first round game
(6) christian death, “figurative theatre”
(11) march violets, “snake dance”
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.
elana levin on “figurative theatre”
I: In the knee-deep graves / Of future survivors
This was the life of an artist, a true Romantic who sacrificed normality, health and happiness for the sake of vision, and a man overcome and destroyed by the demons he lived with: a tragedy. —Ron Athey, performance artist and former boyfriend of Christian Death founder Rozz Williams
“It is my feeling that Rozz always considered himself a “communicant” of death, transmitting to this world from beyond. Indeed I believe he was anxious to return to a non-corporeal state and thereby escape the horror of the world he commonly referred to as the “living dead.” —Ryan Wildfyre, poet, Rozz’s roommate and best friend.
Rozz Williams, founder of Christian Death, committed suicide at age 34. He hung himself on April Fools Day, 1998, leaving a tarot card of The Fool and a rose on the table after watching a film about tragic dancer Isadora Duncan.
Rozz killed himself in the middle of the massively successful Goth scene revival that I was a part of.
In the Pandemonium of Goth, Bauhaus were minimalist, Sisters of Mercy were the dancey-est, Joy Division the first-est no matter their objections, Siouxsie the maximal-est, and The Cure the mopiest.
But Christian Death were the rocking-est, the scariest, and the gay-est.
Goth is a genre where gender non-conformity is foundational, as generations of fans of all genders wearing cleopatra eyeliner with waistcoats can attest. As far as I know, CD founder Rozz Williams was the only openly gay person in Goth’s first round. The queer voice has everything to do with his singing and his lyrics.
In 1982, a 20-year old Rozz recorded Christian Death’s debut album Only Theater of Pain with Rikk Agnew (of The Adolescents), James McGearty, and George Belanger. The media had begun reporting on a “Gay Cancer” epidemic. No one knew exactly what the fuck was killing gay and bi men in their prime all over California. You know, California, where Rozz lived.
II: The fleshless guests live off children of the past / Their aging fingers cast the Shadow of Death
Track 1: “First Communion”
I sit and hold hands with myself
I sit and make love to myself
I've got blood on my hands
I've got blood on your hands
I've got blood on my hands
I've got blood on your hands
Blood on our hands
Blood on our hands
Rozz was a gay teen singing about blood, loneliness, guilt and death at the start of Gay Cancer the AIDS crisis. He killed himself the same year that the major HIV treatment breakthrough—Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy aka the triple cocktail—became standard care, making HIV a manageable illness.
Rozz grew up in a Southern Baptist household in Orange County California. This was Reagan country. Reagan: the man who let millions die of AIDS.
Blood of Christ. Blood of death.
According to the scene’s rumor mill, one of Rozz’s former lovers had died of AIDS right before Rozz’s suicide. We do know that one of his best friends had just overdosed on heroin. That best friend’s lover has written that Rozz refused to be tested.
The album’s opening track fades perfectly into the rumbling baseline of “Figurative Theater,” my nominee for the 2019 March Vladness Best Goth Song.
III: The Luxuries of past days are / The Luxuries of our days
Track 2: “Figurative Theater”
Their razor sharp tongues
Invite to relax
As they slip the skin of your
Get into the act
With roses and candles
Silver knives and spoons
2006: When in the course of the first phase of my courtship of my husband, where we just played music at each other all the time to catch up on a life’s worth of “you really need to listen to this,” it came time for me to break out the goth tapes.
I hadn’t heard “Figurative Theater” since 2000. I’d stopped going to Goth nights when I realized I was more likely to hear ‘80s Goth at a Britpop Night than at a Goth/Industrial Night where Industrial and EBM had taken over every set list.
I remember specifically when I played Figurative Theater for him on the boombox in my apartment. It felt a lifetime since I listened to it. But I still knew every last percussive, gothic word to the song. I was compelled to sing along even if it meant my husband was hearing my voice on top of Rozz’s.
My husband’s primary musical genre is Scandinavian Black Metal but he instantly got Christian Death when I played them. “Spiritual Cramp” was his favorite track though, “it has the best riff.”
“Slip the skin of your eyelids back” Whose eyelids? Our eyelids! We are offered up as food at a romantic cannibalistic dinner. And the theater—we are being watched. This is the Theater of Pain, the next stop of artistic evolution after Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty.
Persona-read women dance with priests on a side road
Your vision perspectives are turning to stone
Cabaret slideshow stars shooting their loads
Act one is the end and the show now begins.
Breath ballet prancers spin on porcelain backbones
A child's muddled cry turns into hilarity
Rozz is describing the Grand Guignol of Hell. Critic Justin “Thunder” Lager compared the lyrics to a Hieronymus Bosch painting. That’s a perfect description of the hellscapes painted by Rozz’s lyrics here and elsewhere—horrific, spectacular, specific acts in miniature.
Your gothic teenage lyrics aren’t that good. Honestly, no-one else in the genre’s lyrics are as consistently good as those written by Rozz and his collaborators like Gitane Demone, Eva O Halo, and yes, even Valor Kand—who, despite being History's Greatest Monster for stealing the band's name after Rozz left, still made significant contributions.
On this, his debut album, Rozz sings about child sacrifices, holocausts, and systemic rape; but also queer desire, luxury, and transcendence. His voice is distinctly queer—so decadent, so tired, a femmier and even more dramatic Bowie. (The covers of Bowie’s Time (live!) and Panic in Detroit that Rozz went on to record are devastating for a reason.)
Only Theater of Pain’s songs include Latin, riffs on Christian prayers recited both forwards and in backwards speech sold with utter conviction, and an entire track of moaning called “Prayer” (which I do skip). There’s a song that’s absolutely made for belly-dancing. And there’s frequent use of the word “sodomy” in songs like “Burnt Offerings”: “Sodomized and tired...” “No moon shining like the untouched ass of the boy next door.” What more could any goth want?
IV: And What About the Bells?
Only Theater of Pain sounds like nobody else. Let’s dig in to why with “Figurative Theatre.”
Like a lot of heavy music Only Theater of Pain avoids major keys, but it also avoids the standard minor keys that most bands with a dark aesthetic use—and that’s pretty unique to Christian Death. The songs live in the heavy underworld of the Kumoi Scale (a scale derived from the tuning of a koto—a Japanese zither) and Phrygian Mode. (David Levin assisted in music theory research. David learned Music Theory at Oberlin, goth rock from his big sister Elana.). They love a good minor second interval, much like metal gods Metallica would come to in the late 80s. Who knows, maybe Christian Death inspired The Black Album—they are all Californians. When guitarist Rikk Agnew holds those long and droning notes during the verses, it sounds a bit like a koto’s resonance, or maybe it’s the sound of a guitar moaning.
Crunchy, distorted and with loads of feedback, Agnew’s guitars rock harder than any of the other early goth bands. He is drawing from California punk—Agnew was in the legendary punk band the Adolescents. West Coast Goth was first called Death Rock before it met up with its UK equivalent and became part of an international movement.
Thundering in to bridge “Cavity - First Communion” to “Figurative Theater” is James McGearty’s bass—absolutely driving and leading the song. The bass line is the melody. Unlike The Sisters of Mercy and lots of later goth bands, George Belanger plays like (and is) a real live drummer, not a drum machine or live drummer imitating a drum machine. He plays punk drums at a somewhat slower rock tempo, the template which went on to define the Gothic Rock Sound—keeping the ROCK in Goth Rock. His cymbals explode in between the fills like he’s trying to kill the number 4.
Christian Death went on to making songs in a major key sound equally haunting on their next album the equally brilliant and wildly different Catastrophe Ballet, but here they were still inventing the genre. With all these unusual modes and scales, aggression and distortion, this is the opposite of a pop album.
V: Flowers of doom all bloom in prosperity
I was born in 1979. Like most folks of my generation I discovered Christian Death on a Cleopatra Records’ Gothic Rock compilation, (Volume 2 to be precise). I was in High School and my love for this band was immediate. Each song I heard only made me love them more.
I was a freshman in college when Rozz committed suicide. I found out about Rozz’s death immediately before departing to a conference for college student activists for reproductive rights. No one there with me knew Christian Death. The scene there was more Lilith fair (ugh) or Le Tigre (Good Feminists actually on the cultural zeitgeist). So I mourned alone. Goth as fuck.
His death inspired me to cold-call longtime Goth bible Propaganda Magazine and say I’d like to write for them. After a day of driving around Peekskill, New York with magazine founder Fred Berger location-scouting for a spooky hospital photoshoot, I was brought on to write reviews. Including a book which had just been released: From Christian Death to Death: The Art of Rozz Williams.
VI: Ungracious freeloaders / leave their dead on a doorstep
Only Theater of Pain was the first CD I put in our rental car as my future husband Frank and I drove clear across Puerto Rico at midnight. And it was the only CD we played all vacation because it immediately got stuck in the rental car’s stereo. We began to joke that it was “beach music.”
When we returned the car to the rental company I told them about the jammed CD, and won’t they please get it out of the stereo? They brushed me off. So I said “I don’t think you understand—there’s a goth CD wailing about sodomy stuck in the car stereo.” No response.
I like imagining the midwestern Christians who inevitably rented this car next with my CD jammed in it. It's what I needed to listen to when I first heard it. Maybe their kids discovered it’s just what they needed to listen to too.
Elana Levin podcasts at the intersection of comics, geek culture and politics as Graphic Policy Radio. While in college in the late ‘90s she wrote for goth bible Propaganda Magazine. If you were in the DC scene then you’ve probably met. Elana has written about comics and politics for sites including the Daily Beast, Graphic Policy and Comics Beat and would love to have the opportunity to write about music more often. Elana tweets as @Elana_Brooklyn and teaches digital strategy for progressive campaigns and nonprofits.
nick ward on “snake dance”
Take my hand, said Cleopatra / Take me to the fires to burn
Earlier this year, rumors leaked that Lady Gaga and Angelina Jolie were vying for the role of Cleopatra in a new film. Twitter exploded in apoplectic fury. Surely, in the era of Black Panther, with the visibility and viability of Black women in leading roles at its zenith, a white woman couldn’t play the most famous African Queen the world has ever known?
The rumors appear not to be true, but that hardly matters. It felt accurate because it’s happened. Emma Stone, Scarlett Johansson, and Tilda Swinton have all taken heat for being casting as Asian characters. Jolie even once Dolezaled herself to play the Afro-Cuban descended Marianne Pearl in A Might Heart. Part of the argument seems to be that we should know better. Maybe the silver screen lived a racist past, where Laurence Olivier could stalk around as Othello, although it is less than forty years since Anthony Hopkins did so too. But now, with a fuller expansion and range of characters on television and film, and famous actors bankable enough to carry those roles, these casting decisions feel so stupid, so ignorant, so easy to avoid.
Perhaps it was that whomever started the rumors had been reading his Samuel George Morton. A 19th Century American phrenologist, Morton spent his life studying human skulls, which he measured to deduce difference, and hierarchies, in racial groups. In 1844, in his study of ancient Egyptian crania, he broke Egyptians into three distinct racial groups that we would understand today as white, Jewish, and Black. How he deduced this is a mystery, as are his justifications. For Morton and others like him, to quote Nell Irvin Painter’s A History of White People “the greatness of ancient Egypt seals the permanence of racial hierarchies. . .(and their) glory is linked to the superiority of white people. Never mind puzzling details. What looked like wooly hair in ancient Eygptian depictions Morton deems wigs worn by Egyptians over their real hair, which surely was straight and light-colored.”
Maybe everyone who ever cast a Cleopatra read that book too. She has, as a character, almost always been white. Whether in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra or in the legion of films made about the Egyptian Queen, she has been played by Vivien Leigh, Vanessa Redgrave, Helen Mirren, Mark Rylance, Kate Mulgrew and, of course, Elizabeth Taylor. It was but last year, 2018, when a major production at the Royal National Theatre in London, cast Sophie Okenodo, a mixed-race women in the role.
I am predisposed to have empathy for the casting process. I worked for a number of years in a junior casting role at Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago. Around the same time, I also cast a half dozen smaller projects in the storefront community. It was always a challenge. Sometimes the director wants to try an unproven young actor but may not have enough rehearsal time. Sometimes the two people that you want to cast opposite from each other are actually not a very good match, or have competing rehearsal availability, or their spouses won’t let them be in the same room together after their affair a decade prior. Sometimes the writer requests that a white actor play a character who is passing as Black, but doesn’t want the audience to know that. Sometimes you take your cue from a smaller theatre company, run by Middle Eastern and South Asian men, who have cast a young actor as an Indian man more than once, so you cast him as an Indian man only to find out he’s Puerto Rican. Sometimes you cast a Japanese woman as a Vietnamese woman, sometimes you cast Bengali when the character is from Pakistan and you don’t actually know, because most Americans don’t, that this might be a huge deal. Sometimes you assisted in casting a young white actress as a Black character who was raised to be white and you didn’t speak up about it because you didn’t feel like you had any power but you were leaving the company in two months anyway so you definitely did have power and this is the decision that haunts you.
More than anything, I know that white casting directors follow the logic of whiteness, which doesn’t respond to reason. A director might argue that Cleopatra was, in fact, ethnically Greek and, therefore, since Greeks are white, a white actress isn’t so inappropriate. For them, I refer to Johann Joachim Winckelmann, an 18th Century Saxon who studied art history in Rome, where copies of Greek statues abounded. It was one of these statues, Apollo Belvedere, that Winckelmann as “the embodiment of perfect human beauty.” In his writings on this ancient art, he advanced the correlation of beauty to whiteness, plain to him as the marble white statues that surrounded him. What he perhaps did not know, or conveniently forgot to mention, was that the Greek statues were often darker in color, bronze specifically, and that they (the Greeks) painted over their statues. Old Johann, quoting Painter again, “saw only Roman versions of beautiful young men carved of hard Italian marble that shone a gleaming white.”
Ibram X. Kendi contends that it’s the racist ideas that follow from the racist policies and not the other way around. Perhaps it was that these white men, these Americans and Germans who influenced racist ideas and hierarchies, felt that they had to justify how their own cultures stemmed from Greek and Egyptian civilization. Neither skin hue would have fit into the Thomas Jefferson Anglo-Saxon ideal of the perfect human. But the hold that their empires held on the white imagination was so fierce that their positions at the top of the racial hierarchy had to be explained somehow.
I’m far less interested in teasing out Egyptianness or Greekness (of which I know nothing) than of understanding my own whiteness.
I try to acknowledge those moments when I’m offered success, rather than earning it. I would trust an argument that my entire life is constructed in this way, but there are particular moments when I snap into awareness. When I rent an apartment, sailing through the background and credit checks. When I get on the bus and, having forgotten extra cash or my bus card is malfunctioning, I am waived through to my seat. When I move into full-time at a predominant arts organization despite not interviewing for the job.
Always while traveling. Recently, I took a ferry from Dar es Salaam to Zanzibar. At the waiting area, a large open metal canopy with fans that whirred in the morning heat, I presented my economy class ticket to a man in a red shirt. He waved me past and I walked to sit with the other economy travelers in a section of hard-backed blue chairs in front of me.
“No,” the man said, calling to me. “Go this way.” He pointed down a side row with a column of white stanchions and a sign that read “VIP/Business Class.”
“You sure?” I asked.
“Yes, yes, that way,” he said.
I walked down the aisle and entered the separate waiting area. The chairs there were high-backed leather and plush. I sank into one. As I ate street chapati, I watched the procession of people who joined me in the waiting area. It became very clear very quickly who was encouraged to sit in that VIP sections. The primary customers were mostly white tourists with lighter-skinned Arabs and South Asians. When well-dressed Black people attempted to enter the lounge, their tickets were inspected. I turned around to look behind me, to the economy waiting area. All dark-skinned, many of them families.
I felt as though something had happened behind the scenes that I knew nothing about. For a split second, I wondered if this was how people of color felt all of the time as they navigated a white world. But I didn’t change my seat. I didn’t go back and sit where I belonged.
Sometimes, absurdly, I think that I’ve betrayed my race, by not waltzing into an impressive white career, banking or marketing or advertising or the stock market, by grinding out a life in the arts instead. Often, I know that my body carries me into places my mind cannot. It doesn’t matter if I want to visit. It doesn’t matter if I want to ride the ride or sit this one out. I can’t give back the ticket even if I wanted to. I don’t even know who I should call to complain.
One night in Stone Town, I had dinner on the roof of Emerson on Hurumzi. It’s a famous destination, in all of the Zanzibar travel guidebooks, though a friend’s recommendation drew me there. My friend, an American living in Tanzania, told me that the hotel was founded by a white Englishman who traveled to Zanzibar and never left. He owned sister hotels on the island, mere steps from each other. Both are institutions, beloved by locals and tourists.
The dining room of Emerson on Hurumzi is an open air roof top with a view of the Indian Ocean. Guests sit “Swahili-style” on plush carpets with their backs against a row of pillows. Shoes off. Legs stretched out.
Stone Town is an old city, one that sits at the intersections of history and culture, a key stop on the trading routes that the English, Persians, South Asians, Turks, and Arabs peddled since at least the 15th Century, if not earlier. The streets wind in a confusing maze, cats prowl the corridors, bicycles and motorbikes honk as they zoom past shops offering trinkets and a quick bite to eat. Once one enters the labyrinth, there is no sea breeze to protect from the heat. But on the roof tops, almost all of them hotels catering to tourists, the wind blows soft breezes for those with money and access. Here is a stunning vista of the city, all red and copper-tinted rooftops, a view of a Hindi temple and a handful of Mosques, with the water in the distance.
While we watched the sunset, the other guests and me, sipping on our sundowners, a white woman walked around taking pictures. She was disappointed with the sun set. It was a little cloudy, though bursting with colors I rarely see back home.
“You can’t see the sun,” she complained out loud. She had a hint of an accent, maybe Dutch or Danish.
“Will the sunset be better tomorrow?” she asked one of the waiters.
He shrugged. “As they say, you can’t control the weather.”
I stifled a laugh. If only he knew how much we’d like to.
Before dinner began, we were told by the Zanzibari waiters that we are about to enjoy a traditional Zanzibar three-course meal with music and a dance from the nearby Dhow Countries Music Academy.
I have wondered if all travel is a vestige of colonialism. Those with access extracting resources for pleasure and status symbols. At my most generous, I tell myself I am engaging my curiosity of the world outside my own country, that most Americans disdain the rest of the world but that I want to meet people and know more. At my least, I know that I’m continuing a legacy that started long before I came along.
What I know for certain is that I enjoyed a relaxing roof-top dinner sitting next to other tourists with my shoes off, served a traditional meal by young black men, in a hotel founded by a white colonialist, and that I paid U.S. dollars for the pleasure.
It must be said that the food was delicious and well-spiced, the setting beautiful and serene. I left full and happy. Of course I did. It was made for me.
Nicholas Ward is a writer, curator, and booking manager. His writing has appeared with Catapult, The Billfold, Bird's Thumb, Midwest Gothic, and others. He is a company member with the storytelling organization, 2nd Story, and the Booking Manager at Young Chicago Authors. He lives in Chicago.