The Ugly Duckling

A young god ages well.

SAMUEL HYLAND

As of this writing, the official Instagram account of Swans—a ruthless rock-band-qua-orchestra founded in the 1980s—follows two fan-pages dedicated to Francis Bacon, the 20th-Century painter known for his dark, gothic portraits of anguished clergymen. The suffering of those figures, usually seated, and screaming, on cage-bound thrones, isn’t so much explicit as implied: these are scuzzy images, brazen broths of gaping mouths, jagged lines, clenched fists, closed eyes. You know that Bacon’s humanoids are in unimaginable pain, but you can never pinpoint exactly why; as loudly as they yell, their surroundings yell, too—and louder. So does Michael Gira. He founded Swans when he was 28, a haggard survivor of New York’s bloody, fuck-you-spirited No Wave enclave. Early Swans songs melded that era’s aggro impulse into an abrasive anti-music, where tinnitus was wielded as torture, and the words nestled in the noise were just as torturous. (An extreme example, from 1986’s violent “Time is Money (Bastard)”: “You should be violated/You should be violated. You should be raped/You should be raped. I want them to do this to you. I want them to do this to you. Bastard. Bastard. Bastard.”) It’s predictable for any decades-old faction to change; in Swans’ case, those changes—lineups, ideals, approaches—have been more vital, and more calculated, than age typically allows. But it’s interesting, going on a half-century of transformations, that Gira remains something of a screaming pope, damned to an eternal, blood-red Bacon painting. At his best, he’s shouting gut-wrenching idiosyncrasies over a hotbed of scuzz, a psychic nonsense that somehow makes all the sense in the world. Like Bacon’s work, it is chaotic, filthy, disgusting, and depressing. Like Bacon’s work, it is also darkly beautiful, even if only because it is each of these things, first.

“I spend a good deal of time playing the same open chord or chords over and over with my ear down close to the hole in my acoustic guitar, listening for mystery in the overtones, waiting for guidance from the divine entity that lives in the sound.”

Gira told a reporter, a decade or so ago, that the name “Swans” was inspired by the duplicity of the species: these are “majestic, beautiful looking” birds, he’d said, “but with really ugly temperaments.” Over the years, “Swans” has largely come to be synonymous with Gira; at the very least, the band has been something of a time-stamping agent for its founder’s roving, ever-changing musical arc. Fittingly enough, as the group has maddened audiences—and its own members—with its wicked duplicity, its mythic Swan-in-chief has largely followed suit. He’s a well-documented control-freak, a stickler whose very-specific vision has given rise to assault, abuse, authoritarianism. Which is weird, because he’s also a pretty nice guy. In online merch-table dispatches, ticket-holders for Swans tours have described him as mellow and amicable, eager to sign home-brought objects (so long as they’re the right ones). Compare this man, a grinning, guitar-teacher-looking gent with an acoustic axe and a plaid dress shirt, to the Gira of the early ‘80s—the one who stripped naked before audiences, beat them up for wearing Devo shirts, lashed out when they broke his rules—and you get a character as well-rounded, if unpinnable, as his output. “I have faith in intuition,” he said in another interview, last year. “I spend a good deal of time playing the same open chord or chords over and over with my ear down close to the hole in my acoustic guitar, listening for mystery in the overtones, waiting for guidance from the divine entity that lives in the sound.” It seems, often, that the divine entity in the guitar-hole guides more than just his music. It seems, also, that the divine entity in the guitar-hole is bipolar.

PHOTO: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images

Swans, too. They started, in the early ‘80s, as a bloodthirsty anarcho-punk faction, hellbent on bludgeoning New York’s dainty ears with superlative outrage, superlative muscle, superlative terror. Filth, their cult 1983 debut, sounds like the mechanical stomp of a sentient mastercomputer—think Harlan Ellison’s I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream—damned to an eternity of roaming a ruined Earth, brutalizing any and all remaining human bodies. Gira told Rolling Stone that this iteration of the band, those in-your-face ugly ducklings, equalled people thoughtlessly “strangling sound out of their instruments,” which feels apt: they weren’t so much telling a story as weaponizing one, a dark, murderous tale that mistreated drums and bass guitars the way pistol-whippers mistreat guns. And should it be true, that early-80s Swans were miscreants who didn’t know how to play their instruments, then they must have learned pretty quickly—by 1987, they were playing folky gothic rock tunes with a sinister tilt; come the early 1990s, they were shockingly close to shoegaze, an orchestral music that rode strings and synths into something oppressively sublime. Gira wasn’t using his words as weapons anymore; or maybe, he just wasn’t weaponizing them against us. As Swans evolved from scraggly No-Wavers to stoic spiritualists, he seemed increasingly willing to grapple with himself, to grapple with the world, to grapple with God. “The Sun is rising over the buildings across the street,” he sang in “Song for the Sun,” a plucky ballad from 1991’s White Light From the Mouth of Infinity. “The Sun is God’s face looking down at me as he cries for what he’s done.” You got the sense that maybe, just maybe, Gira was sorry. Sorry for humanity. Sorry for himself.

“But the air inside my house smelled foul, like the inside of my body, as if I’d extruded a growing shell out the pores of my skin and I was now huddled inside it, stinking and rotting and feeling sorry for myself because I couldn’t be near her.”

This is, after all, the inherent dilemma of being a God: by existing above everything and everyone, you become an arbiter of all suffering and sorrow, a tortured voyeur to the just-as-tortured jailhouse called Earth. Gira seems to operate from a deific vantage point, a morbid omniscience that bogs him down with the weight of the world. And strangely—maybe fittingly—enough, it’s something he seems to lean into. Since 1990, Swans have released music exclusively through Young God Records, a Gira-founded label that initially served the band alone, but has since gone on to host a number of similarly-angled acts, including Gira’s sprawling side project, Angels of Light. To listen to that imprint’s output, particularly the music stained by his fingerprints, is to bear witness to an ongoing psychic boxing match, self-flagellation as a means of scrounging for catharsis, scrounging for truth. Gira is wrestling with himself, yes, but more mechanically than ballistically: he’s clawing at his own flesh, biting himself, bleeding, swallowing his phlegm, spitting out his teeth, starting over. King Solomon wrote that “much wisdom is much grief,” and for King Gira, leader of the Swans, the grief and the wisdom are all in one, one in all. It’s a twisted street-art: he offers up his tears; we pay him with ours.

Or, if we’re feeling particularly masochistic (which, to be fair, Gira usually is), there’s the other option—we could buy one of his books. Small as it may loom in the shadow of his other work, he’s spent the past few decades moonlighting as a short-story writer, the sparse evidence of his habit being two rare published collections, one of which was limited to 2,500 hand-signed copies. This past winter, I downloaded a pirated PDF—my apologies to the Gira estate—of The Consumer, his debut volume, published just as Swans were shirking their feverish output for a lengthy, near-decade-long hiatus. Cursory online scrounging dredged up an official publisher’s bio; the book had been touted, vocabularily, as “a collection of grotesque and scatologically unsound vignettes written over a span of ten years by the cosmic guru of teeth-gnashing but melodious gothic drone, M. Gira.”

Self-aggrandizing, yes; adequately preparatory, no. The first tale in the paperback is titled Empathy, and outlines the darkly incestuous relationship between a stalwart man and his murderous sister, who has just been released from an asylum for the axe-killings of their parents. “Sometimes, before my sister came to me, I’d stand naked in the center of the floor for hours, dreaming of her and feeling the house rocking and resonating up through my bare feet into my bones, as if my body were a hollow bell, tuned and vibrating in perfect sympathy with the frequencies that coursed through the world outside,” the man writes, early on. “My blood hummed with pleasure. She was singing through me, calling out to me over the distance from her cell, forgiving me my secrets and washing my mind clean. But the air inside my house smelled foul, like the inside of my body, as if I’d extruded a growing shell out the pores of my skin and I was now huddled inside it, stinking and rotting and feeling sorry for myself because I couldn’t be near her.”

It’s a grotesque passage—one I feel terrible for subjecting you to—but also something of a meta text, a stand-in of sorts for the mission statement Gira seldom gives in explicit terms. Swans aren’t an exercise in incest, or murder, but something just as propelled, even if vaguely, by Empathy’s fusion of both: a desperate search for the beautiful by means of the base, the evil, the ugly. There’s blood and pleasure, enchanted singing and radical forgiveness, secret-telling and mind-washing. And as is true for Gira’s output, when the music fades, there’s a numbing What have I done—one that demands you to see yourself, to smell yourself, to study yourself, to realize that you are rotting. 


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“Sometimes I feel lonely and blue.”

Francis Bacon, Head VI, 1949, Oil on Canvas, Arts Council collection, Hayward Gallery, London.

It isn’t the most popular orifice, let alone the most popular orifice for which the following is true, but the human ear is, after all, an orifice: a sacred opening we sometimes protect with plastic, whether said protection be against decibels or dicks. Gira knows this. In the early 1980s, when Swans were less virtuosic than vicious, their shows brandished ear-splitting noise as a torture mechanism; “You should be raped,” Gira had said, and though “earrape” wasn’t an online punchline just yet, it could easily have been what he meant. The new Swans, a six-piece ensemble of graying stoics, wield a different mentality: when they penetrate the plastic, those feeble ear-plugs you get for free at the door, they do it because it’s practical, a crisis prerequisite to catharsis. You aren’t going to feel something—you can’t feel something—unless you suffer for it, first. (Your wallet, too: Swans tickets go for upwards of $50.) And suffering, the deafening, bone-powdering kind, had been on schedule this past Tuesday. The evening sun was hanging over Nashville’s Third Man Records, and a hush was hanging just as heavily over its front, where dozens of willing sufferers sulked in the heat, staring at their shoes, staring at their watches, staring at each other. The snaky line felt like something of a funeral procession, or maybe Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, that strange short-story where a small town gathers annually to stone one of its own to death. Like any memorial service, or community execution ritual, you had your mood-lighteners: Kristof Hahn small-talking from a set of nearby steps; older men unleashing phlegmatic, ciggy guffaws; younger men regaling one another with band trivia. But there was a greater, gothic pain to be wrestled with—a pain no one could look in the eye, because it was on the other side. Of the door, that is. The pain wasn’t dead; it was sound-checking.

“This morning, I played chess with death.”

By 7PM, a friendly security guard began to how-are-ya his way through hundreds of barcode scans, tending to his subjects the way a priest might tend to the bereaved. There was a basket of free ear-plugs at the box office, the disposable foam types that always fall out. At some point, a courteous fan jammed his hand into his pocket and added around a dozen more—high-grade versions, these, that came equipped with an intimidating, professional-looking spiral mechanism. The man’s name was William, and he’d poached the plugs from his factory job, where it’s deafening all day, every day. A month or so prior, he’d visited Swans’ subreddit to gauge interest for the stash among tonight’s ticket-holders. Though he eventually learned that they were complimentary, he figured he’d bring a small amount, just in case. “I was like, ‘Well, a lot of people work in offices and places where they’ll never have to worry about these in their life,’” he said, “‘And I pass a thing of ear-plugs every day on my way home. So, I might as well grab handfuls and handfuls of them.’” His path to Swans had been winding: he’d listened to his parents’ records growing up, grown infatuated with experimental hip-hop, dabbled in industrial metal, then stumbled upon Gira and co. in 2014, when Anthony Fantano logged a glowing review for To Be Kind. His limited ear-plug stash was communal, just like the limitless goth-drone it would be tasked with staving off in no longer than an hour. “There’s something in Swans for everyone.”

And there seemed to be something in Scott Walker for Swans. As the sullen throng filed into a ballroom bathed in deep blue, the band’s pre-show music pulled exclusively from his strange early solo records; you don’t tend to listen to Walker through venue speakers, but when you do, it’s hard to think of anything besides death and dying. Hahn, Swans’ longest-tenured lap steel guitarist, limped to a quiet corner of the stage around 7:30, grinning towards the people at his feet. He’d changed his clothes from earlier—when he sat on the steps outside, he was wearing all denim; now, he donned jet-black dress slacks and a crisp white button down. “I hope everybody up here has ear plugs,” he warned, gesturing loosely at the brave souls lining the very front. “You’re gonna need them later.” They also needed them now. It was strange to see this frail man, hunched over a teeny stand, create such massive music: every time he lifted his hand to strike a string, I felt myself praying that he wouldn’t bring it down hard, because I was still fumbling with my fickle complimentary ear-plugs, and I could feel the decibels pounding away at them, like burglars’ fists at a flimsy door. (Yes: I was one of the brave souls lining the very front.) He didn’t seem to have anything prepared—“What should we do today?” he’d asked, to laughter—but if anything, it made what he did play seem more sincere, more immense, more stream-of-consciousness. “Sometimes I feel lonely and blue,” he sang, about midway through his set. “I’ll do anything for you.”

The blue lights turned blood-red at 8. Gira and his clergy were dressed in all-black, pouring onto the stage, tinkering with pedalboards. “The Seventh Seal,” from Scott Walker’s Scott 4, rained down from the speakers, something of a morbid leitmotif. “This morning I played chess with death,” Walker bellowed, in his signature baritone. Gira was grinning, bobbing his head back and forth. It seemed like he knew exactly what he was talking about.

“Healer, cut my spine, Healer, eat my mind. Hold the glowing sphere, There is no there or here.”

There are setlists to Swans shows, but most times, they don’t feel necessary, nor apt. Aside from introductory pleasantries, Gira’s sole address to the audience came about an hour in, when you could see the sweat glistening on his band’s faces, and feel your own trickling down your sleeves. Up to then, the night had been a shapeless squall of hot noise: noise that felt desperate, deific, supernatural, stuffy. It helped that the room was stuffy, too—By Gira’s request, the AC had been turned off. “I’m not trying to torture you, it’s just that I lose my voice when it’s blowing on me,” he said, with the cadence of a comedian. “But I presume that you would like it a little cooler, right about now. Is that correct?” Hoots and hollers. “Well fuck you, then! Keep it off!” He laughed, as if to assure everyone he was kidding. “No, turn it on please. Let’s keep it on for this next song. It only lasts 45 minutes.”

The song in question was “The Hanging Man,” a groove-heavy slow-burn from 2019’s leaving meaning. It’s become a staple of recent Swans tours—it isn’t an anthem, nor anything necessarily stadium-friendly, but it packs a serpentine sense of movement, one that erupts, over ten or so minutes, into something superlative and catastrophic. As it barrelled into its climax, Gira yelled angrily and desperately, occasionally trading English for amorphous, non-linguistic gibberish. The more he shouted from his chair, the more you could see shades of Bacon’s doomed popes: bellowing from scuzzy temples, of weeping and gnashing of teeth, the same way Gira was crying from his own kingdom, a gothic theocracy prostrate before the spiritual and sublime. One of the most interesting things about “The Hanging Man,” particularly live, is this paradox—there’s a roaring figurehead, a despot of sorts, but one who uses his immense voice to contend that he has no voice, no power, at all. “Here I lie, abject,” Gira hollered, the way a tyrant might holler through a megaphone. “Healer, cut my spine / Healer, eat my mind. (…) Hold the glowing sphere / There is no there or here.” From his seat, he sounded helpless and destitute. Against my ears, he felt omnipotent, a sonic totalitarian with all the power and artillery necessary to deafen me forever.

Gira is 70 years old. He doesn’t play full shows standing, anymore: like anyone else who’s done this—let alone at a high level—for four-plus decades, he’s earned the right to sit down, to behold the sea of aching soles before him. It’s the vantage point of a papal figure, a divine leader who metes out punishments, then glares down at the damned from his throne, surveying the damage. And yet, like any other pontiff, he isn’t exempt from the catharsis of his own gospel—regardless of how seeming it is, of clergymen, to suppress this stirring-of-soul, to sweep supernatural feelings beneath stoic, trustworthy demeanors. Gira stood a total of three times. He would set his guitar down, seemingly overcome by the moment he’d orchestrated, and ease slowly to his feet, like a parishioner from a pew. Throughout the denouement of “The Hanging Man,” you could almost hear phantom wails; the strings had long replaced Gira as the song’s sole shouters, and he was reveling, dancing, in their wicked glory. He flailed his arms towards the audience, then turned around to flail them at his band, then bent down to flail them at the floor. He was hanging, alright—somewhere between here and Hell, the Blue Room and the crimson one below. When the music stopped, and he slinked back into his seat, he was a man again, just for a millisecond.

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