Culture 101: Michael Gira (Pt. 2)

A while back, I posted an introduction to Michael Gira by way of rarities. Here's part two:

M. Gira: Rare Gira, vol. 2: 1994-2006—The Wound with No Healing or Cause [.zip]

1. M. Gira: «The Sex Machine» (live)
From The Somniloquist (2000)

This short story of Michael Gira's may help to explain why Larkin Grimm has referred to him as a «notorious pervert». Recorded live in 1994, during a spoken word tour to promote The Consumer (Gira's by now out-of-print collection of short stories), the author's own biographical introduction to this story gives a glimpse of the idiosyncratic lens through which Gira views things, wherein what is generally considered destructive, immoral or morbid in his eyes becomes positive, rapturous, beautiful. And rightly so.

One of the strengths of Gira's lyrics and prose is his ability to describe something, ecstatically, as if both from the outside and the inside, all at once. An individual really is isolated from the outside world, except in his own imagination, where he can pretend to interact with other minds, rather than just be beheld by them (just as he can only behold them). Gira's literature doesn't pretend to do this—except when the protagonist (usually the narrator) breaks through the barrier by opening the floodgates of violence.

Whenever we're confronted—as we usually are in music and literature—with thoughts, feelings and perspectives overly familiar to us, we easily forget just how unreal these thoughts, feelings and perspectives are. How they're figments of our imagination, naturally abstract and taunted by the truth we're unequipped to ever experience. But when Gira offers us his unique take on things, the sense of reverie is accentuated, even though his vision is no more unreal than those of others. It's just that he doesn't pretend to be anything other than a voyeur steeped in his own fantasies…

And they are delicious fantasies, because they're not about what we'd like to enjoy, but about what our nature dictates that we enjoy.

Oh, how I miss living in Amsterdam!

2. SWANS: «Surrogate Drones/Your Property» (live)
From Die Tür ist zu (1996)

«Your Property» first appeared on Cop in 1984, sung by Gira himself:
I give you money
You're superior
I don't exist
You control me
You're corrupt
You deform me
You own me
You own me
I worship your authority
I worship your authority
You're deformed
You're corrupt
You own me
You own me
This live version from 1995 is made all the more poignant by the fact that a woman—Gira's main co-conspirator in SWANS, Jarboe—sings it. And by that I mean she channels it, with an authority that's as thrilling as it is frightening, the drums towards the end like so many lashes of the screaming dominatrix's whip. People who claim Jarboe's influence «softened» SWANS don't know what they're on about.

3. SWANS: Title unknown, live

In 1997, after 15 years of kicking against the pricks under the moniker SWANS, Gira decided to disband the group. Not that it had been a band as such—the only permanent members were Gira and Jarboe—but the expectations surrounding the name became a bit of a hindrance, apparently. Gira's next project, The Body Lovers, continued where SWANS' final studio album, Soundtracks for the Blind, left off: experiments in sound almost cinematic, instead of «bludgeoning slabs of noise» or narrative songs.

In any case, 1997 saw SWANS embark on a final tour, during which they played this track. A new song, performed on the farewell tour and since then discarded, it would seem, I don't know the title of it. This particular recording was made in Trondheim, which I recall as the most
transcendental experience I've ever had at a concert. The volume was staggering, of course, and I hadn't slept much for days. I kept nodding off in my seat next to the soundboard, frequently waking up to the sound of the same chords, repeated again and again, only with slightly more intensity each time, for what seemed like ages. After a while, the chattering voice that tells you whether you're enjoying yourself or not, or monitors every little trivial piece of related information, fell completely silent, and I no longer recognised any of the songs. I wasn't aware of liking what I heard or not liking it, or even that there was anything to like or not. Sound, of which I wasn't really aware (at least not as an object of reflection), was a physical sensation that my body was seamlessly wrapped in. There was no music, nor a listener.

That wasn't this number. But this one is a gem, and it's a mystery that nothing ever came of it—it wasn't even included on the excellent live document of the tour, the SWANS Are Dead double CD, which, incidentally, comes highly recommended.

4. The Angels Of Light: «God's Servant»
From «Praise Your Name» 7" (1999)

After The Body Lovers album, Gira turned to narrative songs again, toning down the metal tendencies and refining the folk elements. «God's Servant» was recorded for the first record under new moniker The Angels Of Light, New Mother, but ended up as a B-side for album single «Praise Your Name».

Not that it's really B-side material. Melody, arrangement and not least lyrics are a highlight in Gira's career:
My body is an infinite number
Dissected by perceptions
Which are encroaching like pollutions
Infecting the nervous system
Of the world
It recalls an untitled prose fragment from 1990, which appeared in The World Of Skin's «Mystery of Faith» as a spoken outro (in German!), and later in modified form as a section of one of Gira's Consumer stories:
As I walked the earth was dense and resilient beneath me, with the consistency and feel of a corpse. I realized that with each step my feet pressed down on generation upon generation of my dead ancestors. Their bones, their rotted and transmuted flesh, had become the substance of the earth. In eating the food that had been taken from the ground, I ate their essence—the fertility that survived their decomposition. In this way, they lived through me and in me, as I would in turn live through another person's consumption of food, air, water. Even in breathing I breathed a mixture of the gases their bodies exuded in the process of decomposition, of re-assimilation into the biosphere. I breathed, ate, swallowed, and consumed their souls, everything interconnected, everything feeding on itself, searching, digesting, reiterating, cogitating, chewing, imagining, rejecting, killing, consuming, reproducing, twisting in on itself, dying, decomposing, and being reborn, in an infinite reflection of itself in an absolute absence of conscious perfection. In order to properly see it would be necessary to remove the sight from my eyes. When I had killed my sense of identity I would slip away and enter myself, comprising the entire world, of which I was an integral but unnecessary part.
Similarly, «God's Servant» contains a revery, at once destructive and mystical, of what it would be like to decompose, the part finally reunited with the whole, all recounted in the long, meticulous sentences that Gira has made his specialty:
I travel through space, unconscious
Protected inside your mouth
Floating like an acid vapor
Suspended above the dry land
Dissolving like an injection
Spilling through the crystal earth
Of your veins
Infecting the cold, blue waters
Of your eyes
(Get the A-side of this single here.)

5. Michael Gira with guests: «Waiting Beside Viragio» (live)
From Benefit CD—Jarboe Emergency Medical Fund (1999)

Jarboe had an accident during a trip to Israel, and the hospital bill required a fundraiser. Michael Gira and some of the musicians used in the Angels Of Light project played a gig at New York's Bowery Ballroom, further raising funds by selling a limited edition CD of the recording.

One of the songs performed was new composition «Waiting Beside
Viragio», later to be released as a demo remixed by Windsor For The Derby's Dan Matz on Matz's and Gira's collaborative effort, What We Did. That version is completely different, and this majestic live performance more than hints at what could have been.

(Get the studio version here.)

6. Michael Gira: «Beautiful One» (live)
From Benefit CD—Jarboe Emergency Medical Fund (1999)

A few of the new songs performed at the Jarboe benefit concert never appeared on subsequent Angels Of Light studio albums, the best of which was this tender song of regret. A song that would have fit in perfectly on the Angels Of Light's next record, break-up album How I Loved You.

7. Michael Gira: «Kosinsky»
From Solo Recordings at Home (2001)

A perpetually underappreciated artist, Gira needs to come up with schemes to finance his rather extravagant recordings under The Angels Of Light moniker. In 2001, he released a limited edition CD of home recordings, the proceeds of which would go to recording many of these
songs in the studio, with full band. Paradoxically, Gira has stated that these home recordings often contain an energy and an immediacy lost in the studio.

Inspired by the voyeurism of author Jerzy Kosinski, this song is a study in perving and peeping—at least, that's what those who claim they don't like to watch call it. But hardly anyone conveys the joy of seeing as well as Gira.

(Get the full-band studio version (featuring Devendra Banhart) here.)

8. Michael Gira: «Nations» (live)
From Living '02 (2002)

In later years, Gira has increasingly taken to performing solo live. These performances, stripped of the almost mind-altering decibel levels of SWANS, are often more intense (at least emotionally), Gira's unique ability to channel angels and demons as he spits and stomps a spectacle nothing short of hypnotic.

(Get the studio version of this song on the Angels Of Light's Everything Is Good Here/Please Come Home.)

9. The Angels Of Light: «On the Mountain (Looking Down)» (live)
From We Were Alive!!! (2002)

Another excellent song that never ended up on any official release, «On the Mountain» appeared on Solo Recordings at Home, Living '02—both as acoustic solo renditions—and on this, a live Angels Of Light album, again sold in a limited edition to make money for further studio recordings. After appearing on all these CDs meant to finance Angels Of Light albums, nothing came of the song.

Still, this live band version captures the mania and spitting rage Gira can conjure…. Here are some audiovisuals for you, from what I believe is the same gig as the above recording:

10. Michael Gira: «My Sister Said»
From I Am Singing to You from My Room (2004)

I Am Singing to You from My Room was another limited edition CD of home recordings released to help finance Angels Of Light studio recordings. A remnant of his earlier proclivity for vengeance, «My Sister Said» is a less personal (or at least less biographical) tale of revenge, sadder and more tender than previous revenge songs (which were hate songs, really). This isn't a hate song, but an outline of a tragedy:
Thinking, dreaming, of how certain behavior patterns might be passed from one generation to another, wondering where and if free choice enters into it—I spun out a tale with that in mind, and it grew naturally of its own volition. Hopefully, there's no editorial point of view implied here. It's just a song/story, for god's sake.
(Get the studio version, with Akron/Family as backing band, on The Angels Of Light Sing «Other People».)

11. The Angels Of Light: «Destroyer» (live on WNYC)
Since «disbanding» SWANS, Gira has diversified and begun releasing other artists on his Young God Records label (most famously Devendra Banhart). One of his discoveries was hyperactive hippie prog rockers Akron/Family, who started acting as Gira's backing band in the Angels Of Light—as on this song, evoking Kali as a principle of revenge in connection with the war in Iraq. This live recording, broadcast on WNYC's Spinning On Air, shows how the youthful bearded ones injected the Angels Of Light with a fresh, spiritual quality, as they sing harmony and bang that tambourine.

(Get the studio version here.)

12. Michael Gira: «Promise of Water»
From Songs for a Dog (2006)

2007 saw the release of We Are Him, an Angels Of Light album that occasionally seemed to point back towards a time when SWANS were releasing bleak and heavy albums full of virulent rage. Trying to get away from precisely that, with Akron/Family the Angels Of Light sometimes eschewed drums altogether; now Gira's speaking of reuniting SWANS, presumably for some orgiastic, ear-splitting excess.

This song, recorded solo especially for limited edition, vinyl-only release Songs for a Dog, illustrates why Gira doesn't need to rely on volume for intensity. If still in doubt, check out this video, where, rather fittingly, Gira performs the above song in a public toilet. (As the man himself says, «I play in a bathroom all the time, just not music.»):

(Get the full band version of this song on We Are Him.)

Ever since Kant and the Enlightenment (no, that's not a band, it's a philosopher and a scientific movement) the concept of «genius» has been linked to that of «originality». This has resulted—together with the development of democracy and increased socio-economic equality that have enabled more people to «realise» themselves—in an epidemic of mediocre or talentless people who want to be involved in something «creative», doing things no one's ever done before (often with good reason) and calling that «art». This because many don't understand that there's more to the unique vision crucial to genius than mere originality.

Michael Gira, for instance, is an innovator. He used to be a pioneer of industrial music, and kind of like Bob Dylan is credited with introducing poetry into rock'n'roll, Gira may be credited with being one of the first to introduce intense self-loathing and alienation into the genre (by far outdoing the punks' contrived and polemic alienation), thus spawning an army of angst-ridden adolescents writing embarrassingly exaggerated and self-indulgent lyrics in the 1990s (Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails, et al.—thanks a lot, Michael Gira!). But these grunge and alt. rock artistes naturally only misunderstood what SWANS were about, taking the noise and the awkward, heavy handed imagery and leaving the quest for transcendence. Blinded by the obvious attributes of his art, they lost sight of both the subtleties and the very core.

In any case, it's not Gira's innovations that qualify him as a genius. (Although that certainly contributes to his unique vision.) There's also his intensity of vision. It's uncompromising, unflinching and penetrating, which has enabled him to see (and convey) things, perspectives or angles no other artist who comes to mind has tried, let alone managed to do. This helps explain how he can be called a genius—as if that's terribly important—even now that his innovations and experiments seem less radical (on the face of it, at least).

You could even argue that he didn't actually qualify as a genius until he graduated from that tentative quest to attain something very few artists
seek, especially in popular music, namely truth. His vision wasn't lucid enough, as he used early SWANS to bludgeon us with his warped emotional state, unique but utterly fucked. It was, perhaps, more cathartic than edifying.

Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and now Nick Cave are all generally touted as songwriting geniuses, but only occasionally can they be said to be tailing truth. Perhaps hampered by their skill and blinded by the beauty of their creations, their manipulative love songs (designed, no doubt, to win them some pussy) betrays an insincerity that is absent from Gira's work. Gira doesn't possess the same skill, as far as formal structure is concerned, as a Dylan. But he compensates for this by bringing to the table both a sincerity and a perspective all his own, both of which deal with issues and emotions Cohen, Dylan, Cave, et al. are rarely willing, able or interested in pursuing. Dylan, Cohen and Cave don't really convey unique perspectives; it is their eloquence that is unique. They fall within the romantic tradition of The Poet; Gira doesn't really fall within a tradition. He should've been a High Art gallery artiste (like a Viennese Aktionist or some transgressive performance artist), but he happens to be equipped with an acoustic guitar and words to infect your eyes instead.


  1. no comments?? what a world.

    Thanks for this collection!

  2. Fantastic job. Michael Gira is one of maybe a dozen heroes of mine, and my favorite musician.

  3. some great lost tracks here, many many thanks.

  4. Some of the tracks are not working anymore, but thanks for this overwhelming collection. I just moved to Oslo and I'm trying to understand how to have Swans in concert here. They are performing everywhere but here.