French vampires and the Art of Goth: new podcast interviews

IMG_4419
Look out! It’s Fabien from Rue Morgue Radio France….

 

While travelling recently, I had the pleasure of meeting Natasha Scharf, author of the excellent subcultural study Worldwide Gothic, and a journalist of high repute working in the goth/alternative music community in England. We met in the studio of her London publishers to record an interview to promote her beautifully exhaustive new book, The Art of Gothic.

To hear our conversation about the history of Goth imagery, the importance of aesthetics to the culture and of course, her take on “what is goth?”,  click here!

Scharf
With Natasha Scharf in London

 

I then moved on to Paris, where my friend Fabien of Rue Morgue France took me to the private museum of eccentric vampire historian Jacques Sirgent to record an episode of Rue Morgue Radio France. If you can forgive my rusty French, listen to the three of us muse on the origins and importance of the nosferatu and our favourite films here.

 

In Praise of….Kate Bush Live!

IMG_5918

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.

IMG_5838         IMG_4302

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.

IMG_4306

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.
IMG_4330

Mütter Museum Sleepover Report! Skulls and seances and scary movies, oh my!

“Who wants to sleep overnight at the Mütter Museum with me for my birthday?”
Many hands shot up. My friends, they knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime adventure being proposed. My friends, they knew exactly what the Mütter was: one of the world’s most unusual museums, the kind you don’t visit if you are squeamish. But my friends and I, we’re not squeamish. We’ve all long wanted to visit the Mütter’s collection of medical oddities, to see the conjoined liver from Siamese twins Chang and Eng, pieces of Einstein’s brain, diseased body parts floating in jars and the 139 skulls of the famed Hyrtl collection. Somehow, none of us had ever made the trek to Philadelphia. But when we saw that event listing, for a special adult sleepover at the Mütter — complete with scary movie, seance, pizza, and flashlight tour….it was, you might say, a no-brainer. (Sorry.)

hrytl skulls
In the end, there were eight of us Canadians who descended on the Mütter, joining a dozen others who had travelled from across America to attend. As first time visitors, it was alot to take in. The galleries are fairly small, but also jammed with fascinating specimens. We were supposed to be setting up our bedding in the assigned sleeping zones but all I wanted to do was just drop my bags and stick my face against the glass cabinets of curiosities and read everything! But the event features a full schedule of night-time programming, and soon we were whisked away in our pyjamas to the foreboding Gross Library for a “seance” with mentalist Francis Menotti. Thrice I was enlisted in his parlour mind tricks, good ones too. Then, beneath the artwork of Jordan Eagles, who uses slaughterhouse blood in this work, we ate gourmet pizza, drank beer and wine and watched The Sixth Sense, which was filmed in Philadelphia. I don’t think I ever saw that film again after the first time, and its Big Reveal, so that was good fun. There wasn’t much mingling between the participants, but I met a young women who is studying to be a neurologist, there with her sister and mom. And I noticed several people reading about and discussing medical conditions that they themselves have suffered from. The Mütter attracts the morbidly inclined (e.g., us) but also those with an interest in medical history and the human body.

Our guide for the sleepover was J Nathan Bazzel. Officially, he’s the museum’s director of communications—but clearly he’s much more. A passionate guardian for the College of Physician’s prized collection, there’s little if anything he doesn’t know the history of the building, the artifacts or the organization. The sleepover ticket got us access to parts of the Mütter not normally open to visitors, like the bowels where research is done (oh, hello, stray Iron Lung in the hallway), and the towering seven-stories of its library. Just as Bazzel was explaining how a report from the previous sleepover of a ghost spotted in the stacks couldn’t possibly have been true, some of our fellow visitors claimed a book fell off the shelf.  I didn’t see it, but believers took this as a strong sign that skeptics such as myself and Bazzel might want to sleep with one eye open. Most importantly, there was a tour in the dark by flashlight of the Müttter highlights. So many skeletons. So many stories of medical discoveries. For me, it was all about the Hyrtl skulls, and I spent as much time as possible staring at these cranial specimens before lights out, when we all tucked into our sleeping bags. That’s when it really hits you, how cool this all is, sleeping in a museum! I drifted off with my head next to something bizarre in a jar that would give most people nightmares. Smiling.

IMG_2887
By the time we ate the catered breakfast and checked out the next morning, we had been in the Mütter for close to 15 hours. At yet, I feel I have barely seen any of the collection, and need another full visit, without distraction, to really take it in. No further sleepovers have been announced but I’m pretty sure they’ll be doing it again. So, who’s in?

In praise of…Dark Delicacies

I have found the horror fan’s dream bookstore. I’ve known about Dark Delicacies for years, of course, by reputation. I included it in my Encyclopedia Gothica, after all. But I wanted to visit it first-hand, and that became my excuse for a trip to Los Angeles to promote my new book, How to Kill A Vampire.

Dark Del display

The store regularly hosts authors, filmmakers, and other horror types for signings and they were courteous enough to have me come in, even though I’m not exactly famous. They even put a display in the window and set me up on the same day at the Full Moon event by the lovely folks at Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab, which allowed me to meet all kinds of people interested in dark and beautiful things.

My girlfriends and I meet True Blood's Carolyn Hennesy
My girlfriends and I meet True Blood’s Carolyn Hennesy

One surprise visitor was actor Carolyn Hennesy. She was wearing blood red contacts and I jokingly asked her if she was a vampire….only to discover that she is! Or was. She played Rosalyn Harris on True Blood, until she was violently dispatched. I apologized for the title of my book and she forgave me. Haha. Then we talked about her animal activism: she hosts a podcast called Animal Magnetism about conservation and preservation. She was full of energy and enthusiasm and I liked her alot.

It was a splendid afternoon and I highly recommend you make Delicacies bookstore a must on your next visit to the L.A. area. The shop is located on a retail strip in Burbank surrounded by great thrift stores, independent clothing shops and more but you’ll be hard-pressed not to spend all your money on their books and horror gifts. I bought myself a gorgeous skull crystal necklace (naturally) and a copy the owner’s book Vampires Don’t Sleep Alone: Your Guide to Meeting, Dating and Seducing a Vampire, because even though I don’t believe vamps are real, it might come in handy someday….

Scholarly Goths

When I was asked, many months back, to be a keynote speaker at the second annual conference of the Popular Culture Association of Canada, I accepted with great enthusiasm and without delay. I love talking about Goth, after all, even if I consider it to be “unpopular” culture, and I never actually studied it in university. (Unless you count all the late-night research in clubs which kept me from attending morning classes.) The CPAC conference was held this past weekend in Niagara Falls, where more than 200 academic types from across Canada and beyond came to present work on everything from wrestling to hip-hop to zombies to Skinny Puppy. (My colleague Ben Rayner gives a good overview of its mission in the Star.)  For my part, I spoke about the question of What is Goth, and the evolution of the music and lifestyle and language from 1970s UK to today. It was a pleasure, and afterwards I was asked many intelligent questions:  surrounding gender (I think I have insight into the androgyny of goth boys and the hyper-feminine girls but had never thought much about butch goths before), musical mutations (I decided my definition for Goth sound is “bass + space.”) and such. I learned a few things too, not the least of which that there was a teen goth character on the Sopranos!

The students and scholars I met there were a truly fascinating and diverse bunch. I enjoyed speaking with Moti Shojania of the University of Winnipeg about the role of Hamlet and his skull soliloquy in the Gothic tradition and the character of Abby on NCIS. Wish I’d had the chance hear deliver her “Food for Worms and Other Grave Matters:  Re-Membering the Body on Forensic TV Shows.” Also disappointed to miss Laura Weibe from McMaster, who presented on the paranormal. (We did get to talk about emo and heavy metal a bit though.) After meeting forensic anthropology expert Myriam Nafte I have ordered her book Flesh and Bone. (There was actually quite a lot of horror themed work on offer.) And of course, my host, Stu Henderson, who I know from the Polaris Prize jury — we could talk about music for hours.

The one question from my keynote Q&A which has stuck with me is about aging goths. Are all subcultures by nature the exclusive domain of youth? Goth, like skateboarding and headbanging, is often considered a phase one should grow out of once one gets a real job. But I know we have CorpGoths, who have real jobs. And ElderGoths, with Babybats of their own. Years ago, I attempted to address this topic for THIS Magazine, in a cover story called Lords of the New Church that you can still read here. (Oddly enough, I see I referenced my teen love for Ian Astbury, who turned 50 today.) I got flak from people who read alot of Dick Hebdige, as though my personal life experience as an aging goth and interviewing actual old punks was less credible than taking classes about it. But I digress….the person whose work came to mind the most this past weekend is Paul Hodkinson, sociologist from the University of Surrey in England… and actual Goth. His book Goth: Identity, Style and Subculture I really should have included on my Gothic Library list a while back. He’s really the most authoritative voice on this topic. And he recently publishedAgeing in a Spectacular Youth Culture: Continuity, Change and Community Amongst Older Goths” in a British journal, and was interviewed for an article in the Guardian that made its way ’round the net not long ago, Growing Up For Goths. By re-interviewing Goths he’d first met 20 years ago, he found what I already suspected, that Goths don’t grow out of it, they grow into it, finding ways to adapt even as their commitment to outrageous hair may wane.  And while I do enjoy working the brain muscles exploring some of the deeper meanings of Goths, I also think it’s all rather simple: this is the subculture won’t die, even if it looks that way. As I told the CPAC attendees: black will always be the new black.

Pasty face forever!

Goth in Mexico

My first passport stamp was in Mexico. I love that country. Climbing pyramids. Eating cactus tacos. Speaking Espanish. Watching full moons rise over the ocean.  Browsing amazing galleries for unique Day of the Dead art. Hanging on to the seat of a third class bus as it speeds ’round a mountain, while a local teeters down the aisle selling herbal tonic or chili peanuts.  But it had been a while, so for my birthday this year I packed the SPF 1000 and headed to the Yucatan for a long overdue visit. Much has changed. I refused to shop at the shiny 7/11 or spend $6 on a scoop of Haagen-Daaz but somehow ended up in a Wal-Mart. And there, my hands full of lime-flavoured potato chips and other spicy snacks, I came across the magazine rack. And there, amongst the Spanish language Tron and Simpsons comic books I found this:

Mexican Goth mag! I’ve long known there were plenty of Goths in el D.F., and other cities around Mexico and I’ve bought Goth T-shirts and demo tapes in the markets there but this was a real treat. To no surprise, it covers exactly the same things, in the same way, as all the other glossy Goth mags out there — German duo Lacrimosa is on the cover, Klaus Nomi and Dave Vanian get features — but I was still delighted. And it was free. Well, free with purchase of a skateboard magazine called Gorilla which, to my surprise, has naked pin-up centrefolds in it. So I bought the Gorilla and came home with the Especial Dark. Un regalo de cumpleaños para mi!