- Butch Vig (far right): His battle with hepatitis helped unite the band at its darkest hour.
Shirley Manson went topless. Then she went to jail. Or so the crowd at Washington, D.C.'s 9:30 club thought. At a recent gig by her band, Garbage, Manson ended a rendition of a new tune, "Sex Is Not the Enemy," by flashing the crowd her flesh-colored bra and then getting dragged offstage by police officers.
Fans in the packed house nearly lost it, directing their ire at the cops who manhandled their heroine. But in reality, the audience had been duped by the Scottish firebrand, all in the name of a low-budget, guerrilla-style video shot by Sophie Mueller.
"We didn't tell the audience that this was a setup, that we were shooting a video," drummer-producer Butch Vig says, calling from Detroit. "It was weird; there was this huge, like, 'Ahhh.' I heard this groan and moan, and then everybody started going 'Booooo' and yelling 'Bull-shit!' and throwing stuff up on the stage. Most people thought that she had been arrested.
"The song is about trying to find your own freedom as an individual and to avoid the repression that's coming down on individual rights from the right-wing, so-called Moral Majority," Vig continues. "We shot a lot of footage of Shirley running around New York -- like, she was getting up on a soapbox with a bullhorn and just yelling at people. And it was funny, 'cause people thought, 'Oh, another crazy woman.' They just ignored her."
But over the last decade, ignoring Manson has become increasingly difficult. Garbage's first two albums spawned no fewer than four hit singles each, and even 2001's lukewarmly received Beautifulgarbage -- whose electro rock/hip-pop experiments felt as saccharine as Sweet'N Low -- had more triumphs than lemons.
The same sense of consistency drives the band's new album, Bleed Like Me. Although there are few creative revelations on the disc -- aside from a conscious lack of electronic and techno flourishes, elements that inspired frequent comparisons to Curve -- Bleed is classic Garbage pop bombast. Jagged guitars scream and hiss like bottle rockets, flying around ecstatic hooks informed by glamour punks and Blondie's elegant new wave. Manson coos and scowls about bad boyfriends, unbridled lust, and upon occasion, deeper topics. The album's title cut, for instance, is a laundry list of troubled souls -- from young girls with eating disorders to hopeless drunks attempting to relive past glories -- that are all based on Manson's real-life encounters.
"They're all about people she knows," Vig says. "They're all real people. They all exist. They're all true stories. It breaks my heart sometimes to hear it. And at the end, when she sings, 'You should see my scars' -- it could be about them, it could be about her. It's a song about empathy.
"All of a sudden, she was writing these themes that were much more topical, socially and politically," he adds. "It just seemed to work with some of the songs. I think it's the best album that she's written, lyrically. We don't want to become known as a political band or try to preach to anybody. The songs -- there's some darkness to them, but even 'Sex Is Not the Enemy' -- that's a party song. It's really about freedom and not letting people tell you what to do or how to live your life."
At a Boston gig a few weeks back, Manson brought her studio sass onto the stage. In the past, she's pointedly embraced an androgynous look with as much thought-provoking playfulness as did ex-Eurythmics chanteuse Annie Lennox -- e.g. , her platinum, close-cropped, Beautifulgarbage-era 'do and B-boy dance moves. But on this night, she wielded her feminine wiles as effortlessly as a ballerina spirals en pointe.
"Are you being a naughty boy?" she asked a guy in the audience, bending close to a lucky -- or cowed -- member of the sold-out crowd. She then stood up and laughed. "Tonight, it's all about me!" Manson announced in a Scottish accent. "I've been doing this for too fucking long for someone to steal my thunder." Wearing a modish white dress with a wide black belt, she stalked the stage like a vixen on a mission, turning the opener, "Queer," into a sultry come-on and informing hellfire-and-brimstone ragers like "Vow" and "Push It" with passionate urgency.
There were few hints from Manson's performance that just two years earlier, when it first convened to lay down Bleed, Garbage had all but broken up.
"When we started recording, in March 2003, I don't think we realized how fried-out we were," Vig recalls. "Everybody was going into their own little places in the studio and not really communicating. There wasn't much of a vibe in the songs. I think we didn't know it, but we just needed to stop and get away from each other.
"I mean, it's hard to force yourself to be creative and inspired on demand," he continues. "You have to feel that way. None of us felt that way. I knew Shirley was having problems with lyrics. I could just tell there wasn't any enthusiasm from me or anybody else in the band. That's basically why we just ground to a halt."
But it was partly Vig's battle with hepatitis A, which began during Garbage's stint opening for U2 in 2001, that helped the group rediscover its creative drive and commence working on Bleed again in 2004.
"It was the first time where the band got fractured," Vig says, recalling his illness, which caused him to lose 15 pounds in 10 days at one point. "It made us realize how fragile we are as a unit and also individually. I think, when we bottomed out in making Bleed Like Me, that's one of the things we all realized -- how precious it was, making music together. We can't just take it for granted. We had to really sort of reassess what was important to us. And for all four of us, it was really important for us to finish Bleed Like Me."