Chicago Tribune (2.2.98)
HORROR-MOVIE MAKEUP AND VAMPIRE MYTHOLOGY ASIDE, GOTHS ARE JUST ORDINARY PEOPLE WHO HAPPEN TO BE . . .DENIZENS OF THE DARK
By Dan Dinello. Special to the Tribune.
Enveloped by darkness, an eerie stairway leads down to a subterranean cavern lit dimly by votive candles and draped in black. Thick fog wafts across spooky patrons dressed as vampires, witches, monks, martyrs and college students.
The descent into "Nocturna,"the Smart Bar's weekly Tuesday night celebration of gothic music, atmosphere and style, is a descent into an atmospheric darkside world created by deejay Scary Lady Sarah, a galvanizing force behind Chicago's gothic scene.
Illuminated by shards of green light, Sarah -- looking like aCountess Dracula -- spins across the fog-shrouded dance floor, enthralled with the music of the band Dead Can Dance. When she stops, several women hug her. Despite her ominous look, she's smiling.
"I am a goth," says Scary Lady Sarah, 30. "I like the vampire look. I love the whole dark ambiance. It's romantic. I'm into gothic literature, art deco and pre-Raphaelite art. There's a mournful beauty to it, it's very emotional.
"I try to stay away from the cheesy side of goth. I don't take it all so seriously. I've been a goth for 14 years, ever since I heard Siouxsie and the Banshees in the early '80s."
Along with other influential goth bands like the Cure, Bauhaus, Dead Can Dance and Sisters of Mercy (who will play a show in Chicago Tuesday), Siouxsie's dark melodramatic music and striking, vampire-like makeup provided a gothic archetype and inspired legions of women to embrace the gothic style.
Gothic style -- whose pretentious extremes are humorously maligned on Saturday Night Live's "Goth Talk" -- has evolved into an individualized amalgam of existential angst, passionate romanticism, horror movie makeup, ancient symbolism, medieval and fetishistic clothing, narcissism, absurdism, androgyny and vampire mythology.
Sarah credits the Internet as helping propogate the gothic scene. Music labels such as Projekt and Cleopatra have sprung up, and there are hordes of new bands as well as magazines like "Propaganda" and "Carpe Noctem," comic books like Neil Gaimon's "Sandman," and a bloody flow of vampire novels.
The modern gothic scene -- nascent in the late '70s when Siouxsie debuted -- exploded underground in 1983 with the emergence of the Sisters of Mercy and the cult popularity of the Bauhaus song "Bela Lugosi's Dead" (heard in the opening of SNL's "Goth Talk"). Called gothic rock by the British press, Peter Murphy and Bauhaus -- with a riveting performance of the song in the vampire movie "The Hunger" -- crystallized the gloomy, doomy, German Expressionist style that inspired the gothic subculture.
"Some young people are into the fantasy of being vampires," says Sarah. "Few really believe they're vampires. You can only take your fantasy so far and keep your job at The Gap or wherever. I'm lucky. I can be who I want to be."
Keeping goth alive
Besides deejaying for Nocturna, Sarah -- along with husband Eric Palcyn, who plays bass in the darkwave band Thanatos -- runs American Gothic Productions. She manages a goth hot-line (773-ART-GOTH) and a Web site (www.yourplanb.com/gothchgo). In addition, she brings current goth bands like Switchblade Symphony and The Wake to Chicago. Twice a year she hosts "Ghouls Nite Out."
"I hold a lot of events just to keep the scene going," says Sarah. "For 'Ghouls Night Out,' I invite just gothic women. Maybe 30 of us go out and have fun. It's great to see 30 goth women walking through the Navy Pier parking lot."
For Tuesday's Nocturna, Sarah, Palcyn, fellow deejay Brother Tom and doorman Dennis arrive at 6 p.m. and in three hours transform the dingy Smart Bar, located in the basement of the Metro Club, 3730 N. Clark St. into an elegantly spooky graveyard.
At midnight, Scary Lady Sarah takes over the turntables from Brother Tom, who begins the evening with quiet, ethereal music. Sarah inspires the crowd into an ecstatic zombie frenzy with rock and dance-oriented goth music.
"Sarah's one of the most prominently known Chicago figures in the gothic scene," says Gene Blalock, the young head of Seraph, a local label with several goth-styled groups. "She also does the most to promote the scene. She plays new music. She's a tastemaker."
"I've gotten more confident about bringing bands and doing shows," says Sarah. "I'm the only person that brings gothic concerts to Chicago. I'm thankful to be in a position to do this because SpaceTime Tanks provides a source of income."
Nocturna closes at 4 a.m. Sarah and Palcyn -- along with Tom and Dennis -- tear down the darkside world before heading home. Later they emerge into the daytime world of SpaceTime Tanks Flotation Center, 2526 N. Lincoln Ave., a business Sarah and her husband run.
Palcyn dresses in black though he's not flamboyantly gothic. He greets customers in the flotation center's waiting room, whose bright warm atmosphere, aquarium of multi-colored fish and organic imagery contrast strikingly with the dark and deathly ambiance of Nocturna.
"The Flotation Center, in a weird way, has similarities to Nocturna," he says. "As therapy to our late-night lifestyle, it assists in recuperation. The isolation tank also compels the night-time side of ourselves. It's dark and quiet. You go introspective. We sell darkness by night through Nocturna and by day through the flotation center."
Sarah, yawning and tired, arrives at Spacetime in full goth regalia. "I grew up all over Chicago, but mostly in Rogers Park," she says. "I went two years to St. Scholastica (High School) -- which we called St. Swastika -- then two more years at Mather.
"Since I was a child, I wanted to deejay and play music for people. I always sought out non-mainstream music. When I was into hardcore punk, my hair was every color of the rainbow, then I got it dyed all black when I heard Siouxsie and the Sisters of Mercy."
After deejaying briefly at Northeastern's WZRD in 1986, she ended up at the Clark Street nightclub Neo. Nocturna began there. "Goth night started 10 years ago," says Neo manager Mike Meza. "Sarah was involved. So was Brother Tom. It started as a small thing. After a couple years, it took off."
Scary Lady Sarah worked Neo's Nocturna for nine years, first as hostess then as deejay. "About a year ago they dropped me," says Sarah. "I started doing the Tuesday night Nocturna at other bars."
Neo attempted to stop her use of the name. "We each counter-sued the other over ownership of the name," Sarah says. "I won the preliminary injunction then agreed to a settlement. The name 'Nocturna' is and always was my intellectual property."
Neo continues its Tuesday goth night, now called Morphea. The deejay who replaced Scary Lady Sarah is Carrie Monster, 27, who describes herself as "Mae West combined with Elvira." A punk deejay from Glen Ellyn, Carrie first became enamored of gothic rock in 1987 at Neo.
Not a guy thing
From female deejays to female-led bands such as Siousxie and the Banshees, Switchblade Symphony and Sunshine Blind, the gothic subculture seems more female-oriented than previous subcultures like the beats, the hippies and the punks.
"There's a more emotional level," says Sarah. "It's not a testosterone infused scene, it's not chauvinistic. The imagery and the fashions come from romantic periods. People are more refined and polite."
In Chicago, women operate a variety of goth-related businesses. Pamela Shaw runs Armageddon Records (711 W. Belmont Ave.), a gothic record store. Heather Spears, who calls herself the "Fabulous Beast," organizes gothic parties and puts out the goth magazine "The Web." Mandi Socia owns Fallen Angel (817 N. Milwaukee Ave.), an "ethereal boutique" that sells gothic clothing and accessories, many designed by Chicago artists. Lora Chasteen, along with husband Pier Novikov, owns Medusa's Circle (3268 N. Clark St.), a clothing store and piercing studio.
"I think a lot of people look up to Sarah," says Chasteen, who has bright red hair and a ring through her nose. "She's been into goth for years, she stays motivated, she lives the part."
Encouraged by the growth of the local gothic scene, Sarah and Palcyn want to open an all-goth club. Recently they found the perfect spot: a funeral home in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood.
"We had to appear before the South Lakeview Neighbors Association, the same group that tried to stop the (placement) of a home for battered women," says Eric. "We had to convince them that we wouldn't damage the neighborhood. Sarah got dressed as a businesswoman -- she took off the goth makeup for the first time in 10 years. They voted 67 to 5 against us. Ald. Terry Gabinski refused to support a license."
"The mainstream views gothic people as devil-worshippers or worse," says Scary Lady Sarah. "They don't get beyond the Halloween look, the vampire dress. There's definitely a pretentious side to it, but it's not evil. The gothic style is more than a trend or fad, it's a subculture, a lifestyle -- and I'm living it."
Scary Lady Sarah's Top 10 All-Time Classic Goth Albums, in alphabetical order by group:
1. Bauhaus: "Burning from the Inside"
2. Cocteau Twins: "Garlands"
3. The Cure: "Pornography"
4. Dead Can Dance: "Within the Realm of a Dying Sun"
5. Faith & the Muse: "Annwyn, Beneath the Waves"
6. Joy Division: "Closer"
7. Siouxsie & the Banshees: "Ju Ju"
8. Sisters of Mercy: "First & Last & Always"
9. Suspiria: "Drama"
10. Type O Negative: "October Rust"
Contributed by Jerry Burch.