The Diary of an Elder Goth Part I
Normally people dread turning forty. Even the age of thirty looms over the heads of the young like the gloomy shadow of death. At forty you might as well set up residence in a grave.
I, on the other hand, looked forward to the closing year of my fourth decade on this planet. What makes my turning forty special is unique to the gothic scene. While there is some contention regarding the exact age, the general consent is that at forty a fan of gothic music and culture graduates to elder goth.
The gothic lifestyle is generally accepted to be an adventure for the young. The style of dress, the attitude, the music all scream of the sort of rebellion teenagers display. Often kids reject the gothic culture as they mature, leaving their black eyeliner and torn fishnets at the college dorm rooms. CDs and albums of dark dance music get turned in at the local exchange for contemporary adult musicians, Billboard hits, and best of albums.
Goths over thirty are fairly rare. Goths over forty are particularly uncommon. The advanced age suggests more devotion to the subculture than just an act of rebellion. Elder goths have a deep appreciation for the aesthetic. They keep listening to the music they grew up with, sometimes proudly displaying concert tickets or promotional flyers from their heyday. Another name for elder goths, Batcavers, stems from this musical history.
The Batcave opened in Soho, London in 1982 and saw the rise of the new wave and gothic music scenes. The stage saw such luminaries as Robert Smith, Siouxsie Sioux, and Nick Cave. The house band was Specimen for crying out loud. Even those who worked at the club made an impact on gothic culture. Nick Fiend, for instance, founded Alien Sex Fiend, a considerable name in experimental glam rock. Elder goths grew up with the gothic subculture. They witnessed the beginnings, from the television broadcast of Shadowplay by Joy Division to Bauhaus’ live performance of Bela Lugosi’s Dead on the John Peel Show.
There is a downside to elder goths. With these early experiences comes a sense of entitlement, an iron clad opinion of what gothic music entails. Ignoring the natural progression of music over the years, certain elder goths stake claim that the music of their youth is the only music to correctly hold the banner of goth. If you look at other genres, metal for instance, you see a similar evolution over the years. What began with Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin developed into an ever branching series of aggressive rock genres. You have death, thrash, and sleaze metal. You have progressive, power, and symphonic metal. The list goes on. If metal can change over time then why can’t darker, alternative rock? Even country and western music has evolved over time. Why claim only post punk, glam, and neopsychedelic rock when you can include darkwave, dark cabaret, and ethereal? Many goths these days also embrace dark electronic music such as industrial, electronic dance music, and futurepop. A common complaint issued by elder goths is that these latter genres of music are killing the scene.
Personally I feel the more genres under the umbrella term, goth, the better. We still have the bands of our youth to enjoy. We even have gothic revival bands like Beryl Beloved and Paralyzed Age to breathe new life into the music of our past. Granted many goth clubs rarely play the classics but these things come in waves. Wait long enough and the style of music you enjoy comes back into vogue. Kids these days are discovering the music of the eighties much as we older folk came to enjoy The Beatles and Pink Floyd.
I started my journey into darker music in early childhood. I had moved to Utah after my parents’ divorce. While watching TV, the kind in a wooden cabinet, lo and behold who should appear but Blondie. As she sang Call Me I was struck by the otherworldly nature of the platinum girl’s shiny lycra performance. Disco lights flooded the stage in a rainbow of colors. I was entranced. Until then I had only listened to contemporary hits on the radio, movie soundtracks, or my mother’s collection of doo wop and bubblegum pop. Here was music meant for me. She was singing to me.
While Blondie’s reggae-inspired punk rock (a style of music performed by her contemporaries The Police and The Clash) opened the door to a new world of musical possibilities, it was Duran Duran that invited me inside. Music Television made this possible. As American bands did not produce videos, the early days of MTV were populated with European new wave bands. I was exposed to such giants as Gary Numan and The Human League. Later on I encountered The Cure and Siouxsie and the Banshees.
Of these bands, Duran Duran by far made most use of the video format. To begin with the band were not what you could call unattractive. Indeed, Simon, Nick, John, and Roger could very well be male models. Moreover their videos displayed a cinematic quality. Also, I don’t know if you have noticed this, but every Duran Duran video featured water of some kind; whether the oceans of Rio, the rivers of Hungry Like the Wolf, or the waterfall from The Reflex. If armed with the knowledge that water is a psychological symbol for sexuality you can greater understand Duran Duran’s popular appeal. Yet it wasn’t just the hits that grabbed me. Duran Duran took up the role of my gateway band. Darker tracks like Careless Memories, New Religion, and Waiting for the Night Boat led me to seek out similar types of music. Duran Duran’s side project, Arcadia, very much went in this direction. The members of Arcadia went so far as to dye their hair black to, dare I say, appear more gothy?
As the years rolled by, less and less airtime was given to what would eventually be termed alternative rock, a moniker first slapped onto Athens, Georgia band, R.E.M. Eventually most of the alternative bands, including the gothic and industrial music I would come to embrace, were relegated to Sunday nights on MTV in a show called 120 Minutes, a 2 hour block of music that wasn’t metal or hip hop.
Other networks tried to profit off MTV’s model. USA had a series called Up All Night that featured content custom built for the alternative crowd. Here I first learned of the films, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Rock & Rule. Documentary shorts explored bands I had seen on MTV. I learned more of Art of Noise and Public Image Limited. Even ex-Bauhaus band, Love & Rockets, received coverage.
As MTV played less and less of what interested me, our local radio station, KISN, did likewise. I sought and found an alternative radio station that catered to my taste. KJQ played Depeche Mode, U2, and Gene Loves Jezebel. I started collecting music at the time, buying cassettes for my boom box. The late eighties saw a number of change. Cassettes eventually gave way to compact discs. Around this time gothic rock also gave way to a new kind of music. Bands like Ministry, Skinny Puppy, and My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult experienced much play on the same station that once played those gothic gems of my junior high school days.
Within walking distance of the university I attended stood Graywhale CD, a retail establishment devoted to the more esoteric tastes in music. I formed a pretty familiar relationship with the owner as I could be found there thumbing through new releases or perusing the used CDs. At Graywhale I discovered Wax Trax Records, a distributor in Chicago devoted to 90s industrial and EBM. Wax Trax stamped their logo on bands like Front 242, Front Line Assembly, and KMDFM.
I had grown and evolved with the times and found myself listening less to Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me and more to Cleanse, Fold, and Manipulate. I was a collector. I trolled a dragnet through Graywhale CD every few weeks, looking mostly for albums by Skinny Puppy, my new favorite. At this time I had grown so attached to the music I had been listening to that I bought shirts. I wore tees advertising Nitzer Ebb or Nine Inch Nails.
Having got a job did not stop my purchases of music. Indeed I found more bands. Keep in mind the internet was still in its growing pains in the mid 1990s. Searching for new tunes came to be a passion of sorts. Wax Trax Records was a thing of the past. A new monolith broke forth in the form of Philadelphia’s Metropolis Records, the new name in dark, electronic music. With each CD purchase I received a promotional card with the graphite and black Metropolis logo. I could wallpaper with the number of these little squares I collected with each CD.
Once the internet could stand on its feet everything changed. Now not only can I find band recommendations online I can purchase a digital copy of the album. This purchase goes directly into my iTunes. I can make a wish list and check it for any change in price. I can look for special deals on Amazon. More than this, I found fellow goths on the internet. Ogden, Utah is no hotbed of gothic subculture. I found my family on twitter. The first days of twitter were pretty standard. For some time it seemed I was the only goth on the interwebs. Eventually I attracted fellow darklings, even to the point of contacting musicians and DJs in the gothic scene.
With the podcast and its popular segment, Dark Track of the Week, I now receive promotional music from a wide selection of dark genres. Bands contact me and send me free music to play on the show. Just recently American deathrock pioneer, Kommunity FK, offered a submission. We are talking of a band that was a contemporary of 45 Grave and Christian Death.
My years of experience as a self proclaimed goth warranted me this very column as well as several album reviews on GeekPlanetOnline. I have a reputation now as one of the internet’s many outspoken goths. The Department of Evil invited me to be a member. The Department is a coalition of DJs, podcasters, and photographers promoting the dark music scene. It consists of the long running radio show, Dark Horizons and its supporting station EBM Radio. The Invasion Podcast, Razor Blade Dance Floor, and Aztalan Turf podcasts also contribute to the Department. Most recently Coma Magazine has been brought into the fold.
From rather modest beginnings my years of experience in gothic and industrial music have led me here. I am somewhat of an authority on all things gothic. That is not to say my knowledge is all encompassing. I discover new things almost every day. I learn of overlooked bands. I discover side projects of popular artists. I learn more about how certain genres developed. While my experience often speaks for itself there are many years ahead of me in which I can delve deeper into the dark end of the pool. Contact me in another forty years to see how I’m faring. Gothic music is almost as old as I am. I don’t expect either of us to go away anytime soon.