My brother Mark is:
As much as I idolized Mark, I never tried his drug of choice. He wanted to go faster. I wanted to go deeper. But I think we both wanted to get away from the same thing.
Dad responded to the chaos of life by trying to impose order. He had a highly specific set of instructions for every conceivable task, from cleaning the floor of our three-car garage (on your knees, with a horsehair brush), to mowing grass (make your first pass down the middle of the field; then alternate side-to-side, always blowing grass back towards the middle). Digging a post hole, painting the fence (with used motor oil), skinning a squirrel, removing a tick from your skin, shucking corn—all these activities had a Right Way of Doing. To be sure, there’s great virtue in removing a tick just so, to keep the vile little arachnid from regurgitating blood back into your body, but Dad’s prescriptions exceeded best practices. To weedeat the bank was to take part in a ritual. (Hold the weedeater steady in your outstretched hands; sway your hips like an oscillating fan; allow the spinning string to pull itself through the grass blades.) When you managed to do something correctly—so difficult, so rarely achieved—it felt like God shone on your face. To miss the mark—so frequent, almost inevitable—was to disgrace the ritual. To me, each momentary lapse of form with the weedeater or horsehair brush felt like my pre-teenage, post-masturbation gloom: I have sinned; I am worthless.
Drugs saved me from all that, at least for awhile. The first two times I took LSD, I didn’t really trip. But the third time … Lord of Mercy. I sat in the passenger seat of my friend’s car, in the parking lot outside a Grateful Dead concert that I had absolutely no intention of attending. (Thanks to Mark, I was a Smiths fan and as such loathed the Dead.) Throughout the afternoon, heavy rains pelted the windshield. As I looked out through the millions of exploding water drops, my mind likewise exploded, the fuse having been lit by my chemical intake for the day: a ripped-off hunk of raw white blotter, two or three hits of yellow Felix the Cat, a sixteenth of mushrooms, countless pulls from nitrous balloons, and the odd joint.
At one point, I had this thought:
This is what I need to do with my life.
And then later:
I want to destroy my mind.
During my peak, the faces of my mother and father appeared on the windshield. I recognized them like words on the tip of my tongue: I couldn’t quite recall who they were. For the first time in my life, seeing their faces prompted no emotional response whatsoever. I couldn’t have told you who my father was, much less explain the proper way to clean the garage.
In that confused moment, I felt a tremendous sense of achievement.
Holding the 12-inch picture disk of “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” by Bauhaus in my hands, I felt like an astonished king receiving gifts from the New World.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have much in the way of a throne room. I sat on the cold concrete floor of the basement. Mark made trips between me and the stereo, handing me album covers and then cueing music. The basement itself was divided into two sections. On our side, there was the sound system that Mark brought back from California, and our brother Jason’s weight bench. On the other, you had a deep freezer that looked like a oversized white coffin; a random shower stall; and a cabinet of Mom’s canned goods: tomatoes, corn, green beans, and dill pickles all happily floating in Mason jars. Down the middle of the basement floor, a small stream of mystery fluid ran from one side of the room to the other, dividing the two sections. The fluid emerged from somewhere near the stairs under the storm-cellar doors, and coursed along a narrow riverbed of crumbled foundation. A sump pump kicked on and off, humming and then silent, the music softer then louder. The entire room smelled faintly of sour earth.
I held the picture disk extra gentle, like it was Mom’s best carnival glass, and stared at the photographic image that covered the A-side. Shadows obscured Bela Lugosi’s eyes, but he smiled, which indicated that his hypnotic gaze held someone captive. His hands hovered above his shoulders, flesh bright white, fingers spread into claws. Instead of Dracula’s famous cape, Lugosi wore the Count’s less famous, but equally capable, tuxedo jacket. Under the jacket, a waistcoat, shirt, and bow tie layered white on white on white. And there, in the middle of Lugosi’s breastbone, just to the right of where Van Helsing would drive the stake, you found the hole for the turntable spindle.
After a few minutes, Mark slid the disc out of my hands, and walked back to the sound system. The turntable sat atop an equalizer, double cassette deck, and a compartment filled with LPs—the whole setup bookended by speakers the size of pantry doors.
Each song we listened to had multiple associated stories, and Mark did live track commentary. During “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” I heard that one night Bauhaus’ lead singer, Peter Murphy, hung out with the Zombie Zoo crew in Los Angeles. At some point in the evening he occasioned to be struck by a car traveling at sufficient speed to send him spinning over top of the automobile. The vehicle screeched to a halt and Murphy landed safely behind it, on both feet with one hand on the pavement in front of him—in a perfect three-point stance. While playing “Desire” by Gene Loves Jezebel, Mark showed me how goths danced: slowly, and in a circle. He also demonstrated how that dance was modified in the latter years of either Club Scream or the Krypt, at which point the club had started to go commercial. Whenever Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It” came on and the MCs cried, “Get up on this,” the goths saluted the DJs with raised middle fingers.
The covers of the Gene Loves Jezebel albums featured photos of the band, which were every bit as striking as the Bauhaus disk. Jay Aston wore ribbons in his braided hair. Like goths, Jay went heavy on the cosmetics, but instead of white-on-white, he favored more traditional female applications: nude foundation and red lipstick, along with eyeliner and mascara. On his loose white shirt, a brooch. Fingernails painted, eyebrows plucked.
Really, these albums were less gifts from the New World, and more embodiments of The World. As warned against by Reverend E. Glen James every Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night (when I was old enough for Youth Group, I would hear warnings from Brother Fletcher on Friday nights as well), The World was the swirling abyss of damnation that waited for you just outside your doorstep. You were safe inside the sanctuary of the church, and in your home (unless you had TV), but everywhere else—work, school, supermarkets, in the waiting areas of muffler shops—you were subjected to constant attacks from demonic forces, most of them too subtle for you to even notice. Every move you made was personally monitored by Satan, and he scattered snares all around you, all the time. God could come back at any moment, and if you had sinned without repenting—or if you had even thought about sinning—you would go to Hell for all eternity. The smart money was on praying for forgiveness nonstop, even when you hadn’t done anything wrong.
Bands like Bauhaus and Gene Loves Jezebel were The World incarnate. Everything that Brother James warned us about from the pulpit, with spittle flying from his mouth and sweat dotting his forehead—all the excess and demonic influence, the celebration of fleshly desire—it was all right here on these album covers, and it looked pretty fucking cool.
We went through Mark’s LPs one by one, starting with the goth stuff and working our way out to the far extreme of Cameo’s “Word Up!” At some point Mark slipped me a bright orange album cover. The glaring brightness mellowed towards the bottom, giving way to the faded image of a woman who rested her head against her palm, cigarette between fingers. She looked dead-ahead at the camera like Lugosi, but in a completely different way. There were no theatrics here. Her expression was ambiguous; she wasn’t happy and she wasn’t sad. Unlike Jay Aston, her hair hung non-descript. Her sensibly applied mascara didn’t sweep in broad swaths across her temples towards her ears. She looked plain, but beautiful. Above her head hung the most ordinary band name imaginable: The Smiths.
In a few moments, my brief infatuation with The World would end, along with my years-long fear of it. The plain, ordinary world would be enough. Brother James could keep his spiritual minefield. Bauhaus could have the bats in the bell tower, and Gene Loves Jezebel their over-the-top glamor. As much as I liked looking at those bands, the gritty kitchen-sink realism of The Smiths’ music struck closer to home. Moorland turf and London streets somehow became emotionally interchangeable with the fields and roads of Shade, Ohio. I was 11 years old, and the Smiths would provide the soundtrack to the life I hadn’t lived yet. They told me that in the ordinary world you could find the most extraordinary things, just as my brother had always claimed.
Playing the A-side of “Louder Than Bombs,” Mark cued the third track, “Sheila Take a Bow.” A blast of horns, a little bounce, and then that voice asking, “Is it wrong to want to live on your own?”
(Editor’s note: Today I listened to “Sheila Take a Bow” for the first time in ages. Turns out, it’s the second track on “Louder Than Bombs,” and between the blast and the bounce, there is also a little Marr guitar. Time is playing tricks.)
As soon as I stepped onto the school bus, I realized I had miscalculated. The kids sitting up front were initially stunned: eyes wide, mouths hanging. Then they started laughing. A collective, gleeful roar emanated from deep inside their round little bellies. The kids in the middle and rear of the bus broke off theirconversations to look up. They pulled themselves up over their seats to get a better look. As soon as they saw me, the wave of laughter swelled. It rocked from the front of the bus to the back, moving away from me, but crashing straight into me.
I found this reaction absolutely shocking. After all:
Unfortunately, none of my schoolmates were familiar with my brother, the L.A. goth scene, or the United Pentecostal Church.
And so they laughed.
Granted, it was Shade, Ohio in 1987 and I was in seventh grade. But if today any 11-year-old walked into any school in the country wearing my outfit (black vinyl motorcycle jacket; skintight black jeans with a skull-and-dagger print; black boots with no shortage of silver buckles), I imagine the reaction would pretty much be the same. Today designers like to say, “Our clothes tell a story.” That only works if you’re speaking the same language as your audience. Otherwise, your audience will speak the global language of abusive laughter, not only on the way to school, but for eight hours at school, and then again on the bus ride home.
My brother Mark is: