Archive for 90s

I Was a Vampire Roleplayer

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on April 23, 2012 by vprime

If you, like me, grew up in the 90s, then, you may have been lucky enough to experience the wonderland of strange lipstick colors, DIY hair dye jobs, techno music and vampire role playing games. If you were not so fortunate, come now and hear the un-shocking truth about vampire roleplaying. Let me tell you of a time before Twilight and MMORPGs when the games were on paper and vampires were sexy but never sparkly. The game of choice was Vampire: the Masquerade. V:tM could be played as either a tabletop dice game like Dungeons and Dragons or a Live Action Role Playing (LARP) game. Produced by a Georgia-based gaming company White Wolf, V:tM had several subtitle-happy companion games such as Werewolf: the Apocalypse, Mage: the Ascension, Wraith: the Oblivion, etcetera. All these games shared a universe known as the World of Darkness, which was described in several of the source manuals as a “Gothic-Punk” world. The universe created by White Wolf was compellingly peppered with mythological references, obscure vocabulary and interesting alternate histories. In short, it was like crack to the sort of nerdbrain that thrived on Joy Division, etymological dictionaries and Bulfinch’s mythology.

One of the things that made V:tM more interesting than a typical hack-and-slash role playing game was the focus on building characters. As a vampire player, your character had two archetypal personalities, your public persona and a private, concealed personality. Rather being defined by a character class (what you character does) and alignment (good or evil) you could decide to be a Benefactor/Predator or a Scientist/Martyr. Your character belonged to a Clan which dictated what sorts of vampire powers you’d have. Clan affiliation also dictated your weaknesses. For example, the Toreador Clan were your basic Anne-Rice-style fancy lad vampires, making lots of art and devoted to beauty. One of their powers was the ability to emotionally manipulate people around them—think stage presence—but their weakness was that they could fall into a paralyzing fascination in the presence of beautiful artworks or people. Your vampire powers operated on a system of finite willpower points. I think this system would be a wonderful one to implement in real life. As in “I’d love to have the salad instead of fries, but I’m all out of willpower points today, so . . .” Willpower points were regained by sleeping, feeding or other actions dictated by your personality type. In the live game, the powers operated inelegantly. For example, if your powers made you invisible, you’d cross your arms over your upper chest—hands touching shoulders—and everyone would have to pretend they didn’t see you creeping around. Even worse were the intangible powers, which would lead to dialogue like this:

“I just used my powers to make you do my bidding.”

“Oh, okay. What do you want me to do?”

“Go over there and ask that girl if she’s got a boyfriend.”

“Sigh.”

Since most of the people I played with were in high school, our characters’ concerns fell often into one of the following categories:

  1. Being sexy and mysterious.
  2. Shoving it to The Man.
  3. Killing each other. Preferably with explosives.

These goals took some doing to act out in a suburban park or in one of our back yards. It was hard to be sexy and mysterious when your mom drops you off for the game. Even harder than that was convincing all the people loafing around on your back porch that they’ve just been in a hellish explosion. LARPing with your school chums also led to plenty of awkward moments when trying to decide if the person talking to you was the kid from math class or Destructo, the Undead Viking. Generally, you’d just ask if they were in character, but by the time people started feeling comfortable slipping out of character, the game would devolve into a night of hanging out in a parking lot.  

The live-action game usually ran like a chaotic play about a deranged city council. A major premise of the game was that vampires engaged in a conspiracy to control humanity and conceal their existence from same. An easy plot was to call a meeting about some outlier whose sloppy feeding habits were threatening to reveal the existence of vampires. It’s hardly surprising that the game attracted a lot of Drama Club members highly devoted to acting out their awesome vampire characters. At live action games, the players tended to dress the part—lots of black leather jackets and thrift-store black lace dresses—and to put on British-ish accents or Enunciate. Dramatically. And crisply. The system required a folded up sheet of characteristics and powers you had. This was kept on your person and consulted when an interaction required you to engage in verbal conflict with another player. In the case that your attributes or powers were matched to your opponents, you could decide the matter with a round of rock-paper-scissors overseen by the rule-enforcing Storyteller. (I guess that by then, people had figured out that Dungeonmaster had other connotations.) Imagine, if you will, the tense confrontation between a rebellious young punk and the be-suited stiff representing the repressive social order. The harsh words and open contempt. The powerful deciding throw of rock versus scissors.  

The post-Columbine hysteria about the sinister practice of Vampire LARPing led to a brief spike in the game’s popularity before an almost total loss of media interest in the game. For those of us who played, the fear was totally misplaced. We weren’t keying ourselves up to be psychopaths. We were just escaping into a world where we could be glamorous and powerful. Monday morning would shuffle us back into the system, but Saturday nights we could rule the world.

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Music For a Monday: Switchblade Symphony

Posted in Culture, Music with tags , , , , on December 19, 2011 by vprime

Now that the world is (finally) safe for 90s nostalgia, I find myself dipping back into the bands I listened to then. Switchblade Symphony seems to embody a certain 90s alt-girl (or should I say grrl) aesthetic that lodged itself in the nexus of all that was cool. There were two girls (and some guys, but, whatever) with dreaded hair making spooky music whilst dressed in tattered thrift-store rejects. They looked vaguely like early Courtney Love only with lots more piercings and they had a comic book that was something like this:

I owned this comic, but now I cannot recall what it was about. An abusive dad or something? It was very of the time when girls wanted to tell the patriarchy to fuck off by wearing shredded wedding gowns. Anyway, that’s neither here nor there, the point is that SS took a goth twist to the riot-grrl look, but lyrically, they were less invested in politics than in potentially spooky things happening to children. One of their albums was titled after the children’s book Bread and Jam for Frances, a reference that really never made sense to me considering how menacing some of their songs could be. By menacing, I don’t mean aggressive and threatening, but frightening or unsettling like “Scary Stories to Tell in The Dark.” Here is an example, a song which uses nursery rhyme and the sounds of a toy-like piano to create dark atmospheric effects:

The ‘Goth’ label stuck to them in part because that’s how their label Cleopatra promoted them. I always thought they were one of those unclassifiable sorts of bands like Rasputina or Medieval Baebes. Their first album, “Serpentine Gallery” had plenty of Goth club crowd pleasers, like these:

Switchblade Symphony moved away from these synth-goth sounds later, experimenting with scratching, different vocal techniques and less club-friendly songs.

Switchblade Symphony split in late 1999, which seems perfectly appropriate somehow, since I have such heavy 90s associations for this band. Tina Root is now performing under the name Tre Lux. Her website has samples of several covers she’s done, including the fully awesome but sadly overlooked Information Society jam “Pure Energy.”

I Want to Be Alone and Online: Introverts and Social Networks

Posted in Culture with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 20, 2011 by vprime

When I was teaching college composition courses, the text I used included an essay lamenting that Facebook “friends” were replacing real-life relationships with actual friends. I honestly can’t recall the essay because in the intervening time I’ve read so many words about how social media are turning us all into distracted, shallow, disconnected drones. I began thinking about this again when I read a critique of Noam Chomsky on the blog Cyborgology.  There, Nathan Jurgenson takes up the split between specialist-controlled media such as broadcast TV and book publishing and open, user-generated content on Twitter and other networks. I see something unrelated but interesting in this story that I want to address. Chomsky had stated that social media’s limitations force human interactions to become “more superficial, shallow, evanescent.” Inherent in this critique, which Chomsky is not the first to voice, is that face-to-face interaction must be more substantive, more rich, indeed even more real than digitally mediated relationships. For the record, my students really didn’t buy any of these arguments. To them it would be like saying relationships conducted over the phone are more shallow because we’re losing the exchange of cartes de visite.

The problem I see here is an assumption that one mode of interaction is more authentic than another. What is the difference between a conversation that takes place in person and one that takes place over Gchat? For me, and other introverts like me, the difference is that face-to-face interactions can often be tiring, stressful or dull, while a digital interaction allows the user greater control over the length and depth of the conversation. But before I delve too deeply into this distinction, I’d like to address the issue of introversion and its place in our social hierarchy.

Shy, Snobby, Cold and Lonely

What is an introvert? When I first read Anneli Rufus’ book Party of One I became an evangelist for it. Until then, I had partially believed that society was right about me; I must be shy, stuck-up or lonely. Only, I never felt lonely when I was by myself, while I often held a lingering feeling of disconnection in a roomful of others.  If the right topic came up, I didn’t hesitate to jump into the conversation. Introverts, as Rufus described them, were people who have limited need to engage in social exchanges. Extroverts may find themselves exhilarated by spending hours at a party. An introvert in that environment will feel like a drained battery at the end of the night. Introverts need time alone to restore a sense of psychic equilibrium. Introverts get bored by small talk. Introverts would love to talk to you about a favorite book or idea or a pet project, but will find their thoughts drifting if the conversation hovers around gossip, or name-dropping. Introverts are often highly imaginative, but not very outwardly responsive or emotionally expressive.  In short, introverts are loners. In the media, introverts are portrayed as cold, damaged, or sick. Consider the titular Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: abused into a sullen, silent rage. She was hurt so much that now she hates everyone, and that’s why she won’t put you at ease with talk about the weather.

As Rufus did so well in Party of One, I want to dissociate the introverted from the lonely. Introverts often have full inner lives. It is this internal space that the introvert prefers to inhabit. The presence of others impedes the introvert’s pursuit of her own fascinations. As a loner, the introvert finds solace and peace in being alone. The shy or lonely person may not be a loner at all. The shy person is afraid of looking foolish in front of the people whose approval he seeks. The lonely person wants those human connections, but may have difficulty forging bonds with others. The last thing the lonely person sees in their solitude is comfort. While often unconcerned about social status, loners do tend to have a small number of very close friends. These friendships often revolve around shared interests. Introverts do like to talk, if you are willing to engage with them and their interests. Introverts are geeky like that. They love conversations that contain knowledge.

Many pixels have been spilled by introverts. Indeed, and perhaps ironically, for people who like to be left alone, we feel a need to explain ourselves; to make sure we are known, even if only to dispel common misconceptions. You won’t find as much information on what’s it’s like to be an extrovert because a)most people are extroverted, hence the definition of extroversion for extroverts is simply “normal” and b)introverts spend more time in contemplation. Extroverts are too busy planning parties or carpools or box socials to spend hours contemplating and decoding their own ways. Society privileges the extroverted overall, and in certain spheres, the extrovert is the persona all must wear to succeed. When I did some online searching for this piece, I found that there is now a wealth of sources to guide the introvert through the minefield of career networking. Clearly, being an introvert at work is a problem in need of remedy.

“Smile, baby”

Socially, extroverts have a privilege over introverts. How could it be otherwise? I semi-facetiously wrote above that extroverts are too busy networking to explain extroversion. There is a power dynamic in play here. It’s no coincidence that introverts have produced a body of literature explaining their perspective while there is not a similar phenomenon among extroverts. Socially, introverts occupy a subordinate position and as such feel compelled to attempt explanation or justifications in the hope of altering the behavior of the privileged class. The notion that “if only you knew what it was like, you might treat me differently” pervades introvert apologias such as the well-circulated “Caring for your Introvert.” It is up to the introvert to conform to the behaviors that make others around her more comfortable. (Oh, and as a separate topic that I’m also working up a head of steam on, the gods help you if you’re an introverted woman. If the subtitle above made you break out in Hulk rage, you know what I mean.) The introvert is the recipient of much advice on how to camouflage oneself as an extrovert. The sort of relationships introverts have, in which exchanges of knowledge or other mental pursuits take the place of emotional bonding, are seen as distant and insubstantial to others.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Net.Goth

As a youth with internet access in the 90s, I found an outlet for interests that people in my geographic region did not share. My former students will likely never know what it was like to be strictly limited to your block or your neighborhood for companionship. If you had some obscure interest, your best bet before the internet was to join a fan club or have a pen pal. This type of communication was slow and laborious. The internet allowed me to talk to people that I never would have met otherwise. The mediation of the computer has a further advantage for introverts; it allows us to express ourselves in a medium through which we are more relaxed and articulate. I don’t normally use half this many words in an average day. The people I talked to online were people who were interested in the same music or comic book or whatever nerdy interest we were on the BBS to discuss. These were exchanges of knowledge and substance for me, even though I often wouldn’t know the other participant’s full name. I still have a copy of Neuromancer that some college kid in Alabama sent me after we exchanged messages on an industrial music BBS. Trent Reznor (or someone impersonating him) sent me a VHS of the banned “Happiness in Slavery” video. A woman on usenet introduced me to the works of Angela Carter–who became my favorite writer. My point is that these experiences could not have happened if it weren’t for socializing over the internet. I discovered an entire world of possibility when I visited alt.gothic. The internet was a major factor in the development and spread of gothic culture in the United States. Goths, who were already often geeks of one sort or another, used their incipient social networks to spread fashions, distribute zines or send unavailable items to one another. Memes were passed around and elaborated upon, such as alt.gothic.fashion’s cryptic, collaborative Gundy saga–which I never really could comprehend. I recall a shirt with the logo: “Net.Goth: Give me money, give me sex, give me [??] and net access” the slogan a modified version of a lyric from the Virgin Prunes song “Baby Turns Blue.”As a kid in a small town who had an interest in this stuff, it was like finding the proverbial oasis in the desert to find people who would share their knowledge with me. I didn’t care that I’d never meet them in person.

Let’s be “Friends”

I use Facebook, Twitter and other sites because I do want to talk to people about ideas, share things I’ve read; see what others are reading too. I also get to control who I expend my social energy on. But more importantly for me, the relationships I engage in through social media tend to be exchanges of ideas rather than pleasantries. I suspect this may be why Chomsky and others view online social lives as “shallow.” The connections tend to be one track and perhaps a bit compartmentalized, but this is exactly how the loner forms connections in the first place. These relationships are not about emotions or shared experiences as much as they are about shared mental space. Intellectual stimulation feeds the introvert. The characterization of online relationships as “shallow” assumes that without extrovert-style interaction—the human conversational churning and unstructured facetime that is labor for the introvert—relationships have no substance.

I am well aware that lots of people use the internet for exactly the sort of boring verbal sleepwalking that I mentioned above. I can’t make any claims about the vast majority of internet users. When I see another article claiming that virtual relationships are not authentic enough, not of any substance, making us shallow, I wonder how these people define a relationship. What, exactly, am I supposed to be sharing in order to legitimize my relationships? I also know that my interactions with people I’ve known for years would likely look quite this way from the outside, though they add more to my life than any box social ever could.

Music for a Monday: Rosetta Stone

Posted in Culture, Music with tags , , , , , , , on September 26, 2011 by vprime

Rosetta Stone provided classic Gothic rock, not far from the model established by the Sisters, the Mission and the March Violets. They followed in the footsteps of Andrew Eldritch’s own Doktor Avalanche with a drum machine dubbed Madame Razor. I don’t make the Sisters comparisons to  belittle. There are worse influences to have, and the music that resulted is undoubtedly enjoyable if you’re a fan of Gothic rock. Singer Porl King has a smooth and wonderful voice that reminds me of Daniel Ash at his best.  But for some reason, Rosetta Stone never got much attention from the scene. Unlike the Sisters, Rosetta Stone never tried to dodge the “Goth” label. I recall sending off to Cleopatra Records for a Rosetta Stone sticker that said something along the lines of “It’s a Goth thing, you wouldn’t understand.” Rosetta Stone put out three full albums and a handful of EPs before disappearing completely. Part of what may account for this band’s brief life is timing. Their first album, An Eye For the Main Chance, came out in 1991. As the Goth scene picked up more influences from Industrial and EBM throughout the 90s, Gothic Rock fell to the side. Rosetta Stone experimented with electronic music elements, but never let those engulf the rock core of the sound, which may have led to their marginalization. The band announced their dissolution at the 1998 Whitby festival. I can’t help but think that if Rosetta Stone had been putting out records in 1981 rather than 1991, they’d be in the Gothic pantheon alongside The Sisters, The Fields of the Nephilim, Christian Death  and so on.

Cleopatra Records included this song in at least one of their Gothic Rock compilations. This is one of the few original music videos I have been able to find for this band. They certainly had the look down. That crimped hair is magnificent:

As it turns out, this is a cover of a song by a 60s German psychedelic act:

Very early version of Six Before Dawn:

Live footage. The sound isn’t great:

Another video, though it’s quite poor quality. The sound is pretty good on this one, though:

Unerotica was Rosetta Stone’s cover album. They did very interesting things with other songs on this album, and I consider it among my favorites. Here’s their version of Heaven 17’s “Temptation”:

Gary Numan’s “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?”:

Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy”:

There’s an unofficial information site if you’d like to know more about this band at www.rosetta-stone-info.co.uk

The Rise and Fall of Skinny Puppy

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , on March 2, 2011 by vprime

Listening to Skinny Puppy was like living in a haunted television. The vocals were run through layers of dirty distortion that made what came out of our stereos sound like a tormented soul in hell or worse. Over this and assorted electronic noises, clips of movies or tv shows with telltale midcentury diction floated, unmoored and decontextualized so that they may as well have been more synth noise.  The lyrics, such as they were, vaguely hinted at death, torture and despair. Narratives were absent, just nebulous words connected only by some nearly schizophrenic  associative process that inspired a codebreaker’s fervor in me. My middle school boyfriend—a pathological liar with unaccountably great taste in music—and I would pour over liner notes, debate what samples were supposed to mean. In the days before everything was on the internet it was a massive triumph to finally prove that the line in The Choke was “assuming that were possible” and not—as said boyfriend insisted—“assuming I were comfortable.” We spent hours trying to conjure up lucid dreams while Skinny Puppy tapes reeled out on the stereo in my room. What we expected from those dreams in not clear. Something like divination, maybe. Communicating with those eerie disembodied voices?  The music was disturbed, irrational and perhaps we wanted to think we were like that too.

We—and here I mean all the Goths who grew up in this late 80s-early 90s not-quite-Gen-X- but-close-enough milieu—thought of ourselves in some ways as like these songs. Full of random noise, made of senseless words from TV shows that only came on after everyone else in the house was already asleep, knowing a world of pain existed out there but not sure we were actually feeling it. Songs like “Deep Down Trauma Hounds” spoke to us of horrors in remote, vague terms. If there was identifiable pain in all the vivisection and torment, it didn’t seem to belong to anyone specific, so we made it belong to all of us. We reveled in the strange, dissonant noise. We had been vivisected, it said so on our ripped black shirts. And if—as in all likelihood—that wasn’t true, we would find a way to do it to ourselves. If ever there was music made for zombies, this was it.

There was talk that Skinny Puppy was going too mainstream when Last Rights came out. There were fewer of the songs that challenged you to sit through eight minutes of stuttering samples and tinny drums. The lyrics were more coherent but still cryptic. Though this album gave us the hauntingly beautiful “Love In Vein”  and the quiet melancholy of “Mirror Saw” it still dared you to prove you were not a poseur who’d skip through “Circustance” or “Download.” Then Dwayne Goettel died, The Process eventually came out and it had all kinds of horrors like Ogre’s unprocessed vocals and acoustic guitar. Was the band trying to be Skinny Puppy Unplugged? If the opening acoustic guitar of “Candle” played over any club’s system and you headed toward the floor everyone would know you were a noob. You’d better sit on those cockroach–kickers until “Testure” played.

In retrospect, The Process shaped a lot of the industrial that came after. But it also began Skinny Puppy’s deviation from a band that would make most people call the exorcist to something that might conceivably be played in association with some sort of sporting event. There was a time in the early aughts when one could hear Front Line Assembly on MTV sports. I feared this would be Skinny Puppy’s fate.

The excellent book House of Leaves has a dedication reading “This is not for you.” This, then, exemplifies how I felt when Skinny Puppy t-shirts started cropping up on regular kids. This was not for them. They hadn’t listened as intently, trying to scratch some meaning out of the songs. They didn’t understand where this music came from. They liked some rocking guitars and bass drums and didn’t care about the message. Of course, it was the time that anything vaguely labeled “alternative” was stripped from the fans to sell toothpaste. I’d cherished this music that was spooky and weird and I didn’t want to share it with everyone. Sometime close to 2003, I stopped trying to keep up with any music save a handful of obscure German acts. I mined the past and avoided the present. I ignored Ogre’s solo albums and focused on the multi-volumes of Back and Forth. The Process really marks the end for me.

As I was looking for videos to insert into this post, I came across this:

This is just the worst sort of thing. Trying to throw some sort of banal hip-hop attitude into Skinny Puppy? It’s not funny, it’s not cool. It seems like if Skinny Puppy aspired to be played at wet-t-shirt contests, then this would accomplish that.

Sigh.

I need to get some sleep. See you in electric dreams.