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M. Gira's venomous, rumbling voice spreads along the floorboards at the Great American Music Hall last Friday, and seems to seep through the soles of our shoes. Jarboe deserts her keyboard and croons like an angel overtaken by demons. "Come to dinner/ You're good to eat," she snarls, her dark eyes boring into the face of a rapt fan. "Slash your wrists!"
A Swans concert would be fertile ground for goth hunting, one would think. Unfortunately, the crowd mainly consists of fans in their 30s who tired of excessive pancake makeup and big hair long ago.
"I haven't seen the Swans in over 10 years," says a man who donned a black sweat shirt for the occasion. "There was a time when I would be dressed to the eyeteeth. Tonight, I'm just glad I don't have to work tomorrow."
Finally, I spy a willowy goth gal swaying near a marble pillar. Her full, blood-red lips pout with calculation as the music's nihilism washes over her. Named Tirzah, she's a vision of vampiric glory: A 23-year-old beauty from Atlanta, her dark hair is meticulously piled atop her head, her sheer black blouse contrasting with the glaring alabaster of her skin.
"The music speaks to me. I can find myself in it," she says, a bit unsure of how to explain her decade-long immersion in the scene. "Most people run from fear and sadness. We delve into it. I guess it could almost be considered a sort of pain-worship."
"You know, the goth thing is big in Atlanta, but it's nothing compared to San Francisco," she adds.
In 1986, when William Gibson wrote about a futuristic goth culture in Count Zero, I thought that surely the subculture couldn't even last through the '80s. But an unofficial head count by club promoters puts at least 400 goths in the Bay Area. Like hippies, mods, or punks, they never really go away.
DJ Matt of Mystery City, arguably the first promoter to open a goth club in San Francisco, takes a stab at pegging the phenomenon. "There isn't another 'alternative' scene that encourages people to get really dressed up," he says. "Grunge is a sort of dress-down anti-fashion. Rave is sexless and baggy."
Although DJ Matt is no longer immersed in goth culture, he still understands its appeal: "Some people like a little theater. They want to spend a few hours in front of a mirror and go out looking really fucking hot. Or they like to fool around with gender roles. You can't really be an effeminate heavy metal dude, now can you?"
Just don't call it "death rock." "Goth is very romantic, Victorian in imagery," explains DJ Melting Girl of Death Guild, "whereas death rock is more horrific -- harder, more cynical." Kind of like the Munsters to the Addams family? "Not exactly," she says. "But everyone basically uses the term 'goth' now. 'Death rock' is a pretty early '80s term."
Whatever you call it, there is plenty to choose from. Death Guild (Mondays at the Trocadero) and Bedlam (Thursdays at the French Quarter) cater to all shades of black, often mixing industrial and other '80s music in with more traditionally goth acts like Bauhaus; Monastery (Tuesdays at Cat's Alley) and A Winter Gone By (Saturdays at Club Arte) are almost exclusively gothic in dress and playlist.
Given the scene's intrinsic lust for high drama, it's no surprise that minifactions often develop, as Christine, a 25-year-old who wouldn't be caught dead at A Winter Gone By, illustrates. "That club is full of pretentious little fucks."
"If you don't get totally dressed up, you're kind of ostracized," pipes in a polka-dot-clad girl. "Sometimes I don't feel like getting dressed to the nines. You can't run around being silly at Winter. You must be very serious and very gothic," she says sucking in her cheeks and rolling back her eyes.
Undoubtedly, A Winter Gone By resembles the set of an Anne Rice movie. Cloaked figures stand on a back balcony overlooking the city, mournfully watching the fog roll in. Beautiful boys and icy women sit at tables illuminated by candlelight. Organ music pipes in from the dance floor where girls in wedding dresses and boys in ruffled shirts do the picking-daisies dance. Tirzah is there, but she was also at Bedlam.
A young, gray-lipped man leans against the bar, brushing his long black hair away from his face. "What do you think of Death Guild or Bedlam?" I ask, looking for a fight. "There's no ambience," he says, eyeing me up and down. "It's watered down with people who don't really understand what goth is all about."
Jwlhyfer Winter, a 32-year-old fashion designer, sets me straight: "People here are drawn toward darker themes. We don't try to minimalize the painful aspects of life by putting a mask over them, as most of society does. There is a willingness to recognize the beauty in tragedy," she says.
DJ Matt, now a hesitant 30, boils it down in simpler terms: "In London, it was about wearing black, sticking your hair up, getting drunk, and getting laid. Anyone wearing fangs would have been considered -- well, just silly, really. Now, with the whole cathedral thing, it's all just a bit much -- organ music, people in Victorian garb dancing around spookily," he frowns. "Well, maybe you just reach a certain age when you don't want to spend three hours sticking up your hair and putting on makeup."
Who needs three hours? Fourteen years in, Jwlhyfer has got it down to one.
By Silke Tudor
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