She was tall, blond, and, like almost everyone there that night, dressed in jet black. What she shouted at — to be heard over the music — hurt, but only for a second, like a pinch.
I was vulnerable because I was not dressed in black. I didn't know what to wear to a Peter Murphy concert, so I dressed like I normally do, in blue corduroys, a tan suede coat, and brown shoes. Just a guy, though a little self-conscious that night. This was Peter Murphy after all, the former front man of the genre-bending band Bauhaus, the group that in the early '80s almost single-handedly inspired the subculture we call goth, for lack of a better name. (Bauhaus's most memorable song is the eight-minute anthem "Bela Lugosi's Dead.") Murphy was performing at 4th & B on November 28. It was one stop on his oddly named "Just for Love" tour. People don't associate goth with love, or not just with love anyway.
Murphy opened the concert with a screening of his short film The Grid. He's credited as the "artiste" and his former girlfriend, Joanna Woodward, as the "director." The film premiered on Bauhaus's 1980 UK tour, and Murphy fans had been clamoring for screenings for years. He has described The Grid as "a curious piece of memorabilia," a "handmade thing, made in the spirit of that whole period, where almost everyone was making art, some piece of creativity with no money, no technology."
Indeed, The Grid is peculiar. It's stark, skittish, and a little scary. It opens in an industrial landscape with Murphy, a skinny, puckish figure, crawling among rows of cement columns, or unmarked cenotaphs like that eerie block on the cover of the Who's Who's Next. The music starts and Murphy mimes paranoia and angst while he navigates the architecture of a bleak new world; thus inventing (or reviving, some would say) the temperamental goth.
But the new Peter Murphy took the stage to the polite hoots and hollers of a courteous crowd. He wore only a little black — a velvet vest over a white shirt with French cuffs: He looked elegant: He was a gentleman.
"With you I'm in no danger," he murmured in one song.
He sang of "indigo eyes" and "red angel wings." He envisioned-a-peaceful, kind world. He was sentimental, serious, and moral. Murphy's British gallantries and colorful lyrics and the crowd's pious ovations were not what I had expected. Perhaps goth is dead, I thought. Maybe it was merely a brief fashion 20 years ago that came and went like the portentous black bird in The Grid. Or perhaps goth is not what most people believe it to be. Maybe the media's depiction of this group is even more erroneous than its portraits of other eccentrics, like punks or hippies.
I was pondering this and jotting down notes in a small pad when the woman in black jolted me from my reverie.
"What are you doing?" she yelled.
"I'm interested in people who wear black clothes," I responded.
She considered this for a moment. "You know," she said, "it's people like you who have to find a symbol in everything that piss me off. Not everything has a meaning."
Well, black clothes have many. But maybe what she meant was that the implications of black clothes are so numerous and disparate that studying them and those who wear them for the reflection of a single leitmotif is an absurd enterprise. Fashion — what was until the '50s largely a game of subtle gestures — has been overwhelmed by irony and we can no longer learn much from what people wear. Who trusts a white wedding dress anymore? Carhartt, the line of rugged work clothes and what the author Alison Lurie might categorize as a "colloquial fashion," is now, worn by privileged young people and testifies — sometimes honestly, sometimes not — to their solidarity and sympathy with the working class.
Please, I'm no prude anti-ironist. I prefer the playful over the literal, whether in one's sense of humor or dress. It's worth pointing out, however, that the dictum "clothes make the man" no longer means very much. This is especially so of black clothes, which though plain have wide-ranging utilitarian and ceremonial uses. Black garments mean serious business:we find them on ecclesiastical professionals, corporate executives, law officers, and the bereaved. But sartorial understatement has always been an effective gambit of exaggerated self-expression, and so black clothes have been used to declare a variety of attitudes — such as cool unflappability and in-your-face aggression. Without going into all the social, political, and religious connotations of the color black, let's just say that black clothes have come to stand for almost every human emotion and posture. The black-clad man or woman is the preacher and the outlaw. He or she is the defender of justice, the classy aristocrat, the inspirational artiste; he or she is a friend, a vampire, a high school assassin, an erotic vixen. Black is as common behind the pulpit as it is on the concert stage. Johnny Cash, the devout highwayman, is the Man in Black. Lou Reed, the skeptical urbanite, is the man in black. You want psychological contradiction, look at Bob Dylan. He wears black, sometimes.
Black absorbs everything.
Anne Hollander, who writes about costume as well as anyone, has remarked on the paradoxical signals broadcast by black clothes. In her 1978 book Seeing Through Clothes, she wrote, "The diabolic character of black male evening clothes retained it flavor well into the twentieth century.... It is the proper dress of the magician, of Dracula — even in the morning. In the first half of twentieth century it was the popularly conceived costume of sexual villainy, as the daytime version (black frock coat and striped pants) was the popularly conceived costume of financial and political villainy.
In a 1996 review of of John Harvey's book Men in Black, Hollander remarked that black clothes worn as the Puritans wore them denounced and atoned for the modern world's vast accumulations of power, domain, and wealth. But at the same time, they were worn for authority; they vested the wearer with power and virtue. Hollander writes, "Male authority — collective and individual, spiritual and worldly — male cruelty and malice, male hypocrisy and depravity, as well as willing male surrender to impersonal duty; male self-discipline and self-loathing, self-effacement and self-importance; male chill and male zeal; male learning scrupulous intellect, male good judgment and moral excellence, male physical beauty, strict commercial probity, and vast emotional depth have all seemed appropriately manifest in male black clothing, right along with common courtesy toward death, real grief, and total despair."
When women have worn black, she writes, "the have often been laying claim to the larger dignity, graver sorrow, more legitimate power, stronger personal impact, more honorable humility, and more effective wickedness of men."
We should reflect on these contradiction when we think about what it means to be a goth, or as some call it — without any racist connotations — "a darkie." The history of goth culture is by no means unambiguous. The word "goth" as we use it now gained currency in the '80s. Many music fans and critics trace the movement's origins back to the Batcave, the London club where the decor was reminiscent of '60s horror flicks. But underground, post-punk bands like Bauhaus, the Damned, Joy Division, and Siouxsie and the Banshees had incorporated this aesthetic before the Batcave was recognized as the center of the movement. Broadly speaking, the lyrics of these bands expressed themes of death, destruction, and darkness, as well as the romantic themes of love and loss. But the music was forward-looking: it continues to draw from what music critic Joshua Gunn calls a "limited model repertoire. It emphasizes minor chords; sparse, minimalist rhythms; and slower tempos."
A distinct fashion sprang from this music. Goth fans and artists are drawn to the look — the pale faces; the corsets, ruffled shirts, and mourning jewelry — of the Victorian era, when sex and death danced a more synergetic dance than they do today. One irony of Victorian bereavement was that black clothes worn by widows announced to the public both loss and arousal. "A widow," Lurie writes in The Language of Clothes, especially a young one, was assumed to be in a state of heightened emotionality that made it easier for her to be taken advantage of. Her supposed willingness to be consoled — to become a Merry Widow — was the subject of many low jokes."
So it's fair to say that the goth aesthetic and credo were present in Western culture long before the '80s. Many of the local' goths whom I met late last year are self-described aesthetes and are engaged, on an amateur level at the very least, with literary and art history. Today's goths, of course, are not ancestors of the goths — the Christian, Germanic tribes who attacked the Roman Empire beginning in the Third Century — but their roots go deeper than one might suspect. In fact, goths often cite their interest in history in order to distinguish themselves from their brethren, fetishists (let's say sexual experimenters) and industrialists (the so-called rivetheads who listen to a music that is harder and, well, more industrial than their own).
Stephany Hurtt, 21, is the movie reviewer for the Velvet Rag, a new, locally run website devoted to the San Diego goth scene. "Goths," she told me in December, "are into romantic ideas, like Victorianism. The industrialist/rivethead are into the new music, and the fetishists are more into cutting-edge fashion. It's just that we are stuck into the same scene."
Kym Kostos, editor-in-chief of the Velvet Rag, said "Goths are unique individuals who think for themselves and don't follow the 'norm' of what society believes that everyone should. We're writers, musicians, doctors, lawyers, teachers, scientists."
Kostos, 30, added, "I have a close and dear friend of mine who totally decks out in goth garb. If you ever met him, you would think he was the freakiest goth you had ever met. But you know what? He's a neurologist. Yes, a brain surgeon. He works at Harvard doing research. But people wouldn't bother to look deeper than that. It's sad, but it' s reality.
Another local goth, 38-year-old Mike Jurke, received a Ph.D. in physical anthropology from the University of Zurich six years ago. Jurke agrees that a regard for history sets goths apart. "I have to say that I believe the goth scene is on average more educated than most other scenes, largely due to the influx of college students who are somehow attracted to this dark mix of subculture and entertainment," he told me in December. "I welcome the dialectic discussion of the past in this circle as it promotes a broader view of reality and is certainly conducive to an openness for things out of the norm. To understand ourselves, the other, the world how it is, we have to explore many different realities."
Victorianism is not the only historical moment that informs the scene. The ambitious historian may trace the genesis of the goth subculture back to the 17th Century when the English playwrights John Ford and Robert Burton popularized the notion of melancholy —m the condition of having too much black bile, which caused a disease characterized by sullen behavior and a propensity to anger and violent outbursts; The Grid, for instance, picks up on the historical aspects of blackness, both sartorial and psychological. In it Murphy plays a kind of Hamlet, whom we might call the first fully developed goth. To mourn for his father, Hamlet wears what he calls the "customary suits of solemn black." At one point, his mother asks him to remove his "inky cloak. " Hamlet is melancholic, nocturnal, and, according to his father's murderer anyway; suffers from "unmanly grief." He contemplates skulls, not to mention suicide. Hamlet, the literary critic Harold Bloom has written, is "a nihilist," "spookily posthumous," and "splenetic." He "transcends maleness" and seeks a "wild freedom." His consciousness "is wider and more agile than divinity has manifested, as yet."
Prince Hamlet, Bloom concludes, "is the intellectual's intellectual: the nobility, and the disaster; of Western consciousness .... It cannot be overstated that Hamlet has no creed, whether social or religious .... What Hamlet does have is an enormous sense of his own burgeoning inner self, which he suspects may be an abyss."
During a conversation at an IHOP in El Cajon, Carnell brings up Hamlet. Carnell is the moniker of the 40-year-old co-publisher of Carpe Noctem; a locally published magazine of national repute that serves as a venue for goth writing, art, and interviews. Talking about the history of goth, he says, "If you look back at Joyce, Dickinson — and Hamlet. Yes, he was totally the first goth! Walking around in black clothes, talking to skulls, talking about should I kill myself, People get melancholy, People ask, 'Who are we? What are we?' "
In The Grid, Murphy scrambles around, exploring Hamlet's psyche. Murphy wears black and broods like any good superstitious skeptic. The film's set, too, is ambiguous: it's at once ruined and avant-garde. These effects summon goth's most salient quality, which is that as a culture with its own fashion, music, and rhetoric, it displays equal affection for the past and the future.
One can argue that goth is a fundamental, albeit latent, aspect of American identity. During an election season one hears a great deal about the Founding Fathers and the ideals of the Constitution. Political rhetoric can to be empty because all it's supposed to do is remind us of our national myths. We're taught in school, for instance, that America was founded on republican virtues and the positivism of the Enlightenment. Thomas Jefferson and George Washington combined the classical ideals of democracy and the rights of man with the new, pragmatic sciences. They spoke of inevitability, the order of things, and natural law.
"The order of nature," Jefferson said, is "that individual happiness shall be inseparable from the vice of virtue." This myth was embodied in classical architecture, as that of our Capitol and the bust portraits of our presidents and generals.
But from the beginning, many writers and artists were more interested in the darker American mythology— that which told of the suffering in the early colonies; the fire-and-ice sermons of the Puritan preachers; the hysteria and murder surrounding the 1692 Salem witch trials; and the haunted, corrupting New England woods. Nathaniel Hawthorne, for one, was more attracted to the necromantic than the classicizing strains of American thought. In The Scarlet Letter, and in stories like "Young Goodman Brown," he plumbed American fears and neuroses, describing "the mystery of the primeval forest" as "black and dense" and a "moral wilderness." Edgar Allan Poe ("Once upon a midnight dreary") lived a life as horrifying and tragic as some of the ones he described in his tales, and his spirit coursed through H.P. Lovecraft's "cosmic horror" and lives on today in science and vampire fiction.
Though the goth mentality is shunned and insulted by many, it can be called neither new nor foreign. Bloom says that Hamlet embodies all that is human. If we believe that, then goth isn't, as the mainstream media would have it, just a small, devious part of mankind. It's an implicit part of our cultural heritage that some choose to make explicit. Goth is more than a fad; it's a long, elemental drama like rap, for instance. Both can give rise to temporary fashions (boy bands for rap, Marilyn Manson for goth), but both are paradigms that will outlive whatever spins off from them.
San Diego is home to a goth subculture. Some might think that goth is a counterculture, but it's not. New reports and editorials labeled the Columbine killers, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, "Goths" and described them as outsiders who acted tragically on a grudge against normal people. For instance, in the months following the shooting, which took place April 20, 1999, the Union-Tribune bandied about the word "goth" sometimes in incomprehensible passages. Just two days after the shooting, the U-T said that Klebold and Harris "both favored the all-black attire known as part of 'Goth,' the fashion of the mock-Gothic musical subculture known for a fascination with death." On May 11, 1999, the paper tried to describe how the shootings were affecting the country's youth: "The strongest reaction has come from self-labeled geeks, Goths and assorted outsiders — kids who identity with the killers' image as oddballs who were shunned and perhaps bullied." Thousands of similar descriptions in the media stereotyped a diverse group of people of all ages and promoted a public image of goths as underground agitators with a deadly plan.
The sudden rise and notorious image of Marilyn Manson is partly to blame for the misunderstanding. Klebold and Harris both listened to Manson; a musician who plays with some of the trappings of goth. He is ghoulish, androgynous, and angst-ridden. The New Yorker said recently that Manson "channeled the Marquis de Sade by way of Alice Cooper," which suggests that he is in fact what most local goths told me he is — a poseur.
The Velvet Rag's Heather Henderson, 20, who also goes by Miss Perkigoth, is passionate on this subject. "Marilyn Manson," she told me during a Velvet Rag staff meeting in December, "is shock rock. He's not goth. Nobody likes an idiot."
For many goths, Manson represents the consumption of their subculture by the mainstream. He's doing to goth what some say Green Day did to punk, dumbing it down and making it more palatable for the public, especially suburban youth. Stephany Hurtt told me in an e-mail, "Capitalists have realized that teenagers buy stuff, and now they are targeting alternative youths. I think this is the main cause for goths becoming mainstream."
Mike Jurke worries that goth is being overwhelmed by the commercial success of techno music. "I perceive goth wave and romance as being a bit under pressure from the industrial scene," he told me. "They-mix together quite well, but I see and hear more and more industrial/techno. My friends in Switzerland tell me that the goth scene there is almost entirely industrial and techno now. I hear a lot of German bands here in the States — people dance to their songs without understanding the lyrics. I miss the good old romantic times with the Cure, Sisters of Mercy, Virgin Prunes, Cranes, Switchblade Symphony. Maybe these times will come back again?"
Carnell says that the spirit of goth is being diluted to make it safe. "The same thing happened with the Universal Monster," he says, speaking about the Universal Studio monsters — Frankenstein; the Mummy, Wolfman, and many others. They started out very scary and then they got farmed out to be with Abbott and Costello [in the 1948 film Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein]. Why? Because you slay the monster."
Well, clearly Marilyn Manson and the Columbine murders offer no clues as to the true nature of the goth mentality.Goths may inhabit a different social orbit than you or I, but they don't stand together in opposition to anything. The goth agenda, and I suspect we shouldn't even call it that, is decidedly apolitical. There may be strains of anarchy and nihilism in goth culture, but most goths agree that such attitudes are rare and certainly don't amount to a social program.
In comparison to, let's say, Deadheads — another group that came together around a musical innovation and then grew into something larger — goths are benign. Of course, there never was anything threatening about Deadheads, but they were, and still are; bound by a desire to impact their world, whether through radical or just plain liberal politics. Many activists attended Grateful Dead concerts to set up booths where they could distribute literature on causes ranging from human rights to organic fanning. Though in the '80s and '90s, the Dead became increasingly mainstreamed and popular among young people of all political stripes, for a brief time typical Deadhead accoutrements, such as tie-dyes, sandals, and bandannas, really did stand for shared philosophies that transcended a passion for a certain kind of music.
Above all else, and in place of any kind of political advocacy, goths treasure their privacy and their friendships. I asked Jurke how goths he knew reconciled their staunch secretiveness with their fondness for spectacle. He responded in an e-mail, "Because they can. Because they are actually shy and only feel comfortable as exhibitionists in a group setting of their peers. Because (in "the punk tradition from which this scene derived) they say 'Fuck you!' to the world around them and don't want the world to see their innermost secrets. Because they are mellow, private, maybe lonely people and just give in to the peer pressure to exhibit themselves in order to be part of the group. Because their lover is in the scene and they just go along with him/her but are actually very private people. Your pick."
He added, "Engaging in political discussions would defeat the purpose of having fun and forgetting the misery of everyday life, wouldn't it?... For sure, the goth scene doesn't have a common 'agenda.' I find there people with ideas rooted in anarchistic or socialistic to conservative and capitalistic views — the whole spectrum .... The only protest I see is rather individualized and expresses itself via tattoos, piercings, and fashion statements. It looks to me more like a (temporary?) basing for 'stranded souls' who are fed up with their daily lives and want to find like-minded people in order to exchange experiences and ideas, find new inspiration and have fun. I also suspect that many goths are just 'weekend goths' (because it's chic?) and lead a rather 'plain' life during the week."
On this score, Carnell told me, "Is goth working against anything? Is it adversarial? I don't know. I suppose for some it's a thumb of the nose, for some it's 'This is who I am.' Some are PTA members, some still take care of their grandmothers.
"Remember," he said, "you're speaking about a group of young people who have been in essence disenfranchised. A lot of the young people are like, 'What difference does it make?' The powers that be are the same people who are saying to them, 'Wipe that shit off your face.' So, they're going to respond by saying, 'If [politics] is part of your world, I don't want it.'"
So if all people who call themselves goths share any one thing — and Carnell and Jurke imply that they may not — it would be what Kym Kostos calls a "state of mind." I pressed her on this, and she replied, "Well, that's exactly what it is. I really wish that I could give you and everyone else the answer that you're looking for. But, there isn't just one. Goth is the music, the people, the drama (good or bad), the style, the free-thinking mind Goth is whatever you want — it to be. People take it to the extremes with their hair and make-up, but it doesn't necessarily mean that because one person is wearing pale face, black eye-liner, has dyed their hair black, and is donning black attire that that person is more goth than the person wearing it T-shirt and shorts; You don't have to be decked out in goth garb to be considered a 'real goth.' I'm goth 24 hours a day."
Determining the features and nuances of this state of mind is, as my muse at the Peter Murphy concert implied, a Sisyphean task. For example, the FAQ document at the goth usenet newsgroup alt.gothic. cybergoth indicates just how broad the subject can be. "Topics that relate to general cybergoth culturel/lifestyle would make up the main bulk of discussion," the newsgroup's monitor writes, "but others that would be considered 'on-topic' would be rave/dance, '80s, industrial, electronic, gothic, futurist, cyberpunk, cypherpunk, manga/anime/comics, japan/j-pop, technology, robotics, AI, computer programming cryptography and such general entertainment as video-gaming, television, music and movies .... I imagine it would be hard to find things that would be so obviously off-topic."
This much I can tell you, despite common perceptions regarding the scene, the goth mentality isn't defined by common views regarding fashion, music, sex, religion, or politics. It's about the intersection of opposing philosophies and being content to let the oppositions rest.
There are several outlets and places of congregation for San Diego goths. There are clubs, websites, bookstores, and Carpe Noctem. Kostos, who has lived in San Diego all her life, told me a little about the history of the scene here. "In high school," she said, "I used to listen to heavy metal. There were these kids who were punks. I liked to hang out with them, and what drew me to them the most was their independence. When I turned 18, my best friend Brian and I trekked down to the old SOMA that was located in downtown. It was the only goth club around at the time that I know about. Several years later, SubNation arose, and then we had a choice where to go."
Demian Dorrance runs SubNation, which is now a record label. Dorrance wouldn't talk with me about the goth scene in San Diego, but in 1995 he posted a history of Sub Nation at his website (www.subnation.com). "In a nutshell," he wrote, "SubNation started out as slang for a bunch of darkie people we all knew knew ... then it became a club ... then it became several clubs...then there were a couple of local bands ... then it became a record label ... then it became an Internet site."
"For the first several years that I lived in San Diego," Dorrance wrote, "I had mixed feelings about the nightclubs that existed. I was pleased that many people ran alternative and/or underground music nights, but I was also heartbroken that there were no clubs anywhere that played the dark music dearest to my heart. I avidly collected Gothic and Industrial music, but I was aware of no institution that supported any but the most popular artists."
Dorrance opened SubNation on October 17, 1990, with his friend Tom Feeney. "When Tom died I fell apart," Dorrance remembered. "I immediately decided to close the club .... What I hadn't realized was that so many people had become part of SubNation and believed in what we were doing. I soon to find out.
"SubNation, the club, was a meeting place for many different people. For some it served as a haven to escape to once a week. For others it was the only place they could be themselves and not feel persecuted for how they looked or who they were. And for many it was simply a place to go and hear great original music. When I announced the closing of the club, I was confronted all sides with reactions ranging from sadness and pleading to outright hostility and disgust. Feeling emotionally battered at the time, I told everyone who asked that I would do one more SubNation night, and that, if they wanted it so badly then they should show up and make their opinion known. If I was to keep working hard at SubNation, I wanted to know why and or whom. I was later to learn that the next several days were filled with many phone calls between club patrons, each one spreading the word like wildfire.
"The original SubNation may have been many things, but crowded was not one of them. It had always been frequented by a core group of 75 diehard supporters and sometimes played host to over one hundred. The next night that I opened the doors of SubNation, two hundred and fifty people came from their homes, their crypts, and wherever else they had been hiding. Things for SubNation, and for me, have never been the same since that night."
SubNation lived on in several club ventures: The Catacomb in Escondido, Chain Reaction in central San Diego, Dance Cramp, Mass, and Empire. "SubNation has always been structured around a tight set of principles," Dorrance wrote. "Rule number one: Expose great music." "Rule number two: Play requests." Rule number three: Expand, do not repeat." "Rule number four: Don't pass judgement on those around you." Rule number five: The customer doesn't exist. We are all friends here." In 1998, Dorrance went on to become one of the original DJs at Sabbat, which is still held each Saturday night at Shooterz in North Park.
Kostos remembers the early days of the goth scene in San Diego fondly. "I loved listening to the music and wearing all black," she told me." At that time, I was painting my face white and applying my makeup to look like Siouxsie from Siouxsie and the Banshees. I remember the first time I went to SOMA ... Back in 1988, it was a whole new experience for me. I had never felt more at home with a group of people before.... I remember my first outing with a group of goths. It was my first taste of being stereotyped as a goth. We went out to this empty field out in Proctor Valley. There were about six cars filled up with people dressed in black and pale face. Someone had taken out their speakers from their car and someone else had brought wood for a fire. If anyone is familiar with Proctor Valley, back in the '80s it was nothing but an empty field .. There was this story going around about a Proctor Valley Monster. It was an urban legend, of course, but it always added to the fun of the night.
"One night — my first night out there — we were all dancing around a bonfire and then we were, like, surrounded by a bunch of helicopters. Some policemen showed up and asked us if we were worshiping Satan. We all laughed and said no: I remember somebody turning the radio off. Bauhaus was playing. The police then asked us a bunch of questions and then informed us that there was a prison break and that we should leave. But they kept asking us weird. That was my first experience being a goth."
Currently, besides Sabbat, Therapy is One of San Diego's most popular goth happenings. Therapy is a klub event that takes place three Friday nights a month at the Flame in Hillcrest. On the first Friday of each month, Club Vortex, off Waring Road in Del Cerro, hosts Therapy. On the first Friday of last December. I put on my darkest clothes and headed out to Club Vortex to shine the light of my curiosity on this obscure scene. That night I met Mike Jurke, the staff of the Velvet Rag, and Catia, who copublishes Carpe Noctem with her husband Carnell. But what I first noticed when I walked in were several older guys in flannel shirts and cowboy hats saddled up to the bar drinking American beer. They were unfazed by the crowd of goths and fetishists gathering in the attached club, which was slowly filling with the vapors from a smoke machine and the pulses of industrial music. Such aberrations are common in the taverns east of I-15.
The attendees ranged from black-clad goths to fashionistas and fetishists in vinyl and PVC clothing. Despite the throbbing music and a woman dancing in a cage, the atmosphere was loose and amiable. A few people moved jerkily on the dance floor while small, chatty groups sat at tables or browsed Catia's concession stand. She was selling jewelry and stickers. A quick glance at her stickers revealed the diversity of views among this group. One simply read "Atheist," another "Fight Fascism," and a third "The Grateful Dead Suck." The only apparent thing binding everyone together was a preference for dark clothes — though I saw some red and fuchsia — and a mild carnality.
At his website (www.klubs.com), Bryan Pollard, who started Therapy, says, "This klub is for everyone which includes straight-bi-gay and you must be open-minded, and leave your attitude at home or don't bother to cum at all because we don't want you."
The following night I went to Club Sabbat, which had a harder, louder, and more licentious edge. But sex at Therapy is present less in the form of promiscuity than in a throbbing, basal eroticism. As the night's name implies, people gather here not to hook up, but to show and study the body. Beautiful and plain women alike wear revealing bodies and corsets; men wear tight pants and expose tattoos and piercings. Bettie Page was the evening's mascot. On video monitors mounted on the wall, Page tempted and beguiled in a medley of sexy burlesques. Page is an apt goth heroine not just because of her bangs, refusal to conform, and disregard for the repressed sexuality of her era — the '50s — but also because she refused to be pigeonholed by anyone, even her admirers. What many people didn't know about the pinup vixen was that she was reportedly crushed when she barely missed being named valedictorian of her high school class, which cost her a four-year scholarship at Vanderbilt University. As it turned out, she attended the Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville on a scholarship from that bastion of female conservatism, the Daughters of the American Revolution. On New Year's in 1959, after her film career, Page had a religious experience. Born again, she dedicated herself to Christianity and worked for several religious organizations.
A similar struggle between conservatism and libertarianism is implicit in almost every aspect of the goth scene. On the one hand, an attitude of sexual deviance lies at the heart of the goth temperament. Goths do embrace the historical notion that death and melancholy are aphrodisiacs. Though vampirism is a small — and, to some a ridiculous — part of the goth scene, I spotted the occasional cape and fangs at Sabbat. A new magazine, Gothic Beauty, which is published in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, recently emerged on specialty newsstands. The first issue had an article on Victorian mourning jewelry and a fashion spread featuring the model AurorA NatriX vamping in a vinyl vest and vinyl "mini" tutu. A disclaimer on the masthead reads: "Any models appearing in sexual provocative photographs are at least 18 years of age."
The pages of Carpe Noctem are filled with sexually explicit advertisements, art, interviews, and fiction. One ad, for Enigma Fashions, which is based in Chula Vista, shows a beautiful woman in reverie in a cemetery; another, for the Los Angeles store ApeLeather, shows an enraged ape commanding a harem of chained women. Carpe Noctem also publishes lavish spreads of work by artists like David Ho, Aaron Florez, and Chad Michael Ward, all of whom explore the sado-sexual fantasy world mapped by the photographer Joel-Peter Witkin, famous for his stunning still-lifes of cadavers and body parts. A recent issue features an interview with the illustrator known as Creepy, who once did a piece for the Neck Brace Appreciation Klub, a group of neck-brace fetishists. The interview ran with a few illustrations, one of which is of a scantily clad housewife — armed with a butcher knife and scalpel — posing on a floor littered with slaughtered mice. In the interview, Creepy offered this on his Post-Talent Art Movement: "If you've got flawless technique but all you do is paint flowers or landscapes, that's great but I'd much rather be looking at a nine-year-old's rendition of a naked lady licking raw clams off a cinder block."
Carpe Noctem is not a magazine intended to help fetishists get their rocks off. Catia and Carnell published the first issue on Halloween in 1994, when they were living in San Francisco. They have been releasing it irregularly ever since — after San Francisco from their home in Idaho Falls, and since 199 from El Cajon. "We wanted to put something beautiful out there," Cartell told me. "I'm not Larry Flynt. We've always considered Carpe Noctem to be love letter out to the world. We don't care if you love it. It's basically two people on mountaintop screaming into the wind."
Catia and Carnell are after a lot more than shock value. The magazine explores the intellectual and psychological underpinnings of what many people mistakenly call perversion. A recent issue, for instance, featured a story by Andrew Vachss, the controversial author and attorney. Vachss, who lives in New York, has worked for almost 30 years as a lawyer and social worker helping delinquent and abused children. His story, titled "Escort Service," is about a man who orders underage call girl to his hotel room They talk, but he never touches her.
In another issue of Carpe Noctem, from 1998, the cyberculture critic Mark Dery interviewed the openly gay horror writer Clive Barker. This was the first question Deryput to the author: "One of the conceptual threads running through your work is the intertwined nature of pleasure and pain. Queer theorists such as Leo Bersani and pop intellectuals like Camille Paglia read S&M dramaturgy and gay sexuality as manifestations of the Inassimilable Other — a chthonian counterweight, to use Paglia's pet adjective, of straight, bourgeois culture. Are you heartened by this vision of gay bacchanals and S&M dubs as sublime snakepits? Or should we be wary of this tendency to romantice the gay demimonde as some sort of leathersex nightbreed?"
Poor Barker, he responded as wisely as anyone could to such a pretentious question: he pointed out that S&M "is a mass of contradictions and paradoxes." And so is goth's appropriation of the trappings of fetishism. It's apparent, in the local scene anyway, that such "necromancy" (this is a word Carnell heard a woman from New Orleans us to describe goth sexuality) amounts to little more than a style. I don't suspect that local goths are hooking up any more or less than local frat boys.
"They may dress cheap-and-easy," Carnell said of younger goths, "but the reality is they might be saving it for marriage. But they look, dress, and dance erotically. They're in a space where men are allowed to wear skirts and paint their face; they get to know what that feels like." This is "a subculture" where "bisexuality is more the norm than the exception. How much of that is true bisexuality is a different issue. There is that moment for several hours in a club of being free. In goth gatherings, maybe when
you're with those people, you can get touchy-feely."
Catia told me a story that demonstrates the common misconception that goths are fetishists."This woman e-rnailed me from MTV," she explained. "They wanted to talk to me about helping them put together a show. They wanted to do a documentary where they followed three goth kids around — you know, totally unscripted, reality TV. I told them I was totally leery, that I hated the whole Jenny Jones mentality. So I explained this to the producer and he seemed to get it. Then he said, 'Well, this is part of our sex series so they need to talk about their sexual practices." Catia laughed incredulously. "I was,like, okay, I'll get right on helping you."
Stephany Hurtt, of the Velvet Rag, said, "I think the sex thing has just recently become part of the scene with the inclusion of the fetishists. I don't think this makes the scene any more promiscuous — maybe more adventurous. I have hung out in the gay scene quite a bit, and there is definitely more sex going on in that scene. It's all about role playing; I think that is more important than the sex."
In a recent e-mail, Kym Kostos explained to me her views regarding sex in the goth scene. "It doesn't really play a role," she wrote. "Up until recently, I for one, wasn't comfortable with myself and wearing 'fetish' wear. It was only this past January that I broke out of my 'traditional goth garb' (velvet dresses) and have been exploring the more 'goth fetish' side (wearing leather, PVC, vinyl...). The reason why I say it doesn't play a role is because some people are more comfortable with their sexuality than others. Being sexual in the goth scene isn't a prerequisite. I know some goths who are still virgins. It's all a state of mind and where you are in your personal life. Even though it [is deemed] an important part of our 'subculture,' it's not necessarily a necessity. I mean, look at the military, they have a reputation of
having a girl at every port and hanging out at strip clubs. And there are business men who spend their
lunch watching strippers or cheating on their wives. The difference is that they do it behind closed doors. They have things to hide. We don't.... Accept it or not. There are a lot of people married in the scene who have 'open' relationships. Meaning: they can see other people on the side. A lot of people in society do that, but they do it in a sneaky fashion and behind closed doors. They hide. We don't."
On the subject of sex, Mike Jurke told me he doubts "whether goths in San Diego are more promiscuous than the general public." He also makes distinctions between local goths and those who live in other places he's lived. "I've been in the goth scene in Switzerland, in San Diego, and in Columbus, Ohio," he explained to me. "The scene in Switzerland is generally geared toward a younger crowd and wilder in terms of [being] more underground — meaning half secret get-togethers at varying locations. Drugs are consumed more openly and parties go on till sunrise. They are also much more into fetish of the type 'everything goes,' including wild sex parties. Columbus is a rather small and older scene with some hard-core people that are also into fetishism, including whipping, candle wax, etc. San Diego I would characterize as rather lame and tame. Maybe the climate and the police-controlled city just don't cater to anything else. It's a worry-free, everybody's-welcome environment that includes young and old, and even some military people."
So what's left to bind goths together? It can't be that the word refers to a group of dilettante intellectuals who tend to wear black. That would describe every art history graduate student in the country, and not all of them are goths. That confounded state of mind must have some tangible emblems. If we can't gauge someone's gothness using their political philosophy or sexuality, then maybe religion can help.
The Cornerstone Music Festival in western Illinois is the largest venue for alternative Christian music and culture in the nation. According to the Christian Century, which reported on the event in July 1999 in an article titled "Goths for Jesus," goths attend the festival in enormous numbers. The author pointed out that even if there are "serious incompatibilities between the cultural props and meanings of Goth (like its bleak posturing and macabre fascination with death) and the ultimate message of Christianity," the goth outlook is aligned with the Christian perspective in many ways": each, for instance, "acknowledges human fallenness and suffering."
On the surface, the comparison seems fair; after all, the word "goth" comes from Gothic, which refers to the dominant style of sculpture and cathedral architecture in Europe during the medieval period (only later to an early mode of horror fiction). But the spirituality that we associate with the stone gargoyles and grotesques that adorned the facades of gothic cathedrals was totemic and alchemical. Without easy access to wandering scholastics and remote monasteries, papal authorities were unable to discourage heresies like paganism, gnosticism, sorcery, and witchcraft — until the Inquisition. While not all goths are Wiccans or black magicians, maybe the common view of them as fonder of less organized and more cabalistic spiritual practices holds some water. Any goth will tell you that nonconformity is a large part of the scene, which accounts for all the strange names — Countess von Buhler (Southern California artist), Strigoaica (webmistress of San Diego's Vampire Athenaeum), and Vlad (Los Angeles goth musician). Perhaps goths share, if not specific religious beliefs, a certain spiritual bent, a bias for the far out when it comes to dealing with the big questions.
"I was raised very strict Catholic, and I had to go to Catholic schools and all that," Catia told me in a January telephone conversation. "And I was always somewhat ambivalent about it, because it was crammed down my throat. When we started doing the magazine, I was meeting people from a lot of different religious backgrounds. most of the people I was meeting were not into Christianity at all — not that they were Satanists either. I mean, if you're going to worship somebody, why worship somebody who advocates for eternal damnation? I mean, that's my take on it. l would probably align myself more with Buddhism than with any other religions out there."
But for Catia, turning to goth was was less of a revolt against her upbringing than it was a revelation. "I liked to wear darker clothing; I liked to read old literature; I did, and still do, suffer from depression. It just sort of makes me happy feeling sad. The I met other people like that who called themselves goths and was, like 'Okay.'"
But both Kostos and Heather Henderson, Miss Perkigoth, grew up in the strictist Catholic families and call themselves political conservatives. Neither believes the goth scene is especially nonconformist in spiritual terms. "I am a Catholic, Henderson told me. "Although I do not attend Mass as regularly as I should, I do read the Bible daily, and try my best to lead a good life. There are many Christians of various denominations in the goth/industrial scene. Alternative religions are highly present as well. It seems to come from a general appreciation and acceptance of an individual's spirituality. I experimented with Wicca and spent five years away from the church, yet I was not fulfilled away from Christianity. That is my personal story. Others have different stories and beliefs, but everyone is accepted.
"As for being right-wing," Henderson added, "I am comfortable with my political views. I have gotten some grief from left-wing friends and acquaintances, but we agree to disagree.... My conservative ideology cherishes the idea that government should stay out of people's lives as much as possible. The sense of personal responsibility does not conflict with goth at all; it ought to mesh perfectly with an alternative lifestyle because it pushes a sense of choice and privacy."
Kostos said, «As for me, I believe there is a God, but I don't believe in organized religion. I grew up in the Catholic church, which is very organized, and I found a lot of flaws with it. I haven't yet attacked those flaws. I've questioned them, but I haven't gone to the church and asked them about it, so I've pretty much turned away from it for now. What attracted me to the goth scene the most was that growing up in the Catholic church and in Catholic school I was told what to think and told what to believe in. When I ventured into the goth scene when I was 15, they seemed to be free thinking and independent. There was spirituality within them, but they did not believe in organized religion. They did not mix politics and religion, and I've found that the Catholic church does mix politics in religion. Goths in general avoid the three things that bind other people together — politics, religion, and financial status."
As for Stephany, "Well, I am pagan," she told me, then added, "but that doesn't have anything to do with the goth scene. I think this is another stereotype. I know goths that belong to many different faiths. It's not really talked about in the scene. When it is, it usually ends up in a big argument."
"I've been an atheist for almost 30 years," Mike Jurke told me in an e-mail. When I moved to the States, I felt for the first time in my life threatened because of my atheism: the religious right, promise keepers, Christian anti-abortionists bombing family-planning clinics, the general public who associates atheism with communism, Satanism, and/or living without morals/ethics, etc. "In Europe," he wrote, people were much "more tolerant even indifferent towards religion.... The obsession with (Christian) religion in America is only surpassed by the obsession with money. Again, in the goth scene I find the tolerant environment I need to feel comfortable. You probably find everything here, from the devout Christian to Satan and the vampire worshippers, from witches to atheists like myself, and everything in between. Nobody is proselytizing though."
Carnell questions whether any meaning can be attached to the word "goth." "I wonder sometimes if you couldn't take some of these young people," he told me, "hose them down and put them in some preppy clothing and throw them in a bar and watch the same social dynamic occur." For a time, he said, he and Catia looked for a term that would separate them from the typical goth. "We were bouncing around the term 'New Gothique' for awhile, but then I thought, that's so pretentious. I'm a dork. I love this stuff. I grew up on this stuff. I grew up near this cheezy theater called the Jose Theater in San Jose where I would go and see films every Saturday with titles like Cannibal Girls. I've run face forward into a ton of death in my life, and not just in my work. We're just somebody's parents granted, we're not Ozzie and Harriet."
Carnell is the first to admit that spectacle and bravado, in the form of laying claim to authority and prestige not necessarily enjoyed beyond the scene, is a key element of being a goth. Though he does not hang out in the clubs, Carnell assumes the role of a scholastic (in the medieval sense) in the local scene. He doesn't indicate any rules, but his editorials and other writings in Carpe Noctem amount to a gospel of sorts. At IHOP, he summarized that message for me. Carnell sits at the same point on the spiritual spectrum as his wife. He's Eastern.
Carnell graduated from the San Francisco College of Mortuary Science in 1990 and currently works as a funeral director in Oceanside. He doesn't pretend that his career has no bearing on the magazine. "I have sat in the midst of utter despair and sadness," he told me. "I go through that every day of my life. We've always said at Carpe Noctem that you cannot understand the beauty of the light until you fully understand the melancholy of the dark. It's all about balance for me. Why are people's lives so fucked up? Why is America careening out of control? Because our lives are out of balance. We're so
into consuming that we forget that there's a deeper.... Why do we talk about death? Because if you don't understand that you're going to die, then today doesn't mean jack shit.
"The same things that are being sorted out in Carpe Noctem are the exact same things that I would be personally looking into and reading about. Only now, I get to talk to the people who created it. For us, it's not so calculated, though we have a no-vampire policy when it comes to fiction. The over-
riding message of Carpe Noctem is a term we use a lot called death positive. You'll read in different books on the subject about the adornment [and the] raiments of death."
Talking about goth spirituality, Carnell said, "You'll hear a lot of 'I'm a pagan'; 'I'm Wiccan'; 'I'm an atheist.' The more spiritual will say, 'I'm a Buddhist'; 'I'm a Toist.' " Perhaps realizing that he was close to a confession, Carnell backed off here.
"Who the hell cares what I think as far as the big picture goes? Goths are very into pomp and circumstance; they are very ceremonial. Why is it that people are wearing rosaries around their necks? If you swallow that imagery of bringing the imagery of death closer and therefore demystify it, it's the same thing as religion. Because I surround myself with these trappings and this imagery, I am vividly aware of death and dying — as I think most goths are. Whether they're wrestling with it or not is personal. So, knowing that, and knowing that death isn't something that just happens to you when you're old, I think in this subculture there is a sense of making today really good. So why am I going to care about what's going on in Florida? And that isn't necessarily a bad thing. How many people do you know who were idealistic in college who are now pushing paper, whose will has been broken?"
Carnell paused, searching for a final thought.
"Cat made a T-shirt from an old saying of mine. 'If you're not enhancing my time, you're wasting it.' I
firmly believe that."
Though everyone thought he was mad, that's all Hamlet ever believed. He refused to be bounded by traditional categories, even by geography. "Denmark's a prison," he told Rosencrantz,who finally acquiesced, agreeing, "'Tis too narrow for your mind."
The same seems true for goths. The big questions — politics and religion — are too small for them. They prefer ironic gestures, like borrowing from history to fashion an alternative credo. It doesn't matter whether it's reactionary or progressive. For them, God is indeed in the details — in esoteric baubles, corsets, brocade work, and offbeat art and music. J.C. Flugel, a psychologist who wrote about clothes, saw all clothing as neurotic, as trying to mediate between two irreconcilable instincts: modesty and the need for attention. For all their psychological and aesthetic posturing, for all their provocative costumes and romantic melancholy (feigned or not), goths want nothing more than to be left alone.