Ashes to Ashes: A Timeline of David Bowie’s influence on Goth

No Bowie, no Bauhaus. No Low, no Downward Spiral. No Ziggy, no Manson.

David Bowie wasn’t a Goth. It would be ridiculous to claim him in that way, like he belonged to any one scene. Hell, he barely belonged to any one planet. But without him, well, it’s hard to imagine what Goth/Industrial music and style would look and sound like, if it existed at all. That’s why, after so many words have already been spilled since the announcement of his death, [Seriously, everyone and their dentist has weighed in already], and it’s taken me a while, I still wanted to write this. To remind myself, and those who share my love for the subculture, and perhaps some who don’t know the connections at all, why Bowie was so important to this dark corner of the world, too. It’s by no means exhaustive (how would one begin to track 100% of Bowie’s influences on any genre?) but I hope comprehensive enough.

We’ll get to The Hunger in a moment, naturally. But first, let’s start at the very beginning….

1972: Blowing minds on Top of the Pops

One could say, with all earnestness, that the seeds of the modern Goth subculture aren’t really Walpole’s gothic horror novel Castle of Otrano, as bookish types like to claim, but Bowie’s far out July 6, 1972 appearance as Ziggy Stardust on the British music show Top of the Pops. This is where one Daniel Ash, who would later co-found the world’s first proper gothic rock band, first glimpsed this strange creature. He was just shy of 15. Her would later tell Vice:

DANIEL ASH, BAUHAUS:Morrissey and Marc Almond and Boy George and George Michael, they all talk about Bowie doing “Starman” on Top of the Pops where he puts his arm around Mick Ronson, and it’s looking like, ‘Is that a girl or a guy?’ You know, that whole magical thing. That changed everything for my generation. … I remember going into town in the back of my dad’s car, and I went into the store and bought “Starman” and before I bought this 7” vinyl a voice in my head said, ‘If you buy this record, your life is never going to be the same. Do you want to go down this road?’ Of course I bought it.”

Ash was hardly alone. The whole lot of future British Goth icons were watching that TV night. Robert Smith, Andrew Eldritch, Ian McCulloch, they’ve all spoken about being transfixed and transformed by that performance.

Susan Janet Ballion watched it from a hospital bed. The girl who would soon transform into a Bromley punk then Goth goddess Siouxsie Sioux told Bowie biographer Dylan Jones,

SIOUXSIE SIOUX: “It was the first time I felt that it was music made for me. … He was incredible. The skinniness, the alienation, the otherworldlinesss. …. It was definitely the man/woman of the future. It was a brave new world, a springboard to accentuate your own individuality. But I was never a Bowie lookalike. I found it odd that so many people were content to merely copy.”

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Siouxsie hits on something here of great import to this story. Every generation has a new pop or rock star that blows the gates open for the kids, often through a TV appearance. That’s not news. Often they even inspire new fashion trends amongst fans. But this isn’t Beatles haircuts or a KISS make-up on Halloween. Bowie that night, in going beyond stage costuming into a fully formed alter ego, (in fact, several alter egos) inspired those who would most influence what the goth subculture would become to create personas for themselves.

In the essay “Playing Dress Up: David Bowie and the Roots of Goth,” authors David Shumway and Heather Arnet describe it thus: “Bowie’s theatricality freed punk rock performers to indulge their own impulses to dress up. Inspired by Bowie, they would create their own performance masks, costumes and stage personae. As a result, their fans, rather than merely imitating, would go on to create their own world of disguise—goth.”

Exactly. Goth has always been a culture of metamorphosis and masquerade. (Or, as Hebdige might say, style as subversion.) Not every goth puts on their boldest every time they leave the house but there’s a certain commitment on a daily basis to transforming yourself that is as intrinsic to the scene as the music and other culture consumed. Goth fashion traces itself way back past glam rock, of course, but there’s a good chance no teenagers would be walking around in Victorian funeral attire in 2015 if it wasn’t for Bowie, and his influence on the early Goth rockers — they gave us all permission to be strange in bold daylight, to re-imagine ourselves as scary monsters and super freaks.

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Much has been written about the influence of Bowie’s gender bending style on all kinds of communities. But perhaps nowhere was it so impactful as goth, where boys in skirts continues to be de rigueur, where fishnets are considered unisex apparel. And consider that goth’s most famous face, Robert Smith of the Cure, is almost as well-known to the general public for the bright red lipstick smeared wildly across his face as for his music. And where did Robert get the idea? That same five minutes of TV.

ROBERT SMITH, THE CURE: “I saw Bowie on Top of the Pops and immediately put on some of my older sisters’ make-up. I loved how odd it made me look, and the fact that it upset people. You put on eyeliner and people started screaming at you. How strange, how marvelous!”

1977: Warszawa becomes Warsaw becomes Joy Division

Although it’s the Bauhaus/Bowie connection that’s the axis on which an entire universe would soon spin, one cannot overlook the Bowie influence on Joy Division, the first group that ever had “goth” tagged to their sound. Their first gig was May 29, 1977 under the name Warsaw, taken directly from “Warszawa,” a haunting track on Bowie’s 1977 moody masterpiece of post-punk, Low. The name was Ian Curtis’ idea. Curtis was an early fan of Bowie, and was particularly switched on after seeing the Ziggy Stardust tour in a club in Manchester, twice, at age 17. It’s easy to imagine him as he appears in the fictional biopic Control, striking his best rock star poses in his bedroom mirror to the sounds of Bowie’s “Jean Genie,” finding in that music, himself.

Curtis remained a fan his entire short life: the Iggy Pop record The Idiot, produced and co-written by Bowie, was famously found spinning on his turntable the day he hanged himself, May 18, 1980, at age 23.

It’s in Joy Division that you really hear the influence of Bowie’s lyrics on the early goth songwriters. Curtis took Bowie’s obsession with alienation to a new level of grimness, drilling deep into themes of paranoia, madness, and other psychological horrors. Forget the romanticized rock star from Mars—Curtis was much more interested in loving the alien within. And while you could say that came from Curtis’ own psyche as much as hearing “Space Oddity,” when you add in the sonic similarities between the Joy Division debut Unknown Pleasures and Bowie’s Berlin trilogy, well… Listen again to “I Remember Nothing” and tell me that wouldn’t fit just as well on Heroes?

1982: Bauhaus’ “Ziggy Stardust” cover hits the Top 20

Six years after buying “Starman,” Daniel Ash co-founded Bauhaus with his three school mates, including singer Peter Murphy. It doesn’t take much more than a glance to recognize how much Bowie (along with Iggy) influenced Murphy. He took Bowie’s androgynous alien make-up, drag-like costuming and mime-inspired dance moves and meshed them with his love for German expressionism and horror—like colourization in reverse, Murphy pared Ziggy down to stark, black-and-white, becoming a thin white duke for for the death chic set.* It’s right here, in Peter Murphy’s hollowed out cheekbones—glam becomes Goth.

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Like Joy Division, Bauhaus borrowed its sound in part from the darkest corners of Bowie’s early catalogue. And they’ll admit it. Peter Murphy once declared, “The Man Who Sold the World was the first true goth record.” I double dare you to listen to that 1971 album’s After All,” a sombre, minor-chord whisper that references occultist Aleister Crowley, or its “All the Monsters,” and not hear the influence all over Bauhaus’ 1980’s debut In the Flat Field, or “All We Every Wanted Was Everything,” from 1981’s Mask.

It all became so bleeding obvious when Bauhaus released their version of “Ziggy Stardust.” Originally a throwaway recorded for BBC Radio, a bit of a poke back at those calling the new band Bowie rip-offs. The 1982 single became Bauhaus’ first hit, and the only time they would hit the British Top 20 charts, even getting their own Top of the Pops appearance out of it. This, and a music video, helped bring Bauhaus, and the world of Goth, to the masses.

For me personally, it was several years later that I first caught the “Ziggy Stardust” clip, on TV in my small town. Being an ‘80s kid, for me Bowie was the “Let’s Dance” guy. Supremely cool, yes. Punk rock? Goth? I had no idea. I’d never seen the Thin White Duke, the Man Who Fell to Earth, Ziggy Stardust. Which means I’d also never seen anything like Peter Murphy in this video. Slithering, shimmying, shirtless, across the stage striking his Jesus Christ Pose. Not so much singing to his audience as attacking them. This video also took me inside some low-ceiling, sweaty brick basement filled with glassy-eyed post-punk kids in leather jackets and eyeliner, it showed me Daniel Ash wearing fishnets for a shirt and Murphy singing from within a dog cage. I was already falling in love with the Cult and the Cure and Love and Rockets, all on heavy rotation on MuchMusic back then. But this was my first visit to an underground goth bar. I imagine I’m not alone in deciding that day I was going all-black and never back. It was only later that I discovered this was a cover, and that this Ziggy fellow was in fact David Bowie, he of the sharp suits. Mind blown twice.

 

1983: Bowie Becomes a Vampire

David Bowie’s portrayal of the immortal John Blaylock remains one of the best vampire portrayals in modern cinema, in one of my Top 5 vampire flicks of all time. (Surely, I can’t be the only goth girl who shows The Hunger to new dates as a matter of ritual?) It would be uber Goth even if it didn’t start in a goth bar. But it does: Peter Murphy’s spikey silhouette emerging from the shadows, staring down viewers through a metal cage, the haunting rhythms of “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” ticking a death march as Bowie, as a slick, sunglass-wearing Blaylock, and his vampire lover Miriam stalk the dance floor, coolly hunting the club-goers for prey. It’s possibly the gothiest 5 minutes ever put to film. By all accounts, the band had a passing run-in with Bowie while shooting the scene, possibly their only real life encounter.

The Hunger closed the Bowie-Bauhaus loop (the band would break up shortly after its release) but it was hardly the final chapter in the man’s sphere of influence.

 

 

1994: Hey Trent Reznor, how Low can you go?

Since Bowie’s death, few have been posting “’The Hearts Filthy Lesson’ changed my life!” or mentioning Earthling in their obituaries. Fair enough, it’s hard to compete with “Rebel, Rebel.” But it was in the ‘90s that Bowie made his greatest contribution to gothdom— as a direct influence on the two artists that would take this scrappy scene for weirdoes and blow it wide open to the mainstream.

Trent Reznor, industrial music’s most recognizable icon, has gone on record many times about how David Bowie was the most important creative influence in his life, citing Scary Monsters and Hunky Dory amongst his all-time fave albums, and Bowie’s general freakishness as key to his artistic development.

 TRENT REZNOR, NIN: “To a kid growing up in rural Pennsylvania, out of reach of college radio and on the wrong side of the Internet – in isolation – to see this alien creep in, this larger-than-life character who was smart… he’s been a consistent reference point as somebody who is uncompromising.”

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If any one thing can be thanked/blamed for goth turning up at every mall near you in 1994, it’s Nine Inch Nails’s record The Downward Spiral. Multiplatinum. Top 5. Grammy nominations. Heavy rotation on MTV. For a noisy concept record about nihilism, addition and self-destruction. And it wouldn’t have happened (or not in the same way) had Reznor not heard David Bowie’s 1977 album Low, a benchmark in Bowie’s own creative evolution and the key to Trent unleashing his most experimental side.

TRENT REZNOR, NIN:David Bowie‘s ‘Low’ was probably the single greatest influence on ‘The Downward Spiral‘ for me. … I instantly fell for it. I related to it on a song-writing level, a mood level, and on a song-structure level…I like working within the framework of accessibility, and songs of course, but I also like things that are more experimental and instrumental, maybe.”

I’m not suggesting that industrial music started with DWS, or that many goths hadn’t already discovered Bowie’s Berlin triology, Krautraut, ambient and other electronic oddities long before it hit the charts. But this album was a juggernaut, that rare beast that changes the game. It transformed Nine Inch Nails from a synthpop club act to stadium rock stars. And the Bowie connection couldn’t be more clear. Aside from the Low factor, Adrian Belew (who’d played on Lodger, another Bowie album from the Berlin Trilogy) played guitar. And the big hit single, “Closer” rips its opening drum beat from “Nightclubbing” by Iggy Pop — a song written by …. David Bowie.

 

1995: Bowie the Industrialist

Bowie, being the observant culture vulture, didn’t let this go unnoticed. His 1995 release Outside, subtitled “A non-linear Gothic Drama Hyper-Cycle,” was a dystopian concept record with multiple voices and enough dark electronic beats to be embraced by goth/industrial clubs, even before Bowie tapped Trent for a remix of the single “The Hearts Filthy Lesson.” He then invited Nine Inch Nails to open on the tour.

It wasn’t a typical opening slot: they designed the Dissonance tour to have a seque between their sets, where they would perform together. Bowie sang on “Reptile”; Trent on “Scary Monsters.” It was an experiment that met with lukewarm to bad reviews. And when you watch it today, it doesn’t really click (the way, say, Peter Murphy of Bauhaus singing “Reptile” with NIN does.) But it presented Bowie to a whole new generation. And more importantly, it gave the Bowie stamp of approval to this music, a great validation for us at a time when NIN copycats and bros screaming “I want to fuck you like an animal!” at sports bars, Bowie’s seal of approval reminded us everything was cool, and elevated NIN and industrial music to the place in the history of rock music that it deserves.

 

[Fun aside: of all people, Andrew Eldritch of the Sisters of Mercy interviewed Bowie around this time, for Rolling Stone Germany. He referred, in typical Eldritch fashion, to NIN’s muddy performance at Woodstock as “an ephemeral eighties band of the most despicable kind.”

Bowie replied: “Those people would be wrong. I think it was the emergent voice of a new direction.”

And then, more from Andrew: “Now, I hold myself personally responsible for Nine Inch Nails (among others), but not for the fact that they look like Alien Sex Fiend. This makes Mr Bowie laugh some more. ‘I liked Alien Sex Fiend. It’s a fucking great t-shirt.’”]

 

1997: I’m Afraid of Americans

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Straight up: “I’m Afraid of Americans” is the Bowie track most often heard at goth bars, because it’s essentially Bowie’s version of a NIN song. He again tapped Trent for a remix, and to co-star in the video. In the clip, a paranoid Bowie— complete with hoop earing and ‘90s era goatee—is running through the streets of NYC, chased by an apparition of Reznor. A comment by an aging rock star seeing young ‘uns biting at his creative heels, as well as a pointed critique of American gun culture? Seems like it.

 

1998: Manson — the Mechanical Ziggy

While Reznor was enjoying his bromance with Bowie, conducting audio/video experiments that were very of the moment, his protégée Marilyn Manson was about to indulge his own obsession with Bowie’s glam rock past. The rock star born Brian Warner first got turned on to Bowie when he saw the video for Ashes to Ashes” (a clip that starred, not co-incidentially, Steve Strange of Visage, one of the earliest figures on the new romantic club scene). He’d name-dropped the Thin White Duke often, and in 1997, released a cover of Bowie’s 1974 funk-soul hit “Golden Years.” But it was 1998’s Mechanical Animals that he let his Bowie fixation fly.

 

The record is widely acknowledged as Manson’s take on Diamond Dogs, the follow-up to Ziggy Stardust. Thematically, Manson plays two characters who will be quite familiar to Bowie fans: a doped up glam rocker, and an androgynous alien who falls to earth and joins a band. The single and video for “The Dope Show” makes an overt nod to Bowie’s performance in the film The Man Who Fell to Earth (and much more). Already a star on the American pop culture scene, this was Manson’s highest charting period—the song earned several MTV and Billboard Music awards, and a Grammy nomination, and it was his most commercially successful record. For a whole new generation of spooky kids, Manson—with his crazy coloured eyes, prosthetic boobs and asexual genitals—became a gateway to the weird world of music and art and David Bowie. With the internet fully exploded by then, it was easier than ever to follow the clues he left, to travel down the rabbit holes of the songs, the personas, the art and the artifice.

 

2016: Ashes to Ashes

When David Bowie died, on January 10, 2016, there were many expressions of grief posted by the music artists who adored him, tiny flakes in the avalanche of tributes worldwide. One that circulated widely was a letter by Marilyn Manson, printed in Rolling Stone, titled “David Bowie Changed My Life Forever.” An excerpt:

MARILYN MANSON: “Every song of his was a way for me to communicate to others. It was a sedative. An arousal. A love letter I could never have written.  It has become and remains a soundtrack to a movie he painted with his voice and guitar. He sang, “Hope, it’s a cheap thing.”

I don’t need hope to know that he has found his way to the place that equals his untouchable, chameleon-genius beauty. The black star in space, that only HE belongs. This crushing moment of fear and loss can only be treated the way his music has affected everyone who was fortunate enough to hear and love it.  Let’s NEVER let go of what he gave us.”

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More than one fan of this music has wondered wherefore art thou Trent Reznor? He’s been notably silent. I like to think he’ll respond with art, with music. I like to think he’s in a studio somewhere, doing the things that Bowie always inspired him to do. And that he’ll drop his response in his own time.

For me, what lingers in the days and weeks now since that shocking news in the middle of the night, is just how Bowie orchestrated his own end. He wrote his own obituary with his final album, Blackstar— from the lyrics to the videos to the artwork, all clues to be interpreted. Articles like this and this will continue to be written for years to come, analyzing the clues he left in that last work, revering him for dying the way he lived, artfully. Some will believe that he faked his death, others that he’s responsible for that new planet out there. It’s all possible though, isn’t it?

What do I think? That his influence, on goths and other darkly inclined individuals and artists will only grow after death. The man who fell to earth is now myth, one who left us in a cloud of stardust, of ashes, with a requiem to soothe that loneliness. There will never be another David Bowie. But there is sure to be an infinite number of people who, because of him, continue to turn and face the strange.  Bowie is dead. Long live Blackstar.

 

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Freedom of speech isn’t freedom from consequence (Or, why Action Bronson fans can go fuck themselves)

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“Is he being unfairly targeted?”

The day Action Bronson’s headlining performance at Yonge and Dundas Square was cancelled by the organizers of NXNE, bowing to the pressure of a petition claiming the New York rapper’s music “glorifies gang-raping and murdering women,” which attracted 40 thousand signatures, I went on the news to talk about it. It’s a privilege I have as a music journalist who is not camera-shy, and something I personally enjoy, sharing my views with the masses, helping to provide context to the headlines of the day. On this day though, it kind of sucked. Because it meant I actually had to listen to Action Bronson. In advance of the taping I reviewed the song cited in the petition, “Consensual Rape” (highlights: “Your life is cheap like a hooker in the Philippines”; “Don’t get me pissed off, fuck around rip your tits off”) along with the video for “Brunch,” which shows him angrily, repeatedly spitting “fucking bitch, fucking bitch… you scumbag bitch” while stabbing the corpse of a dead women rolled up in a carpet and stuffed in his trunk. Brutal. And so when the host at CP24 asked if I thought this whole thing was unfair, I had a difficult time keeping my answers clean enough for live TV. And since there’s never enough time to express everything in those short bits, I wanted to write about it all here.

This is a story about 40 thousand people saying no to misogyny, and winning.

It takes a lot for me to cheer for someone’s gig getting the axe because they offended someone. Like most people, I abhor censorship, which is usually propagated by uninformed folks who put the “jerk” in knee-jerk, and scapegoats certain genres unfairly. My personal tastes in music and art run towards some pretty dark stuff, and even if they didn’t I’d still think it was fundamentally wrong to decide what others should enjoy. But I do make a distinction between art that is simply violent or explicit and art that is filled with hate. (It’s why I love gory, disturbing horror films but not exploitation films.) And after thinking about this situation for a few days, I have concluded this is not about censorship at all. It’s definitely not about rap music. Or policing art. It’s bigger than that. This is a story about 40 thousand people saying no to misogyny, and winning. And what a great victory that is.

Since the petition to remove the concert from a free public space was started, by Toronto’s Erica Shiner, there has been plenty of outcry from fans of Action Bronson and others, shouting about the right to free speech. Which means they have no clue what freedom of speech actually means.
Freedom of speech is the right to say what you want and not get arrested by the state for it. And even then, it’s not absolute. In Canada, we have a Broadcast Standards Council to regulate what can be said over the public airwaves. Our Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, subject to “reasonable limits.” The hate propaganda section of our criminal code (319) makes illegal the public incitement or willful promotion of hatred against “any identifable group” and is punishable by imprisonment of up to two years. It’s mostly used to shut down racist propaganda but also protects against intimidation, harrassment, physical force or threats of physical force motivated by hate against race, religion, ethnic origins, age, sexual orientation, disability and sex. Women have been protected by this law since October of 2014, when Bill C-13 was passed to amend the code, a very important step to recognize that hate can be gendered.  Note that gender is not on that list. Because we as a society have yet to recognize that half of the population is often a target of abuse. This is partly why, in 2000, attemps to ban Eminem entry to Canada to perform at Skydome on the grounds that his music promoted violence against women failed, because that’s not at that time it was not actually a crime.)  And if you still don’t believe that’s true, or a problem, This doesn’t eliminate the problem, of course. Take a look at the kind of Tweets that were lobbed at Shiner when her petition started to take off. (Warning: vile language and crimes against grammar ahead)

 

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Reading these made me furious. More furious than watching “Brunch.” It made me realize that I dislike Action Bronson’s supporters more than the rapper himself. They have no art to hide behind. This might be an unfair assumption but I’d bet they’re not activists working to free Pussy Riot or Iranian bloggers or stop Bill C-51. They are simply filled with hate. And they have no shame in saying these things publicly. Because they live in a world where women are objects to be talked about, to be talked at, any way they choose. And when you are angry with something a woman says or does, the appropriate and perfectly acceptable response is to call her a cunt who should get beat up. I know. It’s not my first day on the internet. Don’t read the comments and all that. But why should we let this go simply because everyone does it?

This isn’t about the lyrics of any one performer. It’s about how violently some react when women dare to present an opposing viewpoint that might mess with the fun they are having at our expense.

A lot of fans protesting the petition point to the fact that the song “Consensual Rape” is four years-old. This reminds me of when I tell my mother I don’t want to visit the friend of hers I know used to beat his wife when I was a kid and she says “Oh, he’s not like that anymore.” Like that makes it OK. They say there’s no way he was even going to play it at this concert. But from what little I know of Action Bronson (whose response to the petition was “FUCK ALL YALL HATERS BLOW DICK”), seems pretty likely he would have pulled that track out to play here just to piss off his detrators, to show who is boss.
That’s what this is about. Not about the lyrics of any one performer, however offensive they may be to some. It’s about how violently some men (and some women) react when women dare to present an opposing viewpoint that might mess with the fun they are having at our expense. Because: How. Dare. We.

This is about a sea change in the public’s acceptance of garbage being thrown at women, in the name of “boys will be boys” entertainment. It has has everything to do with Gamergate, and FHRITP, and female comedians speaking out against sexist hecklers. It’s about saying enough with this shit.

Freedom of speech is not freedom from consequence. Go ahead, Action Bronson, put your art out into the world. I’m not going to stop you, or tell you your records should be burned or your lyrics blacked out, or kept out of stores or off the air. I’m not even going to sign a petition trying to ban you from playing in my city’s town square. Just know that you don’t get to say whatever you want about women anymore and expect them not to talk back. We are not props in the back of your trunk. We have freedom of speech too.

Note: Updated to reflect amendments to the Criminal Code made in October 20, 2014 which added gender to the list of identifiable groups protected by hate propaganda laws.
 

My Songza Playlists

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Do you need to hear some new music? Or some old music? Forever, I’ve loved sharing songs with other people. And for the past while I’ve been able to to that on a mass scale as a guest curator for Songza – the best service for streaming music based on your mood or activity. To see all my playlists, go here. And may I recommend my two favourites: Goths Just Wanna Have Fun and Moonlight Swim in Canada. Thanks for listening!

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2014: A few of my favourite things

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It’s the last night to do this. To make a year-end list. I’ve avoided it because I’ve been busy devouring everyone else’s lists. Media is full of them at this time of year—when fresh content is limited, looking back at the most popular people and moments of the year that was makes good editorial sense. And so with my journalist hat on, I’ve done it (here’s my list of Top Canadian Albums of 2014 for Huffington Post Music). But sitting here tonight, with less than 24 hours to go in this calendar, I think that I’m still not ready. To decide what is The Best. Even just to me. But I do want to document what moved me, what stuck with me. If there’s a theme, it is one of surprises, and of dreams.


The shows.

For as long as I’ve been going to concerts, they have been as important to me as records. In fact, I think a key reason I’m not so into bands that peaked before my time is that I never got to see them play, which is a huge factor in falling in love with artists and their songs. This was the year I got to see Kate Bush perform live. Something I never, ever, believed would happen. I wrote about it at length here. It remains the absolutely highlight of 2014 while at the same time being impossible to compare to anything else. But wait, there was also Nick Cave. At the Sony Centre. On fire. And me, pushing me way up to the front, where he spent a great deal of the show singing from within the crowd, buoyed by hands. When he came close to where we stood I reached out my left hand and placed it over his heart, while he looked over my head and sang to someone out of my view. I placed my right hand around his thigh, holding him up as he leaned forward, grabbing at those around me. I remember every moment of “Push the Sky Away,” title track from his most recent album, one of the best things he’s ever written, and how it hushed the room. I listen to that song on headphones in bed all the time. It’s my lullaby. A totally different trip was seeing Kraftwerk, in “3D”. Which means they give you silly cardboard glasses to watch their high-tech digital video backdrops. But man, what fun. The loudest show I saw was surprisingly not Swans at NXNE (outdoors, so probably not their fault) or even DFA’s very loud pop up show (again, outdoors) but Ben Frost at the Garrison. Punishing, minimal electronic music in the dark with strobes and fog is one of my favourite spaces and states to be in. I also love dancing, and discovery, and I got both at the debut gig for Operators at the Silver Dollar during NXNE. Literally from the very first notes my colleagues and I knew this was going to be our new favourite band. It’s what we chase all the time, that feeling, that you are witnessing something special unfold before you. So many feelings also watching Tanya Tagaq blow all of the minds at the Polaris Music Prize Gala and the return of The Constantines at Field Trip. Canadians have always made, and continue to make, some of the best fucking music in the world.

 

 The songs.

Pretty simple here. The songs I kept playing on repeat, and repeat, and repeat…

Against Me “Black Me Out”

FKA Twigs “Two Weeks”

Beyonce “Flawless”

Future Islands “Seasons”

Death from Above 1979 “Right On, Frankenstein”

Some movies.

It wasn’t one of those years full of cinema I couldn’t wait to tell my friends about. With two exceptions: 20,000 Days on Earth, a documentary about Nick Cave which is nothing like what you expect a documentary about Nick Cave to be and exactly like what you should expect a documentary about Nick Cave to be. Absolutely inspiring. And What We Do in the Shadows, hands-down the funniest film I’ve seen in a long time and the first to get the vampire comedy right in a very long time.

 

I want to put books here, and poems, and lectures and all kinds of cultural thing that made this year interesting. But most seemed to drift in and out of my view and my consciousness. Which is why I’ve started to write a new project all about memories, and how we preserve them. For when there are no more lists.

 

 

 

In Praise of….Kate Bush Live!

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Prologue.

“If she ever plays live again, anywhere in the world, I’m getting on a plane and going.”

I’ve been saying that for years. And as the years went by, and Kate Bush did not in fact play live again, it seemed like an impossible dream. And then….. March 21, 2014 came the shock: Kate Bush announces concerts, the first since 1979. They would be called Before the Dawn. They would take place in September, and only in London, England, at the Eventim (né Hammersmith) Apollo. There were 15 shows at first, then 22. The tickets would cost 100 British Pounds. For real.

Like a lot of the people excited about this news, for me Kate Bush is more than a favourite singer, she’s a muse. I know that makes me sound like a teenager, but when I first discovered her I was one. Spellbound by her music video for “Running up that Hill,”devouring all the vinyl records and VHS bootleg tapes I could acquire, falling in love with her voice, her lyrics, her mysterious, enthralling persona. I named my self-published zine The Ninth Wave, after side-B of her album Hounds of Love. I’ve danced wildly to “The Dreaming” about a thousand times, and written a glosa based on “Egypt.” Once, when she made a rare appearance in Toronto to promote her album The Red Shoes, I stood outside a radio station where she was being interviewed, which had literally had its glass windows papered up to shield her from view, and cried. Physically, I was the closest I’d ever get to her in my life, but I couldn’t see her. She wasn’t real.

I know at least 10 other Toronto Kate Bush fans who woke up at 5 am EST on the first day of ticket sales. Most did not score. I did, as did my friend Jeff. All of a sudden, I was not just going to  see Kate Bush play live, I was going to see her play live twice!  The dream was real.

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The Show.

“Well I said, ‘Lily, Oh Lily I don’t feel safe / I feel that life has blown a great big hole / Through me’ ”

Before the dawn, there is a theatre abuzz, there is a vast empty stage of possibilities, there are feather charm necklaces for sale, there is a no photography rule, there is a set list I know, there are tissues in my pocket, just in case.

Kate emerges sauntering from stage left, leading a procession of her back-up singers (which includes her 16-year-old son, Bertie). She wears a black dress, no shoes, a huge smile I can see all the way from the balcony. She sings “Lily,” one of my favourites. Tears. I don’t bother with the tissues. Rapturous applause and standing ovation. Boom! “It’s in the trees…it’s coming!” For some reason, the masses sit back down. Even during “Running Up that Hill.” I cannot. There are three of us up here, three lone people up dancing. One lady gets up just to come and tell me I am “ruining it for everyone” behind me. I am not here to fight or be upset, so I sit, but my heart is still dancing.  “King of the Mountain” ends with a storm and a canon firing orange confetti over the crowd.  And then the show starts, for real.

Before the Dawn is musical theatre. Part one is The Ninth Wave, a suite of songs about a woman tossed overboard in the sea. Tonight, Kate will drown (on screen, filmed in a floatation tank which I later learn made her sick), be pulled out from under ice, appear as a ghost, be lost and be found. There are old-school sets and props, sound effects and costumes. A helicopter with search lights whirring loud overhead. A rescue buoy. And Kate. She is not flexing her body in a leotard like it’s 1979. She is not shimmying like Kylie or Beyonce. But she is in total control, and her voice sounds glorious. Her voice. That’s how you know the woman up there is really her. Because it’s still hard to believe.

Part two is The Sky of Honey, another side-B, from Ariel. There is a wooden door sized for giants. There are birds in flight. There is a massive painter’s canvas and trees that descend from the roof/sky. There is Kate at the piano. There is, for some reason I still don’t really get, a life-sized artist’s mannequin, operated by a puppeteer. There is Bertie, singing his own song. This might be annoying if it wasn’t so clear it was Bertie who inspired Kate to do this, to be here with all of us. There is a lovely afternoon brought to life in the dark. There is a black bird who is Kate. There is a most magical surprise climax in which she emerges in flight. There is an encore. It includes “Cloudbusting.” Finally, there is dancing. And for me, there is one more show.

My second night at Before the Dawn was actually the final show of the run. I wondered if it would be  “special” in any way, different from the 21 that had come before. I wondered if this crowd might rise to their feet. I wondered if I could get some of that confetti, now that I was seated on the floor. And then “Lily” and there were no questions left for I was strapped in now and immersed in the experience, oh. It was the same show, but different in that I could really see and appreciate the band, I could make out more of Kate’s face, I could share it with my friend Sharon. There were four young men seated in front of us who talked through the first half for some confounding fucking reason but I tried hard to keep focused on every moment on stage, knowing the clock to when I’d never see Kate Bush sing live again was counting down. During the intermission, I climbed over seats to collect some confetti, printed with the section of Tennyson’s poem I knew well from the Hounds of Love liner notes. Wave after wave, indeed. In the end, we all sang “Cloudbusting” together, the “yeah-ay-ay-ay-ee-ohs!” bursting from our hearts and chests out through our lips and into the rafters.  There were many flowers. There were hints that it would not be the last time, as Bertie lingered after the cast bow, taking in the adulation until the final step into the shadows. If he wants to return, I feel Kate will come back. And even if she doesn’t, there will always be “Cloudbusting,” that black bird, and a shoeless, smiling muse made flesh. As I tweeted that night, for all the things in my life I wanted to happen that didn’t, I shall hold this night close to my heart and call it even.

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Epilogue.

Kate Bush doesn’t tour. That hasn’t changed. This show will not go on the road. Kate Bush doesn’t do greatest hits. Thank heavens for that. As much as it might have disappointed some people not to hear “Wuthering Heights” or “This Woman’s Work” or “Don’t Give Up” (in the months lead up to the show how many secretly hoped Peter Gabriel would be a special guest at some point?), what we got instead was pure Kate — all imagination, all passion — and a wholly conceived new work of art. I felt like I was seeing her in 1985, 2005 and 2014 all at once. It’s been over a week since the shows and I’ve been trying to figure out how to describe it. It’s easy to think words like marvellous and extraordinary and amazing, or to simply say “best concert of my life!” except you just can’t compare it to other concerts. It was as if a person you long thought dead returned from the grave, it was like as if someone wrote a musical about Kate Bush and Kate Bush showed up to star in it, it was as if a genie had granted you all your wishes at once. It was a magic show. It was unreal.
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New Music Writing: DFA and David J

I have been remiss. In posting my music writing here. Of course I want you to read it, but it’s like a hamster wheel sometimes, running around just getting assignments done…that I forget. Forgive me. I shall be better. Starting with these two articles, recently published, of which I am proud.

Death From AboDFA Exclaimve 1979: Friends Fatale. Exclaim! Magazine, September 2014
This was my second time interviewing Jesse Keeler and Sebastien Grainger. Way back in 2004 I talked to them for a magazine called Gasoline, which was put out by the folks behind the Bovine Sex Club. It wasn’t a great interview. Not their fault-mine. I remember feeling unprepared, and blindsided a bit by their interview tactic, which was to act like they didn’t give a shit about being interviewed. Not surprisingly perhaps, my story wasn’t great. I somehow thought it important to talk about their height (“they’re as loud as they are all tall!” or some such ridiculousness.) But I’ve always really dug their music, thought they were underrated in terms our country’s music history (I would argue they had as much influence on the world as any Canadian rock band since, oh I don’t know, Loverboy) and have been as excited as anyone to hear their first record in 10 years, The Physical World. This time, the interview went quite smoothly. We talked about their break-up, their make-up, and why they turned down an offer to open for Daft Punk on that pyramid tour. This is my second feature article for Exclaim! It appears in print in the September issue (on streets now) and on-line at Exclaim.ca. They’re also touring, and you should go. Bring earplugs.

Aux34_DavidJTeaserDavid J, Auxiliary Magazine, June/July 2014
When I’m asked to interview a member of Bauhaus, the answer is always yes. This is for Auxliary, a high-quality goth fashion and lifestyle magazine out of, of all places, Buffalo. I’ve spoken to David J before, and he’s always been kind. He even gave me a lovely blurb for Encyclopedia Gothica. He has a new solo album out, inspired by and dedicated to the many female muses in his life. I talked to him about that, as well as his upcoming memoir. He then supplied us with a promo photo of him looking rather cool, with a naked lady. The article is not available on-line but you can purchase a digital download or printed magazine from the Auxiliary shoppe.

Coming soon: an interview with Anne Rice for Rue Morgue Magazine and Fucked Up for SOCAN’s Words and Music magazine. 

In praise of ….. Nine Inch Nails

I couldn’t live tweet from the NIN show tonight. Not because my phone battery died. Not because my thoughts wouldn’t fit into 140 characters. (It really only needed three: OMG). But because I didn’t want to miss a thing, not even for the time it takes to put your head down and type. I have, by my count in the parking lot, seen Nine Inch Nails live 12 times (recount: 18 times!) before, and each tour is its own unique production, with beautiful, innovative set and lighting design that’s increasingly next-level in terms of theatrics and choreography and conceptually unparalleled amongst the band’s contemporaries. I know Trent constantly rearranges songs into new shapes, and that other than ending with “Hurt” you can never be sure what you’ll get. Hell, the last time they rolled through Toronto they had back-up singers. Most of the time, I am officially reviewing, and taking notes. (Here’s my professional take on the 2005 Koolhaus show and last year at the ACC.) Tonight I was not on duty. So I didn’t tweet. I watched. But sitting here now, hair and body soaked from a walk home in the rain, ears ringing, head spinning, heart and imagination afire, I can remember what was going through my head as they played. Here then, the tweets that never were:

Live photo from Red Rock show by Brandon Fuller
Live photo from Red Rock show by Brandon Fuller

Trent is wearing a skirt!!!!!

So, Trent just walked on stage with the lights up and started playing, alone. Basically, the exact opposite of what anyone expected.

Members join, one-by-one. Kind of like Swans last month. Forcing you to really listen. If it’s a trend, I dig it.

Ah, he’s playing “Copy of a” while standing in front of his shadow. #Lo-fi #High-concept.

Nothing is an accident.

I think he’s learned a lot from Bauhaus. #lightandshadow

Here come the drums. Hmmm. I miss Josh Freese.

Sanctified. Deconstructed. #oldisnew

1 Million kicks so much ass. The Slip is so underrated.

1-0-1-0-1-0-1-0 can be as just authentic as voice and acoustic guitar.

I think this entire show so far is commentary on authenticity in the digital age.

Is March of the Pigs their most metal song? (I’m standing next to my most metal friend.) It’s def more metal than Soundgarden.

So glad Robin Finck is still in this band. He’s like the Blixa/Ellis in Trent’s team.

End Act One.

Still. So. Fucking. Great. #terriblelie #rawpower

What city are they playing next? And how can I get there?

“Closer” is both the best and worst singalong song.

No, I think Gave Up is the most metal.

Dude in front of me is wearing a Jilly’s T-shirt and baseball cap. Grown woman beside me dressed as a goth schoolgirl. #crossover

End Act Two.

Widescreen. Minimalism. #oscarwinnerknowswhathesdoing

Now he’s dancing like Peter Murphy.

NIN was absolutely the best band of the 90s. Radiohead got all the credit. Where are they now?

The Great Destroyer devolves into pure industrial sight/sound. A reminder why I love this genre. And that haters who say NIN is not industrial make me laugh.

If this is the band that becomes my era’s U2/Aerosmith/Stones, I’m OK with that. But this is not yet nostalgia. It’s very much now.

God, what could he do with Bono’s budget?

If he’s not going to play Reptile or The Wretched I sure hope we get Eraser.

Eraser!!

WISH!!!!! #mostmetal #fistfuck

Dance break.

I should perhaps leave early to beat this soaking wet crowd and ensure I can get a cab. #not

Head Like a Hole was never my jam and it still fees silly. Still, not leaving early.

I love having an old favourite band that is still a current favourite band. #elixer

It’s 2014 and raining but the lighters are about to come out en masse.

Hurt is a song for the ages. Like this storm, it washes all the dirt away.

The sky unleashes its thunderous applause.

LIGHTNING.

Exit.

Post show. Soaked.
Post show. Soaked.

Fog! Knives! Noise! Masks! My review of Skinny Puppy at Sound Academy, for Rue Morgue

“The day that Skinny Puppy’s “Live Shapes for Arms” tour thundered into Toronto, February 18, 2014, the music news world was focused on the fact that date was the 40th anniversary of the release of the first KISS album. No doubt that debut was important to rock ’n’ roll. But when it comes to celebrating the impact and longevity of a group, I am personally much more excited that next month marks 30 years since Skinny Puppy released its first cassette, Back and Forth.”

Read the full review here.IMG_5347

Ogre of Skinny Puppy: on Guantanamo, Torture and Music as a Weapon

“Skinny Puppy’s music used to torture prisoners.” This news has been going around my social media all week since Cevin Key told the Phoenix New-Times about how the band wanted to invoice the US government for the use of their music at Guantanamo. Now, if you read Cevin’s whole interview it’s not like the band mailed Obama a bill. But it’s the kind outrageous, touchy situation that makes for good headlines so it’s been widely reported and retweeted. (By no less than the UK’s Independent, who, sadly, referred to the industrial icons as a “metal” band.)

I actually wrote about this last year, when I interviewed Ogre about the then-new album Weapons for Rue Morgue. Since RM doesn’t put their articles on-line, you’ll have to read it the olde-fashioned way, in a back-issue.  But in the interest of adding more first-person information to this interesting story, I present here excerpts of my conversation with Ogre about the situation.  Skinny Puppy has always been vocal about social justice issues in their music and interview. (I went vegetarian as a teen in large part because of VIVIsectVI and “Testure.” ) I’m thrilled that the band continues to exist/record/tour, and talk about the things that bug them, from animal welfare to Fukushima fall-out, to gun control and Guantanamo Bay. Music is a weapon, indeed.

Ogre from Skinny Puppy,  April 2013:

The actual concept for Weapon came about on the Ohgr tour in 2011, based on meeting a Skinny Puppy fan who ended up being a guard in Guantanamo. He went from being Military Police to a two-week training to getting shipped over to Guantanamo to guard prisoners, high-risk prisoners. There, he heard of Skinny Puppy being used no less than 4 times to torture people. So the original idea, based on our interviews with him, was to do an album to torture people by. To make our album into a weapon.

At that time the Ohgr tour manager—who was a Renaissance Woman who is also a carny on the side— had the idea to get some of these sideshow people she knows and do interrogations on stage. But that concept got really bloated and obtuse.

When we were originally conceiving the Weapon record, I considered having bits and pieces in the native language of whoever was being tortured—Pashtun or whatever—of reassuring messages, saying things like “Even though this music sounds horrible and it’s being used to torture you, please know that in this country it’s used to fight the very thing that is torturing you right now.” Calming mantras. We were going to do that.

So one idea with Weapon is to actually do Freedom of Information requests about the music for torture, and do interviews. We were going to get information on the frequencies used, as much as we could compile, and based on that also give an instruction manual. But for now we’re not doing that.

The project was about going as far as we could, then to present to the US government, or whoever we could find that was responsible for torturing people with our music, an actual invoice for what they owe us for using our music.  We would make the cover art the invoice. The idea of a free society to me, is not one that tortures people. I can’t live with that, and not call it out.

Weapon

 

 

 

 

 

2013: A few of my favourite things

Ah, exhale. The end of another year. It feels that way tonight, surrounded by snow and twinkling lights and bits of shiny paper on the floor, with only a few squares remaining on the 2013 calendar. Time to plot the future. But first, a look back at the music, books, films that inspired me, excited me, provoked me, made me think, laugh, dance, rock out, dream, scream.

As I’ve mentioned here before, I find conflicts between my passion for all things tagged “goth” and “horror” and the reality of what I enjoyed and thought was good quality. I have never been a super fan of blind faith in terms of genre. Tell me a good story. If there be monsters, all the better. Sing me a song. If it’s sad and romantic and melodramatic, I shall sigh and swoon all the more. But I still get excited by many, many other genres of music, from folk to disco and beyond, as well as poetry and documentaries and all kinds of things. I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. Like what you like.

In 2013, I put out my own book, which impacted how much other stuff I could seek out, and really absorb, to recommend. But for the sake of posterity, and in the interest of spreading the word about what I find worthy and wonderful…. a few of my favourite things…

Listen.

Live shows were more exciting to me than records this year. Probably because I saw Nick Cave perform two nights, back to back, and it was a much more satisfying experience than listening to his latest release Push the Sky Away on its own. First in Montreal, at the always amazing Metropolis club, than at the even more amazing Massey Hall, where I managed to push myself up to the front of the stage. There were strings and children’s choirs making the new songs sound great, and St. Nick doing “Stagger Lee” and “The Mercy Seat” with as much vigor as ever and my friend and I giving he and Warren flowers like lovesick teenagers and all I really remember is thinking how if I could see only one act in concert ever again for the rest of my life, it would be him. Hands down. Have I purchased tickets for his summer 2014 tour already? Hell, yes.

There were other live shows for the books, many of them verging on nostalgia trips — Rocket from the Crypt rocking my Riotfest, two intimate sets of triumphant, glorious Patti Smith at the AGO, Nine Inch Nails proving they can add funk and back-up singers and still blast out the industrial hits. But also some new favourites: The XX beautiful in the rain at Echo Beach, Iceland’s Legend at a basement bar, Majical Cloudz making my NXNE with his intense solo performance.

As for the records, I made a Top 10 Canadian Albums list for Huffington Post Music with my critic hat on; those that I personally adored were Basia Bulat’s Tall, Tall Shadow (heartbreaking folk), Majical Cloudz’ Impersonator (very minimal, very dark), Young Galaxy’s Ultramarine (fresh, feel-good synthpop), and Daniel Romano’s Come Cry with Me (hurtin’ traditional country).

Beyond our borders, I got and will give love to Neko Case’s The Worse Things Get the Harder I Fight, was all over the Siouxsie-like post-punk of Savages’ Silence Yourself,  realized I actually do like Alkaline Trio  with My Shame is True, and finally discovered Agnes Obel thanks to Avetine — she’s my Goth Who Isn’t Goth alert for 2013.

Like everyone with a pulse, I also gleefully danced to “Get Lucky” way too many times.

Watch.

Only Lovers Left Alive! Jim Jarmusch’s arthouse vampire movie, starring Tilda Swinton, is exquisite, and was a highlight of my TIFF 2013. Sadly, no actual release date in sight. Ditto Horns, the most excellent adaptation of the Joe Hill novel, transformed into a superior dark comedy/horror/fantasy. Watch out for those next year. I join the chorus celebrating American Mary the indie Canadian horror flick about body modification, for being smart, sexy, nasty and driven by kinky, crazy, outrageous female characters. Thanks Soska Sisters for bringing back Katherine “Ginger Snaps” Isabelle to the big screen. And I really dug the sweetness of Warm Bodies. A zombie who plays vinyl records for a girl is my kind of zombie.  As for documentaries, I had much to ponder about violence and appropriation of voice after watching The Exhibition, about an artist painting women killed by Robert Pickton; and I couldn’t be happier to see BlackFish changing perceptions and policies about whales and dolphins in captivity.

Or, this is what I was doing alone in the dark when not obsessing over Klaus in The Vampire Diaries and The Originals.


Read.

It was a great year for me to see some of my favourite writers in the flesh, and hear them read aloud. After many years of adoring Anne Carson from afar, she came to town for the International Festival of Authors. My favourite living poet, she claimed in her humble introduction to lack charisma. Hardly. Her words make other worlds possible, and when she brings them to life in her own voice, even the most obtuse things became completely clear. (This particular event provided me the opportunity to experience a woman shhhhhushing a man for taking notes because she found the sound of his pencil on paper too loud. Seriously. ) Carson is a strange woman. The very best kind. I cannot recommend her books more highly.  Also, did I wait several hours to talk to Neil Gaiman at the Toronto stop for his Last Tour Ever for Ocean at the End of the Lane? Indeed I did. His reading was marvellous, the Q&A hilarious, the long queue well worth it to chat with him after about my own new book. He continues to say very kind things to me about Gothica and it’s such a blessing to have these interactions with someone so beloved, and so generous.

(For a list of the books I enjoyed reading this year, visit my Good Reads page.)

Neil signed my copy of Ocean that night with “Dream dangerous.” And so I shall. In fact, it’s my resolution for 2014. See you then/there.

Gaiman