Swans: Sacrifice And Transcendence: The Oral History

Christopher Owens indulges his dual passion for music and books in his latest review of a work of oral history. 

We all love music.

There's nothing better than a jaunty pop song soundtracking your sunny day as you head to the beach, or to meet friends.

But the best music sits within you, becomes a soundtrack to live your life by. Is as much a part of you as your favourite books.

And Swans very much fit that category for me.

Having discovered them via 2010's 'My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky' and 1987's 'Children of God', Swans have always had an air of mystery about them. The band who left people with bleeding ears after playing the Town and Country Club in 1987. The band who started out making the most ferocious noise on the planet doing a 180 and making shimmering acoustic beauties. The directness of the lyrics, which seemed to reference de Sade and Jim Thompson: "Open your mouth/Here is your money/Cry/This feels good."

Having seen Swans a total of eleven times, I can vouch for this: frankly, there are no other bands out there at the moment that are capable of hitting the heights that Swans can. If you’re prepared to hand yourself over to the music, Swans will make you feel a wealth of emotions that you never thought you had in you. Five songs. Two/two and a half hours of music that goes well beyond the tradition of concerts, and more into the realm of singer/leader Michael Gira’s heroes The Doors, where the music and the audience become part of a ritual.

So, as Gira disassembles the current line up to move forward, this oral history is a celebration and examination of the first 64 years of Gira's life and the first 36 of the band's.

Beginning with Gira's childhood in California, "...a paradigm for post war America. They both had this trajectory upward and then crashed violently", we get the tale of a highly driven young man with a stubborn, iconoclastic streak in him who (by the age of 15) was digging ditches in Europe, being imprisoned in Israel and working in a factory in Germany, who then finds a place in the L.A punk milieu before finding himself in the avant garde world of New York.

The depictions of the early LA punk scene as being unmemorable (save for X), seem to fit into conventional wisdom (apparently, it was Black Flag who really revolutionised the LA scene) but comes across as self serving (I'm sure there were other Californians listening to Wire and Joy Division). I'm not accusing anyone of lying but, as is the case with these things, it's easier to portray someone as "not fitting in" with a certain scene, and the travelling makes the struggle more romantic.

While there's not much in the way of a detailed look at the scene in New York at the time, we get enough to sense that it was something special (where else could Gira find a band like Sonic Youth to consider comrades, and where else could he date an up and coming pop star like Madonna). More of that would have been nice but, all too often, musicians don't consider such angles because they're too self centred and too "in the moment" to consider such things.

Jarboe (whose presence thawed the overt brutality and helped introduce other elements into the band) is one of the most fascinating interviewees here. She has a perspective on Gira (as they were partners for over ten years) and the band that is one of authority, but also one who remained a fan, always realising that Swans was Gira's baby. Her comments are both grounded in mundane reality, and also perceptive to recognise that Swans are something special. Not just a rock band.

More than anything, this is a tale of survival. Scrimping and saving every penny so he can record and tour, it's only been the last five years where Gira has become financially comfortable. It's a deeply humbling and frightening depiction of how far one can go when they're driven and determined.

As a result, Gira does not come across particularly well at times, seemingly more of a bullying tyrant rather than a genius. While everyone involved acknowledge that he is not a nasty or vindictive person, they make it clear that working with him is a thankless task, as they try to reproduce the sound of the music he has in mind and the sheer intensity needed for the live shows.

The use of different voices is refreshing, in that Gira is not the most dominant voice throughout the book and that some of the myths around Gira and the band end up being debunked (Gira was happy enough to cover 'Love Will Tear Us Apart' for commercial success). Although, in a certain way, that is a downfall of the book, that Gira isn't as prominent in the narrative as you'd like him to be. Whether this is down to him focusing more on the upcoming documentary, or a genuine desire to let others tell the story for him is unknown.

However, for an insight into the history of a band who once named a live record 'Public Castration is a Good Idea', this book does an exceptional job.

Nick Soulsby, 2018. Swans: Sacrifice And Transcendence: The Oral History 2018 JawboneISBN-13: 978-1911036395

➽ Christopher Owens reviews for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.
Follow Christopher Owens on Twitter @MrOwens212

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Anthony McIntyre

Former IRA prisoner, spent 18 years in Long Kesh. Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher.

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