For the love of Goth

Illustration By Phillip Dvorak

From music to fashion, a new generation of Goths gets spooky

By Neva Chonin

'IN THE BEGINNING, Goth created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of Goth moved upon the face of the waters."

It's Saturday night, and the ornate interior of A Winter Gone By is alive with bodies waving to the somber howl of the Sisters of Mercy's "Lucretia." Death-rock kitsch rubs against Victorian elegance in a mosaic of velvet, lace, and patent leather as the dancers -- most of whom seem to be dancing with themselves -- pass each other with elastic precision, as though swimming in Jell-O. "I call it spooky dancing," giggles Terence, the dapper, raven-haired art director of butoh dance troupe COLLAPSING silence. As he speaks, a towering masked figure sprouting branches from its head glides past with the composure of a strolling shrub. Terence peers after the man with interest as the Sisters fade and a Beastie Boys track blasts over the sound system. The dance floor clears.

San Francisco has always had its Gothic elements, but the current scene -- something of a second wave following the initial surge of the mid-'80s -- began in 1992 with Club #6, known for its command to "Dance to the Sound of Machines Fucking." Then came the House of Usher, a split-level venue (one floor Goth, the other industrial), which started when Bat (Peter Stone, creator of the 1993 Lollapalooza Cyberpit) and collaborators Shawni and X decided that a new generation of Goths needed a space to call home. "It was more a sanctuary than a club," DJ Bat shouts above the roar of a Ministry song. "We wanted to have a place where people wouldn't get hit on or bothered because of the way they looked."

House of Usher closed in 1994 after the South of Market police sweeps forced the age limit from 18 to 21, effectively eliminating much of the club's clientele. Other clubs sprang up to fill the void: Temple, Tear Garden, and most recently, Monastery, which no longer hosts a regular night at the DNA Lounge but continues to sponsor concerts and special events. Also currently active are Death Guild, held Monday nights at the Trocadero, and Bedlam, a dark wave/ambient mix, Thursday nights at the French Quarter.

The current Goth linchpin is A Winter Gone By, a cavernous, multiroomed space in North Beach that houses a booming sound system, separate juice bar, lounge area, and romantic balcony space (for conversations requiring tones more intimate than a scream). In addition to dancing (spooky and otherwise), the club frequently hosts live shows by such local bands as Xorcist, Malign, and Switchblade Symphony. The decor is stylistically eclectic, landing somewhere between black-mass chic and Jazz Age elegance.

The Gothic aesthetic (of this century, anyway) can be traced back to the earliest British punk days and a circle of visionaries sporting sculpted haircuts and elaborate makeup who gathered at Seditionaries, a King's Road shop owned by Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren and designer Vivienne Westwood. From there sprang a clique known as the Bromley Contingent, whose alumni include Siouxsie Sioux and Steve Severin of the Banshees and, more distantly, Adam Ant and Dead or Alive's Pete Burns. There was also the Damned's vampiric Dave Vanian, whose flamboyance was an anomaly in London's predominantly scruffy music scene. Punk was followed by Blitz, a dark reincarnation of glam rock (think very, very big hair) and then by the short-lived New Romanticism (think Spandau Ballet and puffy silk shirts.) Next came Goth, which blended the two styles into a singularly haunting signature.

The latest generation of Goths -- who good-naturedly tolerate the label for expediency's sake -- have forsaken the explosively crimped hair of the mid-'80 for buzz cuts or flowing 19th-century manes. Jwlhyfer de Winter, a regal blond given to opulent evening wear, has been part of Goth culture since 1981 and currently designs historically inspired couture with her partner Steven Gray under the trade name Dorian.Sibylla. For her, Gothic fashion fulfills a need for ritualistic expression. "Today there are no rites of passage, so kids create their own growing-up rituals," she explains. "And there are no mourning rituals, either; people aren't allowed to have any emotions about death. Being able to put on a mourning costume and show the world that you have feelings is a great validation."

"I think the television we grew up with had something to do with it," she adds. "We were kinda corrupted at an early age. My mother looked just like Morticia Addams; people used to stop her on the street and ask if she was Carolyn Jones."

Terence -- who views himself as more a "spooky boy" than a Goth -- also credits his mother for his affinity for darkness. "My mom was really into serial killers and I was a horror film fanatic," he recalls with a mischievous smile. "Then, in 1985, I discovered 19th-century French symbolists like Baudelaire and Lautremont and started getting into subversive bands like Throbbing Gristle, Psychic TV, and Coil. It was really dreamy, ethereal stuff with titles like 'Fields of Rape' and 'Jesus Wept.' There's a term I like that describes newer bands like Halfer Trio and Nurse with Wound -- sombient, which means dark ambient, almost like dark jazz."

A number of bands in the early '80s laid the gorgeously moody groundwork for later Gothic symphonics. The brilliant and blighted Joy Division, whose lead singer, Ian Curtis, hung himself on the eve of their first American tour, pioneered lush arrangements and a tortured, expressionistic lyricism. Nick Cave introduced an air of foreboding intellectual danger with the Birthday Party (and, later, the Bad Seeds). Siouxsie and the Banshees were instrumental in the formation of the goddess-with-a-crimping-iron archetype; and the Cure's Robert Smith (who briefly played guitar with the Banshees) broke new poetic ground in the band's Camus-influenced, prepop oeuvre.

But it was Bauhaus and its angstful vocalist, Peter Murphy, who were the true godheads of Goth. Mixing music and theater into a melancholic melange, they first achieved prominence with their legendary Bela Lugosi's Dead EP and went on to record four albums before dissolving in 1983. Meanwhile, the prototypical industrial band, Germany's Einsturzende Neubaten, were busy combining explosive machinations with equally explosive hair, while the Sisters of Mercy put richly orchestrated metal-pop in the charts with their 1983 single, "Temple of Love." A mid-'80s avalanche of electric mood music ensued that ranged from the woozy atmospherics of Fields of the Nephilim to the voluptuous paranoia of L.A.'s Christian Death. The list of bands and performers who influenced, or were influenced by, the Gothic paradigm runs the gamut from noise to inspired ambience: Skinny Puppy, Alien Sex Fiend, Throbbing Gristle (and its many offshoots), Ministry (ditto), Dead Can Dance, And Then the Trees, the Legendary Pink Dots, the Cocteau Twins, Bel Canto, This Mortal Coil, Diamanda Galas, ad infinitum.

And Goth said, Let the children under the heaven be gathered together unto one place... and it was so.

Terence's roommate, Bella, an alabaster beauty fond of flowing black dresses and eyeliner, says she became fascinated with dark music after seeing Bauhaus perform in the 1983 film The Hunger. Her pre-Goth days in Houston were spent seeking solace in the Romantic poets and the music of David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and the Velvet Underground. "It was the best I could do in Texas," she sighs. "Byron and Bowie kept me alive." She feels Goth clubs are useful for people like herself "who don't want to necessarily belong to something, but who want to be around others with a similar aesthetic. It's a kind of hopeful hopelessness. Even with all the pretensions and the superficiality, you're safe here. No one's going to stab you for dressing wrong -- unless you want them to."

Fashion is key to the Gothic sensibility Since the '80s, Goth bands have spawned a panoply of creative styles that arguably can be whittled down to romantic/ambient/dark wave on the one hand and hard-core Goth/industrial/death rock on the other. The romantic contingent leans toward more elaborate costuming: corsets, billowing shirts, acres of lace and tattered fabrics, and sweeping Victorian gowns. Industrial Goths prefer utilitarian black jeans, fishnet stockings, leather clothes and accessories, and your standard S/M gear. Both groups have a predilection for cross dressing, silver jewelry, tattoos, piercings, and puckishly pointed boots.

Some Goths, however, are growing weary of the fashion parade and the flagrantly incestuous nature of the scene. "It's all of the same people going to the same clubs; that's why they're all on different nights," chuckles Miss Erika, a droll 23-year-old who works in the publishing industry. "Then there are the people coming in from the 'burbs driving their parent's cars and wearing clothes from Hot Topic. The nasty, horrible realization seems to be that Goths are just like everyone else. It's uniform individuality."

Popular club deejay Jackal, a founding member of the current club scene, sees it differently. "Everybody likes to be liked, and I think a lot of the younger kids are searching for their identity," he says. "And the dressing up is always fun; who doesn't like to dress up and go out?"

Autumn, co-owner of a Hayes Street boutique called Dark Garden that specializes in "darkly romantic" Victorian corsets and wedding gowns ("just the right dress for a picnic in a graveyard") adds that the fashion aspect allows "a lot of people to be creative and put stuff together themselves. There's a great interest in costuming."

Listening to the ideological thrust and parry, it soon becomes obvious that, for all their alleged elitism, the Goth community embraces explorations into difference with an enthusiasm often lacking in a time marked by subcultural tribalism. And, pithy sniping aside, Goth aficionados demonstrate the fierce emotional affinity of a loving but dysfunctional family: they can't agree on anything except the fact that they can't live without each other. For many, clubs like A Winter Gone By are rich, phantasmagoric hideaways for the terminally romantic.

Carnell and Caria, publishers of the Gothically inclined alternative art magazine Carpe Noctem, retreated to the quiet of Cupertino to raise their two children after years in Goth society. Still immersed in the culture, they view their friends' foppery as a celebration of individual artistry. "It's a chance for them to put on the dog, dress up and wear something special," Carnell says. "There is a real beauty in sadness and a joy in melancholy. People who think it's maudlin just don't understand; they don't get past the window dressing."

Thanks to the Internet, which hosts innumerable Goth-oriented news groups, home pages, and sites, Goth culture has created a cyber-community that's become something of a club in itself. Jackal admits he doesn't know exactly where it's all heading. "I've watched it grow and change and twist," he says. "It really matters which clubs do well and how they influence the way people dress, what they listen to, and where they go."

And Goth saw every thing that it had made, and, behold, it was very good. Out on the dance floor, a girl in an ivory Victorian wedding dress performs a series of shifting tableaux beneath the flashing strobe light. Nearby, a woman in a shrouded wheelchair is doing her own brand of spooky dancing, using her arms to trace intricate designs against a backdrop of Siouxsie and the Banshees' "Face to Face." The strolling shrub, shuffling along the periphery, pauses before a young man dressed in full priestly vestments. The dark priest smiles beneficently and offers a blessing.

Special thanks to Nina Rage, Charm, and the residents of the Guardian OnLine conference Goth Pit.