On Saturday 1 June 1985 The Sisters Of Mercy played in my hometown of San Francisco. Show at 9:00pm. It was foggy, a bit chilly with light showers.
At 5:00pm I dressed in black jeans, t-shirt, black sweater and boots and walked ten blocks downhill on Fillmore Street to the Kabuki Theater. My friends and I had all agreed to meet early and get a good spot for the gig. I stopped at the Burger King kitty corner from the venue and ate a Whopper, fries and a coke by myself. I was about as excited as I’d ever been.
My friends Jim and Tina were already in the short line when I arrived. Jim was a few years older than me and worked as the imports buyer at The Record Factory on Polk Street, half way between school and my mom’s house. We’d met the previous year and, in the spring of 1984, I’d started dropping by the record store on my walk home to talk with him about music. At the time I was really into Billy Idol and Adam Ant, but Jim was expanding my horizons.
Jim was from England, which I thought was cool. On his advice I’d bought Death In June, The Jacobites, Inca Babies – all records I own to this day. I was in the store the day ‘Walk Away’ by The Sisters Of Mercy was released, but Jim recommended the previous one, still on display in the “IMPORTS” section: the Body And Soul EP.
I’d heard The Sisters before, having picked up a bootleg 7” a few months earlier on a trip to New York City with my mom. That single didn’t get much play on my turntable though – probably too raw for a Billy Idol fan. With the Body And Soul EP I instantly became a Sisters Of Mercy fan.
The next week I bought ‘Walk Away’ and waited impatiently for the album that was due soon. In the meantime, Jim made me tapes of the earlier singles. When First And Last And Always arrived I played it till I knew it by heart. Jim also supplied me with cassettes of complete concerts – from 1982, 1983, and “Black October” – that he’d traded with his friends in the UK. By the time of the Kabuki gig I was rabid.
Outside the Kabuki, at about 8:00pm, Jim, Tina and I were joined by my friend Audra. The four of us were among the first inside and staked out a spot just right of center, pressed up against the stage. Two local acts, Necropolis Of Love and Fade To Black, warmed up the audience. The Sisters were by then so dominant in the goth scene that both bands sounded and looked like them.
When The Sisters took the stage in a dense fog the crowd went wild. I tried to stay as quiet as I could – Jim, standing at my right, was running a Sony WM-D3 cassette recorder he’d snuck in to the venue in a false bottom of a camera case. Occasionally I’d glance down and see the stereo mic peeking out of the hole he’d cut in the leather seam. A goth girl just to Audra’s right spent the entire show sitting on the stage barrier facing the audience, drinking beer and yelling “ya ya ya ya ya!” This is immortalized on Jim’s tape – including Audra shouting “shut up!” during ‘Body And Soul’ – and hearing it now brings back fond memories even if it annoyed me that night.
Seeing my favorite band live was an exhilarating experience. It remains one of the defining nights of my teenage years, crystallized in my memory forever: the dense, pungent fog mixed with clove cigarettes and beer, the mechanized drums I felt in my ribcage, the thunderous bass played by Craig Adams in his sweaty, glittering silver shirt right in front of me, and Eldritch, howling, so cool, just a few feet to my left.
The final song of the night was a blistering ‘Body Electric’. Months later Jim speculated that Eldritch had given us ‘Body Electric’ because he loved San Francisco. It was the last time it was ever played by that classic Sisters lineup.
After Eldritch’s final scream, as the band straggled off into the dark, someone threw drumsticks into the crowd from the foggy depths of the stage. On our way out we overheard a woman celebrating, “the smoke was so thick I never saw the drummer. But I got one of his drumsticks!”
Of course I didn’t know then that The Sisters were on their way to splitting, and that I would never see them again in that incarnation. The news, when it came, devastated me.
I remember reading Propaganda Magazine’s Floodland-era feature on Eldritch’s reborn Sisters Of Mercy a few years later. Writer and publisher Fred Berger loved the new album and the long article began: “Let’s face it: Andrew Eldritch always was and always will be The Sisters Of Mercy.” I scoffed at the idea. The Sisters Of Mercy were a band, not a solo project. Having been wrapped up in The Sisters for years by that point, my ideas about them – who they were, what they were trying to convey – were fairly fixed.
Thirty years later, surprisingly few of them have changed. I still hear The Sisters pretty much the same way I heard them in the 1980s. My favorite songs from back then – ‘Valentine,’ ‘Fix,’ ‘First And Last And Always,’ ‘Some Kind Of Stranger,’ ‘Train’ – still top my list. Decades of listening may have deepened my understanding of the lyrics, and modern music production standards may have left some of the old material sounding slightly dated (even to my untrained ears), but the songs still move me in the same way they always have. Only one critical thing has changed: I now understand the wisdom of Berger’s punchy, combative opening.
First, in researching and writing this book I came to realize the extent to which the band’s forward momentum was a result of Eldritch’s will. He led creatively and professionally – from conceiving their visual presentation to developing their sound, articulating their philosophy, and timing and negotiating their signing to WEA. Everyone contributed; the changed sound of the Hussey era is proof of that. But I can’t imagine any major decision being made without Eldritch’s approval after, say, 1982. Like Octavian, or perhaps Josef Stalin, Eldritch was careful to preserve the appearance of shared leadership, and generous with credit and acclaim in public, but was increasingly guiding, shaping, even dictating everything himself. Everyone else came to resent him for it but he had no regrets. In fact, the best lyric in ‘No Time To Cry’ – “you’ve got to shake the hand that feeds you” – alters the meaning of the traditional expression “don’t bite the hand that feeds you.” He’s saying to his exasperated bandmates, “don’t just avoid expressions of ingratitude; thank me.” In some ways the history of The Sisters before their first split in 1985 is this story: the rise of Eldritch, to the annoyance of everyone else.
Second, the proliferation of bands copying The Sisters has thrown Eldritch’s accomplishment into sharp relief for me. Many others, for example, have adopted The Sisters’ presentation: the venue choked with fog, the colored psychedelic lights, and what Athan Maroulis called their “Amish Morricone” look. Fields Of The Nephilim did it. Even The Mission managed a passable, feminized Sisters Of Mercy impression. Other bands also replicated The Sisters’ distinctive sound. Over the years dozens of friends have tried to interest me in them. “Oh, you like The Sisters? You’ll love Rosetta Stone.” “Check out The Merry Thoughts. I’m sure it’s a secret Eldritch side project.” OK. Instrumental tracks from either of them could easily be mistaken for early Sisters demos, even by the biggest Sisters fan. So why are all those bands so mediocre while The Sisters are so great?
The Sisters are great for the same reason that Leonard Cohen is: the words. Sure, all of Cohen’s albums contain some terrific tunes. But it’s his lyrics that elevate the songs beyond folk music and into the realm of art. In The Sisters there was undoubtedly some alchemy having to do with the combination of talents – especially Gary Marx and Andrew Eldritch – that makes 1980-1985 their best period. But in my judgment The Sisters Of Mercy transcend their genre, even their medium, mostly because of Eldritch’s lyrics.
For me – just a boy in 1984 – the lyrics evoked an exciting and dangerous landscape of war, weapons, drugs, love, lust, grief and loss. And because the songs take work to decode, they reward repeated listening. And I mean repeated. I discover new references and meanings (or potential meanings; one is never really sure) to this day, thirty-five years later. I can think of only a handful of other writers who have had such a formative effect on me. Eldritch’s lyrics helped shape and sharpen my own thoughts and feelings. I adopted his ideas as my own. His opinions and habits inspired in me a love of language that I still have. I used to look up his words in the dictionary: “oblivion,” or “spurious.”
If Eldritch made intelligence seem cool, he also taught me that cynicism and drug abuse were sexy. I now recognize what a baleful effect these lessons have had on me. I suppose the worst I can say is that, for me, Eldritch was a role model with some serious flaws. But still, I wouldn’t take back any of my experiences if it meant that I couldn’t have those songs I grew up with.
I can also thank The Sisters for introducing me to other great bands. I knew Suicide and The Velvet Underground by way of Billy Idol but when I began reading interviews with Eldritch and Hussey I hadn’t yet listened to Led Zeppelin, Motörhead, The Stooges or Fleetwood Mac. I bought records by The March Violets, James Ray, and Red Lorry Yellow Lorry simply because they were in The Sisters’ orbit.
The Sisters Of Mercy also became one of my hobbies. Collecting was a way to express my dedication when simply listening didn’t feel adequate. In 1986 and 1987, under the name Trevor Roland, I compiled two volumes of a Sisters Of Mercy fanzine called Romance And Assassination composed of xeroxed press cuttings. In those dark days before eBay I spent endless hours – all my free time – leafing through stacks of dusty magazines and newspapers in record stores, flea markets and basement junk shops, scanning them for any mention of The Sisters. Fans from around the world also sent me envelopes with cuttings or xeroxes. Each issue ran to over 100 pages. To this day I have not fully stopped buying photos, interviews and articles about my favorite band.
In the summer of 1999 I finally catalogued and indexed this large but unruly collection. Afterwards I thought, my goodness, I’ve got enough information here to write a book. So I started writing.
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