How Dead Can Dance helped me come out

I just got tickets to see the goth-world-neoclassical band Dead Can Dance in April 2020. This might be the seventh or eighth time since I’ve seen them. I’ve also seen solo tours from the Dead Can Dance members Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard. Their somber, majestic and beautiful music has been a constant in my life. I discovered their music (and Cocteau Twins) around the same time I found the writing of Tanith Lee. Lee and DCD are forever linked in my mind.

They are indirectly responsible for my official coming out. I remember back in the late 80s debating whether or not to attend the local LGBT youth group. I was still in the closet (but not to myself). Joining a youth group was a big step for me. I had stood outside the place where the weekly meeting had been held a couple of times and been too chicken to go.

Then, one afternoon, I saw a guy wearing a homemade Dead Can Dance t-shirt. It was like a sign: I would be OK. I joined the youth group, and began the process of coming out.

Thank you, Brendan and Lisa.

I’m looking forward to seeing them live. This time, they’re delving deep into their catalog, performing older and rarely played tracks.

MUSIC RECOMMENDATION: Azam Ali’s PHANTOMS.

Back in the late 80s and early 90s, I was a fan of ‘goth’ music, particularly the brand of melancholic, elegant and often female-centered ‘etherealwave.’ I adored the music of Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance and This Mortal Coil—the whole 4AD label aesthetic of refined darkness. It was (and still is) a rarefied sound, full of poetic abstraction and shrouded in mystery. Azam Ali’s new album, Phantoms, recalls this dark and dreamy sound, though it’s filtered through the prism of darkwave, electronica and trip hop. 

I’ve been following Ali’s music from the beginning of her career. She started out in the World/New Age duo Vas, where she put her own spin on glossolalia-styled vocalizations, a technique that Lisa Gerrard and Elizabeth Fraser mastered. Her next band Niyaz crafted elaborate electronic soundscapes using mystical Sufi poetry as lyrics. She also released an album of interpretations of sacred music (Portals of Grace), an album of Persian lullabies (From Night to the Edge of the Day) and was a member of the dark rock band Roseland (!) Ali’s voice is a beautiful instrument, a supple alto that can soar effortlessly into crystalline soprano heights. Her singing blends Persian, Indian and classical Western styles in a way that reminds me of the work of Sheila Chandra. An undercurrent of gothic melancholia runs through most of her work, even the more ‘world’ music pieces.

This gothic strain is front-and-center on Phantoms. (There’s even a cover of a Cocteau Twins song, “Shallow Then Halo,” from their gothiest first album Garlands).   Ali’s lyrics are full of images of bleakness and regret, when you can understand them. Ali’s singing and enunciation treats English words as onomatopoetic devices, and she seems to be more interested in their phonemic qualities. Her  use of her voice as an instrument really highlights the sleek electronic settings of the songs, which Ali programmed and produced herself. The sonic sculpture is as alluring as her voice, which is quite an accomplishment. 

References: Portishead, Siouxsie Sioux, Massive Attack, Soho Rezanejad

Confounding Stereotypes: Adventures in Fandom and Microaggression

A Buzzfeed article, 21 Microaggressons You Hear on a Daily Basis, has been passed around my Facebook feed. One particular sign really resonated with me.

Carrie Underwood Fan
Carrie Underwood Fan

No, I don’t listen to Carrie Underwood.  But….I like ‘white’ music. Particularly alternative, gothic and indie music. So I feel this girl’s pain.

I remember when I haunted a record store in college, always looking for an interesting album.  Before the Internet, buying music was a bit of a gamble. You had to rely on record reviews, the label that the album was on, and occasionally, the artwork to give you clues to what the music sounded like. So visiting a record store was often a 2 hour ordeal that included much research and contemplation. The staff of this particular record store was used to me, (and many other college students) spending hours among their stacks. However, one Saturday, there was a new staff member who rather overzealously followed me and repeatedly asked me if I needed help. She ignored the other customers, and focused on me with a laser-like precision. Eventually, I left the store, and didn’t return until the spring. I was familiar with this kind of micro aggression. It was a combination of Shopping While Black with a liberal dash of This Isn’t Your Type of Music!

I was relatively lucky before that point. I grew up in an area where it wasn’t uncommon to see PoC at punk and indie shows. Every now and then, someone would glance at me sideways, but that was the extent of it. But that Othering was uncomfortable enough to make me avoid that particular shop. When I returned to the shop, the overzealous employee had left. Maybe someone else complained about her.

Frankly, this incident was small potatoes compared to what I experienced on an online forum circa 1998, when the Internet etiquette had not yet been established. The goth singer Siouxsie Sioux had started a side project with  fellow Banshees drummer/husband Budgie, called The Creatures, which she released independently.  The Creatures had an active and lively online forum, which I joined. In the ‘intro’ section of the website, I wrote something like, “Hi, I’m Craig…Just wondering if there are any other Siouxsie/Creatures fans of color.”

Reader, you would have thought that I had insulted everyone’s mother and desecrated a thousand graves. Message after message condemned me for even mentioning race. I was a racist of the worst kind; I was like Louis Farrakhan; I hated white people etc.  And those were the intelligible responses. I quit that den of obnoxiousness quickly, never to return.

A few years later, I went to hear the world music/goth crossover band Dead Can Dance in concert. I ran into an acquaintance at the concert.

Him: “What are you doing here? Black people don’t like Dead Can Dance!”
Me: Throws Shade and eye-rolls so hard that my eyes fall out and roll down the hall.

I’ve been confounding stereotypes since the 80s, and I have no intention of stopping.