The Toxicity of an Underground Lifestyle

February 27, 2012
I'm sure that initially, this essay was meant to be about a pivotal event in my life. And I'm sure that initially, I planned to write about such an event. Maybe when I discovered guitar; maybe when I switched schools for the first or second time.

"First I got my transcript and other files transferred. Then I got my schedule. The end." Switching schools isn't essay material. Its just not - its boring as hell. Nothing changed except my ID card, and the people I have to wade through in the halls.

I'm good at guitar, I'm a good guitarist - but its something I've had to work at. I've been playing for a long time. Its not a Disney-quality story; its not like I picked up a guitar and that was it; I was suddenly prolific. I'm sure I could embellish and make it sound like that was the case, but I don't think that's a good idea. Half of these kids are exaggerating their narrative to extreme levels, if not making it up entirely.
You don’t know me. But its okay. Neither do I. But that might be the end of what we have in common. You’re pretty darn normal, no offense. You listen to the music that everyone else does - you wear the same clothes. You talk about movies everyone else has seen; you liked the same lines, and the same scene where the same actor took off his shirt - oh yes - again.

I don’t.

I play music that hasn’t gotten any sort of serious radio airplay since 1986, if any at all. Bands like Children on Stun, The Cure, Depeche Mode. Artists like Amanda F. Palmer, Edith Piaf, Jill Tracy. The Glitch Mob. La Roux. Owl City. Notice that I’m listing groups that are more and more mainstream now, so you have something to relate to, because if I don’t, this entire essay will be completely alienating, and most of you will disconnect yourselves - you’ll sit back in your chair and you’ll cross your arms and you won’t care to hear what I have to tell you.

I wear eyeliner sometimes. I wear nail polish, sometimes. I have opinions and preferences of makeup brands, and I prefer different clothing companies or retailers to others. I’m straight. Effeminate, yes - but some of you need to learn that there is a fantastic chasm between homosexuality and androgyny, between being gay and being epicene.

Some of you will start to notice that this is not so much a narrative as a self-explanation. I’ll fix that.

I haven’t always been like I am now. Many of you remember Henry from middle school - short, blonde, be-mullet-ed. He got in fights with kids he shouldn’t have, stole from teachers, made thinly-veiled death threats towards other students. I don’t know anyone who liked him very much. He started having depressive episodes, started “self-harming.” Something had to change - so he changed everything. Dyed his hair, darkened his wardrobe, bought a Dragonforce album. Yay for metalheads.

But that wasn’t me. It was too angry all the time, too high energy. Eventually I meandered around to Goth rock. Found a vinyl copy of The Cure’s Seventeen Seconds; fell in love. Fell underground, actually. Turns out, Goth music is in its entirety, a completely underground scene. The more you get into it, the more you find yourself saying “they’re like a combination of...” and “its hard to explain.”

I’m writing about underground music, and how impossibly infuriating it is to be a fan of underground music. I’m doing it in a terribly incoherent and nonlinear way because that’s the way I tend to sound when I’m explaining the validity of one group or another.
“No, no, I know they sound really bad at first, but...”

That doesn’t tend to fly with the short attention spans of my generation.

Not to put them down, however. I understand how people can care more about doing well in a game against a rival team, or writing the absolute best narrative essay that they can, as opposed to spending hours on and Wikipedia finding new obsessions, or converting hard-earned American dollars into euros just to order a Bloody Dead and Sexy shirt. Its a nice shirt, thought it might not have been worth forty dollars in shipping and handling expenses.

Lets try this again; perhaps in a more cohesive way.

The first underground scene I discovered was metal. Initially, it was the obvious bands - Slipknot, A Day To Remember; the hideously un-creative bands that everyone listens to. Eventually, it became gimmick metal bands like Alestorm (Welsh pirate rock. Accordion solo anyone?) or Lordi (Finnish monster glam metal - one of my favorites). And then deeper. I found an extra attraction towards the knights-in-shining-armor power metal bands. There's more of those than you'd think. However - they don't tend to tour very often in America, and I was resigned to watching podcasts of Kamelot shows in German; sighing to myself for an hour and a half, or however long the first song was.
Then, for some unprecedented reason, I stopped listening to metal. Wandering through a local neighbor's yard sale, I found a massive cardboard box full of vinyl records. The side of the box was marked "Fifty Cents." I thought this an excellent price, though I didn't know many of the bands. A Psychedelic Furs sleeve under one arm and a Fantastic Poodles album under the other, I strode proudly to my neighbor, dollar bill burning its way enthusiastically out of my pocket. I offered him the bill, and he shook his head at me. I glared at it furiously, as if it had been the cause of my neighbor's declination.
He then indicated that the price didn't mean 50c per album. It meant per box. I fought the urge to hug the man - both because I didn't know him very well, and also he smelled of marijuana. I purchased the big box of generational artifacts and marched home triumphantly.
An hour later, I was debating the most convenient path out of my room. The albums were scattered around the unnerving beige carpet of the floor, in stacks of three or higher. Bands and artists like Rush, Grateful Dead, Neil Young, Iron Butterfly - music that gave me an appreciation for what music was all about. It was an epiphany; until then I had been convinced that the makings of a good song relied on the speed of the guitarists' hands and whether or not the lyrics were about dragons.
I finished up The Who's Tommy, thinking, Wow, that deaf, dumb and blind kid sure could play a mean pinball, and dropped Seventeen Seconds on the spindle. I breathed in the first somber notes of "A Reflection," and furrowed my brow in confusion. This was like nothing I had ever heard before. Dark, romantic, mysterious, sad - all at the same time. I devoured the rest of the album, a dog out of the desert, and when it was finished, I ran up to my parents' music collection to see if they had more of this somber, decadent music.
They did. 1987's Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, was exquisite. It was more on the fun, peppy side - with horn features and lyrics about how beautiful you are and the perfect girl. I loved it.
I own all of The Cure's albums now, in one form or another, but at the time, all I knew was that I needed more of this music. Research revealed that The Cure was one of the fore-fathers of a post-punk movement that eventually evolved into Goth rock. Your history lesson begins now:
The three most prevalent parents of Goth music were Siouxsie Sioux of Siouxsie and the Banshees, Peter Murphy of Bauhaus, and Robert Smith of The Cure. The combination of Smith's generally melancholy lyrics and mood, Murphy's introspective, introverted way of life, and Sioux's extreme aesthetic warped punk music down into a dark, musical catacomb - one I tend to spend all of my listening time in.
I love The Cure for the pure introspection and romanticism in their music.
I love Bauhaus for the images conjured by their songs.
The Banshees are excellent; I hear a new layer to their music every time I listen.
The astoundingly deep voice of Andrew Eldritch, front man for Sisters of Mercy, and the ever-so-danceable beats provided by their drum machine, Doctor Avalanche, have secured their place as one of my top ten favorite bands.
Specimen, and Sex Gang Children have been some of the fore-runners of the Batcave scene since the early '80s, and have been my favorites since I discovered them.
I'm listing classic bands, but the underground is much deeper than that. Any real Goth would be happy to explain the validity of Siouxsie Sioux, or the poetry of Specimen. Not so many of them could relate such facts about All Gone Dead, or Christian Death, or 45 Grave.

Or maybe Goth isn’t what you’d ever want to listen to; the images conjured of greasy-haired, mall-stalking, Tripp pants-wearing, acne-plagued loners are enough to disaffect and estrange you.

Maybe another approach: You’ve all heard the songs “Little Lion Man,” or “The Cave,” by Mumford & Sons, but you’ve heard the songs on Top 40 radio. Mumford & Sons are part of a much, much larger indie folk scene, which gained prevalence underground in the most recent years of the decade. The song “Home,” you’ve also heard, though you might not know who it was written by. It was Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, Alex Ebert’s band after Ima Robot failed to launch. The indie folk scene is actually pretty impressive, especially in Colorado. Bored on a Friday night? You can go see The Oak Creek Band, or Andrew Matthews at various art cafes in Denver, all along Kalamath or Santa Fe.

I'm listing names most of you have never heard of before. That's the point. That's the point. I'm telling you these musicians, their history, why you should listen to them; at least half of you aren't even listening. Half of those who are listening don't care to hear anymore. You're satisfied with the 30 Taylor Swift songs on your iPod.

Don't get me wrong, Taylor Swift is all right. But there is so much more music out there. I use Goth music as an example, but there's Indie-pop, Fusion genres, New Wave, and Jazz. The size of the underground punk scene is astronomical - I'd love to get you into it. I'd love to get all of you into anything more than what you listen to. I want you to show me a band I've never heard of, show me a genre never-before-conceived. There's so much music out there that could connect this world in an unimaginable way. Just open your ears, and I may yet get to stop suffering from the cancer of an underground lifestyle. Open your ears, and the world may yet heal. Open your ears.

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