Touching from a Distance

(Other titles I considered for this post: “Closedown”, “Haunted When the Minutes Drag,” and “Shake the Disease”)

Well, it’s official. We’ll never have fun again.

The city of Philadelphia announced last week that gatherings of more than 50 people are cancelled until February 28, 2021. That means no club nights, no dance parties for another six months at least. I think this is honestly the only approach to the pandemic that makes any sense, and I’m proud to live in a place where the leadership has responded to it (mostly) appropriately. And I know it was unlikely that I’d feel safe going to parties even if the city started allowing them before then anyway. But wow, did it feel bad to hear this.

One of the best things Joe and I do together is go out to one of our “goth nights” and dance till our thigh muscles are twitching with exhaustion. Putting together the perfect outfit is, for me, just as much fun, and just as important, as the music we dance to. Goth and its various offshoots, interpretations, and related genres (industrial pop, darkwave, synth pop, post punk) are pretty theatrical subcultures, and participation in them is a kind of performance. You dress up like you belong, then go to the places where the people who matter will see that you look like one of them, that you are one of them. Getting it right is a rush. 

It’s already been four months and I miss this, badly. All of it: The cheesy drinks, since I’m too old to give a shit who’s gonna think my Red Bull cocktails are tacky. The music, of course, that feeling when a song you love comes on at top volume. Why is it so much more exciting when the DJ surprises you with a song than when you put it on yourself at home? (It’s the surprise, I guess. But it’s the community of it, too—everyone gets up and stomps to I’ve! Got to Say! That it hurts! When your favorite songs are everybody else’s favorite songs, that’s when you know you’re home.)

That sense of belonging is what I miss the most, I think, the moment when I step through the door and the thudding bass takes up residence in my chest, giddily disoriented while my eyes adjust to the lighting, and the gang’s all here—hair tattoos jackets boots god they’re gorgeous. Joe and I don’t usually feel the need to talk to anyone; just being there and feeling accepted is enough (though we’ll get a little thrill when another regular gives us the smile-nod, or someone checks one of us out in the bathroom). At some point, later in the evening, we’ll need a break from the heat of the club so we’ll go out and sit on the fire escape near the back door and eavesdrop on the smokers’ conversations as we shout to hear each other, ears ringing. Never happier. I am never happier than when I’m doing this.

Given that this is such a participatory culture, I’ve been interested to see that my love for it hasn’t been dampened one bit during the months that I’ve been unable to perform it for an audience. Not even in day-to-day life, like on the bus, when I let everybody take in my outfit as I walk down the aisle, VNV Nation pounding in my ears. No, I’ve been at home all the fucking time, just like the rest of you—but I’ve got my books. And that was actually the point of this post, to tell you about my goth books.

Shall we take a look at them?


Some Wear Leather, Some Wear Lace, by Andi Harriman and Marloes Bontje

Oh how I love these pictures. I could write a whole essay that’s just about the feeling of fantasizing over old photos, and another one about my fascination with “scenes” that happened before I was old enough to participate in them. There’s something else there too, something about images of youth frozen in time forever, which always turns me on and tortures me in equal measure.

The editors have strung together a really nice history of the early days of goth in collected vintage photos, research, and short essays about the history of goth culture, not just in the U.S. and the U.K. but around the world, including parts of the eastern bloc. This is a gorgeous, hefty book that I do indeed keep on my coffee table, and I’ve gotten halfway decent at making my hair look like the person’s on the cover even if I never was and never will be as beautiful as that human.

I also find myself interested in editor Andi Harriman, in part because she’s young but has such a deep knowledge of the history of goth. I’ve only seen her in photos but there’s a simplicity to her personal style that makes her seem timeless and placeless, like she could have stepped out of one of the photos in her book of some kids hanging around a cemetery in the Netherlands. Well done.

Goth: Undead Subculture, edited by Lauren M. E. Goodlad and Michael Bibby

I brought this big honkin’ book to jury duty last year and clutched it all day like a security blanket. It protected me from having to be friendly to anyone there even if it couldn’t protect me from hearing the details of a fucking stabbing that I might have been, but thank the lord wasn’t, chosen to sit on the jury for.

This anthology was published by Duke University Press and the essays are scholarly ones, which means there’s more jargon and footnoting than anyone needs, but I don’t mind. There are a lot of interesting ideas here—on gender and representation, style and identity—and I still haven’t gotten to all of them. In one fascinating piece, Peri Gothous writes about his time as an exotic dancer at a gay male club in the early 90s, comparing his gothy appearance and the elaborate show he created to the mainstream tanned-and-muscled gym-guy dancers who were the norm at the club and the clientele’s stated preference. His act was an act of rebellion, and even though he had a loyal following his presence wasn’t always well received: “Male goth androgyny threatened normalized homosexuality as well as heteronormativity.”

Another essay, written by Anna Powell, looks at religiosity in goth culture. She writes: “In goth contexts, secular practices such as dancing have the potential to mobilize a sense of the numinous for their participants. According to the mythographer Rudolph Otto, numinous connotes the non-rational mystery behind all religions, evoking awe and fascination.” Totally. I’ve always said it: When we’re all together in the club, dancing to the DJ or watching the band, and we feel moved by the same thing at the same time, our spirits lift and mingle; there’s something else present and suddenly we’re in a sacred space. We’re at church.

Gothic Charm School: An Essential Guide for Goths and Those Who Love Them, by Jillian Venters

I’ve been looking at Gillian’s blog for years now—she started writing her monthly advice column in 1998! A long time ago, when I only had my love of dark music and fashion but no community I could feel a part of, I had the internet, and Gillian’s Lady of the Manners essays—particularly her breakdowns of sub-subcultures within the scene—were a real education for me. I follow her on Instagram now and can’t help but feel we’ve both come into our own.

I finally got around to buying her book, and it’s just as likable as the blog and frankly rather useful. A lot of it is quite sincerely about manners, and her insistence that goths, however tender and hurt their feelings may be from a lifetime of getting teased and messed with (ahem), do not need to be snotty to each other or to people outside the culture. I like this. I always appreciated Gillian’s inclusive attitude, especially years ago, when I was lonelier in a lot of ways. It went a long way in making me feel like I might belong.

I also never get tired of hearing her weigh in on goth-adjacent fashion and cultural moments like steampunk and dark mori. If you don’t know what mori is I suggest you get on over to Pinterest and drink that deliciousness in.

“Shake the Disease” has been stuck in my head for days now. Great song, but what’s with the lyrics, actually? Is he talking about social anxiety or what?

Put Your Hands in the Air

When I found out Moby put out a memoir, I had to read it. I’ve read a number of “rock biographies” over the years and I always enjoy them, even when they’re badly or oddly written, like Touching From a Distance or Nikki Sixx’s garishly illustrated The Heroin Diaries. (Quite frankly I loved Nikki Sixx’s book; it felt raw and direct, like reading someone’s diary, because apparently that’s just what he did, he published his actual diary entries from his Mötley Crüe days.) (DON’T FORGET THE UMLAUTS!) Touching From a Distance is a much more sober affair, the incredible story of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis as told by his widow Deborah. Despite the fact that she is not really a writer—or perhaps because of it—that book is very stirring, too, and memorable. As you read it, it becomes clear that she’s not going for poetry in her writing (that title though!) so you get the feeling that you have access to her true, untempered feelings and memories. It’s extraordinary.

But Moby, he’s a writer. His new book, Porcelain, is well structured and properly paced, and he’s got such a nice turn of phrase. He’s smart and his insights are useful. He has lived an unusual and very colorful life that he seems to have learned a lot from, and he’s self-aware, appropriately self-deprecating, and funny. It’s a good book. (I reviewed it more thoughtfully than this for the Philadelphia Inquirer this week, if you’d like to have a look.)

moby14
Moby—looking a bit goth, eh?

Still, as I say, even if it wasn’t a good book I would have been pretty happy to read it. I loved Moby’s music in the 90s, and since my way of loving things is to REALLY LOVE THEM (and then to study them like a school nerd), I also became engrossed by my idea of the ruined-New York milieu that helped to produce it. A lot of what Moby writes about is exactly that—not just himself as an individual, or his own music, but the way he and his friends came together and related to the culture, the city, and the scene they were a part of in the late 80s and early 90s.

This stuff gets me so excited. Music and the subcultures that form around it, I mean. Since I was about 11 and old enough to have my own little radio (it was a pink boombox and it was extremely cool), I have had a deep and involved relationship with popular music. First there was metal and “hard rock,” which led me to discover the midnight-airing “Headbangers Ball” on MTV and Metal Edge and Circus, the ridiculous magazines I waited for all month. When my parents weren’t home or I thought they wouldn’t mind, I played their old records on their turntable, which is how I discovered the humor of the Beatles and Joe Cocker and the chillness of jazz. (“Ladies and gentlemen, live from the Village Gate, it’s Herbie Mann!”) I loved Yo! MTV Raps and the Top 40 hip-hop and R&B on Philly’s radio stations; I used to listen to The System’s “Don’t Disturb this Groove” and write in my diary and cryyyyyy, and 25 years later I put that song on the playlist at my wedding.

The first CD I ever owned was Ramones Mania, a best-of album that I begged my mom to buy me because I had somehow absorbed through osmosis the understanding that the Ramones were cool. I had to play the CD on my parents’ stereo and listen with headphones because I didn’t have my own CD player. A few years after the pink boombox era, grunge happened, which brought me the bands I was most obsessed with in high school: Soundgarden, Nirvana, Hole. Somewhere in there came industrial (NIN forever), more punk, and the chilly post-punk dance grooves that I still can’t quit. The reason I can read all those rock biographies with equal enthusiasm is because I loved Mötley Crüe when I was 12 with as much devotion as I loved Moby at 22, and still love Joy Division to this day.

My name is Katie, and I am a fan.

Fandom gets a bad rap, but in my experience it’s very often uplifting and participatory rather than obsessive and passive. My fandom is about the music and the way it makes me feel, of course. But discovering new music means more than that, as any fan knows. It’s like a door opening to a new way of seeing things. If you’re lucky, it’s also a club you can join.

I was reminded of this in the loveliest way earlier this month, when I talked Joe into joining me for a “darkwave” dance party at a club that I’ve been interested in for a while but for some reason have felt too shy to check out until now. This year he and I have gone out to a huge number of live shows and dance parties. It’s part of a personal quest of sorts. In the face of all the fear and grief and anger that’s everywhere these days, in the news and on the street, those entrenched feelings that have to started to settle into my bones, we’ve been doing the things that make us feel most alive—and on this particular occasion, I hoped that the cure for my case of the sads would be, well, the Cure. And Siouxsie, and Dead Can Dance, and maybe a little Pink Turns Blue. I made sure every item of clothing I had on was black, and we caught the bus to this grody little club to see what it was like.

And what was it like? It was like finding my folks. Everyone was cool but they were dorky too. They smiled at strangers and hugged old friends. Their clothes and hair and piercings looked incredible. I felt at home immediately, which was a wonderful surprise. I ordered a very un-chic mixed drink and I did not give a shit, and then I danced. For those few hours my nerves weren’t shot; I wasn’t jumpy or tearful or exhausted. That awful brittle tension that’s taken up residence in my shoulders and jaw melted away. When the cute DJ played a song I knew, I felt as blissed out as I did when I was 13 years old and a video I loved came on MTV and I could sing along with every word.

I’ve been part of a few “scenes” in my time; this wasn’t the first night I’ve felt this way. But MAN did I need it right then. And to my deep satisfaction, the feeling of belonging has stayed with me since that night, like a secret knowledge.

In his book, Moby writes eloquently about belonging and community and the way music brings people together, so you should read it. If you’re feeling confused or down or lonely you should go out dancing, too. And that’s about all the advice I’ve got, I’m afraid. It’s been a tough week.