M. Gira, Swans and the anonymous body
1984 band photo by Lee Ranaldo
by Mike WoodNew York in the '70's was a Petri dish of violence, outrage and creativity. Its grim economic state boiled over in acts ranging from the Son of Sam killer, to massive looting during the '77 blackout, to the births of Punk, Disco, Hip-Hop, and Transgressive Cinema. It was the kind of place that could not only incubate punk rock, but could also spawn an even darker vision of that new music. No-Wave was punk without the sarcasm. If punk avoided the body altogether, No-Wave explored the entrails of appetite and other dark avenues of liberation.
No Wave was a more nihilist adjunct to Punk, as well as being more experimental musically. Whereas the first punk bands built off of the blues and the Stooges, with traces of bands like MC5 and Velvet Underground, No Wave looked more to Captain Beefheart, free jazz and the more noisy explorations of the Velvets. Bands like DNA, Mars, Theoretical Girls, Teenage Jesus and The Jerks and the Contortions took the rage of punk and matched it with the squalor and intellectual rebellion then going on elsewhere in New York. For artists like Lydia Lunch, Jim Thirlwell and Glenn Branca, the notion of NYC in the '70's was similar to creative life to Paris in the '30's- it was real, not just something cool for Johnny Thunders or Jim Carroll to say while nodding on smack. These were bands that pushed the envelope musically, incorporating noise, horns, atonal open chords, with the idea that volume and confrontation were liberating, both as form and from form. These were bands that did not wanna sniff some glue; they wanted to use it to fix the bat they just broke over your face.
The most compelling and frightening of those bands was unquestionably Swans. Lead by vocalist and writer Michael Gira, Swans offered a confrontational drone, which were often merely seedy, bludgeoning variations on one chord, all delivered at an ear-splitting volume that often affected audiences viscerally. In the late '70's, early '80's, it seemed like both Gira and New York were courting self-destruction. Swans also borrowed the torched industrial landscape of their city for their views on intimacy.
Swans's music was an endurance test, both for the audience and for its primary designer. Gira's lyrical obsessions--money, power, anonymous sex, a literal & spiritual annihilation of the body--were drawn from his own life. Theirs was music of urge and impulse. Part of that impulse was to use volume to transform the body, to literally destroy it and remake it... into what?
Gira has said in the past that a certain level of volume was needed to express the right sound--"the sound didn't exist until it reached that volume"--this iscatharsis, a cleansing, a blowing away. Like noise as prayer, he saw their music not so much as dissonant but rather, oddly beautiful and transcendent. As Iggy hinted at and GG failed to understand, this was music intended to overwhelm and transform the listener physically. Into what? Into a state where the body has disappeared.
The fear of vanishing into the body of a lover or murderer or an abuser, an oppressed body finding more oppression in being devoured--annihilation, disappearance, transformation, obliteration. Literally, there were numerous forms of anonymous contact to inspire Gira: with the audience, with various; sidemen; sexually, and through several performance pieces associated with Hermann Nitsch's Actionism, a visceral Dionysian spectacle which often involved raw meat, other bodily fluids and assorted animal carcasses.
Having no place to hide on stage, yet not opening up, Gira had a confrontational, negative relationship with the audience--one that vilified them both for early violence and for later acoustic, reflective work. Lyrically, Gira's writing liberated himself from his own body, being able to inhabit characters at random moments, and explore varied emotions. His catalog of songs is one of the most underrated in rock, and belongs in any serious discussion of writers like Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Van Morrison and other defiant spiritual hikers.
While it isn't my intent to offer commentary on Swans vast output of EP's, full-lengths and live records, a random sampling from their body of work will suffice to highlight how these intimate obsessions have progressed through the years.
The first few Swans releases, Filth (1983), Cop (1984), Greed (1985, the latter being the first record with soon to be longtime collaborator Jarboe) were intense, uncomfortable affairs, both sonically and lyrically exploring the grime of desire. These records, and the various EP's during the period, were literal wrestling matches, sonic power struggles with the body as both the prey and the hunter. Gira was able to create voices for those faceless souls on both sides of the war. The scraping, metallic KO of "Raping a Slave" and "Take Advantage" easily transitioned into the menace of "I Crawled," "Power for Power" and "Sensitive Skin." No matter the persona, it was clear that Gira's loyalties lay with those seeking oblivion, a shattering experience that might end appetite through annihilation. Yet Swans' cagy lyrical fluctuation among personas also makes them a sort of brutal variation of the famous wager with the ultimate by St. Augustine--"Lord make me chaste, but not yet!" By 1986's Holy Money acoustic elements were introduced, which did not so much tone down the imagery as make it more painfully intimate. In 1987, the Children of God release featured two of the band's best tracks, ones that could almost sum up the entire band's outlook: "Sealed in Skin" and "Sex, God, Sex." They were clearly on a constant creative peak.
Infamous but underrated (since it was their only major label release, a move which pissed off a number of fans and dilettantes) 1989's The Burning World honed the band's power but did not diminish it. Early songs like "Money is Flesh" and "A Screw" contrasted with later fare like covers of Blind Faith and Joy Division. The latter might seem incongruous for such an iconoclastic band, yet both covers are delivered without any shred of irony. There is the same detached but smoldering passion in Swans' take on "Can't Find My Way Home" and "Love Will Tear Us Apart" that places them proudly in the band's canon of their unique blues.
By the time of Soundtracks for The Blind the 1996 2-disc finale, Swans had elevated their experiments with noise, acoustic instruments, drone and ambient tones into a stunning evocative brew that reflected both the holy and the despised in the human spirit. There is a progression in the work Michael Gira from violence to tranquility, from massive noise to acoustic instrumentation. That progression doesn't seem to imply any resolution of themes. In Swans, Gira made peace with the need to act out or exorcise his appetites, while not fully having abandoned them. His recent work with Angels of Light opens up more possibilities for redemption, but the hint of sin and yearning for annihilation still haunts the man and his music.
Also see articles about Gira's Angels of Light and this 2006 Gira interview and this 2012 Gira interview.
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