Goth is Dead. Long Live Goth. | Haute Macabre

Goth is Dead. Long Live Goth.

Goth is Dead. Long Live Goth

Remembrances of a New Grave Past in San Francisco

by Clint Catalyst

Folks relocate to San Francisco for lots of reasons.  There’s the stuff of tourist pamphlets: temperate weather, gorgeous views, a constantly shifting kaleidoscope of moods and sensations.  Then there’s the city’s reputation for having an innovative and tolerant population, a multitude of cultures given free rein. 

Me, I made my way to the Bay for the city’s sprawling death rock netherworld.

Clint Catalyst small town goth 1990

Dead in Arkansas

After dodging rocks and all of the pejorative terms thrown at me during my formative years in Arkansas — from my spawn in ’71 till my escape in ’94 — moving to a gay-friendly place wasn’t exactly low on my list of priorities.  It’s just that San Francisco’s subculture dub as the [then] “Goth Capital” was more compelling.

Being an alterna-queerio in the bowels of the South guaranteed that I was an alienated teen.  Arkansas is such a place of extremes: beautiful untouched woods and the Ozark mountains, cow tipping and fag-bashing for sport.

I wore black as a sign that I was “dead to the ways of their world,” their harsh and ugly mentality.  Of course, the fact that blue-black hair jutting out like an alien spider and shiny silver skull jewelry looks really fucking cool didn’t hurt any either.  But I wore “black on the outside / ‘cause black is how I [felt] on the inside.” Afternoons when school let out on those particularly trying days — dress code debates with the redneck principal and/or general humiliation in gym class — I puttered around on back roads in my rickety Mazda with the Smiths blaring.  The car didn’t have air conditioning, so as the tears rolled in the stifling humidity, dust from the stirred-up gravel stuck to my cheeks, streaking them with mud.

Apart from my freaky chum and classmate Stanis, the 80s new-wave magazine Star Hits was my savior.  I had a subscription for most of the glossy rag’s short-lived existence, and the Siouxsie photos I clipped out to adorn my lair were killer.  However, it was the pen pals I met through its RSVP section who probably saved my life.  We hooked up through a mutual admiration for dark synth bands like Until December, Severed Heads, and Skinny Puppy, but the emotional connection I made with some of them lasts to this day.

As If Issue Two 1993

Mind-numbing, molar-splitting, small-town boredom during my liberal arts undergraduate studies at Hendrix College in Conway, AR led me to the cut-and-paste glory of producing my own ‘zine, entitled As If : a collection of images, poetry, and interviews.

In turn, As If connected me to the outside world like an umbilical cord.  Through calls for submissions, I was able to establish contacts with other kindred souls, many of whom wrote about excursions to — or life in — the Bay Area, a locale I envisioned as glittering in great dark-sparkled glory.

As If Cover Issue Three 1994
House of Usher As If magazine release party flyer 1994

‘Zine Underworld

Trips to the campus postbox brought the treasured photocopied pages of periodicals such as Ghastly, Theatre ov thee Night, Danse Macabre, Bathory Palace, and Permission magazine to my obsidian-painted claws.  In them, I read about legendary S.F. nightclubs such as House of Usher and fantasized about future days when I would shed the double negatives and boys named Bubba for lustrous midnight revelry with my own kind.  Cowboy hats and Skoal-ringed denim were dragging me down; I yearned to experience the glory and hardcore delirious glamour of gloom cookies thrilled to wear the ebony of mourning.

Brigit Brat at the As If magazine release party

In school, I studied the Goth classics: Milton, Arnold, Dante.  But nothing sent my blood rushing like the books I uncovered away from the halls of academia.  In my backpack, I carried around dog-earned copies of Poppy Z. Brite’s books, Leilah Wendell’s first-person accounts of her love affair with death, Dennis Cooper’s snuff-glory masterpiece Frisk, the lush and gorgeous prose-poetry of Kate Braverman’s novel Lithium for Medea.

When Danielle Willis’s chapbook Dogs in Lingerie — a slim compendium of theatrical and grotesque writing featuring transsexual Tenderloin prostitutes, psychic powers, and suicide — arrived in the mail the summer of ’93, it sealed the deal: I was bound for the Bay.  All I lacked was dinero.

So I shed my inhibitions and my clothes for a $12.50 an hour nude modeling job at the University of Central Arkansas, the state college across town from the liberal arts pseudo-oasis I attended.  I cannot emphasize enough what a difficult feat this was for me.  Some people have body issues; I have multiple subscriptions and some serious archives goin’ on.  Whenever it got too much to handle, I chanted “San Francisco, San Francisco, San Francisco” to myself — a pep talk, a mantra.  

Welcome to the House of Usher

Club Promoters Shawni Brothers and Xavier Haight of HOUSE OF USHER

My belongings crammed in a U-Haul, I spat dust out of Arkansas after my college graduation ceremony.  I couldn’t wait to meet up with other shadowy souls.

I had the digits of my pen friend Dayvid, editor of the doom and gloom periodical Danse Macabre, so when I got to Berkley, I dialed him up.  He told me he would come and pick me up, we’d go spend the night at House of Usher.

House of Usher!

That initial trip through the cobwebbed gates of Club DV8 on Howard Street was a life-changing experience.  Sure, I’d read about the club, but nothing compared to the wondrous revelation of stepping through its doorways, which whispered with dark fabric.  There was goth drag of the highest order: period costumes, cinched corsets, crushed velvet rustling in hues of deep rose, purple, blood red.  Hair teased, tossed, and sculpted in a playground of shapes, skin pale as pressed powder.  Piercings glistened and silver jewelry tinkled.  It was the body as art and adornment.

Revelers at House of Usher

In the main room, dark orchestrations of Current 93, Dead Can Dance, Diamanda Galas, and Coil swirled about the cavernous place.  Vocal tones and textures meshed.  The dance floor was populated with players in some surreal ritual opera or tribal ghost dance, writhing in highly animated contortions.

Smoking wasn’t illegal in Cali establishments yet, and the warm cinnamon crackle of clove cigarettes wafted around me; exotic incense odors tumbled from vendors peddling their graven wares.

Outside in the naked 3 a.m., sweaty and shivering in the glorious chill of the summer air, I took in the desolate industrial glory of SoMa in 1994, before it was consumed by tech-bros.  The scent of saltwater filled my nostrils and somewhere, bread was breaking.  San Francisco was a city steeped in allure and mystery.  Wind crashing like breaking mirrors, fog tumbling in, it was — and still is — the perfect stage for dark romance.  I knew I was already in love with the place.

Barbarians at the Golden Gate

I identify the term Goth with its linguistic origins: barbarian, outsider.  In Goth subculture, I found an assault on “civilized” traditions in film, music, fashion, photography, and literature.  It was a celebration of the imperfect, the bizarre.

DJ Nako and Sorrel Smith House of Usher 1994

The Bay Area spooky scene provided something achingly absent from my Arkansan upbringing: a sense of community.  This didn’t happen overnight, but what circle of friends does?  I made an acquaintance while flipping through racks of recycled fashion at Wasteland, befriended someone else while renting Derek Jarman videos from Leather Tongue.  And of course, there were the nightclubs.

Xavier Haight at House of Usher photo by Clint Catalyst 1994

I ended up befriending Shawni and Xavier, progenitors of House of Usher, where I DJed a few times — but what I enjoyed most was the position they gave me as gallery curator and co-host of the haunt’s various incarnations.  The Pale Door and Roderick’s Chamber were later names for the club when it changed staff and locations; 715 Harrison was its home space right up until Roderick’s demise.  I strove to find authors who didn’t mind battling the DJs to do readings, Butoh performers to flash and thrash about, and visionaries with dark canvases to display.

Granted, this alternative spooky society was by no means utopian — but it wouldn’t have been real if it were.

My descent into the new-grave netherworld was all about experimentation.  The desire to do more, to feel more, to be more, eventually led to banning myself from slumber in amphetamine lust.  I tasted blood play with razor-edged midnight souls, rode the rush of I.V. meth consumption, even eventually went on an inevitable tour of hospital emergency rooms.

For years, that’s the way it went for me: swimming in pools of shadows until most of my arteries and every creative fountain had gone dry.

Clint Catalyst Darla Teagarten and Lara Vanian in coat check at House of Usher
Tina Root of Switchblade Symphony with Hannah and Jade

Goth Forever

These days, my deathrock mishaps — burning up the night till I was charred to the carbon horizons of my soul — feel like myths I should tell around a campfire.  After I fled Frisco to kick crystal in the nuclear sunsets of LA, my palette expanded.  Now six and a half years sober (a second time around), I live in a modest two-bedroom house down in Long Beach, where my boyfriend’s Chicano culture asserts itself among our décor.   Of course, the goth influence remains ever-present.  I mean, you know how the cliché goes: “Once you go black…” 

A quarter of a century later, the majority of the S.F. goth scene I knew have moved away or moved on.  Some have married; some have transitioned from youthful discontent to parenthood.  Sadly, many of them were forced out due to the skyrocketing cost of living in the Dot Com takeover.  However, I’m pleased to see through social media that some of them still remain.  This time of year, when fall creeps in with its beautiful hues of decay, is when I miss them the most.

As for the scene itself?  The internet has forever changed what information we find, communicate and share.  But let’s face it — cold-wave, bat-cave, dark-wave: call it what you will, the fact remains that it’s forever resurrecting, mutating.  Rising.

And I am grateful.

Xavier Haight of Malign
Clint with Shawni and Xavier Haight in House of Usher art gallery
Paris Sadonis of EXP during a performance at Roderick’s Chamber
Nick Chad and Enrique in Usher Gallery
Natalie photo by Clint Catalyst 1994
Leyla at House of Usher
Gabriele Hess at Roderick’s Chamber
DJ Nako and Clint at Rodericks Chamber 1995
Dharma photo by Clint Catalyst 1995
Danielle Willis Darla Teagarten and Clint Catalyst
Andrew Marlin, Jayson Elliot of Permission Magazine, Kaisu of Torture Garden, Clint Catalyst at Roderick’s Chamber 1996 (1)
Anna Noelle Rockwell at Roderick’s Chamber 1995
The Pale Door club flyer
Roderick’s Chamber flyer
Roderick’s Chamber flyer
House of Usher DV8 Flyer