Double Door, January 21

By Monica Kendrick

Creativity is a volatile high–less predictable than drugs and harder work than sex–and when you throw in the fact that rock ‘n’ roll usually requires collaboration, you’re skating on thin ice indeed. Rock ‘n’ roll is littered with artists who blew their creative wads in the first five years of their careers and then retired into the shelter of their own legends. The histories of so many brilliant bands are studies in entropy that it’s become the rock ‘n’ roll status quo. Plenty of people believe that a good band should be ephemeral. Swans were remarkable in that almost every album they made over the course of 15 years was better–or at least more interesting–than the one before it.

They certainly didn’t seem like contenders at first. No band before them had ever been so completely and deliberately devoid of such life-affirming qualities as humor and beauty. And no lyricist had ever spelled it out quite as flatly as Michael Gira: “Use sex for control / Use power for power / Use money for cruelty / Use hate for freedom…Sex, power, money, hate,” he choked out on Swans’ full-length debut, Filth. Just the brute force of it made it impossible to sustain.

But five years into the game, Gira welcomed singer, performance artist, and former sex worker Jarboe into his band. It was a deft reinvention, and as it turned out, a surprising act of humility–from 1987 onward, Gira’s songs grew shoots of melody and subtlety; his lyrical lines grew long and relatively intricate; his dark voice picked up some wryness and self-reflection and just a hint of whiskey. These days Jarboe has risen from the role of ethereal foil to become the focal point of the band. It’s especially striking because if Swans have ever been about anything, they’ve been about catharsis–an ecstatic state in a broad sense, but the flip side of the bright euphoria of party music–and I would have expected a guy like Gira to be a bit possessive of his demons. Jarboe–the daughter of an FBI agent–has her demons too, but her approach to exorcism is quite different from his: she’s far more likely to shape them into eerie synth washes, disembodied sampled voices, and gothic lullabies.

These shifts have cost Swans a few fans: the early grind with its lurid images of rape, prostitution, and slavery had attracted a strongly misogynist element that reacted to Jarboe’s presence like a roomful of vampires to holy water. Even at the recent Double Door show, supposedly the band’s last Chicago show ever, watching the tightly packed crowd at the front of the stage I’m seeing a pattern emerging–of beery men with shaved heads pushing away from the stage, and small women with many piercings happily pushing toward it. The transcendence that Swans strive for these days is an entirely different beast–it builds slowly from Gira’s quiet, circular guitar patterns and Jarboe’s metronomic electronic sweeps and pulses. Only the huge drum sound, vibrating up through the floor and punctuating the waves, conjures up the old force. Cumulatively, over time, the effect is no less intense, but the long buildup is far more organic–more meditative than furious, more like breathing than punching.

Gira comes out musing, staring at a point somewhere between his guitar neck and the floor. Jarboe moves hardly at all until it’s her turn to sing lead. When she comes forward to the center mike, she moves slowly and demurely, but the voice that rips out of her small frame is a guttural blues swoop that blasts through Polly Jean Harvey’s territory and into Diamanda Galas’s. Her lyrics evoke incest, prostitution, willful submission–“I love you more than my li-ife,” she croaks–but through sheer force she winds up on top. She puts so much power through her voice that she briefly collapses–then pulls herself up to continue the set. After her songs she returns to her place behind the keyboard, her back partly turned to the crowd, leaving Gira to sing his minimalist folk rock in a room full of aftermath.

Over the last ten years the focus has shifted back and forth between them in this fashion, from record to record, spilling over into their various solo and side projects until it’s no longer clear who’s calling the shots and it doesn’t seem to matter. Though their styles don’t flow together seamlessly–it’s still pretty easy to pick out the Giras from the Jarboes–it’s also clear that they’ve influenced each other. And though this was a “farewell show,” afterward Gira (in a cowboy hat and chomping a cigar) confirms that he and Jarboe have no intention of riding off into the sunset. A flyer at the merchandise table lists half a page of upcoming projects; it seems this has just been the ritual retirement of the Swans name and its attendant baggage.

It’s easy to ascribe Gira and Jarboe’s endurance to the fact that they’re lovers, but I suspect that might make it more difficult, not less–lack of separation between artistic life and personal life has contributed to burnout in many a great talent. Like John Doe and Exene Cervenka, Gira and Jarboe smear their relationship all over their records, but with Swans, we have a “before” picture, and Gira seems both a much happier man and a much more complex artist with Jarboe than he ever was without her. It’s possible that their relationship prodded them to hold the line and stay honest artistically because the stakes were higher, the way marriage is said to prod couples to resolve arguments that might have broken them up otherwise. However they managed to avoid the crash of brittle egos that’s been the final sound of many a fine band, it’s something to be admired.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Swans photo by Katrina Witkamp.