Tuesday, 17 April 2012

The Grandma of Goth

I was very intrigued recently to read about a lady called Suelynn Gustafson, mainly because this woman brings an entirely new slant to some of what we think we know about our beloved Goth culture. The oft-repeated 'history of Goth' tells us that whilst versions of the Goth 'worldview' and aesthetic have been around in many different incarnations for centuries, Goth as we know it today wouldn't really exist if it hadn't been for the development of post-punk and Goth rock in the 70s and 80s.

But roughly fifty years before Goth culture was 'invented', Ms. Gustafson was already, well, pretty damn Goth.

Suelynn is well-known in her hometown of Denver as the owner of Flossy McGrew's, a creepy shop stocking vintage clothing, costumes and assorted oddities (described in online reviews as 'the store to hit up if you need to wear something awful, something ugly or something awfully ugly', and unsurprisingly very popular in the month of October) and recogniseable by the entrance alone, which is adorned with skulls and spiderwebs 365 days a year.

Her fascination and delight with all things spooky and macabre began in her childhood; she began collecting funeral cards at the age of ten, and now at the age of seventy (or sixty-four, depending on your source!) sports a predominantly black wardrobe and a tumbling mass of pink curls.

She has recently been the subject of a documentary by Deborah Heistand entitled Grandma Goth, which screened on 9th April at Denver's Oriental Theater.

Image: Christopher Lloyd
Suelynn doesn't think much of the current state of the Goth scene. In an article about the documentary on, she describes today's young spooky types as "phony". "They do it out's like an exposure thing or something to wave at somebody," she says. "I do it for the love of it. It's meaningful to me." Whether this morbid maven would agree or not, I'm sure that many of us feel exactly the same.

Her starring role in the documentary led to another collaboration with Heistand, this time in a film entitled Flowers for a Funeral, in which she plays a mother figure to a suicidal young Goth girl.

Reading about this godmother of Goth culture, I was reminded of the first fictional work penned by infamous Goth writer Mick Mercer (author of such invaluable references as 21st Century Goth and Music To Die For). The Old Lady Who Invented Goth is a self-published novel about a woman named Hermione, who, 100 years ago, took it upon herself to begin diligently crafting the foundations of what, through the years, became Goth culture as we know it today.Her creativity came to fruition in the 1980s, the pinnacle of Goth, when Hermione herself was an old lady.

I was also interested in this living proof that the worldview of Goth - a taste for morbidity, darkness, and finding beauty in the odd and the macabre - would, and did, exist regardless of the music that today gives Goth culture a common thread and a name for its community. Of course, music does play a large part in our subculture, but I found it intriguing and not a little inspiring that perhaps there really is more to Goth than a shared love of a particular music genre.

What are your thoughts on this?


Nightwind said...

Although music is a big part of current Goth culture, my opinion is that there certainly is more involved.

It was just a couple of days ago that I read about Grandma Goth, but I don't remember where. My belief is that Goths have always existed, but before the early 80s there wasn't any subculture per se for them to associate with.

Grandma Goth is not the only older Goth around. Canadian horror writer and author of "The Goth Bible," Nancy Kilpatric is well into her sixties.

In the mid to late 60's there was an underground rock band known as "The Ultimate Spinach," which heralded from Boston. Although a lot of their music was more psychedelic in nature, they did a song called "The Ballad of the Hip Death Goddess." I have sometimes heard that piece referred to as the first Goth song of the rock era. Of course, the Spinach didn't inspire an entire Goth subculture as did Bauhaus. Still, there is a musician with a band from California who calls herself The Hip Death Goddess and her band plays a mix of Gothic and Psychedelic. She admits that she borrowed the name from that song.

There have always been those who find beauty in darkness.

Mia said...

Fascinating! And I agree to that Goth will exist regardless of the music. I consider myself to be goth, but I can listen to anything. I prefer old school rock and old school punk, but i still have a love for the unusual, freaky, creepy and anything dark.

Shannon said...

I agree as well. I think it is limiting to define Goth primarily through musical taste. It is a way of being and really part of your personality, I think.

Anonymous said...

I agree with this article and it is very interesting to read that there was more to it and a dark spooky gran who existed before the culture emerged. To me Goth is a mix of things. A genre of music, a type of clothing that is associated with the subculture and a dark variant of punky clothing mingling with victorian and romantic styles, a introspective, morbid and creative personality, a label for the subculture and so on. I don't define it in one specific definition even its subcultural history is mainly based around music at first.

Nightwind said...

Although music is a big part of Goth culture, I'm of the opinion is that there certainly is more to it. I believe that Goth is both a way of being and a way of looking at the world, as Grandma Goth certainly demonstrates.

This impressive lady is not the only older Goth around either. Canadian horror writer and author of "The Goth Bible," Nancy Kilpatrick is well past 60 years of age as well; yet, there's no doubting that she's Goth and apparently, always has been.

Speaking of music, in the mid to late 60's there was an obscure underground rock band known as "The Ultimate Spinach," which heralded from Boston. Although a lot of their music was more psychedelic in nature, they did a dark and interesting song called "The Ballad of the Hip Death Goddess." Believe it or not, I have occasionally heard that piece referred to as the first Goth song of the rock era. Of course, the Spinach didn't inspire an entire Goth subculture as did Bauhaus and admittedly, were not a Goth band. Still, there is a lady with a group from California who calls herself and/or the band "The Hip Death Goddess." They play a mix of Gothic and psychedelic music. She admits that she borrowed the name from that Ultimate Spinach song.

In my mind there is little doubt that there have been and always will be folks who find beauty in darkness.

Maeam said...

Fantastic. So great to see older dark lovers! Rock that pink hair! ROCK IT!

Jessie Aaker said...

I've always believed that the goth culture ran deeper than music! Honestly, a lot of the beloved "goth" music of the punk era isn't to my liking, but that isn't to say I can't rock my death boots or pin up my hair with black roses.

I'm also really interested in her life now and need to go searching for that documentary!

linnea-maria said...

What a wonderful post! I think that goth is a genre that is far older than this. It's not only about the music it's a lifestyle.

Saphire Rainforest said...

thanks for posting Amy! I love reading about proof that Goth existed long before the music did, it's just a teen fad or trend. I love reading about people that are older and have had an interest in spooky and odd things look before Goth became popular. Definately shows how educated and well versed we are as a subculture.
I think Old people are cute and if you ever visit or volunteer at a nursing home you'll discover they have lots of interesting stories to share.
Reading about Older Goth's definately makes my day and makes me glow inside. Especially knowing that I'll probabally be someone Goth Granny when I'm old If I decide to have kids or the Spooky Auntie as the kids call me now haha.

Anonymous said...

Denver? I live an hour from there! I'll have to visit this shop.

I've always looked at Goth being so much more than music. Don't get me wrong, i love a lot of the music, but i don't believe that it's a necessity.

It can be defined in so many ways, but generally, to me, it's just all about loving the darker things in the world. Music, style, interests, mindset, personality, emotions...

Lady Euphoria Deathwatch said...

We older Goths have been around for a long time.

And will be until we die.

Anonymous said...

She has such a wonderful viewpoint, ah she's just fabulous. Considering her shop is just a bus ride away, I'm so visiting as soon as I can, thank you for informing me of its' existence!

Anonymous said...

The music is the "backbone" of the culture; everything else developed around it. You can be into the macabre, spooky things, morbidity, all things dark, etc, but if you're not into the music that started it all, you aren't goth, plain & simple. I'm not saying that you can only listen to or enjoy "traditional" goth music, but it must be included in your repertoire. To a certain extent, attire is also key; I understand many may not be in a position, for whatever reason, to fully express themselves, but, again, the interest must be there. Mindset & interests are a given, as why would anyone not interested in goth be drawn to it?

I don't understand this need to be accepted as goth, if you want to change the definition and the "rules". It's totally fine to be into something other than goth, but why not call it something else? Why not create a new subculture with a new name, and new "rules", without using the term "goth"?

kakuidori said...

i really like every post that 'breaks' those stupid rules. lovely lady there it seems :-)

Nightwind said...

Sorry folks! One of my comments originally didn't go through and somehow, it has reappeared here. I don't seem to be able to delete it now, so I apologies for the double, redundant posts.

Jamie said...

Oh my goodness, I am so happy to see her posted here! I live in Denver when I'm at home, and I LOVE Flossy McGrew's-it's one of my favorite places to go with my friends. I haven't met Suelynn yet, but my boss (I work at a costume shop) has, and has assured me she's lovely. It's great to see someone who was Goth before it was a "thing" and continues to be so long after the "it's just a phase" period. What an awesome woman-when I go back to Denver, I'm definitely going to have to visit Flossy's again to see her. :)

Joanna said...

I just started a blog called World's Oldest Goth Girl on Blogspot. I won't say how old I am but Suelynn has me beat by a couple decades! Who knew? I'm keeping the name anyway. World's Second Oldest Goth Girl just doesn't have the same ring to it. I still present a mature perspective, focusing on spooky classical music as well as more traditional goth fare and symphonic metal. Currently looking for a good video of Mussorgski's Hut of Baba Yaga.

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