Last night I attended a Death In June show. In Worcester. When it was announced over the summer that the longtime neo-folk cult group was playing a show at a very non-traditional venue at Salem’s Old Town Hall, I spent a few seconds thinking how cool it would be, then went on with my day — and hadn’t given the show another thought.
I saw Death In June live at ManRay about a decade ago and I thought it was rather boring. But I’m all about “moments” and the idea of Death in June in Salem in September was at least cool enough for me to entertain attending for a few seconds before my mind drifted to other things (probably lunch).
Months later, Death In June crashed my life once again, last week, when Gordon College announced it was abruptly cancelling the Salem show. Apparently Gordon, a small Christian school based in Wenham that books Old Town Hall, was unfamiliar with the band’s past, or more likely, the band at all. So it was called off, allegedly after city officials and some activist groups brought the band’s fascist message and Nazi imagery to light. There were also fears of “vandalism,” though no one exactly knows what kind.
Death in June is not the first band to use Nazi imagery. The Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten boasted a swastika emblazoned under the word DESTROY in one of his more famous shirts in the late-’70s, and around that time, Joy Division — named after Nazi camps’ prostitution wings! — put an SS drummer on their first EP, An Ideal For Living. It should be noted that Douglas P first made a racket in the British political punk band Crisis in that same very era; flaunting shocking imagery intended to spark outrage was one of the very first tenants of punk rock. They weren’t into Nazism, they were into pissing you off and making you feel uneasy. Crazy, but three decades later and that shit still works.
With that in mind, Gordon is a Christian school and they can do what they want. So can anyone. Organizers vowed to find another venue, but kept it private as to not deal with another potential shut-down and keep the protestors at bay. Because all tickets to the Salem show were sold, organizers were at an advantage: with no need to sell more tickets, which would demand publicity, they simply emailed all attendees directly with the venue information and asked that fans keep it quiet. They obliged.
As organizers Disques de Lapin promised, the show went on, and we all trekked over to the Lucky Dog Music Hall in Worcester. A pretty odd bar/venue for this sort of thing, there was nary a protestor in sight. When a someone affiliated with Death In June tour made a remark to the doorguy about no protestors showing up, while the two shared a smoke mid-set, the doorguy casually remarked: “No protestors would come here. They’d get shot.” I think it was half-serious. Or half-joking. I’m not sure.
The room was full, with nearly all the 189 ticket-buyers in attendance, as a haunting opening set from Thomas Nola on something more-than-slightly downgraded from the originally promised “grand piano” — hey, we were all improvising here — filled the air while people socialized.
Then around 8:30pm, Death In June suddenly barreled toward the stage in their standard wardrobe: white scrubs with their silly insignia, their faces obscured by their infamous garish masks. I thought it was ironic their unannounced march to the stage, bells and all, made the soundguy kill VNV Nation’s “Arclight,” which was playing pre-set. “Seek no more for hollow answers,” indeed.
Death In June opened with “We Drive East,” another bit of irony since most of us drove west to get to the gig. “I was looking forward to Salem,” quipped Douglas P a few songs later. “On this ironic evening when the witch hunts continue, what would you like to hear?” He then proceeded to ignore the dude who shouted “Holy Water” after every song.
With between-song talk to a minimum, he also thanked the crowd “for dealing with the change of venue and all the fucking around.” You’re welcome, Death in June.
I did an interview with the Boston Globe earlier today, and I remarked that the crowd in attendance was comprised mostly of older goths, those who aren’t offended by shock-value lyrics and aren’t likely to be swayed by some old guy’s short-sighted opinion on the world. Why? Because they are already well-versed in it. Everyone had already seen the band’s American flag with Nazi skull/crossbones replacing our 50 stars. No one was offended by it.
Those who disagree with Douglas P’s politics and views on humanity won’t be buying a ticket, and that’s their American right. Those who are buying a ticket know the territory; some probably agree with these beliefs, others probably don’t care. No one was passing out surveys asking for our individual thoughts on fascism, so for one night we were all just lumped into a big sweaty, aging group marked “Fans of Death in June (Note: Will Travel).”
Death In June are a cult act in the sense that their fan base — dedicated, however likely dwindling because of the band’s longevity — is already built. Anyone under 25-years-old would have been a million times more likely to be at Icona Pop at the Paradise wearing day-glo and singing “I Love It” than attending a Death In June show with an impressionable mind.
During “My Company of Corpses” and “Behind The Rose (Fields Of Rape)” — which I swear Douglas changed the lyrics to “tears of rain,” but I’m probably wrong — no one seemed to be brainwashed by the shocking words coming out of Douglas P’s mouth. No one seemed suicidal given the depressing nature of pretty much all the band’s lyrics. More than anything, those at the Lucky Dog seemed to be held only within the command of Death In June’s tribal, sweeping drum sound. If you attend a Death In June show for some fucked up, backward social message, well, you’re going to just see your own truths in whatever you set your attention toward, anyway.
Just before 10pm, the show ended and everyone either went home, or to the sports bar next door for some extra drinks. There was no incident. And I’d likely believe that the Salem show would have went on without incident had the cries of a few sounded an alarm so loud. When protestors scream across the internet over essentially harmless bands like Death In June, they’re inadvertently heightening the band’s profile. Very few heard of Boyd Rice in June when his show with Cold Cave in Cambridge was cancelled, and certainly this Death in June situation gave the band their first headlines in ages.
You could call last night’s show “uneventful.” But at the very least, the whole thing unexpectedly brought me to a Death in June show, a decade after I never thought I’d ever be moved to see them play live ever again. Then I went home, and the world was very much the same place when I awoke the next morning.