Swans: Sacrifice And Transcendence, The Oral History
(Jawbone Press, 2018)
“I was breaking up with my girlfriend and needed a place to live. I walked out the door, turned left on 6th Street, and there was a door open with some guy clearing out a storefront space. I said ‘Hey, is this place for rent?’ He said ‘a hundred bucks a month.’” So begins chapter 4.0 of Swans: Sacrifice And Transcendence, The Oral History, a new book by British writer Nick Soulsby published by London-based Jawbone Press. The speaker is Michael Gira, the driving force behind Swans and the book’s principle subject. The year is 1981, and the place is the infamous Alphabet City in New York’s East Village. It was here, at 93 Avenue B (with the entrance on E. 6th), a.k.a “The Bunker,” in the middle of one of New York City’s roughest neighborhoods during its darkest era, a land of abandoned buildings, heroin dealers, violent crime, depravity and death, that Swans took its first harrowing steps. Though the seeds of Swans’ uniquely dark and violent vision can be seen in Gira’s early life growing up in Los Angeles, it’s important to remember, particularly from the vantage point of today’s New York City, how extreme the environment was that ultimately allowed this vision to grow and thrive into one of the most challenging and dangerous bands the world has ever seen.
These early years were difficult in the extreme, and we hear from a diverse chorus of figures in Swans’ wider Downtown milieu, including Lydia Lunch, Thurston Moore, Bob Bert, and JG Thirlwell, as well extensive testimony from early Swans members Jonathan Kane, Norman Westberg, Dan Braun, and others. The first gig in 1982, at CBGBs, an early self-titled EP, followed by the first album, Filth, released in 1983 on Glenn Branca’s Neutral Records, and Swans are officially an entity to recon with. By 1984, the band was, in the words of Lunch, “. . . an immaculate concept: brutal, unbearably loud, plodding aural torture of the most magnificent kind.” Not surprisingly, Swans were met with limited interest and often outright hostility, playing to small audiences and alienating club owners with their loudness and attitude. Continual lineup changes, conflicts with neighbors near their rehearsal space, a perpetual financial deficit, drinking problems, drug addictions, and personal feuds accumulated. We also learn early on, what a difficult person Gira could often be to work with, and it’s not unreasonable to imagine, given the band’s trajectory to that point, that Swans might have collapsed under their own unbearable weight, if not for the appearance in 1984 of Jarboe.
We first hear from her in Chapter 5.0, and as with her effect on the band, her voice in the book contributes multitudes. Originally from New Orleans, we learn that Jarboe grew up immersed in music, and by the early ‘80s had developed a strong taste for the unusual and esoteric. Eventually moving to Atlanta, she heard Filth on a local college radio station and was intrigued. Responding to the note on the record’s sleeve “Lyric sheet available on request,” a correspondence began. Soon she would relocate to the East Village, becoming involved with Gira and moving into The Bunker, first traveling with Swans and helping out with various tasks, and eventually joining the band. Her first appearance on record is on the 1986 single, “Time is Money (Bastard)” and with that, a new era began for Swans. No longer merely plodding aural torture, Jarboe’s powerful voice and rich musicality, gave Swans a new dimension in their pursuit of the transcendence.
By 1987 and the release of their double-LP masterpiece Children of God, Swans were beginning to reach a wider audience and threatening to escape the avant-garde ghetto for more conventional success. Soon they would strike a major label deal with MCA subsidiary Uni Records resulting in the Bill Laswell produced The Burning World. A beautifully crafted album of gentler, more tuneful, yet still powerful arrangements, The Burning World should have been their breakthrough moment. Unfortunately, the sudden collapse of Uni Records upon the album’s release meant that there was no promotion or support, and the album fell flat. The band began to break apart, and a period of disappointment and bitterness ensued. Failure. The Burning World remains out of print to this day, but Gira and Jarboe would persevere through the ’90s with various lineups, as Swans consolidated their cult following, and releasing numerous albums through their newly formed Young God label. Eventually running out of gas in ’97, Gira and Jarboe would separate, and Swans ended.
It’s at this point in the book, three quarters through, that the testimony becomes less interesting. As the story moves through the period of Gira’s next band Angels of Light (1997 – 2003), followed by the emergence of Young God Records as an incubator of talent (Devendra Banhart, Akron/Family etc.), and into the 2010 – 17 Swans revival, minus Jarboe, the story telling generally falls flat. Perhaps here it might have made sense to move from oral history to a kind of postscript that broadly explains what happened after 1997. Though technically Swans did return thirteen years later, and rather triumphantly at that, the revival still seems somewhat like a different band, and a different story. Perhaps it is not yet “history” enough to be a subject of reflection, given that the latest “final” Swans shows only concluded last November.
It is clear however, that Gira is the central figure of Swans, and throughout the book, his total commitment to a vision, against all odds, and despite repeated failure, is perhaps the primary story of Sacrifice And Transcendence. A hero’s journey, so to speak. The book is also valuable as a portrait of the ‘80s East Village and environs, and for introducing us to a number of lesser known figures of the era, such as guitarist Sue Hanel, an early member of Swans who seemingly disappeared without a trace sometime in the ’80s. I was also impressed by the level of candor offered by the many interview subjects. At no time did I feel anyone was holding back or concealing anything, and that made for a mostly riveting read. We also learn, somewhat incidentally that Gira dated Madonna before she was “Madonna” and that he auditioned for Flipper in 1979, among many fun facts and notable anecdotes. For all of this, any serious fan of Swans will certainly want to read it immediately. But it will also appeal to those with a more general interest in New York City, the independent music business, and the struggle of the artist in the modern world. All told, it’s a very well organized book and an excellent contribution to the history of alternative music, and considering the subject, mercifully modest in scale.