(11) the creatures, “exterminating angel”
(1) bauhaus, “bela lugosi’s dead”
and landed a spot in the final four
Read the essays, watch the videos, listen to the songs, feel free to argue below in the comments or tweet at us, and consider. Winner is the aggregate of the poll below and the @marchvladness twitter poll. Polls closed @ 9am Arizona time on March 23.
MICHAEL D. MILLER ON “BELA LUGOSI’S DEAD”
(OR BELA LUGOSI LIVES/DAED S’ISOGUL ALEB)
We all know that beat… that bossa nova doppelganger beat, tick tick ticker of expectations hovering… A beat that does not falter or alter for the nine minute, thirty-six second Goth trance… a flapping beat tapped by Kevin Haskins like an uninvited bat trapped in a well-lit room… Then the echoes—something is not right with this—echoes like an empty catacomb plucking cobweb-lined chambers that we have agreed to dance along with then it slows, delays, and quickens as something shrieks from the black of an unknown space of an empty stone hall which we are only fifteen seconds into. Sounds crawl like insects in a spider’s web. Perhaps rats gnaw on drumsticks in slithering shadows… Then the THREE notes that hang in the air as if from a dark bell vibrating through cold stone. THREE monochromatic David J notes opening the threshold with sounds that claw and creep from the speakers inviting our blackest Goth enclave of deadite pageantry.
Then those guitar strings… Daniel Ash pick scratching like wooden stakes hammered by mallets or bats biting necks and flopping away, it doesn’t matter. We are entombed in Dub-Reggae subversion through re-imagined Carpathian forests—from every angle—bending open e-string evaporating into unearthly cacophony clearing in time for those open bar chords strumming along like the phantom carriage (we can’t help but think this is so vintage we start to see in black and white) leading us into the castle once decorated by Bram Stoker then Hammer Horror and now for an avant-garde funerary vampire’s ball… Then that voice, bouncing from the back of some cave, or above you, where Peter Murphy hangs from the rafters—“Bela Lugosi’s Dead.” Three minutes in and six more left on the track but it doesn’t matter how long now for this is the Gothic Underworld (that all songs hereafter must journey to), Charon’s been usurped and we’re not leaving until it’s done (or drained of blood)…
At least that is what a close listen of Bauhaus’ immortal 1979 single “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” can do to the newly initiated, or the long fervent acolyte. The song is one long continuous push at nerves, expectations, and anticipations, crafted so well it can knock anyone of us over with the buffet of a batwing. Lyrically there are utterances of possibility but no cohesion of any clear order:
Black capes on the rack
Bats leaving the bell tower
Red velvet lined coffins announcing
Bela Lugosi is not just dead, but undead.
Virginal brides, tombs, dead flowers,
A dark room, and the count!
And we are left with that. Or, that maybe Bela Lugosi is (not) Dead, but HIS dead, undead, us—the Goths. Ambiguous horror but enough to imagine a whole new scene: you immediately sought a new hair style, new attire, new music, life in death. Darkness said it all, you were in, and it drove away those who weren’t in—on the joke. Ironically this was never the intent of the band or the song. As Ian Shirley records it in his seminal work on the band Dark Entries: Bauhaus and Beyond its genesis was more like a discussion of a scholarly article with Peter Murphy remarking, “We’d been talking about the erotic quality of vampire movies, even the Hammer type. There was this conversation about the sexuality and eroticism of Dracula. So we carried on that conversation and made it into a song.”
In many ways it bears remarkable similarity to the Gothic Novel literary movement nearly two-hundred years earlier. What lead Horace Walpole to write the novel The Castle of Otranto that initiated the literary Gothic scene was not any of the tropes that scene would embrace soon after but just an urge to break out of the predictable way of doing things, in particular writing a novel, held in fetters by rationalism and uninspired imagination. Walpole set in motion a fad that went back to an earlier time—the Medieval era—and used trappings that would surely chafe against the developing world of science and the rational: crumbling castles, skeletal remains, rattling chains, jump-scare ghosts and the like, not knowing his “Gothic” story would start a literary movement.
The scenario seems repeated when we get to Bauhaus and “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.” In 1979 the music world was caught between dinosaur rock star bands, disco, and punk. To be different, to do things their own way, the band went back, not to the Middle-Ages, but just fifty years and resurrected the old and original count himself, Bela Lugosi, and his iconic portrayal of Prince Vlad in the 1931 Universal Film adaptation of Bram Stoker’s, Dracula. But twist this the band did. That same year Frank Langella acted out his colorful “romantic” version of the count in the Dracula remake (far from Christopher Lee’s portrayal of the count as a demonic blood-sucker), and Stephen King’s modernized Bram Stoker re-imagining, the novel Salem’s Lot (1975), was adapted into a television mini-series, with a Nosferatu-like master vampire. Somewhere between them, Count Chocula, the emerging “new wave”, and the rising Conservative movement, we get the great Goth anthem, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” refitting the whole monster mash.
Even more, if we compare the remarkably different angle the band approached in writing this innovative game-changing wonder it runs consistent with the Romantic movement that followed the Gothic and certain similar aims, namely 1) expression of extreme emotion unfettered by restraint or reason, 2) narrative (in Bauhaus’ case—song structure) fragmentation by abandoning unity or formalism, and 3) a general appeal to irrationalism. While these ideas might be lurking behind the stanzas of many a good Goth song, what we all really know to be the element that makes a great Goth song above all else is atmosphere. Atmosphere is what Bauhaus conjures up with “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” in ways that few of that era ever touch, and the band sustains that atmosphere from first snare hit to the last. What they give us is truly more in the realm of weird fiction made into music, yet labeled “Goth” so critics and the uninspired can understand it. I’m not sure that the band meant any of it to be understood, rather the atmosphere opens the door for the Gothic imagination if nothing else.
If John Lydon’s core thought about “punk” was to be one’s self (to thine own self be true), then Goth might be to one’s imaginative self be true, not imagined as in “not true” but true to the early imagination of life, one that centers on the dead, or the return of such, the undead. This intersection is where this song truly gets at something more transcendent than just an identity (that might just be a fad after all—following those silent hedges). We can go right to Sigmund Freud with this from his work The Uncanny:
We—or our primitive forefathers—once believed that these possibilities were realities, and were convinced that they actually happened. Nowadays we no longer believe in them, we have surmounted these modes of thought; but we do not feel quite sure of our new belief, and the old ones still exist within us ready to seize upon any confirmation. As soon as something actually happens in our lives which seems to confirm the old, discarded beliefs, we get a feeling of the uncanny; it is as though we were making a judgment something like this: “So the dead do live on and appear on the scene of their former activities!”
I would wager that almost every Goth song has a touch of that—if not every song on the March Vladness Tourney roster. “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” hints at it but before going too far, the musical execution in the artistry of Bauhaus is unwittingly more along the lines of H. P. Lovecraft’s core idea about weird fiction from his work Supernatural Horror in Literature: “Atmosphere is the important thing.” In fact we can paraphrase his idea a bit further substituting “Goth” for “weird” like so:
The one test of the really weird [goth] is simply this—whether there be excited in the reader [listener] a profound sense of dread, and a subtle attitude of awed listening as if for the beating of black wings on the known universe’s rim.
Is that not really the best in Goth? Is that not why we “don the black” like the Night’s Watch along the icy borders of death? Is that not what “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” achieves and enshrines as unlimited Gothness? Play the track. You know it’s true. The song creates empty catacombs and cellars from ears to minds-eye, places Poe would get drunk in, all echo and delay, the ingredients for the most potent cauldron of Gothic alchemy, to alienate you if you easily falter but turns to paean if you listen long at their altar. Ultimately “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” suggests more than it resolves, which critics and haters never understood.
Bauhaus sought fit to press this in their own imagery, a texture of surrealism from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (as if he was the producer of the band) and all gothic culture emerged from this by fiat (and the press—the irony of the idea of Goth from the art and imagery not the music). The band used visual power in performance to great atmospheric effect. Tony Scott was quick to realize this (with David Bowie’s suggestion) that the band perform this song to open his vampire-art film adaptation of The Hunger. That scene alone is atmosphere incarnate thanks to Bauhaus’ live performance. “Bela” also undoubtedly won new converts to D. W. Griffiths The Sorrows of Satan gracing the cover of the Small Wonder Records single release. Last of the all, the reggae-dub as Goth music is not so far-fetched or discordant—the Caribbean after all, is home to undead of their own, legends of the zombie, and Bela Lugosi starred in one of Val Lewton’s films inspired by the subject, 1945’s The Body Snatcher. There’s even a slight futuristic tinge in the song, I could almost hear it rattling down the maze-like corridors of the Nostromo with a xenomorph lurking about. And so much more.
For me, 1979, was fourth grade, remembering to this day perusing classic horror monster books in our small town elementary school library on any given weekly reading day– books no other kids seemed to touch. Black and white photos of Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr., Boris Karloff, the living dead. Bauhaus could have composed a Gothic anthem about anyone of them, ranking up with these Horror classics that never die—Peter Murphy’s vocals alone are as memorable and permanent to Bela Lugosi as Karloff’s are to Mr. Grinch! That Halloween I donned the black (and red) cape as Dracula for a school Halloween party, with Universal monster classics projected against the gymnasium wall as other costumed school mates bobbed for apples. Not until four years later, when HBO and MTV cable makes it to town, lucky to have a friend who could afford it, and encountered The Hunger, late one night and saw the whole monster legacy re-invented before my eyes. I didn’t know exactly what Goth was at that moment, but I felt it. Then a few years later, high-school, college, collecting the albums (“Press the Eject and Give Me the Tape” first), going from there to the Cure, Joy Division, The Birthday Party, Samhain (sure—Goth and should have made the tourney), the list goes on but you and I know where it all started—it was Bauhaus and Bela Lugosi.
When someone is at the top, there are always those who want to knock them down, but “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” is no God in an alcove. This song comes at you from every angle, sinking its fangs into open necks, so off-balance that if music could cast a reflection, you know this song would never be caught in a mirror. Undead is Goth immortality and this song (and this band) forty years on will always exist with it. The consequence of Goth goes back to the uncanny. As a Medieval Studies minor during my college undergrad years something stuck out to me when going back to write about this song for March Vladness. The Anglo-Saxon word for “undead” is “undeadlic” which means something like “undeadness of God” or, in other words, eternal, defying time. “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” does that without question.
When you think of it, how can a song referencing the original icon of the count himself not be the most Vlad? “The children of the night, what sweet music they make,” wallowing in the epiphany of eternal death… An imagined soundtrack for your own funeral… Electric auras clothed in black… For the Bauhaus fans celebrating 40 years of the band this 2019 (and 100 years of the actual Bauhaus 1919 school) with Peter Murphy and David J on tour as I type this, I double dare you in the flat field, beware the spy in the cab, dance the St. Vitus dance, feel the hair of the dog in the hollow hills kicking in the eye in fear of fear, from those silent hedges, swing the heartache burning inside and cut down those puppet strings.
(PRESS THE ENTER BUTTON AND GIVE THEM YOUR VOTE)
Michael D. Miller is a disparate writer of disparate things. His work has appeared in Lovecraft Annual, Spectral Realms, Dead Reckonings, and the now defunct Crackpot Press. Currently eking out existence through optioning screenplays and teaching as adjunct faculty at GRCC, KCAD, and Aquinas College. Also wrote the Realms of Fantasy RPG for Mythopoeia Games Publications. He dedicates this essay to Leo the King of Cats who passed away just before it was completed.
Come to Kill Your Sons: melissa faliveno on “exterminating angel”
Here it comes again
Taste of jagged glass and rusty can
“Women just aren’t good musicians,” my cousin said. I was fifteen and she was sixteen. She, like me, lived in rural Wisconsin, our towns an hour apart, with populations of only a couple thousand, most of whom were working-class, God-fearing, and white, who drove pickup trucks with their radios tuned to the country station.
She, like me, was a black sheep. But while I tried to fit in, she reveled in her outsider status. She cut off all her hair, dyed it bright orange, and wore it in short gelled spikes. She painted her nails black and drew charcoal circles around her eyes, wore oversized black t-shirts with band names spattered across them like blood, and maybe, if memory serves, a wallet chain—those signifiers, sacred and profane, that we of the small-town sectors could only obtain from a weekend trip to Hot Topic. It was a look that, back then, and in that place, was sometimes referred to as goth. But usually it was just called freak.
It was a look I coveted. I experimented with eyeliner, chokers, and, briefly—one of many missteps in a failed understanding of goth aesthetics—JNCOs, but never went much further. I admired my cousin for having the courage and irreverence I lacked, for so fully embracing her weird. And so I followed her like a disciple into other obsessions, taking in the words she taught me: that women didn’t make good music, that men were better actors and athletes and writers. And for a while, I believed them.
The Creatures started out as a side project. Formed in 1981 by Siouxsie Sioux and Budgie, the Banshees drummer and Siouxsie’s future husband, the drums-and-voice duo released their first full-length album, Feast, in 1983, followed by Boomerang in 1989. Their third record, Anima Animus, was released ten years later, when the Banshees had disbanded and Siouxsie and Budgie, by then married, had turned full-time to the Creatures.
Inspired by Carl Jung’s concept of the woman inside the man, the man inside the woman, Anima Animus came out in 1999. I was sixteen. I didn’t know who the Creatures were then. I didn’t know who Siouxsie and the Banshees were, either. I had no concept of punk, post-punk, or goth. What I did know was goth’s nebulous 90s progeny: industrial music.
My cousin got me into it. We played The Downward Spiral on repeat. We watched MTV2 in her basement, marveling at Marilyn Manson’s vampiric sexlessness, both horrified and strangely turned on. As was the regrettable fate of so many teenagers at the turn of the century, we would soon move on to the angry-man titans of nu-metal: Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park, and Korn. But for a while, our truest love was a band called Orgy. Posters on my bedroom walls of Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonathan Taylor Thomas were replaced by Jay Gordon’s industrial quintet of androgynous men in asymmetrical haircuts, glam outfits, black eyeliner and lipstick. Alone in my bedroom, I ran my finger along Jay’s jawline and memorized the angles of his spiky black hair as he screamed New Order’s “Blue Monday” through the speakers of my Sony three-disc stereo. It’s embarrassing now, my infatuation with a neo-goth dude like Jay Gordon. But where my cousin and I came from, landlocked and limited to Top 40, before either of our households had an internet connection, bands like Orgy were as transgressive as it got. And with his penciled-in eyebrows and high cheekbones, a swivel in his hips as he sang, Jay’s was the queerest body I’d ever seen—long before I had the word for it. Like my cousin, he existed in a strange new space between the masculine and feminine, and I looked to them both with wonder: this boyish girl and this girlish boy, so far beyond the frontiers of normal, each possessing something I wanted and wanted to be.
Plumes of dirt
Caress a urine-coloured sun
Swarms of angels
Come to kill your sons
There are two ways, linguistically, to interpret the words “Exterminating Angel.” First, as entity: The Angel Who Exterminates. (See also: the Angel of Death.) Second, as action: Killing the Angel. In both cases, in my mind, the Angel is a woman.
In her essay “Professions for Women,” originally delivered as a talk to the Women’s Service League in 1931, Virginia Woolf wrote, now famously, of killing the Angel in the House. From a poem of the same name by Victorian poet Coventry Patmore, the “Angel in the House” is the ideal woman: a devoted housewife who cooks and cleans and cares, whose purpose is to serve her husband and children and God. She is passive and powerless. She is charming, graceful, and meek; she is submissive, sympathetic, and self-sacrificing—“If there was chicken,” Woolf writes, “she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in it.” She is pious and pure. And she should not dwell in the mind, but rather the heart; for it is the heart, and not the mind, that makes a woman.
It is the woman writer’s job, Woolf says, to kill the Angel in the House.
“I should need to do battle with a certain phantom,” she writes, “and the phantom was a woman. It was she who used to come between me and my paper when I was writing…. It was she who bothered me and wasted my time and so tormented me that at last I killed her.”
“My excuse,” she says, “if I were to be had up in a court of law, would be that I acted in self-defence. Had I not killed her she would have killed me. She would have plucked the heart out of my writing.”
Oh those strange Argonauts
Digging again in your pit
Cover them in menstrual stream
Throughout history and across cultures, the Exterminating Angel has made several appearances. It’s the name of a 1962 Mexican surrealist film (and a 2015 opera adaptation) and the nickname of a sixteenth-century French pirate. The Society of the Exterminating Angel, meanwhile, was a nineteenth-century Spanish Catholic group that killed liberals. But the iteration I like best, and the one I would wager inspired the Creatures’ song, is a 1981 painting by Salvador Dalí.
In the painting, “The Exterminating Angels,” an angel bearing a dagger appears to pour forth from the body of a woman—more specifically, from a gaping hole below her belly, in a stream of something that could be interpreted as menstrual blood. The angel, who has no discernable sex organs, raises one arm high above its head, clutching a dagger. Its wings fan out behind it. It is both flying and lunging forward—toward what? Another kill? We don’t know for sure. What we do know is that in angel’s wake, beneath the woman from which it was borne, two bodies—one that might also be an angel (for it too clutches a dagger)—fall dead.
Cover them in black gold
Ripping through your menstrual stream
Anima Animus is a weird album. It’s industrial, kind of, marked by lots of synths, metallic-sounding drums, and plenty of studio fuckery. But it’s also techno, electronica, alternative, and art rock. It’s a little bit of everything, and a thing entirely its own, uncategorizable and genre-defying. Whatever it is, it’s dark, atmospheric, strange, and erotic. It’s disturbing. It’s haunting. It’s undeniably goth.
The labels rejected it. It wasn’t commercial enough, they said; it was too avant-garde. So Siouxsie and Budgie made it themselves, and created their own label, Sioux Records, on which to release it. The Times of London gave it eight out of ten stars, calling it “entrancing, hypnotic, and inventive.” The Sunday Times wrote, “Siouxsie’s voice has lost none of its ability to seduce and unsettle.” They called the eighth track, “Exterminating Angel,” “exquisitely menacing.”
“Exterminating Angel” is a song about the end of the world. More specifically, it’s about destruction borne from the body of a woman who’s sick of it all. Let me be even more specific: It’s a about a giant, man-killing, universe-ending menstrual stream, and the woman who unleashes it. The apocalypse progresses like so: There have been some dudes—let’s call them Argonauts—digging around in our hero’s pit for far too long. And so, like the women of Lemnos, she decides to kill them. All of them. First: Plumes of dirt caress a urine-colored sun. And then: Swarms of angels come to kill your sons. These angels of death pour forth in the great tide of our woman-god’s menses, washing away the sun and the stars, covering the land in death and darkness. Oh, and there are also locusts: hordes of them, blotting out the sun, raining down, rain on everyone. It’s chaos. It’s biblical. It’s a big, bloody war, and this omnipotent woman in the sky is waging it. After all the sons are dead, she’s going after the bourgeoisie (poor little rich thing, poor little misunderstood), and then I’m pretty sure she’s going to kill the angels, too. Because why not? She’s had it, and this is Armageddon. And we the listeners: We’re left somewhere out in space, in the aftermath. There are just black holes where the stars would be watching. Just black holes where the stars should have been.
Show me a song more goth than that.
Out of sync, out of phase
Out of sight, out of spite
I first heard Siouxsie in the early 2000s at a dance club in Madison, Wisconsin, called the Inferno. Like so many businesses in the Midwest, the Inferno was housed in a strip mall—a squat gray building next to a liquor store, a body shop, and a Chinese restaurant, out near the airport and the Oscar Mayer plant, where for many years my father worked. The club is closed now, but back then it was a haven for misfits in a city that afforded few such spaces. The Inferno hosted a monthly theme night called Leather & Lace, at which goth music and the city’s kink scene converged. For a few years, while I was finishing college, I went nearly every month. And it was on one of those nights—the Cure and Joy Division and the Banshees droning through the speakers, pale bodies disaffectedly bopping in the strobe lights, their fishnetted skin flashing in the dark—that I first saw Siouxsie, too. Projected onto a screen, videos in black and white: Siouxsie in a black shirt and tie, Siouxsie in leather. Siouxsie in short, spiky black hair, Siouxsie in painted black lips and eyes. She was everything I had once loved about Jay Gordon but so much better. Jay but so much more real. Jay but a woman, wearing a look that—like the cover song that made him famous—he had only co-opted, and she had created.
As for me, I wore PVC pants and knee-high leather boots. I wore a studded leather belt, a dog collar and cuffs, a tie or a corset or a zip-front Dickies dress, depending on the day. I cut off all my hair and wore it in short black spikes. For a while I ran in the fetish scene, got tied up and tortured, and did plenty of the torturing too. I was top and bottom; I was neither and both. I went to houses in the suburbs, where men called Sir built dungeons in their basements and hosted BDSM play parties that doubled as potlucks—casseroles and crudité after a round of flogging; Midwestern bodies, mottled and red, eating Swedish meatballs from paper plates. And though I eventually decided the scene wasn’t for me, I discovered some important things there, tied to a crucifix in a suburban dungeon, dancing at the Inferno, falling in love with women and men. I asked questions of myself—about my body, about desire—that I’d never been able to ask.
Siouxsie Sioux was born Susan Janet Ballion in 1957 and raised a suburb of southeast London. Her mother was a secretary and her father was an alcoholic bacteriologist who extracted venom from snakes. Siouxsie was sexually assaulted when she was nine, an event that inspired both her music and her rejection of suburbia. She dropped out of school at seventeen, left home, and joined the punk scene in London, following the Sex Pistols and cultivating what would become her signature style: a combination of punk, glam, and bondage fashion—stopping in at least a few times to Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s SEX boutique—her look would become an iconic part of the goth aesthetic. “I was isolated,” she said in a 2005 interview. “So I invented my own world, my own reality. The only way I could deal with how to survive was to get some strong armor.”
Susan became Siouxsie and formed the Banshees in 1976. Two years later, the band’s first single, “Hong Kong Garden,” reached No. 7 on the U.K. charts. “Siouxsie just appeared fully made, fully in control, utterly confident,” said Viv Albertine of the Slits. An impressive number of musicians have named Siouxsie an influence, from PJ Harvey, Shirley Manson, Sinéad O’Connor, and Santigold to Kim Deal, Ana Matronic, and Rachel Goswell of Slowdive (whose name derives from a Banshees song). Siouxsie Sioux was not just a pioneer of goth; she also changed the landscape for women in music.
Siouxsie Sioux is also a problem. Her name is an appropriation of a tribe of people to which she doesn’t belong, a name she gave herself nonetheless. Much of Siouxsie’s music has taken inspiration from other cultures, and the Creatures were no different: The drums on their final studio album, Hái!, were recorded in Japan. Boomerang was recorded in Andalusia, Spain, and incorporates brass arrangements popular to the region. The band’s first album, Feast, was recorded in Hawaii, and features the Lamalani Hula Academy Hawaiian Chanters on several tracks. Like such influences, Siouxsie has said her name was chosen in honor of a people she respected. And some of her music, like “Hong Kong Garden,” was written as a critical response to the racism she encountered in the punk scene. But even so, I can’t help but see a white artist taking what isn’t hers.
And how do we reckon with this? Where do we go with white, feminist icons who have given us something radical, something revolutionary, who have raged against various systems of power but who also take part in similar systems? The question is not a new one, but I still don’t know the answer. What I know is that, much like loving misogynistic music as a teenage girl—singing along to the Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up” or Eminem’s Marshall Mathers LP—as a listener, I’m complicit. I know that, even though the song was written as a send-up of skinheads, I can’t hear “Hong Kong Garden” without feeling uncomfortable. I also know that when I first saw that image of Siouxsie—dark, androgynous, slicing open the idea of femininity, of woman—something inside me broke open. That when I first heard her sing, I was transfixed. I know that each time I write Siouxsie’s name on this page, I feel the problem in my fingers. I know that when I listen to “Exterminating Angel,” I hold that problem in my fist as I throw it into the air.
I grew up in a family that appreciated music. I was raised on oldies, folk, and classic rock, and my parents started taking me to shows when I was young. Of all the musicians we saw together, and there were many, none of them were women.
I grew up playing music, too. I sang in the church choir and was trained on the trumpet. I played classical and jazz, and I was good. I summoned solos more than I played them, the silver instrument an extension of my body. I was the grace of Handel, the guts of an improv over twelve-bar blues. I was the growl of a rolled tongue in the mouthpiece, the wail of a high D.
The trumpet was an instrument for boys. All the musicians we studied were men, and most girls in my school bands played the flute, clarinet, violin—those instruments more tender and sweet. The trumpet was loud, and left no room for prettiness. You had to get ugly to play it. I knew this as I tightened my lips, as my face turned red, as the tendons in my neck stretched and the veins in my temples bulged. But I didn’t care. All that mattered was the music.
It could have been the same for guitar. I got my first acoustic when I was eighteen, my first electric ten years later. Both guitars were gifts. I never bought one for myself, I think now, because I never thought I deserved one. I was living in New York when I got the electric, a pretty sunburst Ibanez, and by then had played in a handful of soul bands as a backup singer and horn player. Two of those bands were fronted by women vocalists, but it was men who played the music. When I started playing guitar in a band of my own, I was terrified. Even though I’d been playing on my own for a decade, in a rock scene made almost entirely of men, I felt like a fraud. On stages throughout the city, I stood with my guitar in my hands and felt like an accessory to the real musicians—the men—who played lead guitar and bass and drums on those stages with me. Somewhere, in the darkest recesses of my brain (probably in the same corner of shame where I stored the Limp Bizkit phase) I heard my cousin’s words. When I gripped the neck of my guitar, my fingers shook.
Piss on it
I’m sick of it
Enough is enough
I wanna fuck it up
I’m still learning to forgive myself for the misogyny of my youth. I’m still learning to destroy it. When girls are raised in working-class towns, where men are defined by their jobs and women are defined as mother and wife; when all girls have access to is the work of men, the music and movies and writing of men; when they are told that men make the money, that men are the heroes; they internalize it. In places like where I grew up—even when one is raised in an open-minded family, where girls are told they can do anything they want—sexism is as indoctrinated as the importance of hard work and independence, as a love of guns and land, as the worship of God and beer and football and hamburger casserole. It builds up in us like a fortress, and it takes a very long time to dismantle.
“She died hard,” Woolf writes of the Angel in her House. “Her fictitious nature was of great assistance to her. It is far harder to kill a phantom than a reality. She was always creeping back when I thought I had dispatched her.”
I used to think of my own Angel only in terms of my life as a writer. It turns out I’ve had to kill her to make music, too. In both cases, it’s a murder I’m committing every day.
I was bleeding when I started writing this essay, and I’m bleeding now, a month later, while I finish it. Maybe this is a coincidence, and maybe it isn’t. But after spending so much time examining a song about an apocalyptic man-killing menstrual stream (and the woman who sang it), I’m struck by how hard it is to even mention my own.
The Creatures released their last record in 2003. A year later, Siouxsie toured for the first time as a solo act. Budgie was still on drums, but hers was the only name on the bill. The Creatures disbanded in 2005, and Siouxsie and Budgie announced their divorce in 2007.
In an interview that year, Siouxsie was asked about her sexuality—a question she dodged throughout her career. “I’ve never particularly said I’m hetero or I’m a lesbian,” she said. “I know there are people who are definitely one way, but not really me. I suppose if I am attracted to men then they usually have more feminine qualities.”
The same year, when Siouxsie turned fifty, she released her first solo record.
I wonder, sometimes, if Siouxsie ever felt like an imposter, a woman standing on a stage of men, pretending she belonged there. It’s hard to imagine Siouxsie Sioux feeling anything but confident, so utterly herself. But I can’t help but think of the Creatures as Siouxsie’s real sojourn into selfhood. The band was both Siouxsie and Budgie, sure. But to me, it seems, the Creatures—and in particular “Exterminating Angel”—spoke of something that had lived inside Siouxsie for a long time and was finally making its way out: something darker, something stronger, something about to split open. Of all Siouxsie’s work, “Exterminating Angel” is perhaps the most turbulent. It’s fed up, and it’s angry. It’s a feminist battle cry, a call to arms. It’s an incantation, a spell, a summoning of creatures brutal and dark. It might also be a proposal: to kill the Angels within us—that were born in us, that were instilled in us, that have lived inside us for so long—so that we might be free.
Maybe “Exterminating Angel” is Siouxsie’s own breaking free, as a musician and a woman, after existing for so long in a band, in an industry, in a world made of men.
Or maybe I’m just seeing what I want to see. Like all art, we bring to it our own interpretations. Our experiences and desires and hopes become what we make of it.
About a year ago, I bought myself a new guitar. It’s a Stratocaster, its body a glossy black. I replaced its colorful pick guard with a black one. It’s a gorgeous machine, and so exquisitely goth. I’m still learning how to trust myself when I hold it, to walk onstage and play without thinking about how I’m being judged. I’m still learning to believe I belong there. Sometimes when I play I’m a kid again, unafraid, my body a part of the sound I create. It vibrates in my fingers and rises up in my spine and fills my chest like I’m made of it. And sometimes my cousin’s words still ring in my ears. When that happens, I might channel Siouxsie Sioux. I might channel Karen O. I might channel Neko Case or Shirley Manson or Kathleen Hanna or Sister Rosetta Tharpe—any number of women who I have loved, who came before me, who did this long before I did and in circumstances far less forgiving. Who raged against systems that were made by men, who killed whatever angels lived in their houses in order to do it. Who got onstage and said, Enough is enough. I wanna fuck it up.
Melissa Faliveno is an essayist, musician, displaced Midwesterner, and member of the decidedly un-goth band Self Help, whose debut record, Maybe It's You, was released in 2018. Her essays have appeared in DIAGRAM, Midwestern Gothic, Prairie Schooner, and others, and her first collection, Tomboyland, is forthcoming in 2020.