Still gothic after all these years
Through a gateway where no Tri-Delt may enter, the landscape of America's most resilient
subculture opens before you. No jeans, no T-shirts, no sneakers. And don't spook the natives.
by Ellen Barry, photos by Dana Smith
Cusráque returns to the scene of the crime: in Harvard Square, a
wilderness of khaki, he is a one-man outpost of the aesthetic. His hair falls
in red ringlets under a huge, plumed musketeer hat; jewels shine on his naked
chest. Between his teeth is gripped a cigarette of obscure origin.
It was seven years ago on this spot that a stranger told Cusráque the
word for what he is, and since then he has gradually become -- depending on
whom you talk to -- goth celebrity, goth huckster, goth archetype, the Ray Kroc
of goth. A hundred tanned shoulders walk by over a hundred pairs of platform
shoes, but Cusráque doesn't see them. He is looking for a kid who is
looking for something.
He can recognize the expression; he used to have it himself, back in the days
when he lived in New Hampshire and his nose got broken more often. It's the
look of someone who is ready to change.
"Sometimes, at [a goth club], I can take someone who's teetering, and I can
sit him down . . . I say, `Do you really think you're better off than
I am? Are you going to get kisses tonight? Because I am,' " says
Cusráque, who is 29. He sits back. His rings glitter. "I ask, `What
has being normal ever gotten you?' "
How to decode a goth
A week in the life
That question, posed in a number of different ways, has been drawing kids into
the goth scene for nearly 20 years -- longer than punk, longer than flower
power, longer than hip-hop and disco and glam and heavy metal and rave. You see
goths at bus stops, maybe one or two of them, looking pale and thoughtful,
trailing crushed velvet -- and they look just the same as they did a decade
ago. Siouxsie Sioux is in her dotage, Bauhaus broke up during the Reagan era,
but through a combination of aloofness and good citizenship, goth has survived
the centrifuge of American popular culture.
In fact, Boston is in the grip of a mild gothic revival. Two weeks ago a
German TV crew, in the States to film a series on musical subcultures, was
hanging around Man Ray; the crew had gone to New Orleans for zydeco, Chicago
for blues, Brooklyn for hip-hop -- and Boston for goth. The number of weekly
goth nights at local clubs has risen to an unprecedented three, and the culture
has spawned hybrid subsets like "rockabilly goth" and "grunge goth" and (my
personal favorite) "skath." This year San Francisco is big, but -- in the words
of Columbine, 36-year-old goth-scene queen -- "Boston is as goth as it gets."
The downside, for some, is that goth is leaking into the mainstream. Marilyn
Manson fans -- who goths will emphatically tell you are not goths, they
just look the part -- have brought the pallid, androgynous goth aesthetic into
junior high schools all over America. The resultant hysteria has fired up
long-dormant goth-phobia among the non-goth (or "normal," as they put it)
population. It doesn't help that the tiny number of self-identified goths who
claim to drink blood have ended up under the klieg lights of daytime talk
All these events are making goths -- who can be touchy people to begin with --
exquisitely sensitive to public opinion. Unlike most of the prominent youth
movements of the last 20 years, goths don't have a larger social agenda, apart
from perpetuating their own existence. Ask goths what they want, and you'll
rapidly discover the top two items on the goth wish list: to be understood, and
to be left alone.
And a third wish: to bring a new generation of goths into the fold.
Cusráque's been sitting at Au Bon Pain for nearly two hours when he
spots her. She's 16, blinking in the sunlight, with a dog collar pinned around
her neck. Cusráque jumps up and presses a flyer into her hand for
"Hell," a monthly goth night at Man Ray that he promotes.
"Thanks," she says softly, happily. She looks like Marcia Brady getting asked
to the prom.
So begins another goth story.
Ellen Barry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.