(13) THE CRUXSHADOWS, “MARILYN MY BITTERNESS”
(10) the chameleons, “swamp thing”
and play 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 26.
BERRY GRASS ON “SWAMP THING”
I mean, he isn’t called Marsh Thing. Too gentle for what was originally a 1970s horror comic about a man dying in a laboratory explosion & chemically bonding with plants, becoming a chlorophyllic, existential facsimile of a human. So is Fen Thing, and even Bog Thing sounds silly. What is it about the wetland word swamp that holds our collective darknesses? Swamps are essentially just flooded forests but we’ve imbued them with our fears, as if everything that we aren’t—or everything we’re afraid that we actually are—lurks beneath, waiting to consume us. What makes it scary to acknowledge one’s reflection in the muck and the murk?
In the seminal trading card game, Magic: the Gathering, most cards feature italicized text found at the bottom of the card that conveys character or symbolism or story about the card itself. This is called flavor text. For example, the flavor text to the Magic card “Mind Sludge,” which makes an opponent discard cards from their hand, reads as follows: When you get into the swamp, the swamp gets into you.
Ambiguity is the hallmark of the goth aphorism. After nearly 5 minutes of delicate atmospheric construction—jangly guitars and propulsive drums and synthesizer keys held down making an eerie wind—the mood breaks and the melody sounds triumphant and the bass grooves with glee. It is at this point, the song winding down, that Mark Burgess, singer & bassist for The Chameleons, cries out over and over, “Now the storm has come...or is it just another shower?” The two being, apparently, not the same kind of rainfall. The Storm, then, capital S, must be for Burgess something rare, something important. Unraveled still by the looping twang of guitar strings, I can’t quite tell if the Storm is the nourishing kind, the prayed-for kind, or if it’s the Big One, the inevitable threat, The End.
In Magic: the Gathering you can’t escape the swamp. The most commonly played card in Magic are Basic Land cards, which generate the in-game currency, called mana, that players use to play creatures and sorceries and enchantments. The Basic Land card that generates black mana is called Swamp. Calling upon the swamps, extracting their resources, allows you to cast spells that embody (according to the developers of the game) “Parasitism, Amorality, Selfishness, & Paranoia.” Black mana’s creatures tend to be the undead or demons. Its spells evoke plague, vampirism, zombification, Faustian bargains, necromancy.
We’re all thinking it here: President Trump’s campaign promise to “drain the swamp.” He was referring to Washington D.C., both the city and the political climate there. For the GOP, which is as close to a political embodiment of the values of black mana as can be, this slogan means that to drain the swamp would be to siphon out the mud and dreck of civil liberties protections & financial regulations to leave a useable crater to be filled back in with defense contractors and oil lobbyists and christofascists. You know, sturdier stuff. Ironically, when Democrat majority leader Nancy Pelosi was campaigning in 2006, she also used the slogan “drain the swamp,” and for her then the Wall Street tycoons and health insurers and roadblocks to campaign finance reform so beloved by Trump were the aspects of D.C. that needed removal. It’s often said that Washington D.C. was itself built on a swamp—not metaphorically, but on literal swampland. People point to the nearby mashlands of Maryland, and the fact that D.C.’s summer humidity is chokingly intense, but it’s an urban legend. The town was built on dry riverbed & woodland hills. Swamp somehow makes space for our collective ideas of rot. But far from decaying, the foundations of the city, much like the ideas of white supremacy and settler colonialism that make up the foundations of the American project, have been stable this whole time.
I know what waiting for the inevitable feels like. When your mom has a cancer recurrence, when her cancer cells are metastasizing throughout her upper body, every ache, every sneeze, every skipped meal might mean the Big One is finally here. A routine trip to the doctor because of a lingering cough might mean the last hospital admission she ever has, might mean, like a sudden, violent downpour, the thing you couldn’t see it coming even if you knew it was always coming.
A comprehensive review of 189 wetland studies cited in the academic journal Marine and Freshwater Research found that the Earth has lost 54-57% of its total wetland area compared to pre-industrial totals, almost entirely owing to human drainage projects.
You tell me what the common thread is here. I had a childhood where, in assorted parts, I spent time obsessing over: Anne Rice’s “The Vampire Chronicles” series; walking around graveyards; trying to accrue as many extra lives in video games that I could; heavy metal bands; playing as the Necromancer class in “Diablo II”; the concept of séances & actually trying to perform them; Magic: the Gathering decks that brought creatures back from the dead; a band I was in that I named “Phoenix Down,” after the item in the Final Fantasy series of role playing games that gives a character the infamous revivifying qualities of the eponymous firebird; my favorite professional wrestler, who has always been The Undertaker—a supernatural lord of the dead, who began as a zombie gravedigger controlled by a mortician with an occult urn, who was killed, literally buried [un-]alive multiple times, who always came back from out the dirt months later with increasing consciousness & independence & preternatural power over light and electricity, who always came back to compete at WrestleMania to defend his undefeated streak of victories, who always came back.
The closest thing to a conventional chorus in The Chameleons’ song, “Swamp Thing,” contains, in part, the lyrics: “Look around, look around./All around you walls are tumbling down./Stop staring at the ground.” I spend more days than I’d like to admit doing nothing. My depression and my executive dysfunction tag-teaming me into missing deadlines, not returning emails, underpreparing for work. It takes hours some days just to leave the bed in the morning. I skip meals simply because putting my body into motion is too daunting. I am not special in my struggle, I know. Many people feel the frustration of illness interfering with their capability or ambition. Feel like they are wasting time. My mental health is at its poorest after I read about how little time we all probably have left. Every week is a new report that ecological collapse is happening faster than even aggressive climate models were projecting. Every week we learn how fast the coral is acidifying, how drastically in decline is the world’s insect population, what year within the next twenty or ten that millions upon millions of people will be displaced from their coastal homes and become climate refugees, holding out a desperate hope that they will not be killed at the border of a neighboring country even as, right now in the year I am writing this, the world is already obsessing over the ideas of nationalism and border control and citizenry and ownership and hoarding resources and the world is already forgetting about the concept of mercy. Humanity has only a Hail Mary pass of a chance to keep global warming levels right under 2 degrees Celsius warmer than pre-industrial temperatures (above which point the rate of warming is thought to increase exponentially in a way that we won’t be able to prevent), and it’s going to require a global rejection of capitalist models of resource and labor distribution as soon as possible. The bleakest climate models tell us that it’s already too late. I sit around, failing to write, failing to think, failing to do the dishes, trying to process that this is the best my life is ever going to be. That I know what waiting for the inevitable feels like. It feels like this.
The thing about swamps is that we pour into them what we fear will harm us. The thing about swamps is that so does the Earth. Swamps and other wetlands take in atmospheric carbon, sink it deep within themselves. Swamps remove carbon from the air and turn it into plant tissue, which in turn collects & stores more carbon. Swamps act as a buffer for storm surge and rising water levels. If we could increase the total amount of wetlands on Earth, restore or refresh or repair them, we could dramatically fight back against the carbon crisis while helping mitigate some of the damage that we’ve already caused to our climate. It’s a cruel truth: that what we’re scared of, be it socialism or swamps or decolonial solidarity, is what will actually save us.
I’ve been trying get this essay to come together not by draining its excess but by addition, by flooding the page with associations. It’s gotten messier and messier as it has resisted saying the thing I’ve been trying not to say. I’ve barely written about my mom’s death because I’ve felt that some things deserve to be privately held. But what you feel is good for you is not always good for the art, so I think I need to show you what I’ve kept submerged so far.
Before she died, my mom had signed a Do Not Resuscitate form that was [arguably] violated by workers at the hospital she eventually passed away in. I’ll refrain from specific names so as not to get bogged down in a legal complication (I didn’t even intend to use a wetland pun there, but so hazardous & inscrutable is the justice system that it’s cliché to compare it to dark depths). They revived her body, keeping it alive on life support. It was midnight by the time I flew in & made my way to the hospital, right in time to see the nurse attempt to see if my mom still had active brain activity. It’s called an apnea test—turning off the respirator, flooding the lungs with pure oxygen, and seeing how the gasses in the blood respond. Ten eternal minutes went by with no change, then, quite suddenly, seemingly as if in response to my voice—“I’m here, your daughter Berry is here,” I said; the very first time I referred to myself as my mom’s daughter -- my mom’s arms raised themselves up for the first time in two days and her hands moved towards her face. In the part of me where I thought hope was the most radiant I thought she was trying to communicate. I thought through my presence alone I was bringing her back, but to place your hope in Black Magic is by design a selfish hope. What actually was happening was an autonomous response, her hands trying to pull the breathing tube from out of her throat. It was not a conscious movement. There was no indication of brain activity when her arms raised up for what would be the last time. In 14 hours from that point, my brother and I would decide, easily, to remove our mom from life support & she would pass, her brain at peace if negation can be said to be a kind of peace, into waters uncertain. It was an easy decision to make. She signed that DNR form because she had no interest in being kept, technically, alive by a machine. No desire to live as a scientific shell. To have put my hope into the impossibility of her mental consciousness returning to her would have been actually, I think, hopelessness. The difference between my mom and Swamp Thing is that Swamp Thing had to deal personally with the existential crisis of being alive but no longer human. With my mom, that same existential crisis instead belonged to me, my brother, everyone in her life.
I think what I’m feeling here is that I need to learn how to hope unselfishly. Hoping to be saved, that it will all work out, is selfish, like waiting around for the inevitable storm, when what is required is action. Unselfish hope is active. It’s working for and with other people. It’s collective action against Parasitism, Amorality, Selfishness, Paranoia. I think hope is about not staring at the ground. I think it’s about overcoming fear.
From the flavor text to the Magic: the Gathering card, “Tendrils of Corruption”:
“Even swamps need sustenance. We will give it to them, and in turn, they will sustain us.” —Ezrith, druid of the Dark Hours
Berry Grass has lived in rural Missouri, Tuscaloosa, and Philadelphia. She is the author of Hall of Waters (2019, The Operating System). Her essays have appeared in DIAGRAM, The Normal School, Territory, Barrelhouse, and Sonora Review, among other publications. Her favorite bit of Goth street cred is that in high school she convinced her mom to let her paint her bedroom walls black.
ABSORB THIS AGONY: JIM RULAND ON “MARILYN MY BITTERNESS”
You’re 15 or 18 or 21 and it’s your first time in the club.
It’s dark and loud and a lot more crowded than you’d imagined.
You’re with a friend or friends. No one goes to the club alone.
You stick close to one another until you find a spot where all this chaos won’t seem so confusing.
You’re not old enough to drink. Or you can’t afford to. Or it’s not really important to you. Or you got hammered in the parking lot before you came inside. Or the substance you got from a friend starts to kick in.
You’re 15 or 18 or 21 and you came here to cut loose.
A new song comes on. Maybe you’ve never heard it before. Maybe you listen to it every day. But you’ve never heard anything this loud before.
Hearing isn’t the right word for it. Hearing happens above the neck. This you can feel with your whole body, a feeling that sends you out onto the dance floor, into the loud shadows, and throbbing smoke, bodies seething all around you.
Do you remember that feeling?
Do you remember the first time you were summoned to the dance floor? Do you remember navigating that vertiginous strobing space? Do you remember the urgency of it all?
Of course you do.
You danced your fool ass off.
For me it happened at an all ages Goth club.
I was a sailor in the Navy and my ship was stationed in San Diego. One of my shipmates had found a flyer for the club. Although he was 21, I was not. I wasn’t old enough to get into bars and clubs, so he decided we should go.
This shipmate, let’s call him Neal, turned me on to a lot of great music from Bauhaus to Bad Religion, Tones on Tail to T.S.O.L.
These were songs that I wouldn’t have heard on the radio. Or, if they were on the radio, I wouldn’t have known where to look for them.
I was a teenager from Virginia. My childhood was 1% Ramones, 1% Devo, way too much MTV, and 10,000 hours of classic rock.
I wasn’t cool, not even close, but I was smart and hungry for new experiences. Neal obliged.
He made me tapes and gave me books. He encouraged me to buy a pair of Doc Martens and keep a journal.
We went to see Hunter S. Thompson and Love and Rockets and Crash Worship and Peter Murphy and Lords of the New Church. I took LSD for the first time and Neal made sure to play “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” as the sun went down. (Years later, a friend in college described Daniel Ash’s guitar work on that song as “frozen bat wings,” which I think is a good description of the music, but even better when applied to the onset of an acid trip.)
I was 18 years old. I didn’t know anything about anything. So when Neal said, “Let’s go to the Goth club,” we went to the Goth club.
“What’s Goth?” I asked.
“Punk music you can dance to,” Neal replied.
I wasn’t much of a dancer—at least not anymore. For most of my childhood I was an Irish dancer. My brother, two sisters, and I took lessons every Monday night. In March, we performed all over Northern, Virginia, Southern Maryland, and Washington D.C., and marched in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. During the summer, we competed in dance competitions up and down the eastern seaboard. The older of my two sisters was really good and nearly won a championship one year, but by then my brother and my other sister had dropped out. I was a decent dancer, good but not great, but it didn’t translate into confidence in myself. This was way before Riverdance, and I had to wear a kilt, a fucking gold kilt, which I hated. Eventually the charm of being constantly teased and taunted wore off, and I hung up my dancing shoes for good.
Neal wore all black to the Goth club. He might have been wearing eyeliner but I was too weirded out to ask. I put on jeans, a sweater I’d picked up at Goodwill, and my new Docs. Neal’s hair was too long for Navy regs. Mine was too short. I looked like skinhead from the sticks. That was as Goth as I could get.
The club was packed with beautiful freaks. I felt awkward and nervous and super self-conscious, as I usually did around attractive women my own age. For the first time, I experienced the thrill of hearing “my” music at a gathering of strangers. I’d been to punk shows and rock concerts, but this felt different, more intimate.
Then it happened. The music overrode my inhibitions and I flung myself onto the dance floor. My crippling shyness slipped away. I stopped thinking about my body and its desirability or lack thereof. I ceased to be a person at all. I was just another body on the dance floor, a body orbiting other bodies that occasionally collided, each of us in our own cosmos, dancing, dancing, dancing by ourselves together.
This was years before “Marilyn, My Bitterness” by The Crüxshadows dominated Goth-industrial-fetish friendly dance clubs around the world.
Although “Marilyn, My Bitterness” came out in 1996 on the band’s second album, Telemetry of an Angel, it blended in seamlessly with songs from at least a decade older.
Its surging synthesizers, relentless beats, melodramatic lyrics, and hushed vocals owe something to New Order’s “True Faith.” The Crüxshadows weren’t a mega popular super group with major label backing, but a scrappy darkwave synthpop outfit out of Jacksonville, Florida, led by their charismatic front man Rogue who has kept the project going since 1992.
No consideration of The Crüxshadows is complete without discussing Rogue’s white boy dreads. Shaved on the sides and gathered at the top like a carrot, the strands shoot up and fall forward. The effect is part Perry Farrell, part Sideshow Bob. If Iggy Pop moved to Florida in the ‘90s to become an ecstasy dealer, he’d probably look a lot like Rogue.
“Marilyn, My Bitterness” sounds both soothingly familiar and eerily timeless. From its riveting syncopation to its vaguely English-sounding intonations, it’s one of those songs that seems as if it’s always been in the playlist of your imagination, those drum machines endlessly churning in the back of your mind.
More than anything, “Marilyn, My Bitterness” is exceptionally danceable. The beat beckons, the beat beguiles. It’s difficult to imagine listening to “Marilyn, My Bitterness” and not dancing.
Neal and I never went back to that Goth club but the genie had been let out of the bottle. Neal and I started hanging out at dance clubs in Tijuana. The liquor was cheaper and danger lurked around every corner. We got to know a pair of Goth girls who thoroughly took advantage of us. We paid their way in and bought them drinks but the only time they ever danced with us was when they were trying to get away from boys they were even less interested in than us.
We shipped out for a six-month cruise and sought out dance clubs all over the Western Pacific. Yokosuka, Hong Kong, Darwin. But the nights at California Jam on the infamous Magsaysay in Olongapo in the Philippine Islands were the best. The sound system was like nothing I’d never heard before and the cover band was truly spectacular. We combined San Miguel beer with Robitussin cough syrup and stayed up all night dancing at Cal Jam.
My Goth phase was short lived, but my affinity for the music endures. Bauhaus’ “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” the Cure’s “A Forest,” and Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Wheel on Fire” still do it for me. The Crüxshadows are still making new music, and while I’m hard-pressed to call it Goth they are big in Germany and still have devoted fans.
I don’t go to dance clubs anymore because I’m not 15 or 18 or 21, and before too long I’ll be all of those numbers put together. I am an enthusiastic dancer at weddings, Quinceañera, and holiday parties. I don’t drink or do drugs anymore, but my feet still know what to do when the beat becomes impossible to resist. They know what my heart knows and my brain sometimes manages to forget: all music is dance music.
Jim Ruland lives in Southern California and is currently working on a book with the punk rock band Bad Religion. This photo was taken last year. He thought you should know.