James Leon hadn't been a DJ for long before concluding that something was lacking from the goth scene. He started working as a DJ in Chicago in 2003, and then moved to San Francisco a couple years ago. In both cities, the clubs didn't promote a lot of local musicians. "I was bummed about that," said Leon, who goes by the DJ name Death Boy. "I would see musicians there to pay $5 to hear music that sucks. A lot of what's happened in that scene has become more about fashion than music."
Goth-oriented clubs in the city typically played a genre known as Electric Body Music, a form of hardcore techno industrial dance music that Leon wasn't into. So he set out to change the soundtrack by picking up a couple nights of DJing. But even that wasn't musically satisfying. One of his gigs was spinning at Underground SF's "Die Die My Darling," which featured so-called blood wrestling — people taking to a kiddie pool in the middle of the dance floor and wrestling in fake blood. Leon recalls it as a big pain in the ass. "The blood wrestling would happen much later than they said it would, and last a half hour," he said. "Then they'd break down the pool and people could dance only for an hour at the end."
Wanting to promote local bands, get people to dance, and provide an fun atmosphere for punks, death rockers, and everyday folks to come together, last June Leon started "Death Rock Dive Bar" at the Stork Club in Oakland. The event began as a monthly gig every second Friday, and then grew to add the occasional Tuesday. It's gotten so popular that fans travel from as far away as Santa Rosa and San Jose.
Leon and his partner Mina spin records — exclusively vinyl, he's proud to say — in between live acts. He books no more than two bands a night so he doesn't have to rush them off the stage. So far he's booked acts like Sacramento's Razorblade Monalisa, New Thrill Parade from San Francisco, and Oakland's Victoria and the Vaudevillians and Swann Danger.
This month, on Friday, February 13, Leon is throwing a special "The (Un)Lucky Valentine's Massacre," featuring the Floating Corpses and Headless Lizzy, as well as art from doll artists Veilchen Chrx and Miss Jaidian. In keeping with the Friday the thirteenth vibe, Leon is encouraging folks to come in bloody attire with appropriately morbid accessories, as he'll project classic horror movies on the bands while they perform. He also plans to spin "lots of Cramps."
It's a scene unlike any other in the East Bay. The last such club night may have been the weekly "Twilight Zone" events held at the Alameda Theater in the late '80s and early '90s. Local fans of death rock or goth still have "Death Guild," held at San Francisco's DNA Lounge, which bills itself as the "oldest weekly goth/industrial dance night in the country."
Leon is filling a musical void, too. "James is trying to do the sleazy rock of death rock," said Roxy Monoxide, who plays guitar, keyboard, and sings in the Floating Corpses. "It's not making fun of itself but it's not taking itself overly serious, which sometimes death rock can do."
Roxy says his band hasn't had any shortage of venues to play at locally. Since forming in 2000, they've built an underground following and played shows at Bottom of the Hill, 924 Gilman, and the Uptown. "In a way I feel there's less cultural gatekeeper snobbery going on," he said. Still, he adds that Leon's death rock nights add an important element to the scene. "I think it's different because there's bands and he's trying to have bands that actually rock."
Calling the nights "death rock" instead of "goth" was quite deliberate, as "goth" has taken on a somewhat negative connotation for folks both inside and outside the scene. Though both spawned from punk, death rock is more rock-oriented, dark, and sleazy, says Roxy. "People now are trying to reclaim it .... It's all these things that goth could have been," he said, as opposed to what it's become now — i.e., cheesy music listened to by computer programmers who shop at Hot Topic.
But don't let that intimidate you. Added Roxy: "What I like is that there's this okay-to-be-a-dork feeling to it, too."