Who doesn’t love a mystery? In 1982, after a frustrating few months auditioning potential members, Michael Gira and Jonathan Kane recruited Sue Hanel: “the most ferocious noise guitarist in the city” (Jonathan Kane). After several months of rehearsals, she took the stage with Swans at their first gig sometime in early summer ’82. Sue would perform with Swans for the next six-to-eight months, including the ten dates of the Savage Blunder tour with Sonic Youth in Nov/Dec, before departing after a final show at The Kitchen on December 27, 1982.
“There was an incredibly gifted, though also unstable and unpredictable, guitarist by the name of Sue Hanel who created a tremendous wailing sound but the problem was she could never replicate what she did from one night to the next…She was a very nice person, kind of troubled, but very down-to-earth. It just didn’t work out artistically because she just wasn’t interested in repeating anything: her sound would be different, her chords would be different, we could never pin it down — but when she hit the sweet spot it was tremendous.” (Michael Gira)
I’d seen the name about over the years and noted Thurston Moore’s Facebook post in early 2016 listing her as “One of the Best Guitarists Ever”. Underneath the post Wharton Tiers (engineer, producer, performer, gentle soul) had asked if anyone had any idea where Sue was now. Bob Bert (Pussy Galore, Lydia Lunch Retrovirus, Sonic Youth…) responded “I’ve been asking around for years, no one has a clue, she literally disappeared off the planet! I wonder if she’s alive! Hope so!”
Working on “Sacrifice And Transcendence”, naturally I asked about her: Swans first permanent guitarist. The compliments flew thick and fast:
“Sue Hanel blew me away—what a beast! Her energy reminded me a lot of Patti Smith at her most intense.” (Ivan Nahem – Ritual Tension, Carnival Crash, Swans)
“Sue is a legend to all of us who were part of that scene. She was this young lesbian girl who played the most incredible loud splaying guitar. It’s such a great mystery, how she vanished.” (Thurston Moore)
“It’s a real shame there aren’t any real recordings of her playing because she had this amazing guitar sound. Lee Ranaldo used to compare her guitar sound to brontosauruses fucking.” (Bob Bert)
Where did she come from? Bob Bert recalled “my wife — she wasn’t my wife then — she had this job as a photo retoucher and there was this girl that arrived from the mid-west, all wide-eyed and kinda preppy looking: her name was Sue Hanel. She said she was playing with this band Swans so I went to those two shows and, holy shit, she was!” I never asked but now I wish I’d inquired whether anyone even knew if her name really was Sue, or was it Susan, Susanna – was Sue a second name or a nickname?
She’s a presence on a smattering of recordings. On November 30, 1981 she performed at Radio City Studios for Glenn Branca’s Indeterminate Activity of Resultant Masses (Music For Ten Guitars And Drums), the recording of which didn’t emerge until 2006. May 14, 1982 she was at St Mark’s Church participating in Branca’s Symphony No.2 The Peak Of The Sacred (released in 1992). Sometime that summer she would contribute guitar to one track on the only LP by the band Interference with David Linton, Anne DeMarinis, Joe Dizney and Michael Brown – again, it went unreleased until more recently.
Though I’d be curious to learn more about her early years in NYC, she’d established sufficient reputation that she was able to contribute a minute-long solo track called ‘Agenda’ to the State Of The Union compilation in 1982. She also performed on the Peripheral Vision compilation for two tracks (‘Roughage’ and ‘Jargon’) with a drums-sax-guitar three piece called The State with Charles K. Noyse and Dave Sewelson.
Then that’s virtually it. Her live performances with Swans are on the Body To Body, Job To Job compilation and maybe she plays on the live performance added to the recent Filth reissue. There are three (?) CD-Rs available from TheLivingJarboe.com of a number of Swans’ 1982 shows. Where did she go after Swans?
There’s a brief reference online from New York Magazine listing a performance on Monday February 21, 1983 with Ann Caroline Chubb of the band Mofungo:
Jonathan Kane also states that he proposed bringing Sue in to play during the recording sessions for Swans’ first album Filth in April 1983 but the idea was rejected.
On my shelf I have the Tellus #10 All Guitars cassette and Hanel makes two final, fleeting, appearances. ‘Dupe’ is another minute-long solo track, undated and with no further details provided. How does it sound? A fidget of strings surging out of the speaker then retreating, volume pedal manipulation creating a wave effect, a held tone…Then it’s done. But I never expect a studio recording, let alone a solo guitar recording, to match the kind of power someone can rip live.
The other track at least sheds potential light on her place of origin: Sue performs as part of New Detroit Inc. with a batch of former natives of that area – Norman Westberg, Carolyn Master (who moved to NYC as part of Bag People with Al Kizys), then David Tritt of Rat At Rat R and Wharton Tiers. The performance, ‘Brown Dub’ is dated August 1, 1984: the last formal recording of Sue. It’s a strange track, is that Norman or Sue roaring over the top?
After that there’s a void. Bob Bert mentioned “in 1986 or 1987 I had this side-project called Bewitched and got asked to play a benefit show for a fanzine: so I asked Sue Hanel if she would do it. We got together to rehearse, I was doing something on drums and she was just going nuts on guitar then she invited me over to her place on 2nd Avenue. She’d been living there seven or eight years and I’ve never seen anything so bizarre: she had not a stick of furniture, no bedding, nothing — there was one folding metal chair, a boombox and a poster of Motörhead on the wall, otherwise it was barren. I asked her, “Sue, where do you sleep?” and she opened a closet and showed me a sleeping bag. Even when we did the gig, I’ve no idea what drugs she was into but she was drinking cough syrup. She got really skinny; she only ever wore black pants and a black cut-off t-shirt; black make-up circles under her eyes; and she was a bike messenger so I’d see her haring round the streets at a hundred miles an hour — then all of a sudden she disappeared and no one ever heard another word about her.”
Meanwhile Catherine and Nicolas Ceresole, who amid their other artistic endeavours provided a social hub for musicians in the NYC scene, recall “Sue Hanel was a crazy guitarist but a very nice girl too — she was also doing painting and I still have one from her. Then she disappeared. The last time we saw her was in New York City in ’89-’90: she got really sick and went to the hospital, then got even sicker because they gave her good food and she was used to eating junk.”
That’s it. Pre-Internet era so there’s nothing more to find. Did she leave town? Change name? Die? How old would she be? Who knows? Did she have family? There are Sue Hanels on the web but it seems unlikely they’re THIS Sue Hanel: born Oberlin (KS) and died age 57 in 2005; born in Aransas Pass (TX) died aged 55 in 2010 in Belleville (KS) having married an Alan Hanel in 1982; a Sue Hanel in Oklahoma who worked for a law firm but died sometime around 2011…Germany meanwhile is full of Susanne/ Suzanne/ Suzan Hanels. But there’s nothing suggesting NYC/midwest Sue Hanel had anything to do with Germany.
Asking around, the clearest response I received was “she was a junkie and I heard via the grapevine years ago that she was dead.” Blunt though it might be, and with no special insight, there are some fairly familiar elements at work in the story: the long absences, the way only one person I’ve encountered used the word ‘friend’ or discussed her in a way that seemed personal or up close, the cough medicine on stage, the talk of ‘troubles’, the ultimate disappearance…But, then again – even in the absence of our always-on, always-connected technological accoutrements and despite the sense that this isn’t someone who wrote letters or had a phone number – it would seem surprising if she’d died sometime in the late eighties, when she was still known to at least some on the scene, without someone noticing. The only thing I can think – macabre though it is – is a trawl of death records for New York City, an inquiry to the NYPD and a request they search their Jane Does…
…But then, there’s the truth: she’s gone. One way or another. A guitarist remembered as fearsome by all who saw her perform but one the rest of us will likely never know. I’m hoping I can gather more information about her and flesh out this picture and I know there’s a lot of people out there who hope she’s alive and well out there somewhere.