first round game
(5) peter murphy, “all night long”
(12) his name is alive, “how ghosts affect relationships”
and plays on in round 2
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 5.
kathleen rooney on “all night long”
In the 1988 video for his solo single “All Night Long,” the skull of former Bauhaus vocalist Peter Murphy is obscenely gorgeous. Exalted, in fact. We taxpayers ought to fund the carving of his head onto a cliff—a goth Mount Rushmore. All four busts could be his exquisite visage in different poses. He’s a handsome, angular, living death’s head, deserving of a monument to his morbid beauty, worthy of serving as a collective memento mori.
I am not the only one who thinks so. In his rock memoir Who Killed Mister Moonlight: Bauhaus, Black Magick, and Benediction, Bauhaus bassist David J. Haskins recalls guitarist Daniel Ash introducing him to Murphy in the late 1970s: “Peter looked amazing. He had a preternatural beauty: high, chiseled cheekbones, pale skin, piercing blue eyes. He had his dirty blonde hair slicked back like a 1920s matinee idol. He moved with an elegant grace.”
In the “All Night Long” video, Murphy tosses in bed, his features troubled, shadows gathering beneath his sculptural cheekbones, the ne plus ultra of zygomatic arches. He sings, hollow-eyed, in a murky gray wood. How decadent to have bones so close to the surface of one’s face, to reveal the skull we’re all walking around topped off with. Look:
If music is playing in one’s proximity, it becomes virtually impossible not to hear it. Lately, I can’t not hear the dooming chords of climate disaster, and so must find a way to live in the sound.
Chris Baldick, editor of The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales, describes the Gothic as “a fearful sense of inheritance in time with the claustrophobic sense of enclosure in space, these two dimensions reinforcing one another to produce an impression of sickening descent into disintegration.” That’s basically how it feels to be on Earth right now: our home enclosure, the planet, growing ever more unhomely.
Every day brings a new nightmare announcement. On October 29, 2018, for instance, the Canadian Broadcasting Company reported that 60% of the world’s wildlife has been wiped out since 1970.
The following day, a report from Vox entitled “Weather 2050” warned that “America is warming fast,” and invited readers to “See how your city’s weather will be different in just one generation.” If you like your sick sense of dread hyper-specific, then you can click through, but if you prefer your unease vague, then their analysis shows that in virtually every case, the places we all live are going “to be strikingly warmer in a few decades.” Moreover, “For those who can’t afford to move to cool off from the heat, or find work when local agriculture dries up and fisheries die, these changes will be devastating.”
In her book Gothic Music: The Sounds of the Uncanny, Isabella van Elferen distinguishes between horror and the Gothic. Horror, she argues, “explicitly brings the feared object onto the screen, into the relatively controllable space of the visible.” In doing so, “horror paradoxically comforts the viewer through the relative control vision gives: at least in horror films, we can scream at what we are afraid of.” Gothic, she says, “conversely, employs the implicit dread of terror, leaving the object of fear implicit, just outside perception. In Gothic cinema transgression is hinted at through shadows and camera angles, but always only present through absence, leading audiences not to the comfort of sight but rather to the discomfort of the uncanny.” Gruesome as it is, climate change feels more Gothic than horror, at least so far (though bursts of violent excess—heat waves, hurricanes, wildfires, floods—do keep ripping through the skin of the normal). The specters of global warming that haunt me the most here in Chicago, a northern and supposedly chilly city, are the ones that manifest as absences. What could be more uncanny than yearning for the usual snow in winter but receiving none? Reaching out with your whole body to feel the weather you’ve always expected and loved, only to find it creepily not present?
My sorrow for a dead and headstoned past in which seasons could be depended upon mixes with a need to learn to swim in the gloomy soup of the future, overheated, oceanic, and fast approaching. I am trying not to be afraid; I am trying to forge an authentic relationship to death.
For that purpose, I propose Peter Murphy’s peerless and ethereal head as a talisman and his defiantly moody song “All Night Long” as an anthem.
Memento mori—Latin for Remember that you will die: a medieval Christian tradition of meditating on the vanity of earthly life and the transient character of worldly pursuits. The prospect of one’s own death has unparalleled potential to frighten; for that reason, many people prefer to leave the subject unthought of. Yet in memento mori one gains mastery of that fear by coming at it directly: staring unblinking into its bony face.
My favorite account of this ritual as practiced in the 1500s tells of a clergyman called John Fisher who, when saying Mass, was “always accustomed to set upon one end of the altar a dead man’s scull, which was also set before him at his table when he dyned or supped.”
If the inexorability of one’s own death has the power to terrify, how much more so does the artificially hastened inevitability of collective death that we now know ourselves as a species to be both the cause and the victim of? To even have a chance of keeping global warming below a still fairly catastrophic 1.5 degree threshold, “by the middle of the century, societies would need to have zero net emissions.” At the rate we’re going, this goal remains unreachable. Individual actions have little to no effect and political responses remain entirely inadequate. It is not pessimistic or defeatist, merely honest, to acknowledge that the end has already happened and we’re just living in the echo.
In order to let that echo be something that that one can listen to without being destroyed by it, we can set Murphy’s head in the “All Night Long” video at our shared earthly table: Remember, we will all die—an attractive and a repellant reminder simultaneously, unsettling yet comforting.
For his fourth solo studio album, 1992’s Holy Smoke, Murphy had the English musical journalist Paul Morley do his press release. “I know very little about Peter Murphy,” Morley began:
I know his name, and I know the shape of his head, because it’s a shape I’ve always been very jealous of. I think anyone with a head shaped like that, all kind of sharp and hollow and almost sinister, must have something of the magical about him. I wonder if it’s a fluke that he has a head like that, a splendid accident of birth, or has it been sheer vain anxious willpower that has shaped Peter Murphy’s head into something so positively Artaudian, if you’ll pardon my French. I also know that he has eyes as hollow as a dream, eyes that seem incapable of shame, and a decayed mouth that could but for the grace of God eat you alive and kiss you to death.
In an age of shameless climate change, we are eating ourselves alive; we are puckering up to be our own kiss of death.
In their book Goth: Undead Subculture, editors Lauren M.E. Goodland and Michael Bibby note that within the Gothic sensibility, death itself is “typically perceived as a source of inspiration rather than a terminus.” Can the contemplation of our impending collective demise be inspirational rather than paralyzing? Can a song like “All Night Long” afford its listeners a symbolic solution to the question of how to keep living in the disempowerment of the Anthropocene?
“All Night Long” comes from Murphy’s album Love Hysteria. The disrupted global climate can make a person hysterical. I love the Earth so much and don’t want it to die. I’m not afraid of my own death so much as of everyone’s; I’m not afraid of my own death so much as my own suffering. An awareness of the Anthropocene means to dwell in a perpetual mourning for the planet and all the living things on it that we’ve extirpated and are extirpating, including ourselves.
But goth asserts as positive a tragic grasp of the truth: that all of the enchantment, passion, and beauty of existence will ultimately conclude with degradation. So too does goth remind the listener—or at least this listener—that the fact that everything is shadowed with its own demise is nothing new. It has always been thus. Every life story shares the same last chapter. So while climate change’s death is massive and on a scale heretofore unseen, it’s still, essentially, a variation on the same mortal theme. The death we’re facing now dwarfs individual consciousness, but it’s still just death. How horrible and yet how reassuring.
In the video for “All Night Long,” a restless Peter Murphy cannot sleep. He’s either insomniac or having ghastly dreams. When he’s not in bed, he’s out in a mist-obscured landscape amid the wan wraiths of leafless trees. “The air is wild open,” he sings. We see that it is also filled with gloomth, Gothic novelist Horace Walpole’s 1753 coinage for the perversely pleasing grim ambience of the Gothic.
Murphy’s bedsheets ripple like a blasted waste, a desert landscape void of life. Or like a boundless ocean, whispering and groaning. Wet hair streaks his cadaverous face, like black liquid—blood? Like tentacles from the deep? Like the “siren’s curl” in the lyrics he sings? Pearls spill like snow that will fall no longer. The line about “the see-saw smile” evokes the swings of climate change.
A figure wanders in an overgrown terrain, barbed wire blocking her way from time to time as Murphy sings, “Yeah, the seasons come in / All the nights are woven.” In horror movies, music warns characters of their impending death. Murphy’s song does this in an anthemic and transcendent way—a nocturnal fight song where night is not for sleeping.
I sometimes imagine the globe getting so hot that we’ll have to invert our uses of day and night, sleeping like vampires through the sun’s worst heat; coming out in darkness when the temperature will be bearable. The night described by Murphy seems as welcoming as it is forbidding.
Composer and musical theorist Jonathan Kramer argues that music creates its own temporality. “Does music exist in time or does time exist in music?” he asks. “If we believe in the time that exists uniquely in music, then we begin to glimpse the power of music to create, alter, distort, or even destroy time itself, not simply our experience of it.” The annihilating and transporting traits of musical time transmit through the very timbre of Murphy’s voice, communicating something almost incommunicable, something beyond the measurements of minutes and hours and the parameters of words.
At the time of Love Hysteria’s release, Murphy said to Record Mirror: “I wanted to reflect a sense of happiness, strength and optimism which I am currently feeling.” Visually and sonically, “All Night Long” is a song that says even—or maybe especially—when things are hard, keep going.
In his book, Dark Entries: Bauhaus and Beyond, Ian Shirley writes that “Indeed the songs [on Love Hysteria] are extremely polished and given great depth,” and that Murphy’s “singing shows greater depth and maturity.” Murphy himself observed, “I was confident now that I did have a good voice away from that very histrionic experimental guttural approach that Bauhaus had.”
He uses his baritone to boom and soar. He uses it to croon. Is crooning soothing? Yes and no. Etymology reveals this style of singing’s bifurcated effect. Originating around 1400 in Scottish, it means “to speak or sing softly”—how gentle, now nice. But compare that derivation to the Middle Dutch kronen, “to lament, mourn.” It can be a comfort to lament—to say “I’m sad,” and have someone else acknowledge the sadness.
In the (too-warm) summer of 2018 in Chicago, I was in an experimental play called L’Heure Bleue, put on by the Runaways Lab Theater, in which I was one of five actors playing a version of a character called Judy. For the interactive cocktail hour preceding the show, my Judy sat at a desk with a typewriter, asking people to help her make a Compendium of Memories through a series of personal but anonymous questions. The final one was “Are you afraid of the future?” The hardest time I had staying in character was when someone confidently and quickly responded “No!” How? I wanted to ask, thinking of climate change. How is the future not utterly fucking terrifying? But the script dictated that I had to thank and encourage them to move on.
I am going to miss fruit when agriculture collapses. I am going to miss being able to walk around outside when it grows too sweltering. And so I am searching for an ars moriendi—an art of dying. We’ll all have to do it, so why not think about how to die well? “All Night Long” in particular and goth in general provide instructive texts. Regal in his disquiet, Peter Murphy seems upset but self-possessed.
There’s a medical concept called the facies hippocratica, the Hippocratic face, which refers to the countenance of someone about to die—a literal death’s head, produced by long illness, wasting, excessive hunger and so forth. Here in the Anthropocene, the Earth wears this face. Because we are on the Earth, this face hard to see, but if you pay attention you can feel it: the face that we require to survive and the face that we are murdering.
What to listen to while the planet is dying? Goth music, of course, the soundtrack for when you’re sick with dread and seeking to transcend it.
The weirdest part of “All Night Long” arrives at 2:33, when in the video the knife point glints and the French growling begins. The little nightcap that Murphy has been wearing in bed now implies the appearance of ears, like he’s part beast.
In fact, these lines are a clip from the 1946 Jean Cocteau film La Belle et La Bête, aka Beauty and the Beast (which features another heck of a head, another sterling set of cheekbones, belonging to Jean Marais in the title role).
Translated, the passage goes as follows:
A rose that played its role
My mirror, my gold key, my horse, and my glove
Are the five secrets of my power
I’ll give them to you
If you put this glove on your right hand
It will transport you to where you desire to be
Where do we humans as a species desire to be? Death obsessed and yet undead, much goth music is characterized by a melancholy otherworldliness. Who in this world who pays attention is not sad? Who in this world would not want to live in another?
We are all part beast, all part animal. There is no outside, no separating ourselves from “nature.” We haven’t destroyed “nature,” we have destroyed ourselves. Murphy’s song has been described as an us-against-the-world one, but, of course, in the end, the world is us.
I used to consider the Hans Holbein the Younger painting The Ambassadors well-done, but goofy—a fun silly gimmick.
Like wow, sweet anamorphosis and good work on a hyper-realistic painting of a couple learnèd dudes and their sumptuous accoutrements, but what the hell is with the huge skull looming in the foreground like a kitschy Magic Eye? But lately I’ve come to respect Holbein’s death’s head. Because in a sense, the painting resembles how climate disaster functions. No matter how lovely or well-executed a day is, I can’t go for long without being reminded. Without seeing it. Without the stupid whack-a-mole cranium of uncontrolled, uncontrollable global warming popping up with its empty eyes to bore into mine.
And so I am working daily on a way to deal with that knowledge. “All Night Long” is a reminder that maybe the Gothic can be that strategy. Dead and undead. Escapist and accepting simultaneously. Because for all its scary trappings, much goth music is not really scary, because much goth music is not really trying to terrify, but rather to naturalize death and evil to make them less daunting.
Climatologically, we may be surrounded by ghosts—haunted by all the futures we’ll never get to live—and there may be very little of what could be considered hope, but that’s still no excuse for us not to keep going. Or if not to keep going, then to be able to sit and live with the tumult.
In 1982, shortly before Bauhaus broke up, the British commercial filmmaker Howard Guard directed Murphy in a television ad for Maxell tapes. Stylishly attired, he sits in a sleek leather armchair, blasted by the sonic excellence of a Maxell recording of Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain.”
The break-the-sound-barrier quality barely causes Murphy to turn his death’s head. As the plants, the decorative wooden ducks, and even his own tie are buffeted in the musical melee, Murphy has found a way to rest calmly, elegantly inside the storm. When he casts his unflappable gaze over his shoulder at the camera at 0:22, he seems to say wordlessly, You can do this, too.
In their book Goth Music: From Sound to Subculture, Isabella van Elferen and Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock point out that:
The most obvious example of goth’s foregrounding death as a way to transcend it can be seen by starting with the most familiar—indeed, iconic—goth subcultural style: cadaverous white-face, often accentuated by black hair, clothing, and black or red make-up. […] The animate corpse uncannily foregrounds death in the present and thereby acts as an affront to the living who seek to repress the anxious awareness of mortality. When confronted with a corpse, one is forcibly reminded of one’s own ephemerality and of the inevitable corruption of the body.
So I wish for myself and for everyone else being emotionally chewed up by climate catastrophe to get to a state where we can put on “All Night Long” and a black outfit and look our own skulls straight in the eyes and say, “We are all going to die, and that’s sad but fine.”
Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a nonprofit publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, as well as a founding member of Poems While You Wait, a team of poets and their typewriters who compose commissioned poetry on demand. She teaches in the English Department at DePaul University, and her most recent books include the national best-seller, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk (St. Martin’s Press, 2017) and The Listening Room: A Novel of Georgette and Loulou Magritte (Spork Press, 2018). Her criticism appears in The New York Times Magazine, The Poetry Foundation website, The New York Times Book Review, The Chicago Tribune, The Paris Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She lives in Chicago with her spouse, the writer Martin Seay. Follow her at @KathleenMrooney
Livonia Then and Now: lindsey drager On “How Ghosts Affect Relationships”
When my mother dies, her body will go to science. More specifically, to the body farm at Northern Michigan University. The program was formed in 2017 as one of the first body farms in the world to study the decay of the human form in colder climates. My mother has signed the paperwork and included this in her will. My mother has sat us each down and explained this is her desire. And this is why, when her human shape is empty of animation, she will not be buried or turned to ash, but sent to Marquette, Michigan where she will decay in an as-yet-to-be-determined fabricated scenario. The hope is that studying her posthumous form as it melts and molds and morphs will help a future victim’s family.
When I think of her future corpse, I worry I won’t be able to sleep knowing the body in which I was harvested is outside in the cold and dark, breaking open and breaking down.
On March 16th, 1977, eleven-year-old Timothy King asked his teenage sister for 30 cents and walked out of the front door of his Birmingham, Michigan residence with a skateboard and a football. He was headed to the pharmacy to purchase candy. Six days later his body was found in a shallow ditch off Gill Road in Livonia, Michigan.
The lead singer of His Name is Alive—Warren Defever—was born in April 1969, which would put him at eight years old when Timothy King’s body surfaced in Defever’s hometown. Twenty-one years later, in 1990, he would record “How Ghosts Affect Relationships” in his mother’s basement using a microphone he purchased on sale at the local Radio Shack. The town he grew up in—the town where the album was recorded—would serve as the album’s name: Livonia.
Defever says he writes “songs about foreign soldiers entering your home and murdering your family, songs about the Charles Manson family entering your home and murdering your family, songs where I describe what would happen if I entered your home and murdered your family.”
Timothy was found with his clothes neatly pressed, his body cleaned, his skateboard parallel to his frame. According to a series of March 1977 issues of the Detroit Free Press, he was a straight-A student whose favorite food was Kentucky Fried Chicken.
There is still one Radio Shack in Livonia, Michigan. It is a six-minute drive from where Timothy’s body was found.
My mother is obsessed with serial killers, particularly those around the Great Lakes Region. She archives and chronicles serial killers as a way to institute order on the chaos of her past. When I mention this case on a phone call to her, she rattles off the details from memory with overwhelming accuracy. “The Oakland County Child Killer,” she says. She tells me he was responsible for four deaths during the years 1976 and 1977, that at the time it was the largest murder investigation in the United States. She says the children—ages ten to twelve—were abducted and kept for as long as fourteen days before their strangled bodies surfaced, that all the abductions occurred in the winter months. Through the phone, I can hear her light a cigarette and sigh. “The fucker was never caught.”
Defever was eight years old when Timothy’s body was found, and thus just out of age range to be a potential victim of the Oakland County Child Killer. But at age eight he would have been surrounded by the investigations: the rumors, the leads, the fear.
In a 2017 interview, Defever says that His Name is Alive has endured for nearly 25 years in the experimental music world because of their devoted, if unconventional, following. Defever says they have “fans in prison and fans in insane asylums,” and others who are “pickpockets, silver tongues, criminals, card sharks, and street people.”
He says his investment in experimentation began quietly, subtly, when he would record the world around him on cassettes. Those early recordings include the sound of lakes and the wind. In one, he says he inconspicuously recorded a neighbor shoveling dirt.
“This is the distinctive theme and deepest insight of American Gothic,” writes Allan Lloyd-Smith in American Gothic Fiction, “—the sense that there is something behind, which may not be, as in European Gothic, the Past, but some perpetual and present Otherness, hidden within, behind, somehow below the apparently benign ‘natural’ surface.”
In 1977, Timothy King’s sister gave him 30 cents and she has regretted it every day since. The King family has worked tirelessly to solve the mystery of the Oakland County Child Killer, raising funds to make a documentary, promoting the efforts (and writing the foreword) for a nonfiction book, and contributing interviews to a five-part special on the deaths forthcoming on a local Detroit station. Timothy’s sister keeps an extraordinarily up-to-date website—the last post of which was made the day of this essay’s writing—that urges the police to re-open the case. The family has pursued their own investigation in these forty years, tracing leads as vast as a cryptic but anonymously written confession to what they believe was a network of General Motors executives who were paying off the police to keep their pedophilia ring a secret.
When they found Timothy King’s body, it was determined he had been sexually assaulted with a foreign object, bound by his arms and legs, and strangled to death. In his autopsy, they did not find the candy he had sought out to buy that day with his sister’s 30 cents. Instead, they found Kentucky Fried Chicken.
When she dies, my mother’s body will become an experiment. Around her form people will craft hypotheses, will graph and chart the rate of her decay. The intel her flesh provides will become metadata stored and secured so that some future-tense victim’s mysterious end can be made sense of and solved.
I want to understand, but when I probe her, she stops me. She asks me to imagine that I am the victim, to imagine those last moments before I am gone. She asks me to imagine what it would mean to recognize in those moments that whatever had led to this might never be known. I try to do this for her, imagine myself about to be killed, but it is a fiction I struggle to construct. She tells me the least she can do is give what little she has to help someone else get answers. “As you grow old things begin to feel artificial,” she says, “I want to do something real.”
Defever describes the way experimentation can come from the most subtle and understated moments. “Sometimes you point the microphone at the sound source,” he says, “and sometimes you point it in the opposite direction.”
Synapses flicker over the span of forty-two years, sparking and coating a ditch near Gill Road. I am here, trying to do the thing my mother asks me to do, trying to do something real. I am here in a borrowed car in the dead of winter, at dusk. I am alone and I am trying to put myself in that ditch forty-two years ago. But what happens is something different, something I am not proud of. It’s dusk and my headlights are on and snowflakes hover static in the air. I am trying to do something real for my mother, to try to understand her decision, but I am not Tim in the ditch. I am hovering over it, tucking in Tim’s shirt, having lifted his tiny form from the back of my truck and straightened it out in the icy ditch. I have set the skateboard perfectly parallel to the small corpse, folded the hands across the dead child’s chest. Timothy King’s ghost loiters in the crisp whip of the wind across my face as I hover over a ditch on Gill Road in the dead of winter in Livonia, Michigan in 2018. I am trying to understand my mother—I am trying to be Real—but instead I hear the low grunt as he rose from his knees, tracked back to his car; I feel the breath that met his numb hands; I smell the empty buckets of fried chicken. I don’t think of Tim but of him, the U-turn he made on Gill Road, and then I think of where he went. I want to tell my mother she will haunt me—that she haunts me now, alive—that the thing she wants proves what the dead do to the living is not gentle. I want to tell her but I promised I would try to be the body in the ditch.
I try and I try but I fail. I am only the roads of Livonia leading Tim’s killer back to whatever safe haven he reached that night. I am only Livonia, whose roads he travels still.
Lindsey Drager writes in Charleston, South Carolina—for now.