Tonguing Meaning 1: Paul Bowles

This isn't really a music blog as much as an audioblog, and now and again I'll be posting spoken word material for you to slip into reverie to whenever you're on drab public transport or safe in (a lonely) bed. First off, one of my all-time favourite authors, the eminent Paul Bowles—the writer who, like no other, rips out the smiles from garden walks. So, if you're into travelling, introspection or violence, check this out:

When striped snakes shall creep upon us
And the nervous screams of birds
Make silent all the fountains and the orchards and when these
Have caught upon the wing each wing
That flutters from the sky
Then shall I and then shall I
Rip out the smiles from garden walks
Transform the minnows into hawks
Tarantulas and bees
Then shall I and then shall I
Unmake each whining thing
Paul Bowles (1910-1999) was an American author, composer, poet, travel writer, translator and musicologist. In addition to albums of his compositions, several records of readings have been released—and consequently discontinued. Typically, these also include field recordings from his adopted country, Morocco.

Paul Bowles: You Are Not I—Rare Bowles [.zip]

1. Baptism of Solitude (excerpt)
Although a travel writer who'd been to many corners of the world, Paul Bowles was renowned for his expatriate existence in Morocco (and visited there by «every traveller not wearing shorts,» supposedly). His literature is associated with the northern African desert. Snippets such as this portrayal of the Sahara—from travel book Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue—Scenes from the Non-Christian World—explain why.

2. You Are Not I (excerpt)
The two first sentences of a much longer short story.

3. The Sheltering Sky (excerpt)
Bowles' first novel, The Sheltering Sky (published 1949) remains his most famous novel. This excerpt describes the fever suffered by traveller to the Sahara, Port Moresby, as he is nursed by wife Kit.

4. Up Above the World (excerpt)
Up Above the World (published 1966) was the fourth and last novel Bowles wrote. A kind of murder mystery, it's not so much the plot as the creatively empathic, introspective prose that evokes perspectives, inebriation, insanity, breakdowns, fevers and dreams, with a vivid accuracy that's as unnerving as it is exhilarating. As with so many of Bowles' stories, consciousness and reality itself are, in a way, characters.

5. A Distant Episode (excerpt)
«A Distant Episode» is a short story about a professor of linguistics who goes into the Saharan desert to study Moghrebi dialects, only to run into a band of rogue Reguibat.

In Eroticism, Georges Bataille points out that
At one end, existence is basically orderly and decent. Work, concern for the children, kindness and honesty rule men's dealings with their fellows. At the other, violence rages pitilessly…

These extremes are called civilisation and barbarism… But the use of these words is misleading, for they imply that there are barbarians on the one hand and civilised men on the other. The distinction is that civilised men speak and barbarians are silent… Many consequences result from that bias of language. Not only does «civilised» usually mean «us», and barbarous «them», but also civilisation and language grew as though violence was something outside, foreign not only to civilisation but also to man, man being the same thing as language. Yet observation shows that the same peoples are alternately barbarous and civilised in their attitudes… If language is to be extricated from this impasse, we must declare that violence belongs to humanity as a whole and is speechless, and that thus humanity as a whole lies by ommission and language itself is founded upon this lie.

… Common language will not express violence… If violence does occur, and occur it will, it is explained by a mistake somewhere, just as men of backward civilisations think that death can only happen if someone makes it by magic…

But silence cannot do away with things that language cannot state. Violence is as stubbornly there just as much as death, and if language cheats to conceal universal annihilation, the placid work of time, language alone suffers, language is the poorer, not time and not violence.
6. Each Whining Thing
An early poem, from 1929.

7. The Delicate Prey (excerpt)
Regrettably, Bowles only reads an excerpt from this, one of his most haunting short stories.

A young man, Driss, and two of his uncles travel through desert to sell leather goods, when they encounter a lone Moungari. The stranger murders the two uncles and wounds Driss—which is where this excerpt starts off.

The story concludes with the murderer being caught trying to sell the leather. The victims' tribesmen eventually find him, bind him to a camel and take him far into the desert. There they remove his turban, shave his head and bury his body, with only his head protruding from the ground. The avengers then leave him to the elements:
When they had gone the Moungari fell silent, to wait through the cold hours for the sun that would bring first warmth, then heat, thirst, fire, visions. The next night he did not know where he was, did not feel the cold. The wind blew dust along the ground into his mouth as he sang.
8. Reh Dial Beni Bouhiya
Performed by Cheikh Hamed bel Hadj Hamadi ben Allal & ensemble, this is one of Bowles' field recordings.

9. Allal (excerpt)
«Allal» is the story about an outcast—the son of a disgraced woman—scorned and mistreated by his fellow villagers all his life. Then he meets this man.

10. The Garden
A short story written in 1964.

11. Love Song
A poem.

12. Points in Time XI
A snippet from Points in Time—Tales from Morocco, a kind of travelogue.

13. Nights

14. Six Preludes for Piano
Supposedly one of the compositions Bowles was most satisified with, performed here by Jean-Luc Fafchamps.

  • 1-7 and 11 are from Baptism of Solitude (1995), with sound design by Bill Laswell.
  • 8-10 and 12 are from Tellus #23—The Voices of Paul Bowles (1989).
  • 13 and 14 are from Black Star at the Point of Darkness (1990).
  • All currently out of print.

I cannot recomment Paul Bowles enough. Should you decide to go out and read something by him, do yourself a favour and make it the novels Let It Come Down and The Sheltering Sky, as well as any collection of short stories that contains «Call at Corazón».


Music so Old It’s Up for Grabs 1: Skip James

Skip James: «Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues» [mp3]
Lord, I'm depressed. Not the clinical mental state; the financial crisis is finally scraping the lining of my pockets. So I thought a song from the Great Depression would be fitting on this idle, rainy day of no work (yet still no play).

Not that I fancy my state of affairs even remotely comparable to the hardships of the millions affected by the Great Depression—or the billions now in grave poverty all over the world. Still, I thought I'd give all of you who were neither filthy stinking rich nor wretchedly poor before this global recession fell upon us something for free, now that you need it. So here you go: Music that the copyright police can't arrest you or I for sharing, simply because it's too old. Heh!

Country bluesman Skip James (1902-1969) was from the US south; a mean and bitter grouch whose misogyny was only matched by his misanthropy and who, because of the Depression, variously tried his hand at being a plantation foreman, a preacher (Baptist and Methodist!), a pimp and various other shady professions. He was a religious man, of the kind who only ever invoked God whenever fantasising about the eternal suffering and punishment of those who (he imagined?) had crossed him. Sample lyric:
Somebody gonna wish they had religion
Somebody gonna wish they knew how to pray
Somebody gonna be so sorry that they laughed at me
You better get ready for that great day
My kind of guy!

But I digress. In 1931, James got a break when he was contracted to record several 78s. But the supremely talented and original bluesman's career was cut short almost immediately due to poor sales, a consequence of the Great Depression. A life of hustling and treachery followed, until he was found in a Washington DC hospital—friendless, abandoned and (in typical hypochondriac fashion) «dying»—by glorious and equally hateful fan of obscure 78s, maverick fingerpicker John Fahey, 33 years after James' last recording. For the next five years, Skip James experienced a revival that didn't give rise to gratitude as much as a bitterness at its belatedness, at the hands of an audience of white middle class, Socialist folkies he despised. (Naturally.) Then he died.

But long before that, back in 1931, he'd recorded the signature song for the Depression, «Hard Time Killin' Floor Blues». «Killing floor» refers to the abattoir, but was slang used as a colourful metaphor for hardship, be it romantic or economic.

And if you like this recording, check out James' '60s re-recording of the song, with clearer sound and by which time he'd developed a strange and decidedly chilling falsetto that renders the words all the more poignant, and ensures his place among the most unique blues singers in history…

Oh, and you might remember the song from this film:

Enjoy—it's free!


Net Nuggets 6: Indie Rock in Spring

Kurt Vile: «Classic Rock in Spring» (live on WFMU) [mp3]
Hey, how are ya
Ya sure got a way of greetin' a man
Might I add the perfect suntan
You're ridin' on yer yellow Schwinn
I'm blastin' classic rawk in spring
A couple o' summer demons
With battery rechargin'
When ya hear that Bob Seger song
Ya know I'll be looong gone
Cuttin' all my classes
Like a hit of acid
And hey, how are ya?
Kurt Vile of War On Drugs plays DIY, home rec shoegazing stuff that's quite great. But sometimes he relies on just his voice and fingers, as on this recording, made for heroic radio station WFMU. Check out the other (freely downloadable) songs from this session here; it's ideal for Sunday listening in spring…


Rare or Unreleased 14: US Maple

US Maple: «Sin City» [mp3]
Ah, Friday. Time to hit the tiles, go on a bender, paint the town red, etc. And what better way to usher in the weekend than a classic AC/DC tune, mangled by some deranged avantniks stumbling and rambling through it with no sense of reverence, respect or technical skill whatsoever?

So let me take you back—way back—to 1995, when comic book publishing house/record company Skin Graft released a quadruple sided 7" single, split between four scuzzy bands tarnishing each their AC/DC song. The most well-known of the bands was Steve Albini's Shellac, but even they were no match for the unhinged frenzy—part rage, part dementia—of the criminally overlooked (and by now defunct) US Maple.

Around this time, I saw US Maple live, in my unsuspecting hometown of Trondheim, Norway. People were positively agape as they watched the inscrutable spectacle up onstage, unable to tell whether they should pogo, fold their arms across their chests, or dare go up front. With the singer flailing and jumping wildly—wearing a white shirt (made see-through by copious amounts of manly musk ejaculating out of his pores) and some kind of a white glove (Michael Jackson-stylee), yelping the songs in a nasal whine I didn't realise were actually words until months later, when I got hold of a copy of their obscure debut CD—the floor was empty, save for myself and two old bums, who'd inexplicably made it into the venue and were absolutely loving it. They felt right at home as singer Al Johnson repeatedly jumped on top of skinsman Pat Samson's long-suffering drumset, bashing the main cymbal for some kind of punctuation. Samson, in turn, would ground the band in beat and keep time reasonably well, apart from lapses when he'd explode into violent rages, hitting at the drums seemingly haphazardly, screaming at the top of his lungs as if he'd already had enough of this shit! Up front, guitarist Todd Rittman would shuffle his heels so as to move to the left, then to the right, then left again, without ever actually taking steps with his legs, dancing to a melody and rhythm that simply weren't there. All the while, the other guitarist, respectably attired Mark Shippy, sat lounging languidly in a low camping chair, strumming his own, private melodies.

For a band that contrived to «deconstruct» rock'n'roll, they sure made a visceral impact. What a treat! Apart from revolutionary militias, it's not every day you get assaulted by intellectuals…

Anywho, here's one of their first recordings, a rare, vinyl-only deconstruction of AC/DC, of all bands.

It fuckin' rawks!


Culture 101: Michael Gira (Pt. 1)

The Fall are my favourite band. I also hate my favourite band. With a passion… I vow never to go to another Fall show and yet somehow always end up at the next one. I am sick.
So says Julian Cope, and the way he feels about Mark E. Smith's legendary outfit, I feel about M. Gira.

Michael Rolfe Gira was born in Los Angeles in 1954. In the early '80s he formed seminal New York industrial act SWANS, which he disbanded in 1997 in favour of new projects Angels Of Light, the Body Lovers and various solo endeavours. He is also the author of a collection of short stories, The Consumer, and head of record label Young God Records.

There's a vast amount of rare material by M. Gira floating about (seeing as he's disowned a lot of it, electing never to re-release it), and a lot of it bears the unique quality stamp familiar to fans of Gira. So here you go: an introduction to Michael R. Gira, by way of discontinued rarities:

M. Gira: Rare Gira, vol. 1: 1982-1993—The Sound of Freedom [.zip]

1. SWANS: «Speak»

From «Swans» EP (1982)

1982. Ex-hippie and kind-of punk Michael Gira has moved from LA to New York upon seeing the squalor, violence and abject loneliness portrayed in Taxi Driver. He's already left the New Wave-y, synth-heavy post-punk band Circus Mort, and is just edging towards more uncompromising things. His new group, SWANS, share a rehearsal space and go on tour with Sonic Youth, who at the time are still dabbling with chaos and risk. Apparently, on tour SWANS founding members Michael Gira and Jonathan Kane frequently make attempts on each others' lives, trying to strangle each other in the back of the van over cigarettes and the like, one of the things that would leave Sonic Youth wary and a little scared of the intense other band.
According to Gira, upon returning to New York from a disastrous tour with virtually no audiences—the «Savage Blunder Tour»—everyone absolutely hates each other. Sonic Youth go on to become the family values indie rock royalty currently distributing their latest CD exclusively at Starbucks; Michael Gira remains largely marginalised, a legend to a relatively few, dysfunctional people (who probably don't frequent Starbucks too often).

But in 1982 both bands are unknowns, with members of both playing for some of the key artists at the time, viz. «symphonic» guitar noise composer Glenn Branca and the agitational head of the New York No Wave scene, Lydia Lunch.

In recent years, Souljazz Records have offered retrospectives of that time and place with their New York Noise compilation series, but like always with Souljazz, their focus is on the music they like, not what was most interesting to the players and audiences at the time, and so their primers are more geared towards that place where punk and disco converged, rather than on the abrasive assaults of sound perpetrated by the likes of Lydia Lunch's Teenage Jesus & the Jerks and, at the time, Sonic Youth and SWANS.

This early output of both latter bands can easily be dated to the early '80s. Although not derivative, you can hear in them the signature sound of more dancy Manchester bands like Joy Division and the Fall. «Speak»—the opening track on SWANS' debut EP (since discontinued by Gira himself)—is as good as post-punk gets. Punchy and gutsy, you can still almost dance to it—although Gira quickly saw to that.

The next few years' albums and EPs would consist of grindingly bludgeoning industrial music, full of manipulated tape loops, macho drumming and testosterone yells, the minimalitically short slogan-like lyrics usually dealing in self-loathing, alienation and violence, with masochism and prostitution as frequent metaphors for work. (Sample lyrics: «Flex your muscles / Be hard / Come back for more».) One typical song from this period bears the title «Raping a Slave». (After a while, it gets a bit comic book-like, not to mention comical.)

2. Michael Gira: «Game»
From Giorno Poetry Systems compilation A Diamond Hidden in the Mouth of a Corpse (1985)

Although Gira is famed for what is typically referred to as «slabs of noise» that «grind» and «bludgeon», his work always displayed a literary interest. While SWANS' early lyrics attempted to duplicate the economic style of marketing (by using slogan-like sentences with only three-to-five words), Gira also started penning short stories, most of which weren't published until 1994. These stories were low on plot, contained mostly two characters (one an extreme sadist, the other either a victim or extreme masochist), and displayed an indulgence in a rich, descriptive vocabulary that Gira wouldn't permit himself in his lyrics at the time.

The first spoken word piece of Gira's that I know of was released on a long-unavailable compilation assembled by Warhol protégé John Giorno, author of The Suicide Sutra and known for his collaborations with William S. Burroughs, and (wrongly) credited with inventing spoken word as a genre. In New York in the '70s and '80s, Giorno engineered a series of albums compiling the readings of various authors and rock personas, releasing, in 1985, this short recitation by Gira. The story itself is pretty disgusting, but Gira's lightless, incantatory delivery manages to make it even bleaker.

The imagery of evisceration in «Game» is surely inspired by Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch, one of the founders of Viennese Actionism, an art movement wherein obsessions with Freud, Catholicism, pagan rituals and modern medicine all come together in a mess of body fluids, body parts, crucifixions, violence and resurrection. Apart from painting in blood, Nitsch is famous for his Orgies-Mysteries Theatre—performances wherein spectators are encouraged to take leave of their senses and become participants themselves, as the beautiful, young actors, smiling and decked out all in white, butcher animals and handle entrails, blood and semen, eviscerating pigs, lambs and oxen just as swans drink out of pools of blood, creating aesthetic tableaux beautifying the horror of death, before the whole ordeal celebrates life with the eating of the animals at a feast towards the end. Gira attended one such happening by Nitsch in New York, and references to other Actionists crop up in his songs.

But Gira transposes this transcendence in the face of evisceration, from the implicit, vicarious thrill of witnessing the destruction of animals, to an explicit, imagined experience of being destroyed yourself. Gira's obsession with the body is a wish to transcend it, violence conceived of as the only means to overcome the divide that separates individuals from each other. The detailed description of pain and cruelty is linked with love, taken to its ultimate, logical conclusion—if by «love» you
mean the desire to transcend your own body and being by merging with another. This in turn is infused and confused with loathing, which has as its source the self-hatred that compels the narrator to seek the transcendence-as-escape from himself in the first place. This short snippet of a «story», then, is the point at which the positive urge of love and the negative desire for self-destruction converge. The self is just isolation, and the only remedy or escape into freedom is through an evisceration of the body. Told from a psychotically, almost psychedelically masochistic vantage point, cannibalism, too, would prove a recurring theme in Gira's work.

As a minor, Gira was arrested for possession of hash in Israel and put in a prison for adults. A relatively effeminate boy among confined, hardened men completely separated from women, Gira was protected by certain adult inmates and lucky enough to only have to witness the nightly gang rape of a young man. It was in this environment, in the prison's library, apparently, that Gira first discovered the writings of the Marquis de Sade. Talk about formative experience.

Now, where de Sade shows his reader the joy of power and of inflicting hurt upon others, Gira is more concerned with overcoming the limitations set upon the self by the mind and body, as if the years and years of excessive use since childhood of TV, LSD, amphetamine and alcohol caused a tear in whatever it is that separates the individual mind from the collective consciousness, allowing him to catch a glimpse of freedom and release in the violence that destroys you—you, who are the very boundary that isolates you from everything else—making you feel (and so causing a heightened awareness of self) just as it eradicates that self, the will of the individual helplessly, powerlessly submitting to the will of another, therefore no longer putting up a resistance to the outside world but yielding to it, surrendering to it and becoming one with it, the boundaries separating the individual from everything—the fragment from the whole—finally torn down in one big, foul and stinking mess of ectstatic agony. I suppose.

3. SWANS: «Coward» (live)
From Public Castration Is a Good Idea (1986)

While Joy Division morphed into the '80s dance extravaganza that is New Order, legend would have it that Michael Gira started assaulting audience members who dared to attempt as much as a tiny pogo. With the supposedly rebellious punk movement stagnating into a formula, Gira truculently defied «the conservative notion that three chords were somehow necessary.» And the exceptionally high volume and noisy arrangements were, apparently, designed to obliterate Gira's perpetual sensitivity to the heaviness of his own body (an after effect of frequent, adolescent use of LSD). Thus Gira has often said that he felt SWANS' music (such as «Coward», taken from the out-of-print live album Public Castration Is a Good Idea) was actually elating. The key to understanding Sonic Youth's music, too, lies in their insistance that noise is liberating—although Sonic Youth never penned such oppressive lyrics as those of «Coward»:
I'm a coward
Put your knife in me
Walk away
Walk away
Walk away
I don't know you:
I can't use you
I don't know you:
I can't use you
Put your knife in me
Put your knife in me
I love you
I'm worthless
Put your knife in me
Walk away
I'm worthless
I love you
I'm worthless
I love you
I'm worthless
These lyrics, so loathsome, nevertheless perfectly convey the simple, repetitious and obsessive psychology of low self-esteem, to an almost unbearable degree. Listening to the song is akin to being locked in with a horrendous smell. That insufferable feeling is only released by the moments where the band seem to almost lose the stifling control they exert in playing this drudgery. Live footage from the period shows Gira rhythmically, steadily stretching and bending his body, as in a Reichian breathing exercise, contorting his body in stabbing motions to the point of trance.

Whatever the faults or merits of Gira's mid-'80s output, no one did anything like it, and this is the period that made his name (and for which Gira's still notorious)—although, needless to say, no one's ever tried to emulate it.

With these releases, Gira signed up to a tradition in music that is fairly new—one that is at odds with the campfires and parties where music, joyous or comforting, was born and is nurtured to this day. A tradition made up of a minority of musicians who are concerned with creating tension, by confronting, challenging, provoking or attacking the listener. (Even punk, however raucous, was essentially party music, falling within the confines of rock'n'roll, and so was in fact a very sociable expression, rather than the anti-social menace demonisation by the conservatives and hype by the punks have made it out to be.)

In the late 1800s/early 1900s, classical composers (Scriabin, Debussy, Stravinsky, Schönberg, Bartók, Prokofiev, Varèse, Ives, et al.) started experimenting with atonal music; later composers (Cage, Reich, Riley, Young, Flynt, et al.) experimented with noise. The first industrial outfits, such as Throbbing Gristle, went all out and challenged the pain threshold of anyone not entirely deaf—as did contemporaries of SWANS in London (the Birthday Party) and Berlin (Einstürzende Neubauten). As such, the music is interesting. But «interesting» doesn't necessarily make for a rewarding experience, and as Throbbing
Gristle, the Birthday Party, Einstürzende Neubauten, Lydia Lunch and SWANS were all involved in stage antics—various levels of scandalous transgression, or even outright violence (which perhaps can be traced back to Antonin Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty)—listening to an mp3 30 years on may be a bit inadequate and one-dimensional.

Still, those interested in SWANS' most obviously extreme art should go here and here.

4. SWANS: «Trust Me» (live on Brave New Waves)
From a Canadian radio broadcast (1987)

Gradually, SWANS started moving away from heavy noise to more melody- and narrative-oriented songs. Although the lyrics display the usual minimalism and repetition, this acoustic radio performance of just Michael Gira (vocals and guitar) and long-standing SWANS member Norman Westberg (lead guitar) marks a shift in priorities.

The best thing about this song are the words, putting a new, no-nonsense spin on the eternal love song, their truth making a mockery of all the lovers in your life who spoke too soon:
Because I love you
I give you this
Don't be afraid of this
You can trust me now
Though we will deceive ourselves
You can trust me now
You can trust me now
Don't be afraid of this
It's not unusual
It's not unusual
Because I love you
You can trust me now
You will never know
You will never know
You can not trust me now
Don't be afraid of this
You can trust me now
It's not unusual
You can not trust me now
You will never know
It's not unusual
It's not unusual
5. SWANS: «Let It Come Down»
From The Burning World (1989)

Paul Bowles' psychological novel Let It Come Down starts off with the following quote from Shakespeare's Macbeth:
It will be rain tonight.

Let it come down.

There lies in this challenge a devil-may-care, fuck-it-all attitude that can easily be confused with indifference or self-destruction, but is in fact a wish to truly interact with the world, whatever the consequences. Life or death, you only ever have reality to fall back on, anyway, and nowhere else to go.

In 1986, performance artist and SWANS fan Jarboe had joined the band, and would become the only other constant member of SWANS,
alongside husband-to-be Michael Gira, until their partnership's dissolution in 1997. In the still industrial phase of SWANS, Jarboe had played the sampler; beginning with the albums Children of God (credited to SWANS), Blood, Women, Roses and Shame, Humility, Revenge (both credited to Skin), Jarboe's schooling in music was utilised to form what resembled song structures, with Jarboe also taking on piano, keyboard and vocal duties. By 1989's The Burning World, SWANS were actually performing fully fledged songs, replete with verse-chorus arrangements and acoustic intruments.

(For the remarkable Children of God and Skin albums, all in one package, go here.)

6. SWANS: «Saved»
From The Burning World (1989)

When Michael Gira disbanded SWANS in 1997, he oversaw the revisionist history of the group, re-releasing only parts of the back catalogue and leaving the rest to whither with the crumbling original copies. One retrospective compilation to appear on Gira's own Young God Records, for instance, wasn't given the title Best of SWANS 1988-1992, (or some such thing) but Various Failures (1988-1992). This is a track that didn't make it onto that collection.

Maybe because it's not a failure. The case can be made that «Saved» is one of the better songs of the period. At least in terms of production values it's aged better than many other SWANS songs. It was even issued as a single at the time, to promote the now out-of-print Burning World album. Both words and melody being a crack, letting some light into SWANS' otherwise uncompromisngly bleak universe, «Saved» remains one of my favourite SWANS tracks, its lyrics managing a balance between the morose and the blue-eyed, remaining deeply felt without resorting to sentimentality.

«Sentimental»—coming as it does from the root word «sentiment»—has usurped our concept of emotion to such a degree that the film voted the all-time greatest on the Internet Movie Database is Shawshank Redemption. Seeing as that film doesn't have the biggest stars, the cleverest plot or dialogue, a truthfully profound message, a great score, any exceptionally impressive acting, any out-of-the-ordinary cinematography, or any tits, car chases or explosions whatsoever, the only possible reason left for its wide popularity has to be the motivational triumph-of-the-human-spirit feelgood angle. Sentimental dopes on the run from reality love that shit. So, beset on all sides on the radio, Internet and in cinemas by sentimental expressions that are embraced as deep truths, it's a relief whenever you find one of those rare artistic products that manage to inspire hope or gratitude without resorting to clichéd lies tapping right into your wishful thinking:
When sunlight falls on your shoulder
You look like a creature from Heaven
You're holy when you open your eyes
And look up inside that sheltering sky
And you're an angel, I'll never betray you
But I'll always be a lonely child
Still I'm saved
I'm saved
I don't deserve it
But I'm saved
Get the same-period compilation here.

7. The World Of Skin: «A Parasite and Other Memories»
From Ten Songs for Another World (1990)

In 1990, Gira and Jarboe released an album not under the SWANS or Skin monikers, but as the World Of Skin. Supposedly, this was to mark the album (Ten Songs for Another World) off as a different musical endeavour to previous projects—although in retrospect it's hard to see a marked difference from their other releases of the same period.

As for this song, I don't know which «parasite» it is that Gira is remembering, but to this blogger it always evokes images of a Trent Reznor or Marilyn Manson:
And you who were so careful
Not to every really cross the line
Your violence was insipid
And your bliss, it was plagiarized
Could be any faux-rebellious frontman poseur, really. Close your eyes and throw a rock…

8. The World Of Skin: «I'll Go There, Take Me Home»
From Ten Songs for Another World (1990)

With the lyrics almost childishly bitter, it's understandable why this didn't make the cut when Gira assembled Various Failures. Still, there are flashes of brilliance. Who but Gira could pen the last lines, giving suicide the air of a mystical act?
When the poison earth dies
Then where will our memory be?
I will go there, take me home
Take me home, take me home
9. The World Of Skin: «You'll Never Forget»
From Ten Songs for Another World (1990)

I'll leave it up to you to decide whether the most unsettling aspect of this song is how elaborately hateful the lyrics are, or simply Michael Gira's controlled/restrained delivery of them, singing in a manner that perhaps would be best described as «stoically erotic», his croon distant yet determined—a secret pleasure hidden somewhere in his seemingly unmoved tone of voice. (That bedrock of patient malice, anchoring the song in inescapable hatred.) The course is certainly being served cold on this one.

No one writes a revenge song like Mr. Gira. Starting with this release in 1990 and continuing through 1995 at the very least, he seems to have come up with several vengeance fantasies («Better than You», «Low Life Form», «I See Them All Lined Up») in some drunken paranoia aimed at people and for reasons he in later interviews said he no longer remembers. As detailed and specific as they are sadistic, these grandiloquent revenge fantasies are so over the top as to almost negate their own desire, the exaggerated reveries of torture too far removed from reality to really carry a sting.

Considering that there's something comfortingly martyr-like and glorious, almost romantic, about torture, I much prefer to daydream about the perhaps worse—and much more likely—fate that awaits my foes: a long life of mediocrity and of slow, inevitable loss. In death you lose everything, which is the same as losing nothing; you can only truly lose by continuing to live. A loss that's as inevitable as it is irreversible. The vast expanse that could be the rest of your life, reality growing larger as you grow smaller, decreasing by increments unnoticable but for sudden realisations in front of the mirror now and then.

As I fantasise about the doomed fates of these people, wishing upon them the mediocrity that necessarily awaits those who flee from reality into illusions and lies that so suck other people in, I see decades-long, loveless partnerships with lovers who stick together simply because they have no other alternatives… I see careers devoted to meaningless activities or pointless endeavours, based on the same lies their grotesque existences are sacrifices to… I see bored, middle-aged people full of disappointment and secret loathing for themselves and their partner, wandering the dead halls of museums and art galleries out of habit, in desperate, yet helplessly unimaginative attempts at injecting colour into the downward trajectory of their clichéd and monotonous lives… charter tours with other complacent and by now lazy pensioners, killing time with activities that neither enlighten nor satisfy… I see bookshelves full of soothing, but in the end useless lies, passed on to children raised on the delusions of their parents, and so doomed to wallow in the same muck. May they live to see not only the true nature of the lies of their countless years of truth-dodging, cowardly and non-confrontational existence, but to see it in their offspring, too, sprouting like a strangling weed planted by themselves in the only people they ever truly loved. I see a cancer upon their conscience, their love (whenever momentarily ignited) nothing but a lack of hate—that absence of disgust in habitual existences, where you get used to just about anything. I see them confused, never quite understanding themselves or their actions… I see them slowly pass away like this, telling themselves their well-worn lies more frantically, but no longer all that convinced by them, understanding a little too much, yet, in the end, still too little… I see them staring helplessly up from their deathbed, the poverty of their own «love» prompting them to doubt that of the «close ones» closing in on their deathbead (already squabbling over inheritance), as the loneliness they’ve run from their entire lives is unveiled at last.

10. SWANS: «The Most Unfortunate Lie»
From White Light from the Mouth of Infinity (1991)

Revenge fantasies that revolve around the loathed one's death carry within them the naïve hope that the wrongdoer's conscience will be awakened at the very last minute, and that a sincere wish for repentance—which by then will be too late, of course—will finally torment them in a final, powerless spasm of painful regret. (A kind of spiritual purification.) More than the body, we want the person's core to be affected.

As could be illustrated by SWANS' «Most Unfortunate Lie» (which would be made available on Various Failures, but in edited, instrumental form), the ultimate hope of revenge remains the prospect of the cur who incurred our wrath realising, too late, the errors of their ways and uncovering, at the very last minute (long and agonising), the truth obscured by their lies:
Someone was here before me and they took the possibility away
And without any control or freedom the elements were laid down in this way
And so my mind is slowly devoured by the ideas to which it subscribes
And in the end I'm left with nothing except the memory of believing my own lies
And where are you now, my most unfortunate lie?

11. SWANS: «Power and Sacrifice»

From White Light from the Mouth of Infinity (1991)

Politically engaged music is often awkward and heavy-handed, preachy and one-sided. But like Bob Dylan once remarked (once he'd stopped writing topical songs): «There’s no left wing and no right wing, only upwing and down wing.» Far more interesting, then, is an analysis of power, viewed through a psychedelic prism:
I want power, though the earth is lost and spinning
I feel power, buried in the ground where twenty million
Died like heroes stealing this same power that I'm feeling
I feel power. I feel a sacrifice
Now my blood is feeling clean
12. SWANS: «Song for the Sun»
From White Light from the Mouth of Infinity (1991)

Michael Gira apparently lived in a windowless New York basement for most of the 1980s and '90s, so it's perhaps not surprising that when he sings, «Let the sun come in,» it's a defiant challenge, not a wish or relief.
Now they say that Hell is a place where memory's dead and the only thing left is this moment moving further away
But I will always try to remember the way you moved your lips against mine in the lonely bed
If I forget who you were then, I will lose what I am now
Forever and ever and ever and ever again
But I won't cry, no, I will survive the light of the sun as it enters me
Let it come right in, let the sun come in
13. SWANS: «You Know Nothing»
From White Light from the Mouth of Infinity (1991)

Not many lyricists get away with, or even attempt, tackling the subject of modern science, but in the early to mid-'90s, Gira's lyrics were positively teeming with quasi-scientific, semi-mystical references to quantum and astrophysics. One theory, invoked by quantum physicists to square up certain discrepancies when translating quantum theory from mathematics into everyday language, proposed that reality consists of parallel universes, one actuality for every logical possibility:
And nothing is written in the book, reality is made by you
And every lie that you pursue, eventually turns true
And I was told that your eyes would shine, a light up into space
And infinity would then consume this ordinary place

You know nothing, you know nothing at all
How could you know, you'll never know anything at all

14. SWANS: «The Sound of Freedom»

From Love of Life (1992)

Legend has it SWANS used to play at such loud volumes that audience members would vomit or bleed out of their ears. This was a touch Gira lifted off Pink Floyd (of all bands), who used to play at record decibel levels back when Gira was a teenage hippie acid freak attending European rock festivals.

Where the Japanese painter and installation artist Yayoi Kusama tried to obliterate her sense of self by immersing herself in rooms and paintings full of disorienting, almost atom-like polka dots, Gira tried to rid himself of an awareness of heavy gravitational pull and of the density of mass of his body—which had resulted from excessive LSD consumption—through loud volumes of noise. Thus the violent, mercilessly grinding music so many people found oppressive was actually an uplifting, transcendental exercise for Gira. He was going for freedom:
Nobody else can see you
Nobody knows you feel
Go further back inside you
Where nothing else is real
Now throw yourself into a pool
Of silence you can see
And hold the mirror before your eyes
And light the white light, it's the sound of freedom

Now time is just a picture that
Moves before your eyes
And every lie that I believe
Is falsely compromised
And this is not a sound
And we are not alive
Someone else was here before
In someone else's mind
And the ground we walk is sacred
And every object lives
And every word we speak
Will punish or forgive
And the light inside your body
Will shine through history
Set fire to every prison
Set every dead man free
And the air we're breathing now
We breathed a million times
And the darkest dreams we dreamed
Were dreamed by other minds
So take us to the water
Take us to the sound
And wash my soul away
Where it never can be found...

And the white light that surrounds us
Is the sound of freedom pounding
And the ground that opens up
Spits the fire from freedom's mouth
And the concrete, glass and steel
Break with a freedom you can feel and
The wind that blows through heaven
It screams the sound of freedom
And the violence that destroys
Is the birth of freedom singing
And the lovers in the field
Make the sound of freedom bleeding
And the pain that eats my mind
Is the shout of freedom's life
And the sea that splits in two
Is the cut of freedom's knife
And the fire that burns this city
Is the white light in freedom's eye
And the white light is the sound
Of freedom
(Get the same-period compilation here.)

15. SWANS: «No Cure for the Lonely»
From Love of Life (1992)

When Leonard Cohen pens a song called «Ain't No Cure for Love», trust Michael Gira to counter with «No Cure for the Lonely»…

A minor song that even at the time was relegated to only the CD version of the Love of Life album, «No Cure for the Lonely» suffers more as a result of the delivery than the lyrics, Gira still not relaxed enough in his style to not hide the emotional nerve behind an inapproachably stoic voice. But what I dislike the most about this particular song is how accurately it describes a situation, a state, the remainder of a life.

16. SWANS: «Her» (live—excerpt)
From Omniscience (1993)

Gira may write songs more hateful than most, but then he's capable of songs far more romantic than most, too: a Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan or Nick Cave would be too busy seducing some fashion model groupie with their words to ever evoke undying love beyond death. When Cave sings, «A wicked wind whips up the hill / A handful of hopeful words / I love her and I always will / The sky is ready to burst,» it's just his way of saying, «Come over here and give me a blow job, baby.» He knows girls just adore that shit.

One shouldn't be so surprised, perhaps, that the most capable writer of revenge fantasies is also one of the most capable writer of love songs. As with hate songs, love songs may ultimately lead the daydreamer to thoughts of death, envisaged as the moment of truth. As Gira would sing, years later:
Free from your past
Free of your future too
There's nothing left to rise above but you

When I lay dying upon some bed
I hope that you'll remember this
The only one I want to see is you
As with truth and justice, there's the idea that love, too, will finally be confirmed (and so justified) in the final moments. «Her», in this live rendition whose open soundscape evokes the outer space of the lyrics, is «Mr. Tambourine Man» in the form of a love song; a lullaby in the face of the big sleep, indulging in the unlikely, yet beautiful idea that at death your souls will be shooting off together, through the space-time continuum into eternity.

Put far more eloquently, of course.

(Get the unedited, studio version here.)

17. SWANS: «God Loves America» (live—excerpt)
From Omniscience (1993)

Consumerism is a recurring theme in Gira's writings, and not always in a purely unfavourable or judgmental light (even if his frustration with Capitalism can be traced in the use of prostitution and masochism as metaphors for work). This topical song is an exception. It's a bit heavy-handed, perhaps, but I do love a good rant…

«And that's that.»

To anyone who made it this far, stay tuned for part two, taking you from 1994 through to 2007…


Rare or Unreleased 13: Kim Hiorthøy

Ah, Norwegian culture! From the '90s onward it's been a battle of naïvety vs. irony—both sides of the escapist coin, united by their equally cowardly strategies to avert one's eyes from ugly truth, and to avoid the potential embarrassments bound up with things actually relevant to human experience. And while pop culture hipster nerds with too much cool (read: self-consciousness) to ever feel comfortable in their own trendily covered skin used distant sarcasm to flee from any kind of expression that could ever touch a nerve, another answer to the problem of reality was proposed…

In 1996, Norwegian author and film industry big wig, Erlend Loe, came out with what would amount to the Naïvist manifesto—had only Naïvists not been too childlike to ever formulate anything as grownup as a manifesto—viz. Naïve. Super, a novel in which the protagonist responds to a personal crisis by retreating into a jejune perspective on the world, from where he can passively, distantly (and so safely) behold his immediate surroundings. Loe doesn't seem to be advancing a critical view of his main character, hence the Naïvism (as opposed to satirical irony) of the book. Instead, Loe celebrates along with his protagonist the return to the simple mode of experience and thought that adults, in their bouts of nostalgia, seem to think that children enjoy. The Naïvists revel in the comfort of childlike wonderment, choosing to see in it a kind of magic, rather than the questionable escapism one could choose to see in it…

Anyway, the sleeve of this (admittedly amusing) novel was designed by one Kim Hiorthøy, who'd previously illustrated some of Loe's books, as well as local rock album covers. Hiorthøy's style celebrated style over substance, and had certain doodling, childlike qualities to it. If Loe provided the naïve substance (words), Hiorthøy provided the naïve style (colours!).

Since then, Hiorthøy—a Jack-of-all-media if ever there was one, dabbled as he has in painting and drawing, computer graphics, video, film—has gone on to become an acclaimed DJ, warming many a Scandinavian art girl's fragile heart with his unassuming, non-threatening and perfectly cute electronica—instrumentals with titles like «Forskjellige gode ting» («Various Good Things»), «Den fula skogen bakom köket» («The Ugly Forest Behind the Kitchen»), «Det skulle vara fint att se dig, tänkte jag» («I Thought It'd Be Nice to See You»), «Nu kommer Cathrine inn, hon lutar sig mot dörrposten» («Now Cathrine Comes In, She Leans Up Against the Door Frame») and, of course, «Han brydde sig inte om att stiga upp, hela dagen lät han nya bilder och funderingar komma och gå som de ville, sov lite ibland och vaknade igen och visste inte alls vem han var. Det var en fridfull och mycket spännande dag» («He Didn't Care to Get Up, All Day He Let New Images and Ruminations Come and Go as They Pleased, Occasionally Slept a Little and Awoke Again and Had No Idea Who He Was. It Was a Peaceful and Very Exciting Day»)—mostly in Swedish (to give it that extra air of whimsy, no doubt) and often embellished with some young totty's gentle, almost virginal recital of a quaint list of inconsequential wonderments. Example:
Things that work:
- To run as it rains…
- To get on the first train to arrive and go where you will.
- To go to a high place and look out.
- To taste candy you've never seen before.
- To read comic books in the park.
- To lay the table before breakfast and then eat for a long time.
- To go to the library to do some smelling.
- To call Nana.
- To visit someone you haven't seen for a long time.
- To have a coffee in the middle of the day while reading the paper.
- To go into record stores to listen to an album with a pretty sleeve, or maybe one by someone you may have heard of, or something you're wondering what's like.
Rock'n'roll it ain't.

But who am I to pooh-pooh someone else's expression of innocent joy? So what, if Hiorthøy's art is an amalgamation of minimalism and irrelevance—sometimes you need background music, too.

And so, dug up from the bottom of a closet in my old room over at my parents' house, comes this rarity—22 highlights out of the 38 tracks on a CD released with the book (limited to 300 copies) that Hiorthøy submitted for his graduation from the Trondheim Academy of Fine Art, back in 1996. As far as I know, it's Hiorthøy's first foray into music, and bears the stamp of the collagist tendencies of his early visual work.

I didn't much care for the CD when my brother first gave it to me back when I was a teenager fawning over Pop Art, but now I think it has a lot more edge than Hiorthøy's subsequent, more accomplished recordings. There are even some nasty soundbites that aren't naïve at all (even if the context Hiorthøy puts them in still is, the childlike gaze robbing it slightly of its edge). And I salute the randomness of the recordings! It's like listening to a restlessly seeking radio possessed of its own mind…

Kim Hiorthøy: Excerpts from Fake CD [.zip file]
  1. If You Died Tonight in a Car Crash, Where Would You Go?
  2. August
  3. In Good Pain
  4. Speed of Life
  5. Not Sleeping
  6. Dōshitemo
  7. Oi—Slight Return
  8. Worry & Die (feat. Stom Sogo)
  9. Marcel
  10. Porno
  11. Weights/Bridges
  12. Work
  13. Doing Nothing
  14. Doing Everything
  15. Things I Don't Really Care About but Pretend that I Do
  16. Un vie simple
  17. What/Where Am I (feat. Daniel Ferdman)
  18. Mustard (feat. Vegar Moen)
  19. Four-thirty
  20. Spring
  21. The Real Thing
  22. Pomegrenade


Net Nuggets 5: Entrance

Entrance: «In This Land» (a.k.a. «Lord Help the Poor and Needy») [mp3]
His face is like a big black cloud
And his voice is like a thunderstorm
I would follow him anywhere he wants me to
And I would sing for him in a crowd of New York hipsters
Because I think he's a good one
He's got to be a good one

His legs are like climbing vines
And his arms are like a tree
His fingers willingly entwine
With music made of leaves
I think he's a good one good one good one
He's got to be a good one
So sings Larkin Grimm—herself an awe-inspiring demonic angel—during her song «Entrance», which surely cannot be anything but a genuflecting submission of annihilating love before the transcendental troubadour that is Guy Blakeslee, the most underappreciated contemporary singer-songwriter this blogger can think of.

When Entrance first blew me away a few years back, opening for Devendra Banhart at the ICA in London, it was only him—Blakeslee—his desperately wailing falsetto, his extremely loud guitar, and something like a cymbal attached to his furiously, decisively stomping boot. It was all whirlwind, heat & flash, and when later I tracked down one of his CDs and could actually make out the words, there was no turning back. A modern popular music obsession (and perhaps even the seed of an (albeit infecund) homoerotic crush) was sown… No other artist quite manages the feat of displaying such love and disdain, all at the same time (except, of course, for the aforementioned Ms. Grimm).

Yet again I digress; a few years before Blakeslee's one-time duet partner Cat Power got into legal trouble with the copyright bureaucrats over her dreamy covers album Jukebox—the liner notes credited the song «Lord, Help the Poor & Needy» as «Traditional, by Jessie Mae Hemphill, arranged by Chan Marshall, Public Domain,» when, in fact, the song is not a traditional, but was written by the late Hemphill—Entrance recorded his own idiosyncratic take on this song, giving it the title «In This Land» and uploading it onto his MySpace page for all to download (back when MySpace wasn't just for streaming).

It sounds like an outtake from Entrance's heavy 2005 record Prayer of Death, and why it was never released I'll never understand, as it would've been a stand-out track on that album, as Entrance shapeshifts the blues into a ceremonial incantation and prayer to end the Total War, the drone and jingle-jangle percussion casting a curse on all those who cause a prayer to be necessary in the first place.

Please feel free to click your way to purchasing Entrance's album-long meditation on the big sleep here.


Rare or Unreleased 12: John Parish & PJ Harvey

John Parish & Polly Jean Harvey: «Civil War Correspondent» (Global Communication mix) [mp3]
Tonight, PJ Harvey & John Parish are playing here in Oslo, promoting their second album as a duo in 13 years. Here's a forgotten track from «That Was My Veil», the single off their first record, 1996's Dance Hall at Louse Point—a B-side remix by ambient house duo Global Communication.


Rare or Unreleased 11: Akron/Family

What a waste of a sincere, tragic and funnily true love song: to record it at home, sell a few hundred copies on tour, then abandon it to oblivion, without the opportunity to soothe thousands of lonely ears that pine for the cruel and beautiful person who just doesn't feel the same:
You've been dazzling me
With your ability
To forget that we loved once
So deeply
And freedom reigned in our bed
We were drenched in it…

I've been chasing you up
And down the street
I'm a lonely dog
On an empty beach
And your ass is a carrot
And I am a rabbit
And I can't give up
'Til my body has had it…
The kind of lyrics that only work when accompanied by a sole, acoustic guitar, almost (but just not) a parody of the forlorn college boy who's just had the virginity of his first heartbreak popped, with all the brutality of indifference. Ah, the memories… This song reminds you what a sad bunch we human beings are, with few things as pathetic as our hankering for love (and anal sex!). Good thing we have Akron/Family to help us deal with the ridiculous impulses and helpless wishes coded into the DNA that cruelly lets us reflect on it, only to realise what a joke it is. When Akron/Family aren't soundtracking our lazy drifting off to the flow of things, they burst out revelling with infectious joy at our weaknesses, wallowing not in self-pity but like a pig in its cherished mud…

If music is seasonal, then I don't know whether Akron/Family is for springtime or autumn listening, but the frail, warm hopes of their recordings indicate spring, so here you go: a collection culled from CDs sold by the band on their early European tours—two of the CDs themselves culled from the countless hours of home and field recordings that the group bombarded producer Michael Gira with, back when they were an unsigned, hopeful quartet living together in a house in Brooklyn, New York. The third CD is a live recording from what the band dubs «Brick Lane» (presumably the now-defunct club Spitz), put to tape in London on 15 November 2005.

I've picked some cherries from these all too limited releases and edited down/spliced together some of the tracks, for your springtime listening enjoyment:

Akron/Family: Tour [.zip file]
  1. Mic Check
  2. Sometimes Breezes Exchange Signs
  3. The Open Sea
  4. Onward/Onward, Trainstop, Bookmark
  5. East Coast (edit)
  6. Goodnight Creg
  7. August Fans
  8. Forest of Individuals Plink Linp
  9. You Float Away
  10. Future Myth
  11. Running, Returning (live, edit)
  12. I'll Be on the Water (live, edit)
  13. Love and Space (live, edit)
  14. Raising the Sparks (live, edit)

By the way, the band's new album, Set 'em Wild, Set 'em Free, is out now on Dead Oceans. Check out the free, official download of righteous (and joyous!) album track «River»!