first round game
(1) the cure, “the hanging garden”
(16) the bolshoi, "by the river"
and advances to 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 2.
Toward a Unified Theory of Goth*: chelsea biondolillo on "the hanging garden”
In 2007, a couple of English professors assembled a book of 23 “scholarly essays devoted to this enduring yet little examined cultural phenomenon.” They called it Goth: Undead Subculture in what I hope we can agree is a pretty academic attempt at humor.
Though long, this essay is no final word on goth. Pretending to know definitively what goth is feels pretty not-goth.
While The Cure’s current status as goth’s house band is (still!?) up for lively debate on the internet and, one presumes, in absinthe bars and Hot Topics the world over, their presence at the start of it all is pretty undeniable. The band first formed in 1976—the same year as Siouxsie and the Banshees and Joy Division—and was performing on live TV by 1979, when Bauhaus released “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.” The earliest Cure/Cure side projects were called “post punk” by many (including Smith himself), but by their second studio album, their sound was called “morose, atmospheric” and “depressingly regressive” by some critics—or, pretty goth, in other words.
The first time I heard about The Cure was in 8th grade, 1986. I was fourteen. I was asking around at school to find out who Robert Smith was, because a boy I liked had said that if I liked Depeche Mode, then I must also like Robert Smith. I pretended to know who he was talking about at the time. The third person I asked said, “Do you mean the lead singer of The Cure?” And I said, “Oh, yeah. That guy.” But I didn’t own any of their music until Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me came out the following year.
Robert Smith met Mary Poole at school when they were both 14 years old. She’s the only woman to be featured in a Cure video (“Just Like Heaven”). They were married in 1988 and are married still. There is something about this that feels at once not-very-goth but also like the most goth thing.
The first time I heard “Hanging Garden” was a couple of years later. One of my close friends had been told by her Jehovah’s Witness mother, that she and I couldn’t hang out any more unless I agreed to do Bible Study. The first attempt was a disaster—five adults and two teenagers sat around a table and one person would read a short passage, and then the leader of the study would ask very basic comprehension-type questions, like “So, in that passage, what did Jesus say to Judas at the Last Supper?” I had a very hard time keeping a straight face, and told my friend there was no way I could make through another one.
Option B was one-on-one study with a “youth instructor” named Janet—because she liked “goth music” like me, it was hoped she’d be more effective at reaching me. I was surprised that being a gothic JW was okay, when anything smelling slightly occult, such as vampires or demons, or anything suggesting drug use were expressly forbidden by my friend’s mother for religious reasons.
“Janet says The Cure is okay,” my friend told me. “But not, all goth music. Like, not Siouxsie.”
“Why in the world one and not the other?
“She heard demons in Siouxsie once when she was on acid. Before she was baptized.”
“No chance it was the acid, huh? Like, she thinks it was actual demons?”
“Well, demonic voices. I’m just telling you what she says.”
My friend also did acid, read all sorts of forbidden books and listened to all sorts of occult-themed classic rock. She was not a good JW, but she was adept at putting up to get along, in the hopes of avoiding her mother’s unpredictable and violent abuse. So that we could keep smoking cigarettes and weed together after school, I said Janet could come over.
LA Weekly, in laying Los Angeles’ claim as co-center of goth culture, along with “the U.K.” (would Robert Smith let them have it, I wonder?), allow that “No one necessarily loves the label, and "goth" has come to mean different things to different people, but in general, as a music genre, it conjures a moody aesthetic and a sort of sinister, cinematic vibe. As a fashion statement, it is expressed by a menacing kind of glamour—black clothing, dramatic makeup, embellishments that reference both horror and religious iconography.”
On her first and only visit, Janet, looking more drab than dark, brought a tape she’d made me with Pornography on side one, and Seventeen Seconds on side two. We politely argued for a half hour or so about dinosaurs and then she left. Though my friend tried to broker a couple more study dates, none happened.
In 1982, Rolling Stone said of Pornography, “Their dense, punkish minimalism is as much the product of studio technology as of any notion of aesthetics, and their ability to wring emotional nuances from a droning guitar or an echo-laden drum is truly remarkable. Unfortunately, that trick is also the most overused one in the band’s tiny repertoire, and it tires quickly. It is all very well to express a lot with a little, but the Cure most frequently uses a little to express nothing, and the effect is numbing in the extreme. […] Pornography comes off as the aural equivalent of a bad toothache. It isn’t the pain that irks, it’s the persistent dullness, and that makes this Cure far worse than the disease.”
“The Cure for what, though? Heh, heh, heh.”—many dads in 1987, probably.
Robert Smith has expressed discomfort with being called goth. In a 2011 interview with The Guardian, he said “it's only people that aren't goths that think The Cure are a goth band … we were like a raincoat, shoegazing band when goth was picking up.”
And just last summer, perhaps because no one seemed to have read the earlier memo, he went a step further. When asked by an interviewer from TimeOut if the word ‘goth’ had anything to do with him he replied, “Not really! We got stuck with it at a certain time when goths first started. I was playing guitar with Siouxsie and the Banshees, so I had to play the part. Goth was like pantomime to me. I never really took the whole culture thing seriously.” It was a shot heard round the world: … Smith distances himself from the label ‘goth.’ … Smith Says He Doesn’t Identify as “Goth.” Noisey, a Vice music blog, had possibly the best rehash of the interview, headlined The Cure’s Robert Smith, Goth Royalty, Swears Yet Again That He’s Not Goth.
Smith elaborated, “It’s just a theatrical thing. It’s part of the ritual of going on stage. Also, there is the prosaic reason: I have ill-defined features and naturally pale skin.” In the Guardian interview, he’d claimed that he wore black because it was slimming and meant he didn’t have to do laundry as often.
Here, I’m going to answer:
Not what we meant.
Seems to be (see 1).
Possibly, depending on the rigor of your definition – It has its own dress, music, literature, customs, and achievements (see also Robert Smith’s devotion to Mary Poole, and The Cure’s induction this year into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame)
When the early Cure catalog was re-released in 2004, including Pornography, Pitchfork said of it, “No matter how much the songs reek of crisis and desperation, the band seems as calm and on-point as a ballet troupe. That's precisely what makes Pornography-- which totally owns that other 40% of human moods—work. […] The record's most harrowing moment turns out to be a single: "The Hanging Garden", which is mostly just the relentless pounding of a single drum, with Simon Gallup's signature bass sound (the moves of a snake and the same scaly texture) rumbling beside it. If Smith wanted "unbearable," he should have hired a different singer, because his voice makes this-- and just about everything else-- completely thrilling.”
Ninth grade, my last year in Junior High and the year of Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me’s release, I started wearing Converse and black sweaters with black leggings. But I wasn’t shooting for goth so much as whatever it was that Ally Sheedy’s Allison was supposed to be in The Breakfast Club. She’s called an “outcast” in press for the film, rather than goth. Hers was the look I wanted: dark, baggy, and comfortable. By high school, I was mostly what my friends called a “weekend waver,” meaning I dressed up for dancing in white-face/red-lips/black-eyes on Friday nights, but during the week I looked more or less normal. This was partly because my mom exerted a normalizing dress code (e.g., wouldn’t let me dye my hair purple until I was eighteen, no “scary” jewelry, etc.) and partly because I hate mornings and all that make-up and getting your hair to stand on end takes time I preferred to spend hitting snooze. During the week, I stuck to Doc Martens, old man blazers I found at thrift stores, and a slash of bright lipstick. I say more or less, because I also wore the hell out of a long purple cape I’d scavenged, and later a black motorcycle jacket—so it’s not like I could pass for one of the girls’ basketball team or anything. I still wanted to be comfortable. But at the clubs, dancing, I understood that I also had to be an object of a very particular kind of desire—so, out came lacy v-neck pirate shirts and crushed black velvet vests, belts slung low and pointy black, buckled shoes, black or black lace tights under holey jeans or stretch pencil skirts, sliver cross necklaces.
"Late capitalism produces the desire for an aura that is felt to be prior to or beyond commodification, for a lived authenticity to be found in privileged forms of individual expression and collective identification. For as long as goth seems to answer that desire, it will thrive as an undead subculture: forging communities on the margins of cities, suburbs, campuses and cyberspace; defying constraints on gender and sexuality; and imbuing the stuff of everyday life with the allure of stylistic resistance." Goth: Undead Subculture ed., Lauren M. E. Goodlad, Michael Bibby, Duke University Press 2007
In so far as the stuff I wore was usually mashed together from hand-me-downs, thrift store finds, and repurposed glam metal looks, it could have been called a stylistic resistance. There was no one-stop shopping à la Hot Topic when I was defining my look. I was resisting Keds and shaker sweaters with matching socks and beachy print longboard shorts under popped pastel collars.
And while I pinned my look together (often, literally), the “real goths” –the fans of cemeteries, vampires and Anton LaVey, slouched around in Christian Death shirts, trading Current 93 and Diamanda Galas tapes—or championed campier acts like The Cramps and The Damned. I could only hope to be passed a copied tape, having no access or knowledge of how to get access to those things. Those of us in the suburban wastelands were dancing to The Cure, Bauhaus, and Ministry on alt-night at the all-ages dance club, learning the words to Nick Cave and Siouxsie songs, blasting Joy Division or Killing Joke from our parents’ car stereos. I remember thinking I’d reached a new level of cool when I finally got passed my own dubbed copy of The Plague Mass. Then again when I found my leather jacket at a pawn shop. And even again, when I finally got to dye my hair a deep, dark purple.
I don’t have the tape Janet gave my any longer, or my copy of The Plague Mass, but I’ve kept this one. March 1, 1989: Janel Hell’s “Happy Death Ritual” show on KBVR.
I've been thinking about how being even a part-time goth was a kind of protection for me in high school. I had terrible friends, but didn’t realize it. My home life was difficult in a way I didn’t yet have words for. I wanted desperately to make art of some kind that mattered to someone, but didn’t know how.
Those feelings of alienation and exceptionalism, coupled with a cultural awakening centered squarely amid white, lower-middle-class underachievers made me a perfect goth wannabe.
The top search result video for “Hanging Garden” is not the original, but from an ostensibly live performance on a French music show. Except the band is not live, they are lip-syncing to the album version of the song, and Smith seems particularly pissed about it. He doesn’t even bother strumming his guitar for most of the song, and when he approximates the solo, it is with a listless gesture, like one might use to pet a taxidermied cat. He glares at the camera and side eyes Tolhurst while Gallup plays the bass with enough enthusiasm for all three of them.
On the French stage, Smith is wearing what looks like a Peptol-Bismol™ pink t-shirt. He’s also got red lipstick gashed across his lips and under his eyes. Goth royalty, sure, but I’d have died before I would have worn a pink shirt back then.
The whimsical stuff and the pop sensibilities that Smith honed in the late 80s are exactly what I love about The Cure’s brand of goth, and it’s what probably outs me as not-really-all-that-goth. There is a certain type of fanatic who says that anything after Pornography isn’t goth, and that fans like me who love the pop stuff—KM,KM,KM and Disintegration, chiefly, and anything after especially, are all the proof they need of that. But I’m of the opinion that anyone who can’t laugh a little at themselves while dressed like Lestat or Pinhead probably can’t laugh at anything.
Smith could laugh at himself, even back then. One can see plenty of humor in the weirdness of the early videos, such as the giant armadillo that scuttles across the screen in “Hanging Garden,” the lurking polar bear in “Pictures of You,” Smith and Tolhurst tucking themselves into collapsing bunkbeds at the end of “Let’s Go To Bed,” and the entire video for “Close to Me,” (but especially Thompson’s comb-plucking).
Best as I can tell, the answers to the above questions are:
Not since Wish | Disintegration | Pornography (depending on the approximate age of the respondent)
Mostly. They are touring this year with two original members.
Not since Seventeen Seconds | Boys Don’t Cry/Three Imaginary Boys (depending on the approximate age of the respondent)
Just like regular pornography, we know goth when we see it.
Something I knew for sure to be true in high school: Goth is about a certain sensibility even more than it is about the music you listen to. While we can argue whether The Cure is quintessential goth, the fact is, millions of teenagers have drawn their black eyeliner to the sounds of Smith et al., and in doing so, claimed something vital for themselves that couldn’t be bought at a store or learned in school. And that’s pretty goth, after all.
* With gratitude and apologies to Elizabeth McCracken: https://lithub.com/elizabeth-mccracken-toward-a-unified-theory-of-the-doughnut/
Chelsea Biondolillo is the author of The Skinned Bird (KERNPUNKT Press, May 2019), and two prose chapbooks, Ologies and #Lovesong. She has a BFA in photography from Pacific NW College of Art, and an MFA in nonfiction and environmental studies from University of Wyoming. She lives outside Portland, Oregon.
justin st. germain on “by the river”
In keeping with this year’s theme, I let the hand of fate decide my song. That was a mistake. (I knew I should’ve asked for the Cramps.) The upshot is that I was assigned The Bolshoi, a band I had never heard of—I’ve yet to ask someone who had heard of them—who never had a song that charted and broke up thirty years ago.
Worse yet, this song isn’t even one of the Bolshoi’s two (relative) hits: it’s an album cut with no video that came out when I was four years old. “By the River” isn’t bad, I guess, for what it is, six minutes of sighs and synths and whiny guitars. It only has five lyrics, but maybe that’s for the best: one is “water silence, water cool,” which sounds like something Koko the gorilla would sign before she jumped off a bridge. The closest thing to a chorus is “Sometimes I feel like I could …”; the singer never says what, but I’m guessing the omitted clause there isn’t “beat the Cure in a goth tournament.”
Did I mention that we’re a well-deserved sixteen seed, and are up against the most famous band in the bracket in our very first game? Christ upside down. Mine and the Bolshoi’s only hope here is that this tournament’s voters have unpredictable taste. Every year, a few underdogs make a run: Loudness, a thirteen seed, won it all last year; in 2016, Tracy Chapman made the finals as a seven; two years ago, the final was OMC (#6) against Natalie Imbruglia (#16, somehow, but let’s not relitigate that). It might not even matter that my song’s not good: once, in this very tournament, 129 sentient adults voted for “Walking in Memphis.”
So: you should vote for the Bolshoi for two reasons. The first is that we’re up against the Cure. I like the Cure fine—I once listened to “Pictures of You,” on repeat, for days after a teenage breakup, and “Catch” is an underrated karaoke song—but I’m a thirtysomething creative writing professor in camouflage pajamas; I’m decidedly non-goth. Just like the Cure. Yes, they wear eyeliner and lipstick, and emote about failed relationships; if that makes you goth, my Grandma Nancy is Glenn Danzig. Even the Cure don’t think they’re goth: way back in 2006, Robert Smith said “It’s so pitiful when ‘goth’ is still tagged onto the name ‘The Cure.’” If you’re going to vote for the Cure in a goth tournament, you might as well write in “Walking in Memphis”—at least that song has a ghost and a tomb in it, and makes me want to kill myself.
(An aside: I will give you cash money if you can tell me, without looking it up, what Marc Cohn sings in the chorus, after the first “walking in Memphis.” So far, the results of my informal poll include: “walking with my feet out onto the pier,” “walking with my feelings after ten beers,” and “when I have just defeated an elephant seal,” all of which make more sense than the actual line, which I’m not going to dignify here. Also, has he mentioned that he’s walking with his feet?)
Reason two is more of a theory. Bear with me. We can all agree that Saddam Hussein was a terrible person. He killed thousands of people, oppressed more, sponsored terrorism, invaded his neighbors, and so on. I want to make this real clear: I’m not a fan of Saddam Hussein. Indeed, in fourth grade, during Desert Storm, I got second place in an anti-Saddam postermaking contest sponsored by my local American Legion. (If you’re curious, mine was an oddly hued portrait of his face--I had a predilection for peach crayons—below the slogan “Saddam Insane,” in a sort of ersatz Miami Vice font, kerned so poorly that the last three letters dangled down the side of the paper. That I nevertheless got second place should suggest some things about my childhood milieu, as should the contest itself, which was a required part of the art class we took in a trailer out back of the school.)
Point is, for all his legion faults, Saddam Hussein was extremely goth. As a fetus, he survived an abortion, the first of many failed attempts on his life. As a tyke, when his headmaster kicked him out of school, Saddam stole a gun and shot him. He once lit a whole country on fire. He said he hoped America would invade Iraq so he could kill all Americans, roast them, and eat them. He stocked lakes with carnivorous fish and fed them bodies. His henchmen made laserdiscs of their public executions and distributed them nationwide. His favorite movie was The Passion of the Christ. He wrote novels called The Fortified Castle and Begone, Demons. He gave blood regularly so a copy of the Koran could be written in it. He spent his last few months in a subterranean prison called the Crypt. He shouted “down with the invaders!” at his execution; he used his last words to mock his enemies. They hung him from a gallows painted red. His last written words were a poem that ended:
The enemies forced strangers into our sea
And he who serves them will be made to weep
Here we unveil our chests to the wolves
And will not tremble before the beast.
Not exactly Whitman, but it’s pretty fucking goth.
We also know Saddam liked music. While he was on death row, he listened to the radio as much as he could. He reportedly loved Mary J. Blige, and might have been into Ginuwine, too; he called his exercise bike his “pony.” But pop was not his favorite music: according to one of his son’s house musicians, Saddam preferred “gypsy and nomad music,” which seems both potentially offensive and, at the very least, goth-adjacent. I can’t find any evidence that he liked goth music, specifically, but come on: when “By the River” came out, in 1985, he was warring with Iran, gassing and murdering entire villages, and had recently chopped one of his advisers into pieces and sent them in a bag to his wife. I’m not making light of any of that—I’m just saying, it’s plausible that a guy like that would be into goth.
And he had the resources of an oil-rich country at his disposal. Saddam had meals made for him at every one of his palaces, across Iraq, every single day, just in case he decided he wanted to have dinner in Tikrit tonight. He had all kinds of minions, assigned to get him whatever he wanted. It stands to reason that he could have easily gotten his hands on a copy of Giants, the album on which “By the River” first appeared (have I mentioned it wasn’t even a single?), or Bigger Giants, the expanded re-release from 1990 (still not a single). He probably had a goth rock adviser who ordered it for him.
We also know Saddam liked water. He loved to swim, built pools at his palaces, installed fountains all over the place, and had them obsessively monitored for impurities and poisons. And not just water, but rivers specifically: He was born and died on the west bank of the Tigris. It’s easy to imagine Saddam, at the peak of his power, on some palace rooftop in Baghdad, staring out at that same river, blaring “By the River,” throwing up some horns and finishing the chorus himself: sometimes I feel like I could … Kill all the infidels!
Which brings me to my final piece of evidence. The forum on the Bolshoi’s official website is not what you’d call active, but was once dominated by a certain Mask of Sanity. One of Mr. Sanity’s posts discusses his plans to travel to ancient sites that inspired Bolshoi songs; another tells of watching an entire Bolshoi concert on his computer while drinking an entire bottle of wine; another requests guitar tabs so he can learn to play Bolshoi songs; another compares the Bolshoi favorably to David Bowie. As dictator of the cradle of civilization, Saddam had access to more ancient sites than anyone; his beloved Romani music was among the first genres to feature guitars; he preferred a particular Portuguese rosé; I don’t have evidence that he liked David Bowie, but doesn’t everyone?
Mask of Sanity’s last post was in early August of 2006. Later that month, Saddam Hussein’s genocide trial began. (At an early hearing, he refused to state his name to the judge, saying: “You know my name. My name is well known to you,” which, spoken while being tried for genocide, is extraordinarily goth.) Saddam was shortly convicted, then hanged. Mask of Sanity never posted to the Bolshoi forum again. Ergo, it stands to reason that Mask of Sanity was the nom de guerre of none other than Saddam Hussein.
And if the Bolshoi’s biggest fan was the Butcher of Baghdad, are you really going to vote for the Cure?
Justin St. Germain grew up in a town called Tombstone, which is the gothest thing about him. This is a photo of him, from around the time “By the River” came out, by a lake, with one pretty goth-looking duck.