In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the rest of the world saw Charlottesville as the home of Dave Matthews. But to insiders, the beating heart of the local music scene could hardly have been more different from the frat-friendly hits of DMB. It was called The Dawning. A weekly goth night held in the dark, red-painted basement of a sushi restaurant called Tokyo Rose (now under different management and no longer doubling as a night club). While it was created as a home for Charlottesville’s gothic rock scene, The Dawning became the glue that unofficially held together every local branch of countercultural music that was happening at the time.
“There was no real cohesive scene before The Dawning,” says Mike Johnson, a drummer who has played in notable local bands for the last 25 years, ranging from Fire Sermon in the early 1990s, to In Tenebris of the early 2000s, to today’s Ego Likeness, and three other bands that he is currently playing with. “The really cool thing about it was while it was ostensibly a goth scene, you had the goths, the punks, the squatters, all the outsiders. Everybody showed up for this night. It was just where we all went.”
The story of The Dawning and the deliberate assembly of arguably the coolest music scene in the history of Charlottesville began in the summer of 1995 when two kids met each other in person for the first time on the Downtown Mall—Gopal Metro and Andy Deane, musicians who would later form the band Bella Morte.
Metro was raised in Yogaville, the interfaith ashram in Buckingham County, which “was a very odd place to grow up,” he says. “On one hand I was completely isolated from American culture but on the other hand I was completely exposed to rural culture. There would be government dignitaries, religious dignitaries. I was trained to be a world ambassador of peace when I was a little kid. I was trained to be a monk, a swami, when I was a little kid. I regularly did hours of meditation. It was just an unusual upbringing.”
Through his older sister, Radha, Metro was introduced as an elementary-schooler to post-punk bands such as The Cure, Pixies and The Smiths. As he got older, he started hearing about industrial music. Radha gave him an early issue of Propaganda, a gothic and industrial subculture magazine she’d picked up in New York.
“In the back of Propaganda magazine I found ads for all these other zines and I hand-wrote letters to all of these people and I said, ‘Tell me more about what you’re doing, tell me what’s going on,’ and essentially developed gothic pen pals,” Metro says. “And I got demos from bands and got clothing catalogs and started knowing all of the people in the L.A. scene on a first-name basis through pen pal correspondence.”
Meanwhile, Deane “had gotten into goth but I didn’t know anybody else into it so I was doing this thing on my own,” he says. “A mutual friend said, ‘Hey, there’s this dude named Gopal out in Yogaville who’s into the same stuff as you,’ so I just cold-called him. Just called him out of nowhere. I remember one of his sisters answered and said, ‘Metros!’ I thought this must be a restaurant. It just sounded like a business name, you know? And then we talked and he was like, ‘I got a drum machine and a bass.’ I was like, ‘Cool, I got a voice and a guitar!’”
The duo formed Bella Morte, a gothic rock band that would later record videos for MTV and tour all over North America and Europe. Like most bands fitting the gothic label, they incorporated elements of punk, metal and electronic music with an overall dark tone, not unlike the so-happy-to-be-sad premise of American blues music. Starting out in Charlottesville, they had a band but no gothic rock scene. No radio show that would play their music, no store that would sell gothic apparel, no nightclub that would book them to play live. So they made it all from scratch.
Metro began working at Cosmic Coyote, a now-defunct store on the Corner that sold hippie-oriented counterculture accoutrements. He soon convinced the owner to start catering to fans of grunge, punk and gothic music.
“There was no goth at Coyote before I got there,” Metro says. “Linda Friend [the owner] was awesome and was hugely influential in my life. She saw that I cared about what I was doing and she said, ‘Here’s a budget.’ She trained me all about the retail process. …So I bought everything in the Manic Panic line, literally everything. And that created demand, too. I started training people and we started carrying body jewelry. Built out a whole place to go to get kitted up if you were interested in the scene.”
At around the same time, Deane began hosting “Subculture Shock,” a goth-oriented radio show on WNRN. Now there was a voice on the air for the counterculture as well as a physical location where people could check in to find out what was happening. Kids started tuning in and buying gothic apparel. But they still didn’t have a home for live music.
At the time, most of today’s music venues did not exist in Charlottesville. The Jefferson Theater was still showing movies. The Pavilion was just a temporary stage for Fridays After Five, where bands had to stash their gear under the Belmont Bridge if it looked like rain. The Ante Room, the Southern and Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar did not exist.
Tokyo Rose, a Japanese restaurant near Foods of All Nations, offered the final piece of Deane and Metro’s countercultural empire. Upstairs it was a sushi restaurant. The owner, Atsushi Miura, had turned the basement into a makeshift nightclub that appeared to largely indulge his personal, eclectic taste in music (he did not respond to interview requests for the article).
The Rose was already an important musical outpost: Indie bands like Sleater-Kinney and Cat Power played there. Not knowing what to expect, Metro and Deane held their first goth night there as a one-off event for Halloween, in 1995.
Upstairs, Tokyo Rose was an elegant, upscale sushi restaurant with a long bar that served cocktails, Japanese beer and sake. Downstairs, the dimly lit room had walls painted a uniform red. The ceiling was low enough that performers would occasionally swing from the exposed metal framing. There was a small second bar with a few cheap beers on tap. This was before indoor smoking bans, and as the room filled up, the air would turn warm, thick and smoky, tinged with the sweet aroma of the imported clove cigarettes favored by many patrons. An ancient beer-stained couch beside the DJ booth in the back was where many couples got to know each other very intimately at an astonishingly rapid pace. The space was just the right size. Fifty people felt like a real party. Two hundred was like a riot.
“There weren’t that many goths around seemingly,” Metro says. “But they just came out of the woodwork [for the Halloween show]. We did like 150 heads or something. We were blown away, every one of us was just floored. And Atsushi loved it. He wouldn’t leave! The kitchen was going upstairs and he was just…standing there loving it. After that he said, ‘Anytime you want you can come back.’”
After the Halloween experiment, “Atsushi…approached Metro and I and was like, ‘I want a goth night,’” Deane recalled. “…And Atsushi, he loved the crowd. He loved these kids. And he said, ‘I want you to do Saturday night! And we’re like, really? And he’s like, yeah. So we did Saturday night and it took the hell off. It took off and it was crazy.”
Like goths to a flame, The Dawning instantly began to draw people who didn’t quite fit in anywhere else. Musicians, programmers and artists like Amelia Little, who lived in Appomattox County at the time.
“I lived in a very rural area and I was a strange, gothy child that felt isolated from everyone and I happened to get Charlottesville radio stations,” Little says. “And I got WNRN. At the time [‘Subculture Shock’] was hosted by Andy Deane and I learned about Bella Morte that way. …So I started sending fan art to their e-mails. And it was actually Gopal that invited me to come up to see them play along with The Cruxshadows at Tokyo Rose. And that’s where I started meeting some of my first friends in Charlottesville and eventually ended up moving up here because of that. Because I had made the friends and joined the group in this area that shared our dark little fun subculture.”
Shawn Decker, an HIV activist and speaker who also performs electronic music with his band, Synthetic Division, credits Metro and The Dawning in part for his current music career.
“I first became aware of The Dawning when I moved to Charlottesville and C-VILLE Weekly wanted to interview me about living with HIV,” Decker says. “The writer for that article found out I loved Depeche Mode and was a songwriter and he said, ‘You gotta meet Gopal Metro.’ …I met Gopal at Cosmic Coyote…he listened to my music and was like, ‘When do you want to play?’ At the time I was very sick and was just getting ready to start HIV meds. The first time I went to The Dawning I went in my pajama pants. …I came back and was bright-eyed and full of life in spite of being so sick and rundown.”
Decker played his first full-length concert at Tokyo Rose for The Dawning, opening for Bella Morte in 1999. Like other local bands, Synthetic Division had regular gigs there every few months for years. The consistent playing in front of the same audience helped Decker to hone his material.
“Having a venue, having a crowd, having a reason to write new songs, it just helped me so much as a songwriter,” Decker says. “It helped make music a priority in my life.”
Charlottesville native Rebecca Davidsson, who moved from Orange County to Charlottesville at the age of 14, showed up on the scene early on and quickly found herself involved as more than just a spectator.
“Andy and I started seeing each other and he would go out of town a lot,” Davidsson says. “So I started having to cover for him. I’m like 17 years old organizing these crazy kids.”
Her story was typical of many people drawn to The Dawning. Like most of the people interviewed for this article, she made visits to Plan 9 Music on the Corner a normal part of her week (Plan 9 is still in business in Seminole Square and in Richmond).
“I was one of those kids, we had skirt rules for length and they would measure our skirts and I would roll it up immediately every day to make it shorter and wear fishnet stockings to private school,” Davidsson says. “I was obsessed with Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain at the time. …I’d see fliers for Tokyo Rose in Plan 9. I’d go there and blow every paycheck. They sold me my first Buzzcocks record and my first Joy Division album.”
Transient gutterpunks would sometimes arrive at Tokyo Rose by way of the train tracks that ran behind the restaurant. They would hop on freight trains and jump off as the coal cars and containers passed by. Being broke didn’t keep them out of The Dawning.
“The great thing about it was we were very careful to create a community that was not goth exclusive or that was making anyone feel like an outsider,” Deane says. “We even had an unwritten rule, because the cover charge was five bucks every week, no matter what, people were allowed in. If you came and you didn’t have any money, you were not excluded. That’s just how we ran it the entire time. The punk kids, some of them who were spanging on the Downtown Mall all day, would come in and drop like a dollar and 80 cents in dirty change into the thing and it was just sweet.”
Even with the addition of the destitute gutterpunks, the crowd was notorious for tipping well.
“When I was bartending upstairs, people would tip me like two dollars a drink,” says Patrick Critzer, a local chef and DJ who worked at Tokyo Rose during the years of The Dawning. He recalled the large contingent of well-paid programmers who worked for Kesmai Corporation, a Charlottesville company that made computer games, who often attended The Dawning.
“The gamers and the geeks were on top” during the dot-com bubble, he says. “They really held it down. They were all, a lot of the folks, were really smart. Educated. Creative. …When I went to bartend at The Dawning I knew that I was going to have good conversation, it was gonna be interesting people wearing weird clothes and nothing stupid was going to happen. Whereas the other nights, no one knew. It was either gonna be boring or fun or would be a mess. The Dawning, it was going to be civil, organized; it was a known quantity. It was their own scene and they brought it and it was nice.”
Marshall Camden arrived from Virginia Beach to play a gig with his small gothic-oriented electronic band and remembers “the turnout being really great, all the people that were there being really into it,” Camden says. “And at one point playing one of our slower songs that I figured was just going to lose people because of having so many punks and deathrock kids there. And this [punk] dude with a giant mohawk had one boot up on the stage, just doing this really slow headbang along with the song and getting into it! I wasn’t used to that. …That sort of dedication to the scene was a big factor of why I moved here.”
Years later, Camden became Bella Morte’s bass player. And whether you were goth or country, The Dawning would make room for you.
“Johnny Fritz would come out to The Dawning and say, ‘I’m Corndawg!’” says Metro. “And shake everyone’s hand. He would come in a bright white T-shirt and ripped blue jeans. He would walk through the door, pay his cover and come out into the middle of the dance floor. It didn’t matter what was playing, and he wouldn’t stop dancing until the end of the night…and he was awesome! A goth girl came up to me and said, ‘Do you think you could ask him to leave, please?’ And we said, ‘Hell no! Are you kidding? He’s having fun! You need to go do what he’s doing!’”
While better-funded venues in Charlottesville booked national and international acts, The Dawning was consistently able to punch above its weight class and draw acts that a little basement under a sushi restaurant shouldn’t have been able to book. The coalition of different subcultures made the place too much fun for famous bands to pass up. And friendships struck up between Bella Morte members and other bands they met on the road helped bring those acts to Charlottesville.
Bands like The Cruxshadows, Voltaire and The Last Dance have never been household names in the U.S., but they were huge in Europe and the United Kingdom at the time. Metro and Deane brought them to Tokyo Rose. But their biggest coup was bringing in S.P.O.C.K., a Swedish band that performed science-fiction-themed synthpop and that was filling large European stadiums.
The manager of S.P.O.C.K. got in touch with Deane and began to explain their standard contract. “We don’t do contracts,” Deane told him. So the manager asked to discuss the sound system and the lights. “I’m like, ‘They’re both horrible! It sounds terrible down there and the lighting setup is a bunch of old cans and they’ll work most of the time. We’ll flash em for you!’” The flustered manager asked for a financial guarantee. Deane said, “‘We don’t do that either.’” But he offered the band everything paid in cover fees at the door, after paying the DJ and the people working the door.
“The reason they got in touch with us is they were flying out of D.C.,” Deane says. ”And they were like, ‘You know what, we’ll do it.’ And after the show I remember them saying it was the best show on the tour.”
“At The Dawning, one of the key parts of the culture was no cliques,” says Metro (who was, if you remember, trained as a child to be a global ambassador of peace). “If Andy or I saw you forming a clique and talking about somebody, we would literally move you from your clique over to that person and we’d say, ‘You guys have to sort this out. Talk to each other. Hang out and have fun.’ If groups of people started hanging out together too much, we would mix the pot and get everyone talking. It didn’t matter whether you were goth or punk or Johnny Corndawg.”
In 2004, Atsushi sold Tokyo Rose. There was no question of continuing The Dawning under the terms in which it had been allowed to exist. Atsushi made money from the bar and restaurant, but let the promoters keep everything earned at the door. Few venue owners are willing to allow such terms. Aside from $25 each to the doorman, DJ and lighting tech, all of the door money went to the bands that played. Metro, Deane and Chris Knight (who took over management of The Dawning after a few years) never made a dime from The Dawning. The weekly event moved to the Outback Lodge for a few years, but never had the same feel as it did at The Rose. When the Outback Lodge closed, The Dawning died.
Now, 20 years after The Dawning was born, Metro has launched a new goth night on Tuesday nights with the help of his wife, Angel. It is called simply, Goth Night. Like The Dawning, it takes place each week in a basement, this time under the Jefferson Theater and Cinema Taco. Metro and Angel have a new band, Gild the Mourn, that will play once a month.
On the third week of Goth Night, Deane played with drummer Mike Johnson under the heading of his synthpop band, The Rain Within (Deane continues as Bella Morte’s lead vocalist, though Metro is no longer a member of the band). The air was noticeably cleaner than the thick, smoky funk of the old Tokyo Rose and the lighting was far better. The audience was filled with a collection of old Dawning alumni as well as younger additions who may have been in kindergarten the last time Deane sang onstage at the Rose. By hosting an all-ages show every week, Metro and Angel hope to draw a new generation of counterculture devotees as well as the old faithful. And Metro hopes that the reborn Goth Night can help misfits find a place to belong, just like The Dawning did.
“The European goth stuff was what I was into the most, the British goth scene from the ’80s,” says Davidsson, who now works at a restaurant in Crozet. “We’re always trying to copy what was done 20 years before us. …There’s a younger guy who comes into my bar and he does a lot of music now and he had heard all about [the old days at Tokyo Rose] and he said, ‘You guys were so cool!’ And I was like, ‘Life goal, done!’”