You could be forgiven for thinking that the goth aesthetic is just that – an aesthetic commanded by choice of lipstick and accessories, to which musical taste is just another satellite. Fair enough. Goths care about the details of their material style more than most subcultures. Goth music may be an undefined genre, but it’s very definitely a thing. No one can be goth or a fan of goth without bowing to Bauhaus, a group who, in their brief years together, set the standard for both musical and visual goth aesthetics. That’s decades of influence for a career spanning four albums (plus one reunion.) Personally, I’m somewhat loath to give too much credit to a band whose lead vocalist has a set of vocal mannerisms that just so happens to be identical to David Bowie’s, and I’m not the first sharp-eared critic to point out the similarity, but apparently Peter Murphy finds it deeply rankling when people impugn upon his originality. It’s purely a coincidence that he sings that way, alright? Anyway, this is seminal goth music, and in no way a group of men who built their entire musical identity out of a dog-eared copy of Station to Station and then went on to inspire a whole new generation of kids to build their entire identities on a small handful of songs and videos. It’s just the circle of life and it moves us all, as the poet said.
“Help gets so unhelpful, near the end”
Marianne Faithfull can be kind of a downer sometimes. She gets into some of the darker corners of the average human experience, having lived them all, of course. She began performing this adaptation of a Caroline Blackwood poem in the 70’s, when it was still unclear whether or not her own substance abuse would take her down. It didn’t, because apparently Marianne Faithfull has a constitution unrivaled by anyone except some guy named Keith. This woman is going to sit and watch the world burn to the ground and then reach for another drink. On a realistic note though, Faithfull has had to face mortality in recent years. She is no longer about to drown in whiskey and heroin, but she’s facing the mundane reality that no one ever really survives. She’s undergone treatment for breast cancer and other health problems, and she’s seen many close friends pass away. The death of Anita Pallenberg last year was particularly hard. Those things lend a new level of gravitas to Faithfull’s latest work. (As if gravitas was a thing she was lacking.) She was never just playing at being one step away from oblivion, but now oblivion is inevitable, a burden of time, not a threat of her own making. No one comes close to Faithfull when it comes to exploring themes of shame and regret, desperate hope and longing, love and redemption. She has the optimism and black humor of a soldier who returns alone from the battlefield.
Roy Orbison recorded this song mere months before his death. Not that you would ever guess from hearing it. Orbison never sounded better. It was as if he was just coming into his prime after decades of warming up. His body disagreed, though. Even young men are often brought low by the relentless pace of touring, recording and public appearances required to keep a hot career crackling, and for a man in his fifties with years of hard living behind him, it was a death sentence. Tragic, because obviously 52 is too young to drop dead, and because Orbison was one of those relatively few artists whose career got a second life thanks to an entirely new generation of fans. Also, his signature persona of a tough guy with a heart full of romantic yearning became more poignant with age.
Bruce Springsteen sings a lot of depressing songs about people with bleak, tainted lives. He’s kind of a downer that way. But not all the time! Even the bard of the American heartland needs to cut loose and get silly sometimes. Just play an upbeat, happy love song about drinking and cruising. Never mind that there’s also a nagging mother-in-law who always needs a ride to the unemployment office. It gives the whole summer romance thing a bit of a context, and as usual, it ain’t too cheery, but just once, let’s play it for laughs. Now there’s the sense of showmanship that put Bruce in a one-man show on Broadway in his dotage.
Sherlock Holmes may seem like an odd choice for a figure of masculine ideal, at least romantically. He was a crime-solving genius, obviously, but he had zero luck with or interest in the ladies, due to being the kind of antisocial that today we call ‘spectrum’. Also he spent a lot of time hanging out in opium dens and mainlining cocaine. Also, he was fictional. But Sparks’ Russell Mael never runs out of imaginative ways of being rejected by women or finding ideals to fall short of. He’s written songs about his fears of being rejected for not being athletic enough, not drunk enough, and not Morrissey-esque enough. Add to that not living up to the Platonic ideal of towering intellect that Sherlock Holmes represents. It is, of course, all in good fun, and completely tongue-in-cheek. The joke is that it wouldn’t really take much to out-sing, out-dance and out-romance Sherlock Holmes.
“Come out and find the one that you love and who loves you…”
On a gloomy day, it takes the Smiths to raise my spirits. There’s something uplifting in being a miserable misfit and yet bopping along anyway. There’s something about Morrissey’s weird confidence that he’s incurable. And he is incurable. In the beginning it seemed like a posture, because how seriously can you take a pretty boy who insists he’s antisocial and sad? Every young person thinks they’re antisocial and unlovable and permanently locked out of the normal-people party, and then they grow up and realize their juvenile angst was just that, juvenile. Not Morrissey though. He grew up and stayed the same miserable antisocial fuck he’s always been, just somehow truly incapable of whatever it is that makes you a functional adult. Whatever doors regular people walk through on their regular-person pathway of life, those doors are closed to Morrissey, and by extension, the people who relate to him. Being good looking and brilliant and acclaimed at what you do isn’t enough. You relate to Morrissey because you never grew out of that nagging feeling that there’s just some secret skill that you’re missing, some stroke of luck that hasn’t struck. Or maybe you just like animals more than people and enjoy feeling sorry for yourself a lot.
This is everything that’s wrong with the Rolling Stones: another one of Mick Jagger’s absurd tales of mindless sexual conquest backed with the same tired riffs. By 1983 the Stones had sunk into self-parody, and judging by the tongue-in-cheek video, they were well aware of it. Taking the stance of “yes, we’re pretty silly at this point but we’re good at what we do” was understandable. Imagine trying to generate new ideas when you’re 40 years old, you’re trying to record your 17th album and you hate your coworkers. Jagger’s urge to take himself seriously would take the shape of an abortive solo career. (At this point he was hoarding his ‘best’ songs for his own project.) Keith Richards had stopped taking himself seriously around the time the band stopped being blues purists, and the others had never taken themselves seriously in the first place. The fans, meanwhile, proved that they didn’t need seriousness to keep them paying for the product. And that collective attitude kept the Stones rolling straight into the millennium and beyond. They don’t care if they’re not relevant, they just do what they do. They’re also among the last of a dying breed, literally. Blues based rock music is struggling today – nobody takes it seriously anymore! Also, nobody wants to listen to songs about the simple pleasures of fucking and discarding an interchangeable series of women. It’s just not what the conversation is about today. This entertainment is retrograde. There are many elements of rock star culture that we can’t zoom away from fast enough – the glorification of predatory sexual behavior, for example – but I don’t think we’ll ever lose our fascination for figures like Mick Jagger, people who are so larger than life that the very idea of their lifestyle is enough to fuel decades of profitable work.