the sweet 16
(13) THE CRUXSHADOWS, “MARILYN MY BITTERNESS”
(1) sisters of mercy, “lucretia my reflection”
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 21.
i hear your empire down: ander monson on “lucretia my reflection”
I have a lot of things I want to tell you about the Sisters of Mercy—a band that I’ve been preparing to write about my whole life, it feels like—but the most important thing is that their entry in March Vladness, “Lucretia My Reflection,” is as great a goth song as you’ll find. It’s released right at the ideal point in the band’s trajectory, midway (where most bands’ sweet spots are), where Andrew Eldritch is most full of his own ideas and ambition and before he loses touch with whatever once fueled him and wanders off into the wilderness, where he still is (arguably) today. “Lucretia” is dramatic, grand but not grandiose (actually it’s definitely also grandiose, but I love its grandiosity). Full but not overstuffed, filled with actual content, and fun as hell, “Lucretia” captivates. It rules. It makes a great argument for what Goth is/was capable of and what it still can mean, even decades later.
“Lucretia” sums up the perfect balance between what’s great about the Sisters of Mercy (and goth as a whole) and what some see as stupid about the Sisters of Mercy (and goth as a whole), which is the same thing: it’s the commitment (overcommitment?) to an idea, and a willingness to follow it as far as it’ll go, no matter how dumb others may believe you look while whistling “Black Planet” in the stairwell poorly. Never mind how good that idea is: good is for chumps, for things that never get made. Is it a good idea to name your band after a Leonard Cohen song? To call yourself not just Andrew William Harvey Taylor but Andrew Eldritch? To name-check your own band in an early single (“Adrenochrome”)? To beef with the best iteration of your band just after dropping your first—and most excellent always—album, then to get pissed and kick everyone else out of the band except your drum machine, which you name not just Doctor Avalanche but Doktor Avalanche? To then troll those former bandmates in an epic fashion by releasing an album as the Sisterhood that you recorded over the weekend in order to stop them from legally performing as the Sisterhood and claim a record company’s bounty, and begin it by taunting them about the money you stopped them from getting, followed by “JIHAD!!!”? To inexplicably record a solo piano number about the sadness of 1959? To title your third album Vision Thing after a George H W Bush talking point and in so doing yoke your star inexorably to his, and what’s more to take this whole goth thing you’d basically solved in a BIG ROCK direction and try to out-Axl Axl Rose to the point where your guitarist in the “More” video even looks like Slash (but, let’s face it, does not quite have the chops, nor are you quite Axl enough to be Axl)? To collaborate with Jim Steinman (of “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and Meat Loaf fame) on a series of what can only be termed “rock operas”? To write a song called “Doctor Jeep”? To write another called “Detonation Boulevard”? To get in a for-the-ages pissing match with your record label (the same record label that you once so assiduously courted) that poisons your ability to ever release new music (which you claim you’ve written but will only release for millions of dollars, which you will certainly not receive after having outkicked the coverage and the shadow of your own fame)? To henceforth live like a lonely wizard in the empty forest of your own making?
No, these are probably not good ideas, but yet Eldritch had them, and did them, and pulled most of them off (I’m a particular fan of the Steinmanization of Eldritch, or the Eldritchization of Steinman, but that’s another essay that maybe you’ll get if this makes it through to the final). As a result, the Sisters of Mercy end up being responsible for some of the most gloriously over-the-top songs in the most gloriously over-the-top genre, and damn if their whole discography, best summed up in “Lucretia,” doesn’t make me feel filled with so much darkness that I can run through a wall or blow up a star with it, and that’s why “Lucretia” ought to win this tournament if it doesn’t get nuked from orbit by the feisty-ass Cruxshadows.
And if Eldritch won’t accept the black crown at the end, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t give it to him anyway. We don’t give it to him for him; we give it to him for us, because of how this song makes us feel, because of the spell it casts, and what it does to us.
Maybe I just mean what “Lucretia” does to me: I’m not ashamed of it. It still ensorcels me, even 32 years later. It gives me confidence to use the word ensorcels in an essay, even.
Like many of us, I was not as goth then as I would like to be able to claim now. Oh I more than flirted with it: I had my net.goth t-shirts; I discussed the particulars of goth furiously on the BBS forums; I had a lot of tapes; I listened to them constantly; I even had my dad monogram my black Land’s End bag TGR (for The Grim Reaper, my kool hacker handle), and if he didn’t know what that meant, all the better; I lived too far away from anything remotely approaching a goth show to go to a goth show until the whole scene had gone and went (along with Eldritch’s acceptance of the moniker); and in the time before the internet and total availability I worked for it, my hard-won point of entry into darkness, and even if it was Vision Thing rather than the cooler Floodland and the even cooler First and Last and Always, not even to get into the hard early singles and EPs, I worked for it and I let it define me. I did some shit. I was some shit. I was a shit. I liked Eldritch a great deal: he was the shit and knew it.
What I want to know now is: what’s wrong with goth? I love my good goth feelings; I slip into them way too easily. So why do I have more anxiety about feeling them now? Why does it fill me with anxiety to betray my black heart to one of my students, let’s call him James, when he asks me what kind of music do I listen to really? I mean, you seem like a 69 Love Songs guy, he says, and that’s right on, but beyond that—before that—well, I say, goth, obviously, and he says, wait, what? I say, you know, Sisters of Mercy, Siouxsie, Alien Sex Fiend, Christian Death. He’s never heard of any of these bands; his mouth makes a little O. I say what do you think that means? He thinks it means Hot Topic and I guess, whatever, maybe Linkin Park? Evanescence? He can’t picture me with eyeliner. And if I do harbor some love for Evanescence, even against my better judgment, I can still feel it rising in me, my purist fury, not that Sisters of Mercy were every particularly pure (see also Jim fucking Steinman). James, I want to say: I have a whole world to show you. Open up your Midwest heart. This essay is for you.
I discovered the Sisters in reverse order, beginning with Vision Thing (1990), then going back to Floodland (1987), and then to First and Last and Always (1985), with a brief detour into the Sisterhood’s hilarious and surprisingly good troll-gift Gift (also in this tournament). And listening to them this way they get more instrumentally interesting as, aside from Doktor Avalanche and Eldritch, we see Andreas Bruhn and Adam Pearson join and leave the band, and Patricia Morrison joins and leaves, and then Wayne Hussey and Ben Gunn and Craig Adams are there for a while, and then eventually even Doktor Avalanche leaves the band, and it’s just Eldritch and Gary Marx (also instrumental in Ghost Dance’s entry in this tournament), reportedly writing and recording songs because they wanted to hear themselves on the radio. (This is a pure origin story, and one that should speak to all of us.)
That the only continuity in the band is Eldritch aside from the programmable and non-royalty-check collecting Doktor Avalanche tells you almost all you need to know about what makes the Sisters of Mercy great: that they named the fucking drum machine, and that Eldritch then kicked everyone else out of the band except for Avalanche’s programmable ass is a testament to the power of Eldritch’s own self-belief (also to his sense of humor, which one imagines must be extremely wicked, dry, and deep).
But then Goth is about self-belief. You have to have some self-witchery in you to reveal yourself as so obviously other, to deviate from the norm as Goths do. That is, if you revealed yourself at all (plenty of us did so only in secret) aside from literary tournaments.
What redeems this self-belief is that Eldritch actually is a genius. Or maybe “was”: because he hasn’t released anything new in decades aside from occasional songs in live shows and website screeds and forum screeds and bitchy interviews and threats to drop a new album if Americans did something so stupid as to elect Trump president (to which I and many others respond: yo, we did our part; now we need you, Eldritch). Because of all of this it’s hard to really take the measure of where he’s at. But one thing’s clear to me: Dude had ideas. He had the ego to know he could pull them off, and the drive to do it. He knew what the sound would be like, and what the look would be like, and it was all driven by a desire to say something fucked about the fucked world he saw and felt. He was probably a total asshole to work with, much less to date, but as listeners we don’t have to do either.
Unlike a lot of goth lyrics that rely on familiar tropes, Eldritch is making arguments. He’s into Subject Matter, too: American politics, the cold war, “the prostitution of Europe by the Americans,” Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” and the Great Depression, and Lucretia Borgia, and Russia Russia Russia, among other things (and you’ll note these subjects seem to have aged right back into relevance). He’s also obviously having a hell of a time dungeonmastering this adventure for himself and for us.
In fact I got so obsessed at one point with the SoM that as Dungeon Master for my group of friends I insisted on soundtracking whole adventures —
—with Floodland on repeat, particularly the moodier numbers like “Neverland” (particularly the superior full version), “Driven Like the Snow,” “Flood I,” “Flood II,” and “Torch.”
I have no clue know how this came off to my friends but they were my friends so they let me get away with it (and thanks for that, y’all, a couple decades on, and to reward you, YOU ENCOUNTER:
Ahhhh. Breathe. One more dungeon map before we move on, because even looking at it plunges me into darkness once again.
I know what listening to the Sisters of Mercy has felt like (darkness + energy), and how it’s bent and sustained me, but listening to “Lucretia My Reflection” (and their whole discography, particularly Floodland) thirty-two years later, I can’t stop wondering:
Can listening to goth (which is a kind of being goth) —can listening to a song like “Lucretia My Reflection”—bring down or halt the progress of empire?
I have my doubts, because empire flourishes in spite of Goth, and in spite of the Sisters of Mercy, but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but but…and yet, when I turn the song on now, and it cuts in just a tiny fraction off the beat, and there’s the bass and there’s the voice and something happens to me. It’s not the same thing that happened to me then, but it’s related, and it folds those two moments over each other. It’s a submerged path I’m following, a subterranean passage.
Goth songs are songs of dissent, of disconnection, of spectral self-involvement, of opting out from one culture and into another. Goth dance songs like “Lucretia” do something else: If they don’t quite get us to collective action, they can get us to collectivity, if only on the dance floor.
That is what Goth is: a summoning, an opting out, a turning inward, and a performing outward, out there with other bodies, moving. That summoning / that turning doesn’t have to be public, though it’s dramatic when it is (the eyeliner and the white face paint sure signifies something—something terrifying, a reminder of our own mortality and the long game of time, which as the Silver Jews remind us, only children play well). It can be a private opting out too that we do when we listen to a song, when we let ourselves get caught up in a song. In doing so we choose to live in another’s world, let it articulate emotions that we otherwise can’t or won’t or haven’t thought of yet until we hear it, and we let it hold us as long as it will.
This kind of submission remains rare.
Thank god we have access to it—and at the click of a button or a needle on a record!
Our lives flatten us, push down a little bit every day on who we used to be. We build ourselves by repetition, by performing and re-performing one of the many roles we play. But when I get caught unawares and hear a song like “Lucretia,” something old and yawning, something outside of rationality opens in me.
Lucretia and these other songs are songs of opting out of big chunks of mainstream culture, or at least feeling like we are. At the extreme end of things, a good (goth) song casts a spell so powerful that it can take a person over. It can possess you, even if it just summons you (who never dances) for the first time to the floor (even if it’s just your own) and gives you that moment of abandon, free among others, present or imagined.
We fear and covet and revere these spells and those who cast them because they are powerful. It is easy to make fun of those we do not understand, and even easier to mock those we do. These spellcasters push beyond the rational, the sensible, the predictable. We persecute them when we can.
So when Eldritch sings that he hears your empire down, I imagine he means to tell you that he witnesses your empire crashing down. He’s singing to you from the ruins, but in listening and singing back, we’re singing to us from the ruins (as many in this tournament have noted, the notes on general ruination that goth offers continue to age well as we descend further into environmental and political and human rights nightmares, and as the circumstances of “Lucretia My Reflection” do not seem to have changed all that much, except for the worse).
But I like to think, and every time I listen to this song I become more convinced, if just for the 4 minutes and 20 seconds on the 7” version or the 9 minutes and 51 seconds on the 12” / CD version, that it casts a spell so powerful as to suspend time. It hears your empire down.
While we’re in the bubble of it “Lucretia My Reflection” actually halts the progress of empire—on me at least it does, or maybe I just think it does (there is no way to know for sure). I mean that hearing the song itself is a bewitching, and that hearing takes me somewhere outside of empire, and not just that but that hearing is contra to empire.
What empire wants is for you—for me—to produce and to reproduce, and to not pay too much attention to the roar of the big machines.
To open up a hole in empire’s desires, to point to the machinery, to reveal the spell you are—we all are—under, well, you need a powerful spell to break that other spell. “Lucretia” isn’t the only one, but it’s a big one, and it’s good enough for me. It embiggens me when I listen to it, when it operates on me as it does. That’s because it pairs pretty complex (at least by rock song standards) lyrics with an all-time-great bass line, a heck of a rhythmic strut, Eldritch’s roar of a voice, and even Doktor Avalanche does its part (overly so on the later remastered versions that overemphasize the drums) to get us on the floor. And once we’re on the floor (and maybe we haven’t ever even been on the floor before) we find ourselves dancing there to the fall of empire, and I think that weakens empire, or the empire we’ve consumed by a nonzero amount.
And if Eldritch looks the part, and the witchy Patricia Morrison, ostensibly the bassist, does, all the better. Half the experience the Sisters offer is visual anyway, and the video sure delivers. I love the brief intercuts of the machinery that visually track Avalanche’s digital snare. I love the empty buildings and then Eldritch gesticulating in a sweatshop and swinging what looks like a long thin pipe or maybe an extendable majorette’s baton like the savior he means to be. He doesn’t interact with the workers of the factory: they’re here to illustrate (which maybe isn’t great by 2019 standards but you can’t have everything all of the time). It’s all mood, and I’m its mode. Either it’s awesome or it sucks, and I’m all in for awesome.
Could Eldritch be doing more to dismantle the machinery of empire—maybe that same machinery that prints his tour merch cheaply? Sure. And could this song push a little harder against cultural norms (a la Christian Death or even “Exterminating Angel”)? Definitely. But it knows its limitations too: “We got the empire, now as then / we don’t doubt, we don’t take reflection” (itself, I want to note, a reflection: oh Eldritch, you tricky mistress). We can acknowledge the contradictions we’re dancing to and still enjoy the dance and all the electricity we generate doing it and be changed a tiny bit.
“Lucretia” also just kicks ass. It’s propulsive. Collective, even, how it pulls us with it. The bigness of the song and its lack of anxiety about its bigness makes it easier for more of us to get carried away by it, if we’re willing, and whether we wore black then and painted our faces or if we just listened to it in secret, or shared it with a select few, that’s fine too. You’re welcome here, Eldritch says, gesticulating, as long as you don’t want royalties.
And listening to it now in 2019, I want to do all these things. I’m old enough to know that one should take the invitation when it’s offered. So I’m gonna hit the floor. You can too. Sing it with me now: Lucretia, my direction, dance the ghost with me.
Ander Monson is a member of the Official March Vladness Selection Committee. He hopes you enjoy the full glory of this photo.
ABSORB THIS AGONY: JIM RULAND ON “MARILYN MY BITTERNESS”
You’re 15 or 18 or 21 and it’s your first time in the club.
It’s dark and loud and a lot more crowded than you’d imagined.
You’re with a friend or friends. No one goes to the club alone.
You stick close to one another until you find a spot where all this chaos won’t seem so confusing.
You’re not old enough to drink. Or you can’t afford to. Or it’s not really important to you. Or you got hammered in the parking lot before you came inside. Or the substance you got from a friend starts to kick in.
You’re 15 or 18 or 21 and you came here to cut loose.
A new song comes on. Maybe you’ve never heard it before. Maybe you listen to it every day. But you’ve never heard anything this loud before.
Hearing isn’t the right word for it. Hearing happens above the neck. This you can feel with your whole body, a feeling that sends you out onto the dance floor, into the loud shadows, and throbbing smoke, bodies seething all around you.
Do you remember that feeling?
Do you remember the first time you were summoned to the dance floor? Do you remember navigating that vertiginous strobing space? Do you remember the urgency of it all?
Of course you do.
You danced your fool ass off.
For me it happened at an all ages Goth club.
I was a sailor in the Navy and my ship was stationed in San Diego. One of my shipmates had found a flyer for the club. Although he was 21, I was not. I wasn’t old enough to get into bars and clubs, so he decided we should go.
This shipmate, let’s call him Neal, turned me on to a lot of great music from Bauhaus to Bad Religion, Tones on Tail to T.S.O.L.
These were songs that I wouldn’t have heard on the radio. Or, if they were on the radio, I wouldn’t have known where to look for them.
I was a teenager from Virginia. My childhood was 1% Ramones, 1% Devo, way too much MTV, and 10,000 hours of classic rock.
I wasn’t cool, not even close, but I was smart and hungry for new experiences. Neal obliged.
He made me tapes and gave me books. He encouraged me to buy a pair of Doc Martens and keep a journal.
We went to see Hunter S. Thompson and Love and Rockets and Crash Worship and Peter Murphy and Lords of the New Church. I took LSD for the first time and Neal made sure to play “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” as the sun went down. (Years later, a friend in college described Daniel Ash’s guitar work on that song as “frozen bat wings,” which I think is a good description of the music, but even better when applied to the onset of an acid trip.)
I was 18 years old. I didn’t know anything about anything. So when Neal said, “Let’s go to the Goth club,” we went to the Goth club.
“What’s Goth?” I asked.
“Punk music you can dance to,” Neal replied.
I wasn’t much of a dancer—at least not anymore. For most of my childhood I was an Irish dancer. My brother, two sisters, and I took lessons every Monday night. In March, we performed all over Northern, Virginia, Southern Maryland, and Washington D.C., and marched in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. During the summer, we competed in dance competitions up and down the eastern seaboard. The older of my two sisters was really good and nearly won a championship one year, but by then my brother and my other sister had dropped out. I was a decent dancer, good but not great, but it didn’t translate into confidence in myself. This was way before Riverdance, and I had to wear a kilt, a fucking gold kilt, which I hated. Eventually the charm of being constantly teased and taunted wore off, and I hung up my dancing shoes for good.
Neal wore all black to the Goth club. He might have been wearing eyeliner but I was too weirded out to ask. I put on jeans, a sweater I’d picked up at Goodwill, and my new Docs. Neal’s hair was too long for Navy regs. Mine was too short. I looked like skinhead from the sticks. That was as Goth as I could get.
The club was packed with beautiful freaks. I felt awkward and nervous and super self-conscious, as I usually did around attractive women my own age. For the first time, I experienced the thrill of hearing “my” music at a gathering of strangers. I’d been to punk shows and rock concerts, but this felt different, more intimate.
Then it happened. The music overrode my inhibitions and I flung myself onto the dance floor. My crippling shyness slipped away. I stopped thinking about my body and its desirability or lack thereof. I ceased to be a person at all. I was just another body on the dance floor, a body orbiting other bodies that occasionally collided, each of us in our own cosmos, dancing, dancing, dancing by ourselves together.
This was years before “Marilyn, My Bitterness” by The Crüxshadows dominated Goth-industrial-fetish friendly dance clubs around the world.
Although “Marilyn, My Bitterness” came out in 1996 on the band’s second album, Telemetry of an Angel, it blended in seamlessly with songs from at least a decade older.
Its surging synthesizers, relentless beats, melodramatic lyrics, and hushed vocals owe something to New Order’s “True Faith.” The Crüxshadows weren’t a mega popular super group with major label backing, but a scrappy darkwave synthpop outfit out of Jacksonville, Florida, led by their charismatic front man Rogue who has kept the project going since 1992.
No consideration of The Crüxshadows is complete without discussing Rogue’s white boy dreads. Shaved on the sides and gathered at the top like a carrot, the strands shoot up and fall forward. The effect is part Perry Farrell, part Sideshow Bob. If Iggy Pop moved to Florida in the ‘90s to become an ecstasy dealer, he’d probably look a lot like Rogue.
“Marilyn, My Bitterness” sounds both soothingly familiar and eerily timeless. From its riveting syncopation to its vaguely English-sounding intonations, it’s one of those songs that seems as if it’s always been in the playlist of your imagination, those drum machines endlessly churning in the back of your mind.
More than anything, “Marilyn, My Bitterness” is exceptionally danceable. The beat beckons, the beat beguiles. It’s difficult to imagine listening to “Marilyn, My Bitterness” and not dancing.
Neal and I never went back to that Goth club but the genie had been let out of the bottle. Neal and I started hanging out at dance clubs in Tijuana. The liquor was cheaper and danger lurked around every corner. We got to know a pair of Goth girls who thoroughly took advantage of us. We paid their way in and bought them drinks but the only time they ever danced with us was when they were trying to get away from boys they were even less interested in than us.
We shipped out for a six-month cruise and sought out dance clubs all over the Western Pacific. Yokosuka, Hong Kong, Darwin. But the nights at California Jam on the infamous Magsaysay in Olongapo in the Philippine Islands were the best. The sound system was like nothing I’d never heard before and the cover band was truly spectacular. We combined San Miguel beer with Robitussin cough syrup and stayed up all night dancing at Cal Jam.
My Goth phase was short lived, but my affinity for the music endures. Bauhaus’ “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” the Cure’s “A Forest,” and Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Wheel on Fire” still do it for me. The Crüxshadows are still making new music, and while I’m hard-pressed to call it Goth they are big in Germany and still have devoted fans.
I don’t go to dance clubs anymore because I’m not 15 or 18 or 21, and before too long I’ll be all of those numbers put together. I am an enthusiastic dancer at weddings, Quinceañera, and holiday parties. I don’t drink or do drugs anymore, but my feet still know what to do when the beat becomes impossible to resist. They know what my heart knows and my brain sometimes manages to forget: all music is dance music.
Jim Ruland lives in Southern California and is currently working on a book with the punk rock band Bad Religion. This photo was taken last year. He thought you should know.