Garbage in Vegas


We are in a white limousine cruising round Las Vegas.

Garbage – whose name has proved to a characteristically ironic anomaly – are in town to play The Hard Rock cafe’s hotel venue, The Joint.

Their debut album, featuring world-wide hits such as Stupid Girl, Queer, and Only Happy When It Rains, may have been nominated for five Grammies, and their current album, Version 2:0, boosted their overall sales towards the eight million mark, but Garbage have never played Las Vegas before. Only drummer Butch Vig has even ever been here. A long way from Wisconsin, where the band is based, they look suitably apprehensive.

Sitting in the limo, the band is, with the exception of their super-exuberant, flame-haired Scottish singer, Shirley Manson, clad in black, their faces hidden pretty much permanently behind enormous black sunglasses, like visors, confirming the feeling that their role is, for the most part, to act as placid, semi-silent observers of her fireworks.

An incorrigible whirlwind of noise, colour and contradiction, Shirley had arrived into our day, as is her wont, with an orange eruption of energy, a mad laugh, and the exhortation, “did you MISS me ?!”

She continued this way, pretty much this way, only occasionally dipping into despondency and the conviction today was going to be a disaster.

Their itinerary for the day is taken up with radio promotion, some recreation on the roulette tables, and for the next two hours, a tour of Las Vegas in the company of Zander, the teenage winner of a local radio competition.

Zander is looking understandably uncertain where to put himself, ever since Shirley greeted him outside the hotel by yelling “unnnn-lll-ucky Zander !!”, giving a dirty, raucous cackle and virtually leaping into his arms.

“You look like the rock star Zander,” she teases him, peering behind his black wraparound shades, as the limo snakes its way downtown.
“Let’s do some drugs !” she giggles, posing for a photo planting a kiss on his cheek.

All the signature trappings of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle are certainly there in the limo for all to see: a Man Who Fell To Earth-style TV in one corner, bottles of Jack Daniels and Stolichnaya, the protection and isolation of the dark tinted windows.

Shirley’s tipple, she says, is tequila, which she announces makes her go “completely crazy, all tingly”, though she is not drinking at the moment because she has been on anti-biotics.

“It’s better if you combine them !” announces Zander, with rather too much enthusiasm.

“That was a joke by the way – about the drugs,” Shirley points out, filling the slightly nervous silence that results.

“Yeah,” drawls Garbage guitarist, Duke Erikson. “We never share our drugs.”

Riding down the Strip, the full insanity and demented genius of Vegas is there for all to see – in all its particular kind of inglorious, cardboard Technicolor.

A huge black plastic pyramid (the Luxor casino) housing a replica of King Tut’s tomb (“as it was found in 1922”) sits next to a pink cartoon castle (The Excalibur) where the restaurant has live jousting, and most disconcerting of all, a replica of the entire New York skyline (New York New York).

“Was that France ?” someone asks, as we swing by a half-completed Eiffel Tower. Venice is also coming along nicely. Real life has been suspended. Due to lack of interest.

We find ourselves in the ridiculous position of being outraged by how tacky and degrading Vegas is.

Zander the prize winner is of course unfazed. Hearing that he grew up here, tourists have been known to ask him if he lives in a hotel or whether the school he went taught blackjack.

He gives Garbage some lingo to shout (“Come to Daddy ! Papa needs a new pair of shoes !”) once they get on to the roulette tables, the craps tables and even the ‘crapless craps’ tables. “Impossible To Lose” say the signs.

The limousine tour takes in the Liberace museum, “Siegfried & Roy’s Secret Garden and Dolphin Environment”, and an hour playing roulette at The Mirage, during which Duke wins $ 78.
“Come to Papa !”

Butch Vig already has a Vegas hard-luck tale to tell, softly outraged by the injustice of betting 70 times on lucky 32, losing every time. The Queen – as the others call Ms. Manson – naturally has no money on her, but borrows some and, with her Scottish principles intact, quits triumphantly two bucks up.

Sadly, there is not time to see the neon, the visual feast of electric sleaze and sensation, at the other end of the Strip, the dazzling neon rain of neon flamingos, horseshoes and dice, that used to be a quintessential part of Vegas street life but has now been converted into a covered pedestrian area for tourists, marketed by the city as The Fremont Street Experience.

“Is it any good anymore ?” I ask Zander, who has, rightly, been deploring its demise.
“It is if you’re on mushrooms !” he enthuses.

Along way from home, wary of the Vegas madness, and perhaps, above all, not wanting to be upstaged by a teenage prize winner, Garbage decide enough is enough.

They have a show to play. And, besides, the fact is, Garbage are just not that kind of band.

GARBAGE are a long way from home and none more so than Shirley Manson.

Manson’s alliance with Duke Erikson, Butch Vig (the man who produced Nirvana’s Nevermind and the Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream) and Steve Marker, is an unlikely story, even in the often improbable fables of pop.

From the total obscurity of an unknown indie band in Edinburgh, in only three years Manson has carved out a place for herself in the lineage of tough, (mad) individual female icons, following on from many of her own idols – the likes of Siouxsie, Chrissie Hynde, Courtney Love, and Patti Smith.

Four years ago, the three Milwaukee musicians (aged 47, 41 and 39 respectively) were despairing of ever finding a vocalist for their new project when Marker chanced upon Manson (a mere 32) singing a song by obscure Scottish indie band, Angelfish on MTV – the only time the video ever aired.
“It’s spooky,” she admits.

Manson’s world since she joined Garbage has turned upside down, several times and in several different ways.

Acclaimed by the press, their eponymous debut sold over four million copies world-wide and their various state-of-the-art videos have, of course, been showing on MTV ever since.

Starting as total strangers, she has spent virtually every day of the last four years with the three men, who have been close friends for years working in bands such as Spooner and Firetown. Now Vig considers they “are as close to Shirley as her friends from her past or even her family.”

Shortly after Marker saw the video, the four of them met in a posh London hotel for tea (“I think she thought we were staying there”, mutters Butch), after which Manson packed up her things and without knowing a soul, left Edinburgh for Wisconsin pretty much immediately.

“I must have been out of my mind,” she has said. “But really I know I was just desperate. Desperation is an incredible incentive.”

She has lived in Wisconsin (“like Fargo without the funny bits”), existing on a semi-temporary, transitory, basis ever since, living mostly in a hotel. Insecurity and a tendency to fear the worse though are part of her
make-up. Even after five million record sales, part of her still doesn’t really believe things are going to work out.

“Oh, I’m in total denial. It’s my way of coping with how crazy it’s become. ”

Manson seems to have taken this kind of tough, Everest The Hard Way, approach to its limits. Though she never stops glowing over him, her partner of seven years, husband Eddie, a sculptor, who she met “in this really corny way” (when he did an effigy of her for the artwork of one of her previous bands) has remained in Edinburgh.

“I don’t want my partner’s individuality to be overwhelmed by mine. (By her life). I couldn’t stand having my identity inter-woven with somebody else’s. it would freak me out.”

The fact she has gone so far out on a limb for Garbage – for the chance to write her own lyrics and, unlike the other bands she was in, have her own say – is a sign of how determined, “or desperate”, she really was.

When the tour buses were stopped at the Canadian border recently, even she was hit by the realisation that, including the crew, the Garbage tour consisted of twenty men, and her.

Her image of the hard-nosed, over-opinionated, Super-vixen is, inevitably, a screen. The daughter of a geneticist and housewife, she grew up in Edinburgh as a dark, disaffected, teenager with zero self-esteem and a complex about her odd and all-too obvious appearance.

Her sister used to sit outside Shirley’s bedroom door listening to her playing Drop Dead Celebration, one of Siouxsie & the Banshees’ more miserable B-sides, over and over, convinced her sister was having a nervous breakdown.

“Siouxsie saved my life. That song was contemptuous and horrible and that was absolutely how I felt about everybody and everything. I was so angry – for no reason at all.”

Butch Vig suggests the way Manson has organised her life is possibly her way of seeking to “legitimise her talent” – the talent she was never allowed to express in other bands. When I mention this, she fixes me with her hard, bewitching green stare, and explains “well, I was in a band for a long time (playing keyboards in Goodbye Mr.MacKenzie for 10 years) with a man who I was in love with, who didn’t love me and who fucked women, on a nightly basis, often in eye-sight. I had to learn how to compartmentalise my emotional life from my musical life and my work life.”

Vig for one, is amazed at her transformation into an international icon.
“We took her on as a singer because we liked her and we liked her voice,” he smiles. “Then she became the front-person for the band and then the mouthpiece for the whole band. Plus we got this sex goddess into the bargain.”

Ironically, she says fame and her high profile as the face of Garbage has made her less self-conscious.
‘It’s weird but I feel less conspicuous now that I did before. I had a real problem with confidence. I couldn’t go into a shop. My girlfriend used to buy my lunch at school. Nowadays, I don’t notice people noticing me.”

Lyrics like “When I grow up/I will be stable” or “I Think I’m Paranoid” make it tempting to think her crazy life today is making her crazy. But she laughs,
“I’ve always been mad. A moody, paranoid maniac. I go from being really sweet and nice and easy to deal with to being a very difficult woman to be around. I suppose it’s exacerbated by the situation but I was always a little
off-kilter from my peer group.”

The Boys confirm she may have flourished but she has not changed.
“When we first met ?” Erikson considers calmly. “We knew we were in for somebody who was very testy and extremely emotional and vulnerable and opinionated. Someone who can change her mind every 30 seconds. She’s alot more confident now. She’s totally blossomed as a person.”

Among the artists she says she feels an affinity with, Manson includes Tori Amos, PJ Harvey, and Courtney Love – emotionally fraught, fiery women, all pretty much seemingly almost permanently on the brink of collapsing under the strain of the place they’ve made for themselves. In the case of Courtney Love, besides her fiercesome independence, you can’t help wondering if she identifies with her chaos.

Chaos, of course, suits some people. It is the only place they can function. Butch Vig for one seems to agree the singer should be slightly crazy.

“Look at Michael Stipe,” he says, “Or Liberace.”
Which might be taking it a bit far given the hideous, hallucinogenic nature of the contents of the museum.

“I thrive on it,” Shirley agrees, immediately. “It’s ideal for a personality like me. I am super-organised. I compartmentalise. I’m peculiarly well-suited for this. It’s really alarming,” she laughs.

Her energy levels are such, besides all her other duties, she tries to have a one-hour work-out before the gig, mostly, it seems, running her tiny frame to the bone on a tread-mill rather than working the weights.

She compares the effect of performing as “like letting a dog off its leash so it runs around and gets tired. It tempers my excess energies which is good. Mostly I’m too tired to lose my temper !”

Perhaps disappointingly, the Manson tantrums in Vegas are confined to a brief outburst of impatience and frustration in the band’s over-crowded people carrier.
“I’m sorry, stop the bus, I’ve just got to get out of here” – a problem caused by missing her five o’clock fix of coffee – preferably from Starbucks.

The rest of the band – candidates for The Nicest Men In Music – seem placid and genial enough to absorb it all, allowing her the space to dazzle and explode.

As Vig says: “Shirley is emotionally alot more volatile than we are. If we were all like Shirley, we would’ve killed each other by now.”

“TODAY’S pop-stars,” Manson declares, “are no longer just required to make music. They’re required to be supermodels, actresses, diplomats and businessmen.”

On the day she plays Las Vegas for the first time, instead of rehearsing or preparing, there is a hectic stream of press and promotion to do. She is grilled by myself, fills in a questionnaire for Top of the Pops. (Favourite black eyeliner ? Aveda.)

She has to give away her boots – a required donation to the Hard Rock Hotel.
“They made me look like a whore (“hoo-er”) anyway.”

She has her photo taken for yet another cover-shot. Being photographed is something she hates more now than ever. (She left school at 15, to play in bands, convinced everyone hated her because she was so ugly – a notion she was more or less in agreement with.)

Garbage spend the afternoon before the show in a cramped red people carrier, being ferried around anonymous, airless, local radio studios, recording trailers wishing listeners “a happy holiday season.”

The DJs are, for the most part, what they call the “Time ‘N’ Temp” variety (“six twenny-seven in the big city, twenny-nine degrees outside”) – American versions of Smashey and Nicey whose most penetrating questions to the band range from “How do you get around from place to place ?” to “Is it hard to re-create all those sonic little sounds you do on the record ?”

One DJ (spurning that old-fashioned idea of researching his guests) asks Shirley if she is still in Angelfish, as if she had kept it going – just in case !

Garbage take it all in their stride, with the kind of wry patience they probably get alot of practice at.

“How was the Liberace museum ?” one Vegas DJ asks, enthusiastically.
“Depends how you feel about Liberace,” Duke observes.

Earlier, at the Liberace museum, having declared yet another reason to be depressed, Shirley’s eyes shine as wide as headlights. She particularly likes the idea that Liberace’s career all started with Chopin.

She remains amazed by one costume made, according to the tour-guide, by six seamstresses wearing dark glasses to protect their eyes from the glare of rhinestones.

They head for the venue, happy in the knowledge that the two things Milwaukee has given the world are Garbage and Liberace, who grew up an hour from where they live.

Duke is hatching a plan to cancel the Vegas show altogether – using the justification of being able to say “Hey, you took a gamble, you lost !”

Vegas, of course, is the only town on the tour where bands are competing against the allure of the blackjack, the roulette and the Megabucks slot machines (a pot of $23 million dollars and rising) not to mention acts like Tom Jones and David Copperfield.

“Copperfield’s in town ?!” drawls Duke. “Ah man, if I’d known Copperfield was in town….”

As we arrive for the sound-check, outside in the car park, a Japanese girl sees us and, talking on her mobile phone, excitedly starts walking towards us.

She clutches at Manson’s arm, and hands her the phone to talk to her friend, while she stands there sighing, ‘oh Shirley, Shirley, Shirley’, sobbing with excitement.

“BEING on the road is always pretty bizarre,” Steve Marker utters with typically laconic understatement.

In Fresno, the atmosphere was “psychotic, really strange. Alot of people with painted faces and sprayed hair,” ponders Steve. “One woman who had taken her top off and sprayed a Garbage logo on her tits with a smiley face and a cigar.”

Apparently, someone says, she had won a competition to get in.
“Best sprayed tits,” deadpans Duke.

In LA, the glamour gig, Garbage have been hanging out with famous fans Courtney Love, Michael Stipe and Bob Saget, the host of America’s Funniest Videos, which at least wowed Duke’s mum.
“I said ‘You’re…’, and he said “yes I am’,” remembers Duke, impressed.

While we fly (first-class) from Phoenix to Vegas, the band have driven over night on the tour bus watching episodes of Twin Peaks on video, listening to PJ Harvey, Hole, and a tape called “The Terror Inside” sent in by a fan.
“He had a horror movie in his head and this was the soundtrack,” mutters Butch.
Amazingly, Shirley says she has never flown first-class.

Shirley raves about All The Pretty Horses, The Tin Drum and her current love, Rick Moody – reading and sleeping being her main way of staying sane,

The superficial glamour of Vegas is pretty much all anathema to Garbage. All the band are in their thirties and, unlike Zander, put their wild times behind them, though The Boys, as Ms. Manson calls them, like a few beers and she regards herself as what she calls “a heedonist” – only not in the tried-and-tested on the road tradition.

On the Jo Whiley Show, for instance, she took issue with Goldie about bands smashing up their hotel rooms, making a stand for “the poor cleaning ladies who have to clean up after them.”

In three days on tour with them, I can report not one sighting of a single joint, line or pill of any description, confirming Garbage’s position as an example of post-modern rock n roll.

In their artwork, their videos and the sound of their albums, Garbage are modern and iconic, clever and above all cool – New Order meets Nirvana: a perfect marriage between arch, shiny, Scottish pop (Altered Images, Win, Paul Haig) and nihilistic American grunge, with some garage and some Roxy Music thrown in.

On their recently-released second album, Version 2.0, Manson’s knowingly detached, icily iconic vocals and lyrical soundbites (“I say: never trust anyone”) are complemented by a lush, cinematic collage of perfect pop, thrash rock, dance beats and cute allusions to other people’s songs, like Brian Wilson’s Don’t Worry Baby (which he approved personally).

Their most famous single, Stupid Girl, sampled The Clash, while on Garbage’s last single, Special, Shirley Manson’s impersonation of Chrissie Hynde is possibly the most sublime moment of post-modern pop since The Associates’ Billy Mackenzie did Humphrey Bogart in the middle of Skipping on Sulk.

In the end though, it’s more fitting to judge Manson in her most natural element – on stage.

“I’ve waited my whole life to say this”, she greets the audience at The Joint, all semblance of cool utterly abandoned. “HELLO LAS VEGAS !”

On stage, the stylised gloss of Manson’s songs – about insecurity and revenge, bitter romances and her own personal failures – is blasted apart, principally by Manson’s energy and anger.

Her performance a mix of home-girl pacing, relentless shadow-boxing and virtual head-banging so that even a pop-song as infectious as Special becomes an expression of aggression and anger.

The show, which started with an intro tape of Mahler, closes with the down-beat, sugar-coated put-down, ‘You Look So Fine’, ending with a brilliantly intricate, over-powering wall of sound.

Over the applause, you can just about hear Shirley’s words, “let’s pretend/happy end” echoing around the hall: a perfect post-modern finale.

THE Vegas madness had started at the airport where there are slot machines while you wait for your luggage. It ends, predictably, in a casino, where there are no clocks and you never see daylight.

After the show, we get drunk and gamble, like every one else in the place. The girl playing blackjack next to me is so drunk she has knocked her beer bottle over three times, but of course, they keep taking her money.

I am still trying to get over the fact that the Hard Rock Hotel’s motto is “Save the planet.”

Earlier a woman from Arizona had asked me if they have coins in England. Someone had bemused Shirley by trying out his Gaelic on her. His name was Clay Bender, which goes right up there with the day’s best Vegas names: Vince Morocco, Art Rasco, and Larry Changes.

It has gone beyond late into early. If we are feeling fine, it is probably because, we learn later, the casinos pump the place full of oxygen. Cocktails are free but coffee costs $ 1.50. At the bar, an English eccentric, trying to extricate himself from the clutches of a call girl with fingernails like talons tells her thanks but he’s “looking for something more romantic.”
“Hey honey,” she says, not missing a beat. “I can do romantic.”

Duke and Butch are cleaning up, building up high piles of the Hard Rock Hotel’s $ 25 Jimi Hendrix chips.

“Colour me out baby,” Vig tells the croupier, when he cashes in his chips, using Zander’s favourite phrase.
“Ace me,” we all say when the blackjack dealer deals a ten.

Shirley is drinking tequila, tipping it into her vodka and cranberry, virtually tipping it down me insisting “it tastes quite nice.” (It tastes disgusting.)

Despite the crowd’s acclaim and The Boys’ view that it was a blinding show, the Queen is not satisfied.
“It takes alot to make me happy,” she smiles, slightly sorry. “You should have seen Santa Monica.”

Earlier, she had admitted that the way her life is nowadays will not necessarily make her happy, or more positive. Since she was 15, it is just what she has been doing all along.

She is still on a winning streak, having built up her winnings to a mighty $ 4.50 – which she is determined to lose so they can get away, declaring Vegas to be “appalling, tawdry”. Somehow though, she doesn’t go.

Unlike the others in the band, there is no real unwinding. Even playing the slots, she is constantly accosted by fans, wanting her to pose for photographs or sign something. (Zander’s version: “just make it out to The Winner .”)

Still, amidst all the bright lights and the relentless ringing, she looks quite at home.

The last time I see her, she is wedged between a grinning middle-aged Japanese businessman and a large woman wearing a hand-painted t-shirt with the words ‘Die For You’ written on it, practically squeezing her to death.

When I asked Butch Vig – who after all produced Nirvana’s Nevermind – about my theory that someone slightly crazy needs a crazy lifestyle to make them feel remotely sane, he just said, “that’s probably true. In some ways it’s easier. Being in a band is sort of way of escaping reality.”

The way Shirley Manson has fenced herself off – inside Garbage, inside Wisconsin, away from her friends, her family, her home country and her husband – seems to me an extraordinary achievement. It shows a particular kind of courage and the will of someone so driven by the determination to forge an identity, assert her independence and prove herself that she will only do it by herself. With her set of insecurities and anxieties, this is, presumably, the only way she could feel she had done it at all.

The scene around her seems just like more Vegas madness, but it is her environment, her desired lifestyle.

It is her chaos.