A dimly lit SoMa district on Monday night invites an eclectic crowd. The lengthy strip of bars and nightclubs provides refuge for the not-so-weekend warrior to come as they are, to escape the demands of orthodoxy. Bars on early days of the weeks have always made me somber: Every patron seems quieter, less inclined to share a celebration and appears more likely to attempt to find a person with whom to share a mutual disdain of the workday. Down 11th Street, the words “DNA Lounge” beckon in a green and black hue of light, signaling a refuge for lonely Mondays — for those who’d rather not go home yet.
Founded in March 1993, Death Guild, the oldest dance club of its kind in the United States was born around an admiration: a love for the roots of gothic and industrial music. From its beginnings in the basement of a gay bar on Ninth and Howard streets, the concept of Death Guild evolved into a home “for the disposed, the oppressed, the truly absurd in mind and appearance, those who didn’t give a damn and just wanted to dance to gothic, industrial and alternative eighties all night. Or to those who wanted to drink all night to forget and even some who wanted to remember.” Death Guild has been operating at the DNA Lounge in San Francisco every Monday since June 1994.
Before Monday night, I did not know about any of this. As far as I was concerned, my plans for the evening were to consist of something along the lines of “Goth Night.” The walk to Death Guild was an uncertain one. Draped in black, myself and the others combat-booted our way to the entrance of the club through a cloud of cigarette smoke. We flashed identification, paid our covers and were wished a good night by the staff — all smiles. Virgins, poseurs, call us what you will — immediately, I felt a bit hesitant. Perhaps I was expecting a sight similar to almost every other clubbing experience I have had thus far in college: a sweltering, too-tight crowd of young adults, drunk, sharing perspiration, hooking up and shouting — all this packed into a too-small venue with electronic music cascading up the walls.
A banner superimposed with the Death Guild logo — a silhouette of a figure hanging by a noose from a large oak tree — hung idolatrously on the wall above a lone DJ, cranking out a mixture of metal, synth and alternative music to a spacious crowd. The dance floor was sparsely populated with the spaces between each person respectfully observed. There was a level of personal satisfaction notable in the faces of those who danced — more or less — alone. Their eyes were open or closed, their bodies moved whimsically or in minimalistic motions. Their faces expressed the same emotion across the board: a sense of comfort with dancing like no one’s watching.
From its beginnings in the basement of a gay bar on Ninth and Howard streets, the concept of Death Guild evolved into a home “for the disposed, the oppressed, the truly absurd in mind and appearance, those who didn’t give a damn and just wanted to dance to gothic, industrial and alternative eighties all night.”
Some of us took shots, and I stood atop a raised platform to observe and dance for myself. I felt good, as though I could do whatever I wanted without anyone looking at me too funny. I moved my hips and arms as I scanned over each person below and the unoccupied spaces between them. I noticed their attire: There were people with spiked mohawks, makeup, piercings, tattoos and lots of leather. There were older men who looked like they had just gotten off their nine-to-five, rocking tan slacks and pastel shirts. No one really seemed to notice or care, and each person seemed to be very involved with themselves and the music in which they were enveloped. The music didn’t seem to care too much, either — an indiscriminate mixture of genres and noises. To put it simply: It matched its audience.
After a couple more drinks, I decided to break from the pack and interact with some of the staff. When I approached the upstairs bartender, I mentioned that I was planning to write an article about the club, to which he rolled his eyes disdainfully and muttered, “Oh, God” under his breath. I tried my best to convince him that it wasn’t an expose or a Yelp review, and after a few minutes, I managed to wrench something from him. “Death Guild,” the reserved bartender soliloquized, “is family. Everybody is just doing their own thing. They’re here for the music; they’re here for each other.” I pushed him to elaborate before he took a cigarette break, but he refrained and bought me a beer instead. Condensation dripped down the pint of Lagunitas. “Reporting is tough,” the bartender sympathized.
When I met the guy who worked the bag check, a passion for Death Guild torrented from his mouth. I listened, wiping chunks of dislodged black lipstick from my face. “If you go to any other club in San Francisco, you will probably notice a sort of hookup culture. The goal for many of the patrons is to get laid. Every club scene has become so sexualized, but that’s just not the case here. These folks dance alone because they don’t give a fuck about all that,” he mused. “This is a space where they don’t have to try. This is their home away from home. The music lets you do that.”
I learned that the goth and industrial scene isn’t about wearing black. “Anybody can come in. We don’t care what you look like, man. Just have a good time and don’t impede others from doing the same.”
Someone sent a message to our group: “Pizza?” Downstairs, the initial crowd seemed to have doubled. Angsty teenagers and businessmen floated about rhythmically. Spiked hair, spiked collars and glistening smiles were illuminated amid the surrounding blackness. The adjacent “DNA Pizza” called to me.
Jalapeño and pineapple tangled in the back of my throat. My hair was tangled, eyeliner smeared at the base of my eyelids, I smelled of smoke and beer, and I had so much work due the next day. But there was something about Death Guild that made me want to do it again the next Monday and maybe the Monday after that. It is not likely that I will, but I can say with certainty that I will be back eventually, swinging my body loosely like the figure in the oak tree.
At some point, earlier in the night, I had a run-in with a security guard who told me he started coming to Death Guild 20 years ago, after he was diagnosed with a serious psychological disorder. He told me that Death Guild was where he went to feel normal — to escape from feeling insane. I learned that the oak tree — the centerpiece of the Death Guild logo — was described as “a rallying point for those escaping oppression for their choices of lifestyle. It is a depiction of the fate of an ignorant society. It is the darkness that so many fear as they are terrified of dying. It is a symbol of strength, the oak, a guardian of sanctuary.” I understand now that what attracts the security guard, and what has begun to attract me to Death Guild, is the acknowledgement that self-appreciation and pleasure can be intrinsic, even within the San Francisco club scene.
I am convinced that remaining within the confines of normalcy for too long can kill you. When you work, there are places and people who tell you what to do and what to wear. When you have fun, there are places and people who tell you what to wear and how to dance. Before Monday night, I had never previously worn makeup or danced to gothic music on a platform by myself. Why the hell not?
There is something very much alive in the spirit of Death Guild — something that incites a lively jitter in the soul of the mortal body. I could’ve been dead on Tuesday. On Monday, I was not.
Contact Joshua Carlucci at [email protected]