The best thing about riding bitch on a bike is the powerlessness. Whipping through California mountain roads, a kick of the leg from the edge of a cliff, arms wrapped tightly around my driver’s waist, body pressed into the back of his leather jacket. If he loses the plot for even a millisecond I’m toast. Who cares? I’m alive right now. So alive.
Every now and then I look into the rearview mirror and catch a glimpse of his face, or the part I can see at least, what with the helmet and the sunglasses and all. It’s a face I’ve been staring at on the back of album covers and in pictures on screens since I was a teenager, and I can hardly believe I am in such close proximity to it. I could touch it if I wanted to, but of course I won’t. That would be weird, practically sacrilege. You don’t touch the face of Daniel Ash, unless you’re his mother or his girlfriend or a makeup artist, and I am none of these things. I’m just his biggest fan.
I met Daniel Ash in 2014 after he was forwarded a sort of superfan’s how-to guide I’d written about his musical catalog and cultural influence, starting with Bauhaus through Tones on Tail, Love and Rockets, and a few criminally overlooked solo albums. At the time, I was fronting my own goth-adjacent rock band and had been worshipping at the altar of Ash for years, finding inspiration in everything from his signature guitar techniques (EBow, 12-string, ominous buzz-saw leads) to the way he shaped his eyebrows (you don’t curve down at the arch, you keep going straight out at an angle like Spock), so I felt inclined to give credit where credit was due. Something about the way I wrote struck a chord with Daniel, who, though notoriously reclusive at the time, invited me to meet him in person. We hit it off instantly; he took me for a motorcycle ride, and before I knew it I was working with him in the capacity of an art director for a record he was doing called Stripped. Life comes at you fast!
Fast-forward a good handful of years: Love and Rockets announce their appearance at Cruel World Festival and a subsequent U.S. tour and I’m thinking HOLY SHIT. Last time I checked, Ash was adamant that this reunion would never happen, which was heartbreaking for me personally because Love and Rockets are my favorite band. “I’ve got to get back in touch with Daniel and write up a proper Ash feature for CREEM,” I begged my higher-ups. They conceded. Duh.
Listen, I’m not going to pretend for even one second that I am some unbiased, even-keeled reporter in this case. To me, Daniel Ash is the coolest motherfucker on the face of the planet, and iconic to boot. It was Ash who had the Bauhaus vision, who spotted Peter Murphy’s Bowie-esque potential when they were just Northampton schoolboys and knocked on his door asking if he wanted to start a band, a band that would essentially invent a new mode of musical expression and inspire decades’ worth of macabre, angular bands in its wake. It was Ash who, in the absence of Peter Murphy at a scheduled Bauhaus recording session in 1982, said fuck it and made a record with Kevin Haskins (Bauhaus’ drummer) and a roadie who just happened to be there named Glenn Campling. This accidental time-killer project became Tones on Tail, arguably one of the most influential post-punk bands in history, pushing the boundaries of what the genre was then known for in myriad colorful ways previously unexplored. And while Love and Rockets were always, for all intents and purposes, a solid three-piece and collaborative creative effort between its three-quarters of Bauhaus members, Ash was once again the sonic visionary and, this time, the visual star as well. His presence in the formative years of the British punk/goth/post-punk scene was massive and critical to its very existence. His lush expansion of dark-tinged psychedelia gave way to shoegaze and heavily influenced alternative rock bands like Jane’s Addiction, the Dandy Warhols, and the Pixies.
So why do I always feel like I’m screaming into a void of morons when I assert the aforementioned in conversation? Why isn’t this all common knowledge by now? Why is his legacy within the wider cultural lexicon seemingly fixed as Guy From That Goth Band, or Guy Who Had That One Song? Over my dead body!
To be clear, Daniel Ash doesn’t give a shit about any of that, or rather, he doesn’t let himself be bothered by it. Every time he reluctantly agrees to tour again, he instantly regrets it and could easily spend the rest of his life riding his motorcycle on deserted highways listening to nothing but the sound of the engine hum as the world melts away into a series of streaked lines in the peripheral. Very Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, if you will. But this attachment-resistant monk vibe doesn’t always track, because how then can Ash account for the amount of sequins and flashy, billowing blouses in his wardrobe? His flamboyant, gender-bending, glitter-in-the-dark aesthetic is a massive part of his expression and iconic image (I once called him “glam rock Liberace”; he told me to shut up).
There’s a dissonance at play within Ash and the image he projects, a contradiction. Insert Walt Whitman quote about the multitudes, etc. When asked how he’d like to be remembered when he dies, he’s nonchalant, like “I won’t care, I’ll be dead,” but in the next breath he’ll refer to himself as “Mr. Commercial,” rant about how much he hates “indie” culture, and brazenly admit that his favorite song he’s ever written is “So Alive” by Love and Rockets because it was their biggest hit. He has spent the past 20 or so years living in relative seclusion, fantasizing about finding a pair of sunglasses that would cover his entire face, but the second he steps on stage or in front of a camera he is an enigmatic panther of a person, demanding to be seen. This sexy onion has layers begging to be pulled back, but not too much. It’s classic tease and denial, mystery being the essence of seduction. And while Ash is smart enough to know that and intentionally play into it, I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t something unconscious at work within him driving this little tug-of-war game.
“I was the opposite of shy until I was about 10, and then something happened,” Ash says to me over the phone. I sense a shift in his tone of voice, which becomes much softer and more measured after a good 20 minutes of casual back-and-forths.
“It was very strange. I was a real extrovert as a kid, real happy. I had a very stable upbringing—Mum and Dad were together, they never split up. But one day I was telling my mum and dad about a nightmare that I’d had wherein they had been captured in the jungle somewhere in a war situation. They were both strapped to this big wheel that was made of wood, and only one of them was gonna get rolled down the hill and killed. And I’m telling Mum and Dad this and I’m all full of myself as I always was because when I was growing up, it wasn’t a typical English household where it’s quiet and stuffy at the dinner table—it was the opposite. It was always like a chimpanzee’s tea party. So there’s me putting on a show, telling the family about this fantastic nightmare I’d had.
“And as I’m telling this story, Dad says to me, ‘Who did you choose between Mum and Dad [to get pushed down the hill]? And I just, for the first time in my life, I completely froze. I broke down crying uncontrollably. I’d never felt this feeling before. It’s because I could not choose between Mum and Dad. The idea of having to choose one and not the other completely did my head in. My parents didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to do. And that was the first time I’d sensed the feeling of embarrassment. Ever since that day, I’d have these waves of being extremely self-conscious and embarrassed. Chronically shy. It took me years to work through it, and it’s still there to this day somewhat. It’s funny I’m telling you this because it’s a very personal thing, but I don’t really care now, it doesn’t matter. I would imagine other people have experienced something similar. But yeah, that was life-changing. It would be interesting to know what a psychiatrist would say about that. What happened that day?”
Fuck if I know. But it does begin to answer some of the questions I’d been mulling over in my mind about what makes this guy tick, like what’s really going on behind the Dame Edna glasses. He also mentions being raised mildly Catholic but heavily impacted by Catholic schooling, where he was regularly told that if he missed mass or acted out in class he would burn in hell.
“That’s gonna fuck anybody up,” he says regarding the Catholic guilt trips he received in school. “When things are going great, you think you don’t deserve it. So you sabotage any given situation. I had that pretty bad, and I’m still getting rid of it.”
I ask him if he thinks that kind of self-annihilating mindset has found his way into his career or personal life.
“Absolutely. Yes. Everything from relationships, girlfriends, decisions regarding the bands, you know, breaking up a band prematurely. But then looking back, when I do reflect on when the three bands that I’ve been in have actually broken up, I think I was right. So I’m sort of contradicting myself here. I do remember once, the first time Bauhaus broke up, about a month later, I remember calling up the guys, but I was drunk when I called them up, saying, ‘Hey, fuck this. Let’s get back together. What are we thinking?’ And the response from them was negative, like ‘No way,’ you know? But again, I was buzzed at the time. It was emotion taking over rather than logic, because it was sad. We’d been together for years, we’d worked our asses off and we got to a certain stage, we were just about to embark on a big Japanese tour, and then it was all just done. It was a very, very intense four years, so I remember feeling somewhat relieved at the time. I can’t help thinking it might’ve been the same feeling that Brian Eno had when he left Roxy Music. You know, I think I was actually on a holiday in Europe, somewhere on the bike in the South of France, and I heard it on the radio on a little transistor radio. I had, I heard that we’d broken up. I went, ‘Oh, really? That’s news to me.’ But then I thought, ‘Okay, I’m fine with that.’ Right. I’ve managed to avoid your question, haven’t I?”
“It’s made me question myself at times, like what am I promoting here?” —Daniel Ash on goth
It’s true that Ash is great at doing the interview dance, sidestepping personal questions and distracting the interviewer with stories told many times over. But I’m not so easily deterred, so I circle back and take a direct hit:
“Have you ever gone to therapy to work out any of this stuff you’re avoiding talking to me about?” I inquire, guns a-blazing.
“I had an ex-girlfriend who got me to go somewhere once, and all the guy was talking about was the damn weather for 20 minutes of the session. I thought, ‘Come on. What is this? Get a move on here.’ To be honest, I was running circles around him with his sort of theories on what things were about. I was answering him before he could finish. It didn’t work at all for me. I consider myself reasonably intelligent. I feel that I’ve worked through a lot of issues myself just from thinking about it a lot. I mean, I do think about human nature a lot, the big questions: what’s it all about and why are we here and all those cliché things. I do think about that a lot. But that’s why I ride bikes as well, because it frees me from having to overthink everything, which I tend to do, being a bit neurotic and everything. The motorcycle makes you focus. It’s like transcendental meditation for me.”
“Right, because you can’t solve the problems of the mind with the mind,” I say. He chuckles and says something like “That’s good,” signaling to me that he’s enjoying the conversation and the fact that he isn’t being coddled.
So I decide to get more specific. I ask if there’s a part of him that feels guilty about what he’s done with his life, if he feels it’s stupid or unimportant when compared with more allegedly noble aspirations, and after musing for a few minutes about how Cat Stevens turned away from stardom when he converted to Islam, he finally replies: “I don’t know if it just goes back to the Catholic thing as well of the guilt of always asking myself, ‘Ummm...should you be up there prancing about?’ It’s all I’ve got, the whole music thing. I’ve done it my whole adult life. It’s an extreme love/hate relationship. But no, it’s not that it’s stupid or unimportant, but that actually it’s very powerful. And if you think about the bands I’ve been in—particularly Bauhaus—it can be questionable whether you’re advertising something that’s the right thing to advertise. I met this Christian once, and she was talking about Marilyn Manson and that whole thing and how really dangerous that is, his band in particular and what he’s promoting. And then obviously we’re lumped in with that whole thing. It’s made me question myself at times, like what am I promoting here?”
One of my favorite Love and Rockets songs penned by Ash, “Love Me,” contains the lyric “I’m only interested in paradise/I’m only interested in pure white light,” which always struck me as a reaction to being labeled as a brooding goth due to the Bauhaus of it all. Ash insists that he himself has never been interested in the macabre, aside from loving the camp and glamour of vampire films.
“When I was a kid I would not go out on the weekends. I would stay in to watch the horror films. There would be a horror film at about 11 o’clock at night in England—you know, when we only had three channels. I would always hope that it would be a vampire film that came on and not the Wolf Man or the Mummy. Back then it was Christopher Lee and Bela Lugosi when it was the vampire films. There was this wonderful otherworldly romanticism about the whole vampire thing that really turned me on. Nothing to do with the macabre. It’s obviously very sexual as well. The vampires had these fabulous names—Dracula, you know? What a fantastic name, a fantastic word. So that intrigued me as a kid. It’s very different from, uh, you know, the slicing of an eyeball or something grotesque like that. I had zero interest in that stuff.”
Glamor and sexuality are continuous threads throughout Ash’s story, and it’s not hard to connect the dots between the romanticism of these vampire films he loved as a child and witnessing the rise of British glam rock in the early 1970s as a hormone-ridden teenager.
“In some ways I was a regular teenage boy, but as soon as I saw “Star Man” on Top of the Pops, when Bowie puts his arm around Mick Ronson and he’s wearing the lime green catsuit—as soon as I saw that I went, ‘This is the world that I want to live in. Fuck your football, fuck your sports and all of that.’ Then in the same year I got a ticket to see Roxy Music, at the Rainbow, I think, in London. Maybe it was the Roundhouse. I was 15 years old, went down on my own, and I was just in this fantasyland. The audience looked as interesting as the band. Talk about androgynous. I fell in love three times with three different men that night who looked like women, and I’m heterosexual! But these guys were like, wow. There was this one in particular, and he was just leaning against the wall, posing. He had a box of Cadbury Milk Tray chocolates and he was just picking one chocolate out and the next, eating them in an extremely camp way, like some glamour-puss from the 1920s. I was in love. It was very confusing for me,” he says, laughing.
Something that comes through very clearly to me during these conversations is, in fact, Ash’s lightness. While he is somewhat of an existential thinker, and an absolute romanticist, he’s not at all the sort of deadpan goth overlord you might expect from a founding member of Bauhaus. But if you’re familiar with Ash’s work post-Bauhaus, this lightness really isn’t surprising at all. Love and Rockets are a technicolor affair, more playful and exuberant in their expression than dour, and the more I speak to Ash, the clearer that distinction becomes. With Love and Rockets, he was in a position to take the space previously held by an intensely (and famously) serious frontman and fill it with the nuance and flair of his own cheeky personality, perfectly balanced by a dynamic rhythm-section duo—and old art school pals—brothers Kevin and David Haskins, with whom he has always shared an innate kinship.
“I remember, although we were in different years at school, David and I would cross paths down the corridors, going from one class to another. And we were the only two in the whole school who were wearing drainpipe pants—you know, trousers. Everybody else had the flappy, flippy, flappy shit, you know, where they’re all looking like hippies from the ’60s, even though this was 1972. So we would always acknowledge each other in the hallways. It’s really weird because we were always like, ‘Hey, how you doin’?’ I wouldn’t say that to anybody else back then. It was just because we had the same pants on! And then I remember Kevin, he would come to school in very, very cool suits. Really wild. Like powder blue. So, you know, we all had this thing about us, wanting to sort of stand out or be different.”
There’s a video on YouTube called “Daniel Ash Being Daniel Ash For 5 Minutes,” which is exactly what it describes: collaged footage of Daniel in some of his most candid and charming moments both on and off the stage. In the footage he’s wearing a skintight minidress on stage playing the saxophone, making jazz hands at the camera, gleefully telling tall tales to confuse interviewers, giving a handmade psychedelic greeting card to a fan. This is the Daniel Ash who opened the hotel-room door for photographer Nikki Sneakers and me just past noon on the day Love and Rockets were set to play the historic and ornate Kings Theatre in Brooklyn: friendly, playful, and always glamorous.
After spending an hour having fun playing dress-up and taking photos, we left Daniel with some advice on where to find some new earrings (St. Mark’s Place). Later on, as showtime edged closer, he texted pics of a pair of sunglasses he’d scored and a peek at his bedazzled backstage wardrobe with the caption “...decisions, decisions.” I was thinking, “DANIEL ASH IS TEXTING ME ABOUT FASHION!!!” and then I immediately forwarded the wardrobe photo to a fellow mega-fan friend who works in fashion (she screamed). And as I danced and swayed in the front row that night, watching my favorite band of all time play an all-killer, no-filler set to a devoted audience spanning multiple generations, as if no time had passed between their career peak and this moment, I recalled the way Daniel spoke of his days as an art student. That innocent desire to stand out from the crowd, to invoke and carry the torch of the androgynous glam rock spirit that moved him as a teenager. I looked up at Daniel—hair high to the gods, metallic blazer catching light in all directions, electric guitar in hand, feedback swelling around him—and I saw that same kid in the drainpipe pants, walking the corridor and looking for his tribe.