Swans: Sacrifice and Transcendence

Swans: Sacrifice and Transcendence, The Oral History
By Nick Soulsby
[Jawbone Press]

How long must this go on? Am I really enjoying this? If I stay, will I eventually cross some kind of threshold where I start enjoying it? And is this experience really worth sacrificing what’s left of my hearing? These were the nagging questions reverberating in my head as I endured what would be the most recent incarnation of Swans’ final Atlanta performance at Terminal West a couple of summers ago.

I mean, I knew that the Swans were cool and everything. I owned hard copies of all their (well, his) albums – and there were a couple of them I still listened to pretty often: I’d bust out Filth whenever I felt the need to wallow in a romanticized notion of NYC sleaze and self-abasement, and I’d bust out The Burning World because, well, because it has some great songs. Yes, The Burning World had actual songs that were sung, melodically, in a verse-chorus-verse sense, with lyrics that I found deeply touching and, well, true.

But at that Terminal West show, I knew I wasn’t gonna get any of that. Swans, by god, were Michael Gira’s thing. And this was the Mach II, post-reformation lineup. And this guy, Gira, was a tough, uncompromising bastard who would never stoop to performing the, ahem, “hits” for his audience like a monkey on a string.

The funny thing of it was, though, that Gira had kind of turned the “monkey on a string” thing on its end. Gira wasn’t performing for the audience as much as the audience was performing for him. And that night I kind of felt like a pawn amongst many pawns in an Emperor’s New Clothes kind of situation. In truth, we all probably wanted to hear the, ahem, “hits.” In truth, we all would’ve preferred a shorter set. And I truly doubt that most of the middle-aged crowd enduring the seemingly eternal sturm und drang of the three-hour-plus show enjoyed much of it at all. It was ear-splittingly loud. It hurt.

Of course, it was The Fucking Swans, too. And we knew it was gonna be ear-splittingly loud.  And we knew it was gonna hurt. This is why we came. Or was it?

At the Terminal West show, we daren’t scream out the titles of the songs we really wanted to hear. And we daren’t leave before the bitter end. And we daren’t admit that the din of the Swans, well, it wasn’t really very much fun. So we all stood there and took it. And we all acted like we liked it.

 But a funny thing happened after the 30-minute encore was finally over. Bang, zoom, and the crowd was out the door in no time flat. In rapacious anticipation of the quiet and comfort of home, we couldn’t get out of that fucking place fast enough.

Another funny thing happened about a year later. When I heard that Gira had decided to pull the plug on the Swans again (until he decides to fire up a Mach III, that is), I found myself looking back on the many Swans shows I’d endured with a real fondness. I was sad that I wouldn’t have to go through another ordeal like that. In retrospect, the shows had been experiences of transcendent, savage beauty.

Through the years, my Stockholm syndrome for the Swans kind of waxed and waned. Over a 30-years-plus period (yes, I’m that old), I saw the band about half a dozen times. And every single show absolutely wore me out. But every time I had another opportunity to see the band, I crawled dutifully back for more.

This Stockholm syndrome for the Swans (and, thus, for Gira himself) is something that is apparently shared (and made exponentially manifold) by all of the members of the band since the early ’80s. Nick Soulsby’s Swans: Sacrifice and Transcendence, The Oral History tells Gira’s story in his own words and chronicles the comings-and-goings of the around 40 members who filtered through the band since its inception in 1982. That Gira is a demanding and temperamental taskmaster is common knowledge. What’s new (or new to me) is that almost all of the former members who quit or were fired from the band still hold Gira, or at least his vision and work ethic, in high esteem.

OK, it would be all too easy and perhaps dismissive for me to compare the Swans’ history of ex-drummers with the exploding drummers of Spinal Tap. (But I did it anyway. Ka-Boom!) Almost every member of The Swans on any instrument “exploded” (or was exploded by Gira) at some point. Only guitarist Norman Westberg stayed in the band for almost the whole ride.

Of his experience in the band, 1986 drummer Ivan Nahem explains, “I remember thinking, ‘There’s only a few people in my life who intimidate me, and this guy [Gira] is one of them. Just go with it.’”

Drummer Larry Mullins (who has enjoyed a 30-year career as drummer for luminaries like Iggy Pop and The Residents and who is presently a multi-instrumentalist in Nick Cave’s band) likely was neither as browbeaten nor as acquiescent. But he acknowledges that his work with Gira was fraught with tensions. “I’ve seen the destruction Michael would leave in his wake, broken relationships everywhere – his reputation preceded him wherever he went. It was inevitable that at some point we were going to have a problem, and we finally did.”

Of course, everyone’s known all along that the Swans is Gira’s band, that Gira is the ringleader, original gangsta and CEO, and that Gira basically is the Swans, goddammit.

Domination and submission are pretty much what Swans were about – for the first decade or so, at least. No, we’re not talking about cheesy, goth-tinged S&M for Hot Topic nerds here. This guy, Gira, if you were in the room with him when he performed, you couldn’t avoid him: He inflicted himself upon you. The entire Swans experience was a struggle for domination that was, ultimately for Gira, a Triumph of The Will. I mean, this guy, Gira, this was the guy who wrote timeless pop classics like “Big Strong Boss,” “Power for Power,” and “Raping a Slave.” Granted, his later music and lyrics were much more nuanced. But this early stuff was hard core that eclipsed the hardcore – brutal, ugly stuff indeed.

Throughout Swans’ career, Gira was either a flagrant aggressor – or at least a not-so-passive aggressor. Sacrifice and Transcendence is peppered liberally with Gira’s rationales that his hiring and firing practices served something bigger than even himself, “the work.” But then again, Swans was Gira. And Swans was “the work.” So, ultimately, serving the work was in service of Gira.

Of his human resources policies, Gira states: “It was going to be my thing, and I would bring people in or out – which is kind of not what I wanted [I daresay it was exactly what he wanted.], but the alternative wasn’t on the cards for me with my personality and way of inevitably ending up being the boss. I certainly didn’t do a good job of it back then – I did more screaming than convincing – but it was just the way it was.”

And why was it “the way it was,” perchance? It was the way it was because that’s the way Gira wanted it to be. Being the Big Strong Boss wasn’t something that the onus of “the work” foisted upon an unwitting Gira. And that’s OK. If Gira hadn’t been so headstrong, well, there wouldn’t be a Swans. And that Gira was able to convince his band members to yield to his will, well, that was a triumph. And that Gira was able to convince an audience that the Swans’ sonic catharses were a desirable (or at least appreciable) cultural products, well, that was a miracle that could only happen (at first) in New York.

Still, there are some pivotal elements of the Swans’ story that are made perhaps more glaring by omission from Sacrifice and Transcendence. There are umpteen instances where ex-members speak of having personal conflicts with Gira – but the exact nature of these conflicts is never revealed. And then there’s the matter of Gira’s drinking, which is only hinted at in the book. And then there’s the matter of Gira’s romantic relationship with Jarboe. Predictably, Jarboe only praises Gira in the book – as does his ex-wife Siobhan Duffy. And finally, there’s the matter of the sexual assault allegations made against Gira by former collaborator Larkin Grimm in 2016 that are not mentioned whatsoever in the book.

Granted, I can only speculate about what’s not in the book – or why it’s not there.

Still, in its way, Soulsby’s oral history of the Swans might be yet another triumph of the will for Gira. Sure, several of the people that performed with Gira through the years are given an opportunity to reflect upon the experience. But which of those reflections were included in the book is perhaps another matter. Just as Gira is/was the boss of the Swans, Soulsby, as editor, is the boss of the book, Sacrifice and Transcendence. Which leads us to another question about power and control: Was Soulsby at least to a degree serving Gira by cherry-picking quotations that somehow serve/support Gira’s narrative of his life and “the work?”

Still, there is much to like about Sacrifice and Transcendence. For certain, Gira is a charismatic, conflicted, complex person with a riveting story. At over 300 pages, the book is absolutely chock full of anecdotes recalling the sleaze of New York’s Lower East Side where Swans emerged and the post-punk, proto-alternative underground club scene of the ’80s where the band first gained traction. Absolute power might indeed corrupt absolutely, but the Big Strong Boss’ story is nonetheless a captivating read.