second round game
(5) PETER MURPHY, “ALL NIGHT LONG”
(13) the tear garden, “in search of my rose”
and plays 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 13.
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
a tale of two gardens: megan baxter on “in search of my rose”
And in remembering a road sign
I am remembering a girl when I was young
And we said these songs are true
These days are ours
These tears are free
You should begin reading this essay, as I did in writing it, by listening to ‘In Search of My Rose’ by the band The Tear Garden. You can find it online or on Spotify in which it is the first track of this essay’s playlist. Although Wikipedia doesn’t classify The Tear Garden as a Goth band (describing them instead as “psychedelic, experimental, electronic”) the listener will note the heavy cloak of darkness that smoothers the melody and the march of romantic images across lyrics ornate with hangmen and castle walls. I’ve never, despite many romantic tendencies, depressions, tattoos and the occasional love affair with the dead, considered myself Goth. I hadn’t heard of The Tear Garden until I set out after this essay. Even after I listened to ‘In Search of My Rose’ on repeat whenever I was in the car driving to work, or the grocery store, I couldn’t make myself connect with its doldrums. I couldn’t drape it over my life story or see through its veil of tears.
To locate myself in the gothic ‘In Search of My Rose’ I had to trust that one subject led to another. I feel about this song as I do about much in my life, that everything is connected if I look hard enough. We are compositions of galactic debris after all and as a child of musicians’ all music in some fraction is mine by inheritance. I listen broadly to a host of genres and so I supposed, as I reached out to The Tear Garden that their dark sound was somewhere in my genetic make-up. I knew that there was Goth in my blood.
My mother is a professional flutist, a plucky, upbeat instrument which is just about as far from Goth as a classical instrument can get. Flutes play the sounds of birds and maidens’ song. While they might occasionally whistle a mournful tune, their voices are simply too sweet to call down darkness. It was my mother’s music I heard first in my world, echoing through amniotic fluid. Even though it was in my blood I didn’t love the sound of her flute as a child. In fact, I found my mother’s music grating. As she ran up and down scales or worked through a score, I learned to either grind my teeth or tune out.
Music was given to me like a gift by which I could work miracles. In the story my mother tells about her life music is what lifted her up off the dairy farm where she was born. Her flute was a silver fairy’s wand that cast a magic spell and suddenly she was dressed in crisp concert blacks, living in a city where her only chore was to practice. Practice is the magic mantra of the musician and it was my bane when I began taking piano lessons at the age of five.
Once a week my mother and I drove across the river to a woman’s home in Vermont for an hour-long lesson. Her house seemed Victorian and heavy with dark fabrics. It was near to the town cemetery. I liked to gaze through the darkened windows of the mini-van into the cemetery’s black eyed crypt. In my memory, this crypt, where winter’s dead were stored until spring loosened the ground, was very close, perhaps across from my piano teacher’s front door. A quick look at google maps proved that it was, in fact, miles away. The crypt and the lessons simply became fused in my mind.
There was something terribly gloomy to me about the piano. Perhaps it was the ivory keys of our beautiful antique upright, the tusks of long-dead pachyderms, splintered and oiled. The piano sat in our “music” room in which my mother held flute lessons most afternoons and evenings. I felt choked in the space and must have sensed even as a child that while music was in my blood, playing it was not my gift. The lessons taught me early that I had to work for things, even things that should be mine by inheritance. Not all connections were as easily made as my mother lips on the golden mouthpiece of her flute.
At five my feet barely touched the golden pedals hovering about the oriental carpet. I had to pull the bench close so my fingers could rest on the toothy keys. Piano practice was the most regulated hour of my childhood. The doors in the music room could be locked from the outside and when I heard that little click I knew I was a prisoners to my mother’s gift. What were wings for her, were shackles for me. For a while, I’d fiddle with the keys. In my most gracious moments, I’d practice for a few minutes. Then I’d stare at the sheet music with tears burning my eyes. Once I remember raging, throwing my books against the door, tossing myself on the itchy carpet and howling “Let me out!”
But I was made to play anyway. In white tights and frothy gowns, with my long hair held back with a bow, I’d be driven off on weekends to music recitals and competitions, held in the same, cold Protestant churches. The altar cross would shine dimly while a collection of children murdered Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. I remember my fingers going cold at those church pianos and the hot tears a fumbled key flooded from my face and into my lap. The music my mother tried to give me was about regulation which I heard only as a funeral march.
In contrast, my father’s music was given out like dessert at the end of the day. Until my youngest sister was born we lived in two rooms that opened out to a hallway. My brother had one room and my sister and I shared the other, sleeping in stacked bunk beds. At night my father would carry a chair to the end of the hallway and sit right at the junction of the two doors, with one leg over the other so that his golden lacquered guitar rested on his thigh. There was nothing technically impressive about my father’s playing or about his soft, timid vocals except that they captured his character so essentially. He’d sing acoustic versions of James Taylor, Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell and John Denver songs with such consistency that I was shocked when I heard the originals in my late teens. In my sonic heart it’s my father’s voice which sings ‘Sweet Baby James’ and ‘From Both Sides Now’ and every time I hear them sung another way they sound to me like a cover.
It’s hard for me to imagine a time before music lay over my life as it does now, giving it structure, deepening meaning, connecting heart with place or heart with time. But there it was: a vast span of a decade in which music was either my mother’s or my father’s, or something I practiced on the piano. In our house I was surrounded by music but none of it was mine.
Sometime in the sixth grade, in 1997, my father, for reasons neither of us remembers, thought I might like listening to the Beetles. I remember the tight plastic seal on the double best-of album he’d purchased from the bookstore downtown, how we had to use a scissor blade to cut it. When at last I popped the plastic case open the CD’s looked like two green apples. I didn’t know what to do with songs like ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun’ but I loved to jump around to ‘Twist and Shout’.
To play those CD’s my father had to buy me a CD player and that cherry red, UFO-shaped machine had a radio and tape deck too. With my new CD player I could listen to the two pop music stations that came crackling in through the white pines of rural New Hampshire. I could also slip in a blank tape and hit record as soon as a song I liked began. As the tape’s brown ribbon spun, I could capture music from outside and make it my own.
Or maybe it wasn’t the cherry red CD player that pushed me further towards myself. Maybe it was something simpler like biology because at the very same time, in the winter of 1997 I got what my health teacher had warned the girls of during a gender-segregated session that fall. Although I remember a stain on the burgundy velvet of a skirt, and on the lining of thick winter tights, and most embarrassingly on the slick dust cover of a formal dining room chair, the event itself was less important than the change in the way my mother treated me. Blood marks the threshold. Having a menstrual cycle appeared, like the rainbow road in Candy Land, to skip me from a place in childhood straight to being a grown up.
When my mother told me that I was a woman and that meant that I could have babies of my own, I took this new title of ‘woman’ very seriously. Shortly afterward, and as if to reflect the idea that I was grown, my mother started lending me, no, encouraging me to wear her clothes. This might have been a practical consideration since we all wore variations of hand-me-downs and second-hand offerings but the act of picking my school outfits from her closet felt more like a ceremonial act.
On the left, past a whole row of concert blacks, hung the dresses and blouses and floor-length skirts that I’d seen my mother wear every day. Pushing into the closest released molecules of her perfume from the velvets, corduroys, and denim so that to find something to wear to a regular day in the sixth grade meant brushing up against the very fabric of my mother’s existence. In pictures from that time my mother and I stand side-by-side, nearly the same height like awkward twins, and her hair much shorter and darker than mine. I imagine that I felt then very much as I look in those photographs, like a replica.
In 1996, just a few months before I began wearing my mother’s clothing a band called The Tear Garden released their second album . The band was the side project of two other bands, Skinny Puppy (a shocking industrial Canadian band) and The Legendary Pink Dots (a trippy Euro snyth formation). Not many people listened to the album ‘To Be an Angel Blind, The Crippled Soul Divided. It was a small release from a particularly small sub-genre in the insular Goth industry. There was no music video and the band never played the song live.
I didn’t hear bands like Skinny Puppy or the Legendary Pink Dots and certainly not The Tear Garden on my cherry red radio. I listened only to 92.3 or 97.1 FM which provided the pop soundtrack in my hometown, a place the locals call ‘The Upper Valley’. I grew up in community drawn together by the clock tower of Dartmouth’s Baker Library and all of the jobs its Ivy League halls and sprawling teaching hospital created. The public schools that I attended were homogenous, lacking in diversity as they excelled in education and athletics. My classmates and I seemed only separated by the fact that my severe asthma prevented me from joining a sports team (forcing me instead to conquer books) while many of them were on their way to becoming Olympians. In any other school I might have been cast as a nerd earlier, before the threshold of middle school. I was then as I am now, a romantic. For most of the 6th grade I had thick hair down to my waist which reminded me with a flush of pride, of both the princesses in Disney movies and the maidens in the stacks of fantasy novels I consumed.
At the collision point of biology, clothing and pop music, I developed my very first serious crush, my first non-serious crush being on the long-dead Civil War hero Joshua Lawrence Chamberlin.
“J.L.C.” as I called him was a handsome, mustachioed college professor who famously led the Union charge on Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg. I loved his story as much as his dashing military portrait and didn’t think for a second about his corpse, resting in the cold rocky ground of Brunswick, Maine. My feelings for this dead man faded slowly, until his image became a ghost lingering over my first practice romances.
My real crush’s name was Steven King. I didn’t know of the famous author but liked that when the teacher called attendance in the morning his name was read backward as “King Steven”. King Steven was a skinny blond boy with hemophilia. The blood disorder gave him the romantic aura of a Russian prince. I may have been more in love with the Romanov’s massacre in that dark basement (imagining bullets clinging of the bones of corsets and the hard facets of hidden jewels) than with the boy himself. I remember only that he shared a desk with me in social studies and that I interrupted his requests for pencils and lined paper as very intimate and telling. I carried a Lisa Frank notebook with me to that class whose cover showed a rainbowed illustration of two golden retriever puppies gazing at each other longingly. The name of the picture, written in bubble letters, was “Puppy Love”.
On Valentine’s Day in 1998, as daylight faded dimly into grey, I slipped a giant Hersey kiss candy out of my backpack and onto the shelf in King Steven’s locker. Dear Steven, I’d written on the heart-shaped tag, Happy Valentine’s Day, from your Puppy Love. Then, the waiting began. All night I imagined my heart filled like the eyes of those golden retrievers as King Steven declared his love for me.
We sat together the next day. I’d worn my favorite of my mother’s knit sweaters and beige corduroy slacks. Steven asked for a pencil, as he always did and we listened, elbow to elbow, to the lesson and to our homework assignment. Suddenly, still waiting, the class was over. This pattern repeated day after day, the same expectation, the turtlenecks that smelled like my mother’s perfume, his friendly blankness, the pencils, the lined paper until spring turned to early summer and our love song ended.
Maybe it was the way I looked? I thought during the last days of 6th grade, glancing around at the girls dressed like girls not like women in their early 40’s. I knew that I wasn’t dressing like myself, whatever that meant. It was at that point that I first questioned what made me me. Not only that but how to present my findings to others. Maybe Steven was unable to see who I was because of the way I dressed like a mimic.
One of the key tenets of romanticism is the value of the individual. To be a romantic is to separate and celebrate your experience from that of the rest of the world, whether in love, in nature, or in thought. Although I couldn’t have articulated it then, after King Steven’s blank rejection, I began refusing to wear my mother’s clothing. I had my hair trimmed several inches. I painted my nails with bright polish purchased for $0.99 at the pharmacy when we picked up my asthma inhalers. Most importantly I discovered, discarded on an end table at a family friend’s house during a dinner party, a thumbed-through copy of the summer 1998 Delia catalog which was to become my guidebook.
I stuffed that catalog down my pants and stole it home with us after the dinner party, feeling it shift between my shirt and the back of the carpeted mini-van sheet. In my room, I studied its pages and marked in red pen the outfits I felt would best illustrate my developing sense of self.
Having finished this research I presented the catalog to my parents by leaving it casually on the kitchen table, as if it belonged there like the sugar bowl on the lazy Susan or one of our three sunbathing cats. You can find a scanned copy of this 90’s relic online and to my eyes now it is shockingly innocent. The girl-models smile big goofy smiles, they kick their platform sneakers towards the camera or tug at the hems of their sweet pastel dresses. There doesn’t seem to be anything edgy about it. But at thirteen the catalog was a map to a new country, a place for girls to exist between childhood and motherhood.
When the catalog was found on the kitchen table my father called it “a slippery slope”. He worried that the tank-tops and board shorts, the butterfly hair clips and platform sneakers were a gateway to darker things. I imagined that he meant pregnancy and cigarettes, the two evils I had been warned of both at home and in school. I couldn’t imagine how those smiling girls would lead me, faery-like, into ruin. Years later I realized that he was right. Those marked up pages were gates which led out into the wilderness where all sorts of monsters lurked beyond the walls of my family castle. Out there, in the world of Delia’s, my father had no power over me or any other beautiful dark thing I happened to be seduced by.
Despite the lecture involving slippery slopes, I didn’t have to fight hard for my cause. Perhaps my parents had already been discussing whether I should continue to dress in my mother’s clothing. They did study the newest hard-cover editions of parenting books and maybe one of these had alerted them to this potential Freudian conflict. After the lecture it was decided that I could order a few items from Delia’s. I had to contribute my savings, collected from chores. By the start of my 7th-grade year I had amassed a collection of crisp, new clothing which came to our house with my name on the shipping label and each piece carefully folded in clear plastic bags.
Clicking through the images online my heart still skips a beat over the shimmering decal of one red tee-shirt, and the soft paisley of a particular floor length cotton skirt. Seeing these items printed and listed again brings back the wobble of the towering plastic platform sandals I wore on the first day of school with chopsticks in my hair, and how the texture of the shimmering eyeshadow was nearly the same as art-room glitter. Even though the catalog is mostly nostalgia now I feel again the strength those outfits gave me, how they shaped me and released me from my mother’s mold.
Over the summer, when I wasn’t planning my Delia’s wardrobe, I’d started taking piano lessons with a new instructor who encouraged me to play the music I liked. She’d ordered me a copy of the sheet music for ‘Truly Madly Deeply’, a song I’d tape recorded off the radio. Though I still hated practicing it on the keys I loved to sing along with the sweetly feminine voices of Savage Garden and imagine the sort of romance that would fill my heart like those lyrics spoke of, sustained through a series of adverbs. In that Savage Garden I would fall in love, have my heart broken and then step out into that rest of the wild world.
A garden is a manufactured space, separate from nature both by the intent of its cultivation and commonly by a structure like a wall or a fence. Although they often provide some amount of food a garden differs from a farmer’s field in scale and utility. Gardens are personal, familial, often private spaces which border homes. Most famous of all there is the original Garden, Eden, tended not just by man but by God himself where all nature was tame and organized. Gardens are safer than nature, gentler. It is there, where the flowers lap up against the skirts of the house, that so many love stories are set. In the gardens of the Capulet’s Romeo called up to Juliet and Elizabeth Bennett realizes her feelings for Mr. Darcy.
I kept a garden of my own as a girl but it was far from the house and not beautiful except that it was mine. The practiced art of separation bewitched me. I heaped up a circular mound of deep brown compost at the edge of the scrub field perhaps a ¼ mile from our back porch. My garden was close enough that I could hear my parents calling to me but far enough away that I looked to them like a small animal, crouched at my gardening. There, I grew vegetables and flowers, leggy snapdragons and bright four-o'clock which I would cut and display in glass bottles on the table in my treehouse.
My mother kept a much larger vegetable garden, about a badminton net’s distance from the house, and another flower bed that encircled the home entirely like a floral scarf in which we were put to work weeding, cutting and mulching. Like practicing the piano I resented the carefully maintained gardens and kept my own space wild, letting the deer nibble the lettuce leaves and goldenrod bloom along its borders.
When Australian musicians Darren Hayes and Daniel Jones taped their first demo in Logan City, Queensland, they called themselves “Crush” but the name didn’t last long. Maybe because a crush isn’t the real deal, just a haunting of true love. Jones and Hayes discovered a better title, plucked from this line in one of their favorite books, Anne Rice’s classic vampire novel, The Vampire Lestat:
In spite of all the refinements of civilization that conspired to make art--the dizzying perfection of the string quartet or the sprawling grandeur of Fragonard's canvases--beauty was savage. It was as dangerous and lawless as the earth had been eons before man had one single coherent thought in his head or wrote codes of conduct on tablets of clay. Beauty was a Savage Garden.
In 1997 Jones and Hayes released their self-titled debut album, Savage Garden which included, as its third track “Truly, Madly, Deeply”, the song that would become their signature and Billboard Magazine’s Number 1 Top Adult Contemporary Song. Unlike The Tear Garden’s “In Search of My Rose” you probably know this song. It might induce in you as it does me, the desire to slow dance with the body of your love a strict six inches away from yours, swaying back and forth.
I don’t know if The Tear Garden’s Edward Ka-Spel and cEvin Key read Anne Rice or how they settled on their name. Nothing I’ve found online offers up a breadcrumb and my Facebook messages to the band have gone unanswered. I do know that Lestat is beloved of goths and Rice’s books instrumental in the spread of the scene in the mid-1980’s when The Tear Garden released their first album Tired Eyes Slowly Burning. Although I don’t want to assume I feel I can guess that they might, like Jones and Hayes in sunny Logan City have been followers of Lestat and Rice.
It’s easy to draw a line between the Goth and the vampire but why that line exists at all connects Goth to the Romantics by way of David Bowie and The Doors through a velvety lineage of fantasy, music, and culture. In 1967 a critic described the Doors as “gothic rock” in a review in which he described meeting the band “in the gloomy vaulted wine cellar of the Delmonico hotel, the perfect room to honor the gothic rock of the Doors". He noted the darkness that surrounded their lead singer, the intoxicating Jim Morrison on stage. Morrison’s love songs were laced with violence and his performances energized by his unique potion of epileptic, revival-tent, hippie black-out voodoo.
However it’s Morrison’s influences, rather than his music which connect him to the genesis of Goth. He traced his lyrical lineage back to Blake, Rimbaud, and Celine. Goth draws heavily on the art of the Romantics which include Stoker's Dracula and Shelley’s Frankenstein as well as Blake, Rimbaud’s and Celine’s poetry. These Romantic artists countered rational Enlightenment thinking by celebrating the individual over society and emotion over reason. By rejecting the art of the Renaissance which drew on Classical principles, they aligned themselves instead with Medievalism. In the 19th century, Romantics would cloak their work as more ancient texts, dressing them up in history’s authority and glamour. Sometimes the artists would even wear clothing of a much earlier time period, slip away from the industrial cities and live counter to their culture.
A hundred years later, revived by lyricists like Morrison and by Bowie’s comfort in costume as Ziggy Stardust and The Thin White Duke, the Goth scene revisited the Romantics' rejections and played them again against the screen of the decadent 1980s. The Tear Garden is a band of this sort with an old soul and electro synch heartbeat, not so much strictly Goth as it is romantic. Their second album ‘To Be an Angel Blind, the Crippled Soul’ is a collage of rehashed images and overplayed metaphors. If the band was a fabric it would be heavy velvet. If it was a garment it would be a suffocating turtle neck, wrapped like a noose around your neck.
Savage Garden, despite their gothic inspired name, would be if represented in clothing, any number of the outfits found in the 1998 Spring Break Delia’s catalog. Perhaps a rip stock nylon floor length skirt and a boxy, striped tee-shirt worn with clumsy plastic platforms, or a pastel date night dress complete with butterfly clips in the hair.
Although “Truly Madly Deeply” is by no means a lyrical pinnacle I am nostalgic for a time when I believed that love would be like that song. Nostalgia has the power to override current taste and bring up in a wave of historic emotion, feelings of a previous time. It’s not that I enjoy the song now but I did then and that makes all the difference. It was my song once and it will be part of my soundtrack forever. Perhaps if I’d listened to “In Search of My Rose” in 7th grade as I was falling in love I might feel connected to its nooses and castle walls. But it is into the other garden, the Savage Garden, which I found myself led.
As the school year began I fell hard in love with a boy named Tyler Henry. The feeling was all-consuming as if the very fabric of my world had changed and everything brushed against me differently. Tyler was universal then but I recall nothing about him now except for his physical appearance and that he played football. He seemed to possess at 13 an adult male shape and a square jaw. His hair was sandy blond and his eyes were blue but I might be making that part up. His eyes may just as likely been brown. Unlike King Steven, I don’t think he ever sat next to me in class and asked daily for a pencil. I believe my love for Tyler was a purely physical attraction. Once, I stole his tee-shirt from the bleachers during gym class and spent many fanciful evenings smelling the arm-pits of that shirt where, any internet scientist can tell you, a host of lusty pheromones’ linger.
I never told Tyler about his missing shirt and what I did with it, but I did express my love for him. Over the course of several art classes I carefully drew a beach scene with colored pencils. I fashioned a typical collection of images: a sandy island, a palm tree, trailing clouds, and a pulsing sun but I used a type of pointillism instead of lines. Every stroke, every dot of color was his name “Tyler”, written in miniature. Held at arm’s length this monumental act of obsession seemed just a curious technique but up close the thousands of Tylers danced like tiny snakes. The gesture seemed significant to me, some sort of spell by which I’d expressed my desire: writing as an act of union, writing as an act of creation. I had created us through words and art! Overwhelmed by the intensity of this offering I couldn’t bring myself to give it to him. Instead, I asked my friend Stephanie to present him with the picture on a Friday afternoon before the winter dance.
At the dance that Saturday night I waited in the darkened auditorium, dancing with my girlfriend’s self-consciously while watching Tyler and his friends do the same. My father was chaperoning and popped his head into the gymnasium every few songs to check on me and encourage me to join to him in the game room where he was monitoring my friends Julian (who repeated the names of the Roman Emperors in chronological order when he was nervous), Max (who drew very fine knock-offs of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics) and Lydia (who hosted bat watching sleep-over parties and was already nearly six feet tall). No— I hissed at him and slipped back onto the basketball court to wait for my love.
I knew the D.J. would play Savage Garden’s “Truly Madly Deeply.” The song lingered at the top of the popular music charts. It was an unavoidable choice for the occasion. The song has been beating around in my head all day. I’d sat at the piano earlier and practiced it tediously. I’d listened to it getting dressed, dusting my eyelids with fairy dust glitter. I knew that it would be played because it had to be played to complete the story I was writing in my head about us. This was the false romantic confidence that comes with confusing expectations with reality.
When I’d first walked into the darkened gym it was so quiet that I could hear sneakers scuffing the hardwood but then the twin speaker towers came to life and jellied my eardrums. My pulse seemed to change to fit the beat. I saw Taylor in the crowd and knew because I could visualize it because I had daydreamed it because that as how the story went. He’d come up to me gently and ask me to dance when Savage Garden numbed the speakers. I waited through the first slow song and then the second for that perfect moment.
As the first notes of “Truly Madly Deeply” fell over the dance floor, notes that I knew by touch on the ivory keys of my piano, I froze and stood still, waiting like a lady in a garden to be called upon. The teachers who had been leaning against the walls surged forward to search the crowd for bodies that swayed too close. I lost sight of Tyler for a moment and then I found him with his arms wrapped around Stephanie’s waist, slowly rocking to Savage Garden’s heartbeat. I saw all of it, her arms, his hands, their eyes locked, lips raised in cupid bow smiles before I turned away.
My shame was suffocating. Hoping that the darkness would hide my tears, too humiliated even to rush to the girl’s room and weep in the stall, I found my way to the cushioned wall under the basketball net where I stuffed my hands in my pockets and looked down at my sneakers. The song went on and on. Its chorus repeats four times, listing, repeating, listing, and repeating. I didn’t look up until I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was a friendly hand, a nudge like you’d give someone who was sleeping. I looked up into the grinning face of Steven King.
“It’s okay,” he said. “No one asked me to dance either. But you never know,” he added reassuring, “this one time in 6th grade someone left a Hersey kiss in my locker and I still don’t know who it was.”
“In Search of My Rose” begins with a thumping beat, like blood in a sleeping chest. Then, a muttering voice with a heavy, Dutch accent speak/sings these lines:
I found you crying outside on the wall of Devil's Well
A hangman's knot around your feet
And praying for the spell to be shattered.
May I be the one to rip the shackles clean away
and lead you to a place
where loneliness is tackled with a kiss?
A kiss that has no ropes, no strings, no obligation.
I don't owe you, be quite sure, you don't owe me.
No strings, no ropes, no obligations.
I don't owe you, don't owe me.
For the remainder of the songs nearly 5 minutes the lyrics repeat these last two lines over and over. “No strings, no ropes, no obligations, I don’t owe you, you don’t owe me,” which frankly don’t align with any relationship I’ve ever had, even those that lasted a single night.
Debt isn’t the currency of affection but memory often is. Memory is formed and reenacted and revalued every time we think back on it. So in a sense, all relationships owe something to the other because they are significant beyond their moment. To assume a lack of connection between yourself and your world seems to me a fatal and impossible flaw of imagination and compassion. Unless you suffer from a brain injury of one of those memory stealing monsters like dementia we are wired to link things together, past to present, you to me. It’s how we create narrative and develop significance out of the seemingly dissonant sounds that clutter a life.
After the school dance, it became clear to me that there was a commonality between Steven and Tyler which had nothing to do with either of them. In both relationships I acted first but without clarity. In the case of King Steven, I expressed my feelings but didn’t provide a way for him to identify me. He wasn’t uninterested as much as unable to connect. Tyler, on the other hand, knew who I was and how I felt about him. But what does a person do with such an obsessive object? I thought that the picture would make him feel as I did but that is a rather cheap exchange of object for desire. In all honesty, I probably terrified the kid. What interested him more than the thing was the person. It was Stephanie who had approached him with what I assume was her characteristic shyness, as she passed over my picture. It was Stephanie he was drawn to in the first pulsing seconds of “Truly Madly Deeply”. I vowed to go after my next love, not to wait in the garden for him to come calling. Those first two botched romances were just practice.
Unlike other later love songs, Savage Garden’s slow dance spectacular didn’t belong only to my memory of Tyler, or my fantasies, or that riptide of shame. Instead the piece applies broadly to a span of a year. When, nearly six months after the Tyler tragedy, a boy named Robert called out “I love you, Megan Baxter!” as we were climbing a sticky white pine at dusk with fireflies along the hems of the world I remember pausing, and looking down into the white moons of his eyes and thinking, that’s me!
Later, after the sun went down, Robert and I listened to “Truly Madly Deeply” on the cherry red CD player in my bedroom. We set our bodies close and slow danced under my disco ball from Delia’s home collection. Playing Savage Garden’s song now I remember Robert’s body heat and the summer warmth of my attic bedroom. I hear that boy’s voice saying my full name. Perhaps this emotional longevity is what makes it a good song, or at least a better song than “In Search of My Rose”.
That dirge will only ever be a song I listened to as I tried to write this essay, hoping to pin it to anything in my life until I realized that it was the dark twin to another love song by a garden band. Tear or Savage. Goth or Pop. One of them is part of the story that I’ve woven for myself, connecting one thing to another, and the other attached itself to me long ago when blood and music mixed. I’ve practiced the art of suspending a moment, or a year, or a season, in a song. Maybe I inherited this magic from my mother. When that drum machine beats softens the speakers I can still feel the slick cover of Savage Garden’s sheet music and remember the electricity between my fingertips and the ivory keys before they kissed and that song became mine.
wearing a custom-made hooded cloak
performing Druid rituals which included fires and blood
writing sad poetry
Megan Baxter doesn’t consider herself Goth. Perhaps because she was saved from the jock norm world by attending a boarding school for young artists where everyone was a little depressed and loved Rimbaud. While getting her MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts Megan worked as a Crossfit coach, which isn’t Goth at all. Prior to her coaching career Megan managed a series of organic farms and was always too tan to pass as a creature of the night. ‘The Coolest Monsters,’ her debut essay collection, sounds pretty dark but the name actually comes from a misheard lyric by the Clash. Megan has seven tattoos, three dogs and lives in Greenville, South Carolina. You can find her recent work in The Threepenny Review, Hotel Amerika and Creative Nonfiction Magazine’s True Story Editions.