“Being in a band is like trying to cheat death. We are all trying to be Peter Pan”
Garbage singer Shirley Manson strikes a chord with anyone who likes their rock stars smart and outspoken. So why is she thinking of jacking it all in?
Words: Peter Ross
SHIRLEY Manson is wearing tight blue jeans and a vintage-looking lace top, which is to say that she is not wearing a racoon penis bone around her neck. These amulets are much prized in the Appalachian mountains of West Virginia for their power to enhance sexual performance; Shirley owns two, one which she bought over the internet and a much bigger one which was given to her by JT Leroy, the gender-bending American author and former child prostitute with whom the Garbage singer has become close friends. So close in fact that she wrote the recent single Cherry Lips about him.
“JT has changed my life,” she says, her Scottish burr unburnished by any buttery midwestern tones. “He provided a great deal of solace at a time when I was going out of my head. He just threw out a line to me when I was really isolated. And he reminded me that there is an incredible worth to human relations that are not necessarily sexual, not just lovers. You can have really deep, meaningful connections with other people without there being any other agenda.”
They became friends by email. This was around the time she was going slowly crazy, homesick and lonely, holed up in Madison, Wisconsin, for months on end, working on the third Garbage album beautifulgarbage.
Now there is a good chance that Shirley may star in the forthcoming Gus Van Sant film Sarah, adapted from Leroy’s first book, in which she would play his mother, a “lot lizard” or prostitute who turns tricks at a truckstop. Leroy had hoped Angelina Jolie would play the part but now he wants to cast Shirley, having seen her read a short story from his collection The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things at a book launch in New York. Plus, as he says when I contact him in San Francisco, “she’s got great tits”.
Shirley and JT look out for each other. When she finally met him in Los Angeles last December, he was such a “tiny whisper of a figure” that she felt a compulsion to scoop him up in her arms and wrap him in baby cashmere. He’s more blunt, “If anyone’s f**kin’ mean to Shirley, any Press people, I will f**kin’ hunt them down and kill them.”
He needn’t worry. I like Shirley Manson. She’s fun to be around. Celebrities these days, they’re so dull, but Shirley is excellent at being famous. She’s funny and stilletto-sharp; she appreciates the finer things in life Ð David Lynch movies, Kurt Cobain’s voice, orgasms; she has spoken honestly about her experiences of depression and self-harm, and she gives great soundbite. There’s the one about her orange Fender Strat being the same colour as her pubic hair, the one about taking a dump in an ex-boyfriend’s cornflakes, the one about trying to ward off the school bully by making a crucifix out of twigs and pink beads and hanging it outside her bedroom window with a letter to God, begging him to rid her life of the nasty girl.
That was about 20 years ago in Edinburgh. Today she’s in London, Ladbroke Grove to be precise, sitting on the couch in her Press officer’s flat to be even more precise, sipping tea as rain clubs the window. The rest of Garbage – Butch Vig, Duke Erikson and Steve Marker – were around earlier, but they’ve ducked out for a pint in the pub across the road, where they are convinced that a local “character” is going to murder the landlord. The American arm of Garbage are currently fascinated by the sooty underbelly of British culture, an interest pricked by their current enthusiasm for catchphrases from cult sitcom The League Of Gentlemen.
You sense that they appreciate a couple of hours away from their high maintenance singer, who they affectionately if pointedly refer to as the Queen. “If the Queen is happy,” said Butch from behind his omni-present sunglasses before disappearing out the door, “the band is happy. If the Queen’s not happy then the band are going to be miserable.”
Her majesty seems content to talk on her own. She wants to explain how the new album emerged from the extremely fraught tour for the last, Version 2.0. “I suppose beautifulgarbage is about connection, finding connection in people,” she says. “We were on tour for about 18 months and we became so isolated, stuck in our own wee bubble and living on a stupid bus, so that when we came home we realised that we had lost touch and really felt this desire to reinvest in our relationships and our world. You know when I got home from tour I couldn’t even go into a supermarket without shaking. I found it really scary. I couldn’t remember how much a pint of milk was or how many potatoes I needed to feed four people. I’d just lost my mind and I was infantilised and it was very depressing. And so I think we just felt this urge to get back to being human beings.”
Ch-ch-ch-changes. The world of Shirley Manson is not what it was. When she finished the tour for Version 2.0 and returned to Wisconsin, to write and record beautifulgarbage, she decided to start seeing a therapist, something she had previously considered a pathetic thing to do. Why the change of heart? ÒLiving in total isolation on a bus for 18 months with 30 men would play havoc with anybody’s psyche,” she explains. “I wasn’t feeling good mentally when I came off tour, and I went to see somebody to help me figure everything out, and it really did put me back on the road to recovery. It made me stronger, feel more secure, more confident and so on and so forth. And I do think that helps you be braver when you’re in the creative situation.” She stops and says apropos of I don’t know what ÒIt takes guts to be pathetic, Peter!Ó Then she laughs one of her big banging laughs that come out of nowhere and disappear just as fast.
One result of the therapy is that her lyrics on the new album are much more open and straightforward than anything she has written before. It has been widely presumed that songs such as Cup Of Coffee (“You tell me you don’t love me over a cup of coffee”) or Can’t Cry These Tears Anymore (“Long nights without you have taught me to be strong”) are about her husband, the sculptor Eddie Farrell, whom she married in 1996 and doesn’t see too often as he lives in Edinburgh while she splits her time between Wisconsin and all the stages of the world. She’s keen to put this straight. “Everyone thinks Cup Of Coffee is about me and my husband but it’s about a relationship I had 10 years ago. And also contrary to popular belief it’s not necessarily about my relationship with a lover or a husband. It’s to do with relationships with other people, to friends, to family, to my home, to my life. It’s not literally about me and my husband. I would never disrespect the love of my life like that.”
I say that I don’t necessarily think it is disrespectful to incorporate someone you love into your art. “No,” she replies, “but my husband might have a very different view to you.”
Another lyric which caught my eye is from Drive You Home where she sings “I got down on myself/Working too hard/Driving myself to death/Trying to beat out the faults in my head”. Is the amount of effort she puts into Garbage a way of escaping from herself in some way? She nods. “Yeah. I think the whole band is guilty of that. Being in a band is like trying to cheat death. You know it’s a hopeless case, but you try it anyway. It’s really tragic. Every single band around the world, every single performer, every single celebrity in my view is mildly infantilised and traumatised in that respect. We’re all like Peter Pan.”
Death loomed large over Garbage last year. They supported U2 on their winter tour of America, concerts which in the wake of September 11 took on a unique resonance, particularly the “utterly magical” show at Madison Square Garden, New York, at the end of October.
There have been personal tragedies too. Steve’s mother died in April 2000 and Duke’s father was killed in a freak car accident just as beautifulgarbage was completed. Shirley’s mother was diagnosed with having breast cancer and her father had a heart attack. And this was on top of her own cancer scare; a benign tumour was removed from her left breast in 1999. “It just goes on and on and on,” the 35-year-old star says. “It felt like everything was just crumbling, but that’s the nature of life, and it does make you aware that being in a band does not protect you from anything. That was quite shocking to us.”
BY this time we’ve moved from the living room into the kitchen and are sitting on opposite sides of a pine table. Between us there’s a little bag of cheap foam sweets. I have a fried egg, Shirley has a love heart.
It has to be said that Shirley does not look as if she eats foam sweets very often. She’s a thin, white kook, her swan’s neck of a body crested with a new Bowie haircut. Her online diary on the Garbage website details the rigours of her keep-fit regime, but when I ask her whether she’s obsessed with staying in shape she just laughs. “If I wasn’t getting photographed I’d never do it, if I wasn’t going to be in a video I’d never do it. I’d let my arse get completely saggy and I would eat as many chocolate Santas as I damn well wanted to.”
I’m sort of surprised by this response because I wouldn’t have thought she cared what the public thought of her appearance. But then she has always felt anxiety about the way she looks. At school she was called ÒbloodhoundÓ and “frog-eyes” and she has had self-esteem issues ever since.
Once the most famous ginger in pop she has recently had a bleach rebirth and now has short, blonde hair, neat and glinting like a cutthroat razor. In an interview with the rock magazine Kerrang! she said it made her feel more in charge of her sexuality. What does that mean? “I’m very aware about the way appearance makes somebody perceive you,” she says. “And I was sick and tired of going to meetings where I’d be sitting there in a short skirt and long hair and being treated like a bimbo. But once I removed any vestige of my sexuality in traditional, stereotypical terms, all of a sudden people treated me really differently.
“People don’t know what to do with you when you suddenly shave your hair off. Fat, old, tired businessmen all of a sudden don’t have a compulsion to flirt with me. And when they don’t have the compulsion to flirt with me, they are forced to focus on me as a human being.”
The new look also gives her an androgynous quality, which is something she finds interesting and provides another link with JT Leroy. “What’s amazing about JT is you’re not very sure what his sex is. I mean you don’t even know if he’s a boy, a girl, a child, a man. He’s sexless and ageless. It’s wild. He’s so young, he’s 22 years old, and yet he has this really old soul. His voice is half girl, half boy. The usual boundary settings are removed.”
And does she relate to that? “In some ways. I mean I am a woman. I’m very girly. I’m a heterosexual woman who loves lipstick and girly things. But I also feel masculine too. I don’t feel any particular sex at times. And I find it frustrating that in the world you are confined at times by your sexuality. In my relationship with my band I can only get so close because I’m a girl. There are certain intimacies you can’t enjoy because of your sexuality, there are certain relationships you can’t have because peoples’ partners don’t understand. It’s just weird and it’s annoying.” She growls that last word. “Don’t you think?”
THE Readers Digest version of how Shirley Ann Manson grew up to be Shirley Manson, popinatrix-in-chief with Garbage, seller of 10 million albums, goes like this: Born in Stockbridge, Edinburgh in 1966; mother is an amateur singer, father is a geneticist and also Shirley’s Sunday School teacher; has two sisters, one older, one younger, who she considers more beautiful than herself; attends Broughton High School, tells a mysterious big lie at 15 which is found out, causing her to fall out with her best friend (“I don’t think I’ve ever fallen in love so hard in my life; it was like my first big break-up”) and be shunned by the rest of her peers; gets into youth theatre and wins a Fringe First at the Edinburgh Festival in a production of Maurice The Minotaur (“I wore a tangerine orange cloak, frightful”); fails Highers and leaves school to work in Miss Selfridge, where she passes the time flogging Iron Lady lipstick and stealing knickers until 1986 when Martin Metcalfe asks her to play keyboards in his band, Goodbye Mr MacKenzie; the band are jinxed, shifting from record company to record company until they split in 1992; Shirley fronts Angelfish, a band comprised of former MacKenzies, whose single Suffocate Me is played on MTV where it is seen by Butch, Duke and Steve, who just happen to be looking for a singer; on April 8, 1994, the day that Kurt Cobain shoots himself in the head, Shirley and the rest of Garbage meet for the first time.
Getting on for a decade later, the cracks are beginning to show. To make Garbage work, Shirley has had to spend much of the last eight years away from her husband and family. Touring is one thing, but she finds the recording process insufferable. It takes Garbage pretty much a year to make an album, which is a long time to spend in Wisconsin, staring out from an empty Shining-esque hotel over a frozen lake, unable to go out on your own without being mobbed. She absolutely refuses to do it again. “The boys keep laughing at me because I think they think I’m joking or being difficult, but I’m done, no more, that’s it.”
How is the next album going to be made if not in the studio in Wisconsin? “We’ll work it out. We’ll either work it out or there won’t be another Garbage album.”
Will the others give in? After all, their homes are in Wisconsin. “It’s not even a question of giving in. I mean I can understand that they might not want to do that. But all I’m saying is that for it to work for me … ” she trails off.
“But I have given up a lot. I’ve done three albums, it’s not unreasonable for me to expect to do it somewhere else. I think if they’re not willing to make that compromise then, then that’s their choice and I’ll have to live with that. But these are my conditions.”
Could Garbage be facing the scrapheap? Shirley is certainly happy to contemplate life after the music business. “I don’t want to be in the band forever, I really don’t. I can’t think of anything more dismal than spending your entire life in a rock band.”
She doesn’t have any grand plan about what she might do, but it’s likely to be something creative. Bono has been nagging her to write a novel, and acting is also a possibility. She has had a number of film offers over the years, including parts in High Fidelity and Coyote Ugly (“Hooking my thumbs in my jeans and dancing on top of a tequila bar is not my idea of a good time; I can’t think of anything more belittling”), but nothing she has felt any urge to get involved with.
Sarah might be different. All casting decisions have yet to be made but it seems to be on the cards that Shirley will at least be considered for the part. She seems uncertain about what life will be like after the current Garbage tour, other than that she wants to continue feeling as in control of her anger as she has been lately, and she wants to be around the people she loves. And as she won’t speculate about the specifics of her future, I’m sure she won’t mind if the last word goes to JT Leroy, who seems to have shaped so much of her present: “Shirley can only go deeper into who she is as an artist, as a being in this world. She will continue fearlessly exploring her past, her relationships and turning her findings into art. Nothing can shut that off. Just like our hearts, it is an involuntary muscle and it will continue to pump stronger and stronger.”
Garbage play The Corn Exchange, Edinburgh, on April 5. The new single Breaking Up The Girl is released on April 1