Happy Birthday Rozz Williams (November 6th, 1963-April 1st, 1998)

Now that I lay me down to sleep
For what it’s worth
I dress my tears in costumes
Never again will we, will I turn to stone

The drowning edges of my pillow
Catch the last breath
On a desert leading down
The breath too deep,
The breath too long ago forgotten

I’ve come to lie beside you
I’ve come to know the dark for light
I’ve come to trust just one
And that one died with yesterday
With yesterday

 

Book Review: “The Evolution of Goth Culture: The Origins and Deeds of the New Goths” (Karl and Beverley Spracklen, 2018)

evolution

(This was a commissioned review from January 2019 I ultimately didn’t submit as I considered my first published work shouldn’t be me denigrating other academics. Nevertheless, I think this blog is a safe enough platform)

 

Karl and Beverley Spracklen’s The Evolution of Goth Culture is an ambitious project in tracing a paradoxical subcultural phenomenon, simultaneously defined by its aesthetic morbidity and startlingly consistent longevity, from its origins in the late 1970s to the present day. Acknowledging the undoubted breadth of their endeavour, the Spracklens are generous enough to the reader to approach the matter from an angle of profoundly welcoming legibility, and with a well-clarified a priori frame of analysis in their third opening chapter, “Constructing a New Theory of Alternativity.” Modelled upon a constructed hypothetical discursive relation between Adorno, Habermas, Butler and Lefebvre, the Spracklens approach the question of an often self-identified “alternative” subculture on a pre-agreed set of principles that may best be précised to three realisations:

 

  1. The culture industry is an apparatus of the state, and accordingly any aesthetic of rebellion or life à rebours can (if not will) ultimately be co-opted into state-approved hegemonic reproduction.
  2. Nevertheless there remains, even within the space of capital, a capacity for discursive practice that maintains the continuation of “the life-world of the public sphere,” contrary to capital’s order of enclosure.
  3. Accordingly, we should distinguish the “instrumental” from the “communicative.” Whilst the former may well become repackaged and commoditized, the latter will maintain both an ontological and relational alternativity that may achieve a consistent effect of resistance, despite potential fluxes of signification.

 

Thus, it is with this predominantly neo-Marxian understanding that the Spracklens approach the evolution of Goth. It should perhaps come as little surprise, then, to see their account of gothic rock’s origin as the resultant synthesis of a dialectical materialist journey between questions of aestheticism and political sincerity and, with the Northern setting of so many first-generation bands e.g Salford’s Joy Division and the plethora of West Yorkshire bands including Skeletal Family, The Sisters of Mercy and The ((Southern) Death) Cult, between the eerie pastoral and heartlessness of industrialisation that characterizes so much of the background to the gothic tradition. However, as much as one may situate the gothic rock movement within Leeds, the Spracklens’ willingness to overlook the many aspects of the scene’s provenance located in the Midlands, the South and, indeed, parts of the world other than England does not only their investigation a great disservice, but the scene itself. 

The Spracklens’ narrative voice shifting as regularly as it does from the academic to the journalistic to the anecdotal serves the approachability of the text well, but the lucidity and consistency of vision poorly in several regards, even with the aforementioned established framework. In “The Origin of the Goths,” the authors accept at a remarkable degree of face value Bauhaus singer Peter Murphy’s disavowal of a goth label – “If taking on this Nosferatu role on the stage were not real to us…how could it have been to the audience?” – commenting “they never wrote anything as cartoonishly grotesque as ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’ again,” an assertion with which anyone familiar with “Stigmata Martyr” would contend hotly. And yet, The Sisters of Mercy’s frontman Andrew Eldritch’s similar protestations are duly noted, then discarded as “disingenuous,” while later still the Spracklens reach the conclusion that, since the mainstream believes Marilyn Manson to be goth, both Marilyn Manson and goths accept this to be so, despite both knowing it not to be true. Within all this, what is perhaps most notable of all in its absence from the discussion is the fact that such a large number of black-clad, pale-faced, kohl-smeared Fields of the Nephilim fans deny the label “goth” for themselves, goth denialism is in fact one of the most prevalent stereotypes and in-jokes of the scene.

Nevertheless, the Spracklens’ choice of The Sisters of Mercy as their only main case study for goth music – even if they are the band most defined by this aforementioned ”goth denialism” – is a sadly unoriginal and unhelpful one which betrays a regrettably myopic conception of Goth’s locus within the sub/cultural realm. The study’s conclusion, that The Sisters “were the most important band in the genesis and evolution of Goth, [perfecting] the sound and the look” suggests that the goth sound is best characterized by a repetitive verse-chorus-verse rock and roll structure employing a drum machine, bass-baritone male vocals and a black leather jacket dress style largely indistinguishable from that of Motörhead or the Ramones. The pattern that emerges is one that ultimately suggests the Spracklens’ knowledge of goth music being restricted almost entirely to the Leeds scene of the 1980s, and a general unwillingness to research further before writing The Evolution of Goth Culture. Absent is any meditation on the goth/shoegaze crossover known as ethereal wave that defined labels both sides of the Atlantic including 4AD and Projekt. Club genre EBM (“Electronic Body Music,” erroneously called “Electronic Beat Music” in Evolution) is given passing reference, with no artists mentioned, but instead mainstream metal bands such as Cradle of Filth are alleged to fill goth dancefloors, despite my never having experienced this in well over a decade of goth club attendance.

My criticism here is not to partake in a music trivia competition with the authors. Rather, it is to indicate the lines of inquiry not followed that would better address the breadth of investigation implied by the title. By representing Goth as a phenomenon that revolves almost solely around the most belt-and-braces examples of the ‘80s, who mostly dissolved into hard rock by the end of the decade, the Spracklens suggest that what and who constitutes “Goth” is today at the whim of the mainstream populace. Such a statement would bolster the authors’ rallying cry for Goth to return to its radical leftist roots, but the reality is both simpler and more complex than this. With regard to the former, the reality is that Goth never has been as rooted in radical politics of any wing as the authors suggest throughout Evolution. Indeed, the only evidence they seem to provide is that it came from post-punk, which is often typified by leftist principles and band names (Gang of Four, The Durutti Column). Regarding the latter, it is Goth’s paradoxical emphasis on the external, as well as questions of inner anguish that has allowed it to penetrate wider culture through aesthetic diffusion, from the long list of post-punk revival bands with Ian Curtis and Siouxsie impressionists on vocals (Editors, Savages), to techno producers sampling Birthday Party guitar licks (Regis, Surgeon), to the influence of goth fashion on designers including Alexander McQueen and Tom Ford. 

Certainly, one of Evolution‘s best avenues of investigation is that of the goth chat forums, providing a detailed analysis of the rise and fall of goth.net and others. However, goth online presence is not simply discourse between consumers, but has been the space in which new creative forms have emerged: consider the “witch house” movement of c.2010, which not only combined goth, industrial, shoegaze and techno with hip-hop and trap, but also through so many artists’ use of special characters (e.g †‡† pronounced “Ritualz”), maintained, through practical un-searchability, a communicative alternativity between intimidatingly young bedroom producers across the globe. In these areas has the self-consciously parodic aspect to Goth developed away from the Sisters-style mean-spirited barbs at fans and former colleagues, and toward playful reappropriation of small-town moral panics against goths and metalheads in the 80s and 90s. Subsequent internet-based alternative genres, including “#seapunk” and vaporwave, have continued this parodic line into a more overt analysis of 80s conspicuous consumption, whilst also influencing popular culture at the level of Rihanna, and the widespread social media memeification of the idealised “goth gf” by those in no way connected with the scene as it exists today.

Goth Culture has evolved considerably further, and in many more directions than it seems the Spracklens have themselves realised, and may be argued to have finally developed the radical leftism they erroneously apply to its origin. Whilst The Evolution of Goth Culture is an astute collection of case studies, the extent to which its scope is limited to what I imagine are the authors’ personal interests (I notice they are Leeds based), at the expense of a detailed survey of the developments of Goth culture mean I cannot agree the book lives up to its title.

Sodomized and tired: sexual ambivalence and nihilism in gothic rock, post-punk and deathrock

(given at the 2018 Punk Scholars Network / International Society of Metal Music Studies conference – “Doing Metal, Being Punk, Doing Punk, Being Metal: Hybridity, Crossover and Difference in Punk and Metal Subcultures,” De Montfort University, Leicester 14/12/18)

cd

Goth morbidity arose in part from a Schopenhauerian scorn for organic life: from Goth’s perspective, death was the truth of sexuality. Sexuality was what the ceaseless cycle of birth-reproduction-death (as icily surveyed by Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Circle Line”) needed in order to perpetuate itself. Death was simultaneously outside this circuit and what it was really about. Affirming sexuality meant affirming the world, whereas Goth set itself…against the world and against life…Goth suspected that rock was always and essentially a death trip.”

– Mark Fisher, k-punk, “It Doesn’t Matter if We All Die”

Of the predominant counter-cultural phenomena found within youth culture, Goth is perhaps the most associated with a ubiquitous sexuality, after the Hippie “free love” movement. Nevertheless, an encounter with the lyrical and sonic content of the most explicit gothic rock compositions, for all the darkly naïve romantic aestheticism one might associate with the genre, reveals a stark reflection of the neoliberal Thatcherite/Reaganite era: where love was not already dead, it most certainly was no longer free.

I came upon your room
It stuck into my head
We leapt into the bed,
Degrading even lice,
You took delight in taking down my shielded pride

Until exposed became my darker side

The imagery of sex and sex work in “Dark Entries” holds a position of self-consciously counter-intuitive dual functionality in Bauhaus’ psychogeographical tour through a red-light district: offering an escape from a grim capitalist mundanity, but only via an even darker transactional relationship with desire: “well-meaning upper class prey” rendered “walking money cheques, possessing holes”. This is not, however, to say goth sexuality as displayed in “Dark Entries” is “the same but more somehow;” there is, as briefly referenced by Mark Fisher, a queering of the normative sexual dynamic, in as much as the male/female subject/object relation is rendered in Gothic discourse an abject/object relation, instead. Mulveyan gaze theory historically bifurcates the experiences of male visual pleasure in transfixing the female object between positions of either fetishistic scopophilia or voyeurism: either holding the object up to the imaginary ideal – the cold, distant, inhuman partner of phallic desire, or revelling in the violent and lustful invasion and degradation of the object, scornfully rendered subhuman. In either case, this process is to affirm the integrity of the male subject, threatened by the castration represented by the image of the woman. However, the “protagonist” of the song’s psychotically close relationship with the jouissance-associated Real loses himself within this unconscious realm, to an extent where pronouns, both in the sense of gender, and in the sense of first/second/third person become notably interchangeable – “Dark Entries” begins from the perspective of “I”, referencing a second party, to whom the former appears to be sexually submissive: “in a hovel of a bed / I will scream in vain / oh please Miss Lane / leave me with some pain” – moves to an exchange between the singer and partner for whom the listener is avatar: “I came upon your room” – and then finally lands on a third-person-omniscient perspective on a cruising hustler: “he’s soliciting in his tan brown brogues, gyrating through some loathsome devil’s row.”Accordingly, aside from the traditional dynamic of sexual difference that affirms male subjectivity, here that subjectivity is entirely atomized.

Of course, the most obvious statement one can make is that, the ambiguity of gender past the first stanza queers the sexual dynamic inherently, simply through being almost certainly an exercise in non-heterosexual representation, and yet the ambiguity is not one of celebration; simply the result of an apathetic economy of sexual discourse. I phrase it thus, rather than indicating an economy of desire for, as Foucault’s history of sexuality notes, the evolution of society towards modern ethical concerns, reflected first in confessional religious practices, then later in psychoanalytical and psychological ones, is a shift from questions of “limitations of pleasure” to the “deciphering of desire as hermeneutics of self.” There is a greatly apparent ambivalence toward this latter position: desire itself is never acknowledged, and the self as a fixed enough concept to warrant hermeneutical investigation is called highly into question. And yet, such deciphering does occur, through the actions of another in a manner we would associate with the most voyeuristic dynamics established by Mulvey. This revelation of self within a frame of jouissance is, predictably, unutterable and horrific. Until exposed became my darker side.

Accordingly, the abject/object position of gothic sexual economy, leaving no subjectivity affirmed, has a consciously troubled relationship with integrity – particularly the sort of integrity one might expect to hear insisted upon in punk lyrics.. Simon Reynolds and Joy Press’s description of Siouxsie Sioux’s unmistakable image as “towards a glacial exteriority of the objet d’art’ evinced through ‘a shunning of the moist, pulsing fecundity of organic life” speaks to a universality of disgust: rejecting societal normality, in all its hypocrisy; not for something more profound, but for more illusion. The goth feminine opposition to normative commercial beauty standards is not on account of the falsity, but of the duplicity – makeup, painstakingly applied in such a way as to imply an absence of makeup, constraining itself to the regime of the natural. Meanwhile, as Fisher remarks, “The Siouxsie Look is, in effect, a replicable cosmetic mask – a literal effacement of the organic expressivity of the face by a geometric pattern, all hard angles and harsh contrasts between white and black.” Beneath the mask, we may expect to find nothing, but it is not comparative; it is not a “nothing” that may in contrast affirm “something” else – it is the nothing of mortality. Though ersatz, it is effective, inasmuch as the idealised inhuman feminine object is the catalysing avatar for abject male self-destruction: as Siouxsie sings in “She’s a Carnival,” “she’s a portrait of a poison for you to quench your thirst.”

Indeed, the opener to Christian Death’s seminal debut, Only Theatre of Pain attests to this sentiment:

Let’s skirt the issue
Of discipline
Let’s start an illusion
With hand and pen
Re-read the words
And start again
Accept the gift of sin

It is not my intention in this essay or, indeed, any other to speculate on the trauma of others as artifacts for philosophizing or cultural theory. Suffice to say, surviving friends, bandmates and lovers of Rozz Williams have in interviews directly quoted him as describing Only Theatre of Pain as being “autobiographical” – accordingly, I shall endeavour to allow the lyrics that combine dark manifestations of Christian ritual and sexual abuse – not least of all of children – to speak for themselves at a most fundamental level.

Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that every aspect of an immediate impression of his performance advertised a disregard for Nietzsche’s old adage: in battling demons, Rozz Williams displayed extreme comfort with becoming one, himself. However, the ubiquity – at least in the Theatre era of Christian Death – of symbolism associated with Satanism cannot be divorced from the reality that to hold an upside down cross is still to hold a cross; to say the Lord’s Prayer backwards is still to say the Lord’s Prayer. The sadomasochistic content of Christian Death’s music and imagery being rooted so firmly in a dystopian Christian world should not so naïvely be read as adolescent subversion, seeking to offend chaste, or at least vanilla, straight-laced churchgoers. Rather, it may be interpreted as a distinctly alternative, but nonetheless sincere, investigation of fundamental truths – not just hypocrisies – of the spiritual position, which undoubtedly include feelings of loneliness, confusion and ambivalence, perhaps best illustrated in the chorus to “Stairs – Uncertain Journey”:

Be Satan
Be Satan
Be Satan
Be…
Satan be gone

Indeed, sacrilegious as it may assuredly be, the subject position most often paralleled in the album’s lyrics is that of martyrdom: including and especially that of Jesus himself: “spiritual cramp coming for my ribs / those gangsters toting guns are shooting spikes through my wrist”. In this regard, Rozz Williams’ ethos reflects that of Joan Didion’s famous espousal of the philosophy of one of the first rock bands to be described as “gothic” – The Doors – whose music “insisted that love was sex, and sex was death, and therein lay salvation.” In essence, Eros becomes the binding agent between Agape and Thanatos that can justify such messianic sacrifice as the passion of Christ, through an overtly queered and feminized position:

Ritual mockery
Rectified doubt
I’m holding with arms open wide
Sleeping endless sleep on a bed of nails
Wake me up with your kiss

It is in moments of Christ-like endurance of torture / reception of sexual advances that Rozz takes on the cold, inhuman object position, himself, but it still maintains human frailty – the “salvation” sought after here seems to be, more often than not, salvation from profound isolation:

To hell with your excuses
What do you know
Of desperation?
You people never feel the pain
Of dark-eyed angels
In a desperate hell

Certainly, this is most clear, returning to the opening track “Cavity – First Communion,” whose final stanza addresses the notion of communion, a spiritual togetherness, catalyzed and congealed in what can only be sadomasochistic congress to remedy a loneliness that seems intertwined with any concept of a discrete subjectivity, again dissolving the fixity of pronouns. Perhaps most interestingly is the manner in which this song mirrors – possibly intentionally – James Kirkup’s controversial, banned poem The Love That Dares to Speak its Name, a first person account of a Roman centurion, having sex with the corpse of Jesus, following the crucifixion It is of note, however, that once again Rozz takes the passive position – the most direct action sounding withdrawn and masturbatory, until this also results in a diffusion of identity:

Three shots ring out a scream
Who wants to play Roman soldier
That lives inside of me?

My secret fear of being alone
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

Blood on our hands

This unappetisingly surrealistic state of queer sanguineous unity in isolation does, of course, take on a greater poignancy in the face of the goth scene’s notable concurrence with the HIV/AIDS crisis in the UK and USA. In his infamous reflection on homosex and the masculine ideal at the time of the crisis, “Is the Rectum a Grave?” Leo Bersani opens with the provocative first line: “There is a big secret about sex: most people don’t like it.” Though it would be supremely ambitious, this late in my paper, to try and précis for anyone unfamiliar with Bersani’s work all the avenues down which he travels, I shall simply summarise the final concluding paragraphs: the tragedy of the HIV/AIDS crisis was its literalisation of the self-annihilation represented in the “feminising” position of being fucked in the ass, and in doing so one may demolish one’s own “perhaps otherwise uncontrollable identification with a murderous judgment against him…[one] grounded in the sacrosanct value of selfhood.” He ends, reflecting on the almost spiritual ritualism of shattering the self through queer sex as “propos[ing]… jouissance as a mode of ascesis.” The “I” dissolves again, and becomes a position of “we” through untenable congress: blood on our hands, blood on our hands, blood on our hands.

In discussing Rozz Williams’ lyrics within the context of self-annihilation, one cannot avoid the fact that, on April 1st 1998, he took his own life. Such a fact makes difficult any reading of Rozz’s work that would doubt his sincerity. And yet, earlier in this paper, we discussed the issues surrounding this concept within the gothic context. Accordingly, I wish to propose that, through the inversions and subversions of hegemonic psychic structures of knowledge production through sexual difference, the gothic position is to be sincere about one thing: nothing.