Peeking Inside the Shadowy Crypt of Houston's Goth Community
Thursday is a red-letter day for a curious, long-lived musical subculture that, the rest of the year, generally favors black. Bauhaus founder and frontman Peter Murphy is playing Meridian, his first Houston performance in several years. In certain circles, it's like Elvis or the Dalai Lama dropping by. Seriously.
"There is no one like him right now," says Jill McKee, Meridian promotions manager and a Murphy/Bauhaus fan for some 20 years. "Icon is the only word I can think of. He's a consummate performer."
Bauhaus formed in Northampton, England, in 1978, in the immediate wake of the UK's punk-rock explosion. Their music fused elements of punk, David Bowie-style glam-rock, Hammer horror-film imagery and the audience-provoking aesthetic of "Theater of Cruelty" founder Antonin Artaud, in whose honor Bauhaus named a song on their 1983 album Burning from the Inside.
Especially after the band appeared performing nine-minute opus "Bela Lugosi's Dead" in The Hunger — Tony Scott's 1983 vampire film starring Bowie, Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon — Murphy and Bauhaus have come to represent the macabre strain of post-punk known as Goth in many, even most, people's minds. And ever since, both musically and visually, Goth has been one of the easiest styles to identify and also one of the trickiest to define.
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Goth likely first trickled into Houston on the airwaves of KTRU's "S&M" program, the famous three-hour punk and New Wave show that ran Friday nights from 1979 to 1990. David Sadof, who would later spin several of the bands he heard on "S&M" on shows for Houston stations such as KLOL and The Buzz, remembers tuning in while still in high school, around 1980 or '81.
"It was not a Gothic show at all, by any means, but it was where you might hear XTC, and you might hear Siouxsie & the Banshees and some of these groups," he says. "It's quite possible the bands who were in existence at that time may have been played on that show."
From 1982 to 1986, Sadof was a DJ on KSHU, the student-run radio station (90.5 FM) at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville. Again on Friday nights, he played what was then known as "alternative" music for an audience comprised of both college students and guests of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Some prisoners would write letters saying how much they enjoyed the show, he recalls, "but we weren't allowed to answer, for obvious reasons."
Sadof played mostly what he calls the "neo-psychedelic" music of R.E.M., Echo & the Bunnymen and Robyn Hitchcock, for example, but also groups like Bauhaus, Joy Division, the Cure and Mission UK, bands who took the remnants of punk rock in a decidedly darker direction and began being labeled "Goth" or "goth-rock." He left heavier, less radio-friendly bands like Christian Death and the Virgin Prunes alone, but continued incorporating Goth's more accessible strains into his "Exposure" program on KLOL upon graduating and moving back to Houston.
"I would definitely include that music in my show," he says. "I would play Sisters of Mercy, songs like 'Lucretia My Reflection' and 'This Corrosion,' Mission UK and several other groups of that ilk. I found that because that music was included, I definitely had a segment of my audience that was the Goth crowd."
This crowd rapidly began making itself at home at Numbers, which hosted Siouxsie & the Banshees as early as 1980 and brought in a wealth of other Gothic acts — Killing Joke, Mission UK, Shriekback, Love & Rockets, Clan of Xymox, even some of the Cure's first Texas shows — over the ensuing decade. It was the club's weekly DJ nights, though, where Sisters of Mercy, the Cure and Bauhaus were in heavy rotation, attracting dark-minded youth from across the area.
"There were always these 15-year-old goth-rockers," Sadof says. "It didn't matter what year it was, you'd go to Numbers and there'd always be these 15-year-old Goth girls. They were ubiquitous."
One such "Goth girl" was a young Clear Creek High School student who, once upon a time, found a Sisters of Mercy cassette at Sound Warehouse's Baybrook Mall store. Today, as DJ Mina, she oversees Numbers' Underworld nights, one of the local Goth community's main gathering spots. Underworld began about nine years ago, and although the crowds ultimately proved too sparse to sustain it as a weekly event, Mina says it's found better success every third Saturday (unless preempted by a special event), averaging between 200 and 300 people.
However, when it comes to how many of her Underworld flock actively identify themselves as Goth versus people who just show up because they like the music, Mina isn't sure. This "Who's more Goth?" debate began almost at the moment the genre was coined and intensified when many Gothic artists' natural affinity for synthesizers, drum machines and dance music led to the rise of subgenres such as industrial (Ministry, KMFDM) and Electronic Body Music, or EBM (And One, Front 242, Nitzer Ebb) in the late '80s and early '90s. A few years after that, the mainstream popularity of artists like Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson, who used heavy Goth imagery in many songs and videos, muddied the waters even further.
"There's a lot of confusion," Mina admits. "When I was younger, when I discovered the whole Gothic genre of music, it crossed over into the style of dress, but at that time that was kind of typical.
"If you were punk, you dressed punk," Mina continues. "There was that kind of thing where your music represented you. Whereas now, as Goth has become more popular and mainstream, I think Goth is a form of expression for some people and not necessarily about the music."
If Houston's Goth community has never been especially large — especially when compared to places like New Orleans, hometown of Goth figureheads Marie Laveau and Anne Rice — it's had its share of colorful characters. Sadof remembers a pale blond woman named Sarah whom he approached at a Dead Can Dance show about hosting a Goth episode of his Buzz show "What the Hell Is This?" Everybody knew Sarah, he chuckles, because she drove a hearse. Another key figure in local Goth lore is DJ and model Dana Dark, who Mina says has temporarily dropped out of the scene after having a baby.
Over the years, besides Numbers, local Goths have gravitated to places like Laveau's in Montrose, the Vatican on Washington, the Axiom on McKinney and especially Power Tools, the dank basement club on Franklin Street downtown that to date is Numbers' only serious rival as Goth's Houston home base. ("I don't know how many times I fell down those stairs," laughs Mina.) Today, besides Underworld, the other major Goth outfit in town is the Havok collective headed by DJ Naika, which hosts the more industrial-leaning Ataxia night at Jet Lounge on Tuesdays, as well as special events at the Engine Room and its own recently acquired warehouse on Luell Street.
Similarly, the roster of local bands who qualify as Goth is fairly thin. Houston birthed bygone bands such as Bozo Porno Circus, Dethkultur BBQ and the Pain Teens, who married Goth to industrial, noise and metal. Still extant, though rarely playing out, is Asmodeus X, who made enough waves to warrant a 1999 Houston Press article. Today, Opulent, which also combines Goth with generous amounts of industrial, metal and dance music, is one of the few Houston Goth practitioners that books shows on a regular basis.
"Our scene is kind of low-key," says Opulent frontman Allison Scott, whose band shares a practice space with Asmodeus X. "There's bands out there, but they don't play that much. It's kind of hard to get support for it, to be quite honest with you. Some venues can be hard to get in, and because you're not always playing with other Goth bands, it can be hard to match you up with somebody that you fit in with."
Luckily, if there's one thing Goths are used to by now, it's not fitting in. Years of constant misconceptions and outright stereotyping have given rise to a community that's unusually tolerant and accepting of outsiders. Besides, adds Mina, it's not always that easy to spot a Goth. They're not always the guy with too much eyeliner or the girl in fishnets.
"There are a lot of people that are into Gothic music that don't look the part," she says. "The way we feel about it, as far as my general group of people I hang out with and the people I attract to the club, is it's more about the music. You don't have to wear a certain color or fit a certain style. You don't have to wear a corset."
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