Gothic Text files It's a Stage : Why death rock won't die

It's a Stage

Why death rock won't die

By David Turin

January 14-January 20, 1994 LA Weekly pps. 35-36

The cool thing about Anne Rice's Vampires is that they are all scot-free of consequence. They can fiddle around with the baubles of human existence without moral repercussion. Love, death, sex-they can go to excess. Karma has evaporated, the soul is a myth, God is out of the picture. Even if they are pathetically attatched to human experience by rote, by memory, by the percussion of living hearts and the charm of meaningless rituals, at least they are attatched to it by fancy and not by need. Such enviable detatchment. Death with style.

Of course, as it plays out in the Rice books, that kind of immortality shouldn't be wished on a worst enemy: it's endless, vacant, frustratingly unconsummated. But to have it for a short time would be okay. If you could try it on for, say, three years, between the ages of 15 and 18 maybe, just when things were getting rough. Now that would be cool. You'd be undead conveniently, just long enough to escape teen crisis. You'd live through crucial years in high-drama focus, playing suicide and hate, acting love, feigning conviction and knowing that all this was just dress rehearsal. When you decided to come off it, you'd be returned, the same old Billy/Suzy, as good as the day you took your own life and became a death rocker.

About 10 years ago, in the beginning of the '80's, groups of teenagers began to dream themselves to death. They listened to lugubrious bands like Bauhaus, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and the Sisters of Mercy. They were obsessed with morbid things. The style was drearily romantic-white pancake makeup, black lipstick, corsets, Victorian clothing, fishnets, guys in wedding dresses, girls in frocks. Gloom and doom, as they used to call it, and as they still do. By all vital statistics, death rock should be dead. It should have gone the way of trend. But it didn't.

On the dance floor at Helter Skelter (Fridays at the Probe in Hollywood), the Goth kids move like jittery corpses, lifting their arms slowly, with the jaded naivete of the dead reawakened to a hostile world. They do the classic Gothic "penny drop"- falling almost to the floor, scooping with their hands. They waltz like ghosts in an old hotel. If the DJ plays anything too strange or too new or not dramatic enough, the Goth kids leave the dance floor. They curl off in clutches to dark corners and smoke cigarettes with the dim light spilling through the amber of the false-ID beer, looking very caberet-naively, charmingly gender-bent.

Goth as a movement dates to London circa 1982 where a club called the Batcave attracted a crowd that had sensibilities more morbid, more on the beauty side of decay, than punk could sustain. The Batcave showed horror films and played glam rock -Gary Glitter, the Sweet-, as well as newer bands like Southern Death Cult (later the Cult). The decor was House of Usher. Robert Smith and Siouxie Sioux were regulars. Gore-obsessed performers like Gado the Barbarian introduced the crowd to body mutilation. Like a Disney pirate ship with dancing skeletons, it was delightfully ghastly.

One Batcaver was Susan Arkun, who still affiliates herself with the Goth aesthetic although not with the club scene. "The Batcave was so good because it contained a feeling that has nothing to do with time or space," she says. "Goth became associated with that time period, bit it was never, in a sense, a trend, because it was a concept." For Arkun, the significance of Goth lies in a history that extends from Mary Shelly and Edgar Allan Poe through Tim Burton. The timelessness of the idea seems to tantalize the modern-day progeny of the Batcave, who try to maintain Goth's purity by freezing its advance.

Very little has changed on the death-rock scent over the past 10 years. The number of acolytes swelled in the mid-'80's, then declined. Once faithful death-rock bands like the Cure and Ministry joined the mainstream. The media lost interest. Of the once myriad Goth zines, only a few are still around. But Goth remains today what it was created to be a decade ago-the private sanctuary of a few tortured souls.

Change is grouchy in the scene. Novelty is unacceptable. Fashion is turgid. Memory is collective. The Goth kids want the classics, the ones they don't remember. They want "Bela Lugosi's Dead" by Bauhaus, "Temple of Love" by the Sisters of Mercy, "Stigmata" by Ministry. They want This Mortal Coil and the Cocteau Twins. They want their bands pinned up on the wall in calendars called "Funeral." They want Death in June or the Virgin Prunes-newer bands, but somehow they've passed the secret test. Shown their death certificates maybe. Other bands- Attrition, Nosferatu, This Ascension-haven't made it, despite their hip names. It's a very stuffy scene.

You can try really hard, wear the right things, say the right things, believe the right things, and still not make it in. Seriousness doesn't guarantee acceptance. Like Sean Brennan of the band London After Midnight. He's got it down. He's tall and gaunt. He looks like he just got off the HMS Bounty. He calls himself "Lord Brennan" and discloses to those in the dark corners of the clubs that he is, in fact, a vampire. No one really pays attention. Meanwhile, bands on the ramparts of the scene-Alien Sex Fiend and the Legendary Pink Dots-get picked up by the Goth Kids despite their departures from the code, a code that is still pure. Type readnews@.gothic on the Internet, and you'll get page after page of fired-up, globe crossing correspondance about what's in and what's out in Goth. Lunch pails for example-another perenial goth trend; God knows where it came from.

According to Nancy, an ex-death rocker who wants to be anonymous here even though she's out of teh scene, there two big cliques: the serious and the not-so-serious. The serious kids are the ones who drink blood (or at least it looks like blood). They indulge in morbidity and get fascist about the look. At the clubs, they cling to the walls and scoff at the not-so-serious kids. The not-so-serious don the attire at night, just to go to clubs and dance. Nancy describes herself as somewhere between the wall and the dance floor. She got into the scene her freshman year of high school, "for shock value." Nobody accepted her when she dressed trendy anyway. So she put on the black lipstick and black clothes and started getting picked on in high school. It was better than being ignored. "I was so attracted to really skinny, really tall, really effeminate looking guys. It's accepted for guys to be effeminate in the scene. There's nothing threatening about it. Fights don't break out." Slowly, more subtle reasons for joining the scene began to surface. The Goth clubs were little laboratories, places for making transitions. A few years later, almost all her Goth friends-male and female-came out of the closet. Of course by then, the scene had lost its luster. For one thing, she and her friends noticed that the DJ's kept playing the same songs. Over and over.

According to Sean Schur, one of L.A.'s original Goth DJ's (he now spins at Kontrol Faktory), the scene rotates quickly, kids spilling in and out. The new kids guard the old traditions, vehemently, like watchdogs. For a short time that they are part of it, they take the rites very seriously. Not that the scene doesn't mutate. Slowly, cautiously, it does. At its inception in the early '80s, it was in to be straight, in to button up to the hilt in layers of clothing, no matter what the temperature. Then, a few years later, it became cool to be bisexual and wear almost no clothing, to wear corsets. Pretty anorexic girls with dyed hair were the norm. For a while, crystal meth was in. That faded. One guy started wearing fishnets and garter belts and heels. All the girls liked him. His gig caught on. Influential DJs started playing a bit of industrial. Industrial became okay. But beyond a few shifts here and there over the years, the scene has a very low center of gravity. Nobody really wants it to expand. At least not drastically, not beyond the perimeters of the security blanket.

In its attentiveness to uniform, Goth is Hasidic or Third Reich-ish, and while that can lead to the upsets and heartbreaks of cliquishness, it's also part of the scene's seduction. There's a position for you in its ranks, the requirements neatly and absolutely laid out, no questions asked, no thought required. Just sign here and collect your uniform.

Of course, the same could be said of the punk or grunge or Deadhead scenes. The allure in these is also in the uniform, the security of affiliation. But unlike Goth, these scenes don't give you the chance to be a martyr for your image. With flannel or print dresses or Mohawks, you're not really risking ostracism. In fact, you're kind of respected as a punk or a Deadhead or a grunge-sort, because nowadays, everybody is a little bit of all of these. But trying being a guy and wearing a dress and white pancake makeup and a corset and black lipstick to school. Try carrying a lunch pail. Then you get teased and beat up. Then you really are an outcast. Your alienation is wonderfully confirmed. That group bond is fortified. The entire outside world, life itself, is a common enemy. Somewhere in the collective mind of the Goth kids is the belief that death is depth. Morbidness and intelligence go hand in hand. Personal attrition-that's the spirit. Tragic, poetic things are cool. Play dead and the serious world seems less serious. At least its rapid encroachment doesn't seem so threatening. You're removed.

About a year ago, Bruce Purdue, who had run the startingly popular L.A. club Scream, and Michael Steward, owner of the Goth- heavy record story Vinyl Fetish, tried to open a New York version of Helter Skelter. After all, in Los Angeles, the Goth kids abounded, spilling over from their club into not-so-Goth-y clubs like Stigmata (also run by Purdue and Steward) and the industrial Kontrol Faktory. In fact, the Goth kids were so loyal, it was sort of a pain in the ass. Stewart and Purdue wanted to do a non-Goth club and wherever they went the Goth kids followed. Once you're chosen, that's it. At least, that's it in Los Angeles; the New York club failed. No one went. That tripped Steward and Purdue out. What seemed to be s sturdy scene was perhaps only here.

Over coffee, Schur tells me that some Goth kids come from wealthy families. Goth isn't a necessity, it's a privilege. When you get involved, you get heavily involved. You get a false ID and sneak out and go to clubs and buy frilly clothes and meet everybody in the cozy, gloomy little circuit. Then, three years later, you get heavily bored and drop out. Schur did that. Not that he didn't keep some of the stuff. He still wears a skirt. Because he is self-assured, because he has a good career in computer graphics, because he works as a video director with successful bands like Skinny Puppu, because he has moved on, the Goth trappings look goon on him. It seems being undead for a little while was worthwhile.

I ask Schur what it was like being part of the Goth scene. He can't really remember, he says. Later I ask a few other people. They too can't remember. At a club, I ask a few Goth Kids why they do it; they're too cool to really answer. Perhaps the question is inappropriate. Perhaps it's like calling someone out of a performance, like asking them to remember who they were when they were, quite deliberately, in character. To be not yourself for a little while. To be not alive for just a bit. To treat the world as a stage.