second round game
(1) siouxsie and the banshees, “cities in dust”
(8) shriekback, “nemesis”
and 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 12.
danielle cadena deulen and j. max stinson on “cities in dust”
It had been almost a year since I was last hospitalized when Kristin began making overtures. It might have been sooner, but I have always been frustratingly obtuse regarding signals from women. My natural gift for uncomprehending feminine attentions was certainly made worse by the torch I held for a girl I met in the hospital. Oh, Hospital Girl. I white-knuckle gripped that torch. Beyond the clear romance of meeting in a psychiatric ward and sharing some childhood trauma, Hospital Girl was a brunette, dark-eyed punk. Hardcore punk. Where I meekly suffered the aftereffects of my damage, she donned it like rusty spiked armor and threw her weaponized self at the world. In the radiance of her glorious self-destruction, all other girls were peripheral shades. So, I had to blink and look sideways at Kristin when she plopped down next to me on a smoke break between classes and asked me to prom.
“Prom? Us?” It was not just the “us” part, but I had never given prom serious thought. I was not able to properly imagine it.
She was visibly nervous and brought the bravado on heavy. Backhanding my chest, she said, “Hell yes, us. We would tear that place down, dude. We can storm the thing, and when we get bored just pull a fire alarm or something. Say yes.”
“How much will it cost?” My weekend job at the car wash only covered gas, music purchases, and the exorbitant rates teens usually pay for their drugs and booze— which Kristin had been supplying me with during our lunchtime valium-and-vodka talks off campus. “And I have to buy a tux, too. Don’t I?”
“I already bought the tickets.”
She shrugged. “I think it is going to be fun. I plan to blow the minds of some preppies. Come on. Say yes. And you rent a tux, not buy one. Be sure the cummerbund is red. I’m wearing a red sash. You don’t have to go. I’m gonna go. If you don’t want, it’s no big deal. I want you to, but it’s no big deal. I could sell the tickets.”
I regarded her for the first time as a possible date. She was pretty. Slender and pale with reddish-brown hair and sharp features. She wore skinny black pants and a green flight jacket with her hair spiked up in all the right ways. She was a traditional punk, first and second wave. I was a mix of maudlin Brit synth pop and death rock. I wore red eyeliner to look especially unhealthy, a whip of blue hair across my face, and a general disposition of gloom. Kristin had an older sister who was living large in the LA scene and was a conduit for her tastes. For weeks, she’d been making me mixed tapes and loaned me VHS cassette collections of some damn obscure music videos. She introduced me to bands she enjoyed like Killing Joke and The Buzzcocks, and to music she rightly thought I would like, such as “Cities in Dust” by Siouxsie & the Banshees. In a nearby parking lot, we’d had the deep talks all teens think they are having while we ate our food, took our pills, and drank our booze. Looking away from me, waiting for an answer, her jaw tensed.
I held my hand up to calm her. “No-no. Sure. Yeah. It’s gonna be cool. Let’s do it.”
She hugged me—a first—and headed back to campus. If she looked back, I didn’t see it. I stared at my cigarette and tried to understand how I was feeling.
A banshee is a creature you hear before you die. Nasty hag, beautiful woman, singing soothsayer, omen embodied, she flies around the houses of the ill and injured, divining their deaths with a piercing wail. She screeched her hymns through famines and plagues. She wailed with storms, mudslides, floods, and when Mount Vesuvius opened its maw above the ancient city of Pompeii, it was her howl that erupted over the crowds of people just before they were covered in ash.
Nearly two millennia later, that banshee would return as Siouxsie Sioux, releasing “Cities in Dust” to a throng of devotees, making her own legend. An anachronistic diva. The future is the past:
Water was running children were running
You were running out of time
Under the mountain, a golden fountain
Were you praying at the Lares shrine?
The destruction of Pompeii has drawn the imaginative attention from people in the Western world since it was unearthed in 1748. Some are drawn to the site because of its preservation of the past—the way it provides insight into everyday historical experience. Some are drawn to the narratives made from the remains of the human forms, some to how swiftly and completely an entire city was removed from existence—a terrible reminder of mortality. You think you’ve got big plans, huh? Remember Pompeii. But there’s something about the particular moment in which Siouxsie composed the song that harmonized with the youth of America. The single came out in 1986, smack dab in the Age of Reagan—ultra-conservative, middle class, Christian values reigning everywhere, or at least the veneer of them—everything bleached and shining like the laminate kitchen counters in suburban homes.
There’s a mocking tone of the opening verse that places itself in direct combat with domestic complacency: the children running, the fountain fashioned from gold, and the Lares Shrine—a guardian deity of the household often placed near the hearth—all gone in one fell swoop. Also, the “you.” As in “you people.” As in, not me—and maybe even I ran away from your bullshit town a long time ago. You thought that trinket shrine would protect you…
But oh your city lies in dust, my friend
Oh, oh your city lies in dust, my friend
But it gets worse. How, you might wonder, does it get worse than all the inhabitants of a city crushed or suffocated by molten rock and ash? Well, centuries later, the people who found their unmarked graves would be so fascinated by their horrible death that their bodies would be displayed, photographed, and fetishized, in the way capitalist values make nothing sacred:
We found you hiding we found you lying
Choking on the dirt and sand
Your former glories and all the stories
Dragged and washed with eager hands
The night was what it was. When this off-campus event called prom adhered to the school rules on smoking and everything else, I wanted to leave. I was a dud date, I am certain, preoccupied and angry. I can’t remember if she even got a dance out of me. Most likely not. What a treat for Kristin.
“Let’s go. Let’s just take off and drink or something,” I sulked. She was gracious enough to leave with me. I drove us to the elementary school near her house and parked where we drank more vodka and ate more valium. She put on a mixed tape she made for me, straddled my lap and kissed me so deeply that her braces began to draw blood. She whispered confessions of affection as we kissed and dry humped, the shadows from the street dimming her face, her spikey hair. When “Cities in Dust” came on, she climbed off me and sat in the passenger seat. She eased it down and pulled me over on top of her. Siouxsie Sioux sang out over the speakers:
Hot and burning in your nostrils
Pouring down your gaping mouth
Your molten bodies, blanket of cinders
Caught in the throes…
Kristin held my face, kissed my cheek. “I want this. I’m ready.” She laid back, brought balled fists to her chest, and nodded. I realized she was a virgin.
I decided the night was over. I had had an unsettling amount of sex by the time I found myself in that car with Kristin, but I had never been a person’s first, and had a big hang-up about that—maybe a hangover from my Southern Baptist past. I viewed the act of deflowering a person as evil. When the opportunity presented itself and she to me, I literally ran away. I rolled off Kristin and started the car.
“I should get you home.”
“Wait—what? What did I do wrong?”
“Nothing. I just have to get home.” I was starting to hyperventilate.
We were in front of her home in less than five mute minutes. The lights were on.
“I don’t understand what just happened. What did I do wrong? Tell me. Can we leave before my parents see us? Let’s go back, and you can tell me what I am supposed to do. I’ll do it.”
“This is me being weird. This just is not right. You are fine. I am the one messing up.” This went on for a couple of minutes until her driveway light came on.
“Your parents are waiting. Go.”
She climbed out of my car, bewildered. I was careful to not let the tires spin out as I pulled away.
Goth is a histrionic art. At the center of the arguments that deride the music, the style, is a distaste for the theatrics of it, which I suspect is disguised discomfort with the emotional, the feminine. The dramatic externalizing of pain through fashion and music might strike some as inauthentic—a commodifying of pain in the way capitalism commodifies everything. Pain, as western people understand it, is a thing yoked to shame, and you don’t parade shame around on stage, or sing about it. You let it burn in your pockets, on your tongue. You let it bury you. There’s a distrust of anyone dangling their darkness out in front of them. If she is drawing our attention to pain—the civilized mind imagines—she must not have actually lived it. She must be a liar, or deranged—hysterical.
Hysterical. Histrionic. History. I think of the Salpêtrière asylum of Paris in the late 1800’s—a place for vagabonds, epileptics, women with venereal diseases, old maids, malformed infants, and mad women. Upon arrival, they were whipped, interned once their “punishment certificate” was complete. The head physician of the hysterical wing was Jean-Martin Charcot, now known as the “Father of Neurology.” Charcot was an exhaustive taxonomist of hysteria: drawings, photographs, observation, description, classification. He wanted to discover, claim, name, categorize—not cure. In his observational sessions, his patients were stripped naked and ordered to keep silent while he drew them, supposedly to focus on the symptoms that neurology might explain: motor paralyses, sensory losses, convulsions, and amnesia.
His theory was that hysteria was caused by lesions in the brain, so he waited patiently for his patients to die to crack open their skulls. He never found lesions, which frustrated him. Instead, he found how his philanthropic work with these women—who would interact with such creatures except a saint?—fascinated the people of high society. Hysterical symptoms were so tawdry, consumable: hypersexuality, imaginative to the point of hallucination, self-centered, emotionally demonstrative, given to violent outbursts when their stories of sexual trauma weren’t taken as true. The lurid fascination for these frail and dangerous women reached fever pitch in Charcot’s Tuesday lectures, attended by scientists and aristocracy alike, during which he paraded his patients under hypnosis, triggering them into outbursts, flashbacks or seizures—all for the approval of his audience.
What made these women so strange and wicked that they were kept away from the innocent public? First, they were haunted by their painful pasts, and second, they displayed their pain. In other words, good girls don’t cry—and neither did good boys, for that matter. For decades, men suffering from similar symptoms, usually upon returning from combat, were treated for “male hysteria,” then “shell shock” and now PTSD—a disorder that forms when a person has difficulty recovering from the shock of a traumatic event. By the time was I sent to the psychiatric hospital, the men and women suffering from what would have historically been called hysteria were treated together, in talking circles, with coffee and cigarettes. We could listen to each other’s stories without flinching, recognize that we freaks could form a community.
I’m not saying that it’s genius—the Goth way of making drama of darkness. In fact, most of the bands that have been credited with creating or riding the first wave of that post-punk genre give sour lips to the label “goth.” Siouxsie despises being labeled “goth.” So does Andrew Eldritch of Sisters of Mercy and Robert Smith of The Cure, and Peter Murphy of Bau-fucking-haus. They are fine with their fans calling themselves that, but they will also explain how their commercial successes cannot be laid on the shoulders of such a relatively small, niche purchasing group. This upsets the fans. Siouxsie does not care. This delights the fans.
It’s just that Siouxsie showed a different aesthetic, a different perspective. At the black heart of goth style is the subversion of the conventional ideals that trap people in a façade of nice. The theatricality surrounding pain, darkness, and death, is meant as a mirror to the theatricality of The Normal. To make art of confusion, the clothes remix contemporary and historical fashions in an anachronistic display. The make-up is clown-like both in image and aim—to unsettle its audience with exaggerated features, distorted mouths. You can see why this might appeal to those who felt sequestered inside the standardization of 1980’s America: the madwomen, the queer boys, the totally reasonably depressed. Instead of hiding their strange backstage to protect the sensibilities of convention, they could strut out into the spotlight, into a bright applause. That is, we could applaud each other. As pearl-clutching mundanes and normies looked on with their own theatrics of outrage and unself-reflective chagrin, we could fall in love with each other’s pain.
It was before midnight, and I got on the freeway to kill some hours before sunrise. I headed to Hospital Girl’s neighborhood and drank coffee at a beachside doughnut shop, romantically dour until the sun came up. It was a school day, and I planned to catch Hospital Girl on the way out her front door. She would understand me leaving the prom. She would approve of me leaving Kristin without ruining her. She would, perhaps, be cool with my confessions of affection for her. I pulled up in front of her house and, too eager, I walked to the door and gently knocked.
Her mother answered. She looked burned out, exhausted, confused:
“What’s going on? What’s happened?”
“Is she here? I just left a prom date to come here. I need to tell her something. That I’m ready?”
“For what? What is happening? Have you heard from her?”
I learned Hospital Girl had run away months ago. Her mother had no idea where she was or if she was alive. I’d been harboring these feelings, this story about us, and she had a completely different story. I wasn’t even in her story. I stood there stupidly a moment, said something like “sorry to bother you, sorry she’s missing” and went back to my car.
When I returned to school, I gave Kristin a wide berth and minimal acknowledgement. Everyone assumed we had sex, and I corrected them, I thought, to save her honor—though deep down I knew I was just covering up my freak out. Of course, I said nothing about how she was game or how I derailed the evening. Instead, I told people that her braces shredded my mouth and that there was no way I was going to have sex with her. I thought this was respectful of her and the best way. Kristin and I never really spoke to one another again. I dropped out of high school not long after.
Three decades later, and still that moment in my car with Kristin rising up every time I hear “Cities in Dust,” I decided to find her on social media sites to see if I might apologize and explain my behavior. I didn’t expect that it would change her life—maybe she didn’t think of me at all—but I still felt like I owed her that much. It didn’t take long for me to find friends of friends, who told me that she was dead.
She went in her sleep in her early twenties. They offered no further details and I didn’t push.
A banshee cannot harm or heal. She can only give warning. Her voice points into a time, into a place, into a moment of illness, injury, disaster. She’s not a reaper, but a seer, not a teacher, but a singer—her song a sonic crash between the living and the dead. In her arrival, she strikes the living into fearful contemplation. In her departure, she leaves contrails of questions.
(For more discussion of “Cities in Dust” by our contestants, dial up episode 31 of their podcast, Lit from the Basement.
Danielle Cadena Deulen is the author of a memoir, The Riots (U. of Georgia Press, 2011), and two poetry collections, Lovely Asunder (U. of Arkansas Press, 2011), and Our Emotions Get Carried Away Beyond Us (Barrow Street, 2015). She’s an Associate Professor at Willamette University and hosts a literary podcast at LitFromTheBasement.com. On Twitter: @DanielleDeulen. On Instagram: @dcdeulen. On her author site: danielledeulen.net.
J. Max Stinson is a recovered ne’re-do-well, stay at home dad, and podcast co-host at LitFromTheBasement.com. On Twitter: @VitaReadings. On Instagram: @litfromthebasement.
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.