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Coffin Classics

The top-hatted Aiden and his parasol-toting compatriot Miriam take a stand for traditional Gothic values

"I know that light is not for me, save that of the moon over the rock tombs of Neb, nor any gaiety save the unnamed feasts of Nitokris beneath the Great Pyramid; yet in my new wildness and freedom I almost welcome the bitterness of alienage ... I know always that I am an outsider; a stranger in this century and among those who are still men."

-- H.P. Lovecraft, "The Outsider"

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Mantilla black, clown white, and blood red are definitely the preferred colors of clothing and makeup on the second floor of SoHo Lounge in the Miami Design District, where the music ranges from pulsing EBM (electronic body music) to a particularly aggro Ministry cut to such crossover classics as the Cure and Wolfsheim. A few images stand out: penetrating brown eyes under penciled eyebrows and black Betty Page bangs, a swirl of green Victorian lace, black trenchcoat and eyeliner, blond ponytail.

But the majority of the hundred or so revelers milling about the balcony bar and swaying around the dance floor during the Kitchen Club's 16th Anniversary Party are what some Goths call "The Mundanes" -- non-Goths. Just your average Miami clubgoers whose musical tastes run toward the drum-and-synthesizer-based.

So what does this relative dearth of deathly pale partiers tell us? After the Kitchen helped grow and define what it meant to be a Goth in Miami, why haven't more hard-core Goths showed up to celebrate?

Some veterans of our local Goth culture have been giving this some serious thought in recent years. As anyone Goth will tell you, the club scene is only one aspect of Gothdom, but as the most visible facet, it is as good a place as any to take the subculture's pulse. Most in the scene agree its heartbeat is fluttering like a plastic bat on a string; what they can't agree on is why.

That is hardly surprising. You would be hard-pressed to find any two Goths who agree completely on an all-encompassing definition of what Goth is anyway. The former South Florida club kid now known as Marilyn Manson has appropriated and popularized certain aspects of the Goth aesthetic -- to the near-universal disdain of Gotherati in South Florida and around the world. (The Marilyn Manson entry in 21st Century Goth, the 2002 tome by British scene chronicler Mick Mercer, reads simply, "Bowie tribute band.")

Indeed, if you shine a dripping pewter candelabrum around the dark, dark corners of this dark, dark subculture, you'll find the rhetorical barbs, bruised egos, and hurt feelings typical of any ideological battle. What are they squabbling about? What aren't they squabbling about? Darkwave vs. EBM, Fetish Goths vs. Romantic Vampires, dress codes vs. all access. Some want to grow the scene by blending genres of music and style. Others argue that too much of that kind of mixing dilutes the spirit of what Goth is supposed to be about.

And you're not going to get to the bottom of this pit by talking to some Baby Bat fresh from his first trip to Hot Topic. No, you need to talk to the kind of Goths who have seen at least four iterations of the Kitchen come and go, who know Christian Death from Cinema Strange, a Gangrel from a Ventrue.

You're going to have to knock on the coffin doors of the Elder Goths.

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When we say Goth, what do we mean? In this chicken-and-egg equation, the music definitely came first, and definitely came from England in the New Wave/Postpunk era: Bauhaus, Joy Division, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Alien Sex Fiend, the Sisters of Mercy (who have vehemently repudiated the Goth tag). The Cure? Yeah, sorta, but they're generally viewed as more of a "crossover" band. Stray any farther afield than these core artists, and you're sure to violate some Goth or other's definition of what the genre is and what it ain't.

During the Nineties, Gothic music became entwined with the industrial grindcore scene and the label grew to include everyone from Nine Inch Nails, whose brilliant frontman Trent Reznor birthed a few radio-friendly hits, to dystopic, experimental noise units such as Chemlab, Frontline Assembly, and, well, Noise Unit.

People who were into these bands, and went to clubs to hear them, hadn't necessarily applied the Gothic tag to the music -- or to themselves. Carlos Saint Germain, who moved from Kansas to Miami in 1991, began frequenting the Kitchen at its Miami Beach location in the Seagull Hotel at 21st Street and Collins Avenue, where it had opened in 1988. He liked the music being played, but he also had a few of his own dark favorites that he began bringing in for the DJs to play.

 

Once the Kitchen moved to its Coconut Grove location at the intersection of McDonald Street and Grand Avenue in 1993, Saint Germain came with it, and began playing a more active role, eventually promoting his own extremely Gothic night and DJing it himself. He dressed the part, tending toward the Victorian/Vampire side of the Goth spectrum. He cemented his cred by running a Vampire: The Masquerade game at the club.

His reputation was even Gother than that. "There were rumors going around that it was like a Satanic cult based here in Miami," he remembers with a wry grin. "I'd have people come up to me from out of state, and be like, oh, you're the one that throws those parties, and I'm like yeah, and they're like, well, where do you guys meet other than here? I'm like, meet? What do you mean? I even had a couple different parents tell me that they took their children to psychologists, and were giving them my flyers." He remembers that one party in particular, which was called "Kill Yourself," caused something of a stir, even earning a mention from Miami Herald nightlife columnist Tara Solomon. The flyers, he remembers, were hand-colored by his five-year-old niece and her friends. "It was cute," he says.

As the Kitchen, under the guidance of owner/DJ Aldo G, moved in an ever-more-Goth direction, the club's staff had to deal with Those Pesky Mundanes. Humberto Wispe, long-time bouncer for the Kitchen (also a long-time New Times employee, now classified advertising director at New Times Broward-Palm Beach) remembers that his services were regularly required to keep certain club patrons and passersby from harassing the Anne Rice fans.

"There was also a lot of moshing at the Kitchen -- it was one of the last clubs in Miami for ... not skinheads, but, you know, whoever was into the moshing scene. They'd play some Ministry and White Zombie, and in between that, music for the Goths. And there was a lot of picking on them --outside of the club, too."

None of that daunted Aldo, Wispe says. "[Gothic music] was just what he was into. We used to yell at him: öThis is what you like, not what the people like.' But he stuck to his guns. He just loves the scene." (Aldo did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this article.)

The Grove location closed in 1995, then reopened roughly a year later in the Design District. Even after it moved yet again, to Biscayne Boulevard in North Miami in 1997, it remained a "sanctuary" for South Florida's small but established Goth scene. Saint Germain became Aldo's formal business partner at the North Miami location, but shortly thereafter, Saint Germain skipped town to join the band Apocalypse Theater. After two years on the road with the popular Goth/Industrial act, he decided to return to South Florida.

What he saw troubled him. While the term Goth was getting thrown around on flyers as never before, and the number of ostensibly Gothic DJs had grown, something had changed.

"Before, it was like, the Kitchen was the shit, and there weren't other clubs," he remembers. "The Kitchen set the standard. Now, that's not good enough for some of the people who've been around a long time. I don't get it."

Saint Germain has a couple of gigs, including spinning for his old pal Aldo at the Kitchen' s current, multiroom incarnation at SoHo Lounge. And though he tries to keep the cold flame burning, he's not having much success. "I don't know what the deal is, because I see so many people that appear and act like they're into the Gothic scene, but then I'll throw a Goth party, and I'll be playing, like, old-school Gothic music, and it's like people just don't respond to it," he declares. "People are scared when they hear a little guitar, or when they hear real drums. If I spin Goth at 1:30 in the morning, it's going to clear the dance floor.

"Unfortunately, it's back to where it started," he concludes, referring to the Kitchen's early nights in the Grove. "That's when you could get away with playing that music, because the select 25 people that were into it would stick around and hear that music. I get disappointed, but I still stick to it, and I still stick to playing those songs."

And he doesn't think that the multiroom, multigenre approach employed by the Kitchen and Funeral is doing the Goth scene any favors.

"The Mundanes are the problem," he states. "That's a big turnoff. I don't have a problem, but that does bother some people: They have a problem with normal people."

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"The Gothic culture does not depend on the club scene," declares Aiden, editor of the Goth e-zine Midnight Calling. "It exists independently of the scene. If every club were to shut down in South Florida, you would still have a Gothic culture.

 

"Goth probably is the real underground. We get together at Starbucks," he says through the pungent aroma of the half-caf grande lattes being slung by the barista behind him. "There's a saying that Denny's is the biggest Goth club in Florida."

Aiden, who, because of his age (43, he grudgingly admits) and his world view, fits just about everybody's definition of an Elder Goth, arrived in his everyday attire: black blazer with Christian Death pins, black jeans, a paisley shirt and vest with ornate pewter buttons, round metal-rimmed shades, and, most distinctively, a bowler hat. ("I'm kind of the last of a dying breed: I'm a Victorian Goth," he says.)

With his folksy North Florida-meets-North Carolina drawl, fine blond hair, and round, open face, Aiden seems an unlikely lightning rod for Goth-scene controversy. But while the Coral Springs resident's manner is polite and self-effacing (he jokes that one reason he wears black at this point in his life is because it's "slimming"), there's definitely an iron fist in that black velvet glove.

"This may be somewhat controversial, but myself, I see Florida has lost touch with the international Goth community," he declares. "If you go to the clubs, most of it is EBM, industrial synth-pop dominated." And, based upon his travels to such annual Gothfests as Release the Bats in Los Angeles and Dead and Buried in London, the electronic stuff, he says, is not what's hot internationally. The Death Rock Revival, featuring bands including Cinema Strange, Ausgang, and Skeletal Family, began as a reaction against the domination of electronic music, the freshest, most current strain of Gothic music.

"There are dozens of excellent Goth bands who get played all over the world but we don't hear in South Florida," Aiden says. "A lot of younger Goths say that older Goths like myself are stuck in the past. But the truth is, it's not stuck in the past, because there are dozens of these new bands coming out, which aren't exactly like the old Batcave days, but have the same spirit, and the same foundations."

He's talking about some of the same bands that Saint Germain says will clear the dance floor, and he doesn't agree. "I know of a few times that I've been able to take it to places, and people go, wow, what is that? That's great. A lot of the younger people think it's old stuff, and don't understand that it's cutting edge, it's brand-new, these are bands which are performing all over the world."

Aiden says you can count him among the Elder Goths in South Florida who've pretty much given up on the club scene. He says he's gotten burned too many times. "A lot of clubs will use the word Goth on their flyers. They'll say EBM, industrial synth-pop, retro, Goth. But when you actually go in, they play very little Goth. You'll hear a Cure song or a Siouxsie song, and that's it. I think properly you can call something like that an alternative night, or an underground night. But is it really a Goth night? Probably not."

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The cramped living room of Juan "Count Prince" Rivera's Hialeah Gardens condominium bristles with Catholic imagery. Gazing at the porcelain San Lazaro and the shimmering Lady of Peace icon, one wonders: Can this Puerto Rican guy, more homebody than homeboy, possibly live up to his most Gothic of handles?

Then he emerges from his office/sanctuary, a slight, ponytailed figure with café-con-leche skin and a neat goatee. He wears a burgundy velvet robe over a black silk shirt and black velvet trousers. At his throat, a black ... wait for it ... ascot.

In other words, he dresses like the Count, and looks like Prince. And that is where his nickname came from.

He got seriously into the club scene and Gothic fashion in the early Nineties; he eventually became a fixture at the Kitchen, especially the Grove and North Miami incarnations. He describes his style as "Romantic Vampire."

"I would wear a cape, and one of our friends would call me öthe Count,' always," he says, the soft vowels of San Juan in his voice. "I always tell people, my name is Juan Rivera, and, I'm Juan. He's like no, you're the Count. Count-Count-Count-Count. And everybody caught on to that and started to call me Count.

"Then one day, I actually went in a limousine to the Kitchen back in Biscayne, I come out, and somebody says, öOh, shit, that's Prince coming out of the limousine.' And from there, everybody would go ahead and call me Count Prince. This was not a name I imposed on myself, this name was given to me by the people."

 

Sitting at his dinette, sipping Natural Light and smoking Broncos as images of saints and his parents look on, Rivera offers his own definition of what it means to be Goth. And like Aiden, whom he calls "one of my associates," he emphasizes that the club scene is only a part of it -- and scorns the term "scene" itself. "A scene is only a part of a play that only lasts a half an hour," he scoffs. "We've been here twenty-plus years. We'll see how many Britney Spears-ish, Britney-hoppers will last that long.

"We consider ourselves outcasts of mainstream society, or the pop culture," he continues. "We have a certain, different style. Music is still a very big factor of it, but people came to understand that it's also associating with those that are like-minded. One thing that can define the Goth culture is that we are more inbound, and we look at issues that other people don't like to see.

"If half the people knew exactly what Goth culture is, they wouldn't be in it," he states. "Just because you go to a Goth club doesn't mean you're a Goth. Just because you like Wicca, that doesn't mean you're a Goth. Just because you're Satanic, that doesn't mean you're a Goth. Even if you wear a Bauhaus shirt and black makeup and lipstick and black nail polish, that doesn't mean you're a Goth. You ask a person now, where, actually, Goth started out, and they couldn't tell the difference between their ass and their elbow."

While at 30 he doesn't consider himself an Elder Goth ("I'm still a Baby Bat," he demurs), the Count Prince clearly comes down on the more traditionalist side of the internal debate over the meaning of Goth and what is happening in the club aspect of the culture. The majority of the traditional Goths, he says, are staying home and holding small gatherings of friends. "There's actually no places to go," he states. "Nine times out of ten, the South Florida way of thinking is, they meld fetish with Goth. Yeah, there are some Goths that like fetish, but if they ask me to go to an event, I say no."

"They" in this instance is Joseph "Josepher" Bonilla of The Abusement Park, promoter of Funeral and other events. Funeral does attempt to cater to both fetish fans and Goths. Rivera says he was irked by a recent calendar item in New Times Broward-Palm Beach that portrayed Funeral as the be-all and end-all of all things Gothic. That soured him on Josepher; he'd already been turned off by the current incarnation of the Kitchen. The problem: Genre blending, which not only leads to the mixing of the fetishists and the Goths, but the disruptive presence of, you guessed it...

"... What we call the Mundanes, the Normals, coming over to see what we call the freak show," Rivera says. "I don't consider myself a freak show, I just consider myself who I am. When we used to go to the Kitchen, we were a tight community. Everybody knew who you went out with, and who you did, and so on and so forth. People knew their boundaries. But when you have a Mundane go over there and just throw themselves, or just go ahead and do certain things that we perceive as disrespectful, that's where we have to draw the line. Because they think all Goth chicks are fetish freaks. It just came down to a level where they would go and disrespect, they would start fights ... and this is supposed to be a Goth club."

He remembers one incident at Club Ozone in South Miami, where his wife was harassed by "ravers."

"So I have to go over there -- and yes, I do have bodyguards -- we went over to try to settle the situation. Now, the promoters are saying that, oh, not enough Goths are coming to support our night. Well, [Goths'] faith only goes so far -- my faith only goes so far. It just came down to be that ... we no longer feel safe in our havens. And that's because of the promoters and the DJs -- for saying [one] thing and doing something else."

Rivera realizes his strong opinions have earned him detractors, whom he debates regularly in such e-mail forums as Miamigoth.com "We've been branded anywhere from being elitist to snobs to extremists," he sighs. "You don't see me with plastique, bombing anything to get my point across. If you get it, you get it, if you don't, you don't, but don't try to cram down my throat your interpretation of it."

 

He says he hopes the club aspect of the South Florida Goth scene will turn around soon. But for now, he declares, "There are no Goth clubs down here in South Florida. And there haven't been for about four years."

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"I hope Aiden wasn't too hard-core about stuff," frets Josepher Bonilla. "He hates the South Florida scene. To him, they don't play any Goth. He was a staunch supporter of mine; me and him worked together for a while, but something happened."

When told that Juan Rivera also was interviewed for this story, Bonilla groans, "He's worse than Aiden!" Bonilla says he and Rivera talked for almost an hour after the New Times Broward-Palm Beach story came out, without resolving much.

As for Aiden, Bonilla says his colleague's problems have to do with aspects of the South Florida scene that just aren't going to change. "He has a big issue with calling it a Goth club, where they don't just play Goth," Bonilla says. At Funeral, a monthly party currently housed at Sonar in Hollywood, Bonilla has his DJs spin a variety of music, "from Nine Inch Nails to Cinema Strange," that falls under a very broad definition of Gothic. "The hard-core, straight-line Goths don't consider any of that Goth," he says.

But despite his big-tent approach to putting on a Goth club night, Bonilla says Funeral appears to be struggling.

"When you talk about the underground scene -- Goth or rave or whatever -- it's really not very big," he notes. "To keep everybody separate hurts everything; it's better to bring people together. The hardliners will say that separation is better, but I don't really agree with that."

When the Long Island native arrived some ten years ago, he already had seen an example of the kind of club he wanted to find in his new home: a multi-room underground establishment in Nassau County called Voodoo, which played many different alternative music genres simultaneously -- "And all of the people there were cool with each other."

After his arrival, he began hanging out at Squeeze, the now-defunct Fort Lauderdale alternative club that helped nurture Marilyn Manson. He'd heard about another club, Nemesis, but only found it by accident. "I was driving home one night, and I saw what looked like a funeral home. I drove around the building, and it was like seeing my family: people in black, top hats, fetish-looking girls. Then I saw a sign: öDress Code, Freaks First.' I thought, I'm home."

He came into promotions gradually, first by working at a Broward County fetish store, acting as "like their PR guy," organizing parties for the store. He became familiar with Miami Gothic establishments such as the Kitchen, "but in Broward there was nothing going on."

Through his connections, he eventually began helping out a fetish/Goth endeavor called the Phoenix Room, located at the venerable Fort Lauderdale gay club Coliseum, eventually partnering with its operators. By that time, he'd been using the Abusement Park name for many of his efforts.

His club nights and parties have always had one boot in fetish and the other in Goth -- which might not make sense in other markets, but given the relatively small size of any underground in South Florida, the two subcultures have tended to overlap and coexist, despite some inherent contradictions. Of course, not everyone sees this as a good thing.

He says that some Goths equate fetish with swinging, which isn't what his parties are about at all. (His rule: "If you wanna have sex, go home.") But he's heard from Goths who find the overt sexuality of fetish to be "raunchy." Whatever kind of music might be spinning, "That kind of ruins it for a lot of the Goth people," he admits.

Bonilla stresses that, as a club promoter, he's going to continue to try to broaden the appeal of the Gothic culture, even if that doesn't fit Aiden's or Rivera's perception of what it should be about. "A lot of guys hate the fact that I'm trying to open it up to new people. If the hardliners have disdain for the scene, there's nothing I could really do about it to accommodate them. I had a night with a dress code, and they [the traditional Goths] didn't show up."

As for Aiden's focus on the international Goth scene, Bonilla says that blinds him to the local realities. "If you're talking about trying to support the local scene, you have to be ... not mainstream, but open to the fact that people aren't going to go for that super-ultra-Goth stuff. If I only tried to accommodate the hardliners, there might be 25 people there." And if his Goth nights don't make any money for the host club? "There's a hip-hop night, a Brazilian night, and a salsa night out there waiting for me to fail," he declares. "If you want it to work, the nature of the beast is to bend a little."

 


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