Photo by PETE TROSHAK
Michael Gira is rock n’ roll’s last great tyrant, and his band Swans is the last outpost of rock n’ roll Stalinism. Many former members have been exiled to the vast Arctic wastes of the Gulags for the sins of disobedience, insubordination or just missing one of the many, many cues he dispenses onstage with a wink of the eye, a nod of the head or a shrug of the shoulders (take it to the bridge, repeat this chorus, go left at the next light, etc.). In fairness, some great literature came out of those Siberian banishments. Little known fact: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was Swans’ first bass player before he fell afoul of The Supreme Leader, which is why we have The Gulag Archipelago. Another little known fact: David Foster Wallace was Swans’ 36th or 37th bass player, but he had some innate issue with authority figures and that, kids, is how Infinite Jest got written. Google it.
(On a related note, I once read in the New Yorker that Gulag inmates were so starved and literally worked-to-death that once a work crew of inmates was digging yet another ditch in the perma-frost of the Siberian tundra and came across a prehistoric pond frozen solid for, apparently, millions of years and embedded with remarkable specimens of Jurassic fish. Without telling the guards, they cracked open the ice with their picks and shovels and ate the dinosaur fishies. True story.)
Gira is also one of rock n’ roll’s last great sadists. Last night at Union Transfer, Swans’, as per usual, used numbing, hypnotic repetition and bludgeoning, bowel-shaking volume like twin truncheons to beat the audience into the bruised and bloodied bliss of a heavyweight prize fighter in the 67th round. As post-punk’s Miltonian Satan — the great Fallen Angel — Gira is older then Nosferatu. He’s outlasted five presidencies. He was around when Jesus Christ had his moment of doubt and pain, made damn sure that Pilate washed his hands and sealed his fate. Stuck around St. Petersburg when he saw it was a time for a change, killed the czar and his ministers, while Anastasia screamed in vain. Rode a tank with a general’s rank when the blitzkrieg raged and the bodies stank. He shouted out who killed the Kennedys (HINT: You and me). So show some respect. If Gira wants to play a largely improvised set larded with new, not-yet-recorded songs, and radically re-invented album cuts, as was the case last night, despite the fact that he is currently touring in support of the new double-album To Be Kind, dude has a right.
Last night Gira and his five-man band of not-so-merry men opened with a new song called “Frankie M” that sounded like an exorcism or the invocation of my demon brother. Then came the PIL-esque, jazzy zig-zag of “Little God In My Hands.” Then came “Oxygen,” re-worked beyond recognizability, followed by a new song tentatively titled “Don’t Go,” that reminded me of the time my hair was on fire and I tried to put it out with a hammer. I mean that in a good way. Then came the Götterdämmerung-on-a-stick of “Apostate,” which reminded me of the time I went swimming in the East River in the early ‘70s, got dirty water in my ear I tried to dry it out with a blowtorch. They closed with a blissed-out “Bring The Sun” which evolved into a new, as-yet-untitled song that sounded like two nuclear submarines having rough sex in the Marianas Trench. That the sub-oceanic subwoofer frequencies vibrated your taint was an added bonus.
Some might call Swans’ music dark and depressing but, really, it’s just what you did before Zoloft was invented. That or kill yourself. You have to remember the band was borne of damnation in a joyless, neo-Puritan age. Reagan was president, America was just getting its sex plague on, millions then-living would soon be dead and the answer to all questions was: Just Say No Wave. I prefer to think of The Swans’ music as the sound of those bare ruined choirs echoing around Barton Fink’s brain, giving voice to those silent, sacred eternities between every note. So let’s just call it even. You have your illusions and I have mine. — JONATHAN VALANIA