Notes from the Road: Church vs. Church2011.February.1
Imagine my surprise when my friends in Denver invited me to attend the local Goth club. Not the invitation itself, but the destination: a Goth club called “The Church”. That’s funny, we have one of those in Dallas, too.
So, of course I have to write a comparison and contrast. It’s pretty much required of we suckers who got English degrees (cc: Princeton from Avenue Q).
Now, I’m not going to declare one or the other to be the definitive Church experience (especially since the Dallas Church freely admits to being “inspired” by another club in Miami), nor am I going to delve into a hundred years of city records to parse out the venues’ minute histories, but I think a quick look could be revealing.
Aside from the obvious (name, resonant playlists, sustained devotion to a dying faction of freakdom), both Churches host primarily on Sunday nights, with a smattering of special events on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. Both have big stages, lights and videos, and excellent sound systems primed to pump the acerbic basslines of industrial and a thousand offshoots directly into your cardiac muscles. They laugh in the faces of high school segregation by hosting 80s music in special rooms. Each has been around for over a decade and are facing upstart competitors on alternate nights (Dallas has Cafe Excuses’ Panoptikon, Denver has The Shelter), and while the old guards reign the old venues in both towns, the newer clubs have been more successful in drawing newer, younger regulars (more on that later).
Dallas’ Church is dark, loud, and successfully moody. Housed in a former trolley repair shop and dinner theater, every surface across four rooms is black and/or velvety – unless it’s metallic, like the club’s famous and fingerprint-y stripper pole. Equally important are the two wood-planked patios, which offer respite from the crowd for smoker and non-smoker alike. (I’ve heard rumors that Joan Jett & the Blackhearts shot the video for “I Love Rock & Roll” here; I’ve watched it a half-dozen times and I’m more inclined to believe it was shot at Gilley’s or somewhere in Deep Ellum – if in Dallas at all.)
Dancing is the main attraction; regulars go to the uppermost platforms (see above re: stripper pole) to show off, the stage to meet people, and the pit to move. And yet everything about this Church is built on a foundational control of visibility; you come to watch, to be watched, or to disappear entirely (if this last part makes no sense, you have probably never experienced the bittersweet individuality of being too beautiful, too hideous, or too bodily-modified to blend in anywhere but a Goth club). Newbies and voyeurs linger along the outer railing, or in the cushy chairs behind. Each patron of the Dallas Church gets to decide for zirself whether to be a wallflower or a spectacle, and there is no expectation that either choice is a lifetime commitment. To emphasize this freedom all the more, the main room has an upstairs balcony with a full view of the stage and dancefloor and just enough lighting for the bouncers to make sure no one is actually having sex on the decadent velvet armchairs.
An outlying fixture through the death and gentrified rebirth of Deep Ellum, The Church (Dallas) recently celebrated its 15th anniversary. This Church rewards loyalty and is rewarded in kind. Regulars can buy dogtags that earn the wearer free admission on Thursday nights (when the Goth angle is downplayed and the music and looks focus more on hard industrial) and discounts to other events, and for many Church-goers, the question is never whether one will return, but when.
The first thing you notice about Denver’s Church is – holy guyliner, Gothman! – it’s located in an actual, honest-to-weirdness, goddamned stone-and-mortar church!
I’ll let that soak in.
Legend has it that the Saint Mark’s Parish Church was an active parish until a priest committed suicide there (I don’t want to meet the Goth whose pants don’t cream at the thought of shuffling steel-toes across such un-hallowed grounds). And while the temptation is probably there to revamp the building (dig a moat, put in more ornate crosses, and paint it black), the exterior is pretty much untouched from its days as a house of God (it will remain that way, thanks to the church’s 1975 placement on the National Register of Historic Places). It is only at night – when club lights escape through the stained glass and thuddy basslines demand your attention – that its true, nefarious purpose is apparent.
Once inside, it’s hard to just think of Denver’s Church as a club. Every detail seems to remind one of the importance of one’s environment, and with good reason. It’s a club in a fucking church. Unfortunately, the crowd on the night I visited was too small to justify opening the main room – the big, church-iest hall, where once were pews and hymnals and Easter pageants and big metal collection plates – but that big empty space was just visible enough to further enhance the atmosphere, like it was a forbidden hallway to some dark lord’s throne room and only the most malevolent dark minions were allowed.
You could spend an entire night examining the little nooks and crannies, gasping at the Goth-y-ness of it all, and walk away satisfied at the end of your night. On a quiet night like the one I attended, hell, that might be the best idea. Without a lot of people to watch, one can be forgiven for walking the walls for deeper and deeper appreciation, until you finally decided to touch each brick tenderly and ask how it feels to be a mindfuck.
So What About the Congregation…
While I know of no holy suicides at Dallas’ Church, plenty of messed up people and events have passed through on their way to oblivion – and I mean that in the best way possible. My first time, a regular showed me around; she’d had to pick WHICH Gothic outfit to wear, and everyone knew her by her profile name on the Church’s website. That summer night back in ’05, even the rooftop patio was crowded, and I felt overwhelmed and underdressed by all of the costumes and the flaunting – oh, the flaunting! Of skin! Of personality! Of deviance! Of rubber and leather and metal (or cheap approximations thereof)!
The legendary Sunday night freakshows managed to convene dark horse DIYers, up-and-coming fetish models and photographers, mischievous barely-legals who worked last-minute Wal-Mart lingerie purchases like they were stomping a Parisian catwalk, and lurkers of all ages who redrew the line between creepy and sexy before Edward Cullen was a gleam in Stephanie Meyer’s eye. Innocent that I was at the time, my personal Virgil had to drag me into the women’s room to show me how unimportant was gender here – thanks to the cadre of drag queens, transvestites, and royal genderfucks who held court there.
It was all so fucking hot. And while the best days of Dallas’ Church were behind it before I’d ever set foot inside, it is still the place to go for events that belong in Dallas (but not anywhere visible in Dallas). The Church regularly hosts open fetish parties ranging from latex fashion shows to baby’s first spanking bench; concerts featuring industrial anti-heroes of Europe, the mid-’90s, and, well, the late ’90s; and old-guard reunions for early loyalists who want to break out the trip pants and the steel corset to scare off some errant frat-boys or tell out-of-towners about the good ol’ days.
Denver’s Church offered a superficially similar experience: I danced a bit, I stepped out on the smokers’ patio for a phone call, I had a drink and went to the restroom… but it just never quite got to feeling like a club. Amplified, it could have felt like anything from a loud Christian youth lock-in to a stealth rave, but everyone was just too damned chill. People were sexy, perhaps even sexier than in Dallas, but they were not as sexual. I couldn’t help thinking of when Denver DJ Fetish Dolly came to Panoptikon (Dallas’ other Goth club) few years back: she wore fabulous latex that did all the work, played good (not great) music, and flirted across the dance floor without the slightest indication of what she might do if someone were to flirt back. I wondered then what she would have thought of the ladies room at Dallas’ Church; these days I wonder how she’d fair at the hands of one of Dallas’ expert sadists.
And while the Denver folks probably had more square yards of black textile than a Dallas crowd twice as large, that was as deep as the Goth went. No one was particularly lascivious. No one was creepy. There weren’t huge groups to join or avoid. I didn’t feel like a voyeur, here; I felt like a 16-year-old attending my first Teen Night, trying not to be disappointed that THIS was what all the fuss had been all about.
That Goth communities have endured this long is, in large part, thanks to the concurrent development of online networking, and few businesses of leisure have ever milked that opportunity as brilliantly as Dallas’ Church. Since before there was Facebook, or even MySpace, The (Dallas) Church’s three websites offered a community where DFW’s lost young adults could grow from bad poets to bad dancers to bad-asses who, at long last, know the strength of numbers – the strength of belonging – and also might happen to make their own leather goods.
The homepage boosts information, events, and highlights content from sister sites. For visitors of all stripes who go to see or be seen, there’s The Church Pictures, which posts pictures from special events and other nights. Dallas’ Church has long capitalized on their voyeuristic allure by welcoming professional photographers and local models at every event, stamping their pics for credited sharing, and encouraging Church-goes to share their own. Before the advent of Facebook, hard-core fiends went to The Church Boards, a third website where even the most sporadic visitor could feel like a regular (socializing is easier to manage typing to a screen than shouting into the darkness).
Although The Boards appear to have fallen, the Facebook page is active, updated, and well-administered. Dallas’ Church has always stayed at the forefront of online social networking, luring newcomers via MySpace, Facebook, and even Twitter, while avoiding niche sites like Foursquare and LinkedIn that are, frankly, irrelevant. Somehow, the club rarely panders too hard, yet it maintains a strong online profile. And while most of the Dallas fetish community might not be in regular attendance, they do follow the local Church on Fetlife and can attend kink-themed events without embarrassment or irony. (An opposite cross-over posture is maintained by Dallas’ thriving fetish model community, most of whom are only kinky when the camera is on but know better than to bite the hand that feeds them.)
As for Denver’s Church… um, they have a Facebook, I think? One that, despite having three times as many fans as the Dallas page (ooo, dems is fightin’ words!), exhibits only a minimal online presence. Seriously, I did an online search for “Church Goth club”. Out of the first 10 links, 6 are for Dallas, 2 are for Denver (none of them an official homepage), 1 is for yet another “Church” in Ohio, and the last is to SecondLife. Need I go on? No wonder there was no sense of community…
Deviation from Deviance
Despite its infamy, Dallas’ Church has experienced a steady decline in attendance for about as long as I’ve been old enough to attend. The O.G. scene (Original Goths, or at least “original” within my lifetime) got older and had to move on when work got tiring, babysitters wouldn’t work Sunday nights, and the clothes at Hot Topic just didn’t seem to fit any longer (sometimes figuratively, sometimes horizontally). It didn’t help that Deep Ellum was crashing and burning under the willful oversight of late ’90s and early ’00s City Hall.
But the thing about anachronistic subcultures: eventually, they simply fade away. It is a credit to the fetish, burlesque, and even steampunk aftershocks that Dallas’ Church still gets its two nights a week; Friday and Saturday nights, the building is known as The Lizard Lounge, a decidedly non-alternative club predating (and technically operating) The Church and catering to kids who would have gone Greek if they hadn’t gone to community college. The more The Church loses its infamy, the more these heretical brats show up on the wrong night, degrading the once-proud costumes of black, royal purple, and red wine with just a few too many white polo shirts and (Goth forbid!) ballcaps.
In Denver, I didn’t have to step into the swank (and empty) cigar lounge and eye the (brilliantly idiosyncratic) sushi bar on ground level to suspect the same thing might be happening there. But I suspect these quirks make sense to folks in Denver, and there are definitely some upsides. The Church in Denver is only ever The Church; there are no aliases, no frat nights, no Invasions of School Girls that I can tell (all fishnets aside, Dallas, there’s nothing Gothic about plaid skirts when their invasion is timed perfectly with Spring Break). Denver’s Church gets concerts in the great hall that stretch the boundaries of “Gothic/industrial” to include even rap; this probably says less about Denver’s Goth community than it does about Denver’s entire population, which is generally more laid back, homogeneous, and Caucasian than is Dallas’.
The fact of the matter is, Denver’s Church has everything it needs to throw a good party – namely, a smaller prevalence of white ballcaps.
In Summary (A Slow Night…)
I wish I’d had more than one brief night to draw from in writing about Denver, but little things tell a lot. The setting is incomparable, but that can only go so far. I get the sense there’s room for more interesting people – and therefor more potential for a resurgence – in Denver. Dallas appears to have the better crowd, but the well of black gold is nearly exhausted, and their absence just makes slow nights more painful. A slow night in Denver would probably just mean more room to dance and a better chance of hearing your friends, while a slow night in Dallas could mean a run-in with a drunk rich kid or a decidedly underwhelming visual adventure.
What I’d really like to see is a Goth-exchange program; just once, let’s take a busload of Dallas freaks up and invade Denver’s Church for the greatest night Goth America has ever seen.
And then, when we get home, let’s all bury the NIN T-shirts, give leather back to the S&M community, and start creating some new ways to access the darkness of it all so the up-and-coming moody teenagers have something to aspire toward that is more original, authentic, and revolutionary than sparkly vampires and girls who only make out with girls when their boyfriends are watching.