As the 1970s were winding down, the decadence of the era began to devolve into darkness. Disco started to seem gauche, while punk's anti-establishment ethos felt, at times, more like pointless aggression. Pop culture was changing, as it does, and the '80s seemed to inspire darker forms of expression in terms of subculture fashion and music. Death rock, new romantic or, as it was dubbed around this time, gothic rock was born, and some 40 years later the aesthetic not only survives but continues to thrive. No one necessarily loves the label, and “goth” has come to mean different things to different people, but in general, as a music genre, it conjures a moody aesthetic and a sort of sinister, cinematic vibe. As a fashion statement, it is expressed by a menacing kind of glamour — black clothing, dramatic makeup, embellishments that reference both horror and religious iconography.
The U.K. usually gets credit for birthing the movement, in clubs and on the street, but the United States — and specifically Los Angeles — was its enticing evil twin from the start, possessing post-punkers with a gloomy aura and allure. L.A. was one of the most significant locales in the world in terms of spreading and exposing the scene, and it most definitely has become the most enduring epicenter as far as nightlife and lifestyle go. Despite the beach-babe stereotype, L.A. is a city of dark angels who can't be denied and just won't die.
Bauhaus' “Bela Lugosi's Dead,” released in 1979, is for many the starting point, but here in L.A., bands such as 45 Grave and Christian Death were already doing much of the same stylistically, adding something new to the theatrics already emerging in rock & roll via Alice Cooper, Black Sabbath and, of course, David Bowie. Still, it took an L.A. music lover and eventually record store owner to help goth — back then pretty much exclusively called death rock — grow, manifesting from a macabre misfit thing in the '80s and '90s to a familiar style recognized by the mainstream today.
“The first goth clubs were in England,” DJ and nightlife legend Joseph Brooks recalls of his first foray into fiendish sights and sounds. “Henry [Peck, Brooks' former partner, who died earlier this year] and I went to some and said, 'This is what we want to do,' so we came back to L.A. and proceeded to do it.”
Brooks says he'll never forget attending Club for Heroes, Steve Strange of Visage's seminal London night spot, in 1981. In his party-hopping posse at the time: Siouxsie Sioux , Steven Severin and Budgie from Siouxsie & the Banshees and Robert Smith from The Cure. “We sat in a table next to Michael Jackson!” Brooks remembers, foreshadowing dark culture's universal appeal, though it was still very much underground then. “We had to carry Robert Smith out because he was so drunk he couldn't walk.”
Brooks and Peck came home and pretty much immediately opened up the Veil at infamous punk pit the Cathay de Grande and later Club Lingerie on Sunset Boulevard, and slowly but surely Veil started to draw denizens of dark dress and music. Brooks and Peck made several subsequent trips to the U.K., bringing back records to spin at their club. At a record store on Kings Road they met Bauhaus' manager, who became a friend and encouraged them to open their own shop in the United States, which they did. Opened in the mid-'80s, Vinyl Fetish on Melrose Avenue became not only the vortex for vampy, gloomy rock music from both England and America but also the place for punk kids and baby goths to gather, especially when the store held record signings with the likes of Specimen, Sex Gang Children and The Cult. The Veil led to another dark club called the Fetish, and with the record store (arguably one of the coolest destinations on then-burgeoning Melrose Avenue), their events and a weekly radio show on KROQ-FM called The Import Show, Brooks and Peck didn't just fan the flames of the culture, they pretty much started the fire.
Mary Sims-Rosas aka Mary Bats aka Dinah Cancer sold her handmade horror-themed jewelry (fashioned from Shrinky Dinks) at Vinyl Fetish by day; by night she was rocking the underground with 45 Grave, featuring her then-boyfriend, Don Bolles of The Germs, on drums. They were already building a following for their heavy, spooky sounds when they met Brooks, and his clubs became a regular haunt for the band.
Cancer, who was born and raised in Hollywood, got her start performing with punkettes called Castration Squad (featuring, at one time, Alice Bag and Elissa Bello of the original Go-Go's), but her aesthetic was always more romantic than the rest. “Spiky hair, bondage pants, plaid … that was really popular,” Cancer recalls. “There was one photo shoot where we were supposed to all wear black, punky stuff and I came in a long white flowing chiffon gown, and they were like, 'That's not how we're supposed to look.' And I go, 'Well, this is how I want to look.' I started modeling my look after the Hammer horror films starring Christopher Lee. I wanted to be a Hammer bride. I wore 1920s silent screen star makeup — you know, heavy dark eyes, high contrast. A lot of us girls in the scene started doing that.”
Both Brooks and Cancer assert that the influence of Old Hollywood, both in the L.A. underground and overseas, was important. And not just for ladies. Androgyny and a fascination with filmic depictions of ghoulishness influenced everyone (and still does today), male and female. Cancer says she was highly inspired by TV shows like Dark Shadows, The Addams Family and The Munsters as a kid.
She shared this love of creepy culture with her friend Rozz Williams, lead singer of Christian Death, to many the ultimate tortured figure of the goth scene, now and forever. Williams hanged himself on April Fools' Day, 1998, and has a memorial and plaque at Hollywood Forever Cemetery (his ashes were scattered over Runyon Canyon). He, maybe more than anyone else other than Peter Murphy and Bauhaus, has had a profound and elemental influence on goth culture, inspiring tens of thousands of disaffected youths and hundreds of bands as well as artists and filmmakers to express themselves in dark and drastic ways. He was a painter and collagist whose work has been exhibited in Los Angeles and Atlanta, and is the subject of more than one film. Nightlife promoter/punk art curator Danny Fuentes of Lethal Amounts Gallery is currently producing and directing a feature-length documentary called Spiritual Cramp (a Christian Death track) about the man, his mystique and the scene itself.
“[It] is a project I started after working with several members of the original lineup, doing a Rozz Williams exhibit and archiving Edward Colver's negatives,” Fuentes says. “I think what made Rozz so unique and appealing was his attitude and delivery of his art. Lyrically he was more sophisticated, drawing inspiration from surrealist writers and artists, while combining the aggressive and unapologetic attitude of SoCal punk mixed with the provocative experimentations of Throbbing Gristle and the gender-bending of David Bowie and the glam era. Christian Death were more of a reaction to the newly defined and codified look and sound of punk, pulling away from the three-chord wonders and creating atmosphere and texture rather than a catchy hook.”
Williams first began performing with his then-boyfriend Ron Athey (now a world-renowned performance artist) in the industrial art project Premature Ejaculation, back in 1981, and he played many gigs with Christian Death alongside 45 Grave throughout the decades. He also made many appearances at Brooks' clubs. His live shows evoked despair, brutality and, some might say, shocking imagery. In many ways the stuff Williams was doing with Athey initially and later with Christian Death predated the rise of fetishism, sadomasochism, modern primitivism and performance art that delved into these ominous forms of expression.
Fuentes recently threw a fundraiser for his film at one of the oldest churches in L.A. Another pioneering goth-rock group, Kommunity FK, performed, as did former Christian Death members Eva O and Gitane Demone. The crowd — a sea of black velvet, lace and fishnet fabrics and ghostly white skin — was split between long-in-the-fang O.G.'s (original goths) and drearily dolled-up millennials who clearly did their homework, singing along to KFK leader Patrik Mata's somber musings and donning garb straight out of the Veil and Club Scream circa 1981 to 1989.
Androgyny and a deathly appearance were very daring back when they started but today, in the wake of drag's popularity and couture runways' incorporation of certain dark elements, it's almost commonplace. It's still a pretty fierce fashion statement, though, especially when taken to extremes via makeup and audacious accoutrements such as crucifixes, piercings, fishnet stockings worn as tops, electrical tape as pasties, Aquanetted-to-the-max hair, etc.
“[Rozz's] cross-dressing was more an act of rage and rejecting Christianity, questioning sexual norms and antagonizing the hypermasculine punk scene,” Fuentes says. “I think goth as a subculture reopened the doors to the outsiders of the gay community that the first wave of punk had lost to the emerging hardcore scene. It provided an outlet and refuge for young queer kids disenchanted with the gay community they felt no connection to. If you felt alienated by the hypermasculine and often homophobic hardcore punk scene and you were too weird for the '70/'80s gay scene, death rock provided an escape.”
Openly playing with sexuality and gender roles, goth did leave an indelible mark on the LGBTQ community. It opened the door for queer/fetish clubs and the death rock/goth aesthetic to meld. Both saw growth in Los Angeles during the height of the AIDS crisis in the late 1980s and through the mid-'90s, confronting the temporality of the body and the reality of death, Thanatos embracing Eros. Meshing seamlessly with the corsets and latex of the fetish scene, goth style — which draws on everything from the Victorian era through the Weimar Republic and beyond — made it more comfortable to be gay, queer, trans at a club. Makeup, butch-wear, latex, leather, dangerously high heels were, and still are, worn as self-expression by anyone so moved. The music became a bit more aggressive as the scene progressed — anguished, sexual, driving, forming a counterpoint for consensual whipping and spanking scenes. Although electronic and industrial sounds became more popular at goth parties, they still maintained a feeling of doom. After Fetish, in the late '80s, Brooks' DJ skills saw him providing sounds for Club Scream, one of the most legendary live happenings in L.A. (Jane's Addiction got their start there) and subsequently, Riki Rachtman's neo-glam grotto Cathouse.
But his proclivities remained with darker, dance-driven environments. Club Fuck! was making an impact on the underground and co-founder James Stone joined with Brooks to go bigger with the L.A. Fetish Ball, a large-scale erotic extravaganza held near or on holidays such as Halloween and New Year's Eve, featuring traditionally bewitching acts such as Nina Hagen and (often) The Cramps. Around the same time, they created Sin-a-matic, a weekly party encouraging freaky fetish looks and showcasing S&M, bondage and polysexual expression, all driven by DJs and dancing to dark electro and atmospheric noise.
The industrial goth scene sort of exploded at that point, and made for some very important, long-running clubs that deserve mention, including Perversion from Michael Stewart and Bruce Perdew (of Club Scream), Kontrol Factory and the extremely popular Das Bunker from Rev. John Giovanazzi, which spawned his Glendale club Complex (now closed). Bunker still goes off with special events at Jewel's Catch One.
Traditional goth clubs never went away, either. Of note over the years: Helter Skelter and Stigmata (from Stewart and Perdew), as well as DDT, Happy Haus, Obituary, the early-scenes of Zombie Zoo and the vampiric soiree called Fang Club (whose creator, Jack Dean, tragically committed suicide this year). Also, the LADEAD (Los Angeles darkside) events of Xian Vox, which turned the Monte Cristo club into a true haunt for dark souls until it closed last year.
Two favorites from the '90s hit the 20-year mark this year: Long Beach party Release the Bats (which recently announced it will close after its anniversary party this Friday) and the gothic granddaddy, Bar Sinister, the longest consistently running dance party in L.A., of any genre, and still going strong. On any given Saturday, the Bar Sinister dance floor (at Boardner's) fills with a mix of darkly draped newbie goths as well as elder fiends who never got rid of their fishnets, gracing the floor with dramatic, almost ballet-like movement. Suicide Girls, who capitalized on the inherent sexual energy of the aesthetic via the web years ago, now are featured dancers at the club and bands new and old play outside in the New Orleans–style courtyard. Upstairs, the intricate shibari and other consensual BDSM provides a voyeuristic respite.
It bears noting that while the goth scene in L.A. is comprised of outsiders and “freaks,” it is, in fact, one of the most cohesive communities in nightlife. Despite stereotypes, its followers are, for the most part, not actually depressed or morose, though like any scene it has its mix of personalities and motivations. It might be a little incestuous, and it has seen its share of competitiveness and drama, but inspiration, mentorship and passing the torch (or rather, candelabra) have contributed to its fortitude and, ironically, its refusal to die.
Jason Lavitt was attracted to goth culture the second he was exposed to it. For the San Fernando Valley native, The Beatles' White Album, which his parents had played on vinyl since he was a baby, was a compelling intro to music. “Songs like 'Dear Prudence' were in my DNA,” he says, “so when I got into '80s music it was only natural to be obsessed with Siouxsie & the Banshees, who put out the very same song, but with a more dark, updated feel.”
Pre-internet, and coming from areas ranging from Granada Hills to Northridge to Chatsworth, Lavitt says the goth community somehow found ways to connect. When he was 15, he and his friends ditched school and went to Melrose, donning makeup and theatrical black ensembles. His group of friends at the time included two respected DJs on the current scene (DJ Amanda Jones and Jason Farber) and Elizabeth Barrial, perfumer/proprietor of Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab. After a few years, Lavitt scored a job at his favorite store, Vinyl Fetish, which by then had been sold by Brooks to Stewart, and the pair gave him a DJ gig at their club Helter Skelter as well. His dark dreams had come true but, six years in, he was let go.
He was ready to spread his wings and, as fate would have it, he befriended “the goth father” as he calls him: Brooks. “And he was a personal friend of Siouxsie Sioux!” Lavitt gushes. Coven 13, a club that featured dancing and live performances (Siouxsie, Rozz, pretty much everyone still making dark music at the time) in the spirit of Brooks' past parties, was born.
“I didn't know the first thing about producing an event/club,” Lavitt recalls of Coven, which opened in '97. “I was a Jewish kid from the Valley in my early 20s. But Joseph knew it all. He took it to the next level, providing entertainment, visuals, invites with beautiful artwork. He really schooled me in the arts, and this was where I got my education.”
Lavitt has become one of the most successful club promoters in Los Angeles, delving into many different music styles. He and Brooks shared a long and storied co-promoter relationship throughout the '90s, which included Club Makeup at El Rey (glam rock), Shout! ('60s and soul) and Bang! (Brit and modern pop of the moment). The promoter-DJ has come full circle, too, rejoining forces with Stewart and Perdew for their popular Club '90s nights. He also does the long-running gay pop club Tigerheat at the Avalon. Still, his heart lives with goth.
“The strongest part about the goth scene is incorporating crossovers and meshing similar genres,” says the DJ, who presents goth-themed '90 nights these days. “This is my belief about why goth still lives on as every era evolves. Every new goth club I DJ, I update the format. A song at a goth club today would never have been played yesterday.”
Adam Bravin, aka DJ Adam-12, would tend to agree. Bravin is the co-founder, with producer Michael Patterson, of the newest dark-minded mashup in nightlife, the weekly members-only Cloak & Dagger. Also a native of the San Fernando Valley, he was exposed to a wide range of music, from Top 40 hits and punk to hardcore rap and hip-hop. Plus, as a teen, he could tune in, as most L.A. teens did, to KROQ, which beguiled him with artists like Bauhaus, The Cure and Depeche Mode (which, of course, Brooks — along with Rodney Bingenheimer and Richard Blade — was responsible for getting on the air).
Bravin started DJing at 15, playing music for parties and clubs in all different scenes. “Every band has a dark song,” says Bravin, who would go on to found the darkwave band She Wants Revenge with Justin Warfield. “There are hip-hop artists that are dark, soul artist that are dark. Even pop artists that are dark. Whether sonically it's dark, whether lyrically it's dark, whether it just makes you feel a certain way — every genre has a dark side.”
This dark side of music gets full play at Cloak & Dagger, where Bravin spins everything from his teen goth faves to early ska and Biggie Smalls, who the DJ points out has a song called “Suicidal Tendencies,” which like Britney Spears' “Toxic” is pretty dark if you pay attention.
“Michael Patterson and I just created Cloak & Dagger because … I just wanted it. I couldn't go anywhere to hear dark music in all the different genres that I wanted to hear it in,” Bravin says. While his sonic passion was a motivating factor in founding Cloak & Dagger, he admits there is more to the club than meets the casual glance into the mandatory all-black clothing club.
“We wanted to create a community, not that one doesn't already exist but in our own way, incorporating magical qualities and immersive theater, and to create a unique place where people can get a little bit more,” he says.
That “little bit more” has grown Cloak & Dagger into monthly events in Chicago and Mexico City. Cloak & Dagger opens to the public for one special night when its mysterious immersive experiences will be expanded to take advantage of the spacious, restored State Theatre in downtown Los Angeles. Onstage, She Wants Revenge will be joined by a number of bands including TR/ST, HEALTH and Drab Majesty.
Despite DJing at a goth club and playing in what is considered a goth band, Bravin insists that goth is not a musical genre. “People use the word goth all the time, but after speaking with members of Bauhaus and some of the original 'goth' bands, they all agree it was more about the fashion than it was the music. And I would agree.” He adds, “Although we all know what people mean when they say goth music, I think of it more of a fashion and art aesthetic.”
The goth aesthetic truly has proven more powerful and far-reaching than anyone could have imagined. Leafar Seyer of the band Prayers grew up watching MTV in the '80s and was drawn to the otherworldly elegance of goth musicians, their clothes and makeup. “The look attracted me as much as the music spoke to me. And the aesthetic goes back centuries. Like that Flock of Seagulls haircut comes originally from the French Revolution; it was worn by that time's version of goths and punks. It was a mockery of how people's necks were shaved and their hair tossed forward for the guillotine, a dare to death.”
Seyer, who is married to tattoo artist Kat Von D (another champion of dark imagery and style via her successful makeup line), took the memento mori theatricality and melded it with his Latino culture to create the “cholo goth” genre (as seen at monthly Cholo Goth Night at the Lash Social, DJ'd by his partner in Prayers, Dave Parley). Prayers may have tweaked the look and style but they know where it came from, and not everyone who identifies as goth does. Take note:
“So goth has all these classical, Euro-white influences from literature like Bram Stoker, Poe, Huysmans, Rimbaud, Baudelaire. And in the arts, Félicien Rops, Aubrey Beardsley, Harry Clarke, and then movies like Nosferatu and Dracula, and of course the fashions of those time periods,” reflects Seyer, pausing for a moment before explaining how he sought to blend the historical elements that started it all with the cholo culture that “emerged from the brutal colonization of Mexico, and before that our Aztec roots, both of which were heavy with death.”
Much has been theorized about why Latino people are particularly passionate about expressing themselves through goth, and there are obvious links. “Latinos in general are raised Catholic and have a certain appreciation for the beauty in the macabre after those depictions of Christ and the Crucifixion,” Lethal Amounts' Fuentes explains. “Mexican culture also celebrates the Day of the Dead, focusing on a positive way to view death instead of fear it.”
Cultural influences are constantly feeding off of one another with the march of time, and goth is no different. Some of the facets have become so prevalent they're considered cliché at this point; that, coupled with the melodrama and portentous (some might say pretentious) vibes, makes the lifestyle ripe for parody (think SNL's “Goth Talk” skit or Portlandia's Vince and Jacqueline, the stereotypical black-garbed goth duo who drive a hearse and inhabit a house decorated like a funeral parlour).
Nevertheless, dark entertainment continues to connect, especially with disenfranchised youth. Horror films are bigger than ever, witchcraft and its aesthetics have cast a spell on the hipster set, and music with ominous undertones (from Marilyn Manson to Ghost, black metal and goth comps of Cleopatra Records), dark art (from the vintage characters of Edward Gorey to the modern work of Mark Ryden) and supernatural literature (Stephen King, Anne Rice, Twilight's Stephenie Meyer) continues to resonate with new generations. Particularly when it comes to fantasy, freakier is better, as the success of Tim Burton has proved. Disney got wise to this pretty early on, and has smartly catered to goth consumers via its Villains and Haunted Mansion merch, not to mention Nightmare Before Christmas everything.
Bats Day in the Fun Park, the annual goth gathering at Disneyland, put the potential for marketing macabre right in their faces, and that event — like almost everything that helped gothic aesthetics spread in L.A. and eventually the world — grew out of nightlife and creator Noah Korda's desire to bring the scene together. His Black Marketplace off-site brought designers and crafters together to buy and sell unique dark items, but indie stores like Necromance (which put together the original “Black Market” selling alternative merchandise) and Retail Slut, the seminal punk-rock shop, both on Melrose, were the first. Slut, whose employees included KFK's Mata and Lethal's Fuentes over the years, also sponsored many Coven 13 events, including its “Gothic Beauty Pageant.”
While some feel the mainstreaming of the style and aesthetic via mall stores like Hot Topic (a SoCal-based company, by the way) is a bad thing, true fans of the culture don't really care. There are plenty of indie stores, too, including Necromance (still going), Memento Mori in Echo Park, Dark Delicacies and Hilary's Vanity, both in Burbank. There are also several conventions in L.A. for horror and gothic fans to buy unique T-shirts, accessories and decor, including Scare L.A. and Monsterpalooza. Mainstream fashion has made punk and goth clothing easier to find in stores, while online, sites like Dolls Kill, Killstar Rebels Market have found their niche. There's just more cool stuff to wear, buy and surround oneself in.
True goth fans want to see the darkness permeate culture as much as it can. Queenie Black is a shining example. Known as the “Gothic Martha Stewart” on social media and YouTube, she's been a successful multimedia artist active in the spooky art scene since the turn of the century, and she's all for keeping the culture's original style and ideas alive in a contemporary forum. Known for her Pocket Full of Posiez dolls, sold at Hot Topic in the mid-2000s, she says of the new generation, “While it's important to know your history, and to remind baby bats where our culture came from, us elders need to remember that scenes evolve and grow. Goth doesn't belong just to us because we happen to be born in the 1900s. Everyone is invited to the party but some just arrive fashionably late.”
In Los Angeles, the enduring popularity of this culture is obviously, in part, a reaction to our sunny environment. But it's actually less about the reality of our surroundings and more about a reverie of spirit. “We live in Tinseltown, where dreams come true,” Brooks says. “The mystique of Hollywood and the drama and the mystery are a big part of why it happened here and why it lives on.”
And while the L.A. stereotype is one of glitz and fashionably late fabulousness, Brooks and his peers made sure we were early to the party. Goth culture has continued to haunt imaginations ever since, ensnaring new followers and maintaining loyalty from those who loved it early on, especially in L.A. Here it seems, goth will never grow up, get some color or rest in peace.
Lavitt, Perdew and Stewart spin at Perversion's Halloween Party (Thu., Oct. 25) and Club '90s Tim Burton Ball (Fri., Oct. 26), both at Boardners, 1652 N. Cherokee, Hollywood, and at Club '90s vs. Blue Mondays (Wed., Oct. 31) at Catch One, 4067 W. Pico Blvd., Arlington Heights. Facebook.com/club90sla
Release the Bats' 20th-anniversary and closing bash (with guest DJ Michael Stewart) is Fri., Oct. 26, at Que Sera, 1923 Seventh St., Long Beach. Releasethebats.net.
Danny Fuentes' Lethal Amounts Cramps Halloween is Fri., Oct. 26, at the Monty, 1222 W. Seventh St., Westlake. Lethalamounts.com.
Cholo Goth Night with DJ Dave Parley (Sat., Oct. 27) and Rev. John's '90s Goth Klub (Sun., Oct. 28) are both at the Lash, 117 Winston St., downtown. thelashsocial.com.
Prayers on Sun., Oct. 28, play the Fonda, 6126 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. Fondatheatre.com.
Bar Sinister's 10th annual Ghostly Halloween Ball is Wed., Oct. 31, at Boardner's, 1652 N. Cherokee, Hollywood. barsinister.net.
The Cloak & Dagger Festival is on Sat., Nov. 10, at Los Angeles Theatre, 615 S Broadway, Downtown. Xcloakanddaggerx.com.
Dinah Cancer & 45 Grave on Wed., Nov. 21, play Marty's on Newport, 14401 Newport Ave., Tustin. Martysonnewport.com.
[Ed. note: The name of Hilary's Vanity in Burbank has been corrected. We regret the error.]