the sweet 16
(6) christian death, “figurative theatre”
(2) nine inch nails, “the perfect drug”
AND PLAYS ON IN THE ELITE 8
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 19.
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.
DAVE MADDEN ON “THE PERFECT DRUG”
My perfect drug would turn everyone in the world, me first, then maybe your children, comfortably bisexual. Picture a pill. Not one that, should a person swallow it, would turn them bisexual. A pill that, once I swallowed it, would turn everyone in the world, me first, then your kids, comfortably bisexual.
In this way, drugs are genies.
The perfect drug isn’t the problem behind Nine Inch Nails’ “The Perfect Drug”, it’s the wanting of the drug that brings trouble, the way money itself isn’t the root of all evil, according to Saint Paul, but rather the love of money. Money’s just a tool for us to do the Lord’s Work. Sheltering the homeless costs money. Feeding the hungry does, too. To love your money more than you do the homeless and the hungry is the evil that will send you right to hell.
I like money, but I love drugs. The speaker in Trent Reznor’s lyrics likes their body but loves the feeling of its destruction. What they want is a kind of dissolution, albeit a cheerier one than we’d expect from a goth hit: “My blood wants to say hello to you.” We can dismiss Reznor his misfire here (oh and Mark Romanek can dress Reznor up as Vlad the Impaler all he wants but it doesn’t change the fact that “The Perfect Drug” isn’t so much Goth as Industrial, not only for how Reznor’s mixed his drums—chugging and blasted—but also for how the song was on the Lost Highway soundtrack, and if you’ve seen any David Lynch movie you know the soundtrack’s gonna be like 90 percent machine drones), but we shouldn’t dismiss that yearning. Drugs are for people who don’t like themselves, or who don’t like the situations they’re in—which, if we’re being honest, is all of us.
For a long time my drug was TV. The gang at Bayside let me pretend high school could be pleasurable, and set in California, and that as a high-voiced nerd who dressed poorly I could fit in easily there. In college, I thought of the Friends as my friends. By then, I’d found alcohol, a better drug if not a perfect one, a drug I still use to turn off the sun and pull the stars from the sky often enough that I’m writing this during a self-assigned period of abstention.
I want a drink when I’ve folded my third load of laundry in one night, or when the man at the gym doesn’t return my gaze. Six sips in, a good drink can start shaving off the barbs of my reality and make it easier to pass through the world according to the map I’ve been drawing of it. Aren’t I smarter, stronger, and sexier than this man I’ve become?
“Yes, of course,” alcohol says, every time.
“Heavens! what a revulsion! what an upheaving, from its lowest depths, of the inner spirit! what an apocalypse of the world within me!” wrote De Quincey re opium, but he’s not my people. “The pleasure potential of a perversion (in this case, that of the two H’s: homosexuality and hashish) is always underestimated,” wrote Barthes, but that’s not my drug. Marijuana keeps pushing the moment I’m trying to enhance away from me, the party’s conversation running like a rabbit between my legs. Cocaine I only tried once after hours of drinking and it didn’t make me any happier. When I take drugs the government doesn’t regulate, I think about murder. Who got shot in the head so that I might snort this up my nose and keep this feeling going another thirty minutes?
Which brings us back to money, because drugs are expensive. They cost a lot.
I saw Lost Highway three times in the theater when it came out. I loved Bill Pullman’s notion that he wanted to remember a moment the way he remembered it, not exactly the way it happened. I never liked NIN, but I loved this song, chiefly for its rhythms, and in my blue Sunbird I wore out my tape of the soundtrack. For 21 years, when I’ve sung along, I’ve sung “You want the perfect drug the perfect drug the perfect drug” and it wasn’t until research for this essay that I discovered I’ve been singing it wrong.
You, in Reznor’s song, are the perfect drug.
Imagine it. I know he’s not singing about you, but imagine he is. That power to possess, in all senses of the word, the person who takes you in. To be, at the heart of you who are, something irresistibly consumptive. Drugs abound in the gothic imagination (witness Romanek’s use of absinthe to deliver the song’s break), and so do sex demons. Vampires. Succubi. We ask of them what we ask of any drug: Take this away from me.
Goths know that sometimes it’s as fun to be ravished as it is to ravish, to fuck you like an animal. This is why goth boys wear makeup and goth girls wear leather. This is why the neutral of black. Which is the darker part of this enterprise: admitting that we want our control taken over, or standing up to be the perfect drug for those desires?
Either part in me I’ve lived afraid of.
And I want you
And I want you
And I want you
And I’m not you
Another mishearing, this one willful. The story of my queerness has been an ongoing clash between desire and identity, the moment of my true becoming always in the future. “Don’t dream it, be it,” goth hero Dr. Frank N. Furter told me at age 13, and I went ahead and became a dreamer. Whence the drug of TV, and probably now the drug of liquor. I’ve long dreamt of the pedestal I’d finally get to stand on and know myself to be perfected. What I’ve failed to acknowledge is what I’d step up there with: my own feet.
1. My body is my best means of transport.
2. Drugs take me away from my body.
At 40, I can hear the end of this song as a triumph, or at least the promise of one. “Without you without you without you everything falls apart,” the speaker wails, but if your Everything is a dream, the chasing after ideals, isn’t that destruction a good thing?
The perfect drug might be just a slap in the face. We know it will hurt and feel very good. We know reality bites. What I want to learn is how to bite back.
Dave Madden is the author of If You Need Me I'll Be Over There and The Authentic Animal: Inside the Odd and Obsessive World of Taxidermy. He directs the MFA program at the University of San Francisco.