This article is the third in a series looking back at concerts that shaped the Iowa City and Cedar Rapids musical imagination as they reach milestone anniversaries.
Technology was getting more advanced by the day in the ’90s, and music was one of the industries that absorbed the high-tech wave. The grunge bands of the early years of the decades were either splitting up or implementing more acoustic sounds into their albums, but the latter part of the ’90s saw the emergence of a different kind of metal sound. All it needed was a group that not only had ear-splitting talents, but also a front man who could command a crowd, the radio and the headlines — many, many headlines.
On April 28, 20 years ago, Cedar Rapids hosted in what was then the Five Seasons Center (now the U.S. Cellular Center) a controversial band that all who attended wouldn’t have any other way. Marilyn Manson was back in Iowa, and one of the most historic shows on the Rock Is Dead tour would ensue. A then 20-year-old James Trainor remembers the infamous concert well.
“[I was a] growing fan, I guess? In high school I picked up just about everything MTV tried to sell me,” Trainor said, “so Smells Like Children was on my radar and Antichrist Superstar was one of my favorites.”
Manson was still dealing with accusations of a connection between his music and the April 20 Columbine shooting that were shrouding the band’s reputation in controversy and bringing unwanted politics into their music. The shooting followed them everywhere, as many powerful people were searching for social scapegoats rather than having to deal with a growing anger that was gripping communities all over America.
“There was a lot of loud punditry around Marilyn Manson and the Columbine shooters, and I remember being irritated that nobody had bothered actually analyzing the lyrics of ‘Get Your Gunn’ (‘Lunchbox’ [also from 1994’s Portrait of an American Family] is a straight-up revenge fantasy so fair enough there I suppose). But in general, I remember the atmosphere being tense both before and during because of all the controversy.”
Trainor’s group of seven went to the Cedar Rapids venue to hear songs like “The Dope Show,” “Beautiful People,” “Rock is Dead” and more. But, as he recounts, the show would be drastically cut short, despite the work that went into constructing the stage. There was a cross made of TVs, a confetti cannon — and the smiley face vandalism that set off the lead singer.
“This was the breaking point at the CR show,” Trainor recalled. “Someone on the local stage crew had posted a smiley face over the podium where the little lightning bolt in a red circle was supposed to be; when [Manson] noticed it, he ripped it off and stormed off stage. The crowd got worked up and tried to get him to come back by cheering, but it was over.”
Though the concert was cut short, there were still a few of the iconic band’s industrial tunes that made it through the speakers.
“[It was] loud — good, I think. But as I said they didn’t finish the set, and even before the smiley-face incident there was kind of a feel that the crowd sucked and the band resented it. I remember feeling let down because there was just too much other stuff going on for them to put on a good show.”
The drama was thickening with every moment that night. When Manson officially called it quits on the show, the resulting eruption from fans spilled outside of the venue.
A crowd ready to hear the headliner that brought them together to rock the Cedar Rapids night into the early morning was deprived of the show they paid for, and a ruckus began that would put Eastern Iowa in the musical headlines and national news cycle for a very unwanted reason.
“After he left the stage there was a crowd of kids outside the tour bus. We were leaving but stopped and watched from across the street. I don’t know what they expected; obviously he wasn’t in the mood to go hobnob with fans, but at the same time they were probably upset and felt cheated as well,” Trainor said. “They were pushing up towards the bus, and the police kept telling them to move back. They wouldn’t really listen, and the police started telling them they would have to leave at which they started chanting, ‘We want our rights!’ (which even at 20 I thought was silly). But [it] didn’t really get physical until the police started arresting people.”
“In my 20-year-old brain I thought the kids were right to be mad,” Trainor continued, “and that the police were being too rough and caused the situation (they literally arrested a friend of ours for ‘interference’ because he complained that they were being too rough arresting people), but my 40-year-old brain thinks [now] that the kids were mad at the wrong people and should have just written the night off as a loss and went home. We left when our friend was arrested because we wanted to talk to his mom (he was still in high school); I saw on the news the next day that they ended up trying to tip the bus.”
The parallels between then and now are striking for Trainor. A cultural ’90s flashback came roaring back as another horrific school shooting got international attention, resulting in much of the same finger pointing.
“The atmosphere before the show, both in the news and at the venue, really stuck with me over the years in the sense that young people are constantly subjected to this sort of culture shaming that’s arrogant and narrow-minded,” Trainor said. “When the Parkland shootings happened last year and the conversation quickly jumped from real-life gun violence to ‘the problem is these violent video games nowadays,’ I was able to feel an instant connection, because it’s the exact kind of stuff we had to hear as young people, and it’s just plain ridiculous.”
Trainor and his friends went to a show, 20 years ago, to be entertained for a few hours, and that was it. That was the goal for most of the ticketholders but, as usual, a small group (compared to the larger whole of more responsible music lovers) stole the show, casting more negativity on Marilyn Manson as the cause of the destructive behavior of a few.
The generation who grew up during the peak of Manson’s popularity remember a lot of amazing shows from these ’90s goth gods. Cedar Rapids’ experience of this storied band is still immortalized by chaos; many fans remember Marilyn Manson as controversial but a straight-up legend that captured their imaginations. Just who were the “beautiful people” of this time? I recommend dusting off a few old CDs and finding out yourself.