LEIPZIG, GERMANY—A few years ago, there was a movie called Memento. The premise of it was that the protagonist had suffered a head injury, leading to loss of the function of short-term memory. He could only hold on to information for a few seconds after learning something, so he was constantly jotting down notes that he could refer to when he needed the information. In some ways, I’m a little bit like that. Ask me what I did last New Year’s Eve or what I had for supper last night and I’ll draw a blank. I think that that’s what accounts for my endless pursuit of new experiences. I miss the experiences that I’ve actually had, but which have, in my memory, faded into oblivion. I am particularly envious of common, traditional experiences, trivial or profound—playing cards or board games, spraining an ankle, betting on a sporting event, changing the oil on a car, serving in the military or asking a man for his daughter’s hand. If I ever had these experiences, I don’t remember them. The fact of the matter is that some kind of eccentric spin in the trajectory of my life has actually rendered many of these commonplace events, tragedies and enjoyments alien to me, outside the boundaries of my personal time-space continuum.
Thus, it was that when I learned of the imminent occurrence of the festival called the Wave-Gotik-Treffen, I somewhat compulsively—and certainly impulsively—cut short my long planned-for vacation with friends in the historic and picturesque German Rhineland to venture to the far reaches of East Germany—to Leipzig—to pursue yet another novel experience for a bizarre and largely inexplicable adventure—one that would perhaps not be so easy to forget. So we boarded a train in Wiesbaden and literally crossed the vast expanse of Germany in four and a half hours.
I knew we were on the right train because the passengers bound for Leipzig had that look we associate with the bizarre subculture that calls itself “goth.” Every stitch of clothing they wore was black. The sides of some heads were shaved. Tattoos were in abundance. Shiny silver jewelry shone on lips, noses, brows and, in the most novel ways, to ears. Some entered the train and sat in groups, others solo. Despite appearances, the goths were seen to behave like everybody else—chatting, reading, and snacking. We arrived in Leipzig’s gargantuan rail station, reputed to be the largest in Europe, and quickly checked in to our nearby hotel. Across from the station were the kiosks selling tickets to the four-day event and irreversibly crimping a decorative black ribbon wristband that would serve to identify paid attendees and permit them to enter the host of venues and events. Maps and schedules were dispensed along with the wristbands. For an additional 15 Euros, one received a graphically beautiful, creepily designed and printed, hardbound book containing exceptionally beautiful color images, with details about the events, artists, venues and relevant promotions on glossy (what else?) black paper.
Waiting on that line afforded us the opportunity to take in the full measure—or so we thought—of who was to make up the participants and attendees at WGT. The young woman in front of us on line, slender as she was, wore a stiff corset and lacy trimmings everywhere—on her shoulder straps, on her elbow-length gloves, on her choker. Every item she wore was, of course, black. In fact, assume every outfit I describe to be black in every detail, unless I specify otherwise. Her arms were wrapped around herself in such a way as if to bring her shining black nails, manicured to a menacing point, into my sight. In contrast to the frilly, feminine attire she wore from the veil that dangled off the brim of her tiny hat to the hemline of her skirt, her slim legs, scarcely enclosed in the tattered remnants of stockings, were supported within bulky, knee-high, bulbous, thick-soled patent leather boots. Her male companion, with his temples and the back of his head shaved clean but the thick mop of blackened hair atop his head slicked straight back, wore a shirt with military-styled epaulets and huge, capacious pants, the legs of which issued forth straps with snaps that attached to metal rings installed along the seams.
Beautiful and less-than-beautiful girls with androgynous, creative attire meandered about in pairs like harpies drawing attention and admiration. Seated on the grass was a group of young men, one of whom stood out by virtue of his several inches-high, platinum-white pompadour. He was one of a few guests I observed who broke the all-black color code. An occasional girl strutted by wearing a huge, billowing, white gown of lacy material, that might have served as a bridal gown. A bright red crusader cross stood out on the back of a man wearing a white robe. 99 percent of the population, however, was in black—black jackets, military dress or marching band attire, T-shirts, black pill-box caps, berets, captain’s hats, workmen’s caps (some of these in olive drab), tights, fishnets (stockings or shirts), and Victorian mourning outfits.
The tendency for the past several years appears to have been to move away from the vampire look of capes, amulets and fangs toward the increasingly popular steampunk style, including top-hats, crinoline dresses, corsets, parasols and walking sticks.
And oh, the Mohawks! The cultivation, preening and display of Mohawks reached their zenith in terms of height, coloration and grooming at WGT. Colors rarely seen in nature such as intense pink, aqua-turquoise and hot orange abound in the tresses of those in attendance, whether they are sporting a Mohawk or less lofty hairdos.
Among the crowd are overwhelmingly young adults and old, as well as a few children in goth costumes. Some infants were propped up in little black baby carriages, pushed dutifully by parents in dark Edwardian attire and accompanied by their toddler and pre-teen siblings. There were also elderly goths and some in white face pancake make-up. On a street corner, a strong young man is seen adjusting the laces in back of his female companion’s leather corset. Someone in a Guy Fawkes mask and butcher’s apron leans comfortably against a wall in the train station. Three black-clad young men walk side-by-side engaged in animated conversation, one of whom has bright red theatrical blood running from the top of his shaved head down half his face. A couple of British punks sit in a bar sipping absinthe. The pants of one and the shoes of the other bear the bright colors of the UK flag. What does it all mean?
51 Leipzig locations serve as hosts to the gathering, including music venues, large and small, museums, bars, clubs and even an opera house. Maps of the city and its tram system make it feasible to hop from live performances to DJ parties to church choir events to cinema to lectures and to art exhibitions, limited only by one’s energy and interests. A huge airplane hangar serves to accommodate the vast array of vendors and live performances by the most popular bands.
German industrial metal performance artists, Tanzwut opened the first night, their rhythmic sound distinguished by hellish depth punctuated with highlights from a bagpipe. The dark wave fathers of Dutch goth rock, Clan Of Xymox, came next. Electro industrialists Project Pitchfork and returning favorites, German hard rockers Eisbrecher, followed in turn with a distinctly militaristic edge. By the night’s end, the crowd had surged to the extreme capacity of the vast hangar. The festival continued, all 51 venues going strong, for another three days.
The Museum Der Bildenden Künste has fantastic collections of everything from Dutch masters to modern installation art. The church where Johann Sebastian Bach served as choir master and where his tomb is housed. The absinthe bar, the oldest and most historic restaurant in all Europe, where Goethe wrote his play, Faust, and the mere fact of being surrounded on every street, in every park, on every rooftop, in every event by elaborately attired, painted, dyed, groomed and bejeweled goths created a giddy milieu, as if one were in some kind of post-modern, happy nightmare, sprung from the mind of latter-day Brothers Grimm.
On the last day of our stay, I saw a young man, not at all made up or costumed, wearing a T-shirt (do I have to repeatedly state the color?) bearing a term in high Germanic script. It captured the central idea underneath all those layers of art and artifice, dunkel schöne, which, when translated, means dark/beautiful.