first round game
(8) shriekback, “nemesis”
(9) q lazzarus, “goodbye horses”
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.
THE DEAD COME HOME: w. todd kaneko on “nemesis”
When I was in high school in the 1980s, kids knew their friends in great part because of their music. Rockers blasted Judas Priest and Iron Maiden and punks responded with Circle Jerks and Black Flag, both groups sharing the back parking lot, woodshop, and the general disapproval of teachers and parents alike. Wavers listened to bands like Flock of Seagulls, Thompson Twins, and Duran Duran. Sure, many music experts say that the term goth was coined and first applied to music back when Bauhaus released “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” but where I went to school in the Pacific Northwest, we didn’t have goth. We had the Cure, Joy Division, and a few kids who defied fashion in their own weird, bleak yet glamorous way. They wore lots of black, had pale skin and hair the color of cemetery birds, and I’m not at all sure how they called themselves, but we called them batcavers.
To be fair, no one I knew walked into a room and called themselves a rocker, and the punks I knew only used the term punk with disdain for punk—the kid sporting the biggest mohawk talked all the time about how stupid mohawks looked. Those labels were really for other people to use. You called someone a rocker or a waver or a batcaver mostly to say they were different from you, sometimes with contempt, but most often to verify with your friends who you were and where you belonged.
The band Shriekback released their most memorable song in 1985. I first saw the video for “Nemesis” on MTV with a short introduction in which singer Barry Andrews (formerly of XTC) spoke, his voice dripping with reverb while his bandmates Dave Allen (formerly of Gang of Four) and Martyn Barker did shirtless aerobics behind him:
We are Shriekback, and we are here in America to play you our music, and to advertise our potent and desirable album, Oil & Gold, and its unequivocal single, “Nemesis.” We are sometimes asked, What is this thing called Shriekback? What is the meaning of all this? Who do you think you are?
Shriekback was weird, a far cry from the metal bands I normally listened to. Andrews looked directly into the camera, his bald head making him look more wayward alien than rock star, as he read carefully from script. “To those who would love us,” he said. “Too clever by half and too weird for our own good, and perhaps for the good of others—we say, do not be afraid. Approach us as though you were a tiny child. We will take care of you.”
There were two suicides at my high school during my sophomore year. John #1 was a normal kid—he wasn’t a rocker or a batcaver, but a clean cut kid who people liked. I remember him as being handsome and charming and smart. He wore a sly smile and seemed confident and strong, the opposite of who I was, and while I wasn’t friends with him, I remember other kids (mostly girls) looking at him with admiration. I remember imagining him as being the kind of son who didn’t disappoint his parents with weird social awkwardness and sub-par report cards. And he was best friends with John #2, who was a lot like John #1 except taller.
I envied John #1 until his parents woke up one morning and found their son’s body in the garage (carbon monoxide, family car). Later that same day, news of his death spread through the school, teachers being careful not to upset us, school counselors standing at the ready to console. We whispered about how unexpected his death was, how no one saw it coming. Even now, if I listen hard enough, I can still hear that girl’s wailing voice in the hall. If I close my eyes, I can see her collapse against a locker and hit the floor.
Teens’ identities and social groups are shaped in great part by the advertisers targeting their wallets. “Merchants of Cool” is an episode of the PBS show Frontline that documents how MTV made its programming out of advertising: promotional videos provided by record labels, interviews and with celebrities promoting their music and merchandise, and broadcasts of concerts with attendees paid by commercial sponsors to be there on camera.
The foundation for MTV’s programming was laid by advertisers and marketers who sought out young people who were fashion-forward, teens who had a new, unique look that they could market to other teens. And as kids defined themselves in great part according to the music and fashions they were sold, MTV became a source for us all to discover the materials we needed to be rockers, wavers, and, without using the actual term—goths. MTV helped create, shape, and perpetuate the social groups we used to figure out who we were and where we belonged in the world. And along with those trends MTV sold us came new ways for us to invent our common languages for companionship, for shelter, and sometimes for grief.
Nemesis is the name of the Greek goddess of retribution, a ruthless deity who punished mortals who exhibited arrogance to the gods. She maintained equilibrium, doling out fortune both good and bad, distributing it on Earth according to what people deserved. The daughter of Nyx, the personification of night, Nemesis appeared as a winged woman brandishing a sword and a whip.
The most well-known story about Nemesis is her punishment of Narcissus. The handsome young hunter spurned Echo, leaving her to pine for him until all that was left of her was the sound of her voice. While out hunting, Narcissus stopped by a pool of water and Nemesis made him fall in love with his reflection. Unable to tear himself away from looking at himself, he was eventually overcome with desire and killed himself.
On Shriekback’s Tumblr, Barry Andrews talks about “Nemesis.” “This is the nearest we got to the Gothic,” he says. “We were and are not, emphatically, a Gothic—or a goth—band. Not that there’s anything wrong with goths—I rather like them—but we’re just not.”
Whatever Andrews says, “Nemesis” is a song that could be a goth anthem. The lyrics are about the meaninglessness of love, the nature of evil, and the struggle it takes to live, juxtaposing angst against pleasure. Andrews sings about drinking “elixirs that we refine / from the juices of the dying,” his lipsticked grin as vampirically seductive as it is grotesque. This doom and gloom is delivered in a synth-heavy, danceable pop song, a happy mixture of sugar and poison, of bliss and horror. And when the chorus kicks in, it delivers all the ritual and ruin one song can possibly contain:
Priests and cannibals, prehistoric animals
Everybody happy as the dead come home
Big black nemesis, parthenogenesis
No one move a muscle as the dead come home
Corrupt religion, extinct creatures, a celestial avenger, sexless reproduction, and a celebration of the returning dead that is as joyous as it is wrought with fear—in the video, the band sings with arms outstretched as if beckoning to someone off-screen, to the prehistoric animals, to the nemesis, to the dead—as if they could summon them to Earth.
Andrews’ denial of goth is in a way an affirmation of goth, a rejection of the label created to tell kids who they are in an effort to commodify their experiences of being teenagers. In the 80s, embracing life as a punk or a rocker or a batcaver was a pursuit of anti-fashion. And as goth became fashionable, part of being goth became being not goth.
The teenage years are a time when kids are slave to their unachievable and repressed desires, as well as to their parents’ pocketbooks and the need to be part of a crowd. Or in some cases, just the need to survive to see adulthood.
Nobody ever explained to us why John #1 killed himself. He and I weren’t friends—we were in social studies together and that was about it—so I don’t know a lot about him as much as I remember the aftermath of his death (assemblies, teachers trying to talk to us, silence). And when John #2 killed himself just like John #1, asphyxiation in the car, the school went on alert for a suicide pact. We wondered how many kids were in on the pact. School officials questioned students about what they knew about the pact. Everyone was suspect, their friends who were grieving the hardest, in particular.
The way I remember it, my friends and I created distance from the suicides because we had the back parking lot and a new Mötley Crüe album. We were still metalheads looking to buy weed and trying to skip as much class as possible without getting caught. John #1 and John #2 were normal kids like their friends. I’m not sure how the normal kids coped with these two deaths, one so soon after another, because I wasn’t one of them.
Barry Andrews has said that the inspiration for the song is Nemesis the Warlock, a fire breathing alien wizard who battled futuristic fascism in the British comic book 2000 AD. You can see the character undulating in the background of the video and towering over the band near the end. Yet the source of a pop song’s inspiration often matters little to the listener. I didn’t know many teenage metalheads in the 80s who actually read Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” even though they loved the Iron Maiden song of the same name. And Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” is played more often as patriotic rock anthem than it is acknowledged as the critique of the country the song makes in its lyrics.
It’s easy to listen to “Nemesis” without knowing the comic because of how the lyrics only ambiguously reference the character. It’s easier to hear how the song creates beauty out of darkness, how it speaks to the teenage experience and the forces that threaten to overwhelm them. How it ignites anxious teen anger with its call to action in the second verse. “We are no monsters, we’re moral people,” Andrews sings. “Call in the airstrike with a poison kiss.”
In his book The Rise & Fall of the American Teenager, Thomas Hine describes the adult gaze, the perspective of the adult outsider on young people that classifies them all as teens. The adult gaze cannot differentiate between the social groups teens belong to, confusing new wavers with goths with punks. It’s the outsider’s gaze that inspires alarm in the viewer—a facial piercing or a hair style or a piece of clothing becomes a need to classify it, to name it in an effort to control it, or even to make money from it. At some point, some marketer or advertiser or record executive must have decided that this batcaver thing was a fashion they could sell to kids and needed a sexier, more marketable name. Voila: goth.
The commercialization of goth has kept it alive and well in teen culture today. You can see that by peeking into any Hot Topic store in any mall in America. And while it’s the adult gaze that observes and commodifies these behaviors for the marketplace, that same gaze that tells teens how the outside world sees them. It says you’re weird. But also: the kids around you are weird too. In the 80s, MTV sold us what Derek R. Sweet calls the subcultural self in his article from Popular Communication “More Than Goth” published in 2005. Goth allows teens to don black gowns and eyeliner as a kind of defense against the dominant “normal” culture, an insulation against the world’s demands and dangers. The adult gaze might see goth as a freaky, melodramatic performance of anguish and misery, but it’s also a way for young goths to say to outsiders we are not like you, to say you are not like us.
Musically, “Nemesis” is delivered in a simple 1-4-5 chord progression common to pop music. See “Here I Go Again” by Whitesnake. See “Sunshine on My Shoulders” by John Denver. See practically every song ever recorded by the Ramones. Like so many pop songs, “Nemesis” uses a pattern of three chords that move from the root (1) to the sub-dominant (4) to the dominant (5), and then back to the root. It’s a sonic progression between root, tension, and resolution, looped for the entire song. This is what pop songs do musically—they create assurance and comfort when they return to the root chord, providing the listener with a sense that the progression has found completion, that it has found its way home safely.
In this sense, “Nemesis” creates a musical irony, delivering lyrics about angst and violence and doom with a chord progression that evokes comfort and joy with a beat you can dance to. “How bad it gets you can’t imagine,” Andrews sings in the video as he reclines nonchalantly on a throne, a scene interspersed with images of the giant dragon and Andrews’ head hanging like a fruit on a weird plant. “Karma could take us at any moment,” he sings. “We could still end up with the great big fishes.”
Moreover, the video for “Nemesis” is disturbing for those who look at it with the adult gaze. The lyrics are dark and the video brims with strange images: eels by the handful, old men smearing fruit juice on their bodies, a child passing fruit to a woman with his mouth in what is easily mistaken for a kiss. The images are apocalyptic and bizarre, but “Nemesis” doesn’t sell us a gothic death fantasy.
“Nemesis” sells us goth: a celebration in the face of death, a refusal to be lost in the darkness, because when that chorus hits, Shriekback looks boldly, fearfully, at whatever is approaching off-screen. They put out their hands to welcome it. Sometimes they wear weird masks. Sometimes they wear broad grins. And they play their music for that dragon to dance to.
As a teenager, I understood the allure of the suicide pact, the mystery and menace sparking my imagination in precisely the way my parents feared it would. What devotion such a pact commanded—eternal friendship, painless existence together, escape from the awkward body of adolescence. What a dangerous relationship between the living and the dead, the kind of danger that doesn’t exist before the dead become the mysterious, desirable beings a person can only become in death.
Back then, my subcultural self kept me safe with distance—from the back parking lot, the school in mourning looked the same as before the suicides. Through the haze of pot smoke and Black Sabbath on the tape deck, everything looked just as it did when John #1 and John #2 were alive. When I thought about it, I could imagine those boys sitting in class learning about Reaganomics or the French Revolution or whatever they were learning in social studies. I could picture John #1, grinning with his hand raised like he wanted to answer a question or wave farewell.
And even now, over thirty years later, as my three-year-old son sleeps under the glow of the night light in his room, I’m thinking of those dead boys, wondering where things went wrong for them, for their parents, for all of us. Because those dead boys were once live boys who might have been saved had anyone known they needed saving. Because they were normal kids, and not weird like the rockers or wavers or batcavers. Because my son will be a teenager one day and I’ll do my best to be okay with his decision to be whatever weird or normal kid he wants to be. I hope he will discover a group of kids who are all weird or normal like him and I hope that they will all keep one another safe.
Amidst all the gothy splendor of the song’s lyrics, Shriekback famously rhymes nemesis with parthenogenesis, a word that is of a different register than the rest of the song. Scientists use the term parthenogenesis to describe a kind of asexual reproduction, the development of an embryo out of an unfertilized egg. It isn’t as rare as one might think; it occurs naturally in some insects, crustaceans and worms, and in some vertebrates like Komodo dragons and hammerhead sharks.
But to talk about parthenogenesis in scientific terms is to rob the word of what it actually represents to the rest of us: a miracle. A virgin birth. The fire of life where there was no spark. We delight in that rhyme not just because parthenogenesis is an extraordinary word, but because amidst the distress and darkness, it’s an unlikely moment of light in an otherwise dark song. That word transforms the chorus into an incantation, a summoning, because at some point in our lives, we lose people—our classmates and friends and fathers and mothers and siblings all taken from us into the big black.
This song is a request for a miracle, for our dead to come home. Maybe they can reappear on our doorsteps, maybe reborn, maybe rescued from the afterlife, but definitely as happy and whole as on their best days on Earth. Let them appear like we remember them. Let them say, hello. I am fine. We all are fine.
W. Todd Kaneko is the author of The Dead Wrestler Elegies (Curbside Splendor, 2014) and This Is How the Bone Sings (Black Lawrence Press, 2020), and co-author with Amorak Huey of Poetry: A Writer’s Guide and Anthology (Bloomsbury Academic, 2018). A Kundiman fellow, he is co-editor of Waxwing magazine and lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan where he teaches at Grand Valley State University.
All Things Pass Into The Night: ashley naftule on “Goodbye Horses”
You were dead. You lay in your tomb, cold and still, for four days. And then hands rolled the stone away from the entrance to your tomb and a voice called out “Come forth” and you did. You came forth and you walked out into the world—A miracle on two legs. Your sister, tears streaming down her face, hugs you and the voice that called out to you, that voice has a face, and that face is smiling at you. And then the voice walks out of your life.
But you, you stay put. You walk around Bethany and the people gawk and point because it’s not every day you see a dead man walking. They call you holy, they call you a freak. You’re not sure which of them is right. Sometimes you miss the cold stillness of that hole in the wall. You try to remember the sweet dreams you had during that long sleep but they don’t come to you. You say “Come forth” and the dreams mutter “Not right now” and stay under their sheets.
Eventually you kiss your beloved sister goodbye and you hop on the next camel out of town. You go somewhere where the people don’t know you. Where you can haggle for goats and wine at the market on Saturdays and nobody knows you were ever a corpse. You are a complete stranger, a myth shrouded in anonymity, living among them.
Maybe you took a wife at some point. Maybe you watched her sleep and wondered if you should tell her who you really are in the morning. You could hold her close to you, let her feel your warmth, and tell her that you weren’t always so warm. But it’s too big and strange a thing to confess, so you don’t. You let the truth sleep. You grow old, waiting to go back to that stillness, waiting for a new set of hands to roll the stone back into place, waiting for the voice to come back and draw you up and away.
People always do the dance. Every time I’ve been to a goth or 80’s dance night that plays “Goodbye Horses,” someone does the Buffalo Bill. As soon as that militant drum machine sound kicks in, somebody strikes the Bill poses in front of an invisible mirror, mimes the lipstick (bonus points if they use the real thing), and mouths the greatest self-motivational speech this side of Stuart Smalley: “"Would you fuck me? I'd fuck me. I'd fuck me real hard." Sometimes that somebody is me.
Every time “Goodbye Horses” gallops into the mix, I lose myself to its eerie, sensual power. Because it IS a sexy song. Divorce it from its association with Silence of the Lambs and you can hear why it’s such a good “I’d fuck me real hard” anthem. The song glides through speakers like a breeze passing through silk drapes—it practically caresses you. It fills up a room with its ethereal ambiance like the fog machine in a Prince music video. Hell, the song itself sounds like it comes from a parallel universe where Prince got into goth music after Purple Rain instead of the Paisley Underground. Imagine Prince with Cleopatra eyes and a black ruffled shirt, crooning “All things pass into the night” over a bed of twinkling synth sounds. Even the name of the singer’s backing band sounds like a Prince project: the Resurrection. A Resurrection would be a great way to follow up a Revolution.
It’s funny, though: The backing band doesn’t get mentioned very often. Look up “Goodbye Horses” in a karaoke songbook and it’ll just say Q Lazzarus. It never says Q Lazzarus and the Resurrection.
Q Lazzarus, whose real name is (allegedly) Diane Luckey, has a pretty great origin story. Like most great stories, it’s probably mostly bullshit, but like John Ford said: Always print the legend. So here’s the legend: Q Lazzarus met film director Jonathan Demme on the job. She was working as a cabbie in New York in the 80s. She was unsigned at the time, playing the occasional club gig, and driving a cab to get by. She picks up Demme in the middle of a snowy night. Driving through a blizzard with the future Silence of the Lambs director in her backseat, Q plays a tape of her music in the cab. Demme hears “Goodbye Horses” and immediately loses his shit.
Based on the strength of that tape, Demme rolled the stone away and beckoned Q Lazzarus to come forth out of her cab. The music she and the Resurrection made got featured in several of Demme’s films: Twisted, Something Wild, Married to the Mob (where Demme used “Goodbye Horses” for the first time; A song so good he had to cue it twice!). Demme even featured Q doing a cover of “Heaven” by the Talking Heads for Philadelphia.
But the thing about voices that beckon you out of the dark is that they will always leave you, and so there came a time when Q no longer appeared on Demme soundtracks. And soon the Resurrection would be laid to rest as the other members went on to do their thing. Q herself, never the most extroverted of cult artists, disappeared from the cultural landscape. “Goodbye Horses” endured, thanks to Jamie Gumb’s freaky pep talk dance, while its singer passed into the night.
I spent most of my 20’s waiting for buses. I often waited for them late at night, after I had been out on the town performing in theater shows or going dancing. I’d paint my nails black and line my eyes. I’d go to goth and 80s dance nights, almost always by myself, and spend a few hours getting lost in the music before I had to scramble over to the nearest bus stop and pray that I didn’t miss the last bus on the line. More often than not, my prayers would go unanswered.
I spent most of my 20’s sleeping on couches. All my favorite dance nights—Shadowplay at Rips, Sour Times at Sanctum—took place an hour away from my apartment in Scottsdale. So when I couldn’t grab a connection home, I ended up crashing out on couches in downtown Phoenix. I’d lie on the couch in my theater’s old building, alone save for the company of the occasional cockroach skittering in and out of holes in the wall. I’d lay there for awhile, too buzzed from dancing to sleep. Sometimes my feet would twist and writhe on the cushions, weaving patterns of dance steps, as I thought about the music that moved me.
I thought about “Goodbye Horses” a lot on that couch. I thought about Q’s wordless croons, those “ooooooooooooh-ooooooooooooooohs” that seemed to stretch onto eternity. When I was on the dancefloor, I would croon along with her until I was out of breath. Every time she does it, no matter how many times I’ve heard it, it thrills me. It’s like when Iggy screams “LORRRRRRRD” at the beginning of “TV Eye”: Give me an infinite loop of those two exhalations and that would be all the music I need.
I also thought about what Q looked like. For the longest time, I thought Q was a man. That contralto made me picture Q as a Boy George-esque figure: Sunken rings around the eyes, a waterfall of dark hair cascading down their neck, a sharp hook nose, black lipstick smeared haphazardly across their mouth, maybe even a goofy hat crowning the top of their head—something with a wide brim (like Kung Lao from Mortal Kombat 2, but without the razor’s edge). I also used to think that Rick Astley was a Luther Vandross type. My ears, much like the rest of me, are often wrong.
But most of all I thought about sex when I thought about “Goodbye Horses.” I thought about lying in bed with someone, both of us with lipstick on our mouths, breathing fire into each other as Q ooooooh-oooooooohs in the background. I wanted so much to find someone who made me feel like the person I felt I was whenever that song played.
And I would think about that song, and that person, on the long bus drive home. Those long drives where I’d hop onboard, swipe my transit card through the reader, and not even spare a glance towards my driver. I never paid attention to the bus drivers: I was too busy living my story to wonder what was happening in theirs. I was too busy looking at the bus window like it was a mirror and saying “I’d fuck me” to my reflection. I didn’t believe it: It only sounds true while the song is playing..
People thought Q had died. She wasn’t a part of the purgatory of I Love The 80’s package tours. She wasn’t flogging her song at Resurrection reunion shows. She made no attempt to rekindle the fires of fame. To the eyes of the attention economy, she may as well have been dead.
But you can’t name yourself after Lazarus of Bethany and stay dead for long. And so Q rose last year, after an article in Dazed suggested that she was dead. The retrospective didn’t shout “Come forth” but she did it anyway, she rose up on Reddit and said that she was alive and well and working as a bus driver in Staten Island. A writer and musician, Kelsey Zimmerman, did some legwork and tracked down the identity of Diane Luckey, the bus driver who is most likely-possibly-probably Q Lazzarus.
The strange symmetry of a life: To be discovered as a taxi driver, and then to be discovered again as a bus driver.
No one knows why you left. Maybe you like it that way. You were Someone for so long that perhaps being No One again appealed to you. To have the freedom of walking the streets of Staten Island without anyone knowing who you were, who would never ask you about “The Buffalo Bill Song.” That you could go to a bar hosting a trivia night after work to get a beer and nobody in the room would know that you’re the answer to a question.
You get on the bus and do your job. There is no tape deck, so you couldn’t play THAT tape even if you wanted to. But you’re not trying to be found anymore, not like that night in the snow with Demme. You work the late shift. You swing by a bus stop where a bunch of kids get on, all dressed in black. They smell like sweat and cloves.
The goth kids hang in the back of the bus, talking about all the good “old shit” they listened to at the club tonight. And one of them asks about that song, that one song, where the guy or lady goes ooooooooooh-ooooooooooooh and they all laugh and hoot and one of them says oh yeah, I know that song, it’s from that movie: “Would you fuck me? I’d fuck me.”
They’ll never know it was you driving them home.
Ashley Naftule is a writer and theater artist from Phoenix, AZ. He's been published in Pitchfork, Bandcamp, The AV Club, Coffin Bell Journal, The Hard Times, Ghost City Press, Longreads, Rinky Dink Press, Bright Wall/Dark Room, Vinyl Me Please, Nice Cage, Moonchild Magazine, Phoenix New Times, Cleveland Review of Books, Vice, Bone & Ink Press, Grasslimb Journal, and The Fortean Times. He is a playwright and the Artistic Director of Space55 theatre. He also bears an uncanny resemblance to country singer Vince Gill. Follow him at @Emperor_norton on Twitter or don't: you do you.