Photos: Rebecca Miller
Most of the first dates I've been on have been granted to me through some pathetic combination of pity, desperation, and outright trickery. One time, I borrowed my friend's cute dog to land me a sympathy date. Another time, I helped a woman move and then just sort of hung around her new apartment for several hours until she was hungry enough to let me buy her dinner. But only one woman has ever spared me the humiliation by asking me out on a date: Shirley Manson.
Before last year, I'd never met or spoken to the Garbage frontwoman. I knew her only through her music videos, particularly the one for 1995's "Only Happy When It Rains," which was on constant MTV rotation in my early teens, and which I remember being a novel break from the long line of dude-heavy alterna-rock acts like Pearl Jam and Red Hot Chili Peppers. But that was as far as our interactions went—me watching her through a TV screen while she was being a rockstar and I was burning my acne-ridden face on Hot Pockets. Then eight months ago, that changed.
Through the magical and often confounding medium of Twitter, Shirley tweeted the following at me from the band's account, unprompted: "I'd like to meet you. You remind me of someone I used to know." This was odd, I thought, but weirder things happen on Twitter. Sometimes people search for Ozzy Osbourne and mistakenly find me, and then scold me for leaving Sharon, for example. So I let it go, assuming she meant to direct it toward someone else.
But then two months later, another message arrived from her, this one even more cryptic: "I was serious."
"About what?" I replied, with a lump in my thro@t.
Well that's weird and also sort of terrifying, I thought. Who did I remind Shirley Manson of? And why did she "used to" know them? What happened to this person? Did she kill them? Was she planning on killing me next? I had so many questions. Fortunately, my colleague Kim helped me answer them.
Kim flew to LA recently, where Shirley lives, to film an interview about Strange Little Birds, Garbage's first album in four years, and sure enough, Shirley inquired about me. "Do you work with Dan Ozzi?" she asked. "I'm such a fan of his. I love his writing and I think he's so smart and funny and also handsome, not in a traditional way, but he has unique facial features that give him a distinct, unconventionally attractive quality that more women should appreciate." (I got all of this conversation secondhand, so I'm taking a few small liberties with the specifics of what was said. But the main takeaway was: She likes my writing.)
Shirley told Kim that she wanted to meet me, and Kim suggested she go on a First Date interview with me, a series wherein the writer and the artist pair up for a cutesy mock-date. Shirley was totally game, Kim told me. I was less keen, though, since the last First Date I went on—with my longtime crush and possible soulmate Natalie Imbruglia—landed me on Jezebel, which scolded "a writer" (assuming they meant me) for framing the interview with her as a date. But when Shirley fucking Manson asks you out for a night on the town, you'd best oblige her, right?
When her publicist reached out to me to set it up, I offered to do my gentlemanly duties and make a reservation at an upscale dining establishment. My first choice was the Rainforest Cafe, not only because its thematic similarities to her aforementioned hit single would provide me with a hilarious ice-breaker, but because their Jungle Safari Soup™ is simply to die for. But no, he told me, they had already confirmed a time at a sushi restaurant in lower Manhattan. All I had to do was show up. So I did, a few minutes early, which brings me here.
As I sit at the counter waiting for her, downing refills of water and skimming a menu full of items that in no way can I afford, I consider how surreal it is that Shirley Manson, who is scheduled to make a national television appearance on Jimmy Kimmel later this evening, would take the time to voluntarily meet with some dumb writer. Music journalism is not a particularly glamorous field. In fact, for the last several years, I've had my parents under the impression that their only son is a middle manager at RadioShack. Not that that's any better or worse of a career choice, but at least they understand what the gig entails. So for the life of me I couldn't understand why she would want to waste a perfectly good evening hanging out with some word jockey.
Shirley walks in and is small, but unmissable. Her bright pink hair makes her instantly spottable from across the room. I extend out my hand for the handshake but she walks right through it and wraps her arms around my neck. "Oh come here," she says, pulling me in tight. "I feel like we already know each other!"
We sit down next to each other and I cut right to the chase with the obvious question: WTF?
"I can't explain it," she offers. "I don't know how I found you. I just read an article you'd written and I thought you were a great writer and your style reminded me of all the journalists like Steven Wells from NME and the music journalists I grew up with. You wrote seriously with good humor at a time when no one's really writing like that."
I don't say anything. I just stare blankly at her for a solid minute, occasionally breaking to survey the corners of the room for hidden cameras filming some sort of prank show. Then back at her.
"...You think I'm stalking you," she says. "I'm serious! You made me laugh out loud."
The waitress breaks up my confusion to ask what we'll have and we both order the sashimi special and Shirley gets a beer.
"You know," I tell Shirley, "I find it funny that you wanted to do this date, since you are a feminist icon, and the last one of these that I did got me hanged on Jezebel."
Shirley doesn't read Jezebel, she tells me. "I don't really subscribe to any female-orientated media anymore," she says. "I don't want to be in the ghetto. I want to be playing in the big pool. I feel that more and more, women are getting pushed out into the margins. Even at Glastonbury, they said they were gonna do an all-female stage… fucking pissed me off. Just invite female artists to play on stage with the big boys. Otherwise, I think it's really destructive. So I don't really buy female magazines. I know that sounds really pompous, but I feel worried about how we're educating young women and that bothers me. I think it works in the system's favor to have women divided from men."
Then she takes a swig of her beer, flashes me a wonderfully devilish look, and says, "But anyway, you can tell Jezebel to suck it because I asked you out on this date and not the other way around."
Most of the musicians I interview are more guarded than this. They have to be. Anything they say is liable to be quoted out of context, wind up on lazy shame-porn blogs, and earn the ire of an overly sensitive internet mob. So hearing a celebrity, let alone a female one, be this deliberately outspoken is so refreshingly rare. I ask how she was able to get so far in her career without pandering or mincing her words.
"I just came at a time where, in a blip in culture in the history of music, alternative voices became the flavor of the day, and it was very brief," she explains. "And we managed to sneak in and enjoy that glorious moment where anyone with an opinion was given space, and pop artists, for the time being, were relegated to the background. Just got lucky. I doubt it'll ever repeat itself."
What sparked your interest in feminism in the first place?
"When I grew up, my dad was the earner, but my mom was the real alpha in the family. She had to ask my dad for my housekeeping money. And I remember as a young child that it really fucking bothered me, that my mom, who was a queen, had to go groveling to my dad. I think it started there. I also always had positive male role models. I love men. I don't want to spend my whole time surrounded by women. And I don't believe our culture should be a matriarchal one, either. I'd like a nice balance, thank you very much."
Since the Edinburgh-bred singer is coming off her first stretch of tour dates in a while, her voice is still a bit raw, and she keeps cracking herself up into coughing fits. She is 49, but "could give a flying fuck" about age and appearances, and tends to go for men who value intelligence over beauty. "But it's easy for me to say that," she notes. "I wasn't born with a typical cliche of a female body—didn't have the big tits, didn't have the huge arse, wasn't curvy. So I've never really relied on my body." She shrugs and flicks a piece of salmon into her mouth with her chopsticks. "Who cares?"
Just about the only thing I know about being a good date is that you should keep the questions about your companion coming, and put on a very concerned face to demonstrate that you are good as hell at listening. But Shirley makes it impossible. She has come prepared with a long list of questions about me that she wants answered. She asks about what school I went to, what I studied, where I grew up. I field her queries, and then, like a good date, quickly try to turn things around. "How about you?" I ask.
"Eh, I flunked out of school," she says, waving her hand dismissively. Then, in the same breath, she spins the conversation right back to me: "So how did you end up becoming a professional journalist?"
"I don't know. I'll let you know when I do," I say jokingly, but also entirely seriously. "Does that answer all of your Dan Ozzi-related questions?"
"No," she says and smirks. "Some of them, though."
"So how am I doing so far on this date?" I ask.
"Really good," she says, with seemingly no traces of sarcasm.
I ask her how this compares to other dates she's been on, and she swears that she's never been on a date, ever. She's always just met men through circumstance—at parties or clubs or working with them—but she's never been out on a proper date, which puts so much pressure on me that had I known this yesterday, I probably wouldn't have slept last night.
Looking over the dessert menu, we realize we both have a fondness for mochi ice cream and decide to be adorable and split some. "One order, two spoons," she tells our waitress.
Picking at our green tea ice cream, the vibe turns unexpectedly deep very quickly. We talk about love and death. She tells me that her greatest fear in life is seeing her friends die before her and I tell her that's mine as well (even though my actual greatest fear is the Chupacabra). She instantly feels like someone I've known for years and accomplishes the impossible in getting me to drop my Ironic Guy facade for long enough to have a meaningful conversation. We crack into the subject of past relationships and dish about exes. I confess my "feelings" to her about breakups I've been through and she tells me I'm afraid of setting myself up to get hurt, which I realize is fully accurate. Suddenly I find myself telling her things that I've never admitted to anyone before, or maybe even admitted to myself. It was like she had been playing her own game of 21 Questions about me this whole time and had deduced enough information to solve the puzzle. I feel myself looking into unexplored corners of my dumb heart. Shirley Manson wields that power—to make a person to feel so comfortable, yet so vulnerable. If she likes them, that is.
Just as I feel safe enough with her to either openly weep or volunteer all of my credit card numbers, she smacks her palm down on the counter in victory. "I knew you were a sensitive boy!" she exclaims. "I fucking knew it."
This snaps me back to reality and I look at my watch to find that over two hours have passed. The sun has set and all of the restaurant patrons who were around us when we arrived are long gone. We decide to split, but first, Shirley hands me her phone and tells me to put my email address in it.
She and I exchange messages over the next few days. She recommends some books I'd like, which I immediately go out and purchase, and we make plans to meet up when I'm next in LA. She ends the last response with something that seems like a compliment, but I now know her well enough to understand that it's a brag, albeit a questionable one. "I have really good taste in men."
Dan Ozzi is on Twitter - @danozzi