There is only one goth club in the world, but it has many doors.
I've entered it through a basement in Manhattan, a former horse barn in Berlin, a gay bar in Boston, a basement in Brooklyn, a castle in Tampa, an alleyway in Chicago, a Greek restaurant in DC. (The Greek restaurant was also in a basement. They are often in basements.) Inside they may look superficially different, but over 20 years and 5000 miles, they have been fundamentally the same.
There is often smoke, once real, now artificial. The lighting is orange, or purple, or red. There is always at least one woman and one man who are doing The Most—the woman in custom Victorian finery, the man in a pirate coat and steampunk goggles. There are always fishnets, chokers, corsets, vinyl, velvet, lace. There is always a guy in a customized leather jacket with the Sisters of Mercy logo on it somewhere. There is always someone dancing like this, and someone else dancing like that—and no matter how unorthodox your DJ is, you will know most of the songs they dance to. The crowd is always largely white, but never as white as you'd think. There are boots everywhere: New Rocks, Demonias, Doc Martens, goths may nominally own shoes that aren't boots but do they really? There is always someone with weird hair and ten pounds of metal in their face, but there's also always someone who looks like they came right from their corporate job. There is always somebody older than you, no matter how old you are.
This predictability is not boring. It's the whole point. Nobody winds up at a goth club because they feel at ease in the world. The eyeliner and the smoke machines, the boots and their dance steps, are all sending a single message: People understand you here, or anyway, they've seen someone like you before. The sneering critique sometimes lobbed at members of any subculture—“they're just trying to be different”—could actually not be less true. We already feel different. We are trying to be the same.
The term “goth” has become somewhat attenuated over its lifetime, which is about the same as my lifetime, which is about 40 years. A true deep dive into the aesthetic would involve a tour through three centuries of fashion influence (from the 1800s through the cyberpunk near-future); scores of bands over several different subgenres; and dozens of specific movies and comic books, almost all of them featuring slim pale haunted-looking young men with wild black hair. These days, though, it’s just as likely to be used to mean someone who’s lightly morbid, or wearing black clothing of any style. This is irritating to me at a bone-deep level, because finely dicing the definition of what counts as “goth” is probably the subculture’s favorite sport. But at the same time, everyone knows there’s no specific volume of black velvet, or number of Cocteau Twins albums, or prevalence of skull-based décor that will tip the scales. Whatever “goth” conjures up for you, in other words, you’re probably more or less right.
But it’s safe to say that what we all have in common—and by “we,” here, I mean people who call themselves goths, and probably also people who have “goth” thrust upon them—is a sense of being fundamentally out of step. In particular, yes, we’re a little morbid, a little doomy, but more to the point, we’re just a little odd. (These days, depression has gone mainstream, and yet goths still exist.)
Hence, the club—which is sometimes, in very special places and times, an actual devoted building, but more likely an event that happens every third Thursday at a venue that’s normally called something like Sassy Jack’s. It’s a space that is recalibrated so that the off-kilter is, instead, on. If you were out of step outside, now you sync up. It feels like finding your home planet—the gravity suddenly right, the oxygen right, where you were stumbling and gasping before.
When I was young, clubs were so smoky that when you blew your nose the next morning it would come out black. So little has changed within our tiny subculture, but this one rite of passage is well and truly lost: staring into the tissue and wondering in horror whether your eyeliner had somehow seeped down through your tear ducts into your sinuses. Even before the smoking bans, though, even in that polluted air, you breathed better in the club than outside it. For that one night a week, or one third Thursday at Sassy Jack’s, you made sense.
All these motley basements are portals to what I now think of as the Goth Club of Eternity, a sort of custom-made heaven for freaks. More accurately, they are the reflections the Goth Club of Eternity leaves on Plato’s cave wall. We do not access it directly, not in this life, but we can encounter its avatars.
In the Goth Club of Eternity, there is a room playing every subgenre you might want to listen to. Or maybe there’s one big dance floor and you hear whatever you came to hear. Goths tend to dance however they were going to dance anyway, regardless of the music: the Handcuff Stroll, the Get It Off Me, the Lost Contact Lens, the David Bowie’s Contact-Juggling Stunt Double in Labyrinth. It doesn’t really matter if we’re all hearing a different beat. Anyway, the Goth Club of Eternity is playing your song.
In the Goth Club of Eternity there are couches on the side of the dance floor, and when you get up someone always takes your seat like they do in real life but when you want to sit again there’s always room. You can stash your bag behind the couches and nobody will steal it, though there’s nothing you really need a bag for.
In the Goth Club of Eternity there are vast closets of clothes in every shade and texture of black. The corsets lace and unlace themselves; the boots never hurt your feet. You can wear something new every night, though the concept of “every night” is blurry when each night rolls into the next with nothing but a 4 am diner breakfast between them. (The Goth Club of Eternity is situated next to a diner, or rather it contains a diner that is both a separate space and somehow part of the club.) Or you can wear the same bedraggled Skinny Puppy shirt and fatigues for the rest of your afterlife. That’s fine too.
You can smoke as many cloves as you want at the Goth Club of Eternity, inside if that’s your thing or out on the porch with the others. Nobody gets asthma or anything worse from the smoke; nobody gets burned by an errant cherry on the dance floor. Everybody’s nose blows black the next morning, but maybe it would have done that anyway, because of the smoke machine, and besides, the next morning never comes.
My husband (Sisters of Mercy jacket, corporate job hair) came up with the Goth Club of Eternity on our first night out together. Before this, I hadn’t set foot in a goth club in years; I’d been cosplaying as a normal person, just trying to fit in. And yet here I was, and it was all the same, after all this time, just waiting for me to turn around. In the grip of a few G&Ts and the Sisters back catalogue, we felt taxidermy-stuffed with love for our unchanging little scene. What else can you abandon for years, even decades, and come back to find that it’s still there and still identical and still loves you back?
We had spent our 20s in the same city, going to many of the same club nights, but didn’t meet until our 30s after we both moved to New York. On one of our trips back to our old stomping grounds in DC, he drove me to the location of an old club, formerly a rather desolate industrial district; you would give a guy on the street $5 on your way in to reduce the chances that someone would fuck up your car. It’s all luxury condos now. A sports bar called Justin’s Cafe, ironically my husband’s name, spat little metal tables all over the sidewalk. I got out of the car and howled in disbelief until a cop stopped to tell us we couldn’t park there.
Things gentrify fast in New York, but it’s nothing compared to DC. When I return to the places I lived in the early 2000s, it’s like watching a stop-motion film: I can practically see the condos and brunch spots and SoulCycles and high-end grocery stores bubble out of the ground around me, distorting the landscape I know beyond recognition. Even Justin’s Cafe is closed now, replaced by a fried chicken joint whose (white) owner once got in trouble for a mural depicting rap icons as beaked were-fowl. The goths, though, are still kicking around somewhere. Tracks closed and they went to Nation, Nation closed and they went to the Black Cat, the Black Cat stopped hosting a goth night and they moved into two different warring basements that looked substantially alike. And then all the clubs closed because of a respiratory virus that thrived in ill-ventilated areas—but for goths, this was nothing new. Like all of us, the scene has been dying since the day it was born. The point of the goth club is that it transcends change. By embracing death, we rise above it.
I don’t know when, if ever, I’ll be willing to dance in a poorly-ventilated basement again. In many ways the goth club is dead.
Undead, undead, undead.
Now, on most Friday nights we watch the Twitch stream of one of the old DJs from DC, who was DJing when we were young and he was youngish and is still DJing now that we’re all less so. There are always at least one or two people I know in the chat, though I don’t talk to them. The DJ has a “no Trump” sign, a “Black Lives Matter” sign, and a large tapestry of Baphomet. One of the stickers on his laptop says “I’d rather be at a goth club.” No argument here—I have an identical pin on my bag. Still, with all of us gathered here, albeit virtually, is it really fair to say we’re not? All the portals were only ever portals, after all.
Time makes misfits of us all. Even people who spent their youth feeling totally at home in the world, doing whatever people who feel at home in the world do instead of going to goth clubs (sports??), will eventually find themselves at sea as the culture of youth moves on without them. If you don’t die young, you live long enough to become embarrassing. Anyway, human existence is growing steadily more surreal and deranged. I’m not sure you can feel settled in our current reality without being a psychopath.
But in a basement somewhere in the world—or, if the clubs never open again, somewhere out of it—there will be familiar boots tracing familiar patterns on the floor. The Goth Club of Eternity has no bouncer. We’ve seen people like you before.
Everything is changing very fast, and usually for the worse. As cities and bodies and governments deform around us, even those who once fit in may find they no longer lie easy. That’s okay. There’s a place made for people who fit poorly, for people who are strange and sad. In the Goth Club of Eternity we move forward as we always have: hand in hand into the same darkness.