Building A Ladder To God: The Consciousness-Expanding Music of Michael Gira
I have never known a band to prove so divisive as SWANS—assuming, of course, one has heard of them before, which is a surprisingly big ‘if’ considering their eponymous EP was released in 1982 and, since then, Michael Gira has been feverishly producing music under his own name, SWANS, and Angels of Light with admirable consistency. A New York orchestration of sound whose New York noise will never entirely leave them, SWANS has grown and changed in vast ways over the years, has broken apart and reformed, appeared in more iterations and with more members than perhaps even Gira could count. At present, the band is on its final tour in its current iteration, and has fairly recently released the sonic achievement The Glowing Man. But what is incredible to me is neither the sentimental memories I have attached to SWANS (my father teaching me to ‘stage-dive’ off of the bed at the age of two or so to the song “Cop”), nor the sheer breadth of sounds one finds in their catalog, which ranges from the shop-vac sounds of No Wave to the mournful tone of Goth to the genreless, experimental phase in which they now find themselves, which can only be described as a phase of religious proportions. I’d like to talk today a little about the development of SWANS over time for the benefit of writers, musicians, and other artists everywhere, as well as Christians, magicians, or anyone interested in raising up their consciousness.
If the reader has not had the privilege of seeing SWANS in person, allow me to say that the English language is not nuanced enough to truly impart the intensity of the experience. Although I myself have bad luck running into people who enjoy SWANS, or who have even heard of them, I have yet to be to a concert of theirs which is not so thoroughly packed with bodies that those up front are practically crushed against the booming speakers. Early in their work, rumors flew about the volume of SWANS concerts being so loud that people were made to vomit by the sheer sonic force, but these are just rumors. Producing a sonic experience is foremost in their shows, and to do such a thing, to be consumed by the sound so that it becomes a physical entity which possesses and rattles the bones of its audiences, one must have a little volume. Their reputation given them by the UK Press resulted in strangely confrontational relationships between the band and their audience, with audience members disrespecting the band and Gira generally casting disdain upon those disrespectful audiences— even as recent as a 2010 show I was lucky enough to attend, Gira, pausing between songs, raked a black eye out across the crowd, lowered his mouth to the mic and said, with all the bearing of a father humiliated by the misbehavior of his children, “Knock that moshing shit off. If you want to be gay, go to a Green Day concert.” And who can blame him? It is like seeing people mosh in a church– something that just isn’t done. When an artist is devoured by the trance of his work, the last thing he wants is the disruption of the very people who have arrived to tremble on the edges of that trance with the hushed respect one normally gives only a sermon– and if seeing SWANS in concert is not being part of a sermon, I do not know what a sermon is.
Gira himself is a figure one both fears and admires until one has the privilege of meeting him, at which point the fear gives over entirely to the force of admiration: one is almost shocked to discover that he who, on-stage, seems a very avatar of Mars, is revealed to be a very kind, down-to-earth, even godly man. There is no question that his early life in particular was rife with challenges enough to fuel a lifetime’s worth of music; he has stated in more than one interview that he began experimenting with LSD at the age of 12, and this, stacked on top of a background of going to Catholic mass, which was promptly lost to him with the direct communion of the divine. In recent years, however, he has mentioned he is returning to church, reading the Bible, and finding the aspirations and threads of its literature to be thoroughly inspiring— and readers of this blog, who have taken more than a glance at my assessment of The Book of Tobit and the Temptation of Christ would doubtless appreciate that. But it is often a long and vicious road to get to that point, and to see it chronicled in a man’s art is truly something to behold. “What we do,” said Gira, in a 2014 interview with Wondering Sound, “it’s more like gospel, repeating phrases that lead you up to heaven.” The question, though, is how the artist gets his work to that point–how do we go from thinking we are driving our work, to being consumed by the gospel of a work which is driving us? The career of Michael Gira is practically a case study for any would-be artist or alchemist or even psychiatrist, and the symbols of his work vivid enough that one would suspect he is quite conscious of what he is doing–he is an artist who has the greatest reverence for his art, and we would all do well to be so humble before the works we call our own.
THE GROSS MATTER – SWANS E.P., FILTH, COP, GREED, HOLY MONEY
On the rare occasions I meet a person who I think will have the musical palate to appreciate the sound of SWANS, I go out of my way to avoid recommending their albums in chronological order. Playing Cop too loud, too often has gotten me into at least one argument with one roommate, and the fact of the matter is that even the grittiest aficionados of early punk and its cousin no wave (consisting of bands like Mars, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, DNA, Theoretical Girls, and other brutally atonal orchestrations) might find SWANS E.P. in particular a bit of a challenge to initially appreciate. Filth, their first complete album, sounds like the wet dream of a serial killer and is implied to be the background music of a body dismemberment in my novel, Delilah, My Woman; with songs like “Power for Power” (and its lyrics, “Use sex for control/ use power for power/ use hate for freedom/ use money for cruelty”) or “Big Strong Boss”, Filth is a vicious album, but the first song on it, titled “Stay Here,” is one which presents us with some of the most important themes in the music of SWANS— namely, control. The song comes on like a fascist cop barking orders at a hapless citizen and doesn’t at any point take a break; it is a theme which will, unsurprisingly, arise again in Cop, an album whose eponymous song contains, in some variations of its lyrics, the phrase “Nobody rapes you like a cop/ with a club”.
“Now, hold on a minute,” say some of our fair readers, “I thought you were saying this fellow writes music about God! About expanding consciousness! And you’re telling me that within his first handful of albums he had written mostly songs about murder, hate, and rape? Now, what’s godly about that!”
To them, I would argue that one cannot go ‘up’ without having begun from being ‘down’. One cannot climb a ladder without starting from a bottom, one cannot be guided up a rope to the sky without beginning from the matter of the earth.
Many of the essays on this blog have presupposed that readers have some basic familiarity with Christian alchemy, its symbols and stages, but SWANS provides us with so fine an example of the work done in what is referred to as the ‘nigredo’ of alchemy that the author would be remiss were she to miss an opportunity to use it to describe the state. Referring to a state of putrefaction or decomposition, the nigredo is the inciting step of alchemy and represents the death portion of the psycho-spiritual (or artistic) rebirth process which the great Work, among other things, represents. What we are really doing with the Work, however, is something Kalil Gibran describes as ‘building a tower in the sky’, and what Gira, consciously or no, chose to symbolize as a rope in early drafts of the song “Oxygen”. What we are really doing with our music, or literature, or art of any form, is to not just produce an experience, but to manifest an experience. Gira himself describes the intent of his music as, “trying to bring out an atmosphere. But I’m also inside it.” Thus, when one works on one’s art, one also works on oneself, one’s soul, one’s mind. When one works on one’s art, one has an opportunity to, in some small way, emulate the works of God and Nature, which without effort may cause the most exquisite of orchids to bloom from, what else, but a steaming pile of shit. One cannot know God without knowing all of God, knowing that God is in oneself and above oneself: knowing that the human microcosm, even in all its impermanence, imperfection and ignorance, is in some small way a warped reflection of but one of an infinitude of otherwise indescribable facets of an experience mankind can at this point only articulate as ‘God’, ‘Ein Sof,’ ‘Dao,’ ‘Brahman,’ or one of countless other appellations which yet fail to do complete justice to that which cannot be fully described or grasped without a metaphor for which we do not yet have the technology or cultural context. When we turn our faces away from the ugliest portions of humanity, from the murderers and fascists and monsters, and deny that the very same potentiality lurks within ourselves, we cannot meet our fellow man with compassion, nor see God in him; and it is often that only when we fall to our lowliest point do we dare turn to God. It is often the discovery of rot in oneself which motivates one to rebirth; it is a dying ego which heralds a new sense of Self. More significantly and importantly to SWANS, the nigredo is often a realization that something is profoundly wrong with one’s self-perspective and/or the perspectives and teachings of one’s own culture: it is a death required to cause a breaking-free of mental chains.
When asked if SWANS’ New York basis was key to the development of the band, Gira responded, “Probably. The history of New York music at the time was what drew me there…And as far as the atmosphere of the place, the state of it was in economically and culturally—a state of collapse, basically—it made me think about what I could do. The music I could make, without even being a musician.” Further pressed about the influence of advertising slogans on these early records, he describes that, “…Those advertising people were geniuses, weren’t they? They took over society, changed it irrevocably. All hatched by a bunch of World War II vets down on Madison Avenue. Everything modern—consumerism, environmental disaster—it all stems from that. They’ve created this whole class of zombified peasants, consuming peons. It’s everywhere.”
This disdain for the vapidity of modern culture is often the first requirement for creating art, becoming an alchemist, a hermeticist, a religious figure of any sort— one often has to separate oneself from one’s cultural programming and endeavor to produce a mirror by which society may look at itself, and so often the first step on the path of an artist is social commentary, and it is one which remains often irresistible in the course of a creative career. Through this kind of exploration of the blacker side of society, however, we are able to explore—indeed, forced to explore and confront—the blacker, uglier side of ourselves. To look at society’s ills, after all, and fail to see our potential for the same is foolish as it is ignorant; we must look also at ourselves, and the more thoroughly we look into ourselves the more rich are our creations. Holy Money, SWANS’ fourth album, marks a kind of crescendo of that brutality and a transformation towards a much more vivid sound as represented in particular by live versions of “A Hanging” and “A Screw (Holy Money)”, both of which are just as breathtaking on the studio albums. In “A Screw (Holy Money)” in particular, one gets the feeling there is a chastisement at work for those who would worship the golden bull and conflate it with religion— indeed, early songs with a particular emphasis on murder and serial killers (“Young God”, for instance, about Ed Gein) here, while retaining the same familiar violence, begin also to incorporate a kind of divine grace, and celebration.
EVOLUTION UPWARD – CHILDREN OF GOD, THE BURNING WORLD, WHITE LIGHT FROM THE MOUTH OF ININITY, LOVE OF LIFE
The album title Children of God is in and of itself more than reflective of the track SWANS begins to take after its first quaternity of works. The band has moved on from commentary on society and consumerism to commentary on religion, specifically the Catholic church, though the bellow of Gira in “New Mind” could just as easily be the bellowing of any religious pastor. And though the eponymous song, ultimately uplifting, seems to be a kind of celebration of freedom from the values of the Church and a realization that all people are children of God, what is of particular note in this album is the song “Sex, God, Sex”, which found itself played in concerts fairly recently. The weight of the song is shattering, a cry from gross matter upwards towards God, from the body made to feel filthy by the Church to a God too pure to accept it. One thinks, rather, of the desire of the alchemists for the purification of matter; and in recent shows (that is, within the past five years) where “Sex, God, Sex” has been played, Gira has called out the name of Christ as though demanding the Spirit manifest itself in the room, and the audience finds itself breathless and silent with the terror that it will— and yet, it practically does in the form of the music which rises up after a tense silence and crashes upon its audience like an awesome wave. No description can do the song justice; but it serves as a convenient symbol for Gira’s burning desire for movement upward, regardless of its satirical nature towards the Church, and seems indeed to have a more profound meaning to its creator, who thought enough of it to allow it to find renewal in post-reformation live shows. The Burning World, the album released following, was a massive disappointment to Gira, and indeed is appropriately-titled, for it is in many ways a death knell of early SWANS, though it produces two particular beautiful tracks, these being “Saved” and “God Damn The Sun”, but it is this very sun which is again being worshiped by the time White Light From The Mouth of Infinity marks the beginning of the vast and exploratory modern SWANS we know today, and in Love of Life songs like “Amnesia” we start to get a clearer sense of an emphasis of consciousness over matter— ‘For everything human’s necessarily wrong,’ we are told at one point. These two albums stand out in particular as being a hidden kind of albedo, a coming together of red and white, of masculine and feminine, for we are aware more than ever of Jarboe’s presence on the albums, and the themes of power, superiority and the fruitlessness of the human condition give themselves over to the gentler Love of Life, where our cover rabbit has been joined by a companion and both their heads are wreathed in flames, bringing to mind a great many alchemical references to flame-headed figures and the symbolism of the wisdom this implies. Though SWANS has always been up until this point comfortable with the juxtaposition of the religious with the depraved, we see by now the emergence of a dichotomy far more profound— not just male against female and love against hate, but the slavery of the mortal coil with the limitless freedom offered by communion with something higher than ourselves.
THE MOUTH OF GOD – THE GREAT ANNIHILATOR, SOUNDTRACKS FOR THE BLIND
Named for the black hole Hawking predicts will consume all matter, The Great Annihilator is by far one of my favorite albums; it is a church sermon of the cosmic mass, a beautiful service to the repetition of the material universe. Indeed, we are treated to visions of a cosmic mouth breathing in and out at the album’s beginning and ending, we are educated in the Shiva in Shakti phenomenon of reality in “Mother/Father”, while “Mind/Body/Light/Sound” seems a kind of formula for a quaternity of being; we see also juxtaposed against the universal beauty of the Great Annihilator the wretchedness of a small one, Denis Nilsen, depicted in the song “Killing for Company”, an exquisite and somber ballad to a corpse which acts as a grim, microcosmic answer to the idea of the resurrection.
I know we’ll live again
Though it’s just a feeling
I know we’ll never end
I’ll keep you company
This particular song, which Gira has described as probably the last time he’ll write a song about “that sort of person” (that is to say, a serial killer) one thinks of Marie-Louise von Franz’s commentary on the misfortune of a murderer to have tapped into the dark side of God, and Gira’s song to that end is an empathetic lamentation. It is that very capacity for empathy with the worst in humanity which makes for the most powerful art; it allows for the objective understanding of the human condition, as objective a view as any human can have, at any rate. Every murder which man commits against himself is a profound tragedy; but pity, most of all, the murderer, for he is the one condemned time and again to suffer most with each breath in and out of the universal mouth. Indeed, The Great Annihilator is, at a low level, profoundly concerned with dissolving the problem of death, dissolving the barrier between what it means to ‘be alive’ and ‘be dead’; it is an album which explores the cyclical nature of matter, rather than the upward/downward movement of consciousness, and in liberating himself from the problem of material with the nondual Great Annihilator, Gira is free to give the world the first, most thorough album of the late SWANS period, which will also be the end of the band for some years to come: Soundtracks for the Blind.
Another fan favorite, and a wealth of incredible music as much as symbolism, Soundtracks for the Blind, “a soundtrack to a nonexistent film”, is enough for an essay unto itself, and so one must restrain oneself in analysis; it is when the uniquely SWANS method of telling a story without actually presenting a linear narrative begins to take hold, and so we are swamped in songs like “Yum-Yab Killers” and feel vaguely sticky, then find ourselves renewed as we are awash with the music of “Animus”, and, of course, “The Sound”. “Animus” in particular bears mention, and the album as a whole feels as though it is a combination of white and red, lyrically, musically; this color palette emerges most clearly in “Animus”.
Somewhere through the frozen fields
Somewhere beneath your pale and tender skin
Lies a house absorbing fear and pain
Solar, red, contained
Feeding on my dreams
Somewhere cold inside the optic wire
Down where fingers and semen crack and bleed
There I will be with my arms spread out and broken
Waiting for your breath to animate my veins
We’re not alone: all our thoughts are numbered
Malignant and cold, animal and hungry
But I will contain all that ever was or will be
Then I’ll watch my skin erupt in a symphony of flames
We have previously discussed the imagery of the house as the Self, and likewise there has been previous discussion on the solar, red nature of Sulphur in alchemy; indeed, it could be said that Sulphur itself is the animus as experienced by women, or at the very least that there are certain very significant and universal parallels between the archetype and the psycho-spiritual sulphur of Jungian alchemy. Moreover, the albedo, the discovery of the feminine within the masculine and vice versa, and the process of integration, is something which is commonly described in terms of a combination of white and red, and which leads to the rubedo, often characterized as a figure dressed in red or wreathed in flames of passion, understanding, wisdom. “I think I’ve become well versed in the art of dynamics. Opposing textures, themes and colors. The music feeds back on itself, moves and shifts and changes,” said Gira in the 2014 interview, and this skill indeed begins to become most developed in Soundtracks. In “Animus” in particular we see a profound and keening desire to connect to something within the Self— something which gives life and yet devours it. But it is not the traditional Christian God we are looking for— “The Final Sacrifice” gives the sense of a hapless Christian being utterly and profoundly consumed by the image of the personal Jesus, begging for the emergence of the trans-personal God which cannot come when the Church is defiling the living human body. What is required is not further defilement; the filth of the human condition has been explored thoroughly already. What is required now is purification— the narrator of “A Final Sacrifice” follows Jesus down to a dirty black room, but what we want is to move upwards, towards the Father, and towards freedom.
It is also worth noting that the first disk is silver, and the second disk is copper; in alchemy, silver is associated with the feminine Luna, and copper, with Venus. When one considers the nature of the moon as a symbolic gateway to the unconscious, and Venus, or Aphrodite, as the Mercurial spirit in the feminine form of the anima, this choice of coloration becomes of particular interest— moreso when one considers that the next, most significant musical undertaking which Gira will explore between iterations of SWANS is the feminine, spiritual Angels of Light.
SPECIAL MENTION – THE CONSUMER
Here’s a book you’ve almost surely never read, quite possibly will never read, and probably should not dare to read. Talk about a plunge into the nigredo— The Consumer is like a clipshow of human depravity, a look into the bile and blackest portions of the unconscious which points at the reader an accusatory finger saying boldly THAT ART THOU as one reads of ritual child abuse, self-mortification, and the horrific life of the arrogant and disgusting eponymous entity. It is impossible to read this book, anything from this book, and feel clean after you have finished— and I have an autographed copy, so I wonder what that says about me? At any rate, it is interesting that this second, almost more severe nigredo should find publication following Gira’s initial disbandment of SWANS. It is also notable that this more emphatic, truly narrative purge was the project of highest note standing between SWANS and another, altogether different and yet so deeply similar band, Angels of Light. Full up of stories like “The Young Man That Hid His Body Inside A Horse, Or, My Vulvic Los Angeles” which should tell you all you need to know, or the tragic cannibalism of “How I Love Her”, the book seems at times an accompaniment as much as a counterpoint to Gira’s musical work, and indeed many stories share titles with songs— some, written in second person, feel like confrontational orders crammed into the reader’s mind, transmitted like government radio-waves to the fillings in one’s teeth, and it is always this which the author should seek in their writing.
THE CONJUNCTION – ANGELS OF LIGHT
If one thing consistently marks the work of Michael Gira, it is the exploration of duality being forced together in the most violent manner necessary. The male and female voices come together in a kind of dissonant harmony; the vast musical arcs presented by the later works often rise in crests, with different components of the song forming decidedly different portions yet finding themselves woven together in a whole; the frequent juxtaposition of religious imagery with absolute brutality, although religious imagery is often nothing but brutality, for how often do we forget to really look at the crucifix and thing for a moment of how graphic a thing we espy! Western culture, American culture in particular, is built on a history of bloody iconography, celebrated martyrs, and incredibly violent fairy tales which all plumb the depths of the unconscious and the deepest, most horrific crimes capable in the hearts of man. And these things happen yet to men today, great tragedies and horrors begetting men and women with constancy, with unconsciousness; it is the duty of those who have themselves suffered and seen suffering to help others process their own, and we do that most often through artwork. What we may also do through artwork, though, through the individuation process of Jungian thought, through truly internalizing and understanding in a transcendent way the symbols of our faith, is to do something beyond purge, beyond warn, beyond repair. Once we pull ourselves up out of the depths of the earth, it is our next duty to begin to look higher. Is it any wonder that mankind should find in himself such a lust for traveling the earth, for traveling space? There is in us an ideal to rise up, to expand, to draw up and close to something greater than ourselves, and this is possible on a personal, experiential level through both the creation of, and sometimes the experience of, great artwork. Let us not forget— the Bible, they say, is a good book.
Angels of Light’s first album, New Mother, was released in 1999 and contained songs played in the final SWANS tour; there is truly a hymnal, gospel feel throughout the album and the title itself, along with the cover, hearkens a new kind of intimacy and conjunction of the artist with his music and with something which is both inside of him and yet greater than him. Like many of Gira’s later works, it begins with a sort of invocation to the spirit of the work, this one a song of praise which seems like so many of Gira’s opening songs to be the kind of praise to the muse or to God one finds at the start of Homer’s Odyssey or even Milton’s Paradise Lost. Throughout the album there is a decidedly feminine theme, though there is a certain struggle within it; we hear, among other things, the song ‘Inner Female’ juxtaposed by the tender ‘A Song For My Father’, the romanticism of ‘Forever Yours’ against the cynicism of ‘Real Person’. And at last, of course, we are inundated with ‘Fear of Death’, and it is this which ends the album, and this which represents in many ways the problem of alchemy, of religion, of life itself— for what good comes of being born, what good comes of experiencing a conjunction of the masculine and feminine, the conscious and the unconscious, if one is still doomed, eventually, to die?
How I Loved You comes next and forms a collection of love songs with cover art made up by photographs of Gira’s parents. Of particular note, among this list, we find the breathtaking achievement represented by “My True Body”, a song inspired by a horrific incident observed during a time when Gira was jailed in Israel, this being a horrific enough experience to leave quite a mark on Gira’s psyche and music, one is certain. The catalog represented by Angels of Light is a vast one and often incorporates the works of more artists than one can count on both hands, and yet each song is so thoroughly organic and so clearly only capable of being created by the man who created them that they are superb examples of the finest uses of artwork on an individual scale— and yet, no Angels of Light album after How I Loved You, in my opinion, quite reaches again the faithful heights of the first two until the final, released in 2007 and titled We Are Him. Beginning with “Black River Song” which immediately evokes the unconscious with the force of its lyrics and the idea of a river running both beneath the ground and through the belly of everyone, We Are Him will go on to then feature “Promise of Water” which, though a song written as a result of America’s wars in the Middle East, has a feeling which seems to transcend that intention, and reminds one of the thirsty servants of God begging for water at Massah and Meribah. With more acute a clarity than ever there is the desire of closeness to God, and the non-spatial, non-linear dizziness of even the mere title “Not Here/Not Now” is one which proved clearly so evocative that it would find use again years later, in a SWANS crowdfunding album. But what is interesting above all things in this album in retrospect— and particularly interesting considering the heavily feminine nature of much of the music of Angels of Light (as compared to the more masculine SWANS, at any rate)— is a song which appears more or less in its middle— “Joseph’s Song.”
The website ‘Erasing Clouds’ which features an interview with Gira produces the pithy, somewhat tongue-in-cheek quote, “I wrote a song today. It’s about the guy that actually writes my songs. His name is Joseph.” It is worth noting from the Jungian perspective that the appearance of the archetype of the Spirit (sometimes referred to in more rationalist circles as ‘The Wise Old Man’) typically follows the appearance of the anima, which in and of herself follows the appearance of the shadow. We have seen up through this point the work of early SWANS, the nigredo and blackness of the early works, and we saw then the gradual incorporation and inundation of femininity— and now, with this final album which marks both the end of Angels of Light and the beginning of a new era for SWANS, we see the emergence of something else— something which will find reference again in “The Glowing Man”. The archetype of the Spirit, says Jung, is so plastic it takes the form of a guru, and commonly appears as a “magician, doctor, priest, teacher, professor, grandfather…any figure possessing authority,” on page 216 of volume 9.1 of his collected works. It is also said to be two-sided, both a life-bringer and a death-bringer; we have on this blog previously explored the concept of the Spirit in its chthonic and neutral forms in the alchemical devilry series, but to go into the archetype of the Wise Old Man and the Spirit when Jung did so thoroughly would be redundant; suffice to say, “Joseph’s Song” marks the first cogent and clear acknowledgment of the archetype, and sounds in that light like a note Gira has written to himself— a prayer and a reminder to the Spirit which drives creation in whatsoever manner it might manifest.
First scratch into this dusty wooden stage
A History of your best and wasted days
There is no place to run from Joseph’s truth
His hands are on your throat, but feeding you
May the river tie a rope around your feet
And drag your mind and body out to sea
Then thank the sky with colors, down from below
The universal mud where Joseph grows
It is interesting to consider that the song which follows this is the eponymous “We Are Him”, which contains commands like “let him in”, as though a preacher commands his flock to let in the Lord. One must also take a brief moment to consider the nature of the Spirit Mercurius as being both that which guides the great work and its end result, both its prima and ultima materia. One must also consider that there are two forms of evolution— a physical form of evolution, and an accompanying form of psychological evolution. A heightening of consciousness. And it is this latter effort which we will see emerge in Gira’s work in purest form following the album We Are Him, beginning with the crowdfunding album I Am Not Insane and the resulting resurgence of SWANS with My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky.
THE GREAT WORK – MY FATHER WILL GUIDE ME UP A ROPE TO THE SKY
There is something distinct about My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky, which takes its name from an early version of the song “Oxygen”. The development of this song from its early variant to the final form is incredible, a great work unto itself, and shows how the more linear narrative of an acoustic Michael Gira song becomes broken down, transmuted, into the incredible gospel of SWANS. The original version of “Oxygen” was found on a collection called I Am Not Insane, a crowdfunding album which I will neither share nor link to; I will, however, cite a handful of lyrics from it. The song’s final version appeared on To Be Kind in exquisitely unidentifiable format, but the message imparted in the linear narrative of the older version comes through in a similar, far more intense way as Gira taps into the Logos like a man speaking tongues in church: what began as a narrative,
Hey there, dog man, now I drink from your bowl
Hey there, mister skull, I’m not scared of your call
Gonna go outside, I’ll go out in the snow
Gonna rip off my skin, gonna burn up my clothes
Gonna read my own bones, I’ll dance and I’ll spin
I’ll cut a clean hole through solid air, and I’ll steal all the oxygen
And my father will guide me up a rope to the sky
With my mother beside me, my last breath will expire
which is undoubtedly one of the most evocative images ever produced in English of the heightening of consciousness and the production of what one might call the light body, say, or the purification of the soul, becomes a similar, more violent set of equally evocative images whose meaning and force cannot truly be imparted via text alone, for when we read the following lyrics, we do not experience half of what we experience when we listen to the album, or, if we are very lucky, see in a live show what it is as an artist roars,
Take me now
Peel my skin
Scrape my vein
Seal me in
Break my bones
Dance and spin
Cut a hole
Feed me now!
I’ll steal all the oxygen!
Hey there Dog Man, now I drink from your bowl
Hey there Mr Skull, I’m not scared of your cull
Oxygen! Amen! Oxygen! Amen!
Breathe in! Breathe in!
The idea that the ultimate goal of the Logos is a manifestation of itself is one I have discussed before; we have also in this essay previously discussed “Sex, God, Sex” and the passion of its recent performances. In summation, mankind does not yet exist in a cultural context nor have a lingual basis precise enough to communicate what it is we are truly trying to express when we describe the Holy Spirit, the Dao, Nirvana, Brahman, Ein Sof, etc. There seems to be hidden within language, which functions as a vehicle for consciousness, a desire to be able to perfectly communicate and perfectly express that unspeakable notion at the base of all things; however, a perfect communication of this concept would be tantamount to manifestation of the concept, for the concept is an experiential one. The Word’s ultimate goal is manifestation of the Logos; it wishes to produce in the human mind a kind of psychedelic experience, and that is why music is often so powerful, because it reaches into a dimension beyond the Word which incorporates mathematics as well as the human perception of time, as well as being an act of creation: were we able to produce physical objects by the act of playing music, we might be closer to achieving the goal of the Logos, might see perhaps easier the Spirit which we find in ourselves. The act of finding that Spirit, the act of creation, is the means by which we build a rope to the sky— we are guided by the Lord, by intuition, by angels, by howsoever we would interpret it, that we might find gnosis, greater understanding in the Word, a greater closeness of both Man and the Word to God.
The significance of the album title marking SWANS’ resurgence cannot be ignored, then; though “Oxygen” as a song will not find a full compositional form for some time (and it is true that as the songs are played they continue evolving even after albums, as one can hear in live shows and live albums by the band) the lyric was evocative enough for Gira to name the first album of the new period after it. Rather than “Oxygen,” we are treated to delights like “Jim”, evoking the image of a human body as a chariot to be ridden by consciousness to the state of Heaven/deification of the Spirit (‘Ride your mechanical beast to heaven/ Ride your beautiful bitch to the ultimate sin’) and “My Birth”, which simply must be listened to in order to be appreciated. The crown of the album, however, is the song “Eden Prison”. Like most of the songs on My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky, it has a more linear feeling to it than the gospel albums of the future; “Eden Prison”, indeed, tells elegantly of the plight of all Mankind, and the intensity of the consciousness-rebirth experience— we are inundated from the first with immense, universal images, a sort of Biblical Fall event marked by the birth of the narrator who is born like all men into beastlike wilderness and ignorance; the ignorance of Eden before the eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge is indeed a kind of prison, and the psychological renewal/consciousness expanding event represented by the eating of the apple is what we are experiencing when we listen to this song. The human animal is a beast of Eden upon the slab as Christ upon the cross, as much as they are ships which continually pass on new children, new souls, into the world; it is their duty to liberate themselves and enrich themselves with consciousness. The idea, too, of “living stones,” or the divine cornerstone, is a popular one; we consider 1 Peter 2:4-6, for instance, “4Come to him, a living stone, rejected by human beings but chosen and precious in the sight of God, 5and, like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6For it says in scripture: “Behold, I am laying a stone in Zion, a cornerstone, chosen and precious, and whoever believes in it shall not be put to shame.” We need hardly mention, also, the symbolic sgnificance of the stone in alchemy, nor in Jungian psychiatry, as a symbol of wholeness represented in the lapis. How greatly Gira was influenced consciously by these images is unknown to me, but he seems a man profoundly inspired in much of his work, so it is just as likely, even moreso, that the images unconsciously arose: he has himself in the past derided the American idea of “getting into a headspace” to do one’s artistic work, being a proponent of doing the thing and analyzing the experience of it after, which is what we are doing now. The lyrics of “Eden Prison” are below, but again, it is one thing to read the lyrics of a SWANS song and another entirely to listen to one.
Within the walls of Eden Prison,
There is a mark upon a stone.
And in this place a life was written,
And there a stain was laid where I was born.
Now moving through the roots of trees,
Deep may their fingers reach.
The substance of a mind that feeds
The bodies of the living stones that lead
Up to become the walls of Eden Prison.
The supine wild beast upon the slab
Would gladly rip the throat from God
If only he could reach up to His white ass
And I am free and will never breathe again
Within the greasy ochre walls of Eden Prison.
I am free, I will begin again.
I am free, I will begin again.
I am free of the choking hold that began in Eden Prison.
We are free, we are free.
We are free, we are free.
But the ships, they sail a sea of glistening turning crimson
They are carrying a cargo to unload
At Eden Prison.
THE LIBERATOR OF THE SLAVES – THE SEER, TO BE KIND, THE GLOWING MAN
One signature of Gira’s work, particularly in his mature ouvre, is the nature of the entire work as a flowing unit which, broken down into a microcosmic sense, works even on that level as an individual composition, as the manner in which the human body is composed of individual atoms. This view can also be taken towards Gira’s work as a whole: we see constant cycles of rebirth and renewal throughout, and after the triumphant resurgence marked by My Father Will Guide Me, we see a marked, more feverish closeness to God, or a desire for it, at any rate; The Seer in particular, with its lupine cover featuring a dog/wolf with the teeth of Gira, begins to mark a deep exploration into the unconscious. The wolf, and indeed the black cover, heralds again the shadow aspect we see rising up in the nigredo, but it is a new and more self-aware kind of nigredo than we have ever before seen, and joyful in its darkness; we open with the song “Lunacy”, the moon being a profound symbol of the unconscious and often a kind of gateway for the masculine consciousness to reach the feminine unconsciousness, as described in Alchemical Devilry IV. Indeed, the archetype of the Seer—the Pythia, the Sybil of Apollo—is a common manner in which the anima presents herself, being a close relation of the moon and the experience of the unconscious, and life itself. It is notable, indeed, that this album is a particularly feminine one, featuring a cameo return of Jarboe in “The Seer Returns” and the voice of Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs in “Song For A Warrior”, and then, of course, there is the very Mercurial image in the title of the song “The Daughter Brings the Water,” and I have not even mentioned the second song on the album is called “Mother of the World”. And, yet, much as in the Angels of Light album where Gira speaks of his inner female growing, Gira is the one who repeats the lyrics of the Seer in a rolling chant more hypnotic than the sound of waves: “I see it all, I see it all, I see it all, I see it all…” followed by repetitions of “I love you too much,” and of course even all this is sometimes deconstructed in live versions. In the Wondering Sound interview, Gira states, “I think one of the reasons I use love as a signifier on [the album To Be Kind]—it’s giving up, isn’t it? Love is giving up.” We think on hearing this of the phrase painted on the sides of so many rural American barns, “Happiness is submission to God,” and of all the previous and vicious images of being consumed, mortified, humiliated or destroyed by the beloved represented in the work of SWANS. We think, also of the Khalil Gibran play, “Lazarus and His Beloved”, which depicts death as a sublime union.
By the end of the album, Gira’s acknowledgment of God is blatant: “Avatar” celebrates amid the rising and passionate climax of the album the light of consciousness (what I have universally described as “The Observer” before, but also the Dao, Holy Spirit et al.) present in the human mind: “Your light is in my hand…Your mind is in my eye…Your eye is in my mind…Your eye is in my eye.” This leads then to “A Piece of the Sky”, one of the most exquisite songs ever written, has been described by him as a “prayer to our creator”, and illustrates in many ways the plight of Man to find God outside of himself, within the world— ‘Are you in there? On the moon? In the air? In my hand? Thrown in a fire?’ This, however, quickly gives way to the final song, “The Apostate”, in which Gira’s human ego calls out against the alien Nous: like a Seer seizing and spewing visions, he cries, “It’s not in my mind…we’re on an infinite line…get out of my mind! God I can fly— we’re on a ladder to God.” All this, amid the crashing intensity of music, and so often so profoundly dissected in performance, makes for an incredible and absorbing musical experience.
It is also interesting to see the somewhat ambiguous quality of the animal upon the cover: is it a dog, or a wolf? With a song appearing titled “The Wolf” we are lead to assume that it is the latter, but assumptions do not take into consideration unconscious meanings— this creature seems at once dog, and wolf, and Gira, and it brings to mind a Jung passage in which he describes the symbol of the two fishes swimming in nostro mari as describing, “…”spiritus et anima,” and like the stag and the unicorn, the two lions, the dog and the wolf [emphasis mine], and the two fighting birds, they indicate the double nature of Mercurius.” And given that the Spirit Mercurius is an interpretation in some ways of the Holy Spirit, that animating force of all life, it is sensible then and fascinating that this wolf/dog combination should have Gira’s teeth.
Following this inundation of the unconscious and this renewal with a sudden more acute understanding of consciousness, To Be Kind, appropriately, features a bunch of crying babies by the artist Bob Biggs. “Context changes everything: that image on the cover of a SWANS album changes the context of how it is viewed.” In that sense, then, we are seeing a six-faced puer eternis, the ego reborn and renewed by a plunge into the pool of the unconscious. Gira, who has become as a little child by greater intimacy with God, begins the album with “Just a Little Boy (For Chester Burnett)”, featuring lines like “I need love” and “I’m not a human,” pointing to a greater identification at this point with the light of consciousness than the human ego; and then conjures images of the homonculus and the Christ image with “A Little God in My Hands”. This album is also the album in which we see the emergence of the newest form of “Oxygen”, and it ends with the beautiful eponymous track, a tender sort of ballad which is perhaps one of the most intimate songs Gira has written in years— a calling, a longing, for inner compassion and tenderness, the duality of mercy and violence, the right hand and the left, and a celebration of how knowing our dark side allows us to so much better know our light one. It is a craving to know one’s fellow Man, one’s fellow Woman, as divine as the Self— “to be lost…to be found in the sound of this room.” Most beautiful, passionate and sensual, though, is the cry, repeated again and again, “There are millions and millions of stars in your eyes,” a phrase Gira sings with a longing which cannot be emulated through the look of text alone.
Finally, then, it is both sorrowful and appropriate that this present form of SWANS should find its end with an album titled The Glowing Man, an album whose cover, featuring four disembodied parts of a red man, feels like something’s desperate attempt at manifestation. Indeed, Gira practically confirms as such on the site in the album’s description in which he describes his intent for it— “And so finally this LOVE has now led us, with the release of the new and final recording from this configuration of Swans, The Glowing Man, through four albums (three of which contain more complexity, nuance and scope than I would have ever dreamed possible), several live releases, various fundraiser projects, countless and seemingly endless tours and rehearsals, and a generally exhausting regimen that has left us stunned but still invigorated and thrilled to see this thing through to its conclusion…I’m decidedly not a Deist, but on a few occasions – particularly in live performance – it’s been my privilege, through our collective efforts, to just barely grasp something of the infinite in the sound and experience generated by a force that is definitely greater than all of us combined. When talking with audience members after the shows or through later correspondence, it’s also been a true privilege to discover they’ve experienced something like this too.” His words on the songs themselves, particularly “The Glowing Man”, are important to read— alchemically versed readers who know the symbolic synonymity of Sol and Sulphur, of the figure robed in red which marks what is called the Rubedo stage of alchemy, and Gira’s personal identification of the identification of Sulphur/Logos/The Wise Old Man as Joseph illustrated in “Joseph’s Song” on the Angels of Light album We Are Him should note the significance of the fact that “The Glowing Man” evolved from “Bring The Sun”.
The song ‘The Glowing Man’ contains a section of the song ‘Bring The Sun’ from our previous album, To Be Kind. The section is, of course, newly performed and orchestrated to work within its current setting. ‘The Glowing Man’ itself grew organically forward and out of improvisations that took place live during the performance of ‘Bring The Sun’, so it seemed essential to include that relevant section here. Since over the long and tortured course of the current song’s genesis, it had always been such an integral cornerstone I believe we’d have been paralyzed and unable to perform the entire piece at all without it.
‘Cloud of Forgetting’ and ‘Cloud of Unknowing’ are prayers. ‘Frankie M’ is another tribute and a best wish for a wounded soul. ‘The Glowing Man’ contains my favorite Zen Koan. ‘People Like Us’ and ‘Finally, Peace’ are farewell songs.”
We are treated, privileged, as an audience, to be enfolded in the music of SWANS and embraced as a part of Gira’s experience of consciousness— in observing and enjoying his music, not only are we contributing to his rope to the sky, his ladder to God, but we are also being given an opportunity to experience the same, whether it is in the listening and appreciation of his powerful music, or the analysis of it which we may then apply to our own work, in our own efforts to be guided up a rope to our father in the sky.
In closing, let us take a moment to discuss the band’s name. I recall, once, asking my father why this band which was so important to both of us had chosen to name themselves SWANS, and he said he had once read the same question in an interview—the response, he claimed, had been that the swan was a loud, furious bird. But the unconscious symbolic significance of the swan—the form in which Jove descended upon Leda, and thus begat Pollux and Helen of Troy—is one which also can hardly be overlooked. The swan has long been a symbol of the sun God, Apollo. We think, also, of the only SWANS song I can find which directly mentions swans— “A Piece of the Sky,” in which Gira searches for his creator, and like us, asks:
On a burning white ship
In the taste of her lips
In the blood of the swans
As the sun fucks the dawn
In the mud of the lake
In the drunk and the dazed
Are you there?
And it is hard to believe, listening to the music of Michael Gira, that this is not a man who has not, at least, come close to finding Him. He is a man who has described the music as using him as a marionette; this, one should think, is the artistic ideal: dissolution in the spirit of the work, for both the artist, and the audience. To over-analyze this catalog of work, or any, is to do a disservice to new listeners; the experience of gnosis is a subjective, firsthand one, and the best way to learn from another artist is, ultimately, to experience that artist’s work. Plunging into the work of Gira is an intense journey, indeed, but well-worth the effort, and one by which even the most closed-minded may find themselves infinitely broadened.
M. F. Sullivan is the SWANS-influenced author of transgressive DELILAH, MY WOMAN, an incestuous serial killer love story which you may purchase on Amazon or Barnes & Noble. The psychedelic follow-up, ALBEDO, draws nearer to completion every day. Click here to buy DELILAH, MY WOMAN from Amazon in ebook and hardback and come back in two weeks for the next article.