Thursday, July 23, 2009
5 REASONS I WEAR BLACK
(First Published in HORROR GARAGE issue #2, Fall 2000)
An acquaintance of mine who talks (unaffectedly) like an Elmore Leonard character confronts me: "Why you always wearin' black, man? That a goth statement or what? Ain' t like, you know, it' s non-conformist, with all the people wear black.".
I just shrug and say, "It' s the closest thing I' ve got to being part of a tribe." He accepts that.
But it's deeper than that; quite literally deeper. Deepness not in the sense of profundity, but in the sense of something that comes from way down, underneath.
I don't always wear black. But anyone who knows me isn't surprised to see me in black. I'm in black more often than not. There's some justice in making a joke of it -- like the darkly-draped daughter in Beetlejuice, her mopey affectations, her romantic morbidity: Tim Burton making fun of himself. The Harvey Keitel character in Jane Campion's Holy Smoke dresses all in black. A young woman deconstructing him jeers something like, "What's that all about? Does it say 'I'm an individual'?"
But it goes a layer further down. The farther you go, the less light there is: things get dark.
And yes it's tribal, too. You've got to have some axis of relating. For some, it's their tribe, plain and simple; but then there are those dressed all in black who scuffle and mosh with me at Ministry and Sisters of Mercy concerts who are saying, This is my tribe but my tribe is the untribed, the unacknowledged Diaspora. I am the defective.
So is it just the black banner of romanticized alienation? Is it post-punk fashion classicism? Admittedly, it serves those functions. But, take this on faith: I wear black because I'm in mourning.
And I write noir for the same reason. Two media for the same expression. One side is passive mourning, the other side is active mourning. Active mourning for me is anger. No mourning is real or complete without anger.
The easy thing would be to dismiss all goth and all dark sartorial stylings as arrested adolescent melodrama. It would be easy to dismiss much of film noir, or the novels of James Ellroy in the same way. Film noir is just chic arrested-adolescent melodrama, some might say. Self indulgent romanticizing of bitterness, of resentment, of despair, of morbid fixation? Yes and no. With a deeper understanding: just no.
Such tropes are self indulgent only if they don't serve a larger function. Noir serves several. The artistic function, obviously: fine expression can be made for any subjective, all-too-human state of mind, adolescent or otherwise. Is any genuine emotional expression, artfully rendered, truly self indulgent?
Postmodern theorists -- with their political agendas -- will point to noir film and fiction (and music?) as a poeticizing of the working class's quandary; oppression dramatized, Edvard Munch like expressionism rendering the lack of choices in a closed, mazelike, claustrophobic, corrupt society. The political ramifications are difficult to dispute. But that's not its deepest level; not its deepest shadow, its greatest value. It's something -- oh but existential and ontological are buzzwords that have lost their meaning.
Of course, it's almost common knowledge that horror and morbid rock help us digest death. Don't Fear the Reaper...
There are other, more resonant functions. Certain artists take on an almost shamanistic role in the service of mourning -- usually unconsciously or, in the case of Marilyn Manson, half consciously. Some of us were made to be those particular vacuum tubes in the clumsy old fashioned computer-mind of the Collective Unconscious. Believe it or not, goths (setting aside the bogus Columbine variety) are here to serve. They mostly don't know it themselves. I am one of those vacuum-tubes whose social function is -- partly by inherent nature and partly by inherited nature -- to protest, to mourn; to amplify and relay mourning and anger for the collective mind.
A noir writer naturally processes woundedness with both objectivity and with empathy for the other wounded; with something more elegant, more eloquent, more valuable than self-pity. Something more broadly useful than mere catharsis: Self knowledge. Carl Jung described the self as a vast dark sphere -- a little spot of light on the sphere, a tiny section of it, is our ordinary understanding of ourselves.
Think of Lou Reed's superbly drawn portraits of junkies (the anthem Heroin; the philosophical decadent in Street Hassle) and speedfreaks (How Do You Think It Feels? from his album Berlin). Are those portraits just romanticizations of self destruction? Or are they almost Raymond Carveresque short stories that help us understand ourselves? I think they're deeply functional -- and deeply, redemptively satisfying for those of us who've been there.
This capacity for functionally exploring noir made my noir writing possible: my novels, stories and story collections, my contribution (one of two screenwriters) to the archetypically goth film The Crow.
But underlying it all -- I wear black, I write noir out of personal hurt, personal anger, and that place where personal suffering resonates with collective suffering.
And so: the following Five Reasons, drawn from real life, chosen as representative; from my life or the world's life. I could have picked other examples. Originally there were Seven Reasons, but I cut two very personal ones out of respect for the feelings of family members -- and some of the more sensitive reading public.
Probe with me these five cicatrices; the tissue lifts away easily; these wounds are poorly healed, not at all annealed.
Five Reasons I Wear Black
In no actual order of importance:
1. A month ago the newspaper blandly reported that a little girl was found chained to a bed in her crank-addict mother's bedroom. She'd been chained there continuously for six years...When I was a drug-use -- and I used in the apartments of addicts -- I glimpsed rooms where children were trying to sleep on the floor; their parents had sold their beds. I gave their parents money and drugs. I facilitated, I magnified their misery. I wear black in my regret; I write noir for those children, all those children, the children of addicts; and for the addicts, who want to stop hurting their families and abandoning their children, and can't; and for those who've lost the ability to want to stop hurting their children. I wear black for them, I write noir for them.
2. There was a little boy...There was a little boy, seven years old, who was pressured and intimidated and then imprinted: he was molested by someone older, a neighbor. He was taught to have sex at seven. He was taught that it was a secret. He was tormented by perverse visions that kept him awake at night. His father died when he was ten -- they'd never been close. That's two ways to lose your father. He grew up a sex and drug addict. He was clumsy, a misfit, often beaten up till he learned to fight; he was kicked out of high school. He was a punk rocker but didn't even feel he belonged there. He fell into hustling for awhile and was raped and left in an abandoned house in the middle of nowhere. Later he got married four times and hurt four women. He's in recovery now and in a good, lasting marriage, but it still hurts. It's supposed to. I am that boy. I wear black for him; I write noir for him.
3. John Wayne Gacy tortured children to death. He enjoyed telling people, later, that after a while these little boys begged him to kill them. There are people who collect his paintings. Who covet his trading card in the Serial Killer Trading Cards pack. I wear black for those children; I mourn for those children; I write noir to remember them... Two cops found a bloody fourteen year old boy wandering the streets, dazed -- he indicated he'd come from a certain house, nearby. He seemed confused, so they took him back to the house. The man there said the boy was his gay lover, had been drinking or something, was confused. The boy tried to tell the cops but they didn't listen -- fantastically obtuse, they turned him over to the man, who took him inside and killed him and ate him: Jeffrey Dahmer. I wear black for that boy � Not so long ago there was a man in Alaska who picked up wayward women, took them in the mountains, hobbled them, and then hunted them down with a bow and arrow. There are many, many graves still undiscovered in those mountains. I wear black for those women ... I wear black, I write noir, for a humanity dogged by the serial killer in every human brain: brains wired for primitive, outmoded responses, warped by genetic or nurturing misdirection, diabolic programming to find reward in cruelty -- the same wiring, a little less fixedly imprinted, that thrilled us when we watched the CNN footage of smart missiles shattering Iraq. . .And I mourn for those who think serial killers are chic, are campy fun; the stunningly cynical who think they're some sort of salaciously-delightful postmodernist art project: I wear black to mourn for their dead souls.
4. There are children in Africa -- nine years old, ten and eleven and twelve -- who're taken away from their parents by "rebels." Sometimes the children are forced to kill their parents, their brothers and sisters, before they leave with the "rebels." They're taught to use automatic weapons to kill government soldiers and anyone who stands in the way of the "rebels." And the "rebels" addict them to crack cocaine and then send them, stoned and psychotic, firing weapons they can barely lift, into villages of the sort they themselves were taken out of, to kill. To create filling for mass graves�Mass gravesI An innovation of the modern world -- in the old days they left them for the buzzards. But the making of mass graves was brought to a high state of technique in the Holocaust -- No amount of familiarizing, no Spielberg films or memorials, can take away the pain of those who suffered there. I wasn't there, but I can feel the pain hanging in the air, I can hear the unheard prayers: I have only to lift my head and listen. Children lying, alive, in the mass graves, waiting in their mothers'arms, waiting for the machine guns; some not dying till the smothering dirt covered their faces. The mass graves then; the mass graves now: There are always newer, fresher mass graves. Somewhere in the Balkans someone is surveying the land, in some sense, for new mass graves to come even as those that haven't quite settled are being dug up by the U.N. Mass graves in Malaysia; in South America. Maybe, mass graves will be dug for as long as human beings drop their spoor on the beaten trails of the sickened planet. They'll off-road in their SUVs to dig new mass graves. I wear black, I write noir, for the tangled bodies in the mass graves. I write noir, I wear black, for those African children. Because that's the kind of world we have made.
5. Was it fifteen years ago? Between wives, one of my periods of sexual adventurism. Sex, then, replacing drugs. A certain bar in Los Angeles where any kind of liaison is possible. I was picking up a half-mad young woman, telling myself she needed the consolation I would give, and maybe I'd slip her some money as she seemed more or less broke, though not quite a whore. Then a guy she knew a little came in, and started hustling the two of us. A threesome -- not since Plato's Retreat, and why not? So we went to a depressing motel on La Brea. There was some desultory sex, but I lost heart as I saw the scars on her legs, and as she told me how she got them, and how she couldn't feel much in a lot of her body below her waist because of the baseball bat her father had used on her. So I proposed to leave -- I could see she was afraid of the other guy, who had tattoos of skulls biting into the necks of little girls, and one that said KILL THEM ALL AND LET GOD SORT EM OUT. I tried to get him to go with me, but he wouldn't. He assured me he just wanted a place to sleep, and I let it slide, thinking, sure he's a crack addict but, shit, that don't make him a woman beater, and I decided, in my dazed hurry to get away from them, that she would be okay. I left -- though I sensed, vaguely, that she was scared to be left with the guy and yet didn't want to leave the room -- and only the next day did I really begin to worry. A month later I asked about the girl in the bar, a place she'd been a regular. No one had seen her for a month. The hustler came in; I asked him if he'd seen her. No, not since that night, he said. I could see such raw fear in his face when I mentioned her. Looking into his face, I knew the son of a bitch killed her. I told myself I was wrong, I was being paranoid. I came back to talk to the guy the next day -- they said he'd left the state. All I can do now is pray for her and tell her I'm sorry. I write noir for her; I wear black for her.
There are something under six billion other reasons to wear black; to write noir. Somebody has to play the dirge.
Please go to http://www.john-shirley.com
Posted by Lou Boxer at 7:19 PM