Michael Atchison has interviewed David Byrne, Nick Lowe, Bill Flanagan, and Sarah Vowell in these pages. He is the author of True Sons: A Century of Missouri Tigers Basketball. XL is his first novel-in-progress.
American Gothic was a subterranean shithole bar known for its existentially tortured clientele and extreme indifference to the minimum drinking age. I had been inside the Goth a couple of times, but it wasn't my kind of place. It had a basement-level entrance and blacked-out windows. The space wasn't very big, and it seemed even smaller thanks to a low ceiling and miniscule restrooms. The regulars dressed all in black. Skinny boys with penciled eyebrows did a twitchy dance with their elbows pinned to their sides, while the girls wore pancake makeup with dramatic dark eyes and black lips, and swirled to the sounds of Bauhaus and Siouxsie and the Banshees. The whole thing seemed like a put-on to me except for a portly young woman named Eliza whose abandon was genuine and joyful. Eliza was in my ancient civilizations class, and we had studied together a little. In class she seemed sweet, demure and unremarkable, with a wardrobe that didn't differentiate her from the crowd. The first time I walked into the Goth, there may have been thirty people there, and the first thing I noticed was a plump dervish on the dance floor. I didn't recognize her, but Eliza saw me mid-spin and rushed over and gave me a hug. I thought I was being accosted by a strangely hospitable vampire until she said "David, it's me, Eliza!"
"Holy crap," I said, "I didn't recognize you."
"Nobody does," she said, "but this is the real me!"
"Really? I never would have guessed," I said and then hesitated. "I hope that didn't sound negative. That's not how I meant it."
"No worries. I don't mean to sound self-pitying," she said, "but my life is pretty boring during the daylight. I don't attract much attention from guys, and I'd attract the wrong kind of attention dressed like this. But at night I put on my real face and come out with people who are like me. I get to let loose, and everyone is like 'hats off to the fat girl!' "
"I didn't think goths smiled so much," I said.
"The ones who are trying on a pose don't," she replied, "but the real ones are in it to have fun. Come and dance with me!"
For the next couple of songs, I bopped around in my blue jeans and white oxford shirt while everyone looked at me like I was the freak.
The place was owned by a young guy named Kyle Silvey. Hutch knew him. Hutch knew everyone who worked in the bars in town, which was probably related to his employment history or his undefined business, or perhaps both. Hutch took a copy of our tape to Kyle and told him that XL was looking for places to play. Kyle listened and said it was good. He offered to let us play on a Tuesday night, which was always slow at the Goth. He proposed a dollar cover charge, with us getting half of the take. He said that if we brought a hundred people in, he would have us back.