Write or Wrong?
In November 1996, New York Times reporter and rock critic Neil Strauss crawled into the hot tub at a Holiday Inn in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with desperate-to-shock rocker Marilyn Manson. Strauss was there to write 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," Manson told Strauss.
The resulting cover story did indeed change both men's lives: It marked the apex of Manson's emergence as one of the most notorious musicians of the '90s and an enthusiastic bogeyman for the Right. Strauss, meanwhile, went on to become Manson's business partner and the co-author/mythmaker behind his just-released autobiography, The Long Hard Road Out of Hell.
A hot tub sure 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." In the last 14 months, the young writer has served as a virtual one-man hype machine for the garish star. Between the first cover story and the publication of the book, he did a follow-up news item for Rolling Stone and wrote 17 pieces mentioning Manson in the New York Times. Seven of those pieces were significant news stories portraying the singer as a crusader for free speech.
Somewhere along the way, Manson and Strauss landed a big-money deal with Regan Books, the new Harper-Collins imprint started by Judith Regan, the woman behind Howard Stern's best-selling Private Parts. The Long Hard Road Out of Hell was excerpted as the cover story in the February 1998 edition of Spin. (The New York Post used portions of the book as well.)
Two sources familiar with the book deal say that Strauss earned an advance of $200,000 for the work, and he presumably has a cut of the royalties for every copy sold. Strauss has refused to grant an interview about his dealings with Manson. In a brief fax, the writer called the $200,000 figure "very inaccurate and grossly overestimated." But he declined to say how much he did earn.
Did Strauss fall prey to a serious conflict of interest, keeping Manson in the headlines of the country's most influential newspaper at the same time that he had a lucrative financial arrangement with the artist? The question is more important than pondering whether the mascaraed Manson really belongs to the church of Satan, or whether he actually had some ribs removed so that he can fellate himself. But it has received much less attention.
"Entertainment writers, just like reporters who cover politics and business, ought to play by a set of ethical rules, and those rules should include not writing about anyone that you have a financial arrangement with," says Howard Kurtz, the media critic at the Washington Post. "This is pretty basic journalism, and the fact that you're covering rock music or baseball or some other far-flung field doesn't exempt you from those minimum nutritional requirements of journalism. To me, it crosses the line when you're actually in business with the person."
A native of Chicago, Strauss moved to Manhattan in the early '90s and started his career by freelancing for publications including the New York Press, Egg and Option. Before long, he became a favorite 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 position as a contract writer for the New York Times, working under another Voice graduate, head rock critic Jon Pareles. Strauss became a full-time staffer at the Times about two years ago. In mid '97, the wiry, late-twentysomething writer became the paper's man on the pop beat in Los Angeles, positioned to challenge Los Angeles Times music business reporter Chuck Philips. "Neil's posting to L.A. is to beef up the paper's music business coverage with an L.A. angle," Pareles says.
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 were a piece that charted how the majority of the tickets at many New York club shows are purchased in advance for press and industry insiders (thus shutting out the paying fans), and numerous stories covering the censorial policies of such chain stores as Wal-Mart and Kmart, which refuse to sell albums that carry parental warning stickers.
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 $2 a word and up. In contrast to his relatively sober newspaper stories, his magazine work tends toward glib, attitude-laden stories in which he is a prominent character hanging out with his subjects. He got drunk with Soul Asylum's Dave Pirner. He busted a move on-stage with Beck. Then he met the former Brian Warner of Canton, Ohio.
"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. "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 Stone profile. It's a line that has the same hyperbolic qualities of Jon Landau's infamous "I have seen rock and roll future, and its name is Bruce Springsteen." Where Landau went on to become Springsteen's manager, Strauss would go on to become Manson's friend and co-author.
First, though, he had to finish the Stone piece. But Strauss was apparently too distracted 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 that 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 on-stage. 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 diligent reporters at the St. Petersburg Times, read the Rolling Stone story and followed it up. They discovered that Manson was never arrested in St. Petersburg. What's more, the pair reported that "police had planned to take a video camera to the concerts Nov. 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, Florida, 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 hard reality and embellishment. That may not be expected of a hired co-author, but a reporter is bound to investigate and confirm actual facts. And the line between co-writer and reporter is clouded by the book's jacket, which prominently mentions Strauss's employment at Rolling Stone and the New York Times. Manson, for his part, 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 wrote on the "Ask Neil Strauss" message board of the New York Times Online. The book is credited to "Marilyn Manson with Neil Strauss."
In a sidebar interview accompanying the recent Spin excerpt and cover story, Manson (who declined to be interviewed for this story) 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 a subsequent edition of MTV News, the rocker furiously 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 -- a onetime rock writer who interviewed the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Debbie Harry and Nine Inch Nails, among others -- is a control freak who wants to call the shots when it comes to what is printed about him. And it calls into question how much Strauss had to tailor what he wrote to please his subject. Which, again, the co-author has every right to do. Provided he doesn't continue covering Manson as a reporter.
The Washington Post's Kurtz points out that a newspaper 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. Pareles seems to generally agree: "Neil is now disqualified forever from writing any critical endorsements of Manson," he says.
But the senior critic has no problem with Strauss writing further news stories about Manson. Pareles notes that Times TV critic Bill Carter wrote a successful book about Jay Leno and David Letterman called The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, and the Network Battle for Late Night, and Carter continues to cover the talk-show hosts.
That comparison doesn't wash, though. 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 Road was essentially editing and rewriting Manson's anecdotes with more compelling language. In doing so -- and in joining with Manson as co-author (and co-benefactor) -- he abdicates all objectivity about his subject. Given such, it would seem that news stories should be doubly off-limits for Strauss, since they ostensibly require a reporter's neutrality on his topic.
But Strauss has continued to write about Manson in the New York Times since receiving his book contract. Exactly how many times he has done so depends on whose version of the contract's timetable you believe. Attempts to get Strauss's side of the story were mostly unsuccessful. When an interview with him was first requested through Regan Books, the publicist said that he "doesn't want to be a spokesman for Marilyn Manson," but that he could be reached at the New York Times's L.A. bureau for questions about his role as co-author. 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. Two pages of detailed queries about Strauss's role as Manson's co-author were sent; a two-paragraph fax was the response.
"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 to do interviews for the book (according to transcripts in Road, he had already made seven tapes by August 9), so it's likely that there were discussions about him being co-author well before then.
But even by Strauss's own chronology, he wrote two significant Manson-related news stories for the Times well after he signed the book contract. A November 17 "Pop Life" column addressed 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," Manson said in the piece. "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." He went on to write that this "consideration" stemmed from reaction to Manson's last tour.
In the weeks 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 a pipe dream of two conservative state representatives, one from Michigan and one from 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 that 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 newsmaker.
"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 adds. "The concert ratings story did have a Manson picture, but he asked them not to, and they overruled him."
All of which continues to bolster Manson's controversial public image -- which, in turn, bolsters the appeal of his autobiography. Pareles confesses that he hasn't read the Strauss/Manson book. 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 think of the behavior that Strauss chronicles, including sexual escapades that can be politely described as psychopathic.
The centerpiece of Road is, appropriately enough, Chapter 13, which is titled "Meating the Fans / Meat and Greet." Strauss presents it as a straight Q&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, covered in raw meat, sodomized by guitarist Twiggy Ramirez and keyboardist Madonna Wayne Gacy, whose penises are scotch-taped together, engaged in fornication by the two men, urinated on by Manson and Twiggy, again penetrated, this time by guitarist Daisy Berkowitz, and finally assaulted with a dead salmon in a modern analogue to the infamous shark incident in the Led Zeppelin biography The Hammer of the Gods.
As Manson relates this story, Strauss interjects statements such as "That's good; so go on," and "Hold on; how did he separate himself from Twiggy?"
A reporter might have balanced Manson's account with the girl's side of the story. A cultural critic might have ventured an opinion about what such behavior means, or challenged Manson on whether or not this behavior was really as consensual as he says it was. Strauss does neither. For his part, Manson is extremely savvy about the way the press works, and he knows that controversy sells. In his book, he describes his band 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." By any standard, he has succeeded wildly. In the midst of a six-city book tour to hype Road, 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 L.A. quite a bit in recent months, and a longtime friend has heard him boast of the amount of "primo pussy" that he's been getting. He attended Manson's New York book signing two weeks ago and told Village Voice gossip columnist Michael Musto that "I definitely got a lot more than I expected [from the experience of writing the book]. I probably realized this in Marilyn's hotel one morning at 4 a.m. wearing a blonde wig and staring at a bottle of wine, two unidentifiable blue pills, and a nosehair trimmer."
Along with many other questions, Strauss declined to answer queries for this story about his personal relationship with Manson. "As for anything else that occurred during the making of the autobiography, I'll leave it up to your very active imagination," he wrote in his brief faxed response.
If Strauss's mission on the West Coast is to challenge Philips of the L.A. Times, he has so far fallen short. The L.A. paper published one of the most explosive music news stories of the year on February 22, the result of a month-long 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 charity money it has raised to the intended recipients, while organization president Mike Greene has been earning $757,000 annually and pushing the major labels to release his own solo album.
As of last Sunday, Strauss had yet to write a follow-up report on the NARAS controversy in the New York Times. The weekend that the L.A. 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 New York Times could at least find some consolation within their own pages: The Long Hard Road to Hell debuted at number 12 on the paper's bestseller list, and has since been steadily climbing.
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