Weekly Wire
Metro Pulse Hurts So Good

At Neptune's Secret Garden, fetishists never spare the lash.

By Mike Gibson

APRIL 27, 1998:  It's often been said that pleasure and pain really aren't so far removed, that the difference between those two seemingly inimical sensations is a mere matter, neurally speaking, of arbitrary signal processing. It's often been said, but not by me. As far as I'm concerned, there's plenty of distance separating bliss and agony—a veritable sensory canyon, if you will. Put more simply, pain hurts.

So given that doggedly-held tenet, the question remains as to just what I'm doing here—at the Old City's newly-opened Neptune club, on the industrial end of Jackson Avenue—on Wednesday—the night normally reserved for the club's Secret Garden fetish show—surrounded by stiletto-heeled femme fatales and leather-sheated androgynes, folks toting whips and crops and shackles and painted with enough black mascara to tar an entire city block.

My goal upon entering the Garden was to plumb the depths of this dark slice of Knoxville nightlife with the illuminating flashlight of journalistic objectivity. With each new sighting of armed club patrons, I'm growing a bit less sure.

Scant feet in front of me, on the Neptune's low-set stage is the Queen of fetish night—Mistress Tina, a ghoulish dominatrix in dagger heels and a cocktail dress, riding crop clenched tightly in both hands, pacing around like zoo cat at feeding time. With little warning, she suddenly draws back her crop and begins wailing away like the guest of honor at a pi-ata party on some poor bare-backed wretch's big, white, quivering ass.

Upon closer inspection, I note that the spankee, bent over and tied down across a chair for several minutes now, has a number of clothespins clinging like tiny sandcrabs to the soft underflesh of his inner thigh. Aaach! So much for illuminating flashlights and journalistic objectivity.

What follows is an alternating litany of lascivious pleasures and cruel torments, a sado-masochistic spectacle such as might bring a leer to the twisted face of de Sade himself. With occasional assistance from various leather-clad minions, Mistress Tina wraps hapless victims in cellophane, fetters them with handcuffs, beats them with paddles, burns them with candle wax, and whips them with riding crops and a pair of cat 'o nine tails. And each lash or buffet is followed by a kneading massage, a soothing pat, a gentle caress. All the while, Tina's pale, pretty face is a mask of schizophrenic glee.

A bit later, I learn Mistress Tina, a.k.a. Tina Morton, is really a pretty ordinary sort—at least as ordinary as a woman with purple hair and an unhealthy fondness for handcuffs can be. The 21-year-old Morristown native learned to rebel against the stuffy status quo during her term as a Goth-obsessed student at Morristown Hamblen East High School. "I've been a freak since I was 15," she laughs. "I was the small-town Christian school cheerleader with the deep eggplant hair."

She eventually dropped out of high school, married, and earned her GED, whereupon she and husband James migrated to Knoxville and found jobs (Tina as a gopher and barback) at The Carousel, Fort Sanders' infamous drag haven. It was there that Morton met Heather Perry, a Carousel regular who staged S&M shows at the bar one night a week. When Perry asked her to join the party as a "submissive" (which, in layman's terms, refers to the recipient of spankings and what-not, as opposed to the dominatrix, who dishes them out), she accepted with little hesitation. "I had no qualms," says Morton. "It was something I had been interested in for a long time. And once I got on stage, I loved it."

The rest, as they say, is fetish history. Morton learned the ropes (so to speak) at the tip of Perry's lash. And when her mentor moved on to a larger city, Tina Morton donned the malevolent garb and girded herself with the lethal accouterments of Mistress Tina, dominatrix.

But the Secret Garden (the latest incarnation, across four different bars, of Morton's show) encompasses more than just wanton acts of high-heeled cruelty; foot worship, screen dancing, and role playing have also found their way into the carnal mix. "Anything you can take to an extreme, and derive sexual enjoyment out of it—it qualifies," Morton grins.

The night I visit the Secret Garden, Tina's act is followed by a netherworldly bit of sado-masochistic performance art by a Gatlinburg sextet that dubs itself "Misguided Perversions," a moniker that might easily prove too great a burden for lesser practitioners of the sadistic arts.

I will testify, however, that the six mostly 21-ish multiply-pierced and painted neo-Goths who comprise the group have more than earned the rights to their title. Their 10-minute performance is a mesmerizing passion play of twisted mimery, frenzied flagellation, and erotic dance, a choreographed freak opera that reaches its bizarre climax when one of the members, a sad-eyed, long-tressed youth with make-up straight out of James O'Barr's The Crow, bares his whisper-thin torso and allows one of his friends to brand him with a red-hot iron.

"Most of our group are 'switchers'—we enjoy both the dominant and submissive aspects of what we do," explains Chris, a mop-topped photo shop employee who, at 26, is both the oldest and most talkative member of the troupe. "It's all a matter of who's in the mood to do what on a given night."

The members of Misguided Perversions assembled a few months back when Tina sought additional performers for Secret Garden. "Our pleasure and pain thing started in the bedroom," says Chris of his girlfriend and fellow Perversion, Dora, a dark-haired beauty with a precocious, haunting stare. "Our act started as strictly S&M, but we got burnt out on that and decided to make it more dramatic."

And it's just that combination of acute sensory stimulation and darkly baroque theater that seems to lie at the twisted heart of the Secret Garden's appeal. More than one member of Misguided Perversions describes the feral sting of the lash or the searing sensation of hot wax on bare skin as "a rush."

"You have to be a bit of an exhibitionist," adds Tina. "I get gratification from giving the person I'm working with a good experience, and I get gratification from the crowd. It's very much a role-playing thing. Before I hit the stage, I take my whip and walk around, avoiding everybody, trying to get into character."

Dora, whose gruesome specialty is carving designs in human flesh with various sharp objects, posits that "it's all tied to a fixation with the human body. For me, it's not even really sexual. I just love the idea of opening skin to see what's inside."

(Whew!)Needless to say, the anything-goes sex-carnival atmosphere (none of the performers work naked, but many of them come pretty damned close) at Secret Garden fosters some pretty outrageous spectacle, displays of blood-letting outlandishness that make even tonight's black festivities seem benign and light-hearted by comparison. Dora describes a friend who allowed her to etch an extensive piece of original artwork into his back via light razor cuts. And Morton remembers chaotic evenings that ended with her submissives suspended from the rafters of the old Mercury Theatre on Market Square. (An upcoming show will see her prance across an eager male submissive in stiletto heels.)

"I've seen some things that really got my pulse going," admits Jonathan Strock, a crop-topped part-time videographer and a regular Secret Garden patron. "I suppose it would be pretty tame stuff in a city like L.A., but for Knoxville, it's out there."

As for myself, after spending the better part of an evening immersed in fetish culture, I'll admit that Secret Garden certainly makes for fascinating psycho-sexual theater—a sort of S&M Kabuki, if you will—although I'm not so sure my heart was racing so much as skipping beats every time I winced at some atrocious new experiment in agony.

And when I ask Mistress Tina to show me, via a single light stroke across my exposed forearm, just how those crops and wickedly tentacled whips feel when they connect, I'm forced to return to my original premise; pain hurts, and I still can't fathom its purported connection to happier sensations.

"Everyone I know who has really experienced it really enjoys it—if it's done in the right way," Tina insists. "What I do to people leaves marks on their skin. But if you learn to separate your mind from your body, you can turn one sensation into another, pleasure into pain.

"Then again," she adds, a fiendish smirk oozing across her face like hot buttered sin, "I became a dominatrix because I decided I didn't like being hurt all that much. Sometimes, it really is better to give than receive."

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