The Boston Phoenix
July 31 - August 7, 1997

[Goth]

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

[Couple] 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
Goth links


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 shows.

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.

Part 2

Ellen Barry can be reached at ebarry@phx.com.