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Dead Can Dance, Berkeley, August 12, 2012

[1]1,081 words

After we had dinner at Jupiter pizza, our Sikh cab driver deposited us outside the Greek Theatre in the Berkeley hills. We spread a blanket high on the lawn and looked out past the campanile on the Cal campus, watching our home town across the bay slowly submerging in a sea of fog. As the sun sank, the horizon turned pink, lights began to pick out the skyline and the traffic on the Bay Bridge, Draco appeared in the West — and Dead Can Dance took the stage.

Dead Can Dance is an Australian group formed in 1981 by Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard. I heard their second album, Spleen and Ideal [2], in 1985. It was the beginning of a love affair, not just with Dead Can Dance, but with their label 4AD, which also released such acts as This Mortal Coil, Bauhaus, and The Cocteau Twins (and had a strikingly beautiful and unified graphic design concept). Around the same time, I also got into Siouxsie and the Banshees and Shriekback, but never took The Cure.

Yes, I was a “Goth,” at least in my musical, literary, and cinematic tastes. It probably began in 1983 when I saw The Hunger with David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve, a dreadful film that nevertheless permanently imprinted me with its Gothic/perfume ad aestheticism and opening performance of Bauhaus’ “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.” To be more precise, I was as Goth as possible without recourse to hair dye and nail polish, while being a clean-cut libertarian/Objectivist, while not taking drugs, and while greeting every trace of Punk and post-Punk aesthetic posturing by brandishing a Boston or ABBA or Yes album, from which the offenders would shrink back like vampires from holy water.

Looking back on those days, what appealed to me about Dead Can Dance and allied groups is what Kevin MacDonald calls “implicit whiteness,” for the Goth scene was as ethnically and spiritually white as NASCAR and the Republicans, although infinitely more cool. It had much the same appeal to me as Tolkien and “progressive” rock groups like Led Zeppelin and Yes — which go far beyond American blues to incorporate European folk and classical forms — had to my older hippie cousins, who introduced me to their tastes as well. Most of the ’60’s counter-culture has more to do with Tolkien than the Frankfurt School: it was simply a recovery of authentic European cultural forms.

A lot of Goth music arose from the Punk and post-Punk context. I never liked Punk, but its primitive, do-it-yourself aesthetic led a lot of talented amateurs who might otherwise have avoided music to give it a try, and once they actually learned how to play, they began producing excellent work. Since Punk was very much a rejection of previous forms of pop — especially blues, funk, and disco — a lot of post-Punk ended up being deeply and authentically European in feel and flavor — almost by default.

It is no accident, moreover, that many who got into the Goth scene developed tastes in European “early music”: medieval, renaissance, and baroque. It is also no accident that “neo-folk” and martial-industrial music — Death in June, Current 93, Der Blutharsch, etc. — which make explicit reference to European fascism and National Socialism, are organic outgrowths of the Goth scene.

Dead Can Dance’s eponymous debut album [3] (1984) is droning, chanting, “ambient” music. In their next four releases — Spleen and Ideal [2] (1985), Within the Realm of a Dying Sun [4] (1987), Serpent’s Egg [5] (1988), and Aion [6] (1990) — Dead Can Dance developed a kind of ancient and medieval and primal-sounding European folk/pop music. It is wintry music: cold and vast and sublime. After that, I lost track of the group. (I stopped following pop music entirely and became almost totally absorbed in classical and jazz.) The next two Dead Can Dance albums Into the Labyrinth [7] (1993) and Spiritchaser [8] (1996) are “world music,” incorporating Asiatic, Near Eastern, and Amerindian musical forms.

Now, after 16 years, Dead Can Dance is releasing a new album, Anastasis [9] (resurrection) on August 14th. The group played much or all of their new album at their concert in Berkeley last night — long with many old favorites — and it was a profoundly moving experience. Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard both sing lead. Perry’s magnificent voice is my favorite of the two, and three of his new songs — “Children of the Sun,” “Amnesia,” and “Opium” — are truly magnificent: soaring, melodic, and profound, equal to the best of their earlier work. Lisa Gerrard only sings in Elvish, Entish, and Boudledidge [10], but never the tongues of men, so it was hard to tell which songs were old and which were new, but all of them are enormously evocative and atmospheric.

I was surprised at how much of the music was oriental in feel. It was not the band I remembered. Not that I have any objection to incorporating such elements into Western music from time to time. “Kashmir,” for instance, is one of Led Zeppelin’s masterpieces. And an ability to appreciate non-Western cultures — music, literature, art, cuisine — is also a trait of our people. We can appreciate the genuine achievements of other races and cultures without losing a sense of our own identity. But at times I wondered if the band — and the audience around me — really were losing a sense of who they are.

The band played three encores. Before they played their second, I found myself thinking that I could die a happy man if they did “Song to the Siren [11],” which was sung by Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins on the first This Mortal Coil album, It’ll End In Tears [12]. It is one of the most beautiful pop songs of all time. I always wanted to hear Lisa Gerrard sing it, even if I had to hear it in Urdu. To my astonishment, a few minutes later, Brendan Perry sang the words “On the flooding, shapeless oceans . . .” and I was in heaven.

Although I am always shocked by the rudeness of people who talk during rock concerts, the overall atmosphere was deeply civil and relaxed. There was a definite feeling of spiritual communion in the music and landscape. I spent a lot of time before and after the concert studying the crowd. It was overwhelmingly white. The average age was somewhere in the 40s. Like me, most of these people have been listening to this kind of music since they were teens. I wonder how many of them understand the whiteness of the things they love, and if they will realize it before it is too late.