Bela Lugosi's Not Dead: S.F.'s Darkwave Scene Is Still Going Strong (and Weird)
If you like Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, or Kanye West, you probably shouldn't go to the Dancing Ghosts party at the Cat Club tomorrow night. If you normally wear lots of bright colors when you're out on the town, or if you like to spend time in the sun for fun, then you'd probably feel a tad out of place.
A typical crowd at the Dancing Ghosts darkwave party.
Formerly at the Stud Bar in SOMA, Dancing Ghosts isn't your typical nightlife scene -- along with events like Shutter at the Elbo Room, it's one of San Francisco's several goth parties, billing itself in fliers as a "darkwave dance party."
For the uninitiated, darkwave music is basically goth music -- sorta.
"'Darkwave' describes a certain era and a handful of foundational artists" from the late '70s and early '80s like Bauhaus, Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Cure, and Clan of Xymox, says Alex Westhoff, who organizes Dancing Ghost and spins as DJ Xander. In some ways, Westhoff says, Bauhaus's 1979 song "Bela Lugosi's Dead" started the goth movement.
In other words, darkwave refers to the original goth bands, the ones who pioneered the sound that grew out of punk music.
"Punk was much more about social change, whereas goth is much more inward," Westhoff says. "The lyrics tend to be somewhat depressing or brooding and somber."
San Francisco has long been home to a thriving goth scene, according to Marco Delavega, who spins as DJ WhITCH and organizes an Elbo Room event called 120 Minutes. Delavega and other DJs integrate newer pop and electronic music with the goth sound, often by slowing the songs down and mixing them with other songs or sounds to give them a goth feel.
"One of the reasons the scene here is so strong is that it always has been," Delavega says. "What's going on now isn't so much of a revival as much as a renewed interest, generally speaking," thanks to bands like Salem, Light Asylum, and Gate Keeper that have generated some mainstream attention.
"It's easier with the fog to listen to something that's more melancholy to make you feel happier," says DJ Nako, who runs Shutter. "San Francisco -- there's something special about it, there's something mystical about it.
"Plus, you can wear more clothes," she adds. "If you want the [goth] look, it's not suited to hotter weather."
At 120 Minutes, the typical partygoer wears -- surprise! -- black.
"Pretty much everybody wears black, or at least you see a lot of black," Delavega says.
"It's definitely not people wearing corsets and long skirts," Nako says. For women, think "little hats, little dresses, tight skirts, fishnets, and the highest heels you can manage." Men who dress up wear a nice suit and tie.
"As long as people perceive that you're respectful of the music played," she says, "they would like you," even if you don't follow the typical dress code.
At Dancing Ghosts, Westhoff keeps the music focused on classic darkwave bands, often hosting nights themed around one particular band. Shutter and 120 Minutes tend to cater to a slightly broader goth audience.
"The music that we feature at our events and at some of the other goth and darkwave clubs just triggers nostalgia for people because it is a bit older," he says.
Most Dancing Ghosts guests are in their 30s. Younger partiers, Westhoff says, often go to events like Death Guild, which tends to play newer music and "less of the old-school stuff."
Regardless of the specifics, Nako sees darkwave clubs as places for goths to gather.
"When your tastes are off the beaten track, it's harder to find like-minded people that you get along with," she says. "The thing with this music is that it's sometimes the kind of music that you listen to by yourself in your room. It's a great feeling when you find someone else who likes it as well. You want your birds of a feather, and we provide a place for the flock to gather."