When I Was Goth

I was goth once, but very few people ever ask me what that time in my life meant to me, or what it means to me now. It's time I told you.

Some chapters of our lives start out feeling as expansive as anything we have ever experienced, but as we gain distance from them, the chapters grow slim, like diminishing slivers of a pie chart. With the passage of time, and with age, it gets easier to dismiss these tiny slivers as aberrant zones. With the arrival of wisdom, and children, and backyard barbecues, and mortgages, and yearly vacations, comes that perception that those slivers are smaller and less consequential than ever in the grand scheme of things. For the sake of locking our pasts into definable anecdotes, we can often over-categorize for sake of brevity.

For anyone re-visiting their lives for the purposes of therapy, or as an antidote to being locked into one way of seeing themselves, any one of those slivers can become expansive and vast again. Chapters fold out into each other as fluid, interlocked moments, startlingly indicative of where we've been, and amazingly predictive about who we've become.

I was something called goth, when it was something separate and fully formed in me. It no longer is. Saying that I am goth is disingenuous. It implies something false: that it is still a thing that is around me here and now, a thing that still can happen to me. It cannot. It's dead. Deader than un-dead, deader than punk, dead as a coffin nail. Goth is dead. I should pronounce it from the top of a mausoleum. Even I cannot resurrect that dark chapter from its coffin.

Counter-cultural self expression is one of modern civilization's defining characteristics. Since music and clothing became commercially viable art forms, counter-culture has refined itself to include movements centered around how you look and what you listen to. For the goth, the relationship between music and clothing was deeply intertwined. It is hard to say which came first. I came in with neither, yet in time adhered to both. Arguably, I understood the music better.

What I now refer to as goth is a mere shadow, something that is still derivative of other, more tangible things around me in my life now, but not as its own phenomenon, not anymore. It is as much a part of my life as decomposed plant tissue is a part of the soil. It's still there, but not recognizable. I would not have it any other way. Real life, after all, is marked by progress and change. Static things are not really static. They are merely things struggling to move, change and evolve that are being held back by someone or something. Eventually, the bough breaks, and change floods us, sweeping away all that once seemed so permanent.

Goth, as a recognized genre, was transitioned into wider cultural acceptance over a long period of time. As I see it, its main components - fashion, music, and culture - are now absorbed fully into other forms of art, fashion and music . It was absorbed by its own commercialism, adopted by burgeoning and evolving trends. Its own innate uniqueness got sold out, layer by layer, in a kind of cultural estate sale, until there was only a skeleton left.

It could be argued that current fashions, attitudes and music described as electro, emo, and even new glam, have absorbed many of these commercially viable assets. Dark, edgy, orchestral strains run through much of today's popular music. Mopey minimalism is de rigueur for indie labels. Emo mullets are everywhere. Bands like AFI and Fall Out Boy popularized the look (but not a sound). Teen dramas not about vampires, werewolves or witches (both of them) still feature moody characters who wear too much eye makeup.

Labels can be silly things, but without them, telling a story about the evolution, fluidity and motion of goth's fashion and musical styles becomes an exercise in confusion. In the old days, what later became known as pioneering goth was not referred to as such. It was a peculiar hybrid of 60s experimental art rock, 70s glam rock, punk rock, post-punk new wave and new romantic. Its theatrical elements - the big hair, the makeup, the theatrical dress - were its most noticeable elements to the world outside. The identifiable particularities of the sound was what kept it gestating in a microcosm for so long. The music kept the clubs running, and was the soundtrack for hundreds of thousands of reflective, artistic and morose-minded teenagers and young adults, lying on their bedroom floors, staring at the ceiling, feeling outside it all, alienated, filled with thoughts about history and religion, persecution and death.

In the music of bands like Joy Division, Bauhaus, and the Sisters of Mercy, the aural landscape was always tinged with austere gloom. Far from the the full-throated musical theater of glam, the music was instead morose and driven punk, with distinctive, dramatic elocution, off-kilter eccentricity of minor keys and a gauzy reverb draped over it all. Despite all this edgy drama, the guitar chords were often juicier, fleshed-out derivations from the simple, straight-ahead electric violence of punk.

Back then, distinct hybrids of punk and new wave were coming into their own, but the music industry today - if there is even an 'industry' to speak of anymore - is such a potpourri of borrowed styles and self-referential mayhem that it's impossible not to see traces of it everywhere. The elements of goth that once seemed so unique and isolated to that genre are now borrowed from liberally. The market is saturated with it, but this is not a bad thing. It is the way of things, and is a testament to the universality of a music genre which is often criticized for being pretentious and overblown. The surging commercial popularity of a lifestyle that once felt like an exclusive club feels only like a vindication of my youth. Was I ahead of my time? Was I preternaturally aware of its staying power in our culture? Was my fearless dive from a reclusive life into a world of makeup, big hair and drugs a prescient one?

No. It wasn't any of those things. I was not a trend setter. I was not concerned about culture. I was a shy, reclusive teen reacting to to a visual and aural aesthetic that entranced me, for reasons I still puzzle over. If you were in this scene too, it may have been a very different experience for you, but maybe you were attracted to the same things as me. For me, it was an extremely personal journey, one with one recurring theme: no matter how deep into a scene I delved, I still felt like a freak among freaks, alienated from the alienated. I chuckle over the possibility that everyone felt as alienated as I did, and laugh out loud at the likelihood that it's true.

The friends and acquaintances I made, the clubs I attended, all the dancing I did, the rumors, the gossip, the drama, the crushes, the insane encounters - pooled together they all form this colossal chapter in my life that now hardly seems like it ever existed. Odd is that my steps into that massive universe were made in very solitary, very private ways. It is such a deeply personal, private story, but I don't mind sharing it now.

I came in with no friends, and left with virtually no friends, but in between, I felt like a part of something so incredible and exclusive that I wouldn't want to take back a second of it.

I had only two things to my name when I took my first steps into that world: a notebook and a desire to know things. I arrived alone every night, and settled down in a cafe courtyard in a run-down shopping center almost every night. I observed with my back against the wall, my hands clasped protectively around a large vanilla nut coffee. I pretended not to notice others staring at me. I longed for conversation and contact. I was hopelessly lonely. Music absolutely defined my existence at that point. Music is the universal security blanket for surviving the often harsh social rigors of navigating social cliques.

One of the unfortunate side effects of my being an observer of a group of people, and rarely getting to know any of them too closely, is that I often either dismissed or idolized them unfairly. I committed this sin with alarming frequency. It was in my nature to be fascinated with the amazingly unique people at the cafe, and the broader world they opened to me. Subsequently, I never felt worthy of any of their company. No matter how how many social hurdles I subsequently overcame, I was never able to shake this insecurity.

In the early days, the ones I remember the most, I cannot remember sunshine or daylight. In those loose, vibrant, sensory times, trips to the cafe shifted to night trips with others to the park, where I drank from flasks, spent long nights discussing old poets and consuming countless mugs of coffee at Denny's, attending house parties where it felt as if everyone there was an established member of a special group I had no knowledge of.

Soon I transitioned into a series of outings to clubs. It felt like being siphoned into a very special, unknown place that few knew about. It was exhilarating. From a converted movie house to a converted church, to a run down warehouse, to the lower chamber of an ale house, the meeting places were often structural anomalies. Once we turned out the lights and dressed the spaces up, they were opulent and fancy ballrooms, and everyone was royalty. I know that a few closer friends - those who had frequented the clubs many years before I blundered onto the scene - were a kind of royalty there. Some days, people lined up to give them gifts.

Many came into the clubs with large groups of friends. I did not feel like I belonged at all. My presence there was a kind of postscript to a scene that was already said to be dying. At first, I came with one or two who knew me from the cafe, but most times, I felt an extreme intellectual distance from them. There was no emotional or physical intimacy. Most of the time, I drove up to clubs alone and listened to new wave and goth in my tape deck. I got there and danced (badly) to avoid standing uncomfortably in the corner. Sometimes, I was high and felt so fearless. Other times, I feared I'd be discovered as the poseur that I was, and that security would toss me out the front door. At the fashion, I was a disaster. I was not one of the countless coiffed haute couture poster children for goth like so many of my well dressed peers. I was instead an uneven patchwork of torn clothing, mismatched shirts and unpolished shoes. I was a complete D.I.Y. mess.

It was the music, therefore, that defined me. The 4AD label and virtually everything under its banner occupied a special place in the soundtrack for my life, at that time. On the drives up or down the freeways, especially when the trip was nothing but inky shadows and glimpses of trees out the window, I had the strangest thoughts. My skin felt hot, my clothes were bound to my limbs like tourniquets, and everything felt otherworldly. This concept of the night feeling like another world comes from very real experiences. Long haul truckers, servers on the red eye, criminals and club goers all see the world through a dark prism. There is a reason pop culture romanticizes these lifestyles. It was the music, though, that spurred me on.

I think of that time just before dawn, when the morning frost hits. I think of standing on a parking garage, or driving through the hills, still frenzied on something, still feeling night surging through me as the sun rose. I think of times spent sleeping in the back of my car, or flickers of far-out things, like another dimension was pushing in on me from somewhere close by. Most of the time it was either drugs, or lack of sleep, but sometimes it was just unfocused desire.

I saw so many bleary eyed sunrises. I flipped through vinyl and disc racks and absorbed all the music I found. I started seeing people outside the shifted nightclub reality and realized that I wasn't as alone as I thought. For me, the hair, the makeup, the boots, the long nails, was something I felt I had to go through. Dressed the way I was, looking the way I did, my crippling shyness came off as effete pretension. It kept people at bay, unless, of course, they were also goth.

Being a goth meant I could be a part of something without really being a part of anything. I could live in my own world while still belonging to something. I could mingle with others without feeling obliged to engage them in any meaningful way. It was a defining characteristic of being in that scene. In that world, being concurrently alone and yet not-alone appealed specifically to my social handicaps. I needed to be around others, but didn't know how exactly to engage and interact, and at clubs, I was allowed to operate within those boundaries. That sounds odd, and maybe it was just my experience, but there you have it.

I loved the romance of a dark club, and how everything seemed so fascinating when we were all together, and especially when we were spun. I loved the giant dark amps we all sat on, the smell of dry ice, the overpowering stares from strangers, the fascinating styles, the dresses and tailored suit coats, the patent leather. I loved the shimmering reverb, the outrageously loud keyboard melodies sailing out over the dance floor, and the way it all vibrated in my chest. I loved friends dedicating songs to one another. I liked how people all held hands and danced in a circle. I loved how we joked and made fun of ourselves, even that time I hit my head in the stairwell and ran through the dance floor covered in blood. So gothic. Good times.

It was not all sweetness and light. There was drama, rage, and deception. There was tangling with psychopaths and addicts. There was the overdose. There were deep crushes and high falls. There were also mean people, and violent people, and people who were angry all of the time. 

The clubs were always a mainstay, but from there, my experience evolved. I began going to day events. I met some really great people, but I still felt like an outsider, never truly deserving of their friendship. Though my affection for my friends was genuine, I often felt like I was playing a role, and that I'd be found out at any moment. Before long, I knew that my days as an active member of the scene were coming to an end. It was a deliberation separation, made easier by the fact that once really awful things went down, I had every reason to walk away.

One of my biggest mistakes in such a big social scene was passively cultivating a sense of my identity by getting others to tell me, or show me. Peoples' reactions to me informed how I saw myself. That is the worst way imaginable to get to know oneself, because it cultivates either a complete lack of self awareness or an over-inflated sense of self. Instead of soul searching, I hoped for a time that life would just find me. That was a mistake, and it arrested my development.

All the same, I just had to go through it. I had to squirm through a birth canal of self expression, exploring a style and a look that deeply appealed to me on a broader search for who I was. There were no answers or revelations in the goth scene about who I was, but I had to experience my passion for the music and the culture, and cultivate a sense of belonging that I had never felt, in order to evolve. I needed to be able to look back and see myself that way, and see it as important, and not a joke, but something real and serious.

It doesn't matter what 'scene' you're in, or what you look like. It's all the same. You take stock of who you are, how you interact with others, how you see yourself, and if you're lucky, you spot something - maybe by accident - that hits you like a thunderbolt. You feel an intense draw to it, and you run into its arms. Goth was this for me.

Life has changed unimaginably since then, and for the better. I still listen to the music from that time, but think so rarely on things that happened then. It doesn't burden me so long as I treat it delicately. The past can be so fragile. Think on it too much and it can devastate you, but forget it entirely and you're doomed to repeat yourself.

The goth chapter cuts a wide swath, but it is not my most important, not by a long shot. It overlaps with other distinct memories, friendships and events that matter immeasurably more. Most of what I had there did not outlast the past, but that does not mean it is without value. Every one of us who has been there, or is still there, still gets the urge to bust out German Industrial or This Mortal Coil when the time calls for it. This keeps us bonded together, in a way. It reminds us that life has marched inexorably on, but that sense of community we fostered, while diffuse with the passage of time, lingers on.


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