In many ways, Chelsea Wolfe embodies the essence of gothic. A self-professed introvert, the beloved California native swirled shadows around her and, over the course of nearly a decade, transformed into an otherworldly singer, songwriter, and performer. Nowhere has that been clearer than on Hiss Spun, her latest and most bestial work to date. “This album is about opening up and accepting the mess of yourself,” Wolfe wrote to her fans on the day of the LP’s release. “There is a strength in embracing your feral side.” Demons snarl from the void; guitars lumber and groan; Wolfe howls in the middle of the maelstrom, not a distant banshee but a wind-whipped observer, very close and very alive.
I didn’t meet Wolfe eight years ago. I wish I had. I wish many people and concepts had slid sooner into my consciousness — Kraftwerk, synthpop, feminism, Bauhaus (both the art school AND the band), punk, zines, the fluidity of gender, Athens as an artsy scene instead of a drinking town with a football problem. No, my world was sunny and isolated, pixelated and dilated through magical fantasies, broadcast both on the GameCube and my imagination; death was distant, non-existent, abhorrent. My extent of gothic knowledge started and ended with the supremely cool black-clad chick in drama class, who read Johnny Homicide, presented a Green Day track for a project on ‘songs with narratives’ (the one about the alarm clock), and could spout sublime tales about blood-bathing duchesses. Our friendship, coincidentally, started and ended with that drama class — when she dropped in at our lunch table a year later, she muttered something about clubbing to me and then hopped away. So much for the splendor of the crypt, then.
I share all this, because when I pulled up to Aisle 5 on Wednesday night, the queue of shadow-dressed gig-goers winding down the parking lot frightened me. Not because Wolfe fans frighten me, but because I stared down that line and realized I did not belong to this subculture at all. My own introverted instincts feared detection: You are an imposter, they will tell me, like the time that two dudes cornered me in the EARL outside the door, and drilled me about all my King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard cred.
Now, fun fact: That night, I’d settled on what I called my “casual goth” outfit of a droopy, silky button-down over a plain form-hugging tee and tight pants (all black, of course). This, incidentally, was the same outfit I wore to the Mountain Goats gig at Terminal West several moons ago — another fish-out-of-water scenario wherein I stuck out like eyeliner in a giddy crowd of gender-neutral, plaid-clad cuddly kids. And you know what? No one rebuked me there; someone handed me tiny zines, other folks hugged me and invited me into their small talk.
But rewind! What does any of this have to do with the line of Wolfe fans winding down the parking lot? See, I reviewed the Goats’ latest album Goths for Drowned in Sound, and I can tell you now — John Darnielle wasn’t just penning love letters to Andrew Eldritch or Siouxsie Sioux. It’s a document about the nature of subculture itself — the rites that one undergoes to win favor among their like-minded peers, how to reorient yourself in that beloved identity as you age, the choices that loom like monuments when you decide to step down. Everett True summed up this notion best: an understanding of subculture begins with an immersion in subculture. These people queuing here, they’re probably swapping stories of their loyalty, of the times Apokalypsis or The Grime and the Glow guided them through harrowing times of their teen years. These are not stories I possess.
Where do I belong? This is an anecdote of symbolic coincidences: on the drive down, the latest tape from local Fall fiends BKGD was zipping through my ears. In my two years in Athens, I’d divided most of my evenings between the Flickr Bar, Caledonia Lounge, Hi-Lo, the Go Bar, and Little Kings Shuffle Club — the tiny dives, in other words. The local bands. Now, yes, I perhaps draw a false dichotomy here, between the attendees of that Wolfe show and adherents to a local scene. But might some of these diehard fans stutter if I quizzed them on their favorite Atlanta bands? Have they never laughed at hotwired electronics with Dendera Bloodbath? Or danced in the dark to Pyramid Club? Or fended off moshers during a showdown with the Callous Daoboys?
All this to say, fam: when I pulled into the parking lot and saw the line of Wolfe fans, the introvert in me seized the wheel and turned the car around.
I’m sorry, Wolfe. I’ve no doubt you and your crew stunned that packed-out room as only you could, those motorcycle riffs roaring in harmony with the white noise hiss of the cosmic void. I’m happy for you — for overcoming the silent vice of social anxiety, for selling hundreds of tickets with your name alone, for that sense of validation that anyone creative strives for. Those same demons you’ve vanquished conquered me, and I wince with each word I write to excuse their victory.
At any rate, no battle is worthless if one can glean a lesson from the bloody aftermath. And so, dear reader — whether an enthusiast of the unknown beyond or not — know that we are all mere mortals, and though we may err and flee at the most inopportune of times, someone you might assume to be faultless has also erred and flown in the exact same fashion. So grin, bear the blow, and double your fortitude for the next engagement. That’s how Darnielle can laugh at himself when he’s forgotten a line to one of his own beloved songs; that’s how Wolfe can stand majestic before the teeming masses. Regroup and rebound, until your dying day.