Aside from a universal taste for the colors chalk white, blood red, and burned-Bible black, you would be hard-pressed to find any two goths who agree completely on a definition of goth culture. The former South Florida club kid now known as Marilyn Manson has certainly appropriated and popularized aspects of the aesthetic -- to the near-universal disdain of the gotherati. (The Marilyn Manson entry in 21st Century Goth, the 2002 tome by British scene chronicler Mick Mercer, reads simply, "Bowie tribute band.")
Indeed, if you shine a dripping pewter candelabrum around the dark corners of this dark subculture, you'll find the rhetorical barbs, bruised egos, and hurt feelings typical of any ideological battle. You're not going to get to the bottom of this pit by talking to some Baby Bat fresh from his first trip to Hot Topic. No, you need to talk to the kind of goths who sharpened their fangs in the darkest corners of Squeeze, the now-defunct Fort Lauderdale alternative club that helped nurture the fledgling Manson.
So we knocked on the coffin doors of a couple of the more senior Broward County goths: Aiden is the editor of the online goth e-zine Midnight Calling and a traditionalist. Joseph "Josepher" Bonilla of The Abusement Park is a club/event promoter whose gatherings often fuse the goth aesthetic with elements of that oh-so-Broward subculture, fetish. Though the two of them are on friendly terms, they couldn't be further apart in their views on the state of South Florida gothdom. "The gothic culture does not depend on the club scene," Aiden declares. "It exists independently of the scene. If every club were to shut down in South Florida, you would still have a gothic culture.
"Goth probably is the real underground. We get together at Starbucks," Aiden offers through the pungent aroma of the half-caf grande lattes being slung by the barista behind him. "There's a saying that Denny's is the biggest goth club in Florida."
Aiden, who, through both his age (43, he grudgingly admits) and his world view, fits just about everybody's definition of an Elder goth, arrived in his everyday attire: black blazer with Christian Death pins, black jeans, a paisley shirt and vest with ornate pewter buttons, round metal-rimmed shades, and, most distinctively, a bowler hat. ("I'm kind of the last of a dying breed: I'm a Victorian goth," he says.)
With his folksy North Florida-meets-North Carolina drawl, fine blond hair, and round, open face, Aiden seems an unlikely lightning rod for goth-scene controversy. But while his manner is polite and self-effacing (he jokes that one of the reasons he wears black at this point in his life is because the color is "slimming"), there's definitely an iron fist in that black velvet glove. "This may be somewhat controversial, but myself, I see Florida has lost touch with the international goth community," he declares. "If you go to the clubs, most of it is EBM [electronic body music], industrial synth-pop dominated." And, based upon his own travels to such annual gothfests as Release the Bats in Los Angeles and Dead and Buried in London, the electronic stuff, he says, is not what's hot internationally in gothic circles. "There are dozens of excellent goth bands who get played all over the world, but we don't hear them in South Florida," he relates. "A lot of younger goths say that older goths like myself are stuck in the past. But the truth is, it's not stuck in the past, because there are dozens of these new bands coming out, which aren't exactly like the old Batcave days but have the same spirit and the same foundations."
"I hope Aiden wasn't too hardcore about stuff," Bonilla frets. "He hates the South Florida scene. To him, they don't play any goth. He was a staunch supporter of mine; me and him worked together for a while, but something happened."
Bonilla says his colleague's problems have to do with aspects of the South Florida scene that just aren't going to change. "He has a big issue with calling it a goth club where they don't just play goth," Bonilla says. At Funeral, a monthly party currently housed at Sonar in Hollywood, Bonilla has DJs spin a variety of music, "from Nine Inch Nails to Cinema Strange," that falls under a broad definition of gothic. "The hard-core, straight-line goths don't consider any of that goth," he says.
Despite his big-tent approach to putting on a goth club night, Bonilla says Funeral appears to be struggling. "When you talk about the underground scene -- goth or rave or whatever -- it's really not very big," he notes. "To keep everybody separate hurts everything; it's better to bring people together. The hardliners will say that separation is better, but I don't really agree with that."
When the Long Island native came to South Florida ten years ago, he began hanging out at Squeeze. He came into promotion only gradually, first by working at a Broward County fetish store, acting "like their PR guy," organizing parties for the store. He became familiar with Miami gothic establishments such as the Kitchen, "but in Broward, there was nothing going on."
Through his connections, he eventually began helping out a fetish/goth endeavor called the Phoenix Room, located at the venerable Fort Lauderdale gay club the Coliseum, eventually becoming partners with its operators. By that time, he'd been using the Abusement Park name for many of his efforts.
His club nights and parties have always had one boot in fetish and the other in goth -- which might not make sense in other markets -- but have tended to overlap here despite some inherent contradictions.
He's heard from goths who find the overt sexuality of fetish to be "raunchy." Whatever kind of music might be spinning, "That kind of ruins it for a lot of the goth people," he says. "A lot of guys hate the fact that I'm trying to open it up to new people. If the hardliners have disdain for the scene, there's nothing I could really do about it to accommodate them. I had a night with a dress code, and [the traditional goths] didn't show up."
Bonilla says that Aiden's focus on the international goth scene blinds him to the local realities. "If you're talking about trying to support the local scene, you have to be... not mainstream but open to the fact that people aren't going to go for that superultragoth stuff. If I only tried to accommodate the hardliners, there might be 25 people there." And if his goth nights don't make any money for the host club? "There's a hip-hop night, a Brazilian night, and a salsa night out there waiting for me to fail," he declares. "If you want it to work, the nature of the beast is to bend a little."
Get the Things to Do Newsletter
Find out about upcoming events and special offers happening in South Florida.