first round game
(13) the cruxshadows, “marilyn my bitterness”
(4) nick cave, “red right hand”
and will play on in the second round
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 8.
elena passarello on “red right hand”
The tubular bells were designed in the mid-nineteenth century, an era when Romantic composers often scored church chimes into their music. While the bell of a cathedral can weigh twelve tons —like the Grande Marie bolted into Notre Dame’s Gothic tower—a tubular bell is a mere ten-pound pipe that hangs on a portable frame behind the percussionist. Each pipe-bell waits to be rung at its top with a felted “chime hammer.” A single note struck smartly, the sustain pedal ground down to the stage floor, produces a tone loud and clear enough to change the vibration of a large symphony hall. It’s the kind of sound that shocks the ear, transporting it—CLANG!—into an entirely different universe.
When Nick Cave and the rest of The Birthday Party first moved to England in the wet spring of 1980, they were greeted by a post-Punk scene in shambles. Ian Curtis died a few weeks after their arrival. The Pop Group went political and PiL had decamped to the States. After several demoralizing months, they retreated to Australia, broke and malnourished. The quartet tightened around each other, each member daring the next to further commit to their chaotic live shows, which grew into riots of both sound and physicality. Cave visibly used the 1981 tour of his homeland to turn himself into a monster. He tattooed a skull on his arm, spiked his hair, blackened his eyes. Onstage, he began smearing HELL on his chest in blood-red paint and then he’d walk into the audience to find a body to attack.
Among the oldest bells of Geneva’s St. Pierre Cathedral is Le Cloche des Heures in the church’s spire, which has marked time around the southern tip of Lake Geneva for over four centuries. It chimed all the way through 1816, “The Year Without a Summer,” when a sun-starved Percy Bysshe Shelley fled England with his teenaged second wife. In Geneva, Percy and Mary Shelley spent most nights with Lord Byron and his doctor friend, Polidori. Holed up in a villa near St. Pierre Cathedral for all of that cold and soggy June, the four young writers passed the time with laudanum, overheated debates, and Byron’s challenge that each must invent a truly frightening story to tell by the fire.
Where the Punk of England in the late Seventies trafficked in immediacy—in the sonic NOW of a room that caged the bodies trying to move inside it—post-Punk stretched those arenas into spaces that bore down, droned, and spliced themselves. Letting in more air, more time, created places in which musicians could build new configurations: dream worlds, allusions, fables, and symbols. When the Birthday Party arrived back in England and found this new breed of live show popping up in London clubs, they were ready for it—ready to first bring their dark and newly-built universe through the clubs’ doors, and then to blow said doors off their hinges.
Years later, Mary Shelley remembered how Bryon’s challenge overtook her thoughts that summer: “I busied myself to think of a story….one that would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror—one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood and quicken the beatings of the heart.”
Flyers began calling this new London scene “Positive Punk.” An ironic moniker, perhaps, since the music at these club nights was more lumbering, low-bottomed, and darker. Soon, musicians brought that new energy into the studio, trying the kinds of production values Punk wouldn’t have been caught dead with: harps, violins, reverb machines, and the bells and whistles of orchestral percussion.
Percy Shelley was the first of the four to bow out of their story challenge. Byron started a spooky novel, then abandoned the fragment, and Dr. Polidori soon stalled on “some horrible tale about a skull-headed lady.” But as Le Cloche Des Heures chimed, one, two, three on the morning of June sixteenth, a vision clamored the space between Mary Shelley’s dreams and her waking life. By sunrise, she knew the vision well—“I saw a hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion.”
Goth seems to have lived longer than most musical subsets. If you’re not a purist, you might agree that an Eighties Goth girl could have borne a child that was then babysat by a Nineties Goth, and that baby could have grown into a millennial Goth—each fan with a music to call her own. This seems rare to me: for a scene to find multiple iterations, rather than imitations, of itself. So I find it tough to pinpoint a musical style that can fully encompass Wednesday nights at the Bat Cave in 1982 and that dreamy Evanescence video from 2003 and a bootleg cassette of a “Red Right Hand” performance at Lollapalooza ‘94. Better, I think, to define Goth by something more abstract, like storytelling.
Cultures all the way back to Sumer have told tales of parasitic demons. Sometimes the creature is vapor; in other places, it’s a boneless and slithering mass. After the Black Plague, stories of the undead ran rabid in Europe. More often than not, the monsters were naked, barbaric things— half-wolf-half-devils rooting thru cemeteries with their snouts and unearthing graves with their claws. Polish legend includes the story of the upire that first rises from death to devour its intimates, and then runs to the nearest church to ring its bell. Whatever unlucky soul hears those chimes will become the beast’s next victim.
Later in his career, Nick Cave often wove storytelling into his live appearances: readings from his novels, lectures on faith and Leonard Cohen, monologues delivered on cabaret stools. But Birthday Party Nick Cave did none of this. Instead, he’d strip to trousers and a tight black tee and squat at the end of the stage, blinded by his own ragamuffin hair. With the microphone’s cord around his neck, Cave would monkey grunt into the grille, pausing to hit himself in the forehead repeatedly—the mic bonging like a clapper.
Mary Shelley’s late night visions consumed the Geneva quartet. Byron’s companion Dr. Polidori—still a teenager, like Mary herself—scrapped his “skull-headed lady” tale and instead resurrected the novel fragment that Byron had begun. When he finished, Polidori’s tale told of a tall, handsome man of mysterious provenance with a taste for vice. An aristocrat instead of the typical folk barbarian, this Byronic devil lives indoors and visits European capitals. In Polidori’s story, he’s a winsome flatterer who prefers to stage his evildoing in castles, carriages, and at the baccarat table—save one brutal scene that he sets the black heart of a cave.
Two monstrous selves, Frankenstein’s creature and the vampire as we now understand him, arose from that same dark summer, built around the same fires, given life by the same loud chime.
Though many examples are ridiculous, I admire the way Goth songs construct new worlds. It’s a mixture of soundscape and weighty lyrics, I think, that makes Goth universes immediately spring forward to the listener, like pop-up books. Through this, they can then use narrative as a second location for the self. In Goth storyscapes, the self earns a new body on which it can travel, moving in a manner much more like how we move in our dreams. There’s something to be said for identifying not with an immediate NOW, but a peripheral shadow—an alternate specter that hovers near the command center of our daylight persona. But what a devil’s bargain that is! And what happens to the people who manage to traffic in that shadowy currency not just for a faddish moment, but for decades?
Dr. Polidori’s reanimated vampire tale ran in The New Monthly two years after that Geneva summer, and the story—“Who could resist his power? His tongue had dangers and toils to recount!”—caused a London panic. Two years later, Charles Nodier morphed Polidori’s smash into Le Vampyre: on stage this time, and in French.
David J. of Bauhaus played multiple European dates with Cave and his band, and remembers the attack of their early Eighties live sets as infectious and otherworldly. He says the Birthday Party brought into those rooms “some of the most devastating performances we had ever seen, although 'performance' is not really appropriate, as this was more like shamanic catharsis."
As the 19th Century wore on, its stage vampires grew fancier and more lyrical. Nodier’s Lord Ruthwen begat Marschner’s Der Vampyr, an opera scored for a baritone in German. Then came Planché’s The Vampire OR Bride of the Isles, which begins with two spirits shuddering in blank verse: “Such is their won’drous art, the hapless victim/ Blindly adores, and drops into their grasp.”
The Birthday Party were once the Boys Next Door and they eventually became the Bad Seeds. In their trajectory, I see a pair of transformations. The first is the sonic trajectory of Mick Harvey, musical director of Cave’s projects for thirty years. Their collaboration began when the two were the skinniest, weirdest characters at a Melbourne art school and ended with the demon chorale that is 2004’s Abbatoir Blues. You can hear his confidence growing throughout this on-the-job education. Harvey sports an obviously keen mission to layer and experiment, and—though it might seem impossible when listening to, say, 1980’s “Scum”—his long game strives for both complexity and polish. I marvel at several astonishing stops along Harvey’s way: the polyrhythms of “King Ink,” the bluesy storm of “Tupelo,” and the tubular bells that cut through the sinister fog of “Red Right Hand.”
1820 to 1828 to 1865 to 1878. One vampire brought about another, and another. The natty, genteel demons replicated again and again; they stalked, killed, and resurrected themselves all the way to the end of the century. Critic (and proto-Goth) Montague Summers put it best: “it were not easy to overestimate the astounding sensation.”
Mick Harvey and drummer Thomas Wydler worked up the music of “Red Right Hand” somewhat independent of the story. Decades later, Harvey remembered that “much of it came from a jam” during the Let Love In sessions. Before the dusty black coat or the stacks of green paper came Wydler’s whisper-light brush snare, Martyn Casey’s Nintendo bassline, and Cave’s eerie organ. Their instrumental work is a razor-sharp staging for the tale to come. Sonically, the world is already laid out like a carpet—the ghettoes and the barrio and the bowery and the slum.
One might argue that such consistent and slick production discards the squalid, barbaric world once brilliantly inhabited by the Birthday Party. But maybe it only shoves that rawness under the bed of the song. That fervor is rendered inaudible, but still kept on the premises, so that if you listen hard enough, you can still hear their former monster stories. I, for one, understand those tubular bell hits—CLANG!— as placeholders for the classic material Harvey, Cave, & co. have omitted. They’ve shoved their ragged fire into the chimes, as if bells can work for them like portals.
Or, as Dumas puts it in his 1852 script : “the eyes of the cadaver open wide and his mouth smiles lugubriously. [He] first sits up …then rises completely and after having shaken his hair to the wind, he deploys great wings and flies off.”
Harvey says Cave found the “Red Right Hand” music uninspiring at first, and he had to be coaxed to drum up some lyrics. The too-good-to-fact-checked legend is that Cave then imagined a world so vivid that he filled a whole notebook with its details—city maps, local folklore, public officials, lists of victims —and then ended up using none of it. In Cave’s hazy finished product, even the devil that’s attached to the famous crimson hand goes unnamed. Still, he tows behind him a long line of bloodthirsty devils who, along with Harvey’s music, can fill in the story’s gaps.
A century of gentlemen vampires until, in 1897, England stopped in its tracks to obsess over Bram Stoker’s most outsized version of the Polidori tale, a figure named after a footnote Stoker found in a dry account of Carpathian legends. “He is brute, and more than brute; he is devil in callous….he can, within his range, direct the elements; the storm, the fog, the thunder; he can command all the meaner things: the rat, and the owl, and the bat….he can grow and become small; and he can at times vanish and come unknown.”
“He’s a man, he’s a god, he’s a ghost, he’s a guru.”
The other major evolution in the Bad Seeds’ trajectory is, of course, Nick Cave himself. By 1994, he’d been onstage for two decades. His crooning (albeit notably flat) voice in “Red Right Hand” is a far cry from those early screams of “SEX VAMPIRE! BITE!” Lyrics-wise, “Red Right Hand” is much more AP English; that titular hand alludes to a Paradise Lost line—spoken by a fallen angel as it cringes, thinking God’s vengeful slap. I wonder if that reference would ever get a pass from the spotty London bedsit squatter Cave used to be. Such a literary shout-out bears the mark of a man in a bespoke suit and French cuffs. It’s such a worldlier choice—one fit for a thirty-six-year-old husband and father of two, a guy with a closet full of haberdashery and multiple international residences.
Lord Byron died at thirty-six, in Greece, after a bloodletting left him septic. Shelley departed two years before him, drowning in the Ligurian Sea, a month shy of thirty. Poor Polidori barely made it to twenty-five when, overwhelmed by debt, the doctor drank the Prussic acid from his own stores. Mary Shelley is the only member of their band of storytellers who made it to middle age. When she succumbed to a brain tumor at fifty-three, her son opened a sealed box on her desk to find locks of hair from all the children she’d lost, the remains of her husband’s heart, and a story written in Shelley’s wobbly hand.
Nick Cave’s eleventh album, Let Love In, was released the month twenty-seven-year old Kurt Cobain died. That summer, Cave sang its middle track, “Red Right Hand,” at nearly every stop of the Lollapalooza Festival. This was a tour the band hated and few of his fans understood. Who books guys like that to play outdoors and in broad daylight? Plus, Cave was a decade older than most other Lollapalooza performers, whom he generally avoided (save his pals in L7). “Red Right Hand” came during a run of strange choices on Cave’s part. He contributed a song to the 1995 Batman movie, noting later that the songwriting charge “took twenty minutes. They asked me to write what Batman means to me, which in my case is basically nothing.” That same year, “Red Right Hand” appeared on the Dumb and Dumber soundtrack, which is only the second least Goth thing to ever happen to the song in its twenty-five-year existence.
Here’s the thing about the scores of vampires who followed Polidori’s dark tale: each one of them dies. Stabbed, beheaded (or both), sealed up in caves, incinerated by fire or the sun. Apparently, ticking clocks come standard with Byronic demons, and even the undead can only last so long. But I can’t help but wonder how, were he left to his own devices, one of these vampires might keep his own tale going. And if he managed to leap from the end of a story to another chapter, would there ever come a point at which the vampire could not resurrect himself?
A 2014 New York Times profile opens with Nick Cave moping outside Elvis’s house. The rest of the Bad Seeds had signed up for the full Graceland tour, but Cave, author of a couple songs about the King, couldn’t follow them: “I stayed out on the curb, smoking cigarettes and feeling sorry for myself.” This is an image straight from the literary Gothic—a moody figure crumbling outside a mansion that he, for some reason, cannot enter. It doesn’t matter how hard he tries, how many times he rings the bell. Inside is a world he can only imagine, and it is the same inward vision that triggers his agony. According to Cave, remembering “those last Elvis performances—the ones for television” was what paralyzed him. In those shows, a swollen Elvis is visibly confused, unable to hold onto notes, but still saddled with the gig. “I must have watched those clips a hundred times,” Cave said. “They’re like crucifixions. I couldn’t bring myself to go inside.”
Elvis is Goth because he was a man of obsessions and locked doors. Because he didn’t make it past forty-two, but still managed to live forever. Because of his wicked good black hair, which, like Cave’s, was dyed from an early age. Because he preferred his women in witchy makeup and his days to begin after sundown. Because he loved the maudlin and missed his momma every day. Because his body tried to escape itself. Because, in the end, his story left his body to live independently of him.
Cave’s Graceland agony is that of Cathy’s ghost out on the heath, banging at Lockwood’s window. It is the agony of Nosferatu—the surprisingly sweet, silent star of cinema’s best vampire story—staring balefully at his beloved’s front stoop. Or the agony of “Lover Man” (the other song from Let Love In that features tubular bells) when Cave sings, “there's a devil waiting outside your door. He's weak with evil and broken by the world. He's shouting your name and he's asking for more–give him more, give him more.”
Maybe “Red Right Hand” isn’t Goth as much as it is Pop, but it’s a special class of the genre that I hereby deem “Creepy Pop.” This surprisingly deep pocket of our collective songbook includes “She’s Not There,” “Spooky,” “White Wedding,” and “Thriller,” but none of these other songs ring any Goth bells. “Red Right Hand” stands as the category’s finest example. It never lets down its ominous guard, nor does it shatter the illusion of the world it creates with Pop’s usual suspects (trite rhymes, forced breakdowns). The sonic arrangement manages a blend of portent and catchiness that has (so far) proven timeless. It loops without being an earworm. What’s more, I’ve listened to it at least 100 times this month and have yet to totally figure it out. It’s like Mick Harvey said in 2016: “sometimes it’s better to think ‘what the hell’s that all about?’ It’s better that it’s unknowable and spooky. The song has its own life now.”
Nosferatu is Goth for all the obvious reasons, but I find myself most haunted by its humor. Bald and bat-eared (kinda like Mr. Burns) he’s an older, homelier vampire who prowls about Germany, confused and ineffectual. After crossing oceans of time to find his beloved, he ends up mostly spying on her through a neighbor’s window, his long hands folded and his face hangdog. Not to mention, when he lands in her town, he has to carry his coffin himself! Every time I watch the scene of skinny Nosferatu lugging that long casket through the streets of Wisborg, I giggle. Through him, geriatric vampire life looks so cumbersome (shouldn’t he have, like, a butler or something?). All this is high Goth to me in that it’s the kind of story that, from a different angle, turns absurd.
Cave’s Goth (or Goth-adjacent) behavior has always been funny, but his jokes are often overshadowed by the dark themes of his music. 1981’s “Release the Bats,” another March Vladness contender, was written as a total piss-take, as goofy as the 1981 interview where the Birthday Party said their favorite band was Genesis. Cave’s humor seems a kind of survival skill in the face of a sound so ripe for pigeonholing. One way a vampire can extend his story, it seems, is by not taking himself so seriously. See the 2004 Bad Seeds song “Babe I’m On Fire”—a ten-minute list poem drenched in noise—when Cave mentions a “sweet little Goth with her ears of cloth.” John Hillcoat shot a video for the song in which that sweet Goth is played by Cave himself, wigged and pancaked and batting his eyelashes while cuddling a copy of Let Love In.
The absolute least Goth thing that ever happened to “Red Right Hand” occurred October 2, 2017, when one of the Property Brothers did a routine to the song on Dancing With the Stars. The dance style was announced as Argentine tango, but turned out to be little more than some sexy leaning with a few random fireman’s carries sprinkled in.] That Property Brother might’ve done better to try some of Cave’s late-career dance moves, which manage to be both ridiculous and titillating. Around the new millennia, Cave seemed to give himself license to dance in his shows like nobody was watching (even though we all were). Imagine an elbowsy, Ed Grimley-style twist mixed with the delicate hand flutters of a Vegas prestidigitator.
I first saw Cave work those moves at a symphony hall in Portland. In a film from the same year, Cave said he sustained himself in live shows by “picking out singular people and terrifying them.” From concertgoers, Cave said, he can siphon “a huge amount of energy to transform.” He was fifty-seven that year—fifteen years past Elvis. We watched him shimmy around the hall’s stage while the Bad Seeds loomed behind. The only song he’s performed live more than “Red Right Hand” is “Mercy Seat,” which he’d already played, so we knew the Hand was coming. Over 2,500 of us waited for that first chime, and when it rang, the band lurched forward and the entire hall turned crimson. That was all we needed. We screamed for him, Cave threw back his head, and then he opened the door.
Cave later published a poem called “Portland, Oregon, 5 July 2014.” A lumbering, wild piece, it mentions Nosferatu, T.S. Eliot, and Cocksucker Blues in one phrase, and then continues:
I wrote down this line in the alley
Behind the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall
In Portland, Oregon
Where I smoked and sat:
I slide my little songs out from under you
And I was very happy with that.
The poem ends with an “obliterating train”—perhaps a metaphor for his long life on the road—spinning “down the tracks ring! ringing! its bell.”
A quarter-century into its legacy, “Red Right Hand” shows no sign of slowing. The song’s most recent bump came from Peaky Blinders, a Goth TV series if there ever was one. Either a part of the song or a high-profile cover version appears in every episode. Before Peaky, the song underscored at least a dozen other projects, including Hellboy, The X Files, Cirque du Freak, and two of the Screams. Off-screen, “Red Right” covers abound, about half of which replicate the original bells. Among those who omit them are Arctic Monkeys (replaced by a military snare), Mux (replaced by a smoke-alarm beep), Iggy Pop (replaced by Jarvis Cocker), and Giant Sand (replaced by enough reverb to open an episode of True Detective). My favorite cover might be from Mike Fantastic, who raps a pretty Birthday Party-esque line over a canned chime—“I wanna hurt ‘em/ I wanna bring‘em pain/ cuz I’m a fuckin’ beast/ and my head is full of flame.”
In 2015, Cave sat with a VICE reporter inside a grounded jumbo jet wearing an all black suit, a gigantic gold wristwatch, and a pinky ring that would’ve made Elvis blush. The interview begins with Cave staring earnestly into reporter John Doran’s eyes and quipping “despite what a lot of people say, I’m not actually a vampire.” Later, he tells Doran how his performance persona has consumed his more quotidian self: “If you invest enough time and enough attention into something, you become that thing—there’s no going back. The mask just doesn’t come off anymore. There is nothing behind the mask.”
The second time I saw Nick Cave, in 2017, I walked into the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall truly terrified. This was not, however, an aesthetically pleasing—or dare I say it, Goth—kind of terror. Since his last Portland concert, Cave and his family had suffered an obliterating loss, and this news shifted his legend for me. The tremendous and very real tragedy rattled me (and other friends who love his music) to an alarming degree. We all thought it impossible that a genius of the dark performing arts could survive a real loss of such magnitude (onstage, at least). This was the kind of loss that resisted story, even for a storyteller with a whole album of murder ballads. I will not recount the plot of it; I only cite it at all because the art Cave has made since seems to exist on a different planet from whatever we might call Goth or Pop or anything else.
What Cave gave the symphony hall that night rejected my terror. How silly I was to think I could predict any outcome for him, for in a hall like that, we are not made from the same stuff. That night, I witnessed Cave using his shamanistic stage self, now decades in the making, to find a new kind of light. I later read Cave’s explanation for what I watched in a GQ interview:
I've always felt as a performer a sort of combativeness. You know, the finger would come out and I would be here I am and this is fucking it and stand there and take it. [Now,] it feels much more that there's something coming back.… Something different has been happening with the audience—a dynamic, emotional exchange—that’s quite beautiful….Maybe this is what it's like to be in Coldplay or something.
Hundreds of concertgoers rushed the symphony stage halfway through the show. He walked deep into that crowd, dragging his mic, leaning down to touch them and letting them lift him. His “Red Right Hand” was louder than I’d ever heard it, as compelling as it was hilarious. He was looking straight at us while he sang and swiveled, while Jim Sclavunos’s tubular bell hits lifted the symphony hall into that classic, Bad Seeds demonspace. But this time he wasn’t just gesturing at us; he was reaching toward us—tipping chins and leaning on shoulders. We looked up at him as if he had advice and he looked down at us, ready to give it. At one point, he actually beckoned and I felt my chest lurch toward him. I could feel the shadow of his hand over my heart, spreading its fingers.
And then I couldn’t even hear the bells anymore, the lyrics either, only Toby Dammit’s pounding of the Dracula organ and those 2,500 screams. Once again, the song filled that concert hall and once again, Cave opened the door to the space—the story—he’d built, to show us what he’d been stuffing down into it for as long as I’ve been alive. I felt the temperature change when the door opened. And, then, instead of disappearing through it, Cave pulled us all inside. He used that door to let love in.
The closest writer and former actor Elena Passarello ever got to Goth was in 2009, when she was hired to be in a play about Niagara Falls that, for some reason, required her to wear this costume.
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.