch Nails in high school, you kinda happen into some Manson singles eventually), but I didn’t have high hopes.
But here’s the thing: Marilyn Manson is kicking ass in 2015. His new album The Pale Emperor has a bluesy, glammed out, and outright mean edge to it, and that equally campy and sinister snarl carried over to his live show, as well. From my friend and I’s incredibly strategic “No one in the immediate vicinity seems annoying and the sightlines aren’t terrible” spot on the lawn, the band’s sound comprised of lumbering drums, shotgun-to-the-gut guitar, staggering bass, and Manson’s characteristic croaks and screams all turned up to eleven. Was it elegant? Shit no, but blasting through “Day Three of a Seven Day Binge” and “The Dope Show” like teenagers kicking over trash cans and smashing mailboxes with baseball bats isn’t supposed to be.
More than high-grade new material, the Manson boom of 2015 is because he’s figured out how to survive without being a cultural lightning rod. In lieu of shocking a long gone moral majority, he’s focusing on owning the shit out of his image and making the most entertaining show possible with it. This meant a handful of wardrobe/suit changes (winner: a furry sportcoat and “Smooth Criminal” hat combo that I couldn’t get a good picture of–why did I only spring for a lawn spot?), an array of kitchen knife or brass knuckle grafted microphones, and a prop beer bottle that inked blood that Manson would occasionally use to “draw” on himself. The stage went through changes, too: the old banners and podium made their way out for “Antichrist Superstar” and “The Beautiful People”, and Manson sang one particular song from behind a customized pulpit (I’ll let you guess which song). Then there was his choice to sing “Sweet Dreams” while on a pair of stilts, complete with his own Britney-style headset mic. I’ve been part of musicals with lesser production values.
The spectacle of it all sprang to life (death?) because Manson seemed to be truly having a blast, whether he was strutting around while casually knocking over mic stands or amps, telling off the wall stories between sets, or flailing behind a podium like a coked out jack in the box; he was committed to playing as large as possible. Somewhere in the set, Manson said he’d grown up in Ohio and developed his persona here. It felt fitting that he’d be back while on a new high. I guess even the devil gets a redemptive arc.
So, after a surprisingly rad set from Manson, it was time to wait for The Pumpkins, and even though I was watching their stage be set up, it didn’t quite feel real yet.
If you ever get the chance, see your favorite artist live. The one who you listen to when no one’s watching. The one whose songs you know by heart (even the bad ones). The one who you don’t talk about often because so God help if you start, good luck finishing. Yeah, see them the second they come to your town. It’s the most validating fucking thing. Being there and experiencing moments you’ve internalized for years, like the floating guitar intro to “Mayonaise”, or the part in “1979” after the first verse when the band kicks in, as part of a world bigger than your headphones or your stereo or discs or data files is its own form of exhilaration.
The more we internalize our favorite music–or anything, really–it becomes more personal, sure, but it also gets easier to forget that it exists outside you. You pour enough of yourself in, and your favorite music becomes less of an arrangement of music and lyrics; it almost becomes an imaginary friend, if you let it. And feeling that rush crashing to life among a crowd of thousands (or hundreds or dozens)? There are few things that feel just that cool.
Of course, all this ~deeper meaning~ hinged on a good set, and The Pumpkins were more than happy to oblige. The stage dressing was minimal outside the draperies (so many draperies) hung from the stage’s electrics, and outside a crack about playing parties and funerals, the banter was kept light. The band let the songs do the work for them.
2015 seems like a fairly kind year for The Smashing Pumpkins, Billy Corgan in particular. Lineup woes have tapered off some, studio time has been productive, Anderson Cooper hasn’t talked any shit, and last year’s Monuments to an Elegy shored up the band’s reputation; for the first time in post-reunion Pumpkinland, things look stable and Corgan’s alright with his place in the world.
The setlist reflected this. Perhaps not surprising for a known contrarian, Corgan’s never been reliable for a “greatest hits” set, instead opting to use a few big songs to justify pulling deep from an extensive back catalog. Possibly because he was playing with Jimmy Chamberlain again, that policy changed for The End Times Tour–if was a high profile single, they played it (the only hit we missed was the encore of “Today”, which was apparently the tour’s stretch goal). A trio of songs from Monuments made their way in, as did a handful of deep cuts that were more illuminating than the rest of the set.
“Thru the Eyes of Ruby” and “Mayonaise” are long beloved fan favorites (“Mayonaise” is seen by many as their best; it spent years as my favorite song ever) that have been in and out of live rotation for years. Meanwhile, including “United States” and “The Crying Tree of Mercury” showed Corgan’s contrarian streak is alive and well: both come from lesser Pumpkins albums, and don’t have special traction with fans. It’s like Kanye breaking out “Drunk and Hot Girls”. It’s entirely possible that these songs made their way to Riverbend for the simple reason that Corgan likes playing them. And hell, it was entertaining: Corgan, a paisley-clad, lanky, six-foot-three Chicagoan, looked like he was having honest to God fun slow jamming on “Mercury”, and subbing a Hendrix-y take on “The Star Spangled Banner” into the ten minute metallic jam of “United States” instead of the song’s listless middle section on the record made for an awesome listen once the shock wore off.
I left with the last notes of crazy awesome encore “Geek U.S.A.” rattling in my head. To end with what might be Corgan and Chamberlain’s crowning achievement seemed like a perfect choice, and the whole band seemed thrilled to blast their way through it. Alternative Nation’s a world away from any relevancy, but for The Smashing Pumpkins and Marilyn Manson, it no longer seems to matter. They’ve settled into the long haul within their respective crowds, and sound comfortable in their own skins. And if you’re in that crowd, even from an emptying lawn spot, it’s a hell of a ride from here. Well done, bald man.