Goth still lives in Philly and the burbs

Posted: August 14, 2013

Some might say the Philly goth scene is dead.

That is, if a subculture fueled by lovers of the undead can die.

In a sense, goths already are immortal: a culture revived from a different era. Inspired in part by the Victorians' interest in Gothic art and literary obsession with the darker side of life, '80s bands such as Joy Division, the Cure, and Bauhaus sparked a new genre of music and a generation of counterculturalists.

The characteristic black painted nails, leather and lace outfits, and layers of ornate, spiked jewelry are only part of what it means to be goth.

"People think we dress to identify," said Linda Graham of East Falls. "Some people do, but to be gothic is in the heart."

Nocturne, a weekly event coordinated by the promoter Patrick Rodgers, was the hub of goth life in Philadelphia for more than a decade, drawing as many as 500 attendees. Rodgers said fans would sometimes come from Baltimore and New York to get a taste of the Wednesday night fantasy world for the darkly inclined.

A change in venue last year was enough to throw off the vibe, Rodgers said. Attendance dwindled, and promoters no longer could afford the clubs and artists to bring crowds back in full force.

Without a thriving heart, goth fans, promoters and artists say, the scene is a shadow of its former self.

A few faithful, cloaked in black with bouncing coils of synthetic "cyber" hair, swayed alone on the dance floor at the start of a goth/industrial and electronic show last month at the Barbary on Frankford Avenue in Fishtown.

At one point only four sat in the goth dance room, including the child-size skeleton one carried. They were almost surprised when the late-night crowd started packing the dimly lit space.

Teens and adults still flee the suburbs for a taste of the music, clubs, fashion and people that define Philly goths like the thick layer of black eyeliner that defines their eyes. Interest in the scene might seem lukewarm, but many say it's just hiding in the shadows, waiting for the right time to emerge.

Niche shows often draw a small group of 50 diehards, but hundreds will show up for the annual Dracula's Ball. Philadelphians are reverse-commuting to weekly suburban events such as Asylum 13 at MOJO 13 in Wilmington.

Now, theme nights feature goth classics paired with electronic music that has infiltrated the American music scene.

For goth purists, it strays too far. For promoters and artists, it's an attempt to branch out and make money in a struggling niche culture. And it might be the future of the city's underworld.

Goggles, a staple of the up-and-coming steampunk fashion, also are popping up in clubbers' elaborate outfits. Lines are blurring between one group and the next, a sometimes threatening yet normal progression, said Arielle Greenberg, a cultural studies scholar and author of Youth Subcultures: Exploring Underground America.

But if anyone can raise the dead, it's the goths.

Greenberg said those whose identities are tied closely to goth culture will stick with it, sometimes for life.

Nick Sapienza and his team at PhillyGothIndustrial.com are planning more theme nights this year, and Rodgers said he might bring back some of Nocturne's dark charm if the perfect opportunity arises.

"Our movement died too soon," said Rainer Chaney, of Newark, Del., black fingernails peeping out of clasped, ring-laden hands. "It's almost like the eye of the storm. . . . What's to come next?"


Contact Summer Ballentine at 215-854-2771 or at SBallentine@philly.com. Follow her on Twitter @ESBallentine.

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