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Queen of the Midnighters

Riff Raff, er, Richard O'Brien Takes Responsibility for Marilyn Manson

by Gillian G. Gaar

IN THE 1970s, video cassette recorders were devices only billionaires could afford, and so a ritual known as the Midnight Movie was born. The movie itself was the backdrop to the real action -- staying up late and consuming mind-altering substances. Ideally the chosen movie was something loud, fast, out of control -- or all three: Pink Flamingos, Night of the Living Dead, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!.

And then there was the King, er, Queen of the Midnighters: The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a campy musical spoof of every horror/sci-fi film cliché in the book. Rocky was born in 1973, as a successful London stage show (minus the "Picture" in the title). In 1974 it moved to L.A.; in 1975, it flopped on Broadway. The film, also released in '75, seemed destined for the same fate. But as it moved from regular screenings to the midnight slot, Rocky's audience grew into a behemoth cult that had its devotees dressing up like the film's cast, engaging in "dialogue" with the characters, throwing foodstuffs on cue, and dancing in the aisles (the ritual continues in Seattle the first Saturday of every month, at the Varsity).

The fertile mind who gave us this irresistible work is Richard O'Brien, who also played Rocky's incestuously minded handyman, Riff Raff. In 1981, a Rocky "prequel" of sorts, Shock Treatment, was released, with O'Brien again taking on writing/ composing/acting duties. It failed to find an audience, and to most in the U.S., that's the extent of O'Brien's resume. But the enduring success of the stage show (O'Brien made little money from the film), which is nearly always being performed somewhere in the world, has secured him a steady income. "I've been cushioned against having to work, with Rocky's continual bounty," says O'Brien. "It took the need to succeed away from me. I never had that kind of need anyway. I've never been driven by fame or money or anything like that. It's never been part of my psyche."

Nonetheless, O'Brien's kept busy, appearing on the British stage, and in films as varied as Dark City and Spiceworld (he just missed snagging a role in Eyes Wide Shut). Hardcore Rocky addicts might find his most conventional role the most bizarre; for four years he hosted a game show on U.K. TV called The Crystal Maze. Now he's playing his least recognizable role yet: himself, with the release of his first solo album, Absolute O'Brien. Unlike his usual rock 'n' roll antics, Absolute O'Brien has him in full lounge lizard mold, crooning self-penned songs with titles like "Ain't That to Die For" and "Angel in Me."

The album had its beginnings in O'Brien's 1995 stage show, Disgracefully Yours, which reinvented hell as "Club Inferno." "Why not a hell where they've thrown out all the sickos, the fuck-ups, the brain dead?" says O'Brien about the show's premise. "Why do we have to take heaven's rejects?" As a result, the album's songs have a streak of darkness running through them, like the smoke-tinged "Incubus of Love." "I just wanted it to be a very grown- up, sexy album," O'Brien says. "The kind of album that people might put on, smoke a joint, light a few joss sticks, and go and have a nice warm bath with some oils in it, and listen to that in the background."

But the specter of Rocky is never far away in O'Brien's life. A Rocky episode of VH1's Behind the Music, set to air on Halloween, has caused him to reflect on its legacy again. "I'm responsible for Marilyn Manson in a way," he says. "I feel very much like I'm his mother." And a real Rocky sequel may yet appear, with deflowered Janet Weiss giving birth to the child of Frank N. Furter (that sweet transvestite from transsexual Transylvania). "It makes more sense for the grand epic journey," O'Brien explains. "The return of the bloodline back to the throne. A holy blood and holy grail kind of journey."

But even if Rocky 2 never appears, the original Rocky will surely endure, due to its "fairy-tale" roots. "It's an Adam and Eve, babes-in-the-wood kind of tale," says O'Brien. "And the retelling is something you need. That's why children love hearing the same story night after night. There's something reassuring about it." As reassuring as slipping on your favorite fishnet stockings when the sun goes down.

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The Richard O'Brien Crusade est. 1996