As the thumping industrial grind segues into a Depeche Mode remix, the dense crowd of gas-masked twentysomethings and fishnetted ragdoll-girls in black who pack the all-ages dance floor shift in their steps a bit, just enough to reveal, behind them, a sight that pretty much cuts to the heart of the evening’s je ne sais quoi: a dude in a Darth Vader helmet, the lines of its face carefully outlined in glow-strips, getting his swerve on like he’s only just now tasted the power of the dark side.
It is Aug. 1, 2012, and it is the final Nocturne Wednesday—the last installment of a weekly gothic/industrial dance-club night that’s been running continuously for more than 16 years under the direction of Patrick Rodgers and his Dancing Ferret entertainment group. Its relocation this spring from Shampoo Nightclub on North 8th Street to Rumor on Sansom Street notwithstanding, Nocturne has long since shattered Philadelphia’s endurance record for any ongoing club night, regardless of theme. And after tonight, it will be over.
A few rooms away from the main dance floor—in the designated 21-and-over half of the event, where the bar is significantly more tightly packed than is a small, adjacent dance space—the scene is mellower. Not any less visually stimulating, mind you, just mellower. There is a tall young man in a striped corset and a poofy bow, and he is beautiful. There is a voluptuous Mother-Earth type whose breasts are draped in a floating gossamer spider-web fabric, and she is beautiful. Then, in rapid succession, there’s the sci-fi guy in the long, vinyl, Aeon Flux robe-coat and the slightest wift of ginger hair; the medieval guy in dance-club armor with chains connecting his epaulets and a dragon insignia on his back; and the elegant lady decked out in high art nouveau fashion, the tall bird’s feather that rises above her face balancing out the elaborate chandelier necklace that hangs below. They are all, in a word, beautiful.
They laugh, they hug, they admire one another’s outfits—all the while moving subtly to the music, even when not quite dancing. It is the last Nocturne Wednesday, and they are determined to be resplendent in their fun.
Standing at the bar, a statuesque, black-clad pixie named Ruxandra gives voice to the bittersweet sentiment of the celebration. “A couple of guys were walking past while we were standing in line outside,” she says, “and they stopped to look and said, ‘Wow, you all look awesome.’ They were amazed to know that something like this has been happening every week. We told them it was the last one—they couldn’t believe they’d missed it.”
Exactly one week later, rather than preparing to run a dance night for the eight-hundred-somethingth time in a row, Patrick Rodgers instead sits quietly in the living room of his home near Fairmount Park. He is dressed, as always—as befits a man who is thoroughly dedicated to his aesthetic—in a long black coat.
“Eventually, everything has to evolve,” he muses. He’s nothing but proud of Nocturne’s 16-year run—”I’d be hard pressed to ask for a better quality of crowd than we had”—and he suspects, though it’s hard to prove, that it was the longest-running club night not just in Philly but in the United States. (The event that lays claim to that title, L.A.’s Monday Social, started several months later in 1996 than Nocturne did.) Still, that achievement cut both ways: “It’s great to provide consistency to people. The down side is, creatively, it becomes a straightjacket. People develop deeply ingrained ideas about what that event should provide, and they view deviations from that with skepticism.”
Rodgers obviously isn’t someone who’s comfortable feeling constrained by other people’s expectations. Growing up in the Bahamas, he recognized young that he wouldn’t be making his life there: “The Bahamas only have two businesses, banking and tourism, and I didn’t really have any interest in either.” After moving to Philly in the mid-’90s and launching, one at a time, the various pieces of his music mini-empire—Dancing Ferret Concerts, the live-show operation; Dancing Ferret Discs, which released original recordings from popular gothic and industrial acts from 1998 till 2009; and Digital Ferret Compact Discs, the retail music store on South Fourth Street’s Fabric Row—Rodgers became known around town not just for his prolific cultural output, but for his signature personal style, which famously includes full-time, permanent vampire fangs. Most recently, he made national headlines last year—including an appearance on The Colbert Report —when he resolved a mortgage dispute with Wells Fargo by suing the bank and getting a sheriff’s levy placed against its local office.
The home he was defending is a stately, centenarian, three-story Tudor Revival house that hews to a minimal, DIY sort of decor, its sparse furniture accented by a handful of items suggesting Rodgers’ interests. Books are carefully positioned around the living room: a photographic history of Pennsylvania’s abandoned mining town, Centralia, where underground fires have been raging for decades; an old Koran preserved in a museum-quality wooden display case by the window; a copy of Neil Gaiman’s collected Sandman volumes sitting to the right hand of Rodgers’ black leather armchair. Just inside the front door, a black feathered masquerade costume hangs inside a tall glass cabinet; Rodgers IDs it as the outfit that bestselling author Anne Rice wore when she hosted New Orleans’ vampire-themed Memnoch Ball back in 1995.
Two decades after Anne Rice’s heyday, of course, a romantic spin on vampires has once again seized American mass culture. And while anti- Twilight backlash from longtime goths hasn’t been particularly demure—they liked vampires when it wasn’t cool, after all—Rodgers doesn’t see Stephenie Meyer’s besparkling of the befanged as any sort of cultural threat. “Vampires are such a compelling story, people are going to riff on it endlessly,” he says. “While Twilight ’s not my personal thing, it’s interesting in how it took pop culture’s picture of what vampires are and turned that on its head. Then you get an almost 180-degree spin on it in True Blood , which is hypersexual rather than chaste—and there’s room in people’s hearts and Netflix queues for both. And if 90 percent of Twilight fans only enjoy it as a passing fad, then the 10 percent who stick with vampires is still an enormous number, and I’m not going to turn my nose up at them.”
That said, he cites the ‘80s movie The Lost Boys as his own largest inspiration: “That concept of vampirism being something subversive and cool, as opposed to a curse afflicting a creepy old bald guy—you’ve got Kiefer Sutherland on his motorcycle and girls hurling themselves at him.” He grins, fangs in evidence. “I like that idea of a rock & roll vampire—‘Party till the sun comes up!’”
Now that the weekly Nocturnes are over, Rodgers’ midnight party schedule is simpler, but by no means quiet. He’s still producing the quarterly Dracula’s Ball at Shampoo—the next one will be on Halloween—and then there’s a final, previously scheduled, postscript-edition Nocturne back at Shampoo the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. And while the stalwart gothic/industrial dance crowd hasn’t been abandoned in the meanwhile—another promoter has promptly launched a new weekly series dubbed Vortex, at the Starlight Ballroom on North 9th Street, to fill Nocturne’s place—Rodgers isn’t sure he won’t come up with something new to bring to the scene as well. “It’s entirely possible that, after a few months of being too relaxed, I may return to another club night,” he says. “It’s not as though I’m trying to creep toward semi-retirement.”
In the immediate future, he plans to focus more of his attention on the Digital Ferret music shop. “It’s a very difficult sector,” he acknowledges. “Music retail is shrinking, not growing. We’re trying to diversify the product lines we have at the retail location. We’ve entered into a partnership with a shoe dealer—we’re offering club shoes. If people are buying more of their music in digital format, we’ve got to get them into the store to buy something we sell.”
Even more immediately, Rodgers is consumed for the next two weeks with what he calls “the pinnacle of my career thus far”: promoting an Aug. 26 Dead Can Dance concert at the Kimmel Center. “I’ve been a fan of the band since before I’ve been in the business,” he says of the legendary Australian group, which blends Celtic folk and Middle Eastern chants with dark. ambient instrumentation. “They make music that I can only describe as spiritual ... When [vocalist] Lisa [Gerrard] uses her voice as an instrument, singing made-up words—glossolalia, I think it’s called—whatever your concept of spiritual is, you can decide it fits, because it doesn’t carry the baggage of any particular words with it. The way Dead Can Dance can go from this ethereal, otherworldly sound when Lisa’s singing, to [vocalist] Brendan [Perry] with an acoustic guitar singing about how he’s in love ... it seems very true, very genuine.”
He pauses. “They’re not just doing some one thing that’s their schtick.”
We’re taking you on a whirlwind tour of Philly’s sonic citizens—in the clubs, on the road, off the map and over the top.