Did we feel safe at the time? I no longer remember. My father had read in a newspaper that El Nueve was dangerous, so whenever we went there, which was often, my sister and I would say we were going somewhere else.
At the age of seventeen one drama swiftly supplanted the next, just as one obsession drove out another, yet I shall never forget the events of Friday 19 April 1989. At first it seemed like simply another night out, another nocturnal reply to the daylight hours, yet two details had already set it apart. At school I’d received an admissions letter from Harvard: in other words, that autumn I would be leaving home, and Mexico, possibly forever. I also recall it was a full moon; there are at least twelve full moons a year and most of the time I wouldn’t attribute much importance to them, but that night it felt as though the moon was exerting an unusual pull.
As was the custom, a male friend – in this case, Yoshua – came to pick us up. As was also the custom, my father saw us into the car, checking with Yoshua that he indeed intended to keep his promise and deliver us home by our curfew. On some nights two thirty seemed generous; on others, cruelly early.
Located halfway down Calle Londres in downtown Zona Rosa, El Nueve had been opened in 1978 by Frenchman Henri Donnadieu as an alternative to the more mainstream synthetic nightlife that dominated the city at the time. It was a place that championed tolerance and creativity, and a gay haven that hosted underground gigs, drag shows and magazine launches. Donnadieu envisioned night itself as a cultural enterprise in which everyone could take part, and its noches bugas, or straight nights, attracted younger folk like us, lured above all by the music: goth, post-punk and industrial. At the entrance beckoned the sign ellas no pagan (women don’t pay) and, even more enticingly, another sign, farther in: barra libre, free drinks all night, although it was widely believed that ether was added to the ice to curb the drinking.
Upon arriving that April night my sister and I encountered some of the regulars. There was Adán the Aviator, in his bomber jacket, goggles and motorcycle boots, aviator cap with earflaps; he always seemed about to lift off but in reality never left the dance floor. Standing against a wall wrapped in his melancholic aura was El Sauce Llorón, the weeping willow, a magazine editor by day and drama queen by night. Tall with a Roman nose, he was often in tears over insurmountable crises, real and imagined, his long black hair framing his face like a shroud. There, too, were El Nueve’s cross-dressers, presiding over the rooms like rare nocturnal flowers. And finally, Los Ultravox, a group of young men in gray raincoats. These were their night selves; I had no idea what most of them did during the day – some must’ve held down humdrum jobs, others may have been students – and any further knowledge would have dented the enchantment.
The dance floor officially opened at midnight, announced by a clap of thunder and the appearance of the fog machine. Each week it was the same: the DJ would put on ‘Carmina Burana’ and the chanting would build in volume, like the re-enactment of something medieval, bombastic, portentous, that came rolling in from a distant century. After a few minutes its dramaturgy would segue into the beats of the Sisters of Mercy’s ‘Lucretia, My Reflection’, the modulations driven by the throb of the drum machine. The downfall of empires or a battle cry: whatever the music evoked, it felt empowering, and the dance floor grew ever busier, its figures enveloped in the thick emissions of the fog machine. Its plumes were redolent of a metallic vanilla; unlike the heavily contaminated air of our city, one had the urge to inhale deeply before they dissolved.
Looking back, nearly everything about the scene felt ephemeral. A baroque ephemeral. The Swiss art historian Heinrich Wölfflin once described the baroque as an expression above all of the ‘tension of transience’ – one shouldn’t expect perfection or fulfillment from the baroque, he claimed, nor the static calm of being. Only the unrest of change. Wölfflin was attempting to describe the baroque line in art – restless and liberated and succumbing to an upward urge – yet I’ve often found that his words encompass many facets of Mexican culture. And not only Mexican culture, but adolescence itself, driven as it is by a sense of the fugitive, and a spilling over of emotions that constantly threaten to destabilize the present.
Adolescence is an encounter, indeed an ongoing negotiation, with a self in transformation. Yet there’s something undeniably alluring about unrest and, equally, about anything mutable and ephemeral and hard to pin down. Any fine experience is that more thrilling in the knowledge that at any moment it may well slip through our fingers, send us back to the mundane. Permanence doesn’t inspire the same intoxication as does the fugitive, and somehow the atmosphere within El Nueve brought the tension of transience into relief. For the gay community it provided an inspiring space in which to enact extravagant dreams and simply feel free – not to mention that a few years earlier Aids had arrived, exposing a deep-rooted homophobia within Mexican society – and for us teens, it was the site where our urges for nihilism and abandon could be lent a certain theater.
In Mexico, three hundred years of colonial rule produced an art that was exuberant and excessive, in which emotionality seemed to triumph, every time, over restraint. El Nueve’s aesthetic was similarly fed by a syncretism of European and Mexican cultures (and subcultures) – though of course without the tense backdrop of conquest and subjugation. In my memory I have always thought of it as a gay goth club. Was it truly goth? Perhaps not, apart from our noches bugas, which certainly were a danse macabre of skull rings and funereal garb. But my memory prefers to envision a space haunted by a spirit of mystery and concealment, emotions worn freely under a collective pall, silver crosses against a sky of black. Goth culture itself owes more than a little to the baroque – a love of contrasts and extremes, of monsters and hybrids, a celebration of the strange and marvelous, even an element of the carnivalesque. And, of course, the sense that any pleasure in life is stalked by the shadow of death.
Wearing black required little explanation: it stood for an internal weather, predominantly overcast, a heavy tilt toward melancholy that channeled a nineteenth-century Romanticism. Moonlight landscapes by Caspar David Friedrich, cues from Victorian mourning dress. Much of my own penumbral wardrobe came from Garage Union, a vast shop set up in a car park in West Berlin that sold clothes by the kilo. During the two summers our family spent in the city my sister and I would drop by weekly to scour the racks. Yet most of the clothes were dyed, and each time we washed them the water would run black, the garments slowly rinsed of their duskier shades. Much more permanent were the tattoos we got a few years later. We’d presented a copy of Edgar Allan Poe stories illustrated by the little-known German artist Wilfried Sätty, who often made montages inspired by the occult, and asked the tattooist to take the face of Roderick Usher and attach wings. The result was an androgynous angel, a curious marriage of goth and baroque, which has outlasted all the black.
That April night I remember looking around at the various characters on the dance floor, imagining how they would carry on with the same theater long after I’d left to study abroad, and how these nights out, so charged with sorcery, would soon end. I had just kissed the Scottish DJ, a fully fledged goth from overseas, when our friend Jair cut his hand on a white metal trash can on the side of the dance floor. At first no one paid much attention – until it started gushing blood.