at the Riviera, August 28
By Monica Kendrick
In her book Our Vampires, Ourselves, a penetrating and sometimes hilarious study of literary and cinematic leeches as the personification of cultural taboos, Nina Auerbach reminds us that it was Bram Stoker who coined the word “undead.” He needed a word that would accurately convey the twilight ambiguity of his hard-drinking Transylvanian nobleman’s condition: neither dead nor alive, but rather not-dead, defined by what he’s not, at least not exactly. But Stoker espoused fairly conventional late-Victorian morals in his deathless novel, and he might have had a hard time conceiving of the century-long progression of sympathetic, wry, and stylish Count Draculas to come. Likely he would also be shocked to have seen his coinage as it appeared last Friday, spattered in stark white across expensive black tour shirts for a band resurfacing from a decade and a half in pop music’s vast boneyard.
In fact, if anyone has a legitimate stake (pun intended) in the whole sordid reunion-tour business, it’s British postpunks Bauhaus, who are at last delivering the punchline of a joke they set up 19 years ago. Their 1979 club hit “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” was and is still a monumental piece of kitsch noir (like Lugosi’s performance in the 1931 Dracula), with its gloomy descending bass line, its bone-scraping stabs at zombie funk, and the electronic swoops and rushes that are single-handedly responsible for that hands-over-the-face dance style still in evidence at Gothick Nites everywhere. It’s the “Stairway to Heaven” of the eyeliner-and-whiteface set–long, melodramatic, and inescapable. I’d call it a guilty pleasure if I had any shame. But I come neither to bury goth nor to praise it, merely to point out that its defining un-ness–it is neither authentic nor inauthentic (in the sense of lacking emotional sincerity), hip nor stodgy; it’s costume-obsessed but not fashion-conscious, erotic but determinedly unphysical–is what makes it such an easy target for those compelled to sneer at the silly. What that condescension doesn’t take into account is that rock ‘n’ roll’s silliness, its theatricality and rich fantasy life, are part of its enduring appeal. If any one rock ‘n’ roll artist can ultimately be blamed for goth, it’s probably Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.
Not that Bauhaus ever really were goth in the strictest sense. That subculture as we now know it wasn’t large enough worldwide to fill the Riviera twice when Bauhaus broke up in 1983–when many of the fans at their two sold-out shows last week were barely out of their black velvet diapers. On Friday, the band opened with 1980’s megalithic “Double Dare,” guitarist Daniel Ash and bassist David J lurching back and forth like well-dressed idiot savants while vocalist Peter Murphy yowled in the wings, his face broadcast to the stage on a large TV screen. For the first third of the set they wisely stuck to their robustly violent early material, playing up their diverse origins in German expressionist horror films; early avant-garde theater; turn-of-the-century fantastic literature by Arthur Machen, Lord Dunsany, and the Oscar Wilde of The Picture of Dorian Gray; the more modern sci-fi of H.P. Lovecraft; and of course enough David Bowie to choke a horse. Bauhaus are categorically a good deal closer to contemporaneous, independent cells of militant weirdness like the Birthday Party or Chrome than they ever were to the Cure or Sisters of Mercy. Even now their old records, especially the live album Press the Eject and Give Me the Tape and their excessive third studio album The Sky’s Gone Out, strike me as psychedelia in very dark colors, the aural art of the bad trip.
I was relieved to see that, in their grab for cash and a higher rung on rock history’s ladder, Bauhaus were still everything their detractors said they were: pretentious, tasteless, crass, derivative, and just plain ugly, a blasphemous affront to every notion of “important” music. In his post-Bauhaus solo career, the relatively restrained David J even managed to break two hard-and-fast rules of being taken seriously at once by recording an album of Thelemic ritual music with comic-book writer Alan Moore (Watchmen, Saga of the Swamp Thing, From Hell, V for Vendetta). And whatever their actual orientations, Ash and Murphy still revel in overheated theatrical fagginess (which spilled over into actual homoeroticism when they were captured for posterity smearing each other with what looks like body paint and drooling goop into each other’s mouths in the hilarious F.W.-Murnau-on-PCP video for “Mask”). At the Riviera pretty male roadies held up a sheet while Murphy changed his shirt; he then preened around the stage admiring himself in a mirror, held a fan’s hand for half a song, clutched a red rose against his chest, and generally comported himself like a hammy actor trying to play Puck and Hamlet at once.
Bauhaus were consistently on point musically as they played most of their standards more or less faithfully: David J’s distorted, leaping bass grooves fueled timeless moldies like “Terror Couple Kill Colonel” and “Kick in the Eye,” his brother Kevin Haskins’s drumming was muscular and suprisingly fluid, and if Ash’s skirl-and-slash guitar style hasn’t evolved much since the three formed Love and Rockets in 1985, it hasn’t degenerated either–and his sax playing has markedly improved, though I’m sure Evan Parker isn’t losing any sleep.
But their competence was beside the point: what was in question was their ability to revive the intensity they had back in the day. A friend who saw them in 1981 remarked that the old sense of danger, the possibility that anything could happen, was distinctly lacking on Friday. (Obviously the overlong cover of Dead Can Dance’s “Severance” and Billy Corgan’s cue-carded cameo on T. Rex’s “Telegram Sam” were not the sort of surprises he had in mind.) Murphy’s voice can still get deep, smug, menacing, or anguished on cue, and he hasn’t lost an inch of range, but his stage antics amplified a drollness that, though never alien to Bauhaus, built to a ridiculous bitch pitch on their later records: when he changed a key line from “She’s in Parties” from “She’s acting her reaction” to “We’re acting our reaction,” he was stating the obvious; and when he muttered a medley of “Riders on the Storm,” “Jamming,” and “My Kind of Town” over the same tune’s languid bass groove, he elicited groans all around.
It’s true: the only dangerous thing about Bauhaus these days is their assault on prevailing aesthetics, and even that can be safely marketed now to a niche just left of the mainstream. Bauhaus, like poor Bela and Bram’s Dracula, have come to be defined by what they are not. But though the costume changes and the robotic spotlights and the flowers tossed at Murphy were probably predetermined down to the last rose petal, they were also thoroughly sincere–a display of commitment to a fantasy world that the band and fans alike genuinely love. There’s something highly pleasurable in Bauhaus’s creepy unbadness–and what’s a little suspension of disbelief between old friends? o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Paul Natkin.