second round game
(6) christian death, “figurative theatre”
(3) ECHO & THE BUNNYMEN, “THE KILLING MOON”
and will play in the sweet 16
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 14.
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.
PATRI HADAD ON “THE KILLING MOON”
“I’ve always said that ‘The Killing Moon’ is the greatest song ever written.” —Ian McCulloch, lead singer of Echo and the Bunnymen, Guardian 2015
Grandiosity is so goth.
The media used to call him Mac the Mouth. Not only is “Killing Moon” the greatest song but Mac himself proclaimed to be the best singer in the history of time (Q Magazine, 2018). Echo and the Bunnymen were the best group in the world (XS Noise, 2018)—a line that beat out his previous quote that they were top ten greatest bands of all time (Exclaim.ca, 2009). And the band ran ads for Ocean Rain with the slogan “The Greatest Album Ever Made.” Give yourself to his words and we can close the book on this Vladness contest and possibly all –ness brackets forever and ever amen.
At BookPeople recently, it only took those first four twisted notes and hand-slide on the guitar for me to recognize the greatest song ever written. Few songs evoke this immediate recognition for me. Billy Idol’s slide intro to “White Wedding” or Keith Richards’s three-note riff (you know the one) that prompts me to either turn the volume up or change the station. I put Samin Nosrat down and found myself levitating toward the sea of blue book covers in the spirituality section on the second floor.
Why is it the greatest song? Because it reached UK’s Top Ten and stayed there for six weeks? Is it because it is ubiquitous and a mainstay of 80s goth rock? Is it the experimental instrumentation? Will Sergeant’s manic strumming of his Vox Teardrop 12-string mimics the folkloric balalaika that brings to mind some exotic fantasy? A sweeping cello keeping harmony with Les Pattinson’s suspended chords, where a note is missing in a musical chord that causes disjointed dissonance? Then we have the melodramatic story of a stargazer who forfeits himself to a murderous celestial body. Romance crooned from thick British lips and fly-away hair.
Full disclosure: I’m not goth. That is, this is not another goth-cred essay. My goth music collection was very small. The closest I came to becoming goth was in the 10th grade when my best friend came back from summer break with jet-black spikey hair, neck wrapped in a velvet choker, and delineated makeup that came out of a black and white graphic novel. My first question was how anyone could dress goth in the humidity of Houston. I tried searching for her on Facebook recently but the closest profile I could find resembling her was a black circle, with a black cover photo. I missed watching her cross the field over to my house from the picture window in my bedroom.
Echo and the Bunnymen aren’t really the pale face of somber goth either. Ian’s singing brings to mind so many other New Wave singers with 80s sentimentality: Mac would likely think it heresy to be compared to Morrissey but also his voice follows low Brit-tones of Ian Curtis, Bernard Sumner, Marc Almond. Band members wore a lot of black but then again, they were British.
We all have our romantic darkness. At night when I couldn’t sleep, I would raise the blinds to that picture window, which was less than a foot off the floor and lay in the light of the moon. The cover for the “Killing Moon” single is that of the moon from my memory, a perfect white circle and sterling clouds of a coastal city. The Echo decided to use a popular photographer, Brian Griffin, to lead all the photography for Ocean Rain, the “Killing Moon” single, and accompanying music video.
On the album cover of Ocean Rain where “Killing Moon” appears, we see the band awaiting in a wooden dinghy against an indigo cavern, as if taking a detour of the River Styx. Ian McCulloch leaning over to touch the magnificence of his own reflection. Griffin even directed the music video, though he doesn’t boast about it on his website.
It’s a particularly gothy-80s music video—full with streamers, a lunar eclipse reflected in undulating water, a fog machine, crepuscular lighting (with blood red light on splashing water!), unsmiling band members who peekaboo with camera rotation, and of course a figure like the Grim Reaper shot from below to show the magnitude of her ruffles. A 25-year-old Ian sings under a swinging light, bringing out in a blue mood those plump lips, thick eyebrows, and blown-out raven hair. Abandonment to your emotions, sincere eye-shutting so crucial to exhibiting a metaphorical stabbing of the heart, and a lyric that I used to think said “up against your wall,” is the epitome of goth and so fucking sexy.
The video leaves little room for interpretation but the people have their opinions: werewolves, Jesus in the Garden of Geshemene, date rape, a serial killer, God… and, of course, the play Bodas De Sangre (Blood Weddings) by Federico Garcia Lorca. “It is an overwhelming coincidence if not,” said one commenter.
For many, the song evokes a young Jake Gyllenhaal with that familiar wind-blown hair wearing plaid pajama pants cycling down a smooth hilly road rubbing his sleepy eyes—a foretelling his own fall down a rabbit hole. I’m so behind on goth that I only just watched Donnie Darko last month. (Told you I wasn’t very goth.) Immediately, I recognized glorious synchronization between our 1984 song and the film set in 1984 makes it seem like Echo and The Bunnymen wrote it just for this foreboding rabbit.
Both embody a pop version of gloom entwined with angst. Both are obsessed with destiny. Both make sardonic use of rabbits. Both have central characters who struggle with debilitating mental illnesses.
Although Donnie’s issues are pyro-phrenic, Ian wrestles with OCD. It started out with his washing his hands very thoroughly. Then touching solid objects, needing to touch the floor, the walls, the table because if he didn’t something terrible would happen. When everything is at stake, it’s no wonder Ian wrote powerful lyrics about surrendering to what he can’t control.
It started with a solar eclipse in 2017. In the span of a year and a half, the earth danced with the sun and the moon. People everywhere in jet-black sunglasses stared upward while the moon placed itself over the sun, a Charon’s obol. For one brief moment, we were all goth. We stood around making fists trying to create crescents with our hands on the sidewalk. Six months later, we experienced the Super Blood Moon, for which I got up at 5 a.m. to see. It ended up being the worst day of my life. A few months later, on a trip to Puerto Peñasco, we learned that the tide crashed into the coast that night, breaking up construction, piers, and leaving the water by houses. Over the summer, the moon watched me as I cleansed and skinny-dipped. In January, we saw our last total eclipse for the next two years, laying to rest major tidal changes for a while.
At least half of the glory of the song’s lyrics goes to God. Gospel according to Ian: “I had the chords and the verse and melody, then one day I woke up, and it was sunny, and I sat bolt upright—if you can sit bolt upright—with the words to the chorus, which I hadn’t known any of before. I think it was the Lord himself saying, ‘It would be fantastic if you said these words.’”
This is the part of the KM story that I love the most. After listening to “Space Oddity” backward, “The rest of the lyrics came quickly, almost as if I knew them already. The title and a lot of the astronomical imagery, such as ‘your sky all hung with jewels,’ came about because, as a kid, I’d always loved The Sky at Night and Star Trek, and I remembered the moon landing. I was up all night wishing I had a telescope.”
On his 13th birthday, Ziggy Stardust singing “Starman” on Top of the Pops, changing young Ian’s life forever. What he experienced was otherworldly, stunned by the glitter of this androgynous majesty. He became obsessed with becoming a musician like Bowie. It became about an ethereal lifestyle—he’d walk down the street and have moments where he perceived astral projections that he described as “seeing the light.” I wonder if he’d giggle the way Donnie Darko did when he saw liquid spears bubbling out of people’s chests.
If the theory is accurate, this whole film 17 years after the song came out is an entire homage to “Killing Moon.” From the blues and purples in the first scene to a shot of the back of Roberta Sparrow and the back of the woman underneath death’s cloak at the end of the video. The only thing Ian had left to say about Donnie Darko’s writer-director Richard Kelly: “Cheeky bastard.”
Patri Hadad is a huggable writer, editor, and painter with an MFA in Creative Writing from University of Arizona and the former managing editor of New Ohio Review. She lives in Tucson and is currently working on a series of visual essays.